Date of Degree
MFA (Master of Fine Arts)
Film and Video Production
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
This essay mirrors the structure found in my thesis film—a series of small vignettes—but does not emulate one for the other and vice versa. The essay is an experiment that seeks to allow rather than define and imagines a world already in place rather than built by the accumulation of reading and writing this text; the vignettes serve as a witness to this world rather than symbols building up a system of signs.
I’m interested in expanding the conversation around political personhood towards a receptive stance; a politics of receptivity. This doesn’t serve as a counter to any narratives around a politics of action, activism and social justice, especially one that is needed now more than ever with the current political climate. Instead the text pays close attention to the daily, the individual, and the banal, not as an apathetic or reactionary stance, but as one charged with potential. In casting off an overarching relationship to narrative and resolve in the text, which does not deny narrativity found in the moments and individual vignettes, I posit a self of inconclusive gestures, pregnant moments and the feeling of something meaningful happening in a world of interviews, speculative text messages, portraits of binge watching tv, video essays, and case studies.
The potential pitfalls and failures of a piece of this nature is to read each vignette as a simple projection of a stable self, that a stable I is seeing himself in all that is around. And while this writing encourages one to hold up a mirror and see oneself in a vignette it is also a piece that explores these affective limitations and symbolic acts of violence. There is the critique that non-narrative potential filled space creates a problematically uncomplicated relationship to the subject matter and viewer.
This is a notion further developed in Maggie Nelson’s book, The Art of Cruelty that thinks through arts capability to enact change through often violent or problematic means. In discussing the work of artist Alfredo Jaar in which he rebukes Newsweek’s headlines with his own headlines about the Rwandan genocide, she writes, “since the artist has predetermined what it is, exactly, that we should have been looking at… what is the use of our looking at all?” (Nelson 26). By avoiding the possibility of critique or question to the piece by supplying the question and answer, Jaar’s work, she argues, becomes problematically tame. The receptive stance taken aims to keeps questions at the forefront rather than answer them. It is a writing that tries to keep the question, “What is left? What is still there after?” churning, full of potential and charged.
It’s a piece that presumes a self always in the wake of, as Bergson writes with beautiful images of cones in his book Matter and Memory. It is a piece that also assumes a self that is always becoming, as Spinoza suggests with his famous line, “No one has determined what the body can do”. (Spinoza 87). Despite the contradiction of a self pulled to and from, past and future, this piece presumes that selfhood is formed on the basis of both simultaneously. Similar to how CA Conrad articulates his rituals creating space for himself, the text permits associations and cross readings in order to find some kind of residue to reside in. While this residual space from the accretion of texts rubbing up against each other is one in which I’m identifying a receptive selfhood, this space is one that also radically permits another.
Kathleen Stewart articulates a similar position in her fantastic ethnographic study of coal mining communities in West Virginia, A Space on the Side of the Road. In it she writes, “In the effort to track something of the texture, density, and force of a local cultural real through its mediating forms and their social uses, it tears itself between evocation and representation, mimesis and interpretation.”
It here could be both the text and an understanding of selfhood. This polemic of constructing a self through an affective refuge of experiences is one that is not a transaction. The vignettes, unless themselves an exchange, are complete onto themselves. They are curated and designed, but through their excess, unresolved nature and individuality they stand alone, while their impact secretes.
I cannot say how the wake of the piece will be felt or what action comes from political passivity. But, as the Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald teaches, I know that in order to act first one has to understand where we are acting from. In this way the piece performs a similar purpose to Raymond William’s, Structures of Feelings that maps out affective terrains. This piece attempts to map, but never seeks to pin point or locate. There is no single source to find for one’s internal landscape, but there might be a way to witness where and how impact occurs in the radically passive personhood, the same way focusing on the breath allows one to witness when and how awareness shifts to thought, sensation or emotion; it’s about a continuous how, rarely about fixing a why.
In lieu of the film one can think of the text as a bin system for video editing software. The folder in which this text is archived would be titled, potential. The text moves similarly to scrubbing through material. Then there is | |. I’m hesitant to pin down and strictly label the significance of | | but maybe thinking of it as a direction; | | is a whispered, “now,” or a pinched now, or a hand on the back with a warm now, but most importantly it is a continued now that respects critical/emotional distance. This sign is riddled throughout the text- in some moments performing an experience of time, time passing, or time severed, or performing the self addressing self through the correction of speech and grammar. At times it reveals an emotional temporal sense where the subjective experience extends or shrinks the actual.
Experimental, Film, Malaga, Mass Shooting, Poetry, Selfhood
Includes bibliographical references (page 38).
Copyright © 2018 Carl Elsaesser
Elsaesser, Carl. "Invisible artifacts: public impasses, filmic intimacies." MFA (Master of Fine Arts) thesis, University of Iowa, 2018.