Replacement

This article was contributed by Dr Monika Loewy, an associate lecturer in Goldsmiths’ Department of English and Comparative Literature

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

An interdisciplinary conference on the theme of ‘replacement’ took place at Birkbeck on the 8-10 of December, which consisted of thirty-six presentations from the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Organised by Professor Naomi Segal and Dr Jean Owen, the conference explored the idea of replacement in relation to literature, art, film, politics, and law. There was additionally a printmakers’ exhibition and a screening of three films: Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), Un Secret [A Secret] (Claude Miller, 2007) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015). The keynote speakers (Jean Owen, Naomi Segal, Professor Juliet Mitchell, and Professor Naomi Tadmor) focused on the replacement child and partner, and the way in which figures of the past affect the individuals who replace them. Throughout these discussions, questions often arose as to how works of art embody, illustrate, and represent these effects.

‘Trauma always causes replacement’, explained Juliet Mitchell in her presentation, a statement that underpinned the entire conference: trauma, and specifically loss, is often the precursor to why and how replacement occurs. Generally, these losses referred to relationships and objects, memory and knowledge. Several speakers additionally suggested that absences are often substituted with fantasy, a notion discussed in relation to individuals, theories, culture, and fictional and non-fictional works.

Day One:

The conference opened with parallel panels entitled ‘writing replacement’ and ‘cinematic dehumanisation’. Here, speakers introduced ideas about replacement in relation to cultural works, and about how objects and relationships can replace loss, as exemplified by a statement about the way in which nature can, and has, acted as a foster parent (in this case, for William Wordsworth). The following parallel panels consisted of talks about holocaust stories, cultural theory, and haunting, raising a variety of questions, including how the mother is represented in art, and how Freud may have replaced emotional loss with fantasy and religion. These various strands of thought coalesced in a screening of Agnieszka Piotrowska’s fascinating documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower (2008), which is about three women who feel an affinity for, and are sexually and emotionally attracted to objects such as a bow and arrow, The Berlin Wall, a fence, and the Eiffel Tower. The film conveyed that these attractions might be linked to traumatic experiences and mental illnesses, suggesting that the objects may stand in for and protect against disturbing experiences. Following the screening was a discussion about Piotrowska’s involvement with film, and how she responded to public and personal reactions to it. The day closed with a showing of Un Secret, a film about a boy haunted by feelings of having a superior older sibling, and how gaps in knowledge (about his parents’ relationships and experiences in the Second World War) impacted these feelings. Here, the concept of sibling replacement was introduced, which was central to the following day’s discussions.

Day Two:

The second day commenced with papers about political practice, mothers and daughters, and law and replacement, covering a variety of topics, including representations of replacement in human rights law, haunting mothers in Alice Sebold’s writings, and the politics of surrogacy. Two thought-provoking keynotes followed, which were presented by Naomi Tadmor (on early modern kinship and family life) and Juliet Mitchell (on the toddler and the replacement sibling). First, Tadmor spoke about early modern England’s kinship system and how it changed over time. Subsequently, Mitchell explored the way in which Oedipal relations have failed to incorporate the importance of siblings. Sibling replacement, Mitchell argued, is a foundational trauma that has been overlooked in psychoanalytic thinking; the toddler harbours murderous desires towards the new baby that replaces it. There were three parallel panels after the keynote, which included talks about cinematic replacement, family dramas, and ‘lost boys’. A variety of ideas were discussed here, such as ‘lost boys’ in Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf, the connections between Un Secret and Morrison’s Beloved, and about spouses, siblings and children in Sir Orfeo and Amis and Amiloun. The day came to a close with a screening of Hitchcock’s Rebecca on 35mm film.

Day Three:

On the final day, panellists explored how memory and place are rewritten through film, the connections between clinic and culture, and the way in which personal haunting may leave its imprint through writing and art. Professor Valerie Walkerdine, for example, suggested that a trace cannot be erased, and that performance and photography may embody traces of traumatic experiences. In the afternoon, keynote speaker Jean Owen gave an engaging talk that compared the incestual relationships between fathers and daughters in Jacques Demy’s Peau d’âne, ‘Genesis,’ and the Greco-Roman myth of Myrrha. This was followed by Naomi Segal’s intriguing analysis about what replacement might mean, and what can and cannot be represented or replicated. She asked how language has been altered throughout time, and posed questions about copies, replication, and the act of translation. She additionally discussed how individuals’ lives and works have been impacted by their deceased siblings, exploring various artists such as J.M, Barrie, Didier Anzieu, Salvador Dalí, Phillip K. Dick, and Victor Hugo. The conference then came to a close with a screening of Haigh’s 45 Years, wherein a woman discovers that her entire marriage was, in a sense, a replacement for one her husband had lost.

Dr Asibong introduced the film with a statement that nicely ties together the wide array of exciting discussions about replacement: that ‘real life’ often pales in comparison to the dead, to a loss. Overall, the conference interwove several creative and fascinating thoughts about replacement, raising questions about how loss affects us, how we attempt to replace it, and how experiences and various works of art capture (and are unable to capture) these replacements.

Further information:

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It Follows – University of Pittsburgh annual lecture

This article was contributed by Kelli Weston, an MPhil Film and Screen Media student

university-of-pittsburgh-annual-lecture2016-9927-resizedIn October, BIMI hosted the University of Pittsburgh’s annual lecture with a special talk by Adam Lowenstein’s on David Robert Mitchell’s film It Follows (2014). Shot and set in Detroit, Michigan, the film’s environmental implications often take a backseat to the thrill of its monsters, killings, and gore. Lowenstein’s talk, entitled ‘A Detroit Landscape with Figures: The Subtractive Horror of It Follows’, places the film firmly within the contemporary political and social climate of Detroit, a city that has, in recent years, become synonymous with scarcity and desolation.

This scarcity is glaringly felt in It Follows, introduced by the event’s moderator Professor Roger Luckhurst as ‘the best horror film of the last ten years.’ The independent thriller concerns Jay (Maika Monroe) who learns early in the film that her new boyfriend has passed on a curse to her through sex. The curse can take any human form – in fact, ‘It’ often takes the shape of its victims’ relatives – and preys upon the haunted at a slow, deliberate pace. This slow pace allows victims a chance to run, but sooner or later with unwavering persistence ‘It’ always returns. The only way to transfer the curse is by having sex, but the reprieve is only temporary since when ‘It’ finally kills one victim it returns to haunt the previous.

Most critics have noted the parallels to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, but Lowenstein contends that the true symbolic and literal horror of the film is the widespread emptiness, particularly underscored by the depleted population in urban spaces, ‘the loss of community.’ He argues further that economic grief has trapped the denizens of this area historically, as evidenced in the scene where Jay and her friends attempt to electrocute the creature by dumping all their household appliances in the pool where they trap It. ‘Their inventory is more in line with the black and white television sets and the 1950s-era programming they watch than common consumer items of the present day,’ says Lowenstein, mentioning the old movie theater, the old cars, and lack of computers and use of the Internet.

Of particular note, Lowenstein acknowledged the glaring absence of diversity in a city where the population is overwhelmingly African-American. Lowenstein laments this as one of the film’s shortcomings and Luckhurst reads this as a classically Gothic illustration of where ‘white patriarchy goes wrong.’ Lowenstein agrees the all-white places that the characters inhabit is already a ‘sign of decline’.

Further information:

  • Listen to a recording of the event (including questions from the audience)
  • Adam Lowenstein is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Dreaming of Cinema: Spectatorship, Surrealism, and the Age of Digital Media (Columbia University Press, 2015), Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film (Columbia University Press, 2005), as well as numerous articles in journals and anthologies
  • Roger Luckhurst is a professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck. He is an internationally recognized expert in the Gothic and science fiction, as well as the author of The Invention of Telepathy 1870-1901 (Oxford University Press, 2002), The Trauma Question (Routledge, 2008), and The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy (Oxford University Press, 2012). He is also the editor of several popular classics such as Late Victorian Gothic Tales (2005), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde (2006), Dracula (2011) and H. P. Lovecraft’s Classic Horror Tales (May 2013)
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Avatar Activism: Limits and Possibilities

This post was contributed by Thomas Travers, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. He tweets at @TWLTravers

Avatar ActivismCrystal Bartolovich (University of Syracuse) opened her lecture last Wednesday (June 15th) at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities with a screening of the narratively condensed trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar. This abridged version of the film, in turn, formed the key reference point around which her presentation on the limits and possibilities of ‘Avatar Activism’ revolved.

Coined by American media theorist Henry Jenkins, ‘Avatar Activism’ describes a strategy whereby social justice movements appropriate images from popular culture and put them into service for struggles in the real world. Jenkins first proposed the term in response to a filmed re-enactment of Cameron’s blockbuster movie in the occupied village of Bil’in. Appearing in the likeness of the embattled Na’vi, Palestinian and Israeli activists stunningly rewrote Avatar as an allegory for the ongoing dispossession experienced by Palestinians in the occupied territories. Opposed to an august Frankfurt School style dismissal of Avatar as industrial spectacle, Jenkins detects within its globally distributed imagery of green anti-imperialism the raw material for a democratic ‘participatory culture’. Participation here refers to the dramatic re-contextualisation, or well-nigh hacking or glitching of the Hollywood cultural form, a tactic that enables oppressed people to re-narrate their struggles through the libidinal apparatus of the culture industry, shocking audiences into a heightened awareness of injustice. Affective and emotional investment in the symbolic realm inexorably leads, in Jenkin’s argument, to progress in the material world.

Yet is it precisely the efficacy of this seamless transition from symbolic gratification to social intervention that Bartolovich wanted to complicate in her bracing account of contemporary climate politics. Situating Avatar within debates surrounding the Anthropocene, Bartolovich highlighted a damaging rift between a symbolic recognition of the imperative to drastically cut carbon emissions and the minimal purchase this recognition has had in actuality. In order to arrest the unsustainable levels of energy consumption in the gated communities of the global North, Bartolovich forecasted the necessary implementation of unpopular, top down, draconian measures. And it is on questions of cost, of consent, of sacrifice that she finds ‘Avatar Activism’ desperately inadequate.

Dialectic of Utopia and Ideology

Where others might have chastised Jenkin’s work as the ‘intellectualisation of amusement’, Bartolovich provided an immanent critique of his thesis and a salutary reminder as to how easily the utopian qualities of cultural texts can reverse into ideological reconciliation with the present. Avatar’s ecological consciousness is typically considered to reside in the successful opposition of the Na’vi to the technological degradation and exploitation of Nature. This antagonism, however, may not be as stark as it at first seems. Nature on Pandora is, in a sense, always already technology: for each weapon or communicational network the colonisers have, the Na’vi have an analogous one. The message, as Bartolovich points out, is clear; not only do the Na’vi want nothing, but that their harmonious relationship with an intensified nature amounts to a purer, superior form of life. As T.J. Clark has recently argued in a series of lectures presented at Birkbeck, the land of Cockaigne is the fantasy of a world already cooked, where the need for sweat, labour, and toil has been thoroughly abolished. What should alarm us about the inscription of such codes in Avatar is that they perpetuate a delusion that the North can shrink its carbon footprint without any serious alteration to its current levels of consumption. Utopian resistance cartwheels into ideological containment as the necessary sacrifices of any viable climate politics are massaged into something more palatable entirely. Avatar offers, in other words, a reassuring image of an improved nature that is already dormant in the present, repressing the inevitable deprivations and constraints that would accompany a concerted effort to avert the worst permutations of the Anthropocene.      

Disavowing Defeat 

Another challenge to the endorsement of Avatar develops out of the observation that the military hardware of the sky people is surprisingly outdated. Where one might expect the fully automated arsenal of drone, chemical, and biological weapons, Cameron mobilises tanks, infantry, and helicopters. Coupled with the astounding ability of the Na’vis’ arrows to penetrate armoured vehicles, Avatar recodes the indigenous encounter with empire—a history of decimation, massacre, and genocide—with triumphant resistance. This aesthetic sleight of hand simultaneously disavows the asymmetry of such conflicts and, in doing so, implies that the vanquished were defeated on account of their own failings. The Bil’in video concludes with the Na’vi protesters doubled up, choking on tear gas; a potent reminder of the lethal economy that the armed state apparatus deals in. Bartolovich pointedly adds that the pristine Eden of Pandora is itself a phantasmagoric revision of the slums and toxic landscapes that the precarious communities of late capitalism are likely to inhabit. There is, then, a significant discontinuity between the types of imaginary identification entertained by the symbolic text of Avatar and the impoverished and defeated reality of the global surplus population.

Possibilities?

Bartolovich convincingly demonstrated the inadequacy of Jenkin’s proposed ‘Avatar Activism’, highlighting its inability to overcome the gap between symbolic attitude and material action. Cameron’s movie offers a green politics shorn of sacrifice, the fantasy of a world already made that the consumer can occupy without detriment to their present lifestyle. Confronted with the dilemmas of climate catastrophe, Avatar conjures away the negative, presenting an altogether agreeable impression of a greener, less alienated form of consumption. What of the possibilities? Against the ‘naïve’ interpretation of the plight of the Bil’in protesters as commensurable with the Na’vi, Bartolovich contends that the video détourns Hollywood spectacle. Wrenched out of its universalising context, the activists expose the particularity of Cameron’s movie, render visible the human damage, loss, and defeat the film silences, making perceptible the material costs the film seeks to vanish. The Bil’in video captures the uncooked raw material of a world in which radical social change can only be achieved through the sacrifices of collective action.

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Ways of viewing

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s Postgraduate Certificate in Journalism.

Roth_masterclass_allBirkbeck’s audiovisual hub, the Derek Jarman Lab, presented two events in the second week of November. Ways of viewing was an important theme in both. How does the subjective outlook of someone in an audience influence the way that individual views a film? How does the way an audience sees a film differ from the way the filmmakers see it? And what control do filmmakers have over how an audience views their films?

That theme chimed with elements in the Derek Jarman Lab’s current project , a series of films to be launched shortly (watch this space) and referred to in the Lab’s “Masterclass with Christopher Roth”, which a group of film enthusiasts attended on Monday 10 November.

Contrasting approaches to editing

Christopher Roth

Christopher Roth

Film director Roth began the session by contrasting different forms of editing – one (citing Hitchcock’s Rear Window) where the editing of scenes illustrates an explicit, overriding, directorial narrative; the other (citing Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) where the sequence results in something more open, which recognises that audiences tend to find for themselves links between different visuals and sounds with no explicit connection.

The intricate layering of images, words and sounds that emerged from the examples of Roth’s work, as presented at this session, resembled the more open approach.

Finding connections

That way in which viewers find links between different sequences in films could be seen as comparable with the way ancient peoples saw constellations when looking at stars.

In film each viewer may find a particular narrative link in a given sequence of images, so that one film may generate as many narrative perspectives as viewings, with each audience viewing differing from the way the filmmakers view that film.

Bartek Dziadosz, the Lab’s Managing Producer, looked at this tendency of audiences to create narratives in his presentation on Wednesday 12 November, when the Lab presented a session entitled “What Film Can Do For Your Research Career”, part of the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research series on developing careers in research.

Reflecting that filmmakers must remember audiences bring their own outlooks to viewing and their own senses of narrative, Dziadosz emphasised that filmmakers cannot assume their own views of a film will be communicated or accepted by its audience.

He illustrated this later in the session with reference to his own film about Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, describing how some saw the film primarily as a personal portrait, while others viewed it as a ‘sociological essay film’.

Dziadosz also discussed ways of using visual methods in humanities and social sciences, and those with a particular interest in this area should contact him via the Derek Jarman Lab.

Reaching audiences

After Dziadosz, the Lab’s Head of Post-production, Walter Stabb, described how film offered an exciting and, for many, new way for researchers to engage with peers and students. He also looked at some of the platforms researcher/filmmakers could use to show their work, including film festivals, academic bodies, galleries and online streaming.

Platforms for new filmmakers to consider include –

Planning your film

Lily Ford, the Lab’s Head of Production, then offered a practical overview on planning your film, setting out points to consider, ranging widely – from defining intentions, purposes, aims and objectives, and potential audiences, to obtaining funding, to planning a shooting schedule and even groceries for a crew on a shoot, a vital area, because film crews can shoot – like Napoleon’s armies marched – on their stomachs.

Accompanying the session was a handout summarising the points, which could also serve as a template for planning a specific project.

Ford also referred to the Lab’s potential as a source of advice and equipment, open to approaches from those with proposals for film projects.

Next steps for researcher/filmmakers

As the potential of the internet expands, the signs are that new ways of making and using films, combining media, bringing them to audiences and interacting with them will continue to grow, with vast implications for universities.

Those interested in exploring these and other questions further should contact the Derek Jarman Lab and ask about its courses in filmmaking.

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