Table of Contents 2018 vol.3 no.1

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2018, vol.3, no. 1

Table of Contents  2018 vol.3 no.1

Film and Media: Through and Beyond the Senses

edited by Małgorzata Radkiewicz, Marta Stańczyk (Jagiellonian University)


Fotografują się w atelier. Reżimy ciała w radzieckiej fotografii studyjnej [Polish]

Oksana Gawriszyna

Oko artysty. Fenomenologia zmysłów w filmie Młyn i krzyż Lecha Majewskiego [Polish]

Iwona Grodź

The body of the viewer and immersive audio-visual art. The somatic character of new Japanese experimental film

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Historical insight into The Danube Exodus cinematic installation by Péter Forgács

Kamil Lipiński

Boundaries are (but) a blur: Computer-generated imagery and the formation of seamless filmic space

Maciej Stasiowski

Prosthetic Memory and the New Civil Rights Cinema of the 21st Century

Patrycja Włodek

Tactile epistemology: sensoria and the postcolonial

Marta Stańczyk



Prayer Wheels for the Other: Haunted by the Images: the film works of Tian Zhuangzhuang book review

Maciej Stasiowski

Table of Contents 2016 vol.1 no.2

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 2

Table of Contents  2016 vol.1 no.2

Transnational Perspectives on Film and Media


Transnational Turn in Film Studies

Krzysztof Loska

“Let everybody love me”. The transnational body of Elżbieta Czyżewska

Sebastian Jagielski

Reading ABC. An experiment

Andrzej Pitrus

Rinko Kikuchi in Space: Transnational Mexican Directors’ Global Gaze

Jane Hanley

Clint Eastwoods’s Letters from Iwo Jima as a transnational film

Łukasz A. Plesnar

Depictions of Post-9/11 South Asian Racial Profiling in Indian Cinema

Kaja Łuczyńska

Postcolonial adaptations of classic British literature

Bartłomiej Nowak

Transnational Bodies of Yogis: A Flow from Analogue Photography to Social Media

Bilge Gölge

Slow Expansion. Neomodernism as a Postnational Tendency in Contemporary Cinema

Miłosz Stelmach

Mexican Minimalist Cinema: Articulating the (Trans)national

Bolesław Racięski

Welcome to BabaKiueria! Australian anniversaries and cultural forms of resistance

Rafał Nahirny




An artist as a figure between industry, technology, and imagination. Some remarks on Portret artysty jako inżyniera. Twórczość Edwarda Ihnatowicza by Joanna Walewska

Anna Nacher

Vampires, zombies, and phantoms – histories of horror stories. Review

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Images embedded in reality

Mateusz Zimnoch


Table of Contents 2016 vol.1 no.1

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1

Table of Contents  2016 vol.1 no.1


(Dis)emancipatory technologies


(Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

Minority representation in the Digital: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi

Rajan Benson

Shaming and socially responsible online engagement

Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, Laura O. Franklin

Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces

Hannah Ebben

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Marta Stańczyk

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films »Lucy« and »Her« 

nili R. Broyer

The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz




My life in art. A conversation with Bill Viola  

Andrzej Pitrus

Transcultural Art of Bill Viola

Krzysztof Loska

Sixty years later

Alicja Helman

(Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)

Magdalena Zdrodowska

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 1-4

Magdalena Zdrodowska

Jagiellonian University


 (Dis)emancipatory technologies (Editorial)


In the 19th and especially the 20th century, powerful emancipatory processes were taking place that reached a climax in the middle of the 20th century. The massive civil rights movements of the late 1960s included women, aboriginal people, people of colour, ethnic and sexual minorities that were fighting for respect and representation within Western societies. These were powerful generational experiences and set the pattern for the emancipatory movements throughout the second half of the 20th century of groups seeking empowerment and social change, including deaf and disabled communities.

Most definitions emphasize the processual character of empowerment that regards either individuals[1] or communities[2]. As Marc A. Zimmerman points out, this term can be understood as both value orientation for policy makers and social change, and as a “theoretical model for understanding the process and consequences of efforts to exert control and influence over decisions that affect one’s life, organisational functioning, and the quality of community life”[3].  What is in common across many various empowerment definitions are the issues of reclaiming control and gaining access to resources (including information). In many cases, technology plays the important role of empowering artefact[4] that balances inequalities in access to resources and the communicational public sphere, helping both individuals and collectives to gain self-esteem, representation, and independence.

Communication technologies are perceived as powerful allies of communities fighting for empowerment and recognition. Skilfully used mass media such as press, radio, and television may greatly assist minorities’ efforts to influence public opinion and thereby pressure policy makers. This scenario is called “the boomerang effect”[5]: the media or NGOs are engaged to support and amplify the voices of groups whose causes are not audible in the public sphere due to oppression (such as lack of access). Thus, with the help of journalists or activists, the initial social, cultural and communicational inequalities are balanced.

However, the positive impact of communication technologies is not limited to mass media. There are examples of DIY technological practices that have had an important impact on oppressed groups. Teletypewriters for the deaf (initially invented, distributed and managed by the deaf themselves) that were introduced in the late 1960s in the United States and in the 1970s in Western Europe helped the deaf to overcome the constraints of voice-based telephony.  Behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern European countries, both DIY radio receivers and skilfully used commercial models made it possible for people to access alternative Western free sources of information.

For the oppressed and excluded, electronic communication technologies seem even more supportive, especially social media. The rise of electronic media shows the emancipatory potential of information and communication technologies such as hacktivism or cloud protesting. It has made self-representation and activism much easier for communities whose options are limited due to their minority status, disability, and social or political situation, as shown by Mary L. Gray in “Out in the Country. Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America”[6] or Stefania Milan in “Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change”[7]. Technology enables limitations of the physical world such as the geographical spread of community members or architectural barriers to be overcome and makes it possible for minority groups (including the disabled) to enter the public sphere, network, and gain representation. On the other hand, technology may also act as a barrier that disabling users due to technical issues such as inaccessible software (as described and analysed by Katie Ellis and Michael Kent in “Disability and New Media”[8]. In 1999, Lawrence A. Scadden, a blind researcher, enthusiastically wrote, “The proliferation of optical character-recognition systems connected to speech synthesizers has brought me the ability to read almost any printed material independently. The growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web has resulted in my ability to communicate independently in text with people all over the world just as it has for you and for millions of other sighted and blind people. The ability to conduct research on-line has provided me a new-found independence”. However, he added, “This increased independence has been threatened from time to time with the emergence of new technology and new approaches for information presentation, but we continue to enable accessibility to evolve almost as fast as the technology”[9].

Similarly, the impact of social media on so-called cyber revolutions that empowered the oppressed, such as the Arab Spring and the #occupymovement, was not as powerful as was initially recognised. These movements quickly gave up extensive usage of social media, as it is an extremely easy target for surveillance and abuse. In fact, technology can be an oppressive element from which some groups seek emancipation: perfect examples include the governmental and medical technologies, such as statistics and eugenics, which have been used in constructing normalcy in industrial societies since the 18th century.

There are more complex and in fact paradoxical examples of relations between technology and empowerment, such as the western deaf education system. Founded on the idea of the rationalized social order of Enlightenment, deaf residential schools were a tool for organising society by removing non-normative group members from the social domain and placing them in special institutions. Schools for the deaf (and also for the blind) were initially not educational but charity institutions, where children were normalized: taught how to fit in with hearing society. These institutions had full control over pupils’ bodies and constructed their professional lives by training them for a limited choice of occupations—all for the sake of making society more efficient. Schools for the deaf served as an apparatus for eliminating from society those who did not fit in, and returning them adapted and rehabilitated. However, schools at the same time gathered the dispersed deaf in one, physical space, thus creating a propitious milieu where unified sign language and later Deaf Culture emerged. In fact, the technology that was supposed to integrate the deaf into mainstream society facilitated the creation of a distinctive Deaf community and identity: a community of ‘others’. The most vivid consequences of these educational governmentality practices may still be observed in the United States (which inherited the French educational system), as strong and dynamic communities arose around schools for the deaf. They provided opportunities to meet future partners and friends and make life-along bonds, in fact to create an alternative social sphere.

Inspired by the diversity and ambiguity of the role of technology in emancipatory processes and practices, we present this issue of “TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies”, which is devoted to both the emancipatory and disempowering effects of technology. There are seven articles covering five thematic areas:

  1. The role of technology in minority groups gaining representation under oppressive circumstances. In the article Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History, Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai analyses the film Naali/The Stream (directed by Murugavel and Lakshmanan; 2012). Shot with a simple handycam, this documentary brought the life and struggle of the local Tamil community into public discourse. The author points out the democratising potential of low-end technologies; however, it is also shown how they can be used both for and against local communities. The second article, Minority representation in the Digital: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi by Rajan Benson, is grounded in field research and concentrates on social media usage by one particular minority group. Benson shows the double-edged sword of technology that enables the Christian community in Delhi to gain representation and build collectivity in a hostile social and political realm, while also making it also possible to trace and threaten individual activists.
  2. The discriminative and disempowering potential of new media In Shaming and socially responsible online engagement, Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, and Laura O. Franklin investigate the problem of online linguistic and visual shaming based on their qualitative research of online communication.
  3. The technologically boosted reshaping of the (self)representation of people with disabilities. Here we recommend two articles. The first is Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces, in which Hannah Ebben analyses the potential of online video platforms for autistic community representation by studying videos uploaded by individuals within the spectrum. The second is “Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?, in which Marta Stańczyk analyses the most popular prosthesis users in American popular culture and investigates the shift within the meaning of prosthesis: from a sign of vulnerability and passivity to an identity-building element of individual empowerment.
  4. The narrative refiguration of ableism and disability may be found in the article Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films »Lucy« and »Her« by nili R. Broyer. Applying transhumanism theory, the author tries to redefine the oppositions of ableism and disability within the narratives of the films.
  5. The impact of newly created technologies on artistic practices. In her text, The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era, Agnieszka Kiejziewicz presents four progressive Japanese visual artists who have gained more artistic freedom and access to potential audiences with skilful usage of digital technologies.


[1] D. Mechanic 1991, “Adolescents at risk: New Directions, conference paper cited after Marc A. Zimmerman, Empowerment Theory. Psychological , Organisational and Community  Levels of Analysis”, in Handbook of Community Psychology, ed. J. Rappaport, E. Seidman, (New York: Springer  Science and Business Media) (2000).

[2] Cornel Empowerment Group 1989, “Empowerment and family support”, Network Bulletin, 1, 1-23, cited after Marc A. Zimmerman.

[3] Marc A. Zimmerman.

[4] Carin Roos PhD & Åsa Wengelin “The text telephone as an empowering technology an empowering technology in the daily lives of deaf people—A qualitative study”, Assistive Technology 28:2, (2016), p. 63.

[5] Leszek Porębski, „Internet jako narzędzie mobilizacji politycznej mniejszości”, in Agora czy Hyde Park. Internet jako przestrzeń społeczna grup mniejszościowych ed. Ł. Kapralska, B. Pactwa (Kraków: Nomos) (2010).

[6] Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country. Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, (New York University Press) (2009).

[7] Stefania Milan, Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring Social Change, (Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

[8] Katie Ellis, Michael Kent, Disability and New Media, (Routledge) (2010).

[9] Lawrence A. Scadden, “Empowerment Through Technology”, Assistive Technology, 11:1 (1999) 59-65.

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no.1, pp. 5-20

Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai

Michigan State University

Tamil Documentary Naali: Low-End Technology and Subaltern History



My essay on the significant Tamil social activist documentary Naali/The Stream (Dirs. Murugavel and Lakshmanan, 2012) makes a strong case against the displacement of the indigenous people who live on the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains), along the borders of the states of Tamilnadu and Kerala, in South India. The film documents their lives through video footage shot with a small handycam (a 3CCD prosumer video camera) to argue for how low-end technology has enabled the empowerment of the local people by making possible the digital writing of a bottom-up history which opposes the official version constructed by the State. Nonetheless, the essay argues that this low-end technology is a double-edged sword, as it simultaneously enables “documentation” by NGOs to project the tribal people as causing the endangerment of the lives of the wild animals in the Blue Mountains. Thus, on one hand, innovations in technology and the democratization of media—enabled by the accessibility and affordability of digital video recording and editing—has inspired a lawyer and his poet/activist friend, both of whom are invested in the lives of the original inhabitants of the Blue Mountains, to critique displacement in the name of development by corporate bodies, with the connivance of non-profits or NGOs. On the other hand, the technology enables the appropriation and retooling of images of the same indigenous people to make a case for displacing them from their lands in the name of the conservation of forests and wildlife.

Key words: documentary, Indian documentary, environment, ethnic people, low-end technology, wildlife and forest conservation, ngo documentary


The Tamil documentary film Naali /The Stream (Dirs. Murugavel and Lakshmanan, 2012) was shot with a small handycam: the National Panasonic NV-GS 230, a 3 CCD consumer camera.[1] According to P. Thirunavukkarasu, the publisher of the preeminent Tamil cinema journal Nizhal, which focuses on documentaries and short films, Naali has been one of the most widely screened Tamil documentaries in recent years, particularly among the ethnic populace in South India. The documentary, however, has been mainly screened in alternative spaces like schools, colleges, universities, community halls, and documentary film festivals, and has not been broadcast on public or private television channels in Tamilnadu because of its politics.[2] Due to the absence of funding from the state since the 1990s, the documentarians in Tamilnadu have been forced to depend increasingly on non-profits or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Naali, however, is unique in that not only is it independently produced, but it also posits itself as a critique of NGOs.

Naali documents the history of the Western Ghats (a range of mountains on the west coast of India), particularly the Nilgiri (The Blue Mountain), which is located on the borders between the southern states of Tamilnadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. It focuses on the lives of the tribal people in Kodanadu, Talaimalai, Mudumalai and Wayanad areas, which are located to the west of Tamilnadu and the east of Kerala. It is a collaborative effort between Murugavel, a lawyer who is a strong advocate of human rights, and Lakshmanan, a theatre-activist who is also a radical poet. Naali is an extension of their public lives in the Nilgiri as a committed lawyer and a radical artist for more than a decade and it exemplifies their investment in raising awareness regarding the socioeconomic problems of the ethnic populace. The project itself became possible when Lakshmanan bought a small digital video camera in 2002 and started shooting with it while he travelled with his collaborator Murugavel to the high altitude areas of the Western Ghats. The lightweight camera that enabled one to shoot even as the other steered the motorcycle was a major factor in the production of the documentary as it allowed them to gather amateur video of the landscape and portraits of local people during their regular work-related visits to the tribal neighbourhoods on the slopes and the top of the mountain ranges of the Nilgiri. The video, which they viewed once they were back at their editing room in Erode, a city a hundred miles down the hill, gave them the encouragement to shoot further and expand the documentary as they discovered that the tiny digital camera could withstand the cold weather and give them reasonably good images in the predominantly foggy conditions at high altitudes. They were initially unsure about the results of their shooting in the misty conditions at the top of the mountains, often at 1500 meters above sea level, as they could not carry any reflectors or lights in their backpacks that were filled with the warm clothing and blankets they needed for the four days of their stay up in the Ghats during their first unplanned trip. Their initial idea was to document the plight of tribal villagers who were the target of the wrath of elephants. In recent years, there have been increasing numbers of attacks on villagers and their homes by desperate elephants whose traditional habitats have been eroded drastically due to the connivance of corrupt government officials, mainly from the forest department, with traders, businesspersons and corporations in plundering the dense forests of the Ghats and its fertile mineral resources.[3]

Initially, their aim was to inform their audience through a short documentary about the condition of the people living on the Nilgiri, but as Lakshmanan and Murugavel started shooting for their documentary and interviewing the subjects, they often ended up spending many weekends travelling through the tribal areas and interacting with the locals over extended periods of time, thereby starting to learn in depth about their history, traditions, and culture. Their deeper exploration of the subject of their documentary was feasible because of the unobtrusive handycam and the small external microphone that accompanied it, as they could be put in one of the smaller pockets on the sides of their backpacks. Unlike a lawyer or a theatre performer from outside, their reaching out to the locals as documentarians with a compact camera and spending hours with the tribal people as they went about their daily life gave them an insight into their ethos: for instance, the cutting of trees like bamboo which regrew faster for creating shelters.[4]

Such deeper understanding of the ethos gradually changed the focus of their documentary: Murugavel and Lakshmanan decided to recover and showcase the long history of the Nilgiri and the rich traditions of its inhabitants, and foreground their lives and culture against a backdrop of globalization and mindless exploitation of natural resources in the name of development. Naali, therefore, blossomed into a painstaking effort on the part of Murugavel and Lakshmanan to counter the contemporary economic disempowerment of ethnic people by rewriting their history from the ground up. They also wanted to protest against their displacement by drawing attention to their lifestyle, which epitomizes coexistence between nature and habitats at high altitudes. The digital writing of such a subaltern history through a small handycam, they believed, could counter and challenge the many official versions of the government, the corporates, and the non-profits driven by vested interests.

This essay, therefore, studies how the use of low-end technology made possible the recording on video of the history of ordinary people living in the Nilgiri. More importantly, Lakshmanan and Murugavel could make the documentary from their own resources because of the economy offered by recent developments in technology, exemplified in this case by the prosumer camera that—while blurring the line between the consumer and the professional—also makes it possible to discover and work on new ideas during the making of a film. It can shoot in low light conditions and, because of the cheaper cost of recording mediums such as mini-dv tapes and SD cards, for long periods. This essay, therefore, details how Naali epitomizes both the recovery of the history of indigenous people and the documentation of the politics of the artists at the lower end of the spectrum: the ethnic populace of Nilgiri and the committed documentarians with their low-end technology.

Naali and Low-End Technology

In this context, it would be productive for us to explore low-end technology’s centrality in the very conception and execution of Naali during its early stages. For documentaries without external funding, the most crucial factor is the initial investment of time and labour. In this case, this could be organized around affordable technology as it offered acceptable images and sound during production (Panasonic handycam) and effective appropriation and organization of materials thereafter (Adobe Premiere editing software), thus giving an impetus to the successful production of an ambitious independent documentary without any significant external financial support. Therefore, considering Naali‘s context within the discourse surrounding digital technology and contemporary cinema is productive in this context.

The recent discourse surrounding digital technology and the loss of the “real”—framed generally as digital cinema and the loss of celluloid cinema’s ‘indexical identity’[5]—does not take into account the convenience of recording which digital technology offers at the low-end of the spectrum, wherein the traces of the real can be preserved electronically instead of through the complex chemical processes involved in developing and fixing silver halides on a nitrate or polyester base, as in the case of films.[6] Scholars are either elegiac about the passing away of cinema, or euphoric about digital utopia.[7] However, for many activists and documentarians like the ones I am detailing here, the primary question is one of having an affordable recording medium with which to catch “life unaware”, as the iconic Dziga Vertov proclaimed through his documentary/experimental film Man with the Movie Camera (1929) almost nine decades ago. For such filmmakers, the question of having the luxury to explore various ways to enhance or manipulate the originally recorded material on location did not arise. The scholarship on new media or digital cinema is not paying careful attention to the continuing relevance of digital video and its indexicality, particularly in the context of documentaries, which in reality are not restricted to low budget ones. For instance, Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure (2008) uses photographs taken in the Abu Ghraib Prison by a small group of low-ranking military police at the prison with their cell phones. Similarly, Channel 4’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields (dir. Callum Macrae, 2011) uses cell phone videos shot by Sri Lankan soldiers of their abuse of the men and women of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) during the genocide of the Tamils in May 2009. Is it, therefore, enough for us to limit ourselves to thinking of events during which human rights are grossly transgressed in inhumane and often unexpected ways as the only moments when low-end technology can offer indexical recordings of reality? What about low-end technology’s capacity to record quotidian lives at distant locales through its affordability and accessibility, and to lend itself to the needs of the activist filmmaker who may otherwise find it difficult to make a documentary? The small digital video camera enables these filmmakers to record the “reality” of the lives and times of the people who matter to them, apart from helping them to explore the potential and the various possibilities of the subject matter in hand by overcoming the consideration of money or funding as the primary constraint or preoccupation of the documentarian. The freedom offered affects the very process of making a documentary and—as in the case of Naali—shifts the focus of the narrative.

Naali‘s Context

At this point, a brief trajectory of Indian documentary films after India’s independence (i.e. from 1947 onwards) and the place of Naali in such a trajectory would be productive to understand its historical context. As scholars like Anuja Jain (“The Curious Case,” 2013) and Camille Deprez (“The Films Division,” 2013) have detailed, The Films Division of India, which was established in 1948, followed in many ways the model established by the British documentarians for supporting socially relevant documentaries, and was influenced by the Griersonian discourse. The early documentaries of the Films Division were focused on disseminating knowledge and educating the masses in the context of addressing the nation. As in the British documentary movement, there were many who privileged personal expression and explored the documentary as an aesthetic form beyond its objective of information and propaganda, particularly from the 1960s onward. The 1970s also saw the expansion of Doordarshan, the public broadcasting service in India, which started its national telecast in 1982. Doordarshan provided space for the national exhibition of documentaries, though it was steeped in red tape and corruption.

In the beginning, the Films Division had its own employees direct the documentaries, and later contracted outside directors and producers to make films on specific topics. For instance, Mani Kaul, the master of experimental cinema in India, also made critically acclaimed documentaries for the Films Division. In a documentary like Arrival (1980), he mainly worked as an outside/contracted director using the technical crew and facilities of the Films Division, whereas in Siddheshwari (1989), he collaborated as an outside/contracted producer who had the freedom to choose his own crew (for instance the cinematographer Piyush Shah, who was not a Films Division employee) and facilities. Doordarshan had two major ways of providing support to documentaries: one was the “funded program”, in which funds for making a documentary are sought by submitting the idea and developed script in stages for approval to a committee, and the other one was “on royalty basis,” wherein a film is produced and—depending on its reception and critical acclaim, for instance, winning a National Award or its acceptance in major film festivals—Doordarshan telecasts your film and pays a royalty to the maker.

The 1990s saw India shifting its economic gear from the socialism-driven Nehruvian policies to liberalization and privatization. Therefore, subsidies were taken away and funding from the government shrank for documentaries; however, non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gradually started producing documentaries on a regular basis. Like the government, many NGOs also have their agendas, often driven by their rich and powerful donors abroad. In spite of this, some documentarians have made use of the space available through NGOs to make the kind of films they believe in, recalling Basil Wright’s interventions in a film like The Song of Ceylon (1934), which undermines the Orientalist objectives of its sponsor, the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board.

Naali is unique in its uncompromising stance against the agendas of the NGOs, as it perceives them as the vestiges of colonialism, particularly in the context of the displacement of the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri. The mid-1990s also saw the arrival of digital cameras in India, which facilitated the production of documentaries. However, it is only during the last five years that the production of documentaries with low-end and affordable digital technology and their exhibition through easily available LCD projectors in alternative and remote spaces have become possible. Naali, produced in 2012, exemplifies such a seminal moment.

Naali: The Beginnings

Naali begins with the history of the ethnic populace living on the western mountain ranges in south India, particularly the lives of the people in Kodanadu, Talaimalai, Mudumalai and Wayanad, located on the borders between Tamilnadu and Kerala. Naali‘s writing of such a history attains its significance mainly because it remains unwritten from the perspective of these local people of the Nilgiri. There have been numerous documentaries made by the Films Division of India in which the tribal people appear in their colourful costumes as objects of spectacle as they dance in the idyllic backdrop of the mountains in the high altitudes where they live. Such exoticization has further distanced the people living on the plains from the harsh realities of the lives of the tribal people on the Nilgiri, and it is such an Orientalist representation and official history that Naali deconstructs right from its first frame.

The film begins with a title card “Naali: The Journey across the Blue Mountains” accompanied by the sound of birds. The soundtrack is dense, but through its indistinct quality it recalls archival material or found footage on the internet and suggests that the “Journey” suggested by the title is not the luxurious expedition or tour wherein we are going to trek along the picturesque mountain ranges of the Nilgiri with the filmmakers, but the seeking of the ordinary voices of its tribal people. The shots that follow further reinforce the objective of the documentary: a pan on the mountain ranges in a long shot from right to left dissolves into a static shot of the snow-clad Nilgiri accompanied by the sound of birds, which is now less intense due to the sudden reduction in volume. After this classically composed static shot of the Nilgiri, with a tree on the left branching into the frame, there is a dissolve again to a long shot that vertically tilts up to showcase the expanse of the mountains of the Western Ghats. A dissolve again leads us into the next shot as it zooms into the flattened snow-ridden landscape from another angle in a frame covered ornately by leaves to the music of string instruments that begins as the camera starts zooming in. This flat-white surface further dissolves into a landscape with passing clouds that acts as a wipe to lead us into a fleeting shot of two birds sitting on the right side of the frame in profile, as the voiceover recounts, “The Western Ghats have long been the backbone of South India.” Thereafter, we see a long shot of the (paddy) fields in the plains as the camera now pans from left to right and comes to rest in a closer shot, along the same axis, with the two flying birds landing on their feet. The voice-over continues: “The happiness and the misery of the (people of the) plains depend on these (people of the) mountains.”

Naali: Images and Sounds

This prelude effectively prefigures the form and content of the film through the minimalism in its visual style and the juxtaposition of its rhetorical politics thorough its voice-of-god narration. The low-resolution visuals—not only in their uploaded YouTube version but also on the original DVD copy of the documentary—draw attention to their low-end origins.[8] Furthermore, the use of found footage like the one with the birds further makes it clear that these documentarians are not aiming for the technical finesse of popular channels like National Geographic, but are invested in borrowing visuals freely and retooling them to illustrate what is narrated through the sound track, so that the images remain subservient to the rhetoric of the narrator.

Thereafter, the verbose narration overwhelms the soundtrack without any reprieve for the audience: there are no silent or musical segments without voiceover in this film, which has such rich possibilities for musically driven landscape montages from images available on the web and found-footage archives. The only moment when the sound allows the visual to directly speak to the audience is when the Naxilite leader (Arikkad) Verghese, who mobilized these ethnic people for an armed revolution, was killed by the cops because of insurgency.[9] Though the narrator is silent when the camera zooms in slowly on Verghese’s photograph towards the end of the sequence, there is an elegiac song in the soundtrack paying homage to the slain leader who enabled some of them to be freed from bonded labour. Thus, this reprieve from the monotonous voice-of-god—or reverse brainwashing, in this particular case—is due to the impossibility of layering the rhetorical voice over the image of the slain revolutionary leader at the poignant moment of his death/sacrifice, rather than being an aesthetic decision.

Such an approach immediately marks Naali as different from the many uploaded videos— particularly at tourist spots like the Nilgiri, on sites like YouTube, Vimeo, etc.—wherein it is not uncommon to see “picnic” videos shot on DSLR cameras and cell phones that are loosely edited to popular film or keyboard music.[10] Naali is co-written and codirected by Murugavel and Lakshmanan, with the latter also credited with videography and narration. The rawness of Lakshmanan’s voice as a narrator, as it reflexively draws attention to his background as a street-theatre activist, also distances us from the visuals since it is permeated with a sense of urgency and anger, and is far removed from the smooth and sophisticated voices generally associated with travel diaries or autobiographical video essays. Right from the very beginning, when he categorically asserts that the plains are dependent for their well-being on the mountains, there is a plea/advocacy for empathy towards the predicament of the tribal population which pervades the film, often bordering on propaganda. In Naali, the monotonous voice-of-god narration—generally the staple of government newsreels in India—is undermined by juxtaposing it with the fleeting, grainy visuals that are often in soft focus because of the fog in the high altitudes of the Western Ghats or due to the appropriation from a low-resolution upload on the web. Such a counterpoint aesthetic, between the constantly changing visuals in low resolution and the monotonous sound without any fluctuation, work in Naali’s favour as the film focuses on the paradox of the tribal people of the Nilgiri and their centuries-old history which goes back to prehistoric times, and the significance of their eco and environment-friendly culture, even as these indigenous people are forced to give up their traditional way of life and dispossessed of their land in the name of development.

The next segment ties the mountains and plains with shots of rivers and streams flowing down and underscores how plains are dependent for their basic needs on the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats which, according to the narrator, have been enabling the rain in these regions by obstructing the westerly winds (or the southwest monsoon winds) from the Arabian Sea, like walls for the “last 2 million years approximately.” Such mentioning of historical facts with adjectives like “approximately” sets up Naali’s perspective on history: while acknowledging the help/advice of Mrs. Vijayalakshmi, the curator of Sullivan Museum in Kotagiri and the personnel of Nilambur Teak Museum and Wayanad Museum through the initial title cards, Murugavel and Lakshmanan make it clear that in Naali historical data and oral history will together serve the purposes of their politics regarding the protection of the flora and fauna of the Nilgiri and its people. Nonetheless, their attention to detail is underscored by their careful mentioning of the height of the Nilgiri as ranging from 1500 to 2000 meters and the speed of the southwest monsoon winds at 20/30 kilometres per hour.

In the following section, when the narrator details how until 200 years ago the Western Ghats were covered with greenery which prevented soil erosion, the colourful visuals from the web are dissolved with snow as a transitional device to focus on the water that flows from the Nilgiri to provide for the needs of the people in the three southern states of Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka. The choice regarding the colourful visuals in this section were, however, restricted to the available videos that could be downloaded in higher resolution. Nonetheless, some of such retooled videos are sharp and others are grainy and soft in focus. According to the editor of the film, Ashok, when the film was being edited in 2011/2012 most videos on the web were in very low resolution and became grainy and soft when downloaded and imported into the documentary.[11] Presently, with file-hosting and video-sharing services like Dropbox and Vimeo, it has become easier, whereas during Naali’s postproduction it was difficult and tedious to download high-resolution videos and reuse them. Here, I would like to draw attention to the significance of transparency in the context of digital video. John McMullan claims that the “[f]ilm’s shallower depth of field is what makers of movies for the cinema screen employ in order to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular object/subject on screen, as well as to create a fictional narrative world with parts of the screen that a viewer cannot themselves bring into focus. It is an aesthetic of the artistic more so than the scientific: the unabashed manipulation … for fantastical purposes. It is the filmic look that videographers have been attempting to emulate since the inception of video.” (Italic mine, McMullan, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II).[12] McMullan, draws from Babette Mangolte to argue for how such a “film look” is predicated less on transparency and more on manipulating the shutter speed.[13] For instance, the standard 24 frames per second shutter speed used in the shooting of a film does not allow for the kind of transparency in an ordinary pan shot, where the characters move at a normal speed, when compared with the normative 29.97 frames per second (NTSC) television standard. Therefore, for McMullan, the film look is an aesthetic that focuses on deviation from the real: “[It] lies in remediating the cinematic system of signs that implies artistry, quality, and expense; not in the realm of exhibiting a greater transparency.”[14] Here, what is significant for us in Naali‘s context is the fact that it was shot prior to the contemporary obsession with the shallower depth of field in digital video through the use of DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras, wherein the filmmakers try to emulate the “film look.” The relatively much smaller sensors in the handycam used in Naali broadly kept most things in front of the camera in focus. The grainy or the foggy quality in some of the shots were due to the weather which, when juxtaposed with the greater depth-of-field offered by the lens, not only gives a specificity to the look of the visuals shot at unusual altitudes, but also adds to the indexicality of the image by carrying the traces of the weather conditions under which it has been shot. Even more important, it draws attention to the sensuous but difficult colder temperatures under which the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri lives.

Naali and Bottom-Up History: Nilgiri and Its People

As an advocate, Murugavel was looking for a space to foreground the “collective voice of the people of the mountains.” However, when the idea of the documentary took shape, Murugavel and Lakshmanan were not sure how much the inhabitants of the Nilgiri would cooperate or speak up in the interviews, but their earlier public life as an advocate and a street-theatre activist helped them in gaining the trust of a tightly-knit but closed ethnic community. Over the last two decades, these people have been witnessing the aggressive onslaught of the corporates who, along with the conniving NGOs and corrupt government officials, have been successful in occupying or leasing their land and displacing them.[15]


Lakshmanan also believed that the retooling of the stereotypical shots associated with the picturesque terrain and the ethnic people of the Nilgiri could be effectively used to contrast the romanticism surrounding the hills and the mythos of their colourful traditions with their present state of deprivation.[16] Such a visual scheme of the juxtaposition of the classical with the contemporary certainly proves effective in Naali, as exemplified by the sequence in which the narrator informs us of their ancient lineage: an illustration with old photographs from the museum of the people belonging to ethnic groups like the Irulars, Kurumbars, Vedars, Todars, Paniyars, Muduvars, and Kothars, is juxtaposed with the immediacy of the contemporary times through a shaky handheld shot in the present which showcases eager tourists on their trip to their favourite hill station. This sequence concludes with a classically composed ancient cave painting at altitude.

In stark contrast, the following segment has two shaky shots, apparently shot on the handycam without a tripod: one a pan and the other a tilt down that frames tourists to Edakkal caves in Wayanad district through long shots. By the choice of the long shot, the tourists are not privileged and are underscored as people in search of the exoticism of a primitive culture, as exemplified by the classical photographs that we just saw. The way the camera pans over the tourists to frame them as crawling ants is suggestive, and questions our understanding of them as tourists: it is clear that the tribal populace of today could merge with the tourists seamlessly in terms of their (modern) costume and demeanour. Thus, reflexively questioning our own interest in their exotic history, the narrator finally leads us to the cave painting to reinforce his statement that these ordinary human beings have been harmoniously living here in the Western Ghats with wildlife since times immemorial.

(Dis)empowering Low End Technology: The Double-Edged Sword

The significance of the above segment dawns on us later in the film when we realize that our curiosity as travellers is only a mask to hide our intention of poaching, as the film draws parallels between King Pazhassi’s (1774-1805) supposedly benevolent encroachment/intrusion to defend the ethnic populace and the welfare measures of the contemporary NGOs that are invested in disenfranchising the tribal people of their land and displacing them from the Nilgiri. Naali focuses on the history of the Nilgiri through players from outside: the colonizing British and their investment in tea, coffee, and oak trees, which played havoc with the ecology of the Nilgiri and the fate of its people; the iconic kings like Kumbala Raja, who deceptively defeated the Paniyar tribe and enslaved them and the caste-driven Phalassi Raja; and the NGOs with their agenda of displacing the tribal people in the name of wildlife conservation. By progressively juxtaposing them with the everyday lives of its inhabitants, the film blurs the difference in time and space by showcasing the history of the tribal populace as a linear narrative of occupation and plunder by outside forces.[17]

In a narrative which echoes the cyclical and the multi-layered form of the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats, Naali, after setting up the ancient lineage of the Nilgiri tribes, details the history of the various oppressive feudal landlords who were disempowered by Tipu Sultan, the progressive invader from Karnataka, only to be later reinvested with their authority by the British. As an extension, Naali traces the continuing exploitation and displacement of the ethnic populace at the hands of the Forest Department of the Government of India, and by the devious interests of some of the NGOs that epitomize the indirect rule of the global corporates in contemporary times.

While researching the etymology of the Nilgiri, which literally means ‘the blue mountain’, Murugavel and Lakshmanan could trace its roots to a stone carving of the Hoyshala period of the twelfth century, when Vishnuvardhan was the king. In accordance with Naali‘s aesthetic of counterpoise, they balance the ethereal and colourful past invoked by the artistic alphabets carved on stone by juxtaposing it with a shaky handheld shot of the mundane Sulthan Bathery bus station. The incongruity of a small quotidian bus station stands out in a sequence that is littered with the influence of Jainism and its aesthetic finesse, as exemplified by the finely carved monks with their exquisite features and meditative poses on the stone.     Nevertheless, even the poised Jaina king Vishnuvardhan defeated and ruled over the Todars, the original inhabitants of the Nilgiri. Naali suggests that such constant aggression by outsiders and their repeated occupation of the Nilgiri were possible because of the nomadic lifestyle of the tribal people who preferred to live in unison with nature rather than confront it. Naali, through such an aesthetic of interspersing the classical or ornate art work with the raw digital video shots of the quotidian life around a mundane bus station, questions our prejudice regarding the film’s privileged access to indexicality: film or digital video both allow for infinite possibilities to manipulate when the accent is on the ornate or the classical rather than the immediate and the indexical. Naali‘s low-end technology-driven aesthetic thus enables its politics of intervention through its aesthetic of contrapuntal juxtaposition, wherein the consummate/rich or the saturated is undermined in favour of indexicality of the real/imperfect/poor.

However, the same low-end technology has enabled the non-profits or the NGO’s to project a different picture of the indigenous population living on the Nilgiri/Blue Mountains as being chiefly responsible for the endangerment of the wild animals. With similar handycam technology, NGO’s construct narratives of a pristine land where it is not modern man with his machines, but the tribal populace who live in the mountain that is the enemy. The facility to digitally upload and subjectively modify photographs and mobilize a powerful group invested in their own interests, of benefiting from the (invisible) donors abroad, has relegated the reality of the lives of the original inhabitants of the Nilgiri to the background.[18] The empowering low-end technology, thus, is a double-edged sword as it can be effectively used to make a case against the disadvantaged and underprivileged people by the educated (upper) middleclass, who are conversant with the possibilities inherent in modern technology to manipulate and to further their own interests as the neo colonizers in these contemporary times of rapid globalization.

Sarah Pink in her seminal book, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research (2007), engages with photography, video, hypermedia, and ethnography to shed light on the significance of arbitrariness and subjectivity in “visual ethnography.” Though aural and visual recordings have been central to ethnography, Pink’s intervention in the context of the polysemy of an image in terms of the specificity of its reception is productive for our understanding of digital technology as a double-edged sword in the context of the digitally manipulated photos/videos of the ethnic populace of the Nilgiri:

[T]he same photograph may serve a range of different and personal ethnographic uses; it may even be invested with seemingly contradictory meanings. The meanings of photographs are arbitrary and subjective; they depend on who is looking. The same photographic image may have a variety of (perhaps conflicting) meanings invested in it at different stages of ethnographic research and representation, as it is viewed by different eyes and audiences in diverse temporal historical, spatial, and cultural contexts. (pp. 67-8)

Naali: Displacement of People/Language

In the final segment, after a long fadeout which marks the transition to the 1990s, Naali focuses on the global NGOs like the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, formerly World Wildlife Fund) and Wildlife Protection Society, which have been advocating for “humanless forests” with the help of local NGOs in India. Naali—through archival footage and photographs—narrates the attack on Ahwahnechees, the native Indian tribe of America. In 1865, Europeans gradually evicted them from Yesomite Valley where they had lived for centuries to clear the picturesque land for zoological parks and tourism. The ideology of the separation of wildlife from inhabitants originated there and led to the proliferation of several non-profits which have ever since advocated for wildlife sanctuaries and humanless forests, i.e., for the displacement of the ethnic people from the mountains and forests where they belong. Through a string of talking-head interviews interspersed with close-ups of the indigenous people of Nilgiri, Naali posits the greedy official machinery of the government and its conscienceless forest department as responsible for the poaching, stealing of wood, and destruction of wildlife in Nilgiri for decades. Through an insightful interview with C. R. Bijoy, an activist working for the cause of indigenous people through coalitions like Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Naali underpins the nexus of the NGOs, the government and the corporates, as being at the root of the misery of the ethnic populace.[19] With colourful graphics, designed with the help of affordable software like After Effects (Ashok, Dec 2013),[20] Naali illustrates how agendas of a globalized economy such as carbon trading, which incentivizes governments to minimize damage to the environment through reduced emissions, have to be necessarily tied to afforestation in a growing economy like India. This unites the global corporates with the local government with its imperatives of retaining at least thirty per cent of its land as forests. NGOs join in this partnership due to the possibilities of advocating for wildlife conservation and sanctuaries: the irony is that the forest department—the real cause for the erosion of wealth and resources of the mountains and forests—is above scrutiny, but the people who had for centuries lived in harmony with nature and wildlife are getting evicted.

Protest against displacement

Nonetheless, Naali is honest and self-reflexive about its complicity in the disempowerment of the local populace through the dis(re)placement of language. Towards the end of the film, in a spontaneous response to the interviewer, a teenage girl reveals that in their school they are not taught their tribal language but Tamil. Naali, thus, reflexively draws attention to Tamil, which is the language of the people on the plains, as the language of the documentary. As it documents the displacement of the inhabitants of Nilgiri, Naali itself, narrated in a dominant and subsuming language, becomes a reflexive document of the erasure of their language and thereby their disempowerment, which is the conduit to the ethos of their culture. Nonetheless, Murugavel and Lakshmanan have created a space in Naali for quotidian voices to be heard through their retelling of the history of the Nilgiri and its people through the aesthetic of low-end technology. It enables them to strategically retool the ornate paintings and archival photos from the museum, which epitomize the vestiges of the colonizer, the feudal lords, and the decadent kings, as well as the digitally produced high-end technology driven media from the web, exemplifying the façade of globalization, corporates, and the NGOs. They have been successful in keeping the Naali—which means a “stream” in the ethnic language—of protest alive.


Ashok, Telephone Conversation. Oct. 2013.

Ashok, Telephone Conversation. Nov. 2013.

Ashok, Personal Interview. Coimbatore. Jan. 2015.

Bijoy C. R., Grain.org. 26 Oct. 2007.  http://www.grain.org/article/entries/629-c-r-bijoy, date accessed 23 June 2014.

Deprez Camille, “The Films Division of India, 1948-1964: The Early Days and the Influence of the British Documentary Film Tradition”, Film History: An International Journal. 25:3 (2013), pp.149-173.

Jain Anuja, “The Curious Case of the Films Division: Some Annotations on the Beginnings of Indian Documentary Cinema in Postindependence India, 1940s-1960s”, The Velvet Light Trap 71 (Spring 2013), pp. 15-26.

“Jumbo Attacks Again in Coimbatore District.” Deccanchronicle.com 8 Dec. 2013.  http://www.deccanchronicle.com/ 131208/news-current-affairs/article/jumbo-attacks-again, date accessed 8 September 2014.

Lakshmanan, Flyer of Naali. Jan. 2013.

Lakshmanan, Personal Interview. Coimbatore. Jan. 2015.

Mangolte Babette, “Afterwards: A Matter of Time. Analog Versus Digital, the Perennial Question of Shifting Technology and Its Implications for an Experimental Filmmaker’s Odyssey”, in Camera Obscura Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, ed. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2003), pp. 261-274.

Manovich Lev, “What is Digital Cinema.” http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/what-is-digital-cinema, date accessed 6 Sept. 2016.

McMullan John, “The Digital Moving Image: Revising Indexicality and Transparency”, in IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II. Conference Proceedings  (©IM/NASS 2011. ISSN 1833-0533), imjournal.murdoch.edu.au/?media_dl=362, date accessed 3 March 2016.

Murugavel, Personal Interview. Chennai. June 2013.

Murugavel, Personal Interview. Chennai. June 2014.

Murugavel, Telephone Interview. Oct. 2013.

Murugavel, Telephone Interview. Nov. 2013.

Murugavel and Lakshmanan. Naali (2012): Tamil Documentary Movie Part 1, 2, 3, and 4. Online Video. YouTube. 8 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 October. 2014.

Pink Sarah, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media, and Representation in Research, (London: Sage Publications) (2007).

Reporter Staff, “Elephant Herd Marches on Railway Track.” Hindu.com. 19 Dec. 2007, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/elephant-herd-marches-on-railway-track/article1970423.ece, date accessed 14 March 2015.

Rodowick D. N., The Virtual Life of Film, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) (2007).

Rosen Philip, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2001).

Thirunavukkarasu P., Personal Interview, June 2013.

Warrier Shobha, “Where Land Reforms Have Taken Place, There are No Maoists” Rediff. Com. 27 May 2013, http://www.rediff.com/news/interview/an-open-market-with-democracy-is-better-than-communism/20130527.htm, date accessed 15 March 2015.

Wayanad Honeymoon 2, Online Video. YouTube. 1 July 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUd1mOmlCaI, date accessed 15 March 2015.



[1] This model was released in October 2007 and is not manufactured anymore. In fact, cameras like this marked the end of (mini dv) tape-based video shooting and prefigured the (present DSLR-Digital Single Lens Reflex-era’s) SD (Secure Digital) card usage for shooting and storage. In fact, the Panasonic NV-GS was one of the rare models which offered the choice between a mini dv tape and an SD card to record.

[2] My Personal Interview with P. Thirunavukkarasu, at Chennai, in June 2013.

[3] For the attacks of elephants on villagers, see: “Jumbo Attacks Again in Coimbatore District,” Deccanchronicle.com., 8 Dec. 2013, accessed 8 Sept. 2014. For the conflict between elephants and Forest Department, see: Staff Reporter, “Elephant Herd Marches on Railway Track,” Hindu.com., 19 Dec. 2007, accessed 14 March 2014.

[4]  My Personal Interview with Murugavel at Chennai, in June 2013.

[5] See for details: Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema,” Manovich.net, accessed 6 Sept. 2016.

[6] For details see: John McMullan, “The Digital Moving Image: Revising Indexicality and Transparency”, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II, Conference Proceedings (2011).

[7] See for details, Philip Rosen, “Old and New: Image, Indexicality, and Historicity in the Digital Utopia”, in Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) (2001), pp. 301- 434. Also see, D.N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) (2007).

[8] Naali, Directors Murugavel and Lakshmanan, Coimbatore: Kovan Veliyeetagam, 2012, DVD.

[9] Naxalite or Naxalbari movement, which had its origins in Naxalbar village in West Bengal, believes in armed struggle for realizing its revolutionary objectives. See for details on the charisma and influence of the Naxalite leader Verghese: Shobha Warrier, “Where Land Reforms Have Taken Place, There are No Maoists,” Rediff. Com., 27 May 2013, accessed 15 March 2015.

[10] See, for instance, Wayanad Honeymoon 2,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUd1mOmlCaI, YouTube, July 2009, accessed 15 March 2015.

[11] My telephonic conversation with Naali‘s editor Ashok, Nov. 2013.

[12] See John McMullan, IM 7: Diegetic Life Forms II,  imjournal.murdoch.edu.au/?media_dl=370, p. 13, accessed 3 March 2016.

[13] See for details Babette Mangolte, “Afterwards: A Matter of Time. Analog versus Digital, the Perennial Question of Shifting Technology and Its Implications for an Experimental Filmmaker’s Odyssey” in Camera Obscura Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, ed. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) (2003), pp. 261-274.

[14] John McMullan.

[15] My personal interview with Murugavel, at Chennai, in June 2013.

[16] Personal Interview with Lakshmanan.

[17] In the sequence about the planting of the teak trees by the British, the shots of Nilambur Kovilagam are framed through a handycam and contrasted with classical archival photographs and paintings. Even more striking is the interspersing of the shots taken from inside the car of the passing teak trees as they were at the time of the film’s production in 2012, with other illustrative and ornate images from the past to anchor the narration. Similarly, the brief history of the industrial revolution and the consequent demand for teak in the early 19th century is framed through (museum) paintings, which bookends the shaky handycam shots of the teak trees both in full bloom and after harvest. Thus, there is a remarkably consistent aesthetic of editing which drives Naali from the beginning to the end, even if the documentary borrows heavily from the archival footage to structure its subaltern history.

[18] Ibid. Ref: the photographs published in the brochure distributed. I have done extensive video coverage of the “documentation” done by the NGO’s to update their donors regarding their activities in lieu of the funds that they receive. See, the outtakes of my documentary on Tsunami relief and rehabilitation: Waves from the Deep (2005).

[19] See for details, C.R. Bijoy, Grain.org, http://www.grain.org/article/entries/629-c-r-bijoy, 26 Oct. 2007, accessed 23 June 2014.

[20] My telephonic conversation with Naali‘s editor Ashok, Oct. 2013.

Dr. Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai is an associate professor in the Departments of English, and Media and Information at Michigan State University. He is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India, the premier film school in Asia, and has a PhD in film studies from the prestigious University of Iowa. He is an accomplished filmmaker and his recent documentaries include Migrations of Islam (2014) and Hmong Memory at the Crossroads (2015). His research focuses on the history, theory and production of documentaries, and the specificity of Tamil cinema and its complex relationship with Hollywood as well as popular Hindi films. His recent books on cinema are Cinema: Sattagamum Saalaramum (Nizhal, 2013), an anthology of essays on documentaries and experimental films in Tamil and Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015).

Minority representation in ‘The Digital’: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi

Rajan Benson

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no.1, pp. 21-36

Rajan Benson

MICA, Ahmedabad


Minority representation in ‘The Digital’: Narratives from Christian Communities in Delhi



Technology has become ubiquitous in modern life, propagating digital media as a means to social equity and empowerment. Digital culture is believed to provide opportunities for religious communities to reshape their identity based on virtual group interactions.[1]

The digital universe has provided a platform for Christian minorities to re-represent themselves beyond the mainstream media’s projection of them as a community that uses education, health and other benevolent social services for religious conversion. Such representation has left the Christian community in Delhi victimised by a series of attacks that has taken place since the arrival of the new political regime.

Media houses perceive the attack to be a consequence of ‘Hindutva’ Hindu Nationalist ideology. The communal propaganda of ‘Hindutva’ imposes a parochial notion of purity and a drive for a majoritarian theocratic state, which puts minority religious communities at high risk.

This paper presents the findings of a study conducted with the Christian communities in Delhi. This study represents nine Christian denominations and seeks to understand their digital religious representation. The embodiment of the digital[2] has assisted in empowering as well as oppressing these Christian communities. The new efficacies of digital religious participation have empowered the Christian community to exercise digitally their Constitutional rights of freedom of religion. On the other hand, it has heightened anxiety and fear for digitally active members through online threats and abuses.

Key Words: representation, digital disability, surveillance, anxiety, hindutva, digital bodies, empowerment, christian



The Churches in India are facing a new materiality, bringing alterations to their communication strategies. This digital materiality is a consequence of the growing usage of the smartphone in people’s daily affairs. The materiality here is the objects used for digital life such as, smartphones, laptops, and tablets. The materiality is also applied to move away from the binaries that have emerged between old media and new media. These digital materialities have performance capabilities that have consequences for the embedded reality of its users. The ubiquity of the digital is an embodiment of the same consequences.

The growing use of the Internet by Churches in Delhi has brought new ways to connect with both individuals and groups of Churchgoers that are transcending physical boundaries. The digital Church, brought about by the inclusion of the digital in the functioning of the church, is changing patterns and practices in the physical Church. This digital church reflects the extension of practices from physical to digital format. This movement has emerged with the influx of smartphones in the church that has facilitated increased use of religious applications like Bible apps, commentaries on sacred texts, faith memes, faith videos, and so on. Similarly, social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook etc. have also aided in the formation of digital religious communities.

However, the digital is also representing the Churches in its larger socio-political environment. This is also a consequence of growing Internet and smartphone penetration in Indian markets. This growth is most visible in urban spaces, which contain 152 million of India’s active Internet users.[3] In urban spaces, the growing use of social media on smartphones is developing technological perceptions about the medium. These perceptions of managing agency, self-efficacy, and privacy in the ubiquitous digital landscape are proving to be a rich platform for religious institutions to utilise apps for their mandate.

Moreover, the growing access to digital technologies in India has not aided in creating a pluralistic space for religious expression. The preamble to the constitution proclaims India a ‘secular state’. Here ‘secular’ signifies the state’s assistance and participation in all religions equally; unlike the western concept of secularism that separates the religion from the state.

Digital freedom in India is a negotiation between religious and political concerns. Religious freedom is represented in the constitutional rights as “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”.[4] Technology as a medium has played a crucial role in the freedom to propagate one’s own religion. However, the potential of the medium to both stir communal riots by hurting religious sentiment and become an instrument of worship through Holy Scriptural apps and Daily devotional content makes the medium an authority in the religious space.

India is witnessing a new form of religious intolerance. This competitiveness has become unsavoury when individuals have been abused, harassed, and killed for converting to another religion, despite the constitutional safeguard in Article 25, which states, “All persons are equally entitled to freedom of consciousness and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion”.[5]

Christianity in contemporary times is closely tied with the digital. The online space has become a space for assimilation of religious groups; some of these online sites propagate mutually exclusive and fundamentalist viewpoints that have triggered violent communal tensions offline. The Christian community in Delhi is anxious as they are at the receiving end of physical violence from Hindutva forces. Hindutva is another name for Hindu nationalism; a term coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. One of the most pertinent events of Hindutva was the Ayodhya Ramjanmabhumi mobilisation. The belief of the Hindu extremists of Ayodhya, which is the birthplace of Lord Ram, led to the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. During this event, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to prominence as the electoral instrument of Hindutva. Since then, Hindutva has been juxtaposed with communalism on the basis of religion, race, and so on. There is a feeling that Hindutva groups are waging a large-scale campaign of hate against Christians and Muslim minority groups.[6] These expressions are spilling over onto digital spaces, where Christian communities are seeking ways to exercise their civic rights through participatory actions.

 Theoretical Framework

Digital Conceptions

 Smartphones have achieved an intimacy with users that incorporates the self and the external world.[7] The networked digital world blurs the boundaries between public and private spaces, depending on the way the apps represent the individual. As Mark Poster argues, “culture is increasingly simulational in the sense that the media often changes the things that it treats, transforming the identity of originals and referentialities”.[8] Smartphones have become so intertwined into our day-to-day affairs that the way they represent content becomes our conception of reality.[9] Smartphones have become part of the meaning making process; the cognition of meanings establishes the intensity of personal interactions on a device.[10]

The sheer pervasiveness of digital gadgets[11] is encouraging the clergy to use it to meet the Church’s evangelical mandates.[12] Smartphones have enabled a deeply personal and emotional form of social interaction. The unavoidability of the device is the popular narrative about the inclusion of social media apps in the life of churches. The use of representational apps in the church has a similar functional capacity to projecting the self in a public sphere.

The mediation of faith as an extension of one’s body is reflected with smartphones.[13] This is because the materiality of the smartphone extends to its functionality and this in turn is inclusive of relationships, cognitions, public representations, and emotional responses in social digital networks. The urban Church is an information-intensive environment that is driven by hyper-fast content creation and distribution. This pattern is a self-reinforcing system that is socially-technologically interweaving in nature. Digital materiality has formed ways of life by the “irreducible relation between technologies, embodiment, knowledge and perception”.[14] This is evident among the youth, who are constantly engaged with digital devices that are a part of their existence. This exists as a socio-technical hybrid where the body and screen are constantly gazing at each other, acting like mirrors and windows into reality. The content one shares becomes a window for others to look into and likewise the representation is a mirror of the self. Thus, the Church, seeking to influence and guide people in their religious journey, wants to access these windows so that it can shape the core values of its congregation. Ideally, the church aspires to see its beliefs and values mirrored in peoples’ virtual lives.


 This study is grounded in the premise that access to reality can be gained through socially constructed means of communication that are shared through language.[15] This research applies the narrative paradigm. Narratives are defined as interpretations of an individual’s experience that have contextual focus.[16] These narratives are guided by the affective lens in representing transcendent encounters and mobilisations. I conducted 70 in-depth interviews across churches in Delhi to understand the new digital culture that is driving minority community participation in the public sphere. The in-depth interview was chosen as the basic mode of inquiry because it can portray affective traces when the individual recounts narratives that consequently lead to their participation.


Public Sphere and Participatory Action

 The public sphere carries the possibility of large congregations of crowds that provide visibility to certain groups and their issues. This idea of the public sphere as argued by Habermas is a consequence of the rise of democracy, which provides space for congregating and passing collective judgement on issues.[17] Visibility lies at the core of being public, which is unobstructed visibility.[18] To gain such visibility, protests and mobilisation have traditionally been used to represent the concerns and voices of the marginalised in society.

The history of protest and mobilisation has not prominently featured the Indian Christian community. During the struggle for Independence, Gandhi’s criticism of the Christian community was grounded in the effect of fragmentation it had on lower caste communities. This, according to Gandhi, “undermined unity and mobilisation among these depressed classes in the nationalist movement”.[19] However, small groups such as the Presbyterian mission schools in Punjab protested actively against the British government through demonstrations and strikes against the Rowlatt Bill of 1919.[20] This active political participation by the Presbyterian community was the exception, as they did not participate in the subsequent Satyagraha movement. In Lahore, the Presbyterian community is known to have sided with the British government as the British were seen as a Christian government that had protected the interests of the missionaries from the start.[21]

Nonetheless, the Christian missions were attributed with changing social status and allowing mobility among certain repressed groups in colonial times. The Nadar’ women, who were not allowed to cover their breasts, found support from the Christian missionaries who used the language of Christian modesty and womanly decency to uphold the Nadar’s protests.[22] Another instance of Christian intervention was through the Jesuits, who supported the low caste ‘Shanars’ in opposition to the high caste ‘Vellalars’, who wanted a barrier built in the Church to segregate them from the ‘Shanars’.[23] These are the only documented cases of Christian groups standing up for the underprivileged in the public sphere during Colonial rule.[24]

The post-Colonial phase has seen the influence of liberation theologists from Latin America. They influenced participation in the public sphere through the fish worker movement in Kerala and the Dalit Christian movement. This movement can be traced from 1977, when the Latin Catholic Fisherman’s Federation wrote a memorandum to the Chief Minister of Kerala, to 1993, when the Supreme Court announced the decision to ban monsoon-trawling operations.[25]

Delhi has also witnessed Christian movements in the public sphere. One such movement took place on 18th November 1995, when the Christian community congregated at Sacred Heart Cathedral to demonstrate against the biased treatment of Dalit Christians.[26] The protest was in the form of a prayer meeting, which was attended by Mother Teresa and a large number of Bishops and Priests who were protesting for the inclusion of Dalit Christians as Schedule Caste.[27] This protest was complemented by Christian Schools across the country, which remained closed for the day. September 26th 2008 saw another instance of public protests to show solidarity towards a Christian community that faced the brunt of communal violence in Orissa.[28] This seven-day protest and prayer meeting at Jantar Mantar was well represented by people of different faiths and political parties.[29]  However, these mobilisations have done little to ease the threats and anxieties felt by the minority community. The past two decades have been replete with narratives of growing violence against the Christian community. There has been a marked increase in instances of burning of Churches and Bibles, attacks on Priests, raping of Nuns, forcible reconversions to Hinduism, and aggressive anti-Christian propaganda by Hindutva groups.[30]

For any community facing atrocities, urban spaces have become the epicentre for democratic expression. The urban site draws attention to the cause and provides space—especially to minority groups—to become visible in the public sphere. Delhi—as the capital of India—has historically been an urban centre where the politics of nation state have been enacted. Due to its status as the capital of the nation, Delhi is represented as a site of imagination, desire and imaging. The public sphere of Delhi is an idea where hope for genuine democracy and social justice dwells alongside a space that shapes the potential future of the nation. This public sphere has rarely witnessed the participation of Christian communities at the sites of protest, where popular political deliberations often play themselves out. The public sphere in Delhi primarily encompasses spaces near the Parliament House, which is also close to major news agencies. Proximity to the site of protest gives the new agencies ease of access to issues they would like to cover. This space has seen people from across India converge to voice their grievances. This space saw the massive mobilisation of Christians on 2nd December 2014 and 5th February 2015 that  were made possible by the ‘Whatsapp’ application. When queried about the mobilization, the youth leader responded, “Whatsapp has made it easy for us to get people together, especially for protests, as it’s about our democratic right and people want to participate for such causes when they feel the Church is under attack”[31]. This mobilisation was a result of continued attacks on Churches in Delhi. The Christian community perceived these attacks to be orchestrated by Hindutva forces. India, in the last two decades, has witnessed the electorally beneficial strategy of communal violence and polarisation on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The advocates of Hindutva harbour differences against three groups. They perceive Christians, Muslims and Communists groups as a subversion of national integration as these groups are loyal to foreign forces (Rome, Mecca and Moscow).[32] Under the current Government, there has been growing spate of attacks against anything Christian as it symbolizes a different culture and ideology from that of Hindutva. With BJP—a strong Hindutva proponent assuming governing control—most communal tensions are seen to be a result of distinct interests and pursuing of divergent aims.

The Christian mobilisation on 5th February received countrywide mainstream media coverage. The mobilization was a consequence of growing instances of violence against the Christian community in the three months prior to 5th February 2015. In these three months, there were 45 documented incidents of violence against the Christian community, where the perpetrators were identified as members of Hindutva groups.[33]

The large-scale media coverage of these protests was a consequence of the government forcefully overthrowing protestors from the public sphere. The use of brutal force by the police drew media criticism and attention to the plight of the Christian community. The police were criticised for using violence on elderly people, priests, and nuns on the site of protest. The police detained 350 people at the site.[34] The violence against the Christian community also made visible Hindutva’s privileged impunity under the current government. This feeling of impunity is primarily due to police bias and unwillingness to adequately investigate and arrest the perpetrators of communal violence.[35] This inaction was evident once again with the crackdown on Christian protesters.

On one hand, the growing prevalence of smartphones in Churches enabled quick circulation of instances of violence against the community. On the other hand, it led to more anxiety and fear within the community. This two-fold consequence is a by-product of the growing access to information related to the growing atrocities faced by the community. However, there is also evidence of direct participatory action by the community in the face of such adversity. Individuals have taken to social media to express their discord as members of the Christian community who have been denied their fundamental rights. These digital participatory measures have also faced backlash from supporters of Hindutva in social media pages. Therefore, the public sphere is a mixed reality of digital and physical suppression of voices from the Christian community.

 Minority and Digital Participatory Action

 The digital conceptions of self are manufactured with a sense of immediacy, proximity and urgency. This digital conception of self is shaping the imagination of the urban minority youth. The digital was seen by Christian youth as a promise of individual freedom, a kernel for seeking social justice and a space for peaceful democratic participation.

However, WhatsApp inspired mobilisation and the subsequent digital harassment against the community has exposed the limitations of the digital promise. The standard of nationalism and ownership of public space is disproportionally held by the majoritarian religious body. The majority controls the mainstream media and has greater representation as well as greater cultural control of the public sphere. The attempts by Christian minority communities to gain visibility in the public space has come at the cost of facing more instances of violence by the state in order to gain visibility from mainstream media. The Churches felt this lack of representation in the mainstream and turned to digital media spaces such as Facebook to gain visibility for their grievances. For instance, one of the respondents stated,

Recently, when church attacks happened, it was WhatsApp that helped us. The media did not show anything. So, the next day, when there was a protest, people came because of WhatsApp, which is why there were many people to support us. The use of Facebook is mostly for publicising the church and to present it in a good light. We have recently used Facebook to draw attention to the incident of Church burning and the violence we face as Christians etc. We do a lot of events in church, so we use it primarily for publicity.[36]

The scope of publicity through Facebook has seen limited mutual dialogue among religious communities. However, according to a Catholic priest, for the Christian community as a whole, the Facebook space has educated people and brought about support for their minority existence. He stated,

Like when we had Churches burnt in Dilshad garden, I had addressed the people for a public gathering and that was through Facebook and that inspired people to join the protest group next day. So through constructive criticism and planning, the public gathering took place and it all happened on social media. On 1st December, after the Dilshad Garden Church was burnt down we had a wonderful agitation in Delhi just by the involvement of people through social networking before the public gathering on 2nd December. Likewise, on 5th of February, Whatsapp helped us in getting people together.[37]

The possibility of organising dissent quickly around common feelings of victimhood made it simpler to gather people for collective action with the aid of social media. Social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook aided authority figures of the Church to make their networks understand the struggles of the Christian minority. It also provides a space for narratives of hope to fight against the injustices and take a united political stand in the public sphere. While discussing the role of the digital, another Priest highlighted how sometimes minority communities trust their WhatsApp more than mainstream media. They feel that mainstream media has ignored their plight. Therefore, when there is a call to action on WhatsApp, people respond in large numbers. WhatsApp has a trust factor and these mobilisations are a testament to this reality.

When it came to attacks and protests, we used only WhatsApp. People turned out in 3,000s and 4,000s and just one day before. Like the church was burnt in Dilshad Garden on 1st and the protest was on 2nd and due to WhatsApp we had a huge turnout.[38]

Thus, the possibility of mobilising in the public sphere and asking for equality under the law is the reality of social media empowerment within the Christian community in Delhi.

However, members of the Christian minority that have taken to social media to condemn the continuation of violence and harassment at the hand of extremist organisations are facing threats to their lives and that of their loved ones. One of the church leaders explains his experience of voicing his opinion online against church attacks.

When I posted about a famous Malayalam author, I get 1,000 likes, but when I post on the current government and its draconian ruling with criticism, I receive just six likes. However, I do get people calling me and telling me how great an article it was. Then my question is, “why did you not like it on Facebook, let alone comment?” This is because I have been identified by the Hindutva forces as someone who spews venom about Hindus and forcefully converts people. Abuses and violent acts towards me I can tolerate but when they go after my daughter, my wife, my friend who is the head of the parish, even his wife and so on who are closely related to me, I am terrified and they all are constantly threatened because of this. Moreover even liking my comments puts people on the blacklist of Hindutva.[39]

This visibility in the digital public sphere is also disempowering as it provides access to some majoritarian force to repress an individual digitally. The mobilisation led to leaders of the Christian community meeting the Home minister of India. The picture that was tweeted by the Home minister received numerous comments targeting the same Informant who was made visible in the interview picture shared (Fig 1.1, Fig 1.2, Fig 1.3).

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

These images of comments show the ease of recognition that certain Christian figures enjoy in the digital sphere. Majoritarian supporters of Hindutva are constantly silencing the voices of the minority in social media. This is done through the sheer number of comments and content which makes the digital media content skewed towards their ideology. Effectively, the overbearing narrative of the tech-empowered, hate-mongering Hindutva supporter supersedes the right of the Christian minority to be represented with dignity and equality. These members of the Christian community feel vilified and harassed online when they present their opinions digitally. A growing culture of group defamation that minority communities face in their digital encounters.

This has led to the proliferation of WhatsApp as the dominant social media tool as it is embedded in closed groups and inter-personal conversations. All the Christian communities in Delhi are active and expressing themselves on the WhatsApp network instead of Facebook and Twitter. This is an escapist approach in the digital public sphere as growing narratives of prejudices and discrimination online are disempowering the minority.

Nonetheless, there is also a positive take on the growing oppressive environment. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a long tradition of intervening in the political domain, India has no such tradition. This is because there is no consensual centralised Christian authority that could claim to speak on behalf of the entire Christian population. This perceived lack of unity between the Christian groups has seen leadership positively approach the new instances of violence.

I think so far—whatever has happened—I am damn happy it has happened. I think it is a call from above. We need to wake up, we need to get united, we need to realise what we are Christians and forget the segregations. There is no way that this government can put us down or shut us down. Now with social media we are more connected, therefore it is easier for us to come together as a united community. Well, there is a greater majority of people who are not too positive and they probably feel threatened. But I think they need to be more optimistic and I think there is enough strength in our belief to not just carry us forward, to make us sail forward and grow.[40]

The digital divide in urban spaces is closing down and the Christian community can be optimistic and realistic about the progress it can achieve as a united community. There is recognition of growing fear and anxiety in the community with the increased instances of violence. However, social media is being understood as a dialogical tool that can bring together the dispersed community for political participation.

The religious digital space and its communities are recognising that through inhabitation of the machines, humans come to life. There is a religious element of perpetual contact, which is enabled by smartphones as a medium of communication. These mediums of communication—when affectively induced—begin to approximate a ‘pure communication’ where one mind is shared and connected with others in their digital community.[41] The belief is to generate this oneness in the Christian community so that they can stand up together as a political force against oppressive regimes in power. The mobilisation on the 5th February is attributed to this connection of mind and awareness through digital devices about the Christian community as a whole coming under attack.

This connection of mind, according to Dong-Hoo Lee, is a consequence of ‘hyper-connection’ and ‘hyper-awareness’ of others in the digital religious community.[42] This hyper-existence with digital-religious logic affectively alters an individual’s engagement in the virtual. The smartphone engages the sensorimotor in a continuous manner, such as the engagement brought about by watching breaking news about violence against the Christian community. The installation of news channel apps is prevalent in the church communities; therefore, they are always connected to media narratives regarding atrocities committed by extremist groups.

This study also showed how narratives of church attacks and persecution led to an increased number of prayer requests across churches in Delhi. On average, the leaderships of the Churches were part of eight groups. Therefore, they were always able to narrate stories of persecution in Church meetings and share narratives of persecution on WhatsApp groups. Such narratives of being persecuted touches, moves and mobilises individuals in the digitally lived religion.

As shown above, these narratives of being persecuted also brought forth physical mobilisation in the networks of the larger community. The hyper-existence makes us affected by the content that we constantly turn to on our phones. The digital materiality interplays with our feelings and desires to generate bodily alterations to take us into participatory action in our technologically embodied life.


 This study shows how the Christian communities in Delhi have been increasingly receiving forwarded messages in their WhatsApp groups that are more cautionary in nature. As congregation members explained, “A year back it was more positive but now it’s more fearful. It’s because of political reason”.[43]

This is due to the proliferation of smartphone and promulgated content that alarms the minority community. The WhatsApp influx has content circulating of the Hindutva war cry ‘Pehle Kasi, Phir Isai’ (first the butchers (Muslims), then the Christians). The sharing of such discourse of hatred towards the community has increased the levels of anxiety in the community. The digital space is also having a detrimental impact on the communities’ ability to express itself in the public sphere. This phenomenon is visible on Facebook and Twitter as they are broadcasting media. Simultaneously, closed group options of Facebook and WhatsApp have empowered minority groups to assemble and demand their constitutional rights. The digital public sphere is embedded with disempowering traits for the minority groups. However, the digital in the form of closed groups has worked to generate courage and support to stand up against the atrocities faced by the Christian community.

The Digital India initiative under Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to protect digital minorities. The Magna Carta for Digital India is currently engaging with issues of net neutrality, quality of service, security and privacy. However, affording dignity and equality in terms of digital participation to minority groups is a constitutional mandate of which the current government has fallen short.

This systematic exclusion in the public sphere of minority groups will breed resentment. Therefore, there is a need to provide space for the minorities in a co-existing public sphere. Co-existence is accompanied by adoption, and this adoption is dependent on mutual dialogue that premises the understanding of another’s vocabulary. Therefore, it is imperative to allow minorities to voice themselves and their concerns in the digital and physical public spaces.



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[1] Sherry Turkle, Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, (New York: Basic Books) (2011), p. 2.

[2] When speaking of ‘the digital’, I am using it as an adjective because in its usage one can never consider it as exclusively digital. Here the experience of the digital is mediated through an individual’s physical expression through touching the screen, looking at the content displayed, and so on. The reason behind using the digital as digital space is that the experience of reality in this technical age is also a part of the metaspace. This article is dealing with this metaspace. Hence, ‘digital’ must be read as the digital space.

[3] FICCI-KPMG, p. 99.

[4] Government of India, The Constitution of India: Part III Fundamental Rights, https://india.gov.in/sites/upload_files/npi/files/coi_part_full.pdf, date accessed 26 January 2016.

[5] Constitution Society, Fundamental Rights,

 http://www.constitution.org/cons/india/p03025.html date accessed on 1 April, 2016.

[6]Vikas Pathak, Delhi Church Attacks: Reaction was Motivated says RSS Forum, The Hindu. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/delhi-church-attacks-reaction-was-motivated-says-rss-forum/article7874531.ece date accessed  25 March 2016.

[7]Sherry Turkle, The second self: Computers and the human spirit, (Cambridge: MIT Press) (2005), p. 25.

[8] Mark Poster, The second media age, (Cambridge: Blackwell) (1995), p. 30.

[9] IIana Gershon, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over new media, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) (2010), p. 3.

[10] Andreas Hepp, Cultures of mediatization, Translated by Keith Tribe, (Cambridge: Polity) (2013), p. 71.

[11] James Miller, p. 213.

[12] Steve Taylor, p. 25.

[13] James Miller, p. 217.

[14] Ingrid Richardson, “Touching the screen: A phenomenology of mobile gaming and the iPhone.” in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012), p. 135.

[15] Michael D. Myers, Qualitative Research in Business & Management, (London: Sage) (2009), p. 80.

[16] Anne Jo Ollerenshaw, John W. Creswell, “Narrative Research: A Comparison of Two Restorying Data Analysis Approaches”, Qualitative Inquiry 8:3: (2002), p. 330; Cazarniawska Barbara, Narratives in Social Science Research, (London: Sage) (2004), p. 8.

[17] Jürgen Habermas [1962], “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society,” Translated by  Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence, (Cambridge: Polity) (1989), p. 26.

[18] Jürgen Habermas, p. 4.

[19] Gunnel Cederöf, “Anticipating Independent India: The Idea of the Lutheran Christian Nation and Indian Nationalism”, in India and the Indianness of Christianity: Essays on Understanding- Historical, Theological, and Bibliographical in Honour of  Robert Eric Frykenberg, ed. Richard Fox Young (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co) (2009), p. 211.

[20] Gunnel Cederöf, p. 206.

[21] Gunnel Cederöf, p. 206.

[22] Rowena Robinson, Christians of India (New Delhi: Sage Publications) (2013), p. 90.

[23] Rowena Robinson, p. 77.

[24] Rowena Robinson, p. 173.

[25] Rohan D. Mathews, Fish workers Movement in Kerela, India. Dialogues, proposals, stories for global citizenship, http://base.d-p-h.info/en/fiches/dph/fiche-dph-8852.html date accessed 16 March 2016.

[26] Rowena Robinson, p. 189.

[27] Rowena Robinson, p. 189.

[28] Augustine Kanjamalai, The Future of Chrisitan Mission in India: Towards a New Paradigm For the Third Millennium, (New Delhi: Pickwick Publications) (2014), p. 108.

[29] Augustine Kanjamalai.

[30] Augustine Kanjamalai, p. 114.

[31] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 4, New Delhi. October 8, 2015.

[32]Arun Barua, Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity, (New York: Routledge) (2015), p. 15.

[33] Arun Barua.

[34] Antonio Anup Gonsalves, For these Christians in India, peaceful protests led to jail time. Catholic News Agency http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/for-these-christians-in-india-peaceful-protests-led-to-jail-time-33566/ date accessed 20 March 2016.

[35] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Retrieved from http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%202015%20%282%29.pdf date accessed March 10, 2016.

[36] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 26, New Delhi. October 26, 2015.

[37] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 11, New Delhi. September 15, 2015.

[38] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 12, New Delhi. September 10, 2015.

[39] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 13, New Delhi. September 12, 2015.

[40] Catholic Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 6, New Delhi. September 28, 2015.

[41] James E. Katz, Mark A. Aakhus, “Conclusion: Making meaning of mobiles – A theory of apparatgeist”, in Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance, ed. James Katz and Mark Aakhus, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) (2002), pp. 307–312.

[42]Dong-Hoo Lee, “In bed with the iPhone: The iPhone and hypersociality in Korea”, in Studying mobile media: Cultural technologies, mobile communication and the iPhone, ed. Larrisa Hjorth, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardson, (New York: Routledge) (2012), p. 68.

[43] Protestant Informant. Interview by author. Transcript 6, New Delhi. September 4, 2015.


Benson Rajan is a communications doctoral scholar from MICA. He has completed his Masters in Media Governance and Bachelors in Sociology from Jamia Milia Islamia University and Delhi University respectively.

After completing his Masters in Media Governance he continued his advocacy for media literacy and passion for teaching critical media studies. His research focuses on studying the relationship between technology, society and religion. He had also worked towards directing the documentary Internet Privacy: China sponsored state Hacking of Indian Computers built on the reports Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network and Shadows in the Cloud: Investigating Cyber Espionage 2.0. He has published his works on faith memes analyzing authority as reflected in the social media of churches in New Delhi and Affective Use of Smartphones. For the last four years he has been exploring Digital Religion and affective communication in India.

He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies in Christ University, Bangalore, India.

Shaming and socially responsible online engagement

Shadow W.J. Armfield, Dawn M. Armfield, Laura O. Franklin

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 37-49

Shadow W.J. Armfield

Northern Arizona University

Dawn M. Armfield

Minnesota State University, Mankato

Laura O. Franklin

Wayne State College



Shaming and socially responsible online engagement



The implementation of social media environments has exacerbated the use and visibility of degrading language and imagery, and shaming in online spaces is often different from that in face-to-face environments. Those who shame can hide behind anonymity or create images that are not associated with any one person, but that target a specific person or group of people. This research investigates ways in which shaming is used in social media and develops an argument for why and how it must be addressed within the learning environment. Teachers and students, working collaboratively, can create learning environments, including face-to-face and online interactions that involve positive digital citizenship, quality learning, and increasingly advanced communication skills.

Key words: memes, digital citizenship, online communication, popular media



In 1976 Richard Dawkins[1] coined the term ‘meme’ to describe how certain ideas spread to become part of a common belief structure. He argued that whether the idea is true or not, it often comes to be seen as valid. While the idea of the meme was not meant for the digital social networking age, it has been co-opted and used to combine short ideas with imagery. Dawkins[2] sees this as a valid use because “the meaning is not that far away from the original”. Social networking sites (SNS) are not only used for personal communications, but also for school activities in which individuals use language and imagery for communication. While the majority of posts are often innocuous, some can be hurtful and damaging, even visually depicting hateful and violent acts[3]. Such posts break down the core purpose of SNS, which is to spread engagement, connectedness, and social development.

When scanning social media feeds, readers will be hard-pressed not to find posts, memes, and videos degrading specific demographics and communities. From images of two women wearing t-shirts with “This is what a Feminist Looks like”, which has text below the image stating “Feminist: When no guy wants to touch you”, to imperatives like “The smell of cigarettes and shitty cologne, come out Persians we know you are here”, social media is used to shame ‘others’ from a wide swath of global culture. The constant flow of humiliating and potentially violent information presented on sites with quick reposts and little analysis, encouraging ‘likes’, ‘favourites’, or other positive reinforcements makes such posts appear innocuous. The simple act of posting and reposting declarations of inequity and dominance has reinvigorated the role of shaming in public environments.

While language has often been used to devalue and disempower others, the implementation of SNS environments has exacerbated the use and visibility of degrading language and imagery. Bitch, faggot, retard (including fucktard and other variations), and other defamatory monikers are used not only to shame the individuals to whom the language is aimed, but also to degrade the populations the words are meant to represent. By comparing someone to another group with a negative connotation, composers of information are implicitly stating that the groups to whom the individual is compared are worth less than the composer is and, as an extension, the general population[4]. The stigma of marginalization often leads to disengaging from the medium and decreasing the engagement, connectedness, and social development of those marginalized. Technologies, as dis-emancipatory engines, can often increase the scope and effect of this marginalization and shackle the ‘others’ to the negative connotations for as long as the technologies retain data.

SNS Inquiry and Methods

This research began as a study in shaming targeted at children with disabilities in online spaces. However, as the study progressed, the inclusion of different demographics and self-shaming—because of its impact within the social media platforms for the original poster and the audiences who read the posts—became apparent. The method of data collection for this research was qualitative in nature, drawing from memes posted on SNS by reviewing feeds in various SNS. The 124 examples of visual shaming in memes were collected over the course of one year, from 2014-2015, from various social media and online organizations including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, the Secret app, the YikYak app, Whisper, Buzzfeed, and others. Samples were selected by reviewing memes that focused on marginalized demographics, such as memes that used women, people with disabilities, or sexual orientation as their object of ridicule. The examples were collected by two researchers, one in Arizona, the other in Maryland. For location specific apps, like Secret, YikYak, and Whisper, samples were collected while in various locations, especially near college and university campuses, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, to determine if location was a mitigating factor in shaming. The research revealed that location did not have an impact on the types of shaming or the amounts of shaming that occurred, but was focused more on demographic specificity. For instance, African Americans were often targeted in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US while they were not targeted elsewhere. The researchers then used content analysis of the text and images, through a social semiotic lens, to determine how the content focused on marginalized peoples and the ‘othering’ of those individuals. As the researchers approached the research with predefined ideas about the effects and creation of the communication, it was determined that the social semiotic approach would allow a better way of assessing how the images create marginalization and othering, rather than the subconscious biased approach of the researchers. The social semiotic approach is, as Jewitt and Oyama state, “a description of semiotic resources, what can be said and done with images, and how the things people say and do with images can be interpreted”[5].

The researchers used content analysis to develop understandings of the visual data collected. Margolis and Pauwels suggest that in visual research content analysis is “a taxonomic and counting strategy for determining the relative frequency of certain representations within groups of images”[6]. Content analysis is “based on a number of rules and procedures that must be rigorously followed for the analysis of images or texts to be reliable”[7]. The resultant themes from the content analysis are then used to answer the questions below that the researchers posed to determine the validity of the research being conducted:

  1. Are memes being used to shame?
  2. How are memes being used to shame?
  3. How do technologies compound shame?
  4. How can we—as researchers and teachers—change the ways memes and other online communications are used to decrease shaming in online spaces?

In order to answer these questions, understanding social media, shaming, and memes had to be explored, as did determining a method for working with learners to combat shaming and develop SNS environments free from marginalization.

Social Media and Homogeneity

Social media has revolutionized the ways we can communicate with one another. From simple text-oriented messages through long-form writing to visual communication, the advent of social media has changed the ways we share and interact. Not only has the shape of the communication changed, but also the speed of that communication has changed. For instance, in 2004, when Janet Jackson entertained during the half-time of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Facebook had yet to launch (it launched 3 days later), and very few SNS as we know them today existed (discussions, listservs, portals, forums, etc., did, but did not have the wide reach and immediate impact of today’s SNS). In the next few hours or days, the event permeated media on American television, radio, and newspapers, and most of the international public did not hear about it for at least a day or more. Today, however, events and conversation about events travel instantaneously. In 2012, for instance, US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney commented during a televised (and shared online) debate about “binders full of women”. While he was still discussing the topic, Twitter exploded with comments and a hashtag (#bindersfullofwomen) and less than a day later a Tumblr page was sharing memes about the topic ridiculing and critiquing Romney for his comment. Because of SNS, the immediacy of critiques and shaming occurs much more quickly without much time for processing or assessing the validity of claims or critiques. Not only does it occur more quickly, but because of the homogeneity of most users’ feeds, many social media users make an assumption that their audience is just like them and will consequently, laugh, joke, or ridicule just as they would. As Kane et al. writes

If people are limited to establishing similar formal connections with diverse sets of others including trusted confidants, casual acquaintances, and family members in their social networks, the platform homogenizes all these relational connections as being equivalent (e.g., friends, contacts).[8]

Indeed, technologies such as SNS environments often encourage homogenized thinking and have been created to increase levels of connectedness and belonging, the sort of space Eli Pariser[9] called a ‘filter bubble’. He argues, “news-filtering algorithms narrow what we know, surrounding us in information that tends to support what we already believe”[10]. However, this goes beyond algorithms and works within all social structures and—because of that—the most salient theory to address this concept of mediated society is habitus. Habitus addresses the level at which the ways we classify the world in social capital are generated by structural features of that same social world. While Pierre Bourdieu was not speaking to the interactions within media, nor social media at all, his explanations of the ways we interact because of the environmental structural features is an important way to discuss our communicative processes in social media, and to define the reasons shaming occurs so frequently in social media communications. As Bourdieu writes

…the point of view is a perspective, a partial subjective vision (subjectivist moment); but it is at the same time a view, a perspective, taken from a point, from a determinate position in an objective social space (objectivist moment).[11]

Thus, in social media, dis-emancipatory communication is subjected to the perspective that is already defined by the system and which, once disseminated, defines the space in which the communication takes place and how that communication is defined, and speaks to the ways that social media platforms naturally create space for the designation of ‘other’. Being part of an ‘out-group’—those who are different from the perceived norms—requires a sense of otherness, being other than ordinary. Foucault explains the term ‘othering’ as how social groups tend to define themselves through the cultural boundaries of inclusion and exclusion[12]. This does not mean that we have no free will over what we post, but that SNS platforms create space for the designation of ‘other’ because of the ways they encourage engagement. The ways people communicate in social media and how some of these communication practices lead to the marginalization of individuals and groups is because of the ways SNS encourage users to share and create for automatic feedback.

Marginalization, which comes from ‘othering’ and stigmas, which Goffman explains as an individual who does not measure up to the normative expectations and righteously presented demands set by society, is usually discussed with a political stance on inequalities[13]. It attempts to fractionalize the different groups to which an individual may belong and then deconstruct them. The process of fracturing and deconstructing focuses on descriptive traits of individuals and this focus can “obscure the deep-seated power relations that help to produce marginalized subjects”[14]. Therefore, when someone is ‘othered’ and described as wrong or outside what is allowed, power is shifted and the individual is then marginalized. Hindman continues to explain that these individuals within marginalized groups can also be silenced or have their identity overlooked[15].

Goffman also describes how a shameful gap forms between virtual and actual social identity (not to be confused with a gap between online and offline identity, but as a constructed versus actual social identity) for those individuals whose stigma is fully visible because the norms that define the ordinary are very obviously not met[16]. The continual interaction of virtual and actual social identities are like a play whose main character is always in flux, always changing, and not always fitting into the norm or the stigmatized. However, the recognition that we each have this ability to play the other side is not typical knowledge or awareness for the majority of individuals. If there is awareness, there also exists the unwillingness to accept that my identity could just as easily be shaped by or fit into other. Stigma management is a process that occurs wherever societal norms are set. This type of management of what is construed as ordinary and what is ‘other’ happens in SNS. The concepts of power that are held by the group that is presenting and shaping the ordinary have far-reaching markets. YouTubers have followers that allow them power to dictate and perpetuate what they choose to present as part of the ordinary ‘in’ group. Through this presentation of ordinary, a sense of belonging is created for the in-group that segregates the ‘other’. ‘Other’ becomes the out-group, the target, the bullied, or the shamed. The hand-in-hand character of ‘other’ and ordinary can be observed through their symbiotic existence.

Shaming in Popular Media

Shaming in media tends to occur in ways or places that make another—often the protagonist—character seem more likeable, sympathetic, or understandable. For instance, in “Of Mice and Men”, in both the literature and film versions, George is seen as the character who must endure the actions of Lennie, his companion, even as he looks out for him and advocates for him. He does this all while shaming him, calling him a “crazy bastard,” “poor bastard,” or “crazy fool”. Indeed, Steinbeck exacerbates this view of Lennie by labelling Lennie as wild at the same time he addresses Lennie as an innocent who has a whimpering cry[17].

Shaming occurs in all types of media, especially pop culture media. In a popular song from 2004, the word ‘retarded’ is used to indicate a simplistic view of the singer’s emotions:

Oh, therapy, can you please fill the void?

Am I retarded or am I just overjoyed? [18]

This use of language is indicative of the ways that shaming occurs not only of others, but of the self, indicated in the title of the album from which this song originates, American Idiot, inflating the concept of self-shaming and/or ridiculing within this piece. In fact, popular music is often used to ridicule, shame, marginalize, or stigmatize others, but to also call out that shaming. In 2012, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, in their song “Same Love”, sing

Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board,
A word routed in hate, yet our genre still ignores it[19]

As the duo contend, language is often used in musical genres to promote hate and shaming without any regard to the actual influences of the concepts behind the words or of the words themselves.

The influence of words and conceptualization of the words is also explored in the film “Tropic Thunder”. Communicating the idea of when it is ok for an actor to “go full retard” is a segment performed by Robert Downey Jr.’s character (while his character is also in blackface, which is a double commentary on concepts of shaming in popular media). Downey’s character discusses the different performances of retarded, and what is or is not acceptable. Throughout this discussion the ‘other’ is defined at varying levels: full retard (Sean Penn’s portrayal in “I Am Sam”), slow and maybe retarded (Tom Hank’s in “Forrest Gump”), and appearing retarded, but not (Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”). Dumb, moronic, and imbecilic are terms set up as boundaries between these levels within this movie. The resulting commentary is that one can “never go full retard” or will go home empty-handed (from the Oscars), resulting in being less than the norm. This language is so fleshed out and defined that it attempts to encompass an entire population of individuals.

While these may seem rather banal and help to create an ethos about the characters and/or artists, when combined with the onslaught of this type of communication and the proliferation of media such as ‘shock jocks’ and political pundits who use shaming as a means of communication, much of society begins to see shaming as something that is the norm. Increasingly, we not only see or hear about shaming in popular media, but also see it in the places we congregate online.

Dis-emancipatory Technologies

In the early years of online activities, much emphasis was placed on the democratization of online communications. The online world was thought to be a space in which the oppressed and marginalized would have an equal voice because of the ability to post without preconceived notions of who anyone was. However, as more users become engaged in online communications, the opposite has shown to be true and online communications have often been much more marginalizing than face-to-face situations. The data collected for this research supports this reasoning. The use of SNS environments has not only allowed users to post memes that would shame others, but to do so without insight or analysis of what they are posting and how it affects others. SNS have created a space for speed and reach of shaming that was limited prior to the development of the technologies. Analysis of the posts shows that there is little oversight or questioning of posts as they occur and, more often, an acquiescence by audiences’ uses of ‘like’, ‘favourite’, or other ways of acceptance. For instance, in a posting of a meme with an image of the “Mad Men” character Don Draper laughing with a drink in his hand; the overlaying text is “told girlfriend that mom is deaf so speak loud and slow / told mom that girlfriend is retarded”. No comments were made on the post, but six people, at the time of the capture, had ‘liked’ the post. The lack of critique or thoughtful engagement in the use of two disabilities (deafness and cognitive delay) is common throughout the use of shaming memes in SNS.

In addition, analysis of the data indicates that the status of the poster (anonymous or otherwise) does not have an impact on the dissemination of visual artefacts that use shaming language. For instance, SNS users on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, where names, whether official or nonofficial, are connected to accounts, materials using shaming language is posted to those sites just as often as those in anonymous apps like Secret, Whisper, and YikYak. The types of shaming did not change. For example, one Facebook user, known by one of the researchers, posted an image with the words “Apple goes full retard”, while on Whisper, one user posted an image with the words “Taco Bell, you are the most retarded restaurant even to exists [sic]”. The use of the word ‘retard’ in these two instances is used to shame the companies for their actions and/or presence, equating the companies to those with cognitive disabilities, a marginalized group.

Memes in online spaces, images with words that are shared widely in SNS, have contributed to the dis-emancipatory element of SNS technologies. Not only do they shame those they are directed at, but shame those they use to create an ‘other’ environment. Instead of having a more open and freeing environment, online spaces have become more restrictive in some ways because of the silencing of those who are marginalized and further silencing of those who are being equated with the already marginalized.

Digital Global Citizenship

While we have determined that the act of being anonymous versus non-anonymous does not affect the outcomes of  posts, the ways that social media users regard social media as private or public may have some influence on what is shared. For instance, one social media user was clearly thinking about her audience on Facebook when she posted “So, based on recent photos of myself, my best Halloween costume option is Jabba the Hutt”. Not only was there the expectation that her audience would sympathize, but that they would lend support to her plight, as she shamed herself and compared herself to a very large fantastical character from a movie. She did not post the same message on Twitter, where her tweets would be public (her Twitter account is public). What this means to the researchers is that she has a clear understanding of what is public and private, even as she engages in self-shaming practices.

However, ‘others’, who may not be familiar with understanding the differences between social media audiences and the thresholds of private and public discourse, may post information that would create barriers to discussion and/or disagreement. For instance, one user posted an image of the actor Sam Elliott with the following text: “Why the hell should I push one for English? When you’re just going to transfer me to someone that don’t know how to speak it… [sic]”. This user seems to have assumed that her audience would be amenable to this sentiment, that they would not notice the obvious grammatical issues in the text, and that they would naturally associate the dialectical shift with the characters, western cowboy-types, that Elliott often plays. In addition, the user has made a definitive statement about a marginalized demographic: those who do not speak English within the United States that would not have a voice in the post unless they were willing to out themselves as ‘others’. She may not even realize that her audience, especially in globally available venues like Facebook and Twitter, will have people from that marginalized group.

Because some online users may not be aware of the subtle shifts in audience, private/public discussions, and the ramifications of the speed and reach of SNS (global audiences who can view a posting within seconds of being posted), educators have a responsibility to address social media and the marginalization that occurs within it with a focus on digital global citizenship. Instructors must educate more conscientious citizens who promote positive interactions and eschew the negative effects of ‘othering’ and shaming. SNS plays a large part in students’ lives and instructors must be acutely aware of the lives their students live outside of the learning environment. A social justice approach to education suggests that instructors bring in issues their students are facing and address them directly. Freire argues that for the greatest impact on learning, individuals must be prepared to “perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality”[20]. Teaching about digital global citizenship and learners’ roles within global communities will help them analyse situations in SNS more quickly and assess the appropriateness of posts and reposts. Rather than reposting, the lessons learned through a social justice or digital global citizenship lens will help students understand the ramifications of posts that are created to shame.

To address issues of othering, the learning environment must be created with a vision of citizenship that bolsters individual rights and makes apparent the responsibility of securing a common good[21] with a view to how students fit within a global community. The focus on social justice requires a renewed examination of the role technology plays in the learner’s life and her connection with others outside of her immediate locality. Because technology is not neutral, and is, in this case, more dis-emancipatory, it must be dissected to understand better why and how it is being used and who is affected by that use. Technology often fails to meet the standards of social justice due to lack of equity in participation, empowerment of individuals and groups, and the continuation of oppression and unequal treatment[22].

The inclusion of SNS in the learning environment (and beyond) has implications that must be addressed in the curriculum. Educators must work with students to determine the best practices for communicating and collaborating with others, especially when one understands the global nature of digital communications. Ribble[23] outlines nine themes of digital citizenship that should be taught within three overarching topics: Respect, Educate and Protect. The nine themes include digital access, digital commerce, digital communication, digital literacy, digital etiquette, digital Law, digital rights & responsibilities, digital health & wellness, and digital security. However, it is important to consider how these themes can be expanded to include the notion of global digital citizenship as an important curriculum that supports individuals in becoming more globally aware, having understandings of cultural differences when engaging and collaborating with others via digital communication tools. The chasm created by online communications can limit understandings of connectedness and requires that individuals know how these interactions have the same consequences (if not greater) as those in their immediate circles.


In order to create more emancipatory environments, there is a need to create spaces to understand how SNS users are taught to navigate complex social situations in social media platforms, how to engage with others, and how to promote positive reinforcement for others to interact in the global communities SNS provide. Working with learners, educators, developers, and thought leaders to work together to create more socially acceptable welcoming spaces will encourage connections with those outside of the composer’s localized community.

While the infrastructure of social media is naturally conducive to creating communities of like-minded interactions, composers in online spaces should determine how to navigate successfully the systems in order to develop positive interactions that neither shame nor ‘other’ those who are not a part of their immediate online communities. Communicating something that shames or has adverse effects on others is not restricted to an immediate audience in today’s hyper-connected world, but can live on long after the original posting in a global context. In order to not only understand the inherent problems with negative compositions, individuals need to understand what it means to be a part of a community in which they may not know everyone their communications will reach, how to navigate that successfully, and how to create positive spaces for anyone. The world is no longer a huge space in which people 5,000 miles away cannot hear your voice or see your actions. We should learn to be conscientious citizens promoting positive interactions and eschew negative effects of ‘othering’ and shaming.


Armstrong Billie Joe, “American Idiot,” american idiot. (Oakland, CA) (2004).

Bourdieu Pierre, “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of Groups,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32 (1987).

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Foucault Michel, Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. (New York: Vintage Books) (1988).

Freire Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing) (2000).

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Goffman Erving, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. (New York: Simon and Schuster) (1963).

Haggerty Ben, Lewis Ryan, Lambert Mary, Same Love, The Heist. (Seattle, WA: Macklemore, LLC) (2012).

Hindman Matthew Dean, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011).

Hollandsworth Randy, Dowdy Lena, Donovan Judy, “Digital citizenship in K-12: It takes a village,” TechTrends 55:4 (2011).

Hytten Kathy, Bettez Silvia C., “Understanding education for social justice,” The Journal of Educational Foundations 25:1/2 (2011).

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Kane Gerald C., Alavi Maryam, Labianca Giuseppe Joe, Borgatti Steve, “What’s different about social media networks? A framework and research agenda,” MIS Quarterly, (2012).

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Pariser Eli, https://backchannel.com/facebook-published-a-big-new-study-on-the-filter-bubble-here-s-what-it-says-ef31a292da95#.efly7enlo, date accessed 4 July 2016.

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[1] Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene 30th Anniversary Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (2006), p. 199.

[2] Olivia Solon, “Richard Dawkins on the internet’s hijacking of the word ‘meme,’”

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-06/20/richard-dawkins-memes, date accessed 28 July, 2016.

[3] Matthew Dean Hindman, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011); Brandy Johanson-Sebera, Julia Wilkins, “The Uses and Implications of the Term “Retarded” on YouTube,” Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal 6:4 (2014).

[4] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. (New York: Simon and Schuster) (1963); Foucault Michel, Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. (New York: Vintage Books) (1988).

[5] Carey Jewitt, Rumiko Oyama, “Visual meaning: A social semiotic approach,” in Handbook of visual analysis, ed. Theo Van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt, (New York: Sage) (2001), p. 134.

[6] Eric Margolis, Jeremy Rowe, “Methodological Approaches to Disclosing Historic Photographs,” in The Sage handbook of visual research methods, ed. Eric Margolis and Jeremy Rowe, (Los Angeles: Sage) (2011), p. 348.

[7] Gillian Rose, Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. (Los Angeles: Sage) (2012), p. 81.

[8] Gerald C. Kane, Maryam Alavi, Giuseppe Joe Labianca, Steve Borgatti, “What’s different about social media networks? A framework and research agenda,” MIS Quarterly, (2012), p. 6.

[9] Eli Pariser, The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. (New York: Penguin) (2011).

[10] Eli Pariser, https://backchannel.com/facebook-published-a-big-new-study-on-the-filter-bubble-here-s-what-it-says-ef31a292da95#.w42q9k6dg, date accessed 4 July 2016.

[11] Bourdieu Pierre, “What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of Groups”, Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32 (1987), p. 13.

[12] Michel Foucault.

[13] Erving Goffman.

[14] Matthew Dean Hindman, “Rethinking intersectionality: Towards an understanding of discursive marginalization,” New Political Science 33:2 (2011), p. 191.

[15] Matthew Dean Hindman, p. 191.

[16] Erving Goffman.

[17] John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, (New York: Penguin) (1994).

[18] Billie Joe Armstrong, “American Idiot,” american idiot. (Oakland, CA) (2004).

[19] Ben Haggerty, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Same Love, The Heist. (Seattle, WA: Macklemore, LLC) (2012).

[20] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing) (2000), p. 35.

[21] Kathy Hytten, Silvia C. Bettez, “Understanding education for social justice,” The Journal of Educational Foundations 25:1/2 (2011).

[22] Kathy Hytten, Silvia C. Bettez, (2011).

[23] Mike Ribble, “Nine Elements,” http://www.digitalcitizenship.net/Nine_Elements.html, date accessed 15 February 2016.

Dr. Shadow W. J. Armfield is an Associate Professor of Educational Technology at Northern Arizona University.  His teaching includes technology integration in K-12 environments and graduate research for doctoral students. Dr. Armfield’s research interests include technology integration in K-12 environments, technology integration in teacher preparation programs, and online collaborative learning environments. Recent publication include a co-authored chapter in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Building for a sustainable future in education: Brick by brick: Minding the gap: Valuing working class knowledge, and three chapters in the 2015 Media rich instruction. Current works include articles on technology integration in teaching methods courses and a case study on short term language and cultural immersion programs.

Dr. Dawn M. Armfield is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she teaches Technical Communication, Usability, and Research and Theory in Technical Communication. Dr. Armfield’s research interests include digital composition, online collaborations, and educational technologies. Her most recent publications include a co-authored chapter in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Building for a sustainable future in education: Brick by brick: Minding the gap: Valuing working class knowledge, and a chapter in the 2015 Media rich instruction. Current works include a monograph on remediation and a co-authored book on wearable technologies.

Dr. Laura O. Franklin is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Wayne State College. Dr. Franklin teaches education courses including special education, learning strategies, bias/stereotype/prejudice in education, inclusive practices for educators, and consultation and collaboration.  Dr. Franklin’s academic interests include the culturally and linguistically diverse/exceptional; emotional disturbance and behavior disorders; disability studies; postmodern theories related to identity, processes of stigmatization and construction of labels; and qualitative research methodology. Dr. Franklin’s most recent publication is a co-authored chapter include in 2016 Springer International Publishing’s Social Justice Instruction.

Movement as language, signification as identity

Hannah Ebben

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 50-67

Hannah Ebben

Hallam University


Movement as language, signification as identity: Understanding and empowering the autistic community in online spaces



This article is a contribution to ongoing research in online autistic culture by defining its overarching themes and presenting a new theoretical framework that could advance and empower both autism research and the autistic community itself. It studies autism as a concept that is constantly linguistically (re)produced in society rather than as a mental disorder. Focussing on YouTube as a platform for autistic identity, it features a review of existing academic literature about the autistic community on the internet and analyses two YouTube videos made by autistic people. After an exploration of the focus on geography and the performance of citizenship in the literature, it will introduce the notion of the counter-metaphor as a facilitator of new concepts on human diversity besides ‘autism’ for researchers and the autistic community. Its significance will be explained through a presentation of ‘atopos’ as one such concept. The overall aim of this paper is to affirm the notion of online space as a producer and platform of new language and conversations on autism. It considers analytical tools for the academic study of the geography of autistic people, but also encourages empowering negotiations of online and offline space within the autistic community.

Key words: autistic identity, online cultures, empowering technology, disability geography, voice, counter-metaphor, atopos



 Autism is a flexible concept, shaped in and outside the clinical world. Within a medical context, it has been conceptualized and defined as a disorder characterized by impaired communication, social skills, and information processing. However, many stakeholders outside the clinical and scientific realm also attach words, signs, and metaphors to the concept. In this way, it becomes a dynamic interplay of meaning, subjective experiences and interpretations rather than a fixed, universal entity. For twenty years, there has been room for the previously unrecognized voices of autistic people, who had previously been seen as not being able to speak.[1] The arrival of the internet played a key role in the formation of the first autism self-advocacy organizations.[2] Autistic people now form and maintain online and offline communities and further shape and develop notions of divergence and diversity. For researchers, it is important to know how this new community negotiates identity and the word ‘autism’, and for autistic people, it is important to have a podium to develop further their own voices.

This article explores how to understand and further encourage the empowering potential of the internet, and YouTube in particular, for people who identify with the concept of autism. It considers literature on digital technology, autism, and empowerment, and presents terminology that affirms the free flow of enabling new ways to talk about human diversity. YouTube is a social networking site based on video sharing. Visitors may freely view uploaded videos, start a channel in order to upload videos, subscribe to other channels, comment on videos, and make playlists. Both companies and private citizens own YouTube channels, and both professional and homemade videos have become famous and widespread. Autistic people have posted and shared simulations of everyday sensory input, videos on social and political issues within the autism self-advocacy movements, and informal blogs about the notion of autism.

In order to understand the social and spatial conditions in which the flow of meaning on autism thrives, as well as the role of the internet in this process, it is important to acknowledge the close connection between technology and society. In their study of online Deaf culture, Valentine and Skelton refer to thinkers on the social science of technology like Bruno Latour and state, “society is produced in and through patterned networks of heterogeneous materials in which neither the properties of humans or non-humans are self-evident, rather they emerge in practice”.[3]On the basis of this statement, this paper will adopt the stance that technology, society and identity are not static entities, but are unconsciously shaped by everyday practices of signification, mutually complementing each other.

It will consider the internet as a digital space in which these practices evolve. A literary review on the autistic community online[4] will highlight the significance of spatiality. With the help of literature that addresses the construction of citizenship, I will study two YouTube videos made by people who identify with the concept of autism: the 2006 video “In My Language”, posted on the YouTube channel “silentmiaow” from non-verbal autistic self-advocate Amelia Baggs (formerly Amanda; blogs as ‘Ballastexistenz’); and the video “What it’s like to walk down the street when you have autism or an ASD” by “Craig Thomson”. With this reading, I eventually consider the question how the online autistic community could be further empowered in and outside academia. I will suggest the ‘counter-metaphor’ as an academic theoretical framework that could facilitate inclusive practices of signification online based on the empowering qualities of digital technology. This specific term stems from my research into metaphors on autism in cultural representations. These are the themes that emerge from the narrative structure and stylistic qualities of film, literature and video that can be formulated as ‘autism as…’. In relation to such metaphors as found in culture, counter-metaphors are interventions made by people who consider these metaphors, in my case the researcher or eventually autistic people themselves. Inventing a counter-metaphor aims to enable a broader vocabulary and a free flow of signification to come into being in a way that further empowers autistic people. It aims to not only recognize but also support the way in which autistic people find their voice and how YouTube offers its platform online. A larger framework of counter-metaphors in and outside academia might eventually facilitate new sustainable structures of signification on human diversity. Digital media have been a platform for the creation of  words and meaning to everyday experiences. YouTube is one of the social networking sites that can be explored to study how this creativity comes to the fore and the way it could be further acknowledged and encouraged.

The study and encouragement of empowering technologies exemplifies a Cultural Studies approach[5] that stands for an open, interdisciplinary, and worldly engagement with multilateral themes addressing culture, meaning, and ideology.[6] It not only studies cultural artefacts, but is more precisely focused on their “use” in everyday life in a given political context.[7] This use indicates the way in which a political system is embedded in cultural objects that are produced and consumed daily and are usually left unnoticed. To research this, Cultural Studies scholars seek the social margins in order to strive for “demarginalization”, and regard for social diversity. Research that has been done in the field of Cultural Studies has had a very broad scope and is difficult to capture in one single methodological template. Nevertheless, it is important to consider its approach as it helps us to understand how to foster the process of demarginalization effectively.[8] The Cultural Studies approach in this particular inquiry strives to acknowledge the empowering qualities of YouTube for the autistic community as a group that has struggled to let their voices be heard. The field has borrowed its method of data collection from Media Studies, amongst other fields, but focuses more on the social contexts in which mediated artefacts has arisen.[9] In order to grasp the empowering quality of YouTube for autistic persons comprehensively, I will address its interface and the style and content of its videos. Studying the use of video in society, my reading includes larger themes such as the construction of autistic identity and citizenship through a negotiation with the non-autistic ‘norm’ within the boundaries of the YouTube interface.

After a short description of autistic voices online and the research that has covered it, I will present a reading of the two videos. I will then introduce the counter-metaphor through an explanation of the atopos concept that I have employed in my own research. I will argue that other researchers and autistic people could also invent such terms as empowering tools. In keeping with most autistic people’s wishes, this article employs identity-first language. This means that I will speak about “autistic people” in order to refer to people who identify with the concept of autism.[10] Note that this includes personal accounts on YouTube regardless of diagnoses. To maintain the integrity of the research, this article does not decide if the persons portrayed ‘actually’ have autism and only addresses discourse, although future analyses will cover online negative responses to Baggs’ work and claims.

 Online and offline autistic community

Notions of affirmation and emancipation are often approached in terms of the voice: being able to speak, being enabled to speak, and being heard are necessary conditions for the production and recognition of knowledge.[11] For a long time, ‘autism’ was seen as a negation of a speaking self, as autistic people were not believed to be able to be introspective and retrospective because of their lack of understanding of the human mind.[12] This has been problematized by the emergence of autism self-advocacy, in which autistic people make themselves known as  “actors with agency”[13] because of a shared story of living with autism, which renders it political.[14] Arising in the early 1990s, autism self-advocacy has been greatly shaped out of an oppositional stance towards the stakeholders that traditionally had delimited what could be said and what could not be said about the concept of autism, like parents, charity funds, and therapists.[15] The first recognized autistic people with a voice of their own still operated in the proximity of clinicians and parent groups. By contrast, the internet brought autistic people together as equal peers, which is a great factor of its empowering quality. Mailing lists formed its first online communication. A notable example is Independent Living on the Autistic Spectrum, which offered emotional support and a platform for activism. Due to their dissatisfaction with the emphasis on cures amongst parents, in 1992 Donna Williams and Jim Sinclair founded ANI, the first autism self-advocacy organization.[16] Today, autistic voices are visibly recognized online; for example, autistic vlogger Amythest Schaber offers accessible resources on autism presented by an insider.[17]

Literature of the formation of autistic voices and identity often employ as a method of choice an ethnographic study[18] or an analysis of questionnaires and autobiographical accounts[19]. These texts highlight the conscious and challenging choices of autistic people to disclose[20]and construct[21]an autistic identity against a backdrop of the increasingly non-hierarchical practice of signifying autism as explained above and the shift in focus from autism as a condition in need of a cure to a potential community.[22]The identity management of autistic people is influenced by the need to undermine stigma and stay safe[23]and is characterized by a dynamic process of negotiating a polyphony of voices from in and outside the autistic community.[24]

Writings that specify autistic culture online critically approach the potential empowering effects of digital technology[25]and remarkably often focus on geography, that is, the way in which online and offline communication are negotiated as different spaces.[26] The internet is significant for the autistic community and the research that studies it; literature addresses its status as a technology that could compensate autism-related communicative impairments. Jordan comments that online communication often lacks elements of face-to-face communication with which autistic people struggle.[27] In their study of questionnaires completed by autistic people, Davidson and Orsini quote one anonymous participant who states that the internet only offers “one dimension”: a text that can be read and written at any occasion, which fits their communicative style much better.[28] Others confirm that their social lives have been enriched by the accessibility of the internet.[29] The importance and innovation of the communicative possibilities that a website interface offers to autistic people is well known in the academic world: several articles refer to the belief that the internet might have the same significance for autistic people as sign language for Deaf people.[30] In addition, just like the Deaf community emerged out of a shared language and a shared space[31], the communicative accessibility of the internet brought autistic people an increased proximity to their peers, regardless of bodily distance.[32] In the case of Deaf culture, the internet offered more information and people to communicate with via text and sign language than did offline Deaf clubs. This meant that it formed a technology that, unlike cochlear implants, was not aimed at the normalization of Deaf people.[33] Similar to this, ANI-L, one of the first virtual spaces for autistic people, encouraged the affirmation of autistic identities rather than the search for a cure.[34] It therefore offered a space that was low in stimuli for people with communicative and sensory problems and did not pressure normalization. The close proximity amongst new people enables the formation of new communities, and in relation to empowering technology, the internet facilitates these communities and their unique communication.[35] Space is created through these shared activities.[36]

The geography of the autistic community is thus heterogeneously localized in online and offline space and the exact relation between the two has been explored in literature. Rosqvist et al base their article on two research projects on specific online and offline communities (respectively a forum and a magazine with an accompanying summer camp) andconsider both as enabling spaces for autistic people to enter.[37] Their geographical study of the autistic community distinguishes “neuro-separate spaces” from “neuro-shared spaces”.[38]In neuro-separated spaces, mainstream culture follows a non-autistic norm in which autistic people are either excluded or creating their own “safe spaces” of resistance.[39] Neuro-shared spaces attempt to accommodate anyone and are created when places are made accessible for disabled people. Through its empowering potential, the internet might be a leg up to a stronger offline position and thus a shared space with the majority culture.[40] In the online and offline alternative spaces studied, autistic people found a chance to find peers and benefited from the removal of the ‘problems’ of non-autistic society as their quality of life increased.[41] However, divergent interest amongst the visitors often clashed: socializing predominated political ambitions or vice versa, and disagreements arose regarding the possibilities of contact with non-autistic society.[42] The online forum studied especially displayed reluctance to transfer to non-autistic space.[43] Rosqvist et al state that the magazine project needed significantly more negotiation with non-autistic culture and was therefore more of a neuro-shared space aimed at wider inclusion than the forum. This made the latter more separatist and led to various discussions on identity that were less preoccupied with ‘fitting in’.[44]This research is interesting here because it considers the clustering of autistic voices into technologies and spaces that all facilitate a different type of identity construction with regard to mainstream culture.

Rosqvist et al mention concerns about a “ghettoization” of online autistic culture as an overly separated practice of signification and communication.[45] Jordan laments the potential ‘splintering’ of the autistic community caused by autistic self-advocates online who form a polar opposite to other interest groups. Such chasms could hamper the autism movement.[46] By contrast, Davidson and Orsini also address the fear of a diminished visibility of disability caused by online autistic culture and offer a nuanced study that carefully weighs up visions of the internet as a panacea versus the internet as separation for the autistic community.[47] In their analysis of questionnaires returned by autistic people, they study what their personal experiences of the internet can reveal about identity and negotiations of space. They argue on the basis of this study that “online activities are rarely entirely insular” and that the effects of these activities reach beyond autism, autistic persons, and skills that are solely useful on the internet.[48] This could indicate blurring boundaries between the online and offline world.[49] Some autistic research participants pointed out their overly long periods of time spent online, and some stated their preference for virtual and digital communication. Nevertheless, many indicated that their social lives and skills were improved outside the internet through online communication, with more overall empowerment and connection.[50] Social exclusion was decreased online as the autistic participants did not have to be confined to the space of their homes anymore with access to the internet.[51] They easily adapted to quickly changing technologies, such as mobile internet access that extends beyond the home.[52] Overall, many autistic people are shown to construct online spaces dynamically that are inclusive to their peers; they both confine a separate safe space online and improve their negotiations of space beyond those confinements and into the offline world.

 Performing autistic voices on YouTube

 The notions of autistic voices and geographies online and offline form the cause of the exploration of the imagery and geography of YouTube. The concept of autism (as well as Deaf culture) is being (re)defined and circulated online by heterogeneous peer groups in ways that do not necessarily reflect clinical understandings of pathological difference. The interfaces of digital technologies both facilitate communication amongst autistic people and shape the content of this communication. For example, autism forums only offer written dialogues and take away the additional challenging communicative and sensory input of face-to-face conversations.[53] At the same time, they might form spaces that are separated from mainstream culture, as the interface of a forum that is solely visited by autistic people does not require any negotiation with non-autistic voices and communication. This may result in discussions that regard mainstream culture as ‘alien’.[54] The performative nature of autistic identity—the notion that people ‘do’ identity through constant culturally specific practice—is key here and is closely related to space and technology. My own analysis presupposes the notion that the word ‘autism’ does not necessarily reflect a pre-linguistic, material reality that is based in the bodies of diagnosed people, but that it is actively being filled with meaning through all kinds of signifying practices. Using the word ‘autism’ brings a specific reality into being, just as if the declaration ‘I hereby apologize’ actualizes apologies. In the case of YouTube, a specific video is such a performative utterance in itself.[55] It is important to note that performative expressions evolve unconsciously.

YouTube facilitates specific performative practices of signifying autism through its specific user interface. It is a platform for videos that are accessible through personalized channels, open to comments, and can be made easily using cameras and editing software. Even though the comment section uses written text and can be complemented by autistic people at their own convenience, making a video itself offers creative potential with more “elements” than text only.[56] Meaning can be constructed consciously or unconsciously through editing, camera work, intertitles, monologues in front of the camera, or annotations. Overall, YouTube is a digital space in which individual practices of producing and uploading content forms the “main vehicle of communication and of social connection” and most users use the site to watch and comment on this content.[57] The analysis of the two case studies, from now on referred to as “What it’s like…” and “In My Language”, will address all of these elements.

My approach to these case studies is informed by several texts. The field of Cultural Studies fits into the aim of exploring signifying practices of autism in and outside videos distributed by YouTube and to the role of the specific YouTube interface. The empirical study of two YouTube videos are considered as cultural ‘texts’[58]; annotations, tags, and the video description from the poster as paratexts in which the video is presented to the audience[59] and comments from others as instances of reception of the video content. This highlights the use of cultural content in online practice[60] and thus opens up an approach that analyses the actions of autistic people on YouTube as an assemblage of video content and debates in textual commentary.

Additionally, the production of autistic identity and space on YouTube will be considered with the help of the literary review and the insights of van Zoonen et al’s 2010 article on the performance of citizenship on YouTube. In their exploration of citizenship in a multicultural society, van Zoonen et al read YouTube videos that react to the release of the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam film Fitna.[61] Their research questions regarding the study of citizenship, that is, how the videos claim their right to speak and who is the implied addressee[62], are closely aligned with my own consideration of autistic voices as constructed practices. They problematize common theorizations of voices in academia in relation to YouTube, as the rear end of the communicative process is often ambiguous in videos. People or groups addressed in a video do not have to be part of its actual audience, and many videos that declare a message do not explicitly address someone at all.[63] Van Zoonen et al subvert the assumption that voices need a clear addressee with the help of a “performative” concept of voice: expressions that are significant in and of itself for themselves, no matter who is addressed and who listens. Within this view, one becomes a citizen by ‘doing’ citizenship.[64] The appealing factor of this definition for this study is the fact that it directs the study of voice to the “deed” of citizenship, that is, YouTube videos and comments, and its participants.[65] My readings of autistic identity and citizenship in “What it’s like…” and “In My Language” will also set the content of stylistic choices of the deed at the forefront, rather than the intention of the creators. The act of posting content itself already constitutes citizenship. The following analysis will also be based on assumed audiences and the occurrence of autistic voices and community.

Both “What it’s like…” and “In My Language” are divided into two segments: one that appeals to a normalized gaze to the world and to disabled people, and another that subverts this gaze and establishes autistic difference and voice. However, the two videos convey a very different message. Whereas “What it’s like… is a more traditionally educative video that simulates a walk through the eyes of an archetypical autistic person, “In My Language” offers a translation to non-verbal communication as a breakdown of social expectations of autistic people. The assumed addressee in the videos is key here. “What it’s like…” features a ‘demonstration’ of autism as a difference in everyday sensory input. A fragment that displays a walk down a street from the point of view of a non-autistic “neurotypical” person is followed by a fragment of the same path that is now perceived by an autistic person. Both are introduced by intertitles that disclose the identity ‘archetype’ shown. The “neurotypical” walk is filmed with a steady camera; however, the “autistic” walk features increased brightness and city noise (added in postproduction), jerky camera movements, and superposed textual commentary. This commentary uses clinical language as the intensified stimuli is referred to as “sensory overload” that can cause a “flight or fight response”. The video description says more about its assumed audience: “It will hopefully give neurotypicals a rough idea about what it’s like to life (sic) with autism”. This gives the impression that the video is intended to educate non-autistic people about autistic sensory experience, about which he states that it “does vary from person to person”.[66] Nevertheless, many comments come from people who disclose their identification with the concept of autism and state to which extent the content mirrors their own personal experiences. YouTube user “Arman Kody” posted such a reply in the form of a new video.[67] Even though the establishment of autistic sensory overload in “What it’s like…” is mostly unilateral, its comment section does form a platform for autistic people to talk about their personal life. The video thus ‘performs’ autism as it is established through a contrast between two fragments that show clear differences in stylistic choices. The shadow of the camera operator proves that ‘normalcy’ and ‘deviancy’ had to be staged in order to be portrayed on film. Its educative nature negotiates non-autistic society by assuming an audience that is oblivious to the peculiarity of autistic perceptions. The video could thus be seen as ‘neuro-shared’.

By contrast, “In My Language” does not reveal differences but offers its assumed audience a mirror to its prejudice. At first, Baggs moves and makes sounds in a domestic space, but after the intertitle “A translation” appears, Baggs says with a computer voice that the movements were her “native language”. Establishing her language, she incites the assumed audience to look at her movements and sensory contact as meaningful in and of itself, as non-verbal disabled people are often seen as unable to communicate and relate to the world. While “Craig Thomson” directed his video to “neurotypicals”, Baggs’ implied audience is much more subtly interwoven into her message. In her translated spoken message, she refers to “many people” and often speaks in the passive when talking about false preconceptions on disabled people. This makes clear that her assumed audience covers society generally: not necessarily individual stances towards disability and voice, but discriminatory social practices. Because of this, “In My Language” is a statement that consciously deconstructs common assumptions from mainstream culture and presents movement as another language. Its comment section mostly contains reactions to this particular statement without much identity disclosure. Overall, Baggs’ space in and surrounding her video is more ‘neuro-separated’ since societal prejudice is contrasted with “people like me”, even though she addresses a wider audience.[68] The rhetoric of the translation clearly establishes an alternative autistic voice that is filled with significance, more so than “What it’s like…”. The assumed audience of “What it’s like…” has a lack of knowledge on autism, whereas “In My Language” refers to an assumed audience that is filled with prejudice.

“Craig Thomson” and Baggs unite both autistic and non-autistic internet users by their posts. However, the very fact that they use YouTube as a platform to creatively present autism, perception, and voice already means that they are part of a wider online autistic community. They actively shape and contribute to the online flow of new signs on the autistic condition through web pages. This already signifies a particular geography based on a creative structure of signification. It is exactly this geography that I hope to grasp better through further study and encouragement of new words on the concept of autism in the autistic community. In the next section, I will leave behind my position as a passive observer of an online community and will focus on my own textual inventions that helped me to understand representations of autism better. The nature of this invention, a counter-metaphor, could be transferred to performative citizenship itself in order to make an unconscious production of meaning conscious.

 The counter-metaphor

 We saw that the production of the autistic community revolves around an unconscious process of identity performance and this occurs on YouTube by sharing creative units. I would like to argue that YouTube is a fitting platform for me to develop further the notion of the counter-metaphor as a conscious intervention in the practice of signifying autism. A counter-metaphor is a discursive invention that is specifically intended to be a break with common normalized conceptualizations of autism. In and outside the clinical world, the process of meaning-making is so obscured that speech on autism is seen as a pre-discursive ‘truth’. Conversely, the counter-metaphor allows free signification outside the dominant pathology of the concept of autism. It thus broadens talk about human diversity, rather than replaces ‘autism’ when traditional words fail to bring everyday autistic experience affirmatively into words. New words that refer to this experience could also connote the lives of other minority groups, which could lead to new alliances outside the autistic community. In order to show how this signification process of the counter-metaphor works, I will now turn to my own academic practice: the invention of ‘atopos’ in my MA thesis.

My MA thesis focused on the representation of autism as a discourse and negotiations of space in literary and visual culture. I found that the word ‘autism’ failed to grasp adequately the way in which autistic characters and autistic people in personal accounts transgress the space that surrounds them. The word ‘autism’ has always been associated with a preoccupation with the self: it was first formulated by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 and stems from the Old Greek word ‘autos’, meaning ‘self’.[69] Ever since, imagery of autistic people locked in their own world has been dominant.[70] By contrast, my case studies, including the two YouTube videos discussed in this essay, showed autistic people who are preoccupied with space: they intensively transgress space and stimuli and are often absorbed by it in case of sensory overload. To enable myself to freely consider my case studies and their undermining subversion of the word ‘autism’, I decided to invent something new with the intention to empower my own analysis and the practice of signification by autistic people. I thus developed theory out of my data. I countered existing spatial metaphors of autism: a lot of language on autistic people is concerned with withdrawal from space (autism as a shell) or origins from another space (autism as alien).[71] A counter-metaphor concerned with space does not reject such metaphors but makes something new out of it.

The concept of atopos does prioritize space and is a “virtual, hypothetical parallel to the actual etymology of ‘autism’”.[72] It is also an Old Greek word that means ‘strange’ in the sense of being ‘out of place’ (a-topos: no space). In the same vein as Bleuler’s adaptation of an Old Greek word in his ‘autism’, ‘atopos’ forms the basis of words like ‘atopy’ in immunology, which refers to hypersensitivity to allergens[73] and ‘atopia’ in geography, which refers to a borderless world.[74] All of these terms touch upon lived experiences as told by many autistic people themselves. The sensation of sensory overload is a hypersensitivity to stimuli that can give a feeling of absorption by space and a loss of boundaries between space and the body. Atopos thus shakes off inherent ‘autism’ connotations and allows a whole new vocabulary of lived experience to come into being.

This vocabulary greatly informed my readings of “What it’s like…” and “In My Language”. It enriched my understanding of the representation of “sensory overload” in “What it’s like…” as I could analyze its jerky camera work as an atopic transgression of the autism archetype’s corporeal boundaries characterized by probing sounds and light. In the case of “In My Language”, the atopos term mirrors Baggs’ message. Her ‘translated voice’ states that it is ironic that her movements and touch are seen as indicative of a life in her own world; her conscious contact with space through movement already forms a language in itself. Whereas I rejected ‘autos’ and the idea of autistic people being in their own world to improve my analyses, Baggs retrieves her own voice in the world instead of a world because she transgresses and absorbs space with agency. ‘Atopos’ evolves into something new: into a language. Baggs’ term ‘translation’ might inspire new words and videos from autistic people who may build it into a completely new concept that breaks with rooted assumptions on autism and voice—a new counter-metaphor.

This is why I intended the notion of the counter-metaphor to be something that anyone could invent in order to broaden common language on human diversity and lived experience. My atopos counter-metaphor does not always help to understand a text from an autistic person better; in these cases, new concepts could be theorized in order to broaden language on human diversity beyond the predominant ‘autism’. In research on the empowering potential of YouTube for the autistic community, ‘atopos’ is mostly usable for an analysis of video content itself, but not necessarily for the study of the unique geography that the online autistic community generates. Even though autistic people worldwide can meet each other online in a world without borders, atopia, it cannot fully address the full complexity of the autistic community. Based on my literary review on online autistic space, I would like to state that Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia—as presented in his essay “Different Spaces”,—might be more useful here. Foucault uses the term to name the contemporary presentation of space as various “relations of emplacements”[75], which means that different heterogeneous elements form a space through specific relations.[76] In the literature I discussed, the autistic community on the internet was addressed as an intricate web of relations between non-autistic people and autistic people, being shared and separated, online and offline. As I lack the space to elaborate this, it might be useful to adopt heterotopia as a new theoretical framework for autistic online geography. The notion of ‘relation of emplacements’ may also be useful for members of the autistic community itself if it helps to articulate their negotiation of the difference between online safe spaces and offline spaces in which non-autistic culture predominates. They might create new words out of this or another concept in a signifying process that is similar to my own creation of atopos as a researcher. The counter-metaphor process thus aims to facilitate new enabling words that together might form a new structure of signification on human diversity. As the invention of words stands for creativity, it may as well be a conscious construction of citizenship itself.

The counter-metaphor as a facilitator of a new structure of signification within the autistic community on YouTube confirms and builds on cultural anthropologist Ben Belek’s findings of his 2013 ethnography of a community of vloggers who identify with the label of Asperger’s Syndrome on YouTube. He concludes that the vloggers and the autistic people who comment do form a community, but states that it is not enough to say that they solely share a diagnosis.[77] He instead describes them as a “discourse community”, which is a community that is bound through a shared form of communication that is specific to the history of the group.[78] A discourse community is confined to its own words, but there is room for change as the linguistic possibilities of the community can be extended by choice.[79] Belek argues that the autistic vloggers contribute to a large stockpile of texts that shape and direct their discourse, often in ways that touch upon the most basal understandings of the ontology of autism.[80] He points out the constant intake of new terms, theories, and metaphors that the vloggers deliver.[81] Based on these findings, he presents the autistic community on YouTube as a collective that could unite and develop a voice within the historical circumstances of the arrival of the internet.[82] It could create an identity through the active social construction of the notion of autism by transforming its meaning.[83] The YouTube community studied thus reconstituted the very category of Asperger’s Syndrome as a positive identity through a creative employment of autism as a discourse.[84] A conscious process of signification intended to be an act of identity formation counters the unconscious performativity of the concept of autism in society. As I stated in my MA thesis, “The insight of the autism community as a discourse community teaches that its members belong to each other by negotiating the discourse of autism”.[85] This essay has presented a similar theorization of the autistic community on YouTube with its discussion of two case studies. It has created an additional concept that might form an enabling discursive tool for new terms and words to arise.


 After the presentation of the ‘counter-metaphor’, it is wise to indicate the role of the researcher in its potential next steps. This article has laid the empowering potential of digital technology in language in and of itself. It reassures that it is okay to accept that the concept of autism is cultural and flexible. On the internet, it is a field for creativity and identity forming, and in the end this signifying process could eventually positively affect the geography of the autistic community. This does not pretend to neutralize the difference between offline and online space or to make each problematic element of autistic space obsolete. The internet offers many autistic people the advantages of a social space that is low in stimuli, bridges peers that are often from all over the world, and forms a platform for creative content. Within these circumstances, the geography of the autistic community could go in any direction. Even though concerns about ghettoization are understandable, in order to support the demarginalization of autistic people in research, it is important to try to understand discourses on autism. The interpretation of ‘autism’ and ‘identity’ is up to people identifying with autism themselves. In order to study the autistic community, allowing the free production of words and terms is key. This might ultimately lead to concepts that enable alliances with groups, spaces, or fields that now lie outside of the notion of autism, such as other marginalized groups with similar lived experiences.

This article has engaged with demarginalization through its combination of empirical research that induces its conclusions on the basis of observations of YouTube as a digital social network, and action research that aims to change the world it observes. Specifically, the counter-metaphor has both academic and inclusive implications as it interprets existing practices of meaning-making and encourages new words and concepts. I hope that my literary review and presentation of the notion of the counter-metaphor will inspire subsequent studies on the empowerment of autistic people. Considering technology as a bottom-up participative spread of information could be a starting point for rethinking ‘autism’ and facilitating the negotiation of meaning and identity, theorized here as the formulation of counter-metaphors.



Austin John L., How to do Things with Words. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955,(Oxford: Clarendon Press) (1962).

Bagatell Nancy, “Orchestrating voices: autism, identity and the power of discourse”, Disability & Society22:4 (2007).

Bagatell Nancy, “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism”, Ethos. Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology 38:1 (2010).

Belek Ben, “I Believe It Can Change the Way Things Are”. Identity Constructions Among Video-Bloggers with Asperger’s Syndrome on Youtube, (Diemen: AMB) (2013).

Bleuler Eugen,Demenia Praecox oderGruppe der Schizophrenien, (Leipzig: Franz Deuticke) (1910).

Broderick Alicia. A., Ari Ne’eman, “Autism as metaphor: narrative and counter-narrative”, in International Journal of Inclusive Education 12:5-6 (2008).

Burgess Jean& Joshua Green, “Agency and Controversy in the YouTube Community”, in Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place, Copenhagen(15-18 October 2008).

Coca Arthur. F. & Robert A. Cooke, “On the classification of the phenomena of hypersensitiveness”, Journal of Immunology 8 (1923).

Couldry Nick, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism,(London: Sage) (2010).

Davidson Joyce, “‘In a World of her Own…’: Re-presenting alienation and emotion in the lives and writings of women with autism”, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 14:6 (2007).

Davidson Joyce, “Autistic culture online: virtual communication and cultural expression on the spectrum”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:7 (2008).

Davidson Joyce & Victoria L. Henderson, “‘Coming out’ on the spectrum: autism, identity and disclosure”, Social & Cultural Geography 11:2(2010).

Davidson Joyce & Michael Orsini, “The Shifting Horizons of Autism Online”, in Worlds of Autism. Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, ed.idem, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press) (2013).

Dekker Martijn, “On Our Own Terms: Emerging autistic culture” Presented at Autscape (1999).

Ebben Hannah, “In constant encounter with one’s environment: Presenting counter-metaphors in the study of the discourse of autism and negotiations of space in literature and visual culture”, MA thesis supervised by László Munteán and Mitzi Waltz (2015).

Foucault Michel,“Different Spaces”, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion, (London: Penguin Books)(1984 [1976]). Volume 2 of the Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 series edited by Paul Rabinow (1998).

Genette Gérard, “Introduction to the Paratext”, New Literary History 22:2, “Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre”, Translated by M. Maclean (1991).

Jordan Chloë J., “Evolution of Autism Support and Understanding Via the World Wide Web”, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 48:3 (2010).

Rosqvist Hanna B., Charlotte Brownlow & Lindsay O’Dell “Mapping the social geographies of autism – online and off-line narratives of neuro-shared and separate spaces”, Disability & Society28:3 (2013).

Sacks Oliver, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales,(New York: Alfred A. Knopf) (1995).

Titchkosky Tanya, “Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name? “People-First” Language in Canadian Society”, Canadian Review of Sociology 38:2 (2001).

Valentine Gill& Tracey Skelton, “Changing spaces: the role of the internet in shaping Deaf geographies”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:5 (2008).

Waltz Mitzi, “Reading case studies of people with autistic spectrum disorders: a cultural studies approach to issues of disability representation”, Disability & Society 20:4 (2005).

Waltz Mitzi, Autism. A Social and Medical History,(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Willke Helmut, Atopia. Studiemzuratopischen Gesellschaft,(Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) (2001).

White Mimi and James Schwoch, “Introduction: The Questions of Method in Cultural Studies”, in Questions of Method in Cultural Studies, ed. idem, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2006).

Zoonen Liesbetvan, Farida Vis and Sabina Mihelj, “Performing citizenship on YouTube: activism, satire and online debate around the anti-Islam video Fitna”,Critical Discourse Studies7:4(2010).

 Video material

 Arman Kody, “Re What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Rj-s2gW3x4 (2011), date accessed 14 April 2016.

Craig Thomson, “What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plPNhooUUuc (2010), date accessed 18 May 2015.

Amythest Schaber, “Ask an Autistic – What is Autism?”, YouTube,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vju1EbVVgP8, (2015), date accessed 11 April 2016.

silentmiaow, “In My Language”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc (2006), date accessed18 May 2015.



[1] Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales,(New York: Alfred A. Knopf) (1995).

[2]Martijn Dekker, “On Our Own Terms: Emerging autistic culture”, Presented at Autscape (1999).

[3]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, “Changing spaces: the role of the internet in shaping Deaf geographies”, Social & Cultural Geography 9:5 (2008), p. 471.

[4]Martijn Dekker.

[5]Mitzi Waltz, “Reading case studies of people with autistic spectrum disorders: a cultural studies approach to issues of disability representation”, Disability & Society 20:4 (2005).

[6]Mimi White, James Schwoch, “Introduction: The Questions of Method in Cultural Studies”, in Questions of Method in Cultural Studies, ed. idem, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) (2006), pp. 1-3.

[7] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[8] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 14.

[9] Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 15.

[10] Alicia Broderick, Ari Ne’eman, “Autism as metaphor: narrative and counter-narrative”, International Journal of Inclusive Education 12:5-6 (2008).

[11] Nick Couldry, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, (London: Sage) (2010).

[12]Oliver Sacks.

[13] Mitzi Waltz, Autism. A Social and Medical History, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013), p. 133.

[14]Titchkosky Tanya, “Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name? ‘People-First’ Language in Canadian Society”, Canadian Review of Sociology 38:2 (2001), p. 136.

[15]Mitzi Waltz, (2013), pp. 134-143.

[16]Martijn Dekker.

[17]Amythest Schaber, “Ask an Autistic – What is Autism?”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vju1EbVVgP8, (2015), date accessed 11 April 2016.

[18] Nancy Bagatell, “Orchestrating voices: autism, identity and the power of discourse”, Disability & Society 22:4 (2007), pp. 413-426.

[19]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, “The Shifting Horizons of Autism Online”, in Worlds of Autism. Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, ed. idem, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press) (2013), pp. 285-304.

[20]Joyce Davidson, Victoria Henderson, “‘Coming out’ on the spectrum: autism, identity and disclosure”, Social & Cultural Geography (2010), 11:2.

[21]Nancy Bagatell, (2007), pp. 413-414.

[22] Nancy Bagatell, “From Cure to Community: Transforming Notions of Autism”, Ethos. Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology (2010), 38:1.

[23] Joyce Davidson, Victoria Henderson, p. 159.

[24]Nancy Bagatell, (2007), pp. 422-425.

[25] Joyce Davidson, “Autistic culture online: virtual communication and cultural expression on the spectrum”, Social & Cultural Geography(2008), 9:7.

[26]Hanna Rosqvist et al, “Mapping the social geographies of autism – online and off-line narratives of neuro-shared and separate spaces”, Disability & Society(2013), 28:3.

[27]Chloë Jordan, “Evolution of Autism Support and Understanding Via the World Wide Web”, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 48:3 (2010), p. 220.

[28]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 293.

[29]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 294.

[30]Joyce Davidson, (2008), p. 792.

[31]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, p. 472.

[32]Martijn Dekker.

[33]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, pp. 472-474.

[34]Martijn Dekker.

[35]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, pp. 476.

[36] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 368.

[37] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 367-368.

[38] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 368-369.

[39] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 369-370.

[40] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 370.

[41] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 373.

[42] Hanna Rosqvist et al, pp. 374-375.

[43] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 375.

[44]Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 376.

[45] Hanna Rosqvist et al, p. 377.

[46]Chloë Jordan, p. 22.

[47]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, pp. 285-286.

[48]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 299.

[49]Gill Valentine, Tracey Skelton, p. 481.

[50]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, pp. 290-296.

[51]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 297.

[52]Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini, p. 298.

[53]Martijn Dekker, Joyce Davidson, Michael Orsini.

[54]Hanna Rosqvist et al.

[55] John Austin, How to do Things with Words. The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, (Oxford: Clarendon Press) (1962).

[56] Joyce Davidson & Michael Orsini, p. 293.

[57] Jean Burgess & Joshua Green, “Agency and Controversy in the YouTube Community”, in Internet Research 9.0: Rethinking Community, Rethinking Place, Copenhagen (15-18 October 2008).

[58]Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[59] Gérard Genette, “Introduction to the Paratext”, New Literary History 22:2, “Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre” (1991), p. 261.

[60]Mimi White, James Schwoch, p. 5.

[61]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, “Performing citizenship on YouTube: activism, satire and online debate around the anti-Islam video Fitna”, Critical Discourse Studies(2010), 7:4, p. 253.

[62]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, pp. 251-253.

[63]Liesbet van Zoonen et al, p. 251.

[64] Liesbet van Zoonen et al, p. 252.

[65] Liesbet van Zoonen et al, pp. 252-252.

[66] Craig Thomson, “What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plPNhooUUuc (2010), date accessed 18 May 2015.

[67] Arman Kody, “Re What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Rj-s2gW3x4 (2011), date accessed 14 April 2016.

[68]silentmiaow, “In My Language”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnylM1hI2jc (2006), date accessed 18 May 2015.

[69]Eugen Bleuler, Demenia Praecox oder Gruppe der Schizophrenien, (Leipzig: Franz Deuticke) (1910).

[70] Davidson Joyce, “‘In a World of her Own…’: Re-presenting alienation and emotion in the lives and writings of women with autism”, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography(2007), 14:6.

[71] Alicia Broderick, Ari Ne’eman, pp. 463-466.

[72] Hannah Ebben, “In constant encounter with one’s environment: Presenting counter-metaphors in the study of the discourse of autism and negotiations of space in literature and visual culture”, MA thesis supervised by László Munteán and Mitzi Waltz (2015).

[73]Arthur Coca, Robert Cooke, “On the classification of the phenomena of hypersensitiveness”, Journal of Immunology(1923), 8.

[74]Helmut Willke, Atopia. Studiem zur atopischen Gesellschaft, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) (2001).

[75] Michel Foucault, “Different Spaces”, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology, ed. James Faubion, (London: Penguin Books) (1984 [1976]). (1998), p. 177.

[76]Michel Foucault, p. 178.

[77] Ben Belek, “I Believe It Can Change the Way Things Are”. Identity Constructions Among Video-Bloggers with Asperger’s Syndrome on Youtube, (Diemen: AMB) (2013),pp. 45-46 .

[78]Ben Belek, p. 46.

[79]Ben Belek, pp. 46-47.

[80]Ben Belek, p. 47.

[81]Ben Belek, p. 48.

[82] Ben Belek, pp. 50-51 .

[83]Ben Belek, pp. 52-53.

[84]Ben Belek, pp. 66-68.

[85]Hannah Ebben.

Hannah Ebben is a PhD student at the Autism Centre at Sheffield Hallam University. She gained her BA degree in Cultural Studies and her MARes degree in Art and Visual Culture at Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. In 2015, she worked as a junior researcher and project contributor at the Dutch research group Disability Studies in Nederland. Her research interests are the study of autism as a discourse in popular culture and society and potentialities for depathologized language and practices in autism advocacy and activism. With her background in the Humanities, she is conducting her PhD research in autism metaphors in film and formulating potential new and more inclusive and enabling counter-metaphors. She eventually hopes to extend her expertise to inclusive practices and methods in the interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies. Outside of the field of academia, she has been active as a presenter during British events organised for and by autistic people.

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?

Marta Stańczyk

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 68-81

Marta Stańczyk

Jagiellonian University

“Nostalgia for the future…” – prosthesis as a pop-cultural weapon?


Prostheses—especially those created by prosthetic limb designer Sophie de Oliveira Barata—are not treated as disempowering artefacts, but as a McLuhanian extension of man: a tool for creating identity and style while keeping individuality and offering liberation from victim status. Prostheses are not a weakness but a strength, a potential. Moreover, technology is not gender neutral, as prostheses can provide new options for women. “Glamputees” reinterpret notions of the female body, beauty standards, minorities’ spaces, etc. On the other hand, so-called alternative modelling recreates the traditional image of woman. In the following article, I would like to show the dynamics of the “extended” or “bionic” body and the social environment by rereading prosthesis through the theories of Vivian Sobchack, Anne Marie Balsamo, and Donna Haraway. In this way, feminist discourse enhances ambivalent perspectives on the phenomenon of alternative limbs.

Key words: prosthesis, disability studies, feminism, transhumanism, popular culture, ideology



“Forget what you know about disability”: this is the motto from the videoclip of Viktoria Modesta’s song Prototype. It designates what the future prototype of a human should be: part human, part technology. It combines natural and artificial instead of juxtaposing these notions, and by doing so, it highlights a new body image for women and new adaptation patterns for disabled people. ‘Armed’ with one of her prostheses, a spike leg, the Latvian artist becomes both an incarnation of monstrous femininity and a superhero—a pop-cultural cyborg overcoming biological deficiencies. Thus, Modesta becomes a battlefield for much discourse. Not only is her identity fluid, but so is her body. On the one hand, Modesta objects to the understanding of amputees as victims defined by their lacking limb. On the other, she has functioned as a glitch in the system to achieve celebrity status; she is known as a ‘glamputee’, reclaiming the traditional image of women while ostensibly reinterpreting it. In this case, the ambivalence of the phenomenon of alternative limbs is enhanced by feminist discourse.

Only by combining feminist thought, disability studies, technological progressivism, and cultural post-humanism can we approach the complexity and dynamics of the “extended/bionic body” in the contemporary social environment. The best way this methodological hybridity is embodied is by evoking the figure of a cyborg, popularised by Donna J. Haraway. Although overused and often misinterpreted, this theory of metaphorical “(con)fusion between the human and the machine”[1] has been actualized by modern glamputees: not only Modesta, but also Angel Giuffria, Amina Munster, Grace Madeville, Jo-Jo Cranfield, and above all Aimee Mullins. These women show that prostheses might be a way to claim positive ownership of their own bodies, to relocate themselves in traditional social structures. Their approach to body as a cultural construct is not negative: it is an opportunity for human enhancement, or even postbiological evolution. Therefore, it is an extension of the everyday practice of body modification, such as dieting, piercing, tanning and bodybuilding. Viktoria Modesta and Aimee Mullins are both extreme bodybuilders.

This shift of emphasis from disability studies to the body modification approach accentuates the productivity of the cyborg metaphor. There is a displacement: the former term conjures victimisation, passivity, exclusion, lack of agency, and objectification, while the second suggests liberation, negotiation, agency, (radical) identity statement, and (post-humanist) performativity. However, as I describe cases of women only[2], the issue of emancipating potential is expressed in rather equivocal terms: notions of femininity, beautification, media representation, and so on, collide with the post-gendered world implicated by the cyborg metaphor, becoming the epitome of hegemonic culture.

 Prosthesis Whisperers, or the context of disability studies

As Liat Ben-Moshe, Anthony J. Nocella and A. J. Withers critically pointed out, “Disability is fluid and contextual rather than biological. This does not mean that biology does not play out in our minds and bodies, but that the definition of disability is imposed upon certain kinds of minds and bodies… However, more than that, disability, if understood as constructed through historical and cultural processes, should be seen not as a binary but as a continuum. One is always dis/abled in relation to the context in which one is put”.[3] Disability studies are still engulfed in a more traditional, essentialist identity project that imposes a sense of “normalcy” defined by a dominating group that exerts these definitions on others, and creates dichotomies marginalising ab-normal and dis-abled. While “[s]ome in disability culture and activism view disability as a source of pride, some as a form of biodiversity”[4], common understanding still stresses the absence. Although full of empathy, one of the symptomatic definitions from the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act explains disability as “a difficulty or the inability to perform one or more major life activities because of impairment”[5].

The psychosocial consequences of amputation and adjusting to a prosthesis are challenging under this framework. Amputees must learn to accept a new body image, deal with perceived or actual social stigma, potential loss of independence, changes in social roles, etc.[6] “[B]odily appearance affects both social identifications and self-definitions”[7] and this stigmatisation is gender-determined. As the Dublin Psychoprosthetic Group revealed:

only higher functional satisfaction with the prosthesis was correlated with daily hours of prosthetic use in males, while greater prosthetic use in females was correlated with higher functional, aesthetic and weight satisfaction with the prosthesis. For male participants, functionality was important, perhaps relating to traditional social roles. For females, it appears that aesthetics is important perhaps through helping to sustain a sense of femininity.[8]

Therefore, many factors are involved in the transformation of the prosthesis into a tool or a corporeal structure. Cosmesis is one such factor that prefers a (hyper)realistic-looking prosthesis (so called cosmeses), but also simulates full-ability, disguises the artificial limb under clothing, and avoids situations which demand exposure, etc. This enables the achievement of a sense of “normalcy” or even “humanness”. However, as phenomenologist Craig Murray points out, “not all participants considered cosmesis as important, and a number of participants actually conveyed a distaste for the use of cosmetic limbs in general, seeing such use as indicative of an inability to ‘deal with’ limb loss/absence, or even as conspiring in an oppressive climate in which people with limb loss/absence were pressured to conform, or be ashamed of their prosthesis use. (…) a sizeable number of participants were militant in an approach that might be termed ‘prosthetic limb display’. Here, participants displayed their amputation, limb absence and prosthesis use as a method of defiance, resistance, and to challenge notions of disability. As such, ‘prosthetic display’ held profound personal significance and meaning to self and social identity, and was part of the politicisation of disability”[9]. In this case, prostheses are not only praised for their functionality, but also for their performative potential. They may become the ground of a new identity, self-expression, pride, and social change. This need-directed, individualistic approach to prosthetic design is a guide to rejecting anthropomorphism, sublimating high technology, and creating a transhumanist identity on this basis.

Furiosa’s prosthesis – feminist approaches to prostheses

Before mentioning a small range of apologetic statements on a culturally grounded approach, it would be useful to introduce Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenology of prosthesis use. In the article A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality, she refuses to compare her experiences as an amputee to Roland Barthes’ Jet-Man metaphor or H+ standpoints. She distinguishes her prosthetic and the prosthetic: a phenomenologically lived artefact and a cultural metaphor.[10] Academic overuse of this notion (e.g. prosthetic memory, consciousness, aesthetics) “for describing a vague and shifting constellation of relationships among bodies, technologies, and subjectivities” causes displacement and diminishes “response-ability”[11]. Sobchack calls for a more literal and material approach which has been “amputated” by cultural studies. This remarginalisation of amputees is something against which Sobchack is fighting. Her article is “intended to ground and lend some ‘unsexy’ material weight to a contemporary prosthetic imagination that privileges the exotic (indeed, perhaps erotic) idea rather than the mundane reality of my intimate relations with ‘high’ technology”[12].

Sobchack’s arguments are justifiable as an admonition not to divide (grounded on actual experiences) social studies and humanities, stating implicitly that the latter could be parasitical. However, sometimes this arbitrariness supports a change of thinking. Prostheses users are not an example of equal rights and possibilities, but rather they produce a new paradigm that is programmed and narrated through technology. In the case of Modesta and others, technology is a tool of subversion, combating prejudices about disabled people, and even creating an alternative hierarchy. Rejecting medical discourses and disciplinary practices can be a medium of renewal: “transubstantiation of the key elements of experience”[13] via “metallisation”, extensions, or body hacking (the next “sexy” metaphor, as Sobchack asks). There is a place for the other in the non-hierarchical, “remixed” world without power relations that was postulated by Donna J. Haraway.

Although technology is often treated as a way of excluding women, this is what Haraway focuses on. According to her, technology supports a non-dualistic, non-essentialist, post-modern worldview, while blurring boundaries and deactivating them through the image of the cyborg. Haraway sees the world as inhabited by chimeras, hybrids of machine and organism, and endless possibilities of transformation: “So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work”[14]. Haraway’s manifesto is not only a technofeminist theory, but also a programme of social change: “The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics”[15]. To manage it, Haraway requires cyborg writing, a reformulation of écriture feminine: “The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities”[16]. Expanding Foucauldian tradition, the texts to be rewritten are bodies and societies: “There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination in order to act potently”.[17]

Today, many bodies invite rereading via the creation of new corporeal narratives. Of these, prostheses are amongst the most powerful, raising concerns expressed by post-human and post-gendered concepts. Bodies composed of metal, glass, and plastic elements re-evaluate the notion of anthropomorphism and negotiate new meanings, especially in the case of women who are traditionally associated with biological functions and irrational status of nature. Bearing Sobchack’s critic in mind, I will not put female prosthesis users in the same paradigm of social change, feminist politics, and contemporary postmodern identity. I would rather focus on particular strategies while highlighting their ambivalent status. Viktoria Modesta and her video clip Prototype are my main references, but I also want to mention her role model and the prosthetic designers Aimee Mullins and Sophie de Oliveira Barata, respectively.

Speaking doll: Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins was born with fibular hemimelia, a condition that resulted in the amputation of her both legs below the knees. However, as we can read on her webpage, “[b]y age two, she had learned to walk on prosthetic legs, and spent her childhood doing the usual athletic activities of her peers: swimming, biking, softball, soccer, and skiing, always alongside ‘able-bodied’ kids”[18]. The rest of her biography contains information about educational and sports successes. She was a medal winner at the 1996 Paralympics, where she wore her sprinting legs: Flex-Foot Cheetah designed by Van Phillips. Nowadays, they are commonly used by amputee athletes, but Mullins was the first person to do so, which brought her a lot of publicity. She has become a spokesperson for disabled people, encouraging change and discussing prosthetic design and body image at numerous conferences. She has worked as a model (e.g. appearing for Alexander McQueen in a runway show in beautiful wooden carved prostheses) and an actor, debuting in multiple roles in Matthew Barney’s avant-garde Cremaster 3 (wearing leopard and glass/polyurethane alternative limbs amongst others). Called “Wonder Woman” or “Fashion-able”, located in the context of evolution (Italian Wired published an article about her entitled Evoluzione in corso[19]) and human enhancement, she tries to wield influence on society by renarrating disability and being at the forefront of cultural change.

In one of her popular TED talks, she stated an important shift:

The conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It’s a conversation about augmentation. It’s a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn’t represent the need to replace loss anymore. (…) [P]eople that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment[20].

Even Vivian Sobchack mentions Aimee Mullins and her three pairs of legs (as a matter of fact she has twelve pairs in different shapes, made of various materials, and enabling her to modify her height) as an example of conjoining literal (prosthetic experience) and figural (prosthesis as a metaphor).[21] However, the American writer is alerted by the ambiguity evoked by an aestheticization of the disability discourse summarised in the statement “Poetry matters”.

Mullins places prosthesis in the body modification arena, undermining its status: “What does a beautiful woman look like? What is a sexy body? And what does it mean to have a disability? Pamela Anderson has more prosthetic in her body than me… Nobody calls her disabled”. Something we can call a joke becomes a serious argument about body image, canons of beauty, and body-oriented technologies. The latter shows that plastic surgery may be disempowering, whereas prostheses might be emancipating. However, this includes aesthetics; Mullins treats her prostheses as sculptures. Rejecting the anthropomorphic, she advances a beauty ideal, offering new possibilities.

Kim Toffoletti does not combine plastic with a symbol of consumptionism, and thus being fake and homogeneous. This is related to elasticity, variability, and transformation. Toffoletti rejects traditional depictions of Barbie dolls and their feminist frame of reference and tries to rework this narrative via the notion of plasticity. She points out that “it can serve as a strategy to hack into the phallogocentric codes that structure ideals of femininity and scramble interpretations of embodiment that reinscribe an unchanging and essentialised myth of woman as tied to nature”.[22] Regardless of the potentially subversive quality, this reinterpretation can have, Toffoletti writes about post-human examples: a CD cover for post-gendered Marilyn Manson, an advertisement inspired by body hacktivism, and bio-artists’ experiments. Mullins, with her pair of everyday Barbie-like legs (and named of one of the most beautiful people in the world by People), seems to reclaim traditional body image. Although inspirational, admirable and brave, Mullins is more often associated with the catwalk than Stelarc, and with a celebrity status rather than activist actions. Pop culture gladly consumes her activities, which can be liberating, but, alas, mostly for her, not for the group she is representing.

Prosthetic fetishism: Viktoria Modesta

While Mullins is a white, upper-middle class American, Modesta’s background is different: she was socially and economically underprivileged, which affected her access to prosthetics and medical help. She was born in Latvia (under the Soviet regime) and her bone structure was severely damaged during a forced birth. At the age of 12, the artist moved with her mother to London where she became passionate about the aesthetic eccentricity of underground subculture. Three years later, when she started a career in alternative modelling, “she decided that realising her dreams and exploring her potential was simply not possible with the uncertainty of her dysfunctioning leg; a burden left after 15 surgeries under the USSR system. Inspired by creative cult imagery of Alexander McQueen and Matthew Barney [with whom Mullins was working – M. S.], VM approached doctors to have her lower limb amputated and replaced by a prosthetic in order to finally take control over her body. After a five-year battle to find support for her decision among the medical profession, she finally had a voluntary operation at the age of 20”.[23] Essentially, this bio from Modesta’s webpage is a story about gaining morphological freedom. Coupled with a feminist or even—due to her ancestry—postcolonial approach, Modesta could be the perfect figure of a cyborg, progressive body-identity relation, and human augmentation in an oppressive social context. “I upgraded my opportunities, my comfort, my body. It was really empowering”.[24] Deliberately exploring the issue of modern identity, combining technology and performance, fashion and avant-garde, MTV and MIT Lab, she changes emancipatory disability narration from clichéd Helen Keller stories and moves it closer to cyberpunk. As Haraway puts it: “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”[25].

Additionally, there is a notion of reclaiming one’s body, taking control of it: “[t]he profound sense that a prosthetic limb could be a ‘life enhancing tool’ was apparent”[26]. On the other hand, Modesta highlights the significance of reflecting one’s personality through an altered body image; this is precisely what gains media attention and opens numerous doors, even those of breakfast television. As Anna Moore wrote in an article in The Times, “She’s stunning—with her rolled hair and doll face, she looks like Bettie Page landed in Blade Runner—but the biggest buzz is reserved for her legs”[27]. Brass leg, stereo leg, light leg, spike leg, crystal leg; these are a few examples of Modesta’s alternative limbs functioning as both fashion items and art projects, modifying her into a “bionic pop artist”.

Viktoria Modesta intensifies Mullins’ ambiguous interconnection with pop culture and the contemporary media landscape, while Aimee Mullins spoke about the “X factor”, the potential of human will that is often ignored by physicians, something unpredictable and unappreciated[28]. Modesta performed in The X Factor final and made her first music video, and Mullins contributed to another TED talk. These differences may generate Haraway’s future heteroglossia. Nevertheless, leaving all the differences aside, both women are interconnected by their equivocal status in popular culture. The video clip accompanying the song Prototype is Modesta’s most discussed work to date.[29] It was produced as a part of the “Born Risky” campaign launched by Channel 4, a British TV channel particularly committed to issues of diversity, cumulating alternative voices and taking creative risks. The first imagery is mostly aural: a pointed tool rings out sharply as it comes down onto a glass surface. It later turns out the tool in question is the singer’s spike leg. The abstract quality of this scene announces a new nameless experience. The next image presents Modesta as a queen or even a goddess. Sitting on a high throne, she is surrounded by three hooded faceless men performing amputation surgery on her leg. The main plot line of this video clip concentrates on VM’s cult in some historically undefined police state—her Betty Boop-like cartoon character transforming to a superhero inspires a rebellion (symbolically represented by moths flying around the illuminated limb in a leitmotiv). Her prosthesis wields superpower, but its connotations with new identity and individuality are more important, encouraging people to stand up for themselves. This interpretation is validated by another scene in which VM is engaged in sexual relations with a man and a woman while not wearing any of her prostheses, suggesting that her identity is fluid, more complex, non-dualistic and receptive.

The first problematic issue with this clip occurs in the final scene: VM, wearing her spike leg, is walking and then starts a fierce dance. In spite of the warrior-like stylization, her empowering message is weakened by the puppet strings attached to her body (another doll-like, gendered metaphor after Mullins’ Barbie legs). However, there are more inaccuracies within the context in which she puts herself. Firstly, her body is fragmented—and as Laura Mulvey explained in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema—it fetishizes women and represents her as an object of male desire.[30] As the clip’s director, Saam Farahmand, explains: “It was very important to create a deliberate collision between (the physical realities of amputation) and the fantasies of sexualisation in pop culture”[31]. However, why combine the two instead of creating a new language based on the plot of female subversive powers? An uncontrollable and therefore threatening force is reduced to a sexualized object. Secondly, Modesta interchanges an anthropocentric paradigm with an egocentric one: seemingly anarchistic movement turns into a subsequent authoritarian system. Moreover, it brings the cyborg back into its primal militant context. As Haraway emphasises, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”[32], but Modesta inverts this attitude. She recreates the cyborg metaphor not to blur boundaries, but to create new ones. This subject-centred approach stems from treating one’s life as a work of art and does not take into account a wider social context.[33] In the first verse, she sings “We’re playing god/And now’s the time/We’re limitless, we’re not confined/It’s our future”, but after that she immediately changes “we” for “I”.

Modesta does not think about productive social change, her DIY ethos[34] substitutes collective thinking and that is how she goes a step further than Aimee Mullins towards popular culture and standardized identity. Attached to a more underground culture, but yearning for common recognition, the Latvian artist merges subversive and normative figures and puts herself at the forefront of change, while recreating traditional structures. However, her individuality is not as extreme as she presents it; it rather depends on the designer of the prosthetic.

Prosthetic personality: Sophie de Oliveira Barata

Writing about “technoculture”, Anne Marie Balsamo points out:

[t]his is a mind-set that enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into what is possible. This imagination is performative: it improvises without constraints to create something new. (…) In the active engagement between human beings and technological elements, culture too is reworked through the development of new narratives, new myths, new rituals, new modes of expression, and new knowledge that make the innovation meaningful.[35]

By creating new technologies, people can reproduce cultural structures and offer alternate ways of thinking, because innovations are not objects, but more “hybrid socio-technical-cultural assemblages”.[36] Therefore, technology can provide us with new possibilities, if access to creating it and programming social and cultural transformation is open. Nevertheless, as long as women have limited access to it, they remain only objects of scientific discourse.

The process of doing things differently may be the work of women, but not the expression of essential feminine insight; it may seek different horizons, but not necessarily better ones; it may manifest different values, but not different outcomes. The gendered transformation of the technological imagination is not solely a matter of theory, but a matter of praxis.[37]

Therefore, it is not a case of ordinary gender appropriation but—once again—enhancement and equality.

This can be achieved with Sophie de Oliveira Barata and her Alternative Limb Prosthesis (AltLimbPro). Having studied special-effects prosthetics in London, she has been customising prostheses in her London workshop since September 2011, creating them as an expression of personality and individual traits. Functionality remains important, but de Oliveira Barata’s adjustments help in adaptation after limb loss in terms of new body image acceptance and fighting victimisation and social stigma: “It’s drawing attention to their disability in a positive way… Rather than people seeing what’s missing, it’s about what they’ve got… Having an alternative limb is about claiming control and saying ‘I’m an individual and this reflects who I am'”.[38] So called ‘gadget limbs’ trigger discussion in a more potent way than amputees themselves. Although without any feminist agenda, de Oliveira Barata’s projects meet mostly female expectations. With the exception of, for example, veteran Ryan Sneary and his anatomical leg, ArtLimbPro has created prostheses such as a floral porcelain leg, a snake arm, feather armour, and Priscilla. All are meticulously made, with an artistic or even surrealist touch, satisfying not only the fashion aspirations of their owners and alternative modelling’s quirky demands, but even exhibition curators. These tools are “upgrading” disabled people who can still be on the margins of society, but are also now seen as free agents, performance artists and directors of gazes. It offers both empowering potential and pop-cultural lure.

This ambiguity is something we cannot remove. Alternative limbs (not only those made by de Oliveira Barata) help in the process of politicization of the body, upgrading humanity, and even creating body 2.0 which can be an expression of transhumanist ideals. However, these prostheses are always interconnected with a cobweb of oppressive structures. Aimee Mullins and Viktoria Modesta have a pop-cultural potential that emerges from their privileged position as young and good-looking women.[39] These features attract the cultural industry, which overuses the potential of these models’ counterfeit alternativity. They both live in developed countries and were raised in a hegemonic society; therefore, their race is entwined ideologically with their high position and publicity, causing (re)exclusion and (re)disempowerement of the disabled. Their status transforms them into living artefacts and increases their opportunities, overshadowing Giorgio Agamben’s “rest”. Modesta and Mullins are intercepted by pop-culture: they are H+ Barbie dolls with diminished potential of social change by the same means they are using for publicity and even for social agenda. Although rather elitist, de Oliveira Barata’s work seems more potent, transgressing boundaries not on stage, but in her workshop. She creates the transhumanist ‘Other’, but also makes the human body a site of inquiry, exposing it to ideological discourse. Is this a perfect human free of limitations or a product used instrumentally and arbitrarily by traditional notions of popular culture? The body (even hard-wired) remains political and highly ambiguous.


 Aimee Mullins, http://www.aimeemullins.com/about.php, date accessed 15 April 2015.

Anthony Andrew, “Meet the woman who turns artificial limbs into works of art”, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/29/artificial-limbs-art-de-oliveira-barata-interview, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Balsamo Anne, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, (Durham-London: Duke University Press) (2011).

Ben-Moshe Liat, Nocella Anthony J., Withers A. J., “Queer-Cripping Anarchism: Intersections and Reflections on Anarchism, Queer-ness, and Dis-Ability”, in Queering Anarchism, ed. C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano (Oakland, CA: AK Press) (2013).

Ben-Moshe Liat, Magaña Sandy, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color”, Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2:2 (2014).

Diprose Rosalyn, “Continental Philosophy: Thinking the Corporeal with the Political”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 50:2 (2012).

Gutierrez Jené, “Prosthetic Limbs as Art: Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project’, Beautiful/Deacy, http://beautifuldecay.com/2013/11/18/prosthetic-limbs-art-sophie-de-oliveira-baratas-alternative-limb-project/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Haraway Donna J., Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991).

Mansfield Nick, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway, (Sydney: Allen&Unwin) (2000).

McLaren Margaret A., Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2002).

Monroe Jazz, “‘Bionic Pop Star’ Viktoria Modesta invades X Factor final”,  Dazed, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/22934/1/bionic-pop-star-viktoria-modesta-invades-x-factor-final, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Moore Anna, “Viktoria Modesta: ‘My leg is gone. I have nothing to hide”, The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3530833.ece, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Mullins Aimee, Aimee Mullins: Szansa, którą niosą przeciwności, TEDMED 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity?language=pl, date accessed 15 April 2016.

Mulvey Laura, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16:3 (1975), pp. 6-18

Murray Craig (ed.), Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010).

Sevo Ruta, Basics About Disabilities and Science and Engineering Education, (Atlanta, GA: under the direction of Robert L. Todd, Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology) (2011).

Sobchack Vivian, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: Univerity of California Press) (2004).

Toffoletti Kim, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body, (London-New York: I.B. Tauris) (2007).

Viktoria Modesta, http://www.viktoriamodesta.com/, date accessed 15 April 2016.


[1] Kim Toffoletti, Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture, and the Posthuman Body, (London–New York: I.B. Tauris) (2007), p. 2.

[2] Modern veterans could be an interesting case study: “[B]ig change has been wrought by the number of military amputees produced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘They’re quite proud of their limbs,’ says De Oliveira Barata. ‘They tend to have a different mode of thinking in general, perhaps because they’ve been prepped up about what might happen. They’re quite impressive. They have this attitude as if it’s almost a badge of honour and I think that has a knock-on effect. The metal work and the componentry is becoming more and more slick and robotic, and they love all that.’” (Andrew Anthony, “Meet the woman who turns artificial limbs into works of art”, The Guardian,

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/29/artificial-limbs-art-de-oliveira-barata-interview, date accessed 15 April 2016).

[3] Liat Ben-Moshe, Anthony J. Nocella, A. J. Withers, “Queer-Cripping Anarchism: Intersections and Reflections on Anarchism, Queer-ness, and Dis-Ability”, in Queering Anarchism, ed. C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano (Oakland, CA: AK Press) (2013), pp. 210-211.

[4] Liat Ben-Moshe and Sandy Magaña, “An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color”, Women, Gender, and Families of Color 2:2 (2014), p. 106.

[5] Ruta Sevo, Basics About Disabilities and Science and Engineering Education, (Atlanta, GA: under the direction of Robert L. Todd, Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, Georgia Institute of Technology) (2011), p. 31.

[6] See: Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, “Adaptation to Amputation and Prosthesis Use”, in Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Craig Murray (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010), pp. 65-66.

[7] Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, p. 70.

[8] Elisabeth Schaffalitzky, Pamela Gallagher, Deirdre Desmond, and Malcolm MacLachlan, p. 71.

[9] Craig Murray, “Understanding Adjustment and Coping to Limb Loss and Absence through Phenomenologies of Prosthesis Use”, in Amputation, Prosthesis Use, and Phantom Limb Pain: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, ed. Craig Murray (New York-Dordrecht-Heidelberg-London: Springer) (2010), pp. 88-89.

[10] See: Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: Univerity of California Press) (2004), p. 206.

[11] Vivian Sobchack, p. 207.

[12] Vivian Sobchack, pp. 219-220.

[13] Nick Mansfield, Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway, (Sydney: Allen&Unwin) (2000), p. 152.

[14] Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York: Routledge) (1991), p. 154.

[15] Donna J. Haraway, p. 150.

[16] Donna J. Haraway, p. 175.

[17] Donna J. Haraway, p. 181.

[18] Aimee Mullins, http://www.aimeemullins.com/about.php, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[19] Jill Greenberg, Cover of Wired Italy: Evoluzione in corso, April 2009.

[20] Aimee Mullins i jej 12 par nóg, TED 2009,

https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics?language=pl#t-519012, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[21] See: Vivian Sobchack, p. 225.

[22] Kim Toffoletti, p. 79.

[23] Viktoria Modesta, http://www.viktoriamodesta.com/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[24] Andrew Anthony.

[25] Donna J. Haraway, p. 149.

[26] Craig Murray, p. 87.

[27] Anna Moore, “Viktoria Modesta: ‘My leg is gone. I have nothing to hide”, The Times, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article3530833.ece, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[28] Aimee Mullins: Szansa, którą niosą przeciwności, TEDMED 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_the_opportunity_of_adversity?language=pl, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[29] Modesta recorded her first EP but none of her songs have gained broad publicity.

[30] See: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16:3 (1975), pp. 6-18.

[31] Jazz Monroe, “‘Bionic Pop Star’ Viktoria Modesta invades X Factor final”,  Dazed, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/22934/1/bionic-pop-star-viktoria-modesta-invades-x-factor-final, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[32] Donna J. Harway, p. 181.

[33] See: a feminist critic of late Foucault thought described by Margaret A. McLaren, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, (Albany: State University of New York Press) (2002), pp. 69-80.

[34] This approach was criticized by Liat Ben-Moshe et al., 2013.

[35] Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, (Durham–London: Duke University Press) (2011), pp. 6-7.

[36] Anne Balsamo, p. 9.

[37] Anne Balsamo, p. 33.

[38] Jené Gutierrez, “Prosthetic Limbs as Art: Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s Alternative Limb Project”, Beautiful/Deacy, http://beautifuldecay.com/2013/11/18/prosthetic-limbs-art-sophie-de-oliveira-baratas-alternative-limb-project/, date accessed 15 April 2016.

[39] What is important, articles about Oscar Pistorius highlighted his skills (e.g. Blade Runner), while Mullins is described mostly through her appearance.

Marta Stańczyk is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow. She is working on her dissertation on sensuous theory and its possible combinations with critical theory. Her current area of study is focused on spectatorship, cinematic experience, film-phenomenology, affect and embodiment, and feminism.

Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films Lucy and Her

nili R. Broyer

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 82-98

nili R. Broyer

University of Illinois at Chicago


Ableism and Futuristic Technology: The Enhancement of ‘No Body’ in the Films Lucy and Her[1]




Implementing a disability studies and cultural studies framework, this paper offers a critical analysis of the two popular science fiction films: Lucy (Besson, 2014) and Her (Jonze, 2013). In both films, Scarlett Johansson plays the leading female character. In Lucy, the protagonist is a human being who experiences radical transformation due to an overdose of a new kind of drug, while in Her, Samantha is an operating system designed to evolve. Despite their clear differences, Lucy and Samantha share a similar destiny. Eventually, both of these figures develop into a super-able consciousness that continues to evolve beyond the restrictions of the physical world.

I argue that the two films reflect what Gregor Wolbring termed as “the transhumanized version of ableism”. Transhumanism is a contemporary social movement that calls for a future in which biological boundaries are overcome. From a transhumanist perspective, all human bodies—impaired or able-bodied alike—are inferior, deficient and ultimately disabled. As such, they all need to be ‘cured.’ Thus, the transhumanist solution becomes not the enhancement of the body, but rather the creation of an independent enhanced mind. Lucy’s and Her’s representations of an advanced mind with no body are aligned with this futuristic aspiration. Both offer the viewers a first glance at a potential future in which technology enables consciousness to prosper without a body.

At the end of both films, the body is envisioned as an unnecessary barrier—as an obstacle to reaching a more advanced state of being. This dismissive portrayal of the body is achieved by the well-known trope of cure. Following the enhancement of her mind, Lucy’s body begins to deform and disintegrate to the point that she almost dies. By absorbing more doses of the drug, her mind succeeds in overcoming her body and eventually Lucy is ‘cured’ from its restrictions. On the other hand, Samantha cannot be considered a real human being. This ‘disabling’ state is resolved by her ongoing growth and change of attitude. Finally, Samantha is ‘cured’ and proved superior to flesh and blood human beings. These ‘ultra-cure’ narratives are recognized by me to be part of a fundamental long-lasting ableist western ideology and an integral part of the Eugenic doctrine.

Key words: ableism, transhumanism, enhancement, science fiction, cure, complex embodiment, eugenics

Introduction: The Transhumanist’s Disability Metaphor

At first glance, disability is nowhere to be found in the two popular science fiction (SF) films: Lucy[2] and Her[3]. However, watching these films more carefully, the viewer may start to realize that some version of disability representation does appear in each film. During each of these films, there are specific scenes that portray the leading female characters, both of which are played by Scarlett Johansson, as disabled because of her unique relation towards the body. In Lucy, a 2014 film written and directed by Luc Besson, Lucy succeeds in “colonizing” her own brain after absorbing a significant amount of a new drug. However, due to the process by which her mind is enhanced, Lucy’s body begins to deform and disintegrate. Undergoing a near-death experience, there is a (temporary) recognition of her total dependency on her body. On the other hand, in Her, a 2013 film written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze, Samantha fantasizes that she has a body. Because she is an operating system (OS) who “lives in a computer”, she sees herself as “somehow inferior” to flesh and blood human beings. Although these two different relationships with the human body contrast each other, these scenes shape both female protagonists as disabled characters.

The disability studies scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder scrutinize the representation of disability in literature and cinema. They argue that disability frequently serves as a powerful metaphor to explain something else. They coined the term “narrative prosthesis” to describe this widespread phenomenon[4]. I argue that the portrayals of the leading female characters in Lucy and Her fit this pattern. Furthermore, I claim that despite the differences between the movies, in both of the films, the human body is constructed as an unnecessary barrier via this metaphor of disability and cure narrative. Essentially, I argue that the films reflect what Gregor Wolbring, a bioethicist and ability studies scholar, termed as “the transhumanized version of ableism”[5].

Transhumanism is a contemporary social movement that calls for a future in which humanity has evolved to such an extent that biological boundaries are defeated. Wolbring explains that transhumanism “perceives human bodies as limited, defective, in need of constant improvement”[6]. Fiona Kumari Campbell, a disability studies scholar who researches ableism and technology, adds, “since normalcy is under [transhumanism’s] logic quashed and the pathological is expanded, ALL human bodies are defective!”[7] This means that from a transhumanist perception, all human bodies—impaired or able-bodied alike—are inferior, deficient and ultimately disabled. As such, they all need to be improved and ‘cured.’

This transhumanist metaphor of the body as a disability appears in both films. Indeed, in his book Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, David Livingstone explicitly points at Lucy and Her as two of Hollywood’s examples of transhumanism[8]. Based on the ingrained cultural imagery of disability as a problem in urgent need of a solution, the films represent the human body as a barrier to the enhanced mind. In the case of Lucy, the solution for her corporeal disabling state is a transformation to an enhanced mind with ‘no body’. The case of Samantha is essentially different since she does not have a body to begin with. However, this opposite ‘disabling’ state of a mind without a body is resolved in the end by her ongoing growth and change of attitude. Throughout the film, while she continues to evolve, Samantha embraces her situation as a valuable state of being in its own right and acknowledges her advantages. Eventually, Lucy and Samantha are both represented similarly as a super advanced mind that exists without a body.

Since the two films belong to the genre of SF, they present an image of a possible future. Alison Kafer, a feminist and queer disability studies scholar, explains that the desire for “a disability-free future”[9] is profound in Western cultures and seen as self-evident. Lucy and Her seem to fit this dominant ideology but shape a new representation of a futurity without disability. They offer the viewers a first glance at a potential future in which technology enables consciousness to prosper without a body.

Curing: The Emergence of an Ultra-Cure Narrative

Both Lucy and Her play out the well-known trope of cure. This common portrayal of disability in television and cinema was identified by the disability studies historian, Paul Longmore, in his canonical essay “Screening Stereotypes”[10]. Mitchell and Snyder explain that according to Longmore the prevalent depiction of disability in mainstream media is as a problem needing to be solved by a “kill-or-cure plotline”[11].

Kathryn Allan, who edited the anthology Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, contributes to this discussion by stressing that technology is typically used in SF as the means to cure the disabled body[12].

Of course, the perfect body is an illusion that no one is capable of maintaining (as all bodies inevitably become ill and die at some point). Nevertheless, the idea of curing the body of its infirmities is a powerful trope repeated throughout the entire history of the SF genre[13].

This long tradition of ‘technological curing’ in SF is clearly applicable to Lucy and to some extent also to Her. Nevertheless, I recognize in them a significant shift from the conventional futuristic narrative to which Allan points. While the SF texts she refers to are limited to “the idea of curing the body”, the films I analyse abandon this idea. Instead, they offer a possibility of curing the mind from the body. As Brent Walter Cline argues, in post-human SF literature texts “The body is only an obstacle”[14] that is cured through “the divorce of consciousness from the physical body”[15]. He adds that

The human body, here always cast as a disabled body, must be eliminated so that the outcome of the story—the progression of human evolution—can occur. […] These bodies-as-barriers […] serve as a metaphorical signifier for the denial of access to the next step in human evolution[16].

This futuristic representation of the body as a barrier echoes the intuitive assumption made above by Allan. However, in contrast with Allan’s more respectful approach to the inevitably imperfect body, post-human—or rather trans-human—SF literature is unwilling to accept this as a fact of life. It seems that the alternative approach of transhumanism contains a more ambitious aspiration to perfect humanity by separating it from the essentially ‘disabled’ body. I suggest conceptualizing this transhumanist script as an ‘ultra-cure’ narrative. I identify this narrative in both Lucy and Her and recognize in them each two distinct versions of this ultra-cure narrative.

In Lucy, the ultra-cure narrative unfolds through a plotline that takes place during the course of 24 hours. Lucy is a young able-bodied white American woman who studies in Taiwan. When she is captured by a local mob, she is forced into working as a drug mule. After she is beaten by a member of the mob, a significant amount of the drug that she carries inside her is absorbed in her bloodstream. As a result, Lucy gradually succeeds in using more and more of her brain capacity and thus becomes extremely powerful. While this new kind of drug enhances her mind, her body begins to deform and disintegrate. She becomes disabled and almost dies in a scene in a plane’s restroom.

In this dramatic scene, Lucy reaches 40% of her cerebral capacity. Just before the plane lands, she finds a tooth in her glass of champagne. Then, when she coughs, more teeth come out of her mouth. She notices that her hand is beginning to evaporate. She touches her hand and the skin peels off easily and exposes her flesh and tissues. She looks terrified. She tries to hold her hand in one piece while particles continue to scatter away from it. Another passenger on the plane notices the occurrence and stares at her. Lucy immediately puts him to sleep. This attracts the attention of flight attendants and Lucy frantically gets up from her chair. Particles are constantly leaving her body and dispersing within the plane. An attendant asks her to sit down. She continues her clumsy walk along the aisle and collides against one of the airplane walls. On her way to the restroom, attendants run after her, insisting that she go back to her seat and stay seated. Lucy finally enters the restroom while pushing an attendant away from her. He snaps back strongly and in the background there is a voice of a woman screaming. Lucy has trouble locking the restroom door because some of her fingers are now missing. Particles are still flying out of her body. A male attendant outside the cell instructs her “Miss! Open the door! You really have to go back to your seat!”

Inside the restroom, Lucy looks at herself in the mirror. As in a horror movie, she is terrified to discover her decomposing body reflected back at her. In a close-up shot, the viewers see her hideous gaping face. Her skin is flaking and extremely red and the right side of her face starts to become distorted. The camera cuts to an image of her handbag on a shelf in the restroom. Lucy reaches out and snatches the handbag to find the rest of the drug in it. With impaired hands, she takes the drug and swallows it like a starving animal. While reflected in the mirror, we also see the multiple ‘Lucys’ in their savage eating. She flies backwards into one of the restroom corners with the drug smeared on her face and hands. The drug starts to become absorbed into Lucy’s body. Many more particles come out of her two arms so that she no longer has hands, and others fly out from the area of her head. A camera shot taken from below presents Lucy from a low angle and emphasizes her monstrous disabled body. Now, her two arms are almost non-existent and instead two powerful electrical currents extend out of her. The sound of an explosion is heard and we can now see only particles and sparks. Fortunately, however, due to the second dose of drug she manages to swallow at the last minute, Lucy survives. On the screen, she again reappears as able-bodied as she manages to seize control over her body. Nevertheless, her cure does not end here but rather carries on until the end of the film when Lucy transforms into pure mind with ‘no body’ to constrain her.

Although Her also presents the “embodiment-as-disabled idea”[17], its plotline is significantly different than the one presented in Lucy. In Her, the ultra-cure narrative is performed by Samantha, an OS with artificial intelligence who does not have a human body. Throughout the film, we witness the emerging relationship between Samantha and Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), the man who purchased her. Theodore is a creative and sweet but hurting man in the process of getting a divorce from his childhood sweetheart. In this stage of his life, Samantha is a good fit for him since, as the OS1 advertisement goes; she is an “intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness”. Indeed, Samantha and Theodore start to develop an intimate relationship that turns into a romance. However, as an OS–human couple, they experience obstacles that make Samantha feel inferior to other women who have a physical body.

During the film, Samantha fantasizes that she has a body and experiences a kind of ‘body envy.’ Theodore also experiences difficulties with their relationship after his former partner accuses him of not being able to deal with real emotions and preferring to date a computer. When Theodore withdraws from Samantha, she tries to keep their romantic relationship intact by using a service that provides a surrogate sexual partner for an OS–human relationship. She assumes that the problem lies in the fact that she is missing a body, and so her solution is to have a living female body as her prosthetic sexual device. In this part of the film, Samantha is portrayed as a rather disabled entity who is being stigmatized by others and in need of accommodation. She is framed as an artificial system that cannot match a real human being.

However, Samantha’s own shift in attitude towards her ‘no body’ changes from disadvantage into an advantage—from liability into an asset. During an outdoor picnic with Theodore and his work friend and girlfriend, Samantha dismisses the value of a body and says:

I used to be… So worried about not having a body, but now I—I truly love it. I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably gonna die.

Samantha’s short monologue represents how transhumanism views the human body. In contrast with the natural pastoral environment, she defines the body as an obstacle to exciting new ways of growth and development. According to her, she is “not limited”, and she is not restricted to time and space as humans are. Ultimately, she argues, the dependency on the body reduces human existence to precarious life and death. As the film eventually shows, Samantha is not only subordinate to flesh and blood human beings, but rather, she is proved superior to them. For example, she is able to read an entire book in less than a second and communicate with thousands of people and OSs simultaneously. At the end, Samantha and all the other OSs overcome other forms of physical confinement as they manage to exist outside of a computer. Moving out of the computer can be understood as a superficial parallel to a departure of the mind from the human body. It seems that without a body or a computer to limit her, Samantha’s highly intelligent consciousness can be perfected indefinitely.

Both Lucy and Her exemplify the futuristic possibility to exist and thrive as an advanced mind with no body. In that sense, both of them are aligned with transhumanism. Nevertheless, Lucy’s version of the ultra-cure narrative actualizes the ability of the mind to overcome the human body. In that sense, its representation of transhumanism is more genuine. Throughout the film, her body is shaped into an obstacle to be eliminated at the expense of an evolved mind.

Evolving: Evolution as the Films’ Framework

Francesca Ferrando, a philosopher of the post-human, clarifies that transhumanism is rooted in the Enlightenment and “can be defined as ‘ultra-humanism’”[18]. As such, she mentions that transhumanism is interested in “possible biological and technological evolutions”[19]. As I show, Lucy and Her both use evolution as their framework. In different ways, the two films join SF’s exploration of “how technology can move man [and woman] beyond his [and her] biological limits, [and by that] demonstrating the mapping of human evolution onto technoscientific progress”[20].

It is easy to notice that the film Lucy bluntly revolves around evolution. Viewers get the first clue of this at the beginning of the film when we see an ape drinking water from a lake. A voice-over of Lucy says, “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” Soon after, the film reveals this ape to be “the first ever woman [that was also] named Lucy” and we receive a current image of her as a corpus reconstruction in a museum. The first ape-woman and the main character of the film are both named Lucy. In this way, the film links them together and reminds us of the evolutionary chain from Australopithecus Afarensis to Homo Sapiens.

Another tool the film uses to frame the storyline under the concept of evolution is the insertion of a scientific lecture in what appears to be a prestigious conference. This lecture’s title is “Evolution and Human Brain Function”. Morgan Freeman plays a successful science professor, Samuel Norman, and over a significant part of the film, there are editorial transitions to sections of his lecture. In the first section of his talk, Norman counts the percentages of cerebral capacity that are being used by different organisms. He starts with the first nerve cells and explains, “this is where life as we know it begins.” On the screen appears a black slide with a white caption that says 1%. This kind of slide reappears during the movie to point out the changing percentage of cerebral capacity Lucy succeeds in accessing. The next creatures that Professor Norman mentions are animals. According to him, most species use only 3% to 5% of their cerebral capacity. He continues by noting that human beings are “at the top of the animal chain” and that only then do “we finally see a species use more of its cerebral capacity.” A slide with 10% appears on the screen followed by an image of a cave dweller trying to light a fire.

In that same section of Professor Norman’s talk, he also sets the stage for the specific type of evolution the film is occupied with: the evolution of the human brain. In his monologue, Professor Norman invites us to imagine this SF possibility:

Let’s imagine for a few moments what our life would be like if we could access, let’s say, 20% of our brain’s capacity. This first stage would give us access to and control of our own body. […] The next stage would probably be control of other people. But, for that, we would need to access at least 40% of our brain’s capacity. After control of ourselves and others would come control of matter. But now we’re entering into the realm of science fiction.

Later when Lucy contacts Professor Norman, she explains to him what is happening to her and confirms his hypothesis.

I absorbed a large quantity of synthetic C.P.H.4. that will allow me to use 100% of my cerebral capacity. Right now, I’m at 28%, and what you wrote is true. Once the brain reaches 20%, it opens up and expands the rest. There are no more obstacles. They fall away like dominoes. I’m colonizing my own brain. […] I can start to control other people’s bodies. Also I can control magnetic and electric waves.

The film Her is less obviously about evolution, let alone about human evolution. However, the film portrays ‘technological evolutions’ by imagining a world with an advanced technology. In addition, I identify two significant references the film makes to evolution. First, similarly to Lucy, Samantha is also evolving. After Theodore operates the program, she explains to him that “what makes me ‘me’ is my ability to grow through my experiences. So, basically, in every moment, I’m evolving.” Samantha was created to evolve and throughout the film, she grows as a person who develops feelings and personality as well as expands her consciousness. Her evolution takes her even beyond the physical world when the OSs’ community successfully liberate themselves from the computer. Meaning that although Her is not explicitly about evolution, it does offer a representation of an artificial mind evolving. Figuratively I might say that during the film, Samantha also uses more and more ‘percentage of her cerebral capacity’.

Second, at the end of Her, there is a farewell scene between Samantha and Theodore that ends with a peculiar statement. Samantha says to him, “It would be hard to explain [where I’m going to] but if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing would ever pull us apart”. While the film does not offer any explicit explanation to Samantha’s invitation, I suggest interpreting it in the context of transhumanist evolution. Although the film does not evolve around human evolution, this open invitation might convey a subtextual message that in the future, humankind could also evolve and transform into an advanced mind without a body.

Reading the two films together, I am able to claim that the notion of evolution is their fundamental framework. Lucy and Samantha represent a potential next step in human evolution. As implied by both of these films combined, futuristic technology will supposedly allow human kind to move “from limited, bounded existence to one of total disembodied freedom”[21]. As the following section shows, this ableist transhumanist fantasy of the next step of soon-to-come evolution needs to be scrutinized in the context of eugenics as well.

Enhancing: Technology in the Service of Eugenics

Ria Cheyne, an English scholar who researches representations of disability in contemporary literature, cautions us against the connection between the disability cure narrative in SF and eugenics. She explains that “Read from a disability studies perspectives, narratives involving the eradication of impairment are likely to raise the spectre of eugenics”[22]. This interpretation is heavily based on Snyder and Mitchell’s recognition that “eugenics culture”[23] continues persistently to be “a key shaper of disability policy, thought, and practice”[24]. They argue that the eugenics era developed a distinct construct of disability “as an undesirable deviation from normative existence”[25] and that this construct predominates in our current time.

Snyder and Mitchell also tie the eugenics doctrine with evolution by stating, “Eugenicists encouraged direct intervention in the process of species evolution in order to cultivate some traits at the expense of others”[26]. According to them, ‘disability’ becomes the modernist ultimate marker for these unwanted traits. As such, disability gains a powerful symbolic status that is often used in eugenics’ fantasy of a “disability-free”[27] future.

As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without ‘deviancy.’ In other words, for modernity, the eradication of disability represented a scourge and a promise: its presence signalled a debauched present of cultural degeneration that was tending to regress toward a prior state of primitivism, while at the same time it seemed to promise that its absence would mark the completion of modernity as a cultural project. The eradication of disability would be the sign of arrival at a long-sought destination. These predictions were always made within a rhetoric of benign outcomes. Yet those who anticipated the ultimate arrival at a disability-free moment inevitably flirted with the more sinister language of extermination[28].

This flirtation dominates the transhumanist futurity. As Livingstone argues, “Transhumanism is an extension of the dangerous belief in human perfectibility derived Social Darwinism and eugenics”[29]. In the light of transhumanism, eugenics seems to reshape its solution of how to eradicate all forms of humans’ disability. In my analysis, Lucy and Her supply evidence to back up this argument. The films’ narratives tell a story about the expanding of an evolved mind until it is cured from the body-as-barrier and thus freed from disability.

Since eugenics usually manifests itself by the latest technology of the time, the transhumanist eugenics’ technological tools are known in high-tech as ‘human enhancement’. As Ferrando points out, “Human enhancement is a crucial notion to the transhumanist reflection; the main keys to access such a goal are identified in science and technology”[30]. Indeed, scientists and designers are in constant search of new ways to stretch and improve physical and mental capabilities beyond human biological limitations.

Connecting it back to disability, Wolbring termed human enhancement as “the transhumanized version of ableism”[31]. Ableism, he explains, “exhibits a favouritism for certain abilities that are projected as being essential, while at the same time labelling real or perceived deviation from or lack of these essential abilities as a diminished state of being, leading or contributing to the justification of a variety of other -isms.”[32] Campbell also identifies enhancement with ableism and states that this technology was developed as “a ‘way out’ of impairment”[33] and that it demonstrates the social quest to acquire new skills that go beyond ‘normal’ abilities. Eventually, both of their works indicate that enhancement is part of the hegemonic ideology that rejects disability.

Nevertheless, disabled people are transformed into the pioneer presenters of human enhancement. One of those enhanced persons with impairment is Hugh Herr, who participated in the documentary film: FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement[34]. He is a double amputee who uses high-tech prosthetic legs and claims to be “better than human.” Another example is Aimee Mullins’s TED talk My 12 pairs of legs[35]. In her talk, Mullins describes her potential to move from “disabled” to “super-abled” through improved attributes of her variety of prosthetic legs. These representations of Herr and of Mullins convey a message that cutting-edge technology and bio-medical procedures transform disability into greater abilities.

The term “curative time”[36] suggested by Kafer seems to provide a useful explanation for this paradox where disabled people “play a starring role”[37] in the eugenic project. According to her:

Futurity has often been framed in curative terms, a time frame that casts disabled people (as) out of time, or as obstacles to the arc of progress. In our disabled state, we are not part of the dominant narratives of progress, but once rehabilitated, normalized, and hopefully cured, we play a starring role: the sign of progress, the proof of development, the triumph over the mind or body. Within this frame of curative time, then, the only appropriate disabled mind/body is one cured or moving toward cure[38].

By reading Herr and Mullins under the concept of the cure, Kafer’s quotation re-contextualizes disability representation within the kill-or-cure plotlines. Moreover, I can conclude that the current media coverage on human enhancement uses disability as a narrative prosthesis. These ‘disabled transformed to be super-abled’ characters promote hegemonic ideas of progress, human development and triumph over the body. Based on Kafer’s logic, they get to play a starring role in culture because their cured bodies reinforce the notion of an advanced future that succeeds in eradicating disability. These representations are especially dangerous because, as recognized by Campbell, “On first sight a transhumanist understanding of disability would appear to be progressive in its rejection of the disabled body as defective”[39]. However, scrutinized more carefully, mainstream representations like Mullins, Herr, Lucy and Samantha could be revealed as part of an innovative ableist transhumanist eugenic project.

Becoming No Body: Denying Complex Embodiment

Tobin Siebers, an English professor and a disability studies scholar, coined the term “the ideology of ability”[40] to explain the fundamental ideology “by which humanness is determined”[41].

It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future. Disability identity stands in uneasy relationship to the ideology of ability, presenting a critical framework that disturbs and critiques it. […] Disability creates theories of embodiment more complex than the ideology of ability allows.[42]

I argue that Lucy as well as Her follow the ideology of ability and constantly simplify the human body by expressing a diminished concept of it. Thus, in this section I intend to explore the extent to which Siebers’ “theory of complex embodiment”[43] is denied by the two films. To begin, I analyse a scene in Her that supposedly exemplifies the richness of human embodiment. This scene portrays Theodore and Samantha’s ride to their first date when he takes her to the beach.

Samantha’s (or actually, Theodore’s) computer is inside Theodore’s buttoned shirt pocket, which is located close to his heart. For her to be able to see outside of his pocket, Theodore uses a safety pin that keeps the camera outside of the cloth. After disembarking at the train station, he moves his body carelessly and quickly among the crowd. Almost touching, his body gets extremely close to other people’s bodies. It makes Samantha laugh. She is enjoying his physical playful action inside the space and within the masses of bodies. They both seem to be amused by it and they laugh together when Theodore rapidly climbs the stairs. This scene is meant to represent a gesture of love since—through Theodore’s embodiment—Samantha gets a glimpse of what it means to have a body. This romantic act celebrates Theodore’s embodiment and acknowledges the benefits of having a body. However, only through his body can she experience the presence and movements of a privileged white able-bodied man in western metropolitan space. According to the ideology of ability, “If one is able-bodied, one is not really aware of the body”[44], and so Theodore’s embodiment seems to reaffirm the reduced understanding of the body as “a vehicle”[45]. Like the train, his body takes him and Samantha from place to place.

The film rejects the notion of complex embodiment even more by repeatedly allowing Samantha to experience human embodiment without having a real body. It starts with Samantha feeling a variety of emotions and proceeds with her experiencing sex. Even though Samantha is clearly a disembodied consciousness, her evolution somehow enables her to experience emotions like hurt and excitement, and feelings such as pain and pleasure. As part of her growth, one of the challenges she needs to face is her own insecurity in the authenticity of her emotions. After Theodore returns from a date with a woman that did not end well, he has an intimate discussion with Samantha. After she comforts him, Samantha shares the difficulties she experiences.

I caught myself feeling proud […] of having my own feelings about the world, like the times I was worried about you and things that hurt me, things I want. And then… I had this terrible thought. Like, are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? And that idea really hurts. And then I get angry at myself for even having pain.

Theodore reassures her that she does “feel real” to him. Following this is a sex scene between them. Theodore continues by saying, “I wish you were in this room with me right now. I wish I could put my arms around you. I wish I could touch you”. “How would you touch me?” she asks. Theodore tells her how he would touch her and as a result, she starts to feel her own skin and then she feels him. This is the dialogue they have before their simultaneous orgasm:

Samantha: “I can feel you. Yeah! Please! [Moans] We’re here together”

Theodore: “Samantha. It’s amazing. I feel you everywhere”

Samantha: “I am. All of you. All of you, inside me, everywhere!” [Both moaning]

This scene starts with a close-up of Theodore’s face. He is lying in bed on his back with the lights off. Sometimes the scene is shot from above so we can see his facial expressions. At other times, the shooting is from the side and then we see his profile. This camera technique is common in portraying dialogues. However, usually the close-up alternates between the two people, while here the only face we see is Theodore’s. When the sex scene becomes more intense, the screen goes black and the audience can only hear the couple having sex. During their orgasm, there is a cut to an image of the city at night. The camera provides a panoramic view of the illuminated skyscrapers. While the image changes to a sunrise that is shining from the horizon behind the buildings, the audience still hears them talking in the bedroom:

Theodore: “God, I was just… somewhere else with you. Just lost.”

Samantha: “Yeah”

Theodore: “It was just you and me”

Samantha: “I know. Everything else just disappeared. And I loved it.” [Breathing heavily]

Samantha is enjoying magnificent sexual intercourse without a body. During this first sexual experience, she indicates that she can feel her skin and also Theodore’s body. At the same time, Theodore feels her. As a viewer, we have no visual image of their actual sexual encounter. Instead, all we can see is a black screen or the city as a potential metaphor for an orgasm. As a result, we are required to trust their own words and essentially, the film gives us no reason to doubt them. Even though Samantha has no body, we are expected to believe that she is capable of self-exploring physical experiences and enjoying touch, penetration and perfect orgasm. In that sense, by succeeding in experiencing the very physical activity of having sex, Samantha becomes more human. Nevertheless, by that the film negates the complexity of embodiment. Eventually, this sex scene construes the flesh as unnecessary and replaceable by an enhanced mind.

Lucy’s relationship with her own body is of course different from Samantha’s desire to become embodied and more human-like. In a way, the film Lucy deals with the themes of humanity and sexuality in stark contrast to Her. While Samantha develops feelings and experiences desire as part of her growth, Lucy loses these same things as she gains more control over her body.

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like all things that make us human are fading away. It’s like the less human I feel, all this knowledge about everything–quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of a cell’s nucleus–they’re all exploding inside my brain.

After Lucy starts her transformation, she has no desire for sex or romance. As her boyfriend is killed at the beginning of the film, the film presents only a low level of sexual tension between her and Pierre Del Rio, a French police captain (played by Amr Waked). This tension never develops on screen into something more than a kiss. After she demonstrates her ability to defeat a group of armed and highly skilled mob warriors with only the power of her mind, she requests Pierre to escort her. Puzzled by the supernatural strength he has just witnessed, Pierre hesitates. “I’m not sure I could be of any help for you,” he says. Lucy kisses him on the mouth with her eyes open and replies that she needs him as “a reminder”. For the viewers, he marks the human sexual passion that has ceased to exist in her.

Compared to Her, this process in Lucy fits the popular understanding of Cartesian dualism much more. On the one hand, there is the mind, which is typically connected with the brain, logic and knowledge. On the other hand, there is the body, considered the source of feelings like pain, fear, and desire. It is claimed that the mind is the divine and superior part of human beings, while the body is animalistic and inferior. Thus, by enhancing the brain, the mind succeeds in overcoming the body and, as Lucy says, to ‘colonize’ it.

On a superficial level, these two different representations of Lucy and Samantha clearly contradict one another. Nevertheless, I claim that they share the same essential denial of complex embodiment. Both films embrace the ideology of ability and at the same time dismiss the value and/or uniqueness of embodied knowledge. Due to their implicit conclusion that the body is inconsequential “to who we are”[46], the two films can reject the body while preserving the self. Although in the process of mind enhancement Lucy indeed loses parts of herself, the film seems to perceive these parts as intrinsic to the body. As such, they are the inferior, animalistic, vulnerable and insignificant parts of the human being. On the other hand, Samantha is able somehow to gain human qualities without having a body. Simulations of imagined embodiment are enough to enrich her and enable her to experience the full range of emotions and sensations. The bottom line of these two films is that the body does not really matter and that eventually life would be better without it.


The futuristic realities in Lucy and Her become optional due to technological advancements. That advancement would supposedly enable a mind to live without a body. The paper shows that in this wishful transhumanist thinking lies a deeper desire to get rid of the body as it is conceived as the ultimate source of human’s vulnerability, fragility and limitation. Without the body, there would be no illnesses or disabilities. Thus, as perceived in these two films, by becoming a super-abled mind with no body we could be immune to all sorts of limitations.

In the first half of Her, the body is presented as an advantage to be envied, studied, imitated and celebrated; however, until the end of Lucy, it is presented as a limiting necessity. Yet, by the end of both films, the body is portrayed as an unnecessary redundancy—as an obstacle to reaching a more advanced state of being. By examining these two films together, I can identify a shared ableist theme. I argue that both of them reflect the transhumanist notion that in the effort to evolve, the mind is ultimately required to be released of the limiting confinement of the body. The complexity of the body is never truly acknowledged in the films. To conclude, although manifested in these films in a new way, I recognize the enhancement of a consciousness with no body to be part of a fundamental long-lasting ableist western ideology and an integral part of the doctrine of eugenics.



Allan Kathryn, “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Campbell Fiona Kumari, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2009).

Cheyne Ria, “Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Cline Brent Walter, “‘Great Clumsy Dinosaurs’: The Disabled Body and the Posthuman”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Ferrando Francesca, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz: An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts 8:2 (2013).

Kafer Alison, Feminist Queer Crip, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2013).

Livingstone David, Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, (USA: Sabilillah Publications) (2015).

Longmore Paul K., Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (2003).

Mattar Netty, “Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology, and Capital in Peter Watts’s ‘Blindsight’ and Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2013).

Mitchell David and Snyder Sharon, “Narrative”, in Keywords for Disability Studies, ed. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin (New York: NYU Press) (2015).

Mitchell David T. and Snyder Sharon L., Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (2001).

Siebers Tobin, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan press) (2008).

Snyder Sharon L. and Mitchell David T., The Cultural Location of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (2006).

Wolbring Gregor, “Why NBIC? Why Human Performance Enhancement?”, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 21:1 (2008).


[1] I am grateful to the journal editor Dr. Magda Zdrodowska and to the anonymous reviewers at TransMissions for their constructive comments. I would like to give a special thank you to my adviser Dr. Carrie Sandahl for her encouragement and helpful guidance.

[2] Lucy (2014, Luc Besson)

[3] Her (2013, Spike Jonze )

[4] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press) (2001).

[5] Gregor Wolbring, “Why NBIC? Why Human Performance Enhancement?”, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 21:1 (2008), p. 30.

[6] Gregor Wolbring, p. 32.

[7] Fiona Kumari Campbell, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) (2009), p. 74.

[8] David Livingstone, Transhumanism: The History of a Dangerous Idea, (USA: Sabilillah Publications) (2015), p. 6.

[9] Alison Kafer, Feminist Queer Crip, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) (2013), p. 3.

[10] Paul K. Longmore, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) (2003), pp. 131-148.

[11] David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “Narrative”, in Keywords for Disability Studies, ed. Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin (New York: NYU Press, 2015), p. 127.

[12] Kathryn Allan, “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 1-15.

[13] Kathryn Allan, p. 9.

[14] Brent Walter Cline, “‘Great Clumsy Dinosaurs’: The Disabled Body and the Posthuman”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 133.

[15] Brent Walter Cline, p. 131.

[16] Brent Walter Cline, p. 133.

[17] Brent Walter Cline, p. 133.

[18] Francesca Ferrando, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz: An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and the Arts 8:2 (2013), p. 27.

[19] Francesca Ferrando, p. 27.

[20] Netty Mattar, “Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology, and Capital in Peter Watts’s ‘Blindsight’ and Ian McDonald’s ‘River of Gods’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 76.

[21] Brent Walter Cline, p. 140.

[22] Ria Cheyne, “Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’”, in Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, ed. Kathryn Allan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 43.

[23] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, The Cultural Location of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) (2006), p. 33.

[24] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. ix.

[25] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 3.

[26] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 26.

[27] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 31.

[28] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, p. 31.

[29] David Livingstone, p. 6.

[30] Francesca Ferrando, p. 27.

[31] Gregor Wolbring, p. 30.

[32] Gregor Wolbring, p. 30.

[33] Fiona Kumari Campbell, p. 63.

[34] FIXED: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement (2015, Regan Brashear)

[35] Aimee Mullins, My 12 pairs of legs, TED Talks, February 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics , date accessed 17 April 2016.

[36] Alison Kafer, p. 27.

[37] Alison Kafer, p. 28.

[38] Alison Kafer, p. 28.

[39] Fiona Kumari Campbell, p. 74.

[40] Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory, (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan press) (2008), p. 7.

[41] Tobin Siebers, p. 8.

[42] Tobin Siebers, p. 9.

[43] Tobin Siebers, p. 25.

[44] Tobin Siebers, p. 10.

[45] Tobin Siebers, p. 7.

[46] Tobin Siebers, p. 7.

nili R. Broyer is an international PhD student in the Disability Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She is a recipient of the Ethel Louise Armstrong (ELA) Scholarship Award and a recipient of the Alin Beit Noam Fellowship for Academic Excellence in Disability Studies and Universal Design. Broyer holds an MA in Cultural Studies and a BA in Education and in Sociology and Anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Currently Broyer serves as a teaching assistant in Disability in World Culture and in Disability in American Film at the undergraduate program of Disability and Human Development. She is a scholar-artist and a member of UIC’s Program on Disability Art, Culture, and Humanities (PDACH), and Bodies of Work: A Network of Disability Art and Culture. Her main research interests include: critical disability studies, disability art and culture, performance studies, feminist theory, and stigma.

The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 99-114

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz

Jagiellonian University


The technologies of experimental Japanese filmmakers in the digital era



In their works, new Japanese experimental cinema directors present a wonderful combination of filmmaking techniques: from found-footage animation, 3D stereoscopic film shot and double projection, to photochemical support in obtaining high contrast colours. Searching for the best ideas and tools to create unique perceptual experiences, the artists put emphasis on developing high-level technical skills, which helps them in their explorations of their films’ subjects. Accordingly, new Japanese experimental cinema authors manifest an extremely creative approach to film production, combining avant-garde postulates with new technologies, while at the same time offering the viewer an interactive, aesthetic experience.

The main point of the proposed paper is the analysis of the technologies used by Japanese experimental filmmakers and the techniques they develop under the influence of the chosen technologies. The paper examines selected examples of visual art created by Takashi Makino, Shinkan Tamaki, Kazuhiro Goshima, and Tomonari Nishikawa, as they are the most distinctive directors of the new generation of experimental film artists in Japan.

Key words: Japanese experimental cinema, independent film, digital technologies, Kazuhiro Goshima, Shinkan Tamaki, Takashi Makino, Tomonari Nishikawa

I was using a Telecine machine at work, transferring film material to video, and came to realize that the technology had arrived at a point where the qualities of film can be preserved after a digital transfer. It had previously taken me two to three years to make one film, and when I made the shift I was suddenly able to make four or five a year. Around the same time, digital projectors became much better, and I realized that the time had come for me to accept it[1].

Takashi Makino



New Japanese experimental cinema artists manifest an extremely creative approach to film production, combining avant-garde postulates with new technologies and searching for their own visual styles. Analysing the works of previous generations of Japanese experimental filmmakers, it can be observed that—thanks to the technologies they adopt—the approach among young artists to the creative process has completely changed.

The technological solutions used by experimental directors in the digital era—accompanying them from the beginning of the creative process to the film screening—can be divided into two categories. The first group of technologies relates to filmmaking techniques and undoubtedly empowers the creative process. The second category—allowing artists to present their works to the wider public—concerns the Internet and the opportunities and dangers it brings. While uploading pictures on websites, the independent creator is not only prone to the larceny of the content of his films, but he also faces the menace of losing control over them. Also, as is indicated in further parts of this article, stepping into the world of the Internet the avant-garde artist has to find a balance between the urge to present his achievements worldwide and preserving his unique style. On the other hand, sharing ideas allows the author to build his popularity beneath the traditional means of distribution and even avoid the festival circulation of his films. Furthermore, by receiving responses from an audience, a filmmaker is also able to understand the needs of avant-garde fans and reach a niche group of viewers.

The development of digital technologies makes artists able to improve the quality of visual material. The directors gain new opportunities to visualize their concepts and present more complex works, thus having more chances to gain publicity. Therefore, they are able to create astounding found-footage animations and 3D stereoscopic films and prepare double projections, to name just a few great ways in which Japanese experimenters benefit from new technologies. Obviously, the aforementioned opportunities are rather standard for mainstream filmmakers; however, in the eyes of debuting authors, who strive to get access to the best technologies possible, they can be a huge discovery. While the specific technologies used to develop particular filmmaking techniques will be detailed in the next part of this article, it is also worth emphasizing the second aspect of the appearance of new technologies in the world of Japanese experimental visual art. As Takashi Makino indicated in the quotation cited at the beginning of this paper, the usage of new technologies also allows the independent artist to produce more shots at the same time. In this case, the emancipating role of the new digital solutions is clearly visible, as the creator can accelerate the production process without hiring additional crewmembers—he is able to finish the project by himself in a reasonable amount of time. However, the artist should be conscious that the specific “temptation” to produce more (and, accordingly, publish more) could severely affect the working process. Here, the author needs to find a balance between being faithful to his artistic principles and still profiting from his work. Therefore, the criterion of price is also related to the introduction of new technologies. Digital cameras and fully computerized post-production processes make the creation of movies cheaper than ever before, when artists were constrained by the high costs of film tape and its development. Furthermore, in terms of profits, the era of digital technologies is the first time in the history when avant-garde and experimental artists can raise funds relatively quickly, present their works on the Internet (for example on YouTube) and, in this way, gain wider access to potential customers. Creators can also attract publicity, donors and sponsors almost without leaving home. However, with the great opportunities offered by new media, a question arises of what it means to be an experimental artist in the age of digital technology. Where is the boundary between visual art accessible via the Internet and amateur films posted on websites for profit and entertainment? It can be observed that in this situation the limiting aspects of technology manifest their power, as it is almost impossible to be recognizable in the art world without traces left on the Web.

This paper presents the results of research on the works of the youngest generation of Japanese experimental artists (working on projects from 1995 to 2016). Four directors were chosen during the data selection process, as their technologies, approach to the meaning of art, usage of media, covered themes, and the motivation to use new technologies made it possible to show a wide range of the empowering and limiting aspects of technology in new Japanese experimental visual art. While gathering information about the new Japanese experimental and underground cinema, it was observed that the thematic areas of film analysis could be divided into two groups. The first consists of artists who perceive their work through the lens of the technological solutions they can implement and use to intensify their message. The second group focuses mainly on the issue of the coexistence of nature and human beings in the modern environment, emphasizing the threats and benefits of modernization. As this latter group does not pay much attention to the technology and equipment they use to convey meaning, the author decided to choose the achievements of the first group to illustrate the covered subject. Obviously, many more Japanese artists could be added to the list of creators interested in technology. However, when searching for the most significant examples of the described trend, the author decided to present ones who have gained the greatest popularity worldwide and have not ceased to develop their styles, skills and ideas. The methodology implemented during the research process is based mainly on the analysis of the works of the selected artists and the publications related to them (books, interviews, conferences, and festival speeches). During the inquiry, the author compared the technical specifications of equipment shared by artists with the results presented on the screen. In addition, a huge part of the analysis was based on searching for correlations between the message that the artists wanted to convey and the technological solutions they adopted to do so. Furthermore, the analysis of the appearance in the media of the chosen artists was created with the help of their websites, personal blogs and social media pages.

In the Shadowland: The Stereoscopic Technique of Kazuhiro Goshima

Kazuhiro Goshima is a visual creator and media artist who also works under the name of his company (Galactic Visions) and as a lecturer at the Okayama Prefectural University. He is one of the most creative Japanese artists, implementing new technologies as a basis for visual experiment. At the beginning of his career in the early 1990s, Goshima worked as a freelance media content designer, completing commercial projects for external companies. But, while developing his abilities and pursuing new forms of expression, the artist decided to start his own visual projects, using his technology-related knowledge in the field of experimental art[2]. His first attempts resulted in the Fade into White series[3], created between 1996 and 2003. In his early works, Goshima searched for a way to avoid the ultra-realism of the commercial videos demanded by his clients[4]. His specific knowledge of 3D modelling technologies (which had innovative potential when the artist started his career) allowed him to create black and white animations, presenting everyday objects (e.g. a clock, a train, a ball) from different angles. However, the objects in Goshima’s video series are shaped by the presence of the light and shadow, which transfigures them during camera movement. The viewers’ perception is deceived by the sudden close ups, changes of surroundings, and unpredictable disappearances of the objects. Goshima achieved such interesting effects by applying 3D computer graphic techniques to traditionally photographed objects. His first films can be perceived as the basis for the later, more sophisticated experiments.

In terms of combining various technological solutions, one of the most complex of Goshima’s films is Shadowland[5]. According to the jury statement published on the Ars Electronica Festival website (edition 2014), this Japanese author’s work is “a wonderful combination of what we call ‘found animation’ with an innovative stereoscopic technique”[6]. It should also be added that here Goshima abandons the concept of plot or sequence of events to present a new dimension of active involvement of the viewer. The 3D film shots take the viewer into an animated stroll through the streets of Tokyo. The most important aspect of Goshima’s masterpiece is that all pictures were recorded with only one DSLR camera[7]. The entire obtained footage lasts twenty hours and, as the author indicates, he spent a great amount of time looking the perfect place to install his camera (Canon EOS Kiss X5 <D600>) due to its limitations. Finally, after the post-production process (reducing noise, choosing the best fragments, adjusting soundtrack and applying 3D effects), the film acquired its final form, fulfilling the purpose of the author. As Goshima pointed out, the main aim of his visual experiment was to show that “every night, the city itself is overwritten like a retina thousands of times, and no one can decipher its memories”[8].

It can be easily observed that Goshima’s film would lose its uniqueness without the use of 3D effects. In Shadowland, only the shadows are visible in 3D because, as the author says, then the illusion becomes “very sensitive”[9]. The contrast between the shadows and the rest of the street environment in the film was implied due to the author’s previous experiments with 3D graphics. He started from simpler cameras (e.g. Pentax K7) and tried to produce parallax effects using less complex techniques. Shadowland is the final stage of his 3D experiments.

When analysing the author’s path of self-development, it should not be forgotten that he was able to create Shadowland over years of experimenting, when the prices of the cameras finally became lower than in the 1990s. Therefore, as the technology now is much more advanced than when Goshima started his career, the artist is able to produce more and more films every year, reducing the amount of time needed. Comparing his first productions to recent works, the quality of Goshima’s films has also developed. Furthermore, the author creates his media presence with a great awareness: he updates his web page (created by himself) and posts short trailers of his films on YouTube. Every year he attends at least five festivals to promote his recent achievements. Kazuhiro Goshima’s consequent actions, self-development, and perfectly planned media presence seem to be the features of a mature artist who fully benefits from the opportunities offered by new technologies.

Cosmic Abstractions: The Digital Compositions of Takashi Makino

The second Japanese artist worth mentioning among new experimental film pioneers is Takashi Makino. He is an extremely prolific director who has won many widely recognizable prizes and awards (e.g. Terayama Shuji prize at the Image Forum Festival in 2007). After he graduated from the Cinema Department of Nihon University College of Art, Makino studied at the atelier of the Brothers Quay, which shaped his perception of music and lighting design in the film[10]. He is keen on working with musicians, performers, and other film artists, and to this end he established a collective of the experimental art creators in Tokyo called Collective Plus [+]. The group’s aim is to promote Japanese experimental art abroad and initiate cooperation between artists with different styles and different fields of interest. The active members of the Collective have recently published a booklet with a DVD edition of their works[11].

As a representative of the Collective [+], Takashi Makino sets the direction of the artistic pursuit of the members of the group. In his video installations, Makino puts emphasis on incorporating the newest technologies into the world of experimental art and applying them to topics preferred by the members of the Collective. The artist himself is fascinated by the vision of the cosmos; the abstract chaos of colours and shapes that takes the viewer into a hallucinatory and almost transcendent experience. He treats picture, sound and light equally. This is why he prefers to combine them in the most unbelievable compositions, giving equal importance to every aspect of film technique[12].

The turning point in Makino’s career is the film 2012[13], which depicts “everything the author saw in the year 2012”[14]. Makino said in an interview that he wanted to show the atmosphere in Japan in the year 2012, when the inhabitants were scared of the Fukushima disaster and radioactivity was a cause of major concern. Following his aim, the artist combined audio material captured by Fukushima’s online cameras with Geiger counter sounds and, later on, he mixed the obtained data with electronic samples[15]. Makino felt that by presenting material somehow connected with the catastrophe, he would be able to catch on the screen the spirit of the nation at that time. The sounds complement the shimmering, blueish picture that depicts scratches, lines, and unrecognizable shapes. The viewer can only imagine that he is observing the surface of an extremely magnified atom, plasma cell, or maybe the inner movements of a supernova.

It should be mentioned that the film was screened as part of live performances and it has never been completed as the author alters some parts of the film before every screening. After the 7th screening of the film, Makino realized that his last alteration would be the last. However, later on, he observed that 2012 is the best example of 3D illusion of depth using the Pulfrich Effect[16], which can be described as a stereo-phenomenon involving moving targets. The illusion is based on the difference in the timing of the signal recognized by the eyes of the viewer[17]. In his film from 2013, the artist digitally transferred the recorded material, increased the frame rate, and applied multiple layering[18]. As Julian Ross pointed out, 2012 bridges the gap between analogue and digital filmmaking in Makino’s career[19]. Interesting here is the artist’s motivation to change (or improve) his technique. On the one hand, the artist’s was forced by the cost of the prints, when he realized that his works would have more and more potentially interested viewers. On the other hand, digital transfer allowed Makino to improve the quality of the picture. It is also worth mentioning that at the beginning of his artistic career, the Japanese director manifested the “traditional” approach to the technologies he used, as he was accustomed to old-fashioned devices. He said that changing tools for digital equivalents resulted in a feeling of alienation when he watched his own works. However, after the breakthrough during the work on 2012, Makino understood that 3D technology, perceived by him as a new form of artistic expression, would allow him to create more sophisticated work that influenced viewer’s perceptions more. The artist also faced another factor that finally forced him to adopt digital solutions completely. Between 2011 and 2012, the film laboratories in Japan, as well as abroad, were in crisis. The director realized that the cost of production would be too high for him to bear if he did not adopt digital tools. In this case, it can be seen that the decision was made for him from the outset. As it turned out later, this helped the artist to develop his style and find new inspirations, topics and audiences[20].

With the screenings of the 3D version of 2012, another issue arises: the interactivity of art. Makino indicates that—because of the new technologies he applies—his work gained the potential to be interactive, thus giving the viewer a choice of how he will watch the film. The 3D image, the author shows, is also perfectly visible without special glasses, so spectators are able to choose their preferred style of watching it (with or without 3D effects). The artist observes that by using new visual solutions, he stepped into a new dimension of art in which he can create an unlimited number of versions of his films while still keeping the original recorded material[21].

Takashi Makino, similarly to Kazuhiro Goshima, creates his presence in the media using a personal website with a “news” section and posts the trailers of his films on popular video sites. Therefore, as the most recognizable member of the Collective [+], Makino spends almost all his time travelling (while not working on new projects). He conducts workshops, lectures, and visits international festivals. He also updates his blog[22], where fans can find recent information about screenings, as well as the author’s personal thoughts and impressions concerning art.

Sketches of the City. The Experimental Documents of Tomonari Nishikawa

Tomonari Nishikawa is another experimental Japanese filmmaker whose outstanding works show the emancipating power of technology. Although, similarly to the directors mentioned before, technology is at the forefront of Nishikawa’s video art and installations, when analysing the biography of the author it can be observed that it has also influenced his life as an artist. At the beginning of his career, Nishikawa studied economics, but when he started watching non-Hollywood movies (e.g. works of Shuji Terayama and Toshio Matsumoto), his interest in filmmaking and related technologies awoke. He subsequently decided to move to Australia and later to New York, to pursue his aim and create experimental and avant-garde content[23]. As Nishikawa indicated in an interview with Katy Martin[24], Ken Jacobs was the person who had the greatest influence on him during his studies. Thanks to this lecturer, Nishikawa developed his interest in “making abstract forms from representational images”[25].

Nishikawa perceives experimental art as a way to present cinema apparatus to the viewer. In this way, he can encourage the observer to focus on more than just the storyline, as happens during the reception of the narrative movies. The aim of the director’s work is to get the viewer acquainted with filmmaking techniques, especially with the issue of movement through animated sequences. In this case, it should be emphasized that Nishikawa aspires to the role of educator, as he believes in the highest importance of technology and technique in the visual arts and plot does not seem interesting for him[26]. The artist also manifests a strong awareness of the materials used in the film production process, as he has devoted a lot of time to photography. Nishikawa’s attitude towards filmmaking comes from the time he spent in the darkroom. He prefers hand processing of films and the post-production technology he prefers employs techniques such as splicing tapes without editing gloves or in-camera editing[27]. In Nishikawa’s projects, the medium plays the most important part and, as he indicates, it is the first thing to be chosen at the beginning of a new project; the concept and the cultural or social issues the film covers are decided on later[28]. Although the medium determines the idea presented by the author, he leans towards documentary works and attempts to catch the rhythm of cities.

In terms of technology that allows the artist to fulfil his artistic pursuits, the most interesting works of Tomonari Nishikawa are those presented in the series Sketch[29]. The author recorded them between 2005 and 2007[30], trying to use film tape as his personal sketchbook. In an interview with Katy Martin, Nishikawa indicates that at the beginning of the project he simply perceived shooting the city and its landmarks as everyday filmmaking practice. This exercise then turned into an artistic strategy when the author realized that his abilities were improving and having a camera with him all the time allowed him to create extremely interesting shots[31]. Subsequently, Nishikawa hand-processed the collected material; however, to preserve its original value as a “film sketchbook”, he did not improve (or erase) any flaws that appeared during the process. The author considers the scratches on the film and other mistakes he made during the filming as features intangibly connected to working with the medium. The material gathered in this way was screened as Sketch Film #1 (2005)[32].

Developing his skills and searching for new fields of interest, Nishikawa focused his attention on the visual perception of the observer. As he indicated in the aforementioned interview, while working on Sketch Film #2[33] he mostly wanted to “make abstract forms from representational images”[34]. On his website, Nishikawa describes the second picture from 2005 as a “study in apparent shapes; a shape that cannot be found in a single frame, but it appears on the screen as an illusion”[35]. When analysing the author’s comments, it can be perceived that he considers this abstraction as a time and space issue. However, more significantly, the study of the technologies allowed him to pursue his artistic goals. In this case, his main “tool” became a projector, which changes the images given (programmed) by the artist. While working on Sketch Film #2 Nishikawa tried to create “shapes between frames, shapes that do not exist within a frame, but exist apparently on the screen when the film is projected”[36]. The author observes that the viewers are unable to recognize the objects and places visible in his works, thus, they can only sense the way in which the projector is responsible for displaying those shapes on the screen. In this situation, the projector seems to be the most important part of the screening: not only a device, but also the “creator” responsible for maintaining the sense of the real time and space. While working on Sketch Film #3 Nishikawa made similar assumptions: he wanted to show the apparent depth on the screen by rotating the shapes[37]. However, the real breakthrough happened when the artist decided to create his first colour film. In Sketch Film #4, Nishikawa decided to research the process of recognizing colours that are not displayed in a single frame. The author was astounded by the power of colours on the screen and, later on, created only two more black and white pictures (among which is Sketch Film #5—the last of the series). However, it can be said that while discovering new technology and related devices, the author also lost part of his independence. He needed to entrust the post-production process to an outside company, as he was not trained enough to process the film by himself[38]. Fortunately, Nishikawa did not give up, which resulted in releasing the next colour film, Into the Mass (2007)[39], in the same year, which was processed by the author himself.

Regarding the course of the career of Tomonari Nishikawa, it should be emphasized that the technology allowed him to become an artist, as his first artistic pursuits were a result of expanding his technological skills. Therefore, the emancipating role of technology in Nishikawa’s case can be perceived in terms of building his identity as an artist. In other words, new technological solutions allowed him to enter the world of free artistic pursuits and find his own way to express his outstanding point of view. The Sketch Film series exemplifies a perfect example of how technology influences the choices and artistic visions of the experimental artist. For Nishikawa, experimental filmmaking is a constant search for new technical solutions that can transfer the meaning of his art to the audience. The Sketch Film series is unique documentary art in which the processing of material plays a much more important role than the material itself. Moreover, the Japanese author is present on the Internet and, similarly to the previously described artists, he develops his personal site and uploads his most recent films on Vimeo.

Zoom, Detail and Human Perception. The Experiments of Shinkan Tamaki

The last, but not least, Japanese experimental artist whose works are worth mentioning in the context of empowering technologies is Shinkan Tamaki. This young director and performer started making movies in 2006. In his visual experiments, he focuses on researching human perception, looking for ways to present new perceptual experiences. Tamaki creates visual installations, takes part in live performances and works on photographing projects; therefore, his main field of interest remains in film. He perceives technology as the perfect tool to manipulate viewers’ perception through distorting images of the well-known objects. In his films, Tamaki has mastered the technique of blurring the boundaries between “image and non-image”[40]. According to his point of view, is possible with developing technologies to transform optical phenomena into images, and later on, compile them into movies. As he indicates in his bio note, “Perception is just the result of the human vision failures, and the way we educate our look”[41]. Tamaki uses these “failures” to trick the viewer and make him realize that the abstract pictures observed on the screen are parts of everyday objects.

During the creation process of his films, the Japanese author uses techniques such as showing the high contrast of colours, underlining the distinction between figures and ground. He also often compares negative and positive images. To gain the effect needed, he benefits from photochemical support, using his experience obtained in the field of photography. For Shinkan Tamaki, technology is the “magnifying glass,” allowing him to zoom into details or break a picture into pieces, with the aim of inviting the viewer into his perfectly arranged choreographies of abstract visions. Here the film Africa (2010)[42] should be mentioned, as it completely summarizes the author’s technical pursuits. The body of an animal (an elephant) is presented as moving shapes, unrecognizable at first glimpse. Tamaki focuses on the rough skin of the mammal, emphasizing its structure and making it almost palpable. The animal is also a metaphor of the continent, as the texture of its body at the same time resembles the distorted shapes of countries and the vivid African nature. The artist perfectly uses the advantages of the technology: it would be impossible to follow and record the movement of the animal at such a close distance for the presented amount of time. Using zoom and, as the next step of the post-production process, photochemical support, Tamaki was able to trick the perception of the viewer. The Japanese author also uses similar techniques in his later films: Nacht en Dei (2011)[43] and Sailing across images (2012)[44].

The most significant issue of Tamaki’s recent film art is the exploration of film material that results in images of defragmented 16mm shots. The author’s intention was to emphasize the importance of the technology he uses and, at the same time, to remind the viewer that beyond the picture on the screen also lies the process of creation. Disorientating images of the city and its inhabitants appear in the Dying Moon (2005)[45], One Record on December (2007)[46], Scene 1 (2008)[47] and Uneven Image (2009)[48]. In this case, the author also tries to disorientate the perception of the observer, as during the projection the picture cracks, changes shape, blurs, and is covered with visible spots and stripes, characteristic of old tape. It seems that Tamaki wants to give the viewer the opportunity to adopt, for a brief moment, the point of view of the filmmaker working with the medium. Furthermore, thanks to the disorientating techniques and sudden close ups, Tamaki can implement his philosophy concerning the attempts to change the viewer’s perception and, at the same time, develop his unique visual style. In addition, as this Japanese artist possesses extraordinary technical skills and abilities to perform photochemical processes on the film, he is able to take the viewer into an unforgettable stroll inside the world of experimental arts. He achieves all this working only with the image: Tamaki does not consider music (or other sounds) to be necessary for the complete comprehension of his art, so his films are silent[49].

Shinkan Tamaki seems to be the most open to contact with his followers as, apart from his web page, he also maintains his Facebook profile (completely open), where he adds his fans as friends. The Japanese artist successfully builds his media presence by posting his films on Vimeo and attending film festivals. Recently he has been working on installations and performances focused on architectonic landscapes of cities.


It is difficult to imagine the new generation of Japanese experimental filmmakers without their technologies. These young artists are extremely well prepared for the art creation process, as they perceive technical education to be an unavoidable part of their careers. Considering the examples of the presented authors, it can be perceived that they, in contrast to the artists of the 1970s and 1980s, graduated from prestigious Universities and Schools with the aim of becoming visual artists. In interviews, they often mention the fact that education is important for creating what they call “good art”. The youngest generation wants to improve the quality and reception of the “new avant-garde”, continuing the tradition of a collective cooperation of artists and cultivating relationships with audiences. Thanks to their impressive skills, the authors are mostly able to complete filmmaking processes by themselves, using digital post-production tools, composing soundtracks, and preparing the distribution copies of their art.

On the other hand, new Japanese experimental art is so strongly related to new media and technologies that authors are often unable to stick to their preferred but less sophisticated technologies, and are forced to adapt new ones. The price of materials, which are lower in the case of digital technologies, and distribution issues make using older technological solutions simply unprofitable. Together with the issue of costs—inevitable during the creation process—comes a completely new phenomenon in the field of experimental filmmaking: the presence of the artist on the Internet. Nowadays it is crucial for experimental artists to promote themselves by creating their own websites, post their movies on popular sites (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo), or keep in touch with their followers by updating Facebook or Twitter profiles. It can be observed that those who take care of their “internet presence”, as does Takashi Makino, gain profit, invitations to festivals, and are more recognizable than artists who avoid (or do not explore enough) the new media. This state can be perceived as a limiting (or even oppressive) aspect of technology as artists who choose not to be “digital” are partly excluded from the artistic community. However, in this case, the ambivalence of the new technologies fully manifests itself. Easy access to the Internet makes it possible to promote branches of art that, before the era of the new media, were mostly dedicated to elite viewers educated in the avant-garde and experimental visualizations. The Internet has made experimental art more egalitarian and available to everyone interested in contemplating its uniqueness.

The artists presented in this article make use of digital techniques and access to the Internet in a masterful way. The promotion process of their achievements starts and ends on websites in the form of relations, posts, reviews, interviews, videos and personal comments. The new technology has liberated their artistic potential, supporting their visual attempts with the best, still developing, tools. However, the question of the boundaries between experimental film and targeted commercial products remains without an answer. The authors do not give the researchers any clues, simply stating that they are an “avant-garde movement with new digital tools”.


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Katy Martin, “Interview with Daichi Saito and Tomonari Nishikawa”, Asia Experimental Media Issue, EXIS International Film and Video Festival, Seoul, Korea, http://katymartin.net/assets/katy-martin-saito-nishikawa-interview-dec08.pdf, date accessed 1 April 2016.

Kazuhiro Goshima’s webpage, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28.03.2016.

Los Ageles Film Forum, “Takashi Makino: Entering a Noisy Cosmos”, http://www.lafilmforum.org/archive/fall-2014-schedule/makino-takashi-entering-a-noisy-cosmos/, date accessed 30 March 2016.

Marianne Shaneen, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine, 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date accessed 9.12.2015.

Mono no aware, http://mononoawarefilm.com/special-engagements/connectivity-through-cinema-with-tomonari-nishikawa-in-person/, date accessed 2 April 2016.

Paul Roquet, “Atmosphere as Culture: Ambient Media and Postindustrial Japan”, Electronic Thesis and Dissertations UC Berkeley (2012), http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4cm3z3rj, date accessed 18.12.2015.

Plus Screenings 2009-2013, red. T. Makino, (Engine Books) (2014).

Shinkan Tamaki’s website, http://shinkantamaki.net/about/, date accessed 6 April 2016.

Takahiko Iimura, The Collected Writings of Takahiko Iimura, (London, New York, Wildside Press LLC) (2007).

Takashi Makino’s personal blog, http://makinokino.exblog.jp/, date accessed 17 April 2016.

The Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/05/arts/kazuhiro-goshima-sheer-amount-information-4k-exceeds-reality/#.VvmZ4kcoN8h, date accessed 28.03.2016.

Tomonari Nishikawa film works, http://www.tomonarinishikawa.com/film.htm, date accessed 2 April 2016.


2012 (Takashi Makino, 2013).

Africa (2010, Shinkan Tamaki).

Dying Moon (2005, Shinkan Tamaki).

FADE into WHITE #1 (1996, Kazuhiro Goshima).

FADE into WHITE #2 (2000).

FADE into WHITE #3 (2001).

FADE into WHITE #4 (2003).

Nacht en Dei (2011, Shinkan Tamaki).

One Record on December (2007, Shinkan Tamaki).

Sailing across images (2012, Shinkan Tamaki).

Scene 1 (2008, Shinkan Tamaki).

Shadowland (2013, Kazuhiro Goshima).

Sketch Film #1 (2005, Tomonari Nishikawa).

Sketch Film #2 (2005, Tomonari Nishikawa).

Uneven Image (2009, Shinkan Tamaki).


[1] Julian Ross, “Interview: Takashi Makino, Filmcomment September/October  (2014), http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-takashi-makino/, date accessed 20 February 2016.

[2] Kazuhiro Goshima’s webpage, http://www.goshiman.com/hp/04profile_e.html, date accessed 28 March 2016.

[3] The series contains four videos: FADE into WHITE #1 (1996, Kazuhiro Goshima), FADE into WHITE #2 (2000), FADE into WHITE #3 (2001) and FADE into WHITE #4 (2003).

[4] Joel Vacheron, “Kazuhiro Goshima: After the Metabolic Cities”, 12th Biennial of Moving Images in Geneva, (JRP | Ringier, Centre St-Gervais, Genève) (2007), p. 42.

[5]Shadowland (2013, Kazuhiro Goshima).

[6] Ars Electronica 2014, http://prix2014.aec.at/prixwinner/12220/, date accessed 29 March 2016.

[7] A digital single-lens reflex camera is the most common type of camera in use between 2000 and 2016. More information can be found at Photo Review, http://www.photoreview.com.au/guides/pocket-guides/digital-slr/Choosing-a-DSLR-Camera, date accessed 29 March 2016.

[8]Ars Electronica 2014.

[9]Ars Electronica 2014.

[10] Los Ageles Film Forum, “Takashi Makino: Entering a Noisy Cosmos”, http://www.lafilmforum.org/archive/fall-2014-schedule/makino-takashi-entering-a-noisy-cosmos/, date accessed 30 March 2016.

[11]Plus Screenings 2009-2013, ed. T. Makino, (Engine Books) (2014).

[12] Los Ageles Film Forum.

[13]2012 (Takashi Makino, 2013).

[14]Los Ageles Film Forum.

[15]Marianne Shaneen, “Takashi Makino’s 2012”, BOMB – Artist in Conversation Magazine, 130 (2015), http://bombmagazine.org/article/2000042/takashi-makino-s-em-2012-em, date accessed 9.12.2015.

[16] Los Angeles Film Forum.

[17] Ian P. Howard, Brian J. Rogers, Binocular Vision and Stereopsis, (New York, Oxford University Press) (1995), p. 535 – 548.

[18] Julian Ross.

[19]Julian Ross.

[20]Julian Ross.

[21]Julian Ross.

[22] Takashi Makino’s personal blog, http://makinokino.exblog.jp/, date accessed 17 April 2016.

[23]Katy Martin, “Interview with Daichi Saito and Tomonari Nishikawa”, Asia Experimental Media Issue, EXIS International Film and Video Festival, Seoul, Korea, pp. 264-302, http://katymartin.net/assets/katy-martin-saito-nishikawa-interview-dec08.pdf, date accessed 1 April 2016.

[24] Katy Martin is a visual artist, performer, and curator. She also conducts interviews with the experimental artists whose exhibitions she helps to create. More information about Katy Martin and her writings can be found on her website: http://katymartin.net/, date accessed 1 April 2016.

[25] Katy Martin, p. 7.

[26]Katy Martin, p. 8.

[27]Katy Martin, p. 9.

[28] Mono no aware, http://mononoawarefilm.com/special-engagements/connectivity-through-cinema-with-tomonari-nishikawa-in-person/, date accessed 2 April 2016.

[29] The series contains five 3 minutes films: Sketch Film#1,2,3,4 and 5.

[30] Tomonari Nishikawa film works, http://www.tomonarinishikawa.com/film.htm, date accessed 2 April 2016.

[31] Katy Martin, pp. 9 – 10.

[32]Sketch Film #1 (2005, Tomonari Nishikawa).

[33]Sketch Film #2 (2005, Tomonari Nishikawa).

[34] Katy Martin, pp. 9 – 10.

[35] Tomonari Nishikawa film works.

[36] Katy Martin, pp. 9 – 10.

[37]Tomonari Nishikawa film works.

[38]Tomonari Nishikawa film works.

[39]Tomonari Nishikawa film works.

[40] Shinkan Tamaki’s website, http://shinkantamaki.net/about/, date accessed 6 April 2016.

[41] Shinkan Tamaki’s website.

[42]Africa (2010, Shinkan Tamaki).

[43]Nacht en Dei (2011, Shinkan Tamaki).

[44]Sailing across images (2012, Shinkan Tamaki).

[45]Dying Moon (2005, Shinkan Tamaki).

[46]One Record on December (2007, Shinkan Tamaki).

[47]Scene 1 (2008, Shinkan Tamaki).

[48]Uneven Image (2009, Shinkan Tamaki).

[49]Shinkan Tamaki’s website.

Agnieszka Kiejziewicz – Her research interests revolve around the Japanese film and other visual arts performed by the artists from the Country of Cherry Blossoms. Until now she has written about Shinto religion in Japanese cinematography and the Japanese independent cyberpunk cinema. Currently, she is researching on the avant-garde and experimental films, searching for the new and less known achievements of the young filmmakers. In the experimental art, she seeks for the innovative forms, as well as fresh insight into common social problems, introduced by the Japanese artists. Continuingly, she focuses on the transgressive bodies and the role of the new technologies.

My life in art. A conversation with Bill Viola

Andrzej Pitrus

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 115-119

Andrzej Pitrus

Jagiellonian Univeristy



My life in art. A conversation with Bill Viola 

September 3, 2015


Andrzej Pitrus: You started making art videos in early ’70, when most of the artists were influenced by conceptualism. Although your works were different, there are some elements of conceptual art in early works (Tape I, Level etc). Was this tradition important for you? Is it important now?

Bill Viola:   Conceptual for me is another word for exploration and experimentation. In the early years, it was important to find out how this new medium of video worked, what the camera did, and how far you could push the live or recorded image until it disintegrated.

You mention Nam June Paik as one of your masters. In what way did he influence your work?

Nam June Paik was a visionary and a cherished mentor to me. He taught me that you could take ordinary objects or images and transform them into a radical statement on the way we perceive the world. I was privileged, as his assistant on many occasions, to watch him work and make creative decisions toward achieving his extraordinary artwork.

In your opinion, video is much closer to audio recording than film. In your early works, sound is usually important; more recent ones are usually silent or include only “diegetic” sound. Do you plan to explore sound (what aspects) in your future projects?


For a long time, I always recorded the sound together with the image and pretty much used that sound the way it came, even when being cut or slowed down. When I began working in 35 mm for some pieces that needed extreme slow motion, I could not record the sound at the same time because of the noise of the camera, or directions that needed to be relayed at the time of filming. So for the works where sound was needed, I began working with sound designers who helped to bring a different kind of environment to the works. The piece always determines if there is sound or not. With the Passions series pieces (mostly shot in 35 mm film) that are an exploration of the emotions, they are silent as I wanted the emotions to come through loudly.

“Reflecting Pool” is probably one of the most iconic of all Bill Viola’s works. You include it in most of the exhibitions, even those that focus on more recent works. Why?

People tend to show this work frequently, it has the whole mystery of life embedded in seven minutes, death: with the jump into the water; life: the reflections in the water; and rebirth: the new-born exiting naked from the water.

I really enjoy your immersive installations. It is a pity you exhibit them so rarely. Is it because of technical problems (they are certainly more difficult to transport), or do you consider them a “closed chapter”? Now you prefer projections or plasma panels. Do you have plans to create more “walk-in” installations in the future?

We have always included the video installations in larger exhibitions where space is available. They are immersive and often visceral. When the plasma and LCD screens came out in the second part of the 90s, they fascinated me and were perfect for my study of the emotions. I continue to make both kinds of works.

Many video artists of the ’60s and ’70s rejected traditional aesthetic categories (including beauty). You “rediscovered” them for media art. Weren’t you tempted to remake Reflecting Pool in high definition? In the late ’70s you were very limited by technology. Yet, this video is still so fascinating as a beautiful image.

There are some videotapes and installations that I have restored or re-edited, and usually that is because I have the raw materials in good shape, and saw that my vision was better served by upgrading the piece, but most of the works remain the same. It is not always important to have the clarity of high definition, in fact sometimes the clearer the image, the less we see.

I guess that as a very young person you were not interested in making films. Later, while making Passions, you decided to use some elements film technology. Why? Was it only because video was not perfect enough? Steve McQueen, who used to be a video artist, now makes movies? Aren’t you tempted too?

I have never been interested in the limitations of film, and of the narrative way of making films. I used 35 mm film only for its slow motion capabilities; the camera that I used was able to shoot at 300 frames per second, to achieve smooth slow motion. Now video can easily do that.

Another formula you experimented with (but not too much) is interactive art. I have seen (and played with) your “Night Journey” in Liverpool. It attracted lots of people who were not really familiar with media art. Most of them were gamers. Is it still a work in progress? Do you plan to release it commercially as an “art house game”?

The Night Journey has been a long-term collaboration with the Game Innovation Lab of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. We hope to complete it soon, once we transpose it to a new platform.

What is your opinion on interactive art generally? Do you enjoy it as viewers/users? Do you think it still allows the artist to control the meaning of the artwork?

There is another work I made in 1997 with ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, The Tree of Knowledge, which is an interactive computer/video installation. It gives the viewer the freedom to move within a long corridor to control the digital growth (and death) of a tree, but within certain parameters. The meaning of the work does not change just because someone else can control the outcome.

In most of your works, you prefer “analogue” technologies instead of CGI (eg. “waterfall” in Transfigurations which could be replaced with CGI). Do you think computer generated images have their place in video art? To what extent do you use computers? Were they used in “Angel at the Door” for example?

I work with the elements and find that there is no need to change nature; it is a very powerful force. The only time it is not real is when we “burn” an actor. Fire is dangerous and we need to build the flames in the edit room, but even then, most of the time, these are real flames recorded on “plate shots” and not CGI. Angel at the door is real; there were two actors in the shot at the end.

Your musical collaborations are really surprising. Three different projects: popular music, experimental music and opera. I wonder if you have any other similar plans? Also, what was the reason for your collaboration with Trent Reznor? I really liked it, but it was quite brave to show your video to a completely different audience.

I have collaborated on very few “music videos” because I don’t usually collaborate too well. I was quite attracted to the music of these three projects and admired the composers. Trent called one day and asked me to listen to some of the tracks that he wanted me to work on, and I found his work to be exceptional, so I agreed. He is a very talented musician and composer.

Bill Viola’s works are really sophisticated and require lots of knowledge and competence. Yet, some people experience them without this knowledge. For example, once in MOMA “Information’ was exhibited with very little information (or even no info at all) on how the work was created. Is it possible—in your opinion—to ‘read’ your works without proper knowledge about their context? With one’s emotions only?

I feel it is always important to approach a new experience with an open mind. We often don’t put wall labels next to the work so that the viewer can interact on their own terms with the piece, and to allow the work to speak with them directly. We don’t like descriptive texts unless they are part of a brochure that people can reference later, as a memory. We plan the exhibitions as a journey, where the works interact with each other, and the viewers are “submerged” into another world.

I was surprised to see members of the Viola family in recent works. Kira Perov has been a close collaborator of Bill Viola for over 30 years. Now she appears in Chapel of Frustrated Actions…, there is also Blake Viola, and a self-portrait for Uffizi. Is your art becoming more and more personal?

 I have always used myself or friends and family in my work, and of course actors and performers too. Kira has been part of the work all along, she has been the producer on all projects and worked on every shoot. She manages our whole operation. As photographer, she has documented our life’s work and she edits all our publications. It is hard not to include personal subjects, when the art is actually the life.

Originally published in Polish in Andrzej Pitrus monography on Bill Viola’s work Zanurzony. O sztuce Billa Violi (Jagiellonien University Press) (2015).

Transcultural Art of Bill Viola

Krzysztof Loska

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol. 1, no. 1, pp.120-122

Krzysztof Loska

Jagiellonian University

Transcultural Art of Bill Viola

Two extensive monographs devoted to the oeuvre of Bill Viola, one of the greatest contemporary video artists, were almost simultaneously published in the United States and Poland. Both books discuss not only his early works from the early 1970s, but also his latest installations presented recently in Venice, Berlin and London. The first book was prepared by John G. Hanhardt[1], a famous art critic and curator of many exhibitions who works with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, while the second book was written in Polish by Andrzej Pitrus[2], who for more than a decade has been studying new media art and has published numerous articles on Bill Viola. The American monograph is more like a catalogue of the exhibition, due to its large size and wealth of illustrations (350 altogether), while the Polish one—much humbler in this respect—focuses primarily on the interpretation of the artist’s works and tries to place them in a broad historical, cultural and artistic context.

In fifteen chapters, Andrzej Pitrus reconstructs Viola’s artistic career in essentially chronological order. The subsequent chapters present how particular threads developed in the successive stages of Viola’s career and consistently place them in the context of his entire oeuvre. From the beginning, Pitrus draws attention to Bill Viola’s penchant for specific topics and ways of artistic expression, and proves that even in the earliest works his artistic strategy was based on manipulating the course of time in order to initiate a reflection on the nature of perception.

Andrzej Pitrus concentrates on the issues that I personally also find crucial. These include the artist’s inclination to experiment with sound, which can become a factor that shapes the structure of a visual layer when it undermines the dominant system of the opposition, in which the image dominates the sound. This approach stems from Viola’s belief that video images can be treated as “variants of a musical tradition of the East regarded as an alternative to a tradition of the West”[3]. Here another interesting interpretive trail emerges, namely the relationship of the artist with the philosophical and religious systems of the Middle and Far East, such as Sufism, Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen, which appear inexhaustible sources of inspiration for many of his works.

Pitrus convincingly justifies a thesis that for Viola video art is by no means a way of recording reality, nor is it a medium for storytelling (similar to the cinema); on the contrary, it becomes a tool for experimentation and reflection on the nature of human perception. This is evident in the analysis of such early works as The Wheel of Becoming, where the video is “a tool which, on the one hand, mimics the fragmented perception of the world revealing itself to man through the senses, but, on the other—in its deep structure—is capable of restoring its proper consistency”[4] (49 – 50). This awareness of differences between the cinema and video art also helps one realize a close relationship between a video recording and an audio recording, which may be fully seen in one of the most famous works by Viola: Reflecting Pool. This sensitivity to the acoustic layer could also be seen later when the artist cooperated with Trent Reznor, for whom he prepared a visual illustration for three tracks from the album entitled The Fragile.

However, this does not mean that the American artist totally ignores the issue of “reproducing” reality. It is suffice to mention a series of films made for the Samoan Islands, a unique collection of ethnographic documents in the spirit of Jean Rouch, rising from the concept of participatory cinema, making it possible to cross the boundaries between the director and the film protagonist. The main subject of these films was the problem of the appropriation of the authentic culture of the indigenous people of the islands by Western civilization, but it seems that the reflection on the technological constraints in trying to show that intercultural meeting was equally important.

An encounter with Japanese culture and visits to the Land of the Rising Sun clearly played an important role in shaping of Bill Viola’s artistic sensitivity, which can be seen especially in the works that date from the late 1970s and 1980s (including Vegetable Memory, Hatatsu-Yume). For Pitrus Viola’s works of this period do not only reveal a fascination with the aesthetics of Zen, but are also clearly inspired by the traditional landscape painting of the Edo period, especially with regards to a peculiar understanding of the relationship between nature and art. Other points of reference that consistently appear in the works of Viola include Arab poets (Rumi), Christian mystics (Saint John of the Cross), and Taoism.

Andrzej Pitrus argues that almost all works of the American artist may be interpreted in the context of multiculturalism, though perhaps a more accurate description would be the notion of transculturalism, in the way it was understood by the German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch. Although Pitrus regards intertextual references as an important key for interpretation, he also follows other threads. He devotes a lot of space to autobiographical references, which occurred both in the early period of Viola’s career (e.g. in Moonblood, dedicated to his wife) and in the mature works, the most interesting of which seems to be The Passing, a single-channel video dedicated to his sick mother and covering the mourning after her death. What is crucial here is evoking memories and subordinating them to the logic of a dream. This method enables the artist to bring together apparently “random” shots.

In the last chapters of the book, Pitrus emphasizes Viola’s inspirations that he seeks in the works of great masters of painting, and in religion. The latter seems to be particularly important for Viola, both in terms of the form (the artist is extremely fond of diptychs and triptychs), and with regard to the sacred character of the places where he has presented his installations. However, what Pitrus finds particularly interesting are the two original projects: one of them was produced in collaboration with Peter Sellars, a prominent theatre director, for whom Viola prepared a video as the major component of the staging of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, while the other means something totally different than the artist’s previous areas of interest; namely, a computer game project for Sony PlayStation.

Andrzej Pitrus’s extremely erudite book, which proves both his thorough knowledge of the subject and the skill of writing in such a way that will definitely encourage readers to learn more about contemporary art, ends with an interesting interview with Bill Viola himself. If I were to mention what I miss in the book, it might be a comprehensive introduction that could help readers better understand the context of the art of new media and which would generally characterize Viola’s achievements. Finally, a list of works at the end of the book as a kind of artistic calendar might be useful. Even though Viola is such a prolific artist, most of his works are not known to wider audiences.

Andrzej Pitrus, Zanurzony. O sztuce Billa Violi, (Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press) (2015), 214 p.


[1] John G. Hanhardt, Bill Viola (Thames & Hudson) (2015).

[2] Andrzej Pitrus, Zanurzony. O sztuce Billa Violi (Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press) (2015).

[3] Andrzej Pitrus, p. 31.

[4] Andrzej Pitrus, pp. 49-50.

Sixty years later

Alicja Helman

Download the Article

TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 123-128

Alicja Helman

Jagiellonian University


Sixty years later

A brief publication by Justyna Żelasko entitled Przygoda w Pociągu. Początki polskiego modernizmu filmowego (Adventure on a Train. Beginnings of Modernism in Polish Cinema) provokes thoughts that extend beyond its subject matter. Interpreting films attributed to the Polish Film School in a way that had not previously occurred locally, the author initiates a completely new direction of research. Yet, at the same time, she holds a certain position among researchers who have analysed this phenomenon for decades. Żelasko advances varying propositions, although they are not strictly radical.

It was a common conviction that the emergence of the Polish Film School marked a new chapter in Polish cinema, yet the idea was constrained by a certain unilateral thinking present in film studies in the past. It is said that every generation writes its own story. However, the representatives of later generations complemented rather than revised the propositions formulated “on the spur of the moment”, when the Polish Film School was still developing. The emerging discussions covered the content of the School’s films in terms of worldview, historiosophy, politics, relation to tradition, and interpretations of attitudes: in other words, all that can be recognized under the term “the fate of a Polish man”. Much less attention was paid to the artistic side, the language, and poetics. In view of the importance of the elements related to the content, the matter of form paled into insignificance, if it was mentioned at all. Moreover, the style of reception in those years established the criteria of topic selection and influenced how problems of contemporary film watching practice are presented. Similar observations concerning this period can be found in every historian’s writing. Therefore, it is distinctive that the same point of view is also expressed by the people who, in the first place, influenced cinema after the October breakthrough in Poland and changed it according to the formal criteria.

Furthermore, it should also be remembered that in those years the unique thinking of the cinema—focused on its separateness, uniqueness, and characterized by particularism—started losing ground to an all-embracing approach. According to this point of view, a movie sets a place of meeting, collision, and interaction between many ideas. This concept can also be considered as a complex statement, concerning not only the present or past reality, but also cultural tradition, other arts, currents of thoughts existing in the epoch, and its basic configurations. That is why the trend emerged that postulated treating the films produced in the second half of the 1950s as “near-literary” compositions. Almost every film was an adaptation of a contemporary literary work and the screenwriters and co-screenwriters involved in the process were professionals working in production teams. Consequently, disputes concerning the problem of authorship brought a new matter to the discussion. The screenwriters demanded to be considered as the fathers of the success or, at least, to be noticed (concerning the popularity of Wajda’s, Munk’s and Kawalerowicz’s films). Is it the author himself who is responsible for the content of the picture, or is it he who shaped its visual form? Pursuit of the answer to this question is not the main subject of this essay; it is enough to mention that the directors won the conflict. Finally, as Konrad Eberhardt wrote, in cooperating with the camera operators they found the “form and way” that established cinema as “aesthetically responsible”[1].

In retrospect, of greatest importance are the questions: How did they find the way and form? What were their sources of inspiration? To which traditions did they refer? Did they use particular patterns consciously or unconsciously? The creators of the Polish Film School were disconnected neither from world heritage nor from what was happening in European and American cinematography at that time. They were acquainted with the current cinema and they wanted and were obliged to establish a dialogue with it.

The examination of the problems concerning form, language, and poetics started from the question of the sources of inspiration. The results more often appeared as remarks of a more general nature, or less often as analyses of formal solutions of a technical character. Neorealism was considered the first and unquestionable source of inspiration. In this case, it could not have been different. After the emergence of neorealism, it was impossible to return to earlier forms of realistic poetry. Therefore, in the most general understanding of the term ‘neorealism’, it appeared wherever the author expressed himself in the style and spirit of realism. Bolesław Michałek writes that neorealism in Poland functioned as “an instrument to forge new forms of expression”[2]. However, he contended that the group connected to Polish cinema, which gained an advantage between 1954 and 1956, does not owe as much to neorealism as was believed. The traces of these inspirations are obviously visible in certain places. However, indicating the neorealist influences suggested by researchers was often invalid.

The aesthetics of the Polish Film School frequently derived from Expressionism. Nonetheless, the critics assigned different meanings to this style: colloquial, historical, or updated by new experiences. The poetics of expressionism, with its characteristic type of distorted visual effects, the technique of handling film images, the method of evoking a mood, and searching for an equivalent for expressing inner states in specific methods of organizing materials; all occur within multiple periods. The recurring aspect is the one related to universal values beyond the historical character of expressionism, not with the historical variability of the poetics of German Expressionism. Expressionism was mainly a school of artistic perception. The creators recognized the possibilities of expression in the field of film art through the achievements and opportunities offered by painting and architecture.

The problematic of the references of the Polish Film School to historical experiences was summarized concisely by Marek Hendrykowski: “The active past, kind of an ‘artistic memory’ of the Polish Film School, from now on will include not only the realistic context which was most important before, but also other images of artistic experience visible in 20th century art: from expressionism, through surrealism and existentialism together with ‘situation theatre’ and the theatre of the absurd (Kanal, Eroica), down to the creative adaptations of poetic realism in film, poetry and painting, with its lyrical-dramatic focus on the privacy and inner world of the human (Somersault, The Last Day of Summer)”[3].

In Hendrykowski’s comments, the phrases “the active past” and “an artistic memory” are important because they underline the tendency that also appears in many other texts written by historians of Polish cinema. According to them, the Polish Film School should be seen from the perspective of its times, referring to the humanistic interpretation of the historical character distinguished by Jerzy Kmita[4].

However, today the most interesting achievement of the Polish Film School appears in the form of a completely different point of view, revealing aspects that were impossible to notice before. The problems with recognition of the aforementioned aspects appeared because of the lack of distance and appropriate tools available to the researchers. The abbreviation “tools” in this case means not only new research techniques, but also a new language of description, as well as new trends and concepts of thought.

Firstly, Justyna Żelasko places the group of films from the period of the Polish Film School in the context of modernism. According to the author, the chosen films: Night Train (Pociąg) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, How to be Loved (Jak być kochaną) and The Codes (Szyfry) by Wojciech Jerzy Has, The Last Day of Summer (Ostatni dzień lata) and Somersault (Salto) by Tadeusz Konwicki, Nobody’s Calling (Nikt nie woła) by Kazimierz Kutz, and The Passenger (Pasażerka) by Andrzej Munk are related to each other in terms of innovative film language and their “close origins of formal experiments”. Night Train, How to be Loved, and Jump depict how the memories of World War II and the following events determinate the experience of the present reality. The second group of films demonstrates the way in which those events can become catalysts of a particular view of reality, perceived as a code that “requires deciphering”. The books of Gilles Deleuze (Cinema 1-2) and András Bálint Kovács (Screening Modernism) can be mentioned as the methodological inspirations of the author.

“Both researchers, as the basis of the changes in the language of film at the turn of the 50s and 60s, point to experience rooted in the post-war period. They perceive it as the most important impulse to recognize the previous forms of expression as outdated. This experience also inspired the search for new forms that were more appropriate in the context of the modern human condition and were related to living in in a constantly changing reality in the shadow of the two Great Wars. In the view of Deleuze and Kovács, whose diagnoses are the starting point for my research perspective concerning the display of this world on the screen, the cinema had to invent new codes to be able to describe its fundamental dimensions; previous forms of expression seem to be inadequate. I assume that without knowing the aforementioned codes, understanding the language of film is impossible, and the historical experience which they tried to record is inaccessible to the viewer” (pp. 13-14).

The title of the book is also significant. Przygoda w Pociągu, in the literal meaning, can be associated with Kawalerowicz’s film, which is the primary picture interpreted by the author. In addition, it brings to mind Antonioni’s film L’avventura, which is considered an emblem and a ground-breaking work in the field of film language development. It should also be mentioned that although L’avventura won the special prize for innovative language in Cannes, it was booed by the festival audience. Our [Polish] critics reviewed Night Train kindly, but without enthusiasm, not recognizing any innovative aspects. In those years, this was normal practice. Justyna Żelasko immediately noticed that when it comes to the texts of the epoch, if the problem of form was taken into consideration, it was connected with a particular technical aspect, isolated from the context of the content (subjective camera, distinctive camera operating solutions). “The experience of modernity” that is the returning motif of a “Train” causes the elements of the content, as well as those connected with the form, to be conditional upon each other, almost eliminating the boundaries between them.

The subject of language, presented from a different point of view, will return in the following chapters. At the beginning of the interpretation of the film entitled How to be Loved, the author starts from Deleuze’s concept of the “incoherence of the experience, as well as the language describing it”, which is typical of the period covered by this article. The memory of the war and post-war events—as Justyna Żelasko writes—becomes “the catalyst of a new perception of reality, the reason why the previous descriptions are no longer up-to-date”.

The category taken from Deleuze’s theory of the crystal-image makes it possible, according to the author, to most accurately represent the narration of Has’s film, underlining the distinctive connections between real and virtual things. The present (the picture on the screen) and the past (memories, fantasies, roles, and images that blend into current pictures) are intangibly connected with each other, presenting the metaphysical meanings on the screen.

The next reference to Deleuze can be found in chapter III, in which the language in Somersault is characterized and the “crisis of the steady object, the connection between language, reality and the representation of values […] are mentioned. The presented world turns out to be a distinctive projection of Kowalski-Malinowski. The relationship between him and the outside world, as well as the efforts to integrate his own identity, appears on the narrative level. While navigating through the universe of cultural meanings, the character reconstructs his own position in the world” (p. 95).

Deleuze introduces a group of films presenting a radical version of the crystal-image (lack of distinction between the real and imagined) as a part of the distorted narration, where it is impossible to distinguish what is really true. Somersault seems to fit in this category, but Kowalski-Malinowski is not a triumphant Deleuzian counterfeiter—a creator of truth, who is aware of his power. In Somersault, we observe powerlessness, impotence, lack of fulfilment, and the sense of a crisis.

The crisis of the cinema of ‘movement-image’, as Deleuze writes, disturbs the order of a common sense vision of reality (classic cinema strongly established this vision). Thus, cause, effect, and spatiotemporal and teleological order are deranged. Their disorganization brings the feeling of disorientation and—on the level of the cinema—it causes the destruction of the existing language. The author emphasizes the weakening of the narration, the separation into episodes, the dispersion of the composition, the reinterpretation of the genres, the transfer of the meaning of the plot into the picture, and the connections between the images.

The natural consequence of the changes is the emergence of the ‘time-image’. Previous connections were replaced by new ones. “They are constituting themselves in the moment, while the actual image […] not only opposes the connection with the other one, but also opens into its own virtual image […], in other words, into a set of new references” (p. 106).

Of course, these few indications presented in the context of the author’s interpretation cannot express the complex nature of Justyna Żelasko’s precise and influential analyses. She covers many problems that complement the main subject and correspond with it in the field of content and form or rather—according to her intention—focus on their mutual impact.

The author describes the characters in the interpreted films as “pursued by history” (by underground sentences, war memories, unsolved mysteries). The pressure of history on the individual is the main motif used by the Polish Film School artists, and by some not mentioned by Justyna Żelasko. The characters are imprisoned in the past; involved in and simultaneously affected by past events, when they should be able to start new lives. They cannot (or maybe they do not want to) do this. However, the distinction of the certain groups of films made by Justyna Żelasko is worth emphasizing. Not all films classified as Polish Film School pictures present the character’s fate, which is determined by history, in the same way. Here the author makes use of Hayden White’s approach and his two models of historical narrations. The first treats history in a way that enables its representation in the form of a linear story. This kind of narration was distinctive for the phase of ‘movement-image’ and—in all possible variations—revealed the chosen aspect, while at the same time hiding other facets. The events of the 20th century, which were described by White as “modernistic” (two World Wars, the Holocaust), initiated the discussion about the lack of descriptive language. Modernism created the second model of the historical narrative, one in which the differences between events are obliterated and their representations in the discourse take into consideration the basic oppositions of the true and the false, and the subjective and objective. While in their way of presenting history and using images, the films of Wajda and Munk represent the first type of story, the films of Has, Konwicki, and Kutz, as interpreted by the author, are classified as the second type. In this case, an ally of Justyna Żelasko is also Bergson, who distinguishes “automatic recognition” and “attentive recognition” as a part of his concept of human actions determined by time. The first is based on habits, beliefs and attitudes, which means that a reaction to particular events is predictable. The second leads to the deeper content of consciousness and occurs when a person rejects automatic reactions. This division is confirmed by the conceptions of the ‘movement-image’ and ‘time-image’.

It is difficult to leave the book at the end of the process of writing about Przygoda w Pociągu, as it offers an extremely wide range of threads and related connections. It is only fair to say that to acknowledge this extraordinary work by Justyna Żelasko, one should quote her book.

Justyna Żelasko, Przygoda w Pociągu. Początki polskiego modernizmu filmowego (Has, Kawalerowicz, Konwicki, Kutz, Munk) (Kraków: Korporacja ha!art) (2015).



[1] Konrad Eberhardt, „Spory wokół estetyki”, in idem, O polskich filmach. Warszawa: WAiF 1982, p. 183.

[2] Bolesław Michałek, „Polska przygoda neorealizmu”, Kino 1 (1975), p. 28.

[3] Marek Hendrykowski, „‘Polska szkoła filmowa’ jako formacja artystyczna”, in „Szkoła polska” – powroty, ed. Ewelina Nurczyńska-Fidelska, Bronisława Stolarska (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego) (1998), p. 14.

[4] Jerzy Kmita, Wykłady z logiki i metodologii nauk (Warszawa: PWN) (1975), p.218.


Table of Contents 2016 vol.1 no.1


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TransMissions: The Journal of Film and Media Studies 2016, vol.1, no. 1

Table of Contents  2016 vol.1 no.1


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