"With fragility often comes a Sensibility"

Extracts from a post-screening conversation on The Poetics of Fragility moderated by Yasmin Gunaratnam, Goldsmiths, May 25, 2017. The transcript has been edited for conciseness.

Yasmin Gunaratnam: There were so many points of entry into the film. I was very touched with the Manchester attack happening by the statement that no death is pointless. And then throughout the colors, the sea, the movement, a disappeared child’s name resonating in a mother’s ears. That’s what it triggered for me. What about you? What were points that touched you or that are still lingering like the fragrance of lavender?

Nira Yuval-Davis: First of all, I want to say a big thank you because this is one of the most beautiful things that I have seen. It has reached me at the point of my life in which I feel my body is rebelling against me and maybe I am rebelling against my body and I think a lot of wisdom has been embedded in this film. I would like to watch it again and again. It was interesting, Yasmin, that you remembered it as no death is pointless. It said no life is pointless. But then the film also said that suffering beyond a certain point is pointless. In a way, I think the tension between all of these things as pointless or not pointless framed the film for me.

YG: It’s interesting they got mixed up.

Lata Mani: But together they provide a possibility of reclaiming the things which we tend to overlook but are vital to human experience. No life pointless. No death final. To be alive is to be involved in confronting interdependent impermanence. There is no form of existence that is not relational and nothing that is static. Impermanence is a condition of existence and interdependence also. To imagine any kind of weakness as the breakdown of a social order, of that which is normative, of strength, is to try to live in a way that flies against the very nature of what it means to be alive. This idea of strength and fragility both bodily and social is related to the idea of the self as autonomous (and there’s a lot to be thought through about what is particular to the body and where the social exceeds bodily experience and vice versa). A number of concepts with which we work in the social sciences and humanities are brought under pressure when we open to the fundamental fact of interdependent impermanence. Climate change has put fragility on the map in a very profound way so the idea is not as absurd as it might have sounded ten years ago.

And this tension between embracing suffering as natural and at the same time being very aware of the challenge of suffering: I think it’s in that dialectic that human life is lived. One doesn’t want to privilege suffering at all. At the same time, one does not want to imagine that the only way we can think of suffering is as a breakdown. We experience it as an affront. We experience aging as an affront; illness as an affront; disability as an affront. That’s an absurd posture towards life.

Nicolás Grandi: In terms of the poetics of the film this question leads me to the firefly. The firefly became for me a kind of spinal cord, an organizing element, a metaphor. The film starts with it and ends with it: the firefly in text, the firefly in image, the city reimagined as a firefly.

Comment: I drifted into remembering sensations from life, to when once I had no sensation in my legs and I dragged myself to the door because the bell was ringing. And other moments such as having a broken toe and for a few weeks walking very slowly, the pleasure that came from it. Sometimes there’s a certain fragility but it changes you and slows you down, puts you in the place of actually living because you are more present than if you are running. It reminded me of how with fragility often comes a sensibility.

In the film you work with language, you take it apart, you show the looseness but also the origin and the interconnection between words and language, impermanence but at the same time interconnection. I felt the film was very poetical but very language based, very spoken-poetry based. I found that very interesting because even though there was music, imagery, performances which were very touching, language was a sort of anchor. It gives a way of speaking about things that it is hard to even touch otherwise maybe.

Sanjita Majumdar: I wanted to ask you about the process of making the film and the different mediums that you use.

NG: It started with a provocation from Lata. This is our fifth collaboration and we have been developing this idea of videocontemplation. We have also been working in videopoetry with the relationships of text and image. Whenever we start a project we pose a kind of formal inquiry around which to work. Lata proposed working with “a portrait of an idea.” I had been doing research around portraiture in the fine arts. I was taken aback. How do you portray an idea? Which form does an idea take? Can you simply put an idea in the realm of cinematics?  Lata came with this written script which is why you find an anchor in the text. Text was where everything ignited from. The text came divided into different genres if you can call them that: vignette, sutra, poem and teaching. We started discussing the formal specificity of each.

We decided that vignettes would be spoken word, so we thought of having somebody narrating them. Poem and sutra would have text onscreen as we had been developing in videopoems and that we would use spoken word for the teachings since in older times these were generally given orally. With that more or less established we started. Lata is in India, I am in Buenos Aires and we work in a transoceanic way discussing through email, Skype, and audio notes. One idea that came was that it would be very interesting to also have public figures incarnate these vignettes in the context of the formal question I mentioned.  In terms of poetics, it was mind blowing to stage a historical referent meeting a poetical/fictional referent and clashing, colliding and producing a new kind of image, a new kind of possibility. When you see Angela Davis, you see Nora Cortiñas, you don’t only see what the film is showing. Their history, their presence is strongly there; Angela Davis remains Angela Davis but since she is not speaking her words it opens the referential realm to another horizon. And that enables a thinking afresh, a rethinking of perception.

LM: One of the dynamics we are working with in a videocontemplation is that of the observer observing and observing themselves observing. That is what you learn in a meditation practice. When you are working in this way with known figures interesting disjunctions are produced. For example, Angela Davis saying “A strong woman is sometimes strongly fed up” produces a moment of disorientation. It is not what you expect. That effect is part of the pedagogy of proposing spectatorship as a kind of witnessing. If you think of spectatorship as witnessing then you position the spectator in a relationship of what I call “intimate remove;” drawn into the narrative but also kept at arm’s length. A number of the formal decisions that were taken were to build that principle into the form of the film.

NG: You ask about each one of the formats. In the book, you will find that the divisions in the written script are present such as the chapter titles. The body as archivist etc. That enables another way to receive the work.

LM: Also, in the book, we use typography to bring the text alive. Onscreen it is the image, music, spoken word, and performance. We have worked typographically taking extracts (not the whole script) allowing the words to be animated in a way different from the motion graphics used in the film.

NG: And also by thinking of the text as image. I think it enhances the meaning of the word to think of its visuality. It’s not the same as simply reproducing text. It adds to the sensorium. We receive it with our whole bodies not only from the frontal lobes.

YG: On that point of it being a bodily experience could I ask you to come back to the themes of loss that are embedded in fragility? Fragility is a pas de deux with strength, yes. But there is also loss.

LM: Absolutely. There is also loss. This is not a unilateral privileging of suffering, of fragility. It is allowing oneself to inhabit the place where you can deeply attend to that which is undoing you but also see how in the very act of being undone something else can reveal itself. And if we think about philosophy as an embodied practice and we think about thinking as a sensuous activity, if we want to reweave the sensuous and the sensual nature of not simply existence but of thinking itself, then we have to open to the rage, the pain, the sorrow, the strength, the fragility but all within a framework which does not see it merely or simply as a form of breakdown and of break-up. So it is that the film reimagines Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinsons as intelligence reinventing itself. This is not how we think about it. We just think “here’s a body and it can’t do what it used to do and its now doing these strange things and it is hard to control.”

To see the possibility in every experience. It may not be an experience that is pleasant but it is an experience nonetheless.  We seem to be conceptually impoverished in dealing with fragility. We call this film the poetics of fragility. It could be called the poetics of health. We are marking fragility because it is a broader argument. It’s not just about the fragility of humans but of fragility as an intrinsic property of what it means to be alive, of nature as well. We say humans are part of nature but tend to separate nature linguistically. At another screening, we were asked why not vulnerability? My response was because fragility is a condition of existence. Vulnerability is a result of social arrangements that position people in ways that lead them to experience forms of frailty that are unnecessary for them to experience. Fragility is natural; vulnerability is socially produced.

Arvind Narain: Maybe the other concept to think in terms of is openness. Does fragility also mean a certain level of openness which strength may not always have? I liked the way you took it from the individual to the larger social and perhaps as you phrased it, at this particular moment in the larger social the important thing would be to have a sense of openness which comes from acknowledging human fragility in context of the larger environmental crisis where you have to see the fact that you are fragile and that fragility is actually a strength. Because if you believe that we are strong we are not going to be able to cope with this larger catastrophe. So, the poetics of fragility is actually about the politics of strength.

Ann Phoenix: Lots of images stay with me but one that keeps bubbling up and I am interested in why is the woman sitting on the stool in public and with the long effort to put her arm in the sleeve. One of the things that really struck me was that it was part of everyday life. People walk by. She did not become a spectacle. We were partly making her a spectacle. But she was part of everyday life, just somebody sitting spending ages doing something. And it really changes one’s thinking about what can happen in public. It need not be hidden away and there can be beauty in that struggle to make the body work.

LM: Interestingly, our intent in setting it up that way was to point to the invisibility of illness, you are in the midst of the flow of life but life goes on as though you do not exist. But your reading is equally credible, equally insightful. It is also true that she is simply there and therefore marking the naturalness of her fragility. And this goes back to the constant dance between what one might call the isness of the experience of fragility (its nature, texture, its many moods, and expressions) and the fact that it is always something experienced in relation to its social construction. There are multiple ways that that expresses itself.

Nicole Wolfe: The relief from narrativity that comes with illness. I find that quite powerful. Constantly having to narrate ourselves and say who we are and what we are doing happens all the time in higher education. Sometimes we have to become ill before we acknowledge our frailty. But this interruption of a narrativity is then also formally in your film and it would be great if you elaborate a bit more in terms of how these different nuances and layers and surfaces of possibility and struggle are also very much in the music.

LM: The principle of dynamism within constraint is very much a principle in the structuring and rhythm of the film. And very much also drawing on the idea of expansion and contraction. Breathing is expansion and contraction. The waves coming in and out; high tide, low tide. These are all various ways to mark the naturalness of these experiences but with the intention of bringing attention to the idea of fragility. The narrative arc is that of an idea not of an individual’s story. Part of the reason for that is the social construction of illness: that which is a social experience is continually experienced as an individual experience. So how do you take the biographical and make it social? The individual and make it collective? And trouble a particular notion of the universal subject? Here we attempt it through a variety of subjects speaking shared human truth (let’s call it that since the notion of the universal is deeply troubling).

NG: Not only music. I would ask what happens with treating the whole soundtrack as a composition. The notions of interdependence are playing there too. An example, in the hospital sequence you hear Jisha breathe in and as she breathes out the sound of Christopher’s respirator is heard. There’s something in the capacity of sound. I consider it to be 50% of the construction of the whole image. The image for me is like the contour or the outline and the sound the soul of it. It’s like the air that constructs the whole thing and both of them produce a third kind of meaning, a third image. For instance, in Thao’s sequence when she is reflecting on her inability to think, you hear a descending sound, you are entering into her mind space, into the bubble, into the formation of words as she describes it. That’s what I mean by the capturing and texturing, the getting into the soul of it. It also enables getting away from the indicativeness of the image.

LM: The whole hope really is that you can experience an idea not just receive it as a conceptual proposition. But to go back to the person who mentioned the text as an anchor, there is a kind of demand that the image should speak for itself. That idea has become normative. And both of us feel like text is really important. This is a time when for conceptual, formal and aesthetic reasons we want to insist on the value of text, of rethinking the relationship between text and image.

Question: Could you expand on why you find it valuable to give value again to the aesthetical or conceptual or textual aspects of text as formal experimentation?

LM: The tendency is to think that the image should be sufficient. But if we want to think with form and if we want to draw on the extraordinary possibilities of the moving image to propose cognition as a sensuous process we can go further. Why not think of text as absolutely central to the moving image. Text. Not spoken word. Why can a film not have a literary dimension? I’m thinking of what is normative in the moving image community. Am I overstating the case, Nicole?

NW:  No. I was thinking it’s the essayistic form but that’s more the voice over and you are speaking about a different use of text in terms of the literary form and actually also text as image. But I would also agree that especially now where we see a lot of media manipulation of images, that images work very differently depending on what text is there. Images totally don’t speak for themselves. So that’s a very important intervention to make, to actually show the importance of words. But then there’s much more in the film of course in terms of the sensuality of the experience and the centrality also of working with text in a different way. So I think that would very much be an expansion of the text in the sort of classic essay film where you have a voice over. You have multiple voices and you have the re-performance of a text through different bodies and all of that as well.

Comment: The thing that struck me when I was watching the film was, “Attachment is a habit.” Some of the ways that you have constructed the film, there’s the space for the unknown. It kind of relates to the previous point that we don’t really to put our fragility in the center of everything that we’re experiencing. Even in our politics, our world, our families, there’s always this kind of attachment to a way of being. I can’t find the words exactly but I think it’s also about the space of not knowing, not being able to find the words, being attached to kinds of words, being attached to kinds of images, attached to ways of experiencing things and each other. I found that phrase to be really quite something. But it’s also one of the most difficult things, we can’t get over the habit of attachment.

Sanjita Majumdar: I think it is interesting to look at how people embodied the text and enacted it. They are embodying a script which is not their script but something you have written. They almost embodying the text in acting it out. In performance studies when we watch theater it is the enactment and the live presence of the person that allows you to understand the embodiment of what is going on. And here you use film as the medium to record this, to document this enactment.

LM: We are not recording. There is a dance between their representation and our representation. It is not as though they simply read it and we recorded it. In Angela Davis’s poem, only one line is spoken to screen. We are layering it with other stories. For example, among the most circulated photographs of her were the FBI profile pictures at the time of her arrest. We wanted to play with that. We have her sitting in profile looking at herself. Face to face in a different way. So there were a number of other things that were also happening. There is the moment of the writing of the text, the moment of those featured agreeing to the project, thinking about it and coming back to us, and then one meeting to film. With Angela, for example, the only thing we knew was that we had an hour and we would do something with the chair. That’s it. She came and it evolved from there. As with others we first recorded her reading the poem and this began the process of her making it her own. Meanwhile, other conversations were taking place that led to the tattoo, the hummingbird. All of this happened in situ. I would say that the whole process is an embodied process. And what we have produced as a result of the montage, the music and the crafting of the segment is a distillation of a process in which we as filmmakers had the maximum control.

YG: I am aware of time and there may be people who want talk with you individually. I would like to thank both of you very much from all of us. I’m beginning to think of you as multi-sensory sculptors!