Bell hooks: Pain as Catalyst and Conduit
So far, we might tentatively conclude that Derrida and Marks are attempting to unsettle whatever established ideas we might have held about the nature of truth, the transparency of linguistic and documentary forms of communication, the political nature of discourses and other forms of representation, and advocate for ways in which we might “trouble” these conventionally held ideas and techniques in subversive and emancipatory ways. This effort, particularly as it touches on “truth,” is characteristic of the movement of poststructuralism. It has also been the target of intense criticism.
If we confuse the definition of what is true, what is real, what are the consequences for people like the families of the murdered Juarez women, who are suffering under conditions that have very real and very violent effects? Who is to be believed (e. g., the police, representatives of women’s organizations, the survivors) in a situation where there are competing truth claims? A reply from poststructuralist theory might be that conventional ideas about truth have all too frequently been used against marginalized populations. As Derrida and Marks have indicated, discourses are not neutral—they are politicized by the circulation of power relations that have historically privileged some groups of people at the expense of others. And as Derrida asserts, the point is not to exchange one notion of truth for another but, rather, to remain critically aware of the limitations of these notions, even as we depend on them to make sense of our world.
While criticizing the “nihilist extremism” of Baudrillard’s poststructuralist view of the real, Bill Nichols (1991) appears to sympathize with Derrida and Marks, but only to a point. He insists that the human element absolutely compels a distinction between reality and representation: “The reality of pain and loss that is not part of any simulation, in fact, is what makes the difference between representation and historical reality of crucial importance” (7). Documentaries have the capacity to draw attention to this distinction, according to Nichols.
To address further what is the raison d’etre of many documentaries— that is, the communication of urgent stories of human suffering to a wider audience—I turn, finally, to the work of bell hooks. hooks takes up the idea of emotional pain in a manner reminiscent of ethics in the work of Michel Foucault (1987): as a catalyst for social change. In “An Interview with bell hooks by Gloria Watkins: No, Not Talking Back, January 1989,” hooks (1990, 215) writes:
GW: Why remember the pain, that’s how you began?
bh: Because I am sometimes awed, as in finding something terrifying, when I see how many of the people who are writing about domination and oppression are distanced from the pain, the woundedness, the ugliness. That it’s so much of the time just a subject—a “discourse.” The person does not believe in a real way that “what I say here, this theory I come up with, may help change the pain in my life or in the lives of other people.” I say remember the pain because I believe true resistance begins with people confronting pain, whether it’s theirs or somebody else’s, and wanting to do something to change it. And it’s this pain that so much makes its mark in daily life. Pain as a catalyst for change, for working to change.
This passages raises several issues that I think authors (including filmmakers) and audiences need to be made aware of and/or reminded about. First, hooks highlights the need for authors and audiences to remain mindful of the pain experienced by actors in stories marked by violence. To be open to the pain experienced by research subjects, and the pain we may feel in empathizing with these subjects, is to keep the stories that we tell as free from externally imposed distortions as possible and to resist the tendency towards objectification. In this way, pain may serve as a conduit across the interstitial space occupied by documentary film, between those who are being represented and those who would represent them. When we remember the suffering of the people whose stories we seek to tell, we gain a greater appreciation of the sensitive nature of our task, and, it is to be hoped, take greater responsibility for the potential repercussions generated by our actions.
Second, to be open to these painful feelings helps us to re/affirm our priorities. This is pain as catalyst. In working with people who have been touched by oppression and domination—in dealing with this topic—when we allow ourselves to feel the pain that this oppression creates, we become aware of our political choices. Of course, the relatively straightforward act of taking a political position is only the first step in the more difficult journey of implementing that position.
Third, we cannot enter into the study of oppression and domination and expect to emerge unscathed. Borrowing from hooks’s (1989) terminology, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is the source of much pain and suffering, and we are all implicated in this. If we wish to address these conditions we must be prepared to submit our work, and ourselves, to scrutiny. In our reading and in our creative production we must be wary of the operation of oppressive relations of power even if issues of domination are not our focus. This is because their influence upon diverse phenomena is still being charted. If we are not willing to be “honest” with ourselves and our audiences about our biases, positions, and motivations, then our audiences will do it for us, and by then it will be too late.
Fourth, we need to reconsider how we think about pain and suffering. Painful feelings, such as the ones that surface when we are confronting internalized racism and white supremacism, can be helpful in alerting us to areas that require our attention. Pain can also be a signal of growth. As Derrida and Marks caution, we must avoid at all costs becoming too comfortable, too certain in our understanding.
Marks also shares with hooks a desire to integrate a sense of the tangible into her writing. Their approach illustrates that creative production (whether textual or cinematic) can be an emotional—even a physical experience—as well as an intellectual one. Social scientists and journalists are often expected to maintain an “objective” stance in relation to their subjects. Within the social sciences at least, this orientation—which, at best, represents a dubious ideal and, at worst, obscures the subjective basis of so-called “objective” behaviour—has been roundly criticized. Again, while there is no reason to exchange one (problematic) interpretation for another, a greater appreciation of the human element to stories can only aid in representation.
Recalling Nichols’s criticism of epistephilic pleasure, it may be that the most effective demonstration of the filmmaker/researcher’s empathy with his/her cinematic/research subjects is to dissolve the line that traditionally separates one role from the other—that is, to blur the boundary between Self and Other—without shrinking from the new political challenges to be faced in such a move. In the end, this strategy may well have the most potential for the promotion of a progressive model of representation.
Marks’s discussion of the fetish and fossil captures the distance between cultures that is mediated (more or less successfully) by documentary films. Emotional distance from the pain caused by oppression and domination that hooks describes further alienates the filmmaker/author from the people whom she is representing. As Derrida observed, (good) intentions are not enough. However, I do believe that a sincere commitment to remain open to the raw experience of human suffering—a feeling to which all people can relate—can help to minimize the fetishization and fossilization that threatens scholarly and popular modes of representation.