Interstitial Spaces and Irreducible Difference
In her article Marks emphasizes the potential volatility of both the fetish and fossil (a quality of all forms of representation). Their initial appearances are deceiving as they “carry within them histories that, once unravelled, make the fixity of the present untenable” (Marks 1999,229). On the surface, these objects may give some clue to the histories out of which they emerged. The danger comes when living history is reduced to an object that is itself a product of an intercultural encounter. There are many stories one could tell about Ciudad Juarez, as the literature demonstrates (see note 4). That so many of the city’s cases of murdered women remain open only underscores the provisional nature of any attempt to tell a particular story. Documentaries, like fetishes and fossils, are usefully conceived, in Marks’s words, as interstitial spaces (1999)— (intermediaries)—which designate the site of an exchange of meanings. Some
mutual understanding is certainly one possible outcome of this exchange, but we must also accept that “untranslatability.. .is part of the intercultural experience” (236). Within the context of our earlier discussion on media politics, in which we considered the financial and institutional barriers to cinematic production, we can better appreciate that with the decline in the variety of views represented in film comes a decline in the likelihood that audiences will come away from a film with the kind of understanding that Marks’s point on documentaries as interstitial spaces seeks to convey.
Inevitably, Marks (1999,240) says, documentaries will function as fetishes and fossils so long as they are said to represent a real event. Given the medium’s technological capacity—action, colour, sound—the audience may experience sensations that are almost like those they would experience upon being there. This experience may be productively deployed in the interests of cross-cultural understanding and political action only when the fetishizing/fossilizing aspect of documentaries is allowed to fade away with the last flickering images of the film.
It is possible to harness the representational power of documentary film for progressive social change. To do so requires that we engage the form with the express purpose of subverting its potential to do harm. Returning to philosophy for a moment, Derrida (1996) makes a similar argument in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” In this article he uses the example of ethnology to demonstrate how it is possible to work critically from within a politically problematic tradition with the goal of producing different outcomes.14 Derrida explains that, “here it is a question both of a critical relation to the language of the social sciences and a critical responsibility of the discourse itself. It is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself” (440). We are all invested in discourses—dominant ways of thinking that regulate the production of knowledge. There is no viable alternative if we are to make ourselves understood and be taken seriously. What Derrida is saying is that to resist the oppressive qualities that foreground discourses like the one/s found in ethnology requires that we use discursive concepts and premises in unanticipated and subversive ways.
In thinking about presence and representation, we might look to Derrida’s (1996, 448) assessment of interpretation for added direction:
There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of
interpretation as an exile. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology—in other words, throughout his entire history—has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play.
Rather than deciding between these two irreducibly different perspectives, we ought instead to find out what they have in common. For, in addition to serving as an intermediary or interstitial space between (absent) presence and representation, the idea of the supplement—like Derrida’s other “hinge-words” (Young 1981,18) (e. g., trace, difference)—suggests that divisions like the one between presence and representation may be more ambiguous than is traditionally thought.