Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary

Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary

by Pooja Rangan

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Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary by Pooja Rangan

Endangered life is often used to justify humanitarian media intervention, but what if suffering humanity is both the fuel and outcome of such media representations? Pooja Rangan argues that this vicious circle is the result of immediation, a prevailing documentary ethos that seeks to render human suffering urgent and immediate at all costs. Rangan interrogates this ethos in films seeking to “give a voice to the voiceless,” an established method of validating the humanity of marginalized subjects, including children, refugees, autistics, and animals. She focuses on multiple examples of documentary subjects being invited to demonstrate their humanity: photography workshops for the children of sex workers in Calcutta; live eyewitness reporting by Hurricane Katrina survivors; attempts to facilitate speech in nonverbal autistics; and painting lessons for elephants. These subjects are obliged to represent themselves using immediations—tropes that reinforce their status as the “other” and reproduce definitions of the human that exclude non-normative modes of thinking, being, and doing. To counter these effects, Rangan calls for an approach to media that aims not to humanize but to realize the full, radical potential of giving the camera to the other.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822373100
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/19/2017
Series: a Camera Obscura Book
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 16 MB
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About the Author

Pooja Rangan is Assistant Professor of English in Film and Media Studies at Amherst College.

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The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary

By Pooja Rangan

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6371-2




Taming the Wild Child

Few scenes capture the ascendency of the child as a humanitarian emblem, or the fantasies of domination and submission that animated this event, as dramatically as François Truffaut's rendition of the "rescue" of Victor of Aveyron in his film The Wild Child (L'Enfant Sauvage), released in 1970. Truffaut's film narrates the story of Western humanitarian intervention using a cast of characters from its prehistory — disabled, abandoned children and emissaries of the state medical apparatus — and the fables that orchestrated the encounter between them. The setting is Enlightenment-era France. The film, we are told, is based on a "true story" that "begins in a forest in France in 1798," where a mute, naked, androgynous, and seemingly feral young child (played by Jean-Pierre Cargol, a French Roma nonprofessional actor) is hunted down by a group of villagers with dogs and torches. The Wild Boy of Aveyron, as the child becomes known in the papers, is forcibly transported to Paris, amid a series of escape attempts and violent altercations with his captors, to be studied as a specimen of a "wild child."

The scene in question takes place at the National Institute for Deaf Mutes, where the boy is evaluated by the resident physician, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, played by Truffaut, and Philippe Pinel, a physician at the state asylum at Bicêtre and a significant figure in the history of modern psychiatric medicine. Pinel pronounces the boy an "inferior being, lower than an animal," no different from the "idiots in [his] charge at Bicêtre," citing that the boy appears indifferent to human voices and vocal sounds. Itard, on the other hand, defends the humanity of the "wild boy." He argues that the boy's animallike sensory attunements (he responds to the sound of a nut being cracked behind him) may have developed in response to his abandonment and isolation, and could therefore offer insight into the condition of "an adolescent deprived since childhood of all education because he has lived apart from any individuals of his species." Itard offers to personally undertake the boy's education and care to prevent him from being consigned to Bicêtre in the manner of an animal.

Itard's invocation of "man in the state of nature" partakes of a frequent speculation among philosophers and scientists of the time, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus itemizes ten instances of Homo sapiens ferus, or "feral man," in the thirteenth edition of Systema naturae published in 1788, the most extensive of which are documented cases of "wild children." In this romantic mythography, cognitively and affectively impaired children such as Marie of Champagne, Peter of Hanover, and Victor of Aveyron (for whom the diagnosis of autism has been retrospectively proposed) were considered a species of wild children "raised by wolves," providing evidence of an anterior, innocent condition unsullied by human contact. The next few scenes from Truffaut's film are remarkable as an illustration of how the figure of the child served as a screen for the interlocking scientific and moral sentiments that ignited the therapeutic interventions of the nascent humanitarian state. The wild child is taken to Itard's country estate, where he is inserted into a nuclear family structure, with Itard in the role of the authoritarian father and Itard's housekeeper, Madame Guérin, as an indulgent, kindhearted mother figure. Here, Itard and Madame Guérin undertake a daily regimen of activities designed to civilize the wild boy. They bathe and clean him, straighten his posture and gait, accustom him to gender-appropriate clothing and shoes, teach him table manners, wear down his resistance to living indoors, develop drills to train his memory, and teach him how to read and speak — the biggest challenge of all, to which over thirty minutes of screen time are devoted. Itard trains the boy to respond to his directives using a system of incitements and punishments revolving around the boy's favorite treats, milk and water, so that they gradually become synonymous with Itard's affection for the boy, eliciting tears from the boy when either is withheld.

The brilliance of Truffaut's film lies in its way of amplifying the brutality of these perfectly ordinary scenes of childhood and family life. Itard's efforts to socialize and educate Victor have limited success. The language exercises that he forces Victor to relentlessly practice culminate in fits of frustration, startling acts of violence, and at least one attempted escape on Victor's part. Although the film does not cover this full period, we know from Itard's communiqués with the government that he would relinquish his experiment after five short years, admitting to the boy's "incurable dumbness" — Victor would die at the age of forty, while still in Madame Guérin's care. Truffaut's nostalgic visual aesthetic clings to Itard's romantic vision of the child even as it unravels. The black-and-white photography, reminiscent of early cinema, is punctuated by soft irises, accompanied by harpsichord music, that come to a close on Victor's cherubic face, his eyes gazing out a window toward the distant forests in an expression of longing. But this sentimental portrait of innocence is difficult to reconcile with Victor's violent and unpredictable behavior — the romantic fantasy of the so-called state of nature is shattered in one of the earliest scenes of the film, which features Victor in his forest milieu ruthlessly breaking a hunting dog's jaw.

Itard nevertheless clings grimly to his convictions, determined to redeem Victor's lost idyll using the same technological forces that he blames for the wild child's "fall" into civilization. If Itard falters in his resolve, he never shows it, reserving his doubts for rueful entries in his medical diary that confess the futility of his endeavor — a perpetual internal dialogue that becomes the voice of the film's guilty conscience: "I condemned the sterile curiosity of the men who had wrenched him away from his innocent and happy life." The film concludes on an ambivalent note: Victor has returned home after a pathetic attempt at escape, realizing that he no longer possesses the physical endurance to survive in the wild. It is difficult to resist Madame Guérin's infectious maternal joy, or Itard's renewed resolve to resume Victor's lessons the next day. As Victor ascends the stairs to his bedroom one final time, his enigmatic look backward at Itard — and by extension, at us — catches the spectator red-handed in identifying with Itard's humanitarian mission.

I begin with this reading of The Wild Child because this film stages and confronts the central problematic of this chapter: the enduring humanitarian myth of childhood innocence. Truffaut shows that the fabled innocence of children — an essential, untouched kernel of "humanity" that is located in the shadowy borders between the animal and the human — is a fantasy whose dissolution imperils the very humanitarian morality that claims to protect it from peril. The interactions between Itard and Victor show how the sadomasochistic rituals of becoming a humanitarian subject play out in relation to this fantasy, in a spiral of incitement and punishment, sacrifice and reward. As a central myth of the humanitarian imagination, childhood innocence also inspires the aesthetic forms of participatory documentary. This chapter historicizes the emergence of the child as a target of humanitarian intervention and analyzes the ambivalent role of participatory documentary in the drama of taming the wild child, as a technological supplement that sullies and simultaneously redeems the child's innocent humanity. I examine contemporary global humanitarian interventions that employ documentary media as a means of empowering "at-risk" children, often in tandem with neoliberal narratives of autonomy that reference the logic of human rights. My principle object of analysis is the award-winning film Born into Brothels (dir. Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, 2004). This film documents an advocacy project carried out by codirector and photojournalist Zana Briski that begins as photography lessons among the children of prostitutes in Calcutta, India. Briski's lessons pave the way for a rescue mission: the sale of the children's photographs becomes instrumental in her plan to liberate the children from the brothels and install them on a path to legality, higher education, and social repute.

I contend that the documentary rhetoric of Born into Brothels is "pseudoparticipatory": Briski enlists the children as collaborators only to shore up her own humanitarian vision of the brothels. I analyze the film's pseudoparticipatory rhetoric alongside the aesthetic strategies and itineraries of the children's photographs, which continue to be sold under the auspices of Briski's nonprofit organization, Kids with Cameras. My goal is to understand what types of humanitarian documentary forms, ideological frameworks, and cultural institutions are sustained by the children's artistic production. I propose that the colonial, paternal dynamics between the characters of Itard and Victor (mirrored in Truffaut and his young Roma costar) are reborn in the neoliberal dynamic of the humanitarian West "empowering" the non-West to assume an agential role in its self-governance. Where Briski claims to have empowered the students, I show that their freedom is restricted to a choice between two closely related but seemingly distinct modes of governance, the humanitarian and the penal intervention, which, respectively, position the children as subjects who are at risk or as subjects who pose a risk.

My readings of Briski's participatory mode of narration and the children's photographs suggest that art and reform represent the two opposing poles of the humanitarian imaginary of the child. Documentary plays a special role in navigating the aesthetic, ideological, and economic space between art and reform. The contradictory impulses of celebrating children as a source of untamed creative inspiration while taming their savagery are reconciled in the photographic aesthetic of "feral innocence" that Briski cultivates among her young students. I develop the concept of feral innocence by bringing together two scholarly perspectives that are seldom discussed in tandem: critical childhood studies and theories of photography. Feral innocence is a potent example of a documentary strategy of "immediation": its quality of contained immediacy or spontaneity relies on our acceptance of the children's photographs as untutored and spontaneous rather than expressions of a thoroughly cultivated aesthetic. Briski's strategic use of this trope affirms the humanitarian fantasy of the child as a figure that exists outside mediation and political economy — a fantasy that explicitly excludes non-Western working children — even as she actively enlists the labor of Third World children in producing humanitarian media commodities.

The final two sections of this chapter focus on the economic, ideological, and technological shifts that represent the conditions of possibility for Briski's mode of humanitarian media intervention. Born into Brothels provides an occasion for reevaluating contemporary debates regarding child labor, and the relatively recent status of the child as a rights-bearing entity. Briski's intention to safeguard the children of prostitutes from an imminent future as sex workers by occupying them in playful creative work finds legitimation, I argue, in twentieth-century statutes that advocate the elimination of "harmful" forms of child labor in lieu of "benign" child work. This self-evidently progressive hierarchy of priorities — which implicitly guides much of the contemporary activism around children's rights, such as campaigns against the recruitment of child soldiers — is widely accepted as axiomatic. However, the humanitarian support for benign forms of child work takes on a less desirable cast when it is historicized as part of what Maurizio Lazzarato and other Marxist cultural critics have described as the neoliberal hegemony of affective, virtuosic, and creative modalities of labor that are not recognized or compensated as such. Whereas Briski's humanitarian media intervention purports to protect her students from exploitation, I use Lazzarato's work to show how it actively enlists them in an insidious form of child labor that is recast as self-actualization.

Briski's pseudoparticipatory mode of narration and the photographic aesthetic of feral innocence exemplify how the tropes of documentary immediacy cover over, obfuscate, or otherwise dematerialize the aesthetic and ideological labor of participatory media production. In an effort to resuscitate these material realities, I conclude with a reading of an experiment in participatory documentary conducted in 1966 that represents an early precursor of contemporary media empowerment initiatives. Sol Worth and John Adair's "bio-documentary" project, chronicled in their book Through Navajo Eyes, trained Navajo subjects who had never before encountered film to produce their own 16 mm films. Despite its influential role in shaping subsequent engagements of visual media in anthropology, this project has been summarily dismissed for its positivist investments in cultural difference as the determining factor in film form. I make a case for reconsidering this project, whose modernist, dialectical investment in "film children" (as Worth and Adair refer to the Navajo) defamiliarizes and complicates the instrumental view of the documentary image that became popular among proponents of participatory media with the emergence of video as an activist medium. In addition to modeling a dialectical engagement with documentary images of immediacy, Worth and Adair's project also offers valuable insights into the ways in which the figure of the child has structured the technological imagination of the West. The limits of defamiliarization as a mode of formal reflexivity, as practiced by Worth and Adair, is a topic to which I return inchapter 4, with a less reassuring prognosis, but for the purposes of this chapter I focus on its enabling possibilities.

With these historical perspectives in mind, I propose that we can read the images in Born into Brothels not as fetishized fictions that deify the child outside of productive economies but as documents that evince a far more complex and compelling portrait of the humanity of children — one in which childhood uniquely encapsulates the condition of the neoliberal laboring subject.

Pseudoparticipatory Documentary

It's almost impossible to photograph in the Red Light district. Everyone is terrified of the camera. They're frightened of being found out. Everything's illegal. ... I knew I couldn't do it as a visitor — I wanted to stay with them, and understand their lives. And of course, as soon as I entered the brothels, I met the children. The brothels are filled with children, they're everywhere. And they were so curious; they didn't understand why this woman had come and what I was doing there. They were all over me, and I would play with them, and take their photographs, and they would take mine. They wanted to learn how to use the camera. That's when I thought it would be really great to teach them, and to see this world through their eyes.

— Excerpt from Born into Brothels

These words, voiced by Briski over photographs and video footage of the brothels, function both as the film's introduction and as its "mission statement." They explain Briski's fascination with, and presence in, the brothels of Sonagachi, and frame our spectatorial expectations of her role as facilitator, rather than observer or orchestrator, of the perspectives and desires of the eight children profiled in Born into Brothels. Briski justifies her missionary intervention into Calcutta's red light district as a selfless humanitarian act demanded by her future students. The rhetoric of participatory documentary plays a subtle but critical role in this transaction: it offers a visual idiom that seems to emanate directly from the "eyes" of the children, effacing Briski's mediation and her role in the education of their vision. Furthermore, it supplies a thrusting, driving temporality that naturalizes the film's race to save the children from their inevitable future in prostitution. Together with the photographic aesthetic of feral innocence (discussed in the following section), the visual codes and narrative logic of what I call the pseudoparticipatory documentary demonstrate the vexed role of immediations in the governance of humanitarian subjects.


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Table of Contents

Illustrations  ix
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction. Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary  1
1. Feral Innocence: The Humanitarian Aesthetic of Dematerialized Child Labor  23
2. Bare Liveness: The Eyewitness to Catastrophe in the Age of Humanitarian Emergency  61
3. "Having a Voice": Toward an Autistic Counterdiscourse of Documentary  103
4. The Documentary Art of Surrender: Humane-itarian and Posthumanist Encounters with Animals  151
Conclusion. The Gift of Documentary  191
Notes  197
Bibliography  223
Index  241

What People are Saying About This

Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image - Laura U. Marks

"Documentary’s apparent generosity toward its most hapless subjects is an ambivalent gift. With elegance and precision, Pooja Rangan demonstrates that participatory documentary more often than not obliterates the others it means to help by forcing them into humanist molds of selfhood. Instead, she asks, what if documentary were to yield to the beings of the world in their unassimilable singularity? The answers she finds will stimulate both documentary makers and scholars."

Moral Spectatorship: Technologies of Voice and Affect in Postwar Representations of the Child - Lisa Cartwright

"Pooja Rangan's incisive voice brings tremendous critical acumen and clarity to the interpretation of the humanitarian documentary impulse in global media now. A powerful and timely work, Immediations will undoubtedly exert a strong influence on film and media studies and will be widely read by those who care about the sentiment of benevolence and its mediated impacts for a long time to come."

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