Week 5: The Language of the Dead



We spent the first chunk of seminar today canvassing for thoughts about the final project/exercise for the seminar. Just to reiterate here what I said in that discussion, you are definitely free to write a 10 to 15-page paper as a final exercise for this class if you wish to do so. And you can do that on your own if you want. You are also welcome to do a final project in another medium if you are so inclined. And you can also do that alone. Go ahead and write me off thread if you are planning something along these lines. But as I made clear, I have a soft spot for “collaborative” projects in this course. I am not going to force anyone to work with anyone else, but I feel that we do so little collaborative work in history (and the frameworks of support and reward for such work are so limited) that I would like to encourage those of you who are willing/able to use this class as an opportunity to experiment with this important and basically marginal mode of intellectual/creative labor. I also tried to make clear that I am happy to give an assignment to anyone who cannot come up with what they want to do, but I would very much like to see “emergent” collective enterprises emerge (if they do). So that is to say, I would like you all to feel around a little bit towards forms of self-organization on final projects. I would also like to be included in this process. And by that I mean it is my intention actually to do some form of final project “with” you all. It is a little hard to say how that is going to work until we get a sense of what emerges.

So we got started thinking a little bit about what might emerge. Jenne proposed a pretty interesting idea: some form of “curation” of a small set of documents/artifacts, which would then become the basis of discreet and circumscribed historical exercises. One can imagine this working in different ways. We could pair up and and have everyone make an exchange of “dossiers” upon which we would then all do this exercise. I can also imagine us going to some outside person and having that person curate a small historical “archive” for all of us (or at least for everyone who wants to do this). In some ways, that might be more interesting. It would give us a kind of “control” in the experiment, since all of our historical exercises would be working the same documentary terrain. I like this idea enough that I would be up for helping make it happen if there turns out to be interest in doing something like this. In a way, I think it would be an interesting opportunity to invite someone we admire from outside the class to assist us. Suggestions for the right person to ask on this? Let’s see what takes shape in the email threads.

Without prejudice on any of that above, I’m going to go ahead here and put in a plug for the idea that I have floated. In the beginning of of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession he drops an exceedingly odd and, in my view, tempting footnote:


[To fill out the footnote a bit, a short amusing article from Time Magazine, Jan. 10, 1972, entitled “Tripping History,” as follows: 

“The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a perennial gathering time for the academic clans, who convene in hotel ballrooms around the land to discuss the use of dependent clauses in Hamlet or the number of DNA molecules that can fit on the head of a pin. These occasions usually range from the merely boring to the achingly tedious. Sometimes there are exceptions, provoked by hostility or humor (see SCIENCE). Last week, at the American Historical Association meetings in New York City, Professor James Parsons of the University of California’s Riverside campus proposed that his colleagues use psychedelic drugs to expand their understanding of the past.

“With perceptions heightened by drugs, said Parsons, a man might ‘reach a greater understanding of early China by investigating the fondness that the ancient Chinese had for the particularly exotic dish of bear paws.’ Or a researcher who wanted to understand President James K. Polk, suggested the professor, could hole up for two years in an ante-bellum Tennessee mansion, read the books Polk would have read, ride horseback through the countryside and trip out occasionally on drugs—all in order to put himself inside Folk’s psyche. Parsons’ point is that historians too often neglect what he calls the ’emotional dimension’ of history. He is probably right, but using LSD to re-create the Spirit of ’76 might make the upcoming bicentennial celebration a bit more than most Americans bargain for.”

More spoilers can be found here. He has some pretty interesting suggestions.


I have long been tempted to see what could be done with this slightly unmanageable moment in the history of disciplinary history. Any of you who might be up for the challenge, do not hesitate to be in touch.

I’ll throw one more thing into the discussion. For the last two years I have co-organized a symposium entitled “What History Could Have Been.” These have been a pair of workshop/presentations — the first at Princeton, the second at The New School — at which a variety of imaginative historians have engaged in what I call “conjectural historiography.” You can read an account of this enterprise here and I am going to drop the posters for the last two of these in here below:



I don’t think that the frame conceit for these two events is necessarily what we should be doing as a final exercise for this course. (Though I would welcome any of you that got interested in experimenting with this form.) But some of you might want to try it, because it is a pretty interesting thing to try to do, and it has produced some amazing work. My colleague in the History of Science department at Penn, the wonderful John Tresch, did one for the event earlier this year that was a total tour de force. I am about to publish his piece, entitled “Each Society Gets the Failed Utopia it Deserves” in the new “Conjectures” section of the Public Domain Review website. This is an actual forum for experimental historical work, and it just got started. I am the series editor and if any of you have good ideas about work that is being done that might be suitable for this venue, please let me know.

The reason I mention all of this is partly just to let you know that is is out there, and partly because Dominic Pettman and I are (along with my friend and colleague Jeff Dolven) are thinking about doing a third instantiation of “What History Could Have Been” this spring. If any of you wrote really great pieces in the idiom, it would be tempting to include the work as part of that occasion. It is also possible that this spring’s “What History Could Have Been” symposium might be slightly refigured with a more capacious remit, and that, thusly expanded, it might serve as a venue for other work coming out of our class. Let’s see what happens.

Enough about all that.

About the first two thirds of our seminar discussion focused on Joshua Oppenheimer’s arresting film The Act of Killing. I think we had a “good” discussion, but I do not think it was an especially “easy” discussion — and at the end of the seminar I was left with a strong sense of regret for all the things that we didn’t somehow get to, all the (other) things that feel important in the film, especially those that relate to our theme for this seminar.

What did we talk about? Well, we went around the room and everybody said stuff. Everyone had stuff to say. In fact, everyone had a lot of stuff to say. Everybody had so much to say, and the stuff that everyone had to say was so strongly felt and so rich that it felt, from my perspective, a little difficult to “convene” or “coordinate” a real (collective) conversation.

In some sense one might argue that it is neither my job nor anyone else’s, (c.f., my exchange with Ohad in the write-up for last week’s class). But there is also a perspective that says it is all of our work to make a collective conversation actually happen. It is also sort of, in a way, maybe more my responsibility.

At any rate, it didn’t feel easy. Nor does it feel easy now to résumé everybody’s different contributions and reactions. A basic thing that wants to be said, and that we did not explicitly say there in class, is that everybody seemed to have had very strong reactions to the film. In fact, one might argue that a lot of what was really being said as we went around the room was something like, “I had a very strong reaction to this film.” There was even, I recall, a bit of email thread exchange earlier this week about the simple visceral/emotional impact of the film. It is not, I think, for anyone easy to watch. We might have spent more time talking about why that is in a more focused way, because I believe this was a kind of subtext in the conversation we did manage to have (and perhaps a subtext that did not really comport with or facilitate the discussion itself).

I felt like kicking myself after class that we did not bring back into the discussion of The Act of Killing today any of the very powerful analytic language of the Dionysian and the Apollonian from last week. How did we miss that? It feels like some sort of collective amnesia or weird act of conjoint psychological repression or something. Nietzsche’s analysis of Schein in Attic tragedy — his discussion of the way that theatricality itself can permit the viewer to stand closer to the fatal-catastrophic-truth-horror than ought otherwise not be possible for us to bear — feels more than just a little relevant to The Act of Killing. It seems like the absolute RADIOACTIVE CENTER of this film. The film both stages such occasions of tragic horror and enacts them.

We, as viewers, are brought closer to the horror than is entirely consistent with our remaining uncompromised. Grotesque and extravagant mummery (feathers, garish makeup, kitsch waterfalls, smeared luminosity) are used to hold us enthralled to appearances, even as the appearances (having gotten so close, having gotten us to sit still and look) say unspeakable things that we might otherwise have succeeded in not hearing.

The Birth of Tragedy analogy is not perfect, but there is enough to it that I remain confused as to why it did not come up. (An aside here: did anyone else find him or herself “managing” the cinematic experience of this film by means of now-so-easily-available techniques? I am talking about minimizing the window on the screen and checking email. I am talking about putting the laptop on the kitchen counter and continuing to watch while making lunch. I found myself behaving in this way in relation to the film quite a bit, and took note of the interesting media promiscuity that now both enables and undoes our access to certain kinds of immersive experiences. Attic tragedy did not happen on a window that could be minimized).

So all of that is stuff we did not discuss in relation to the film. Indeed, as Alexander (I think?) pointed out after class, there was something undeniably “Socratic” (in Nietzsche’s sense) about the conversation we did have. That is to say, I do feel that a lot of the talking we made happen could be interpreted as an extended collective effort to “get away from” the movie — and to do so by means of thought.

[I hope this is the right color. I should have mentioned that I am colorblind. In any case I just wanted to note that I saw the movie with a projector in a darkened room. The only way I had to escape the images and sounds of the movie was to pause it and go outside to smoke a cigarette, which I had to do a couple of times. This obviously influenced the way I watched the movie, and processed it afterwards. I did bring up the point of the “socratic” kind of discussion we seemed to have had in class, which seemed to have been primarily the result of our attempts to bring thoughts that were extraneous to the movie into the discussion in order to deal with the immediate gut-wrenching reaction that the movie elicits. Distance between us as scholars and the epistemological object in question is a prerequisite for any thoughtful analysis, yet the fact that this distance can be created in a variety of ways needs to be taken into consideration. This is especially true given that apparently only some of the methods of creating distance are useful in thinking through the topic at hand. I don’t want to one-up Graham here, since I am usually very much in the habit of watching stuff on my laptop while I do a million other things. Yet it seems to me that the distance created by a short cigarette-break, in which I discussed the movie with fellow historian Lorenzo Bondioli, who was the first one to relate Anwar Congo’s murders to the horrors of the holocaust, makes for a more ‘productive’ distance than that created by the act of pushing away the horrific images of the The Act of Killing to the background of our daily lives. Similarly, the only way to approach the movies theoretical implications might be to detach our discussion of it from our everyday concerns at first, losing ourselves in its darkest abysses before reemerging into the light to process our experiences, just as one might talk about a movie after having watched it in the darkness of a theatre. AB]

[[I think Alexander’s point here is terrific. We perhaps glossed over the more visceral, corporeal aspects of the film because they were so immediately apparent––yet this is exactly what contributes, in large part, to The Act of Killing’s extremely effective method of historical recounting and consequent transmission of knowledge.

When living in Hong Kong, I befriended an Indonesian colleague with whom I ended up becoming very close. We discussed the killings of 1965-66 and, after some time, I developed some sense for the scope and pervasive fear that this event inspired (and still inspires) within Indonesia. Yet, in all of these socratic discussions with my colleague, I never was able to comprehend (in an arguably Dionysian way) the implications of this episode in daily life within Indonesia, to feel, in a more visceral sense, the degree to which this trauma still haunts the country. The facts and numbers discussed with my colleague could do little to help me understand the degree of fear and tension that still remains within the country. It is one thing to understand the empirical evidence of an event such as the Indonesian Massacres, but it is quite another to have to live through the experience, to be personally implicated, even as an observer.

In constructing The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer physically recreates scenes from the Indonesian Massacres, a process which eventually leads to the emotional breakdown of Anwar. Compellingly, while Anwar appears able to cope with the cerebral, factual knowledge of the killings at the film’s outset, the experience of making Oppenheimer’s film brings him to a state of emotional breakdown unseen at the outset of the film.

Likewise, we, as the audience, are exposed to this very same process––in this virtual transplantation into Indonesia, this immersion within the lives of Anwar and his cohort, we are exposed to the unfiltered corporeality of the Massacre’s remains. It is perhaps all the more compelling in that we are given little context and little warning: suddenly we are with Anwar, following his every move, engaged in a hysterical search to make him a movie star. While we may be aware of the acts of violence committed a half-century ago, this knowledge is Apollonian, inert. Our exposure to the film seemingly allows––or forces––the audience to process information in a non-socratic way, to absorb the smallest details of both past and present within Anwar’s life. Watching Anwar describe and reenact his processes of murder somehow brings abstract concepts, ideas, and numbers into a terrifying reality, allowing a historical document to somehow become tangible, real, if only for two hours. TC]]

Maybe that is not fair.

But I am not sure it is not fair.

Our class is a class about history, and specifically about forms of historical inquiry, presentation, and expression that are difficult to assimilate to current disciplinary norms in the practice of professional historians. I would like here to focus my thoughts on The Act of Killing (and our discussion of it) on this core theme of our seminar.

But before I turn to that, maybe just one more moment on the scope of our responses: it strikes me as nothing less than astonishing the diversity of comment this film produced among our number. We literally had reflections on the film that ranged from “this film made everything else that I am doing and studying seem sort of pointless,” to “this film is a banal and masturbatory exercise in complacent Western moralizing.” We had a least two people who argued that the film was so profoundly ethically compromised as to be morally vicious, and we had at least one person who that felt that the film ought properly be understood as a thinly secularized apotheosis of Christian eschatology. In a basic way such extravagantly divergent impressions within a community of (relatively) like-minded folks is shocking. I am not sure that such remarkable lack of consensus, taken on its own, indicates that a work of art is “good” or “important.” But I do think it strongly suggests that we would all do well to watch the film again.

Turning to questions of history and method, it is notable that there was here, too, a considerable degree of divergence of opinion. I do not think that we were all even able to agree as to whether this should really be called a work of “history.” A number of people pointed out that it offers essentially nothing on the “why” of the events as they happened. We learn next to nothing about the broader historical context of Anwar’s actions.

Is this really true, though? When we thought about it more, we weren’t sure. Yes, the filmmaker includes zero historical footage of politicians debating communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia in the period. But we do come to have a sense of Anwar having been a hood, in a basic sort of way, and that seems to explain something.

And even if you grant that the film has no real interest in traditionally historical methods of “explaining” historical events, it seems difficult to argue that a watcher of the film could come away without having learned quite a bit about what actually happened in Indonesia in the 1960s and 1970s. And that’s “history,” isn’t it?

[TWO notes about the film and history making.

1) History, as we often say, is about “giving voice” [do you say it in English?] to those who no longer have one. Usually we think about the oppressed, the victims of history, as those who needs to be (re) heard. This movie, however, gives a voice to the perpetrator — and this is by itself an interesting twist. Thinking about it, it is quite amazing that the prepetrator was stupid enough to talk (maybe this is the big scandal of the movie). But when thinking about it in terms of history-making, I think we should ask whether history – as a genre – can genuinely listen to the prepetrator, or maybe its ironic emplotment must (re)present the prepetrator as a victim? Is it possible for a virile and non apologetic mass murderer to appear as such in a historical narrative without being reduced to his/her context or being redeemed by remorse?

[[I think this is a really interesting question; I think the answer is “yes,” but I am not sure — and that seems significant.  DGB]]

2)After watching both films, I think that one of their interesting dynamics is the tension between history and nostalgia. While the first movie presented as with Anwar’s perverted nostalgia (which in this case has traumatic quality)  to the “Act of Killing”, and left us with many questions about the “historical value” of the film; then the second movie was more complicated in this respect. It shows us both the two ridiculous murderers enjoy a moment of shared nostalgia, remembering the murder of the brother, and the protagonist in his quest to recreate the narrative of the murder — to do history. History, it seems to me, is the idiom of the victims, of those who were deprived of the ability to act. The perpetrators can return to the memory of their actions, can return on their actions, and therefore has no need nor interest in History, they can remain in the realm of nostalgia.  —-ORS]  

When I did try to get us to something like “consensus” concerning the project of the film (something I wanted to do as a point of departure for the “real” project of clarifying the foundations and/or principals of our divergent impressions) it was hard. Why was it so hard?

What I wanted to assert was something along the lines of: “this film wants to bring us up close to another human being.”

Seemed uncontroversial to me.

But we somehow got ensconced, at this point (according to my memory), in a series of animadversions concerning the transcultural applicability of categories like “the self,” and “the person,” and even “human being” itself. And while, at the time, I found this frustrating, it now seems to me that that really might have been the whole point. Which is to say, I believe that the film is affectingly legible as a potent and destabilizing instance of what I have described to you as what I take to be the highest and most sacred calling of art and scholarship: “singing the we.”

Nearly all of the hard questions concerning how to live and what to do (political questions, ethical questions) prove at some level to ride on one or another definition of the relevant “we.” It is, in my view, the capacious and essential work of those who think about people and the things they make and the things they have done (and who make things — books, plays, films — in the course of that activity) to extend and delimit, conjure and articulate, display and decry the various “we’s” upon which so much else depends. The Act of Killing feels to me like an exceedingly powerful instance of this essential work. The film asks us to consider to what degree Anwar and his cohort are part of “us.” To do this, the film cannot but use a set of ethical conventions (conscience, confession, redemption) and representational conventions (cinematic, theatrical, commercial) that are themselves already considerably overwritten with a particular “us.” I think many of us sensed this as a problem with the film. And there is a queasiness there that is legitimate, it seems to me. Anwar is indeed “trapped” by a set of asymmetries of power that are themselves already part of the problem. Or that, of themselves, are simply problematic. But the dynamic of that trap (the seductions of the play-within-a-play, the bait of himself-as-movie-star that “hooks and betrays” Anwar) brings Anwar-as-monster right up out of an uncognizable alterity and then lays him in our laps, gasping like some deep sea creature momentarily made pitiable pieta in our arms!

This is an extraordinary achievement. It is also profoundly unsettling. It is very difficult to be solicited (obliged?) to contemplate such an intimacy with a person so appalling to one’s sense of the right, the just, and the decent. One can feel one has been manipulated into this position — just as much as one can feel that Anwar himself has been manipulated into this position. And in some sense, both things are absolutely true: both you as viewer and Anwar as subject have been manipulated into this conjunction/tableau. And that, of course, is part of the disconcerting propinquity or symmetry that film effects.

Some of us recoiled more violently than others from this situation. Some in the class indicted, in very strong terms, the untenable, even culpable, position of the mediator/filmmaker who did this deed.

[While looking for something else, I stumbled across this text “When less is less” by David MacDougall that was assigned in an old film seminar, and maybe it helps contribute something to the conversation summarized above?


I do think Oppenheimer is very aware of the ethical and rhetorical gestures he is using throughout this film and he’s consciously navigating every part of his approach to a deeply disturbing section of history. Although I completely respect if people still find it problematic and offensive. It’s just not being done out of ignorance. –HHN]

[I so appreciate this quote, HHN. It makes me think of deconstruction as similar to the Sora worldview in its framing of the “not there” as a present-absence rather than an ontological “not there.” It offers a means to move outside of what I find to be an ascendant mode of critique that is premised ceaselessly identifying what is not there. To be sure, this form has been incredibly valuable and necessary, particularly in identity-based movements for rights and recognition, but I think it reaches an impasse when it takes the locating-of-the-not-there as an ontological truth that is an end in itself — in other words, taking its methodology as an end. 

But deconstruction pushes one to consider how absence conditions, acts upon, and changes presence, and vice versa. Attempting to track the relationships between absence and presence in a work, tracing out absence as presence, does not foreclose judgment of the aesthetic choices conditioning those relationships, but at the same time, refuses to easily slide from the assumption that absence merits criticism. It asks instead what the work of absence/presence is.

I am trying to do that work now as I think about my uneasiness with this film, which emerges not from the re-presenting of Anwar by Anwar that pulls him into anguish (and as some reviews have contended, consequent absenting of the voices of those he killed; for me, the film compelling tracks how those absences, seemingly ontological, are present, complex, and shifting, shaping and reshaping Anwar). Rather, I’m trying to make sense of the filmmaker’s absenting of himself but simultaneous deific presence, particularly at the end where he verbally intervenes prior to Anwar’s breakdown. What does it mean to place Anwar’s breakdown against an all-seeing and –knowing camera? Manipulative or not, does it bring viewer and viewed together via a mimetic orientalism (though this has certain additional stakes, for if the subversion within that mimesis is unintelligible in the international networks of capital within which the film aspired to and succeeded at circulating, then it is at risk of reifying an orientalism — even though I don’t think representation should necessarily be conditioned by its audience… anyways, lots of questions about the stakes of aesthetics, capital, and interpretation bracketed here…)? I desire this reading of the film, yet I’m still uneasy about the chronicling of Anwar’s breakdown in a way that does not puncture the stability of Oppenheimer’s camera, and as such, the stability of the viewer’s view. For does the pitying swell of emotions that one feels towards Anwar establish intimacy or does it establish distance (backed by the asymmetry of stability versus breakdown)? Or even a distance disguised as intimacy? I’m not sure. TS ]

But I made it clear that I am deeply sympathetic to what I interpret as the underlying metaphysics/theology of this work. I do myself believe that we are all marked equally by an unfathomable darkness. Which is to say, I believe that we are all born into sin. That this comes with our “humanity.” This is a significant component, for me, of what one means by the “human.”

The near reckoning with this “fact” — by which I mean sustained attention to our shared participation in this condition — is, for me, a spiritual exercise. This same work is also, however, in my view, unproblematically secularizable as a triumph of our “humanism,” since I believe such a reckoning is a precondition of what is best in us, even in the absence of god-talk: our ability to transform pain and wrongdoing, division and violence, into peaceful communion (through “love,” “forgiveness,” “reconciliation,” or whatever other instruments/terminology one is comfortable bringing to the problem).

My challenge to those of you who may feel some resistance to some or all of what I am saying here would be this: holding off Anwar’s claim to be “one of us” (i.e., rejecting/denying the intimacy that the film works to effect) bids fair, it seems to me, to reproduce precisely the maneuver of de-humanization that marked Anwar’s relationship to his victims.


Maybe not. But this seems to me to be the danger. I would be interested in understanding better how some of you think about these questions.

Not least because I think these questions are extremely important in any effort to understand the most fundamental objectives of historical work. Why do we want to “understand” “others”? Are we willing to feel that work of understanding as nothing less than a form of “communion”? If not, what is it for?

[Isn’t there a difference between inviting Anwar to “sing the ‘we’” and, well, propping him up on the podium, handing him the baton, and appointing him ensemble conductor? My objection is simply that anyone should have to sing the dark, menacing score that the old perpetrator brings to life (or the one Oppenheimer is inducing him to bring to life). It seems to inflict yet another kind of violence to Anwar’s community in Indonesia (i.e. the re-enactors) — which is what I see to be the ethical problem of this film.

That said, we might still welcome Anwar to sing another song, to act in “communion,” as Graham writes. But granting him the power, or even just the illusion of power, to direct his own maudlin ballad, theatrically waving his hands and swaying his torso? Absolutely not. And by denying him that privilege, I don’t see how we are “reproducing… the maneuver of de-humanization,” as is suggested. It would just mean Anwar partaking in rather than directing the production of history and memory. – NB]

[[I sense from this comment that I was not sufficiently clear about what I meant.  It is Oppenheimer here who, in my view, is “singing the we” with a film that he made and that asks us to expand our sense of the “we” to include Anwar — as a broken human being. We see his broken-ness because he is forced/seduced, by means of being “empowered” with the tools of cinematic story telling, to a re-reconnoitering of memory terrain across which he has grooved a well-work track.  When he begins that process, he plans to “tell his story” — but the work of story telling in this unfamiliar and powerful idiom slows him up, and the possibilities begin to lead him and his collaborators into fantastic and monstrous reifications of their own fantasies and fears. Confronting the results, they are (or at least Anwar seems to be) genuinely wobbled.  This is never a certain thing, for us as viewers (Anwar is a hood, and as such a con-man, and possibly an actual psychopath — so he is hard to trust). But it reached, for me, into the zone of not-easily-dismissable. It is this — his reckoning with himself in at least some way, our glimpse of the (seeming) failure of his narrow and wrote self-script — that puts him among us.  All of us have our stories.  We think.  They are all false. How false they are is, arguably, an index of how damaged we are. Reckoning with this is tough stuff. 

The terrible beauty of the film, in what is coming to be my view, is that giving Anwar the power and privilege of directing his own maudlin ballad turns out to be a kind of punishment. Even as it has the effect of making him feel frighteningly familiar. 

After watching “The Look of Silence,” I am the more stunned by what I feel is a kind of formal perfection in The Act of Killing.  I find myself more and more persuaded that it is a truly great work.  – DGB]]


We took a break. My impression is that some good conversations continued into that break, and I’d be interested in hearing about those.

When we returned, we pivoted to the Vitebsky book. There is little doubt in my mind that one could fill three seminars with a discussion of this book alone. It is a remarkable achievement. I do not think we were really able to do justice to it, but I hope that in different ways you all were stimulated to reconsider our own (contemporary, historical, disciplinary) conceptualization of the relationship between the dead and the living in light of Vitebsky’s ethnography of Memory among the Sora. As I mentioned in class, I found myself moved by the juxtaposition of a Sora shaman and Joshua Oppenheimer. I don’t think that this is a trite comparison, but then again I am not sure. To play out the analogy would look like this: a Sora shaman creates the conditions of possibility for dialogues between the living and the dead; but this is exactly what Oppenheimer does in the film through his stagings of the “act” of killing. In both cases, there are social, political, legal, and economic ramifications.

We also spent some time on Vitebsky’s notion of “trans-sentience,” and what it might mean for us to take seriously the idea that our obligation as historians is to achieve something more profound and more embodied than mere “empathy” with our subjects. And is it the responsibility of the work we make (our books and articles) to convey something of our own self-loss into that which we hoped to understand? I mentioned a book that has been important to me in thinking about these questions: Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa, by Johannes Fabian.

We are going to be continuing some of these themes next week with the Joseph Roach reading on performance and funerary cultures and funerary traditions in the circum-Atlantic world, so I’m hoping we will be able to stay with the questions we opened in this session.

Thanks for a very stimulating seminar.

[Since our last seminar and our conversation on The Act of Killing, I was struck with some of the ideas discussed about humanity, humanization and human being. I would like to add a few thoughts on this with the help of Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway:

Not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that. Some of us are not even considered fully human now, let alone at previous moments of Western social, political and scientific history. Not if by ‘human’ we mean that creature familiar to us from the Enlightenment and its legacy: ‘The Cartesian subject of the cogito, the Kantian “community of reasonable beings”, or, in more sociological terms, the subject as citizen, rights-holder, property-owner, and so on’ (Wolfe, 2010a). And yet the term enjoys widespread consensus and it maintains the re-assuring familiarity of common sense. We assert our attachment to the species as if it were a matter of fact, a given. So much so that we construct a fundamental notion of Rights around the Human. But is it so?  (Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, 2013).

I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many. Some of these personal microscopic biota are dangerous to the me who is writing this sentence; they are held in check for now by the measures of the coordinated symphony of all the others, human cells and not, that make the conscious me possible. I love that when “I” die, all these benign and dangerous symbionts will take over and use whatever is left of “my” body, if only for a while, since “we” are necessary to one another in real time. As a little girl, I loved to inhabit miniature worlds brimming with even more tiny real and imagined entities. I loved the play of scales in time and space that children’s toys and stories made patent for me. I did not know then that this love prepared me for meeting my companion species, who are my maker (Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 2007). -ILM.]

[[ Many thanks to Ivan for reminding us that there is a large and important literature across several academic fields that rejects the discourse of “humanism.” These critiques come from several sectors: eco-environmentalists can see in humanism a sort of thinly-veiled species narcissism; techno-futurists spot a kind of quaint nostalgia for the world that proceeded our current condition — as organic appurtenances to the vast and intricate mechanico-chemical-digital structures without which life as we know it has become impossible to imagine.

That said (and I have a soft spot for a lot of this stuff), I am not persuaded that either of these quotes really reaches to the crux of the matter that we were dealing with in class. Am I wrong?

Braidotti is certainly right to signal that we should be mindful of slack or unconsidered invocations of “the human,” which are certainly as common as any other cliché, and may have unhappy consequences (or not, depending…). But so what? Who would allege that the category of “the human” as I have invoked it, or the category of “the human” to which the tradition (the contested, live tradition) I reference has struggled to assign meaning — who would say any of that has simply slumped onto some simple-minded conformity with our “species” in a flat-footed, cladistic sense? No serious participant in that discussion/tradition would accept this equation. So the argument feels to me like it is torching a straw man. I do not know the rest of Braidotti’s text, but it would need to take me places I do not see indicated here before I would be tempted to abandon the category of the human as the salient “essentially contested concept” for collective life. I do not mean to suggest there aren’t others that are also important. There certainly are. But we have plenty to do, still, on the category of the human. Ethical questions will not be displaced from this ground for some time yet. Could they ever be?

As for the Haraway, I deeply appreciate this move to consider the non-human in our body ecologies, and recall a very affecting piece on this topic by the Irish curator Francis Mckee (at the Palais de Tokyo four or five years ago). Work like this (and Haraway’s work on cyborgs too) is certainly changing the way we think about “the human.” But I think that places it IN, not outside or beyond, the tradition I invoke.

In the work of singing the “we,” the category of the human is no less relevant than ever, as I see it. Indeed, I believe it remains fundamental. Am I wrong? If so, help me understand.

A last thought on all this:

Without wanting to be speciously polemical, I would suggest that the first “post-humanism” was called “theology.” This is sort of the line I took in my contribution to the October issue on the New Materialisms.

— DGB]]


[“Thus for Freud, as for the Western secular tradition generally, the structure of experience is based largely on the structure of the experiencing mind; while for the Sora, it is based on that of the outside world — itself also conscious — which the mind experiences” (Dialogs with the Dead, 245).

Like the Sora, Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook speaks to the dead. But her address is not just dialogic, shamanistic, dramaturgical. It is also deeply materialist: She lectures to a room of actual corpses, lays out dresses upon the lifeless body of a young girl, invites poets to sing in a morgue. Rasdjarmrearnsook animates the “conscious… outside world” in a (shockingly) literal way, not witnessed in the traditions of the Indian tribe.

No, Rasdjarmrearnsook’s dead are not necessarily “a node in an endlessly extendible social web” of a local community, as Vitebsky describes (259). She doesn’t know whom these dead people were while they lived. Nevertheless, she treats them as selves, selves outside of her own self. And perhaps selves that also constitute a more capacious, imagined “we.” (This idea also shows up in Eduardo Kohn’s book “How Forests Think,” in regards to the Runa people in Ecuador and multinaturalism. He writes about “how we might become a new kind of we, in relation to such absences….”)

The voices of the dead in Rasdjarmrearnsook’s works also talk back. But only the artist can hear them. They inquire (and she repeats for us) if it is autumn, and later, if it is afternoon or evening. Rasdjarmrearnsook finishes her lecture in “The Class” (2005), asking: “Does anyone have any questions?”– NB]


[[ I did not know this work, and really appreciate learning about it.  So different, but not unrelated: John Duncan’s notorious 1980 piece Blind Date. Not for the faint of heart – DGB]]


I just wanted to stick a few things in here quickly, that feel relevant to our meeting this week.  Some of you may already have found this stuff.  First, there is a pretty interesting interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (and Werner Herzog) about The Act of Killing here. I found it helpful as I was coming out of the queasy miasma that my viewing of the film occasioned.  In the conversation, Oppenheimer adopts a position with respect to his work (and his subjects) that I think needs to be reckoned with. Second, and relatedly, there is a whole edited volume on related material: Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory, and the Performance of Violence. There are a few essays in there to which I think we should circle back in our week on performance and reenactment.



Bodily memory, the kind created by enactment, argues Paul Connerton, circumvents critical questioning. Connerton notes, “commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices” undercut one’s ability to articulately resist the perpetuation of certain beliefs. For these reasons, groups “entrust to bodily automatisms the values and categories which they are most anxious to conserve. They will know how well the past can be kept in mind by a habitual memory sedimented in the body” (102). Connerton finds the heritability of many bodily memories insidious—markers of social hierarchy, for instance. In other words, forgetting has its advantages.

The Act of Killing proposes a different understanding of somatic memory: bodily re-enactment engenders collective memory, forestalling amnesia. Ironically, Connerton credits the kind of violence—seen re-enacted in this film—as leading to his own work:

Another factor in the emergence of memory studies has been what I would call “transitional justice.” And by that I mean to say that in the 1980s and 1990s there were transformations in various countries… that had had a very difficult past, on the whole a totalitarian or authoritarian past, and had moved toward a more democratic form of government. Precisely because they had had a difficult past, they had to take up a position about it, they had to examine their memories. They had to think about what attitude they should take toward the previous perpetrators and victims of injustice (“Historical Amnesias: An Interview with Paul Connerton,” Cabinet Magazine 42 Summer 2011).

Re-enacting this violence perpetuates a memory many Indonesians would rather forget. Embodied memories, this film asserts, are easier to retrieve than purely mental memories. History, implausible and distant, can be relived. The unwanted past comes into the present through the body. Unlike Connerton’s conception of performative memory The Act of Killing resurfaces a different, pre-modern understanding of how memory sediments itself within people and places. This film reminded me of the method of loci or “memory palace.” This is a millennia-old mnemonic strategy where one imagines moving through a familiar space, sequentially depositing objects and their attendant memories so that later one might psychically relive this experience and better surface the dormant memory. Cicero recounts the perhaps apocryphal story of how the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos invented the memory palace. Dining at the house of a wealth noble, Simonides stepped outside. In his absence the roof collapsed crushing and killing all who remained. Family members could not identify the mangled bodies for burial. As Cicero writes: “[T]he story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment.”

Relived bodily memory and its relation to history calls to my mind the work of artist Mary Reid Kelley. Kelley’s work—which began as archival research in Yale’s Beinecke Library— revolves around the creation of historically situated characters. In her videos, prints, and paintings, Kelley performs historical fiction. Kelley transports herself and her stage into a living graphic memoir, educing from within the viewer a febrile, emotionally redolent historical memory. Kelley’s videos inhabit an incoherent, subjective, Dada-like space where historical facts are filtered through the idiosyncratic wordplay of her fictional characters. Despite Kelley’s constant evocation of history, her video Sadie the Saddest Sadist (2009) worked to “upend the task of historical anecdote and its intended continuity of knowledge and replace it with historical reverie” (Steven Henry Madoff, “Openings: Mary Reid Kelley,” Artforum, November 2009). Sadie the Saddest Sadists traces the tryst of Sadie, a WWI-era munitions worker, and Jack, a sailor on furlough. Kelley asserts, as does The Act of Killing, that the artifacts and experiences of the ordinary and anonymous not only warrant but demand the consideration of history.


I have been preoccupied with how framing history as ‘recovery’ implies a search-and-seizure model of inquiry. In The Weight of the Past, Michael Lambek gestures at the epistemological and ethical dangers of this orientation when he contrasts Sakalava practices of “bearing” history (as supporting, giving forth, enduring) with “‘baring’ as exposing.” For the Sakalava, he writes, approaching the past as an object to be excised or revealed “shrivels and demeans its object…” (10).

But Piers Vitebsky’s Dialogues with the Dead pushes me to think through the implications of a second, interrelated meaning of the word ‘recovery’– namely, as a return to a condition of health from a condition of illness. While comparing Sora bereavement to contemporary psychotherapy, Vitebsky notes the premium placed in psychotherapy on having “recovered from loss” (237). Psychotherapy/psychoanalysis frames death as a pastness that sends the living into a non-normal state from which they must recover. In contrast to the Sora approach, a Freudian framework is predicated on the non-existence of the dead, such that any fixation would be diagnosed as the “pathological disturbance” of melancholia (239). Psychotherapy instead prescribes mourning, a kind of historical work that distances the living from death and “returns” them to health, to normality, to the quotidian ‘before’ state. It is a kind of narrow historical work that aspires to a recovery from – as opposed to, in the first sense outlined above, a recovery of – the past.

This formulation pegs one’s orientation towards the past to a particular regime of health. It offers a vision of a “healthy” doing of history, a doing that prevents a descent into a state of illness and deviance from which there is no recovery. While the psychotherapy framework is expressly concerned with bereavement, its orientation towards the past seems more generally to slip into the epistemological presuppositions of contemporary historical inquiry. I see this especially in the idealization of norms of healthy attachment and detachment in inquiry (what would it mean, as HL has asked, to have a crush, to be obsessed, to have an “unhealthy” attachment?). It in the constitution of this norm that I think the two valences of recovery – as search-and-seizure and as mandate-to-health – might converge. Namely, within this paradigm, a “healthy” doing of history involves a detachment from one’s object of inquiry such that it becomes an object, an object to be retrieved, unmasked, exposed, revealed, demystified, denaturalized [etc etc insert other verbs associated with this type of ironic mode]. Recovery from history requires recovery of history.

In working through these valences, I’m dancing around my feeling that the epistemology of ‘recovery’ is the product of a certain biopolitics. There are many histories of biopolitics and many works that cast a critical eye on the relationship between knowledge production in disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and psychoanalysis and different biopolitical projects. But what of the biopolitics of history? Given Foucault’s emphasis on genealogy, I think less attention is paid to how historical work is entangled in making live and letting die. Inflected with a psychoanalytic investment in health, the language of historical recovery seems to evidence this entanglement; it especially gestures at the psychic dimensions of biopolitics. Historical recovery, then, is a history for life, but not at all in the Nietzschean sense.

The epistemological approach of the Sora offers a history for life, I think, that takes a body outside the tightly-regulated logics of recovery. Because death is not an ontological negation of life for the Sora, neither valence of recovery holds. The dead are not discrete historical objects to be recovered nor do their deaths place the living in the state that must be recovered from. For the Sora, there is no recovery or return to a previous ‘normality’ because the living and sonums are constantly shaping each other in a material landscape of “communal space and time” (16). The living and dead change with each other, which is not to say there are no narratives of progression. Sonums gradually transition from Experience to Ancestor, and the living often experience a withdrawal that Vitebsky deems “comparable” to the mourning process (240). Moreover, health and illness figure prominently in the Sora landscape, but not in the biopolitical sense. Vitebsky suggests that illness, which Experience sonum inflict upon the living, is part of a “linking phenomenon” (255), as opposed to an unnatural/deviant feature of living. So there is certainly overlap with mourning and melancholia (see also his discussion of suicide, 244), as well as concerns with illness. But unlike a model of recovery that demands conformity to a strict telos of health, the Sora’s dialogues with the dead are open-ended in their possibility.

Is there a “takeaway” for us here, for our engagements with the past? Vitebsky warns against assuming transposability. I think this is especially the case when one considers the very specific and comparatively egalitarian configuration of power relations that enable “feelings” to be the “ultimate arbiters in conflicts which one might otherwise be tempted to call structural” (143). So there are no pieces to take away from the Sora, no recovery to be had. That would moreover risk essentializing difference in ways that reify geopolitical divides.

Rather, I think Vitebsky’s “trans-sentience” (255) prompts reflection on the imperatives governing one’s orientation towards the past, and as I’ve tried to suggest here, the desire to recover. Even if there is no outside, I’d like to think that such reflection can make room for a different way of orienting.

I wanted to end by noting a space that I would like to orient myself towards differently. I feel quite unsure about what this “differently” even means as I type it out. Coronation Park. This is a space that I would characterize as almost the negative double image of Vitebsky’s account of the Sora community. It is located in the city of Delhi, on the outskirts, to the north (I am not ending with this park because it shares the nation-space of India with the Sora, that would make too much of the unity of the nation). To get there from where I lived a couple years ago, you had to take the metro, transferring from the violet line to the yellow line at Rajiv Chowk, which shuttled you through the multiple, conflicting, and adjacent temporalities of the city.

Coronation Park was the site of the Delhi Durbar of 1903, a grand ceremonial ritual asserting imperial power. You can watch video of it here. Following independence, governing officials were presented with the problem of dealing with the emblems of imperial power that the British left behind, including their many statues. Today, Coronation Park holds these statues, including the one of King George V that used to face India Gate, in various states of disrepair. But things look like they are on the up-and-up, perhaps due to a combination of increased imperial-nostalgia-tourism as well as urbanization of the area. Recently, the Delhi Development Authority put in a children’s park (the joke that children now play on empire is too easy).

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When I walked in this space, I remember my body turning in on itself, betraying its critical faculties as it was taken in by the decrepit grandeur. These statues seem to me everything that is not sonum. They are discrete objects referring to, yet detached from, specific people and the landscape. Their pastness is present but ossified and unchangeable. Their form makes no space for dialogue. So I’ll end here with my uncertainty and unease with this space, filled with objects projecting a past that had clearly primed itself for future recovery.

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[These essays put me in mind of these pieces, all of which might be said to deal with the binary dynamics of non-Sora-style memorialization? The second is set in a version of the South Asian context invoked by TS above. -DGB]


Just a few thoughts about the film: When it comes to trauma and death, what is the role of historians in the processes of reconciliation in a post-conflict society? Are films like the “The Act of Killing” more helpful to trigger processes of dealing or coming to terms with the past than historiographical work based on “facts”. This is also related to the questions we have been discussing in class form the very beginning: Does historical research have an outreach to society? What impact does it have on individual lives? As we don’t know the future, looking back into the past is the only way to understand the present and to plan the future. Are historians aware of that fact when researching or writing history?

Actually thoughts about reconciliation came to my mind because of today’s Yom Kippur (and the reason why I have to stay at home, because of closed child care facilities…) As far as I understand the Jewish tradition of this holiday is very much related to reconciliation.

Readings for the fifth week:

Piers Vitebsky, Dialogs with the Dead

Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember


Michael Lambek, The Weight of the Past

Layton, ed., Who Needs the Past?


The Act of Killing