Laura Marks: On Fetishes and Fossils
In “Fetishes and Fossils: Notes on Documentary and Materiality,” Laura Marks (1999) offers two metaphors to illustrate how documentaries both fetishize and fossilize their subjects. In this article Marks focuses on the operation of documentary films as intercultural phenomena, where the documentary marks a relationship between cultures. Drawing on the scholarship of William Pietz, Marks describes fetishes and fossils as “two kinds of objects that condense cryptic histories within themselves. Both gather their peculiar power by virtue of a prior contact with some originary object. Both are like nodes, or knots, in which historical, cultural, and spiritual forces gather with a particular intensity” (224). Early on, she makes a point of recounting the history of “the fetish” as an idea first employed during the period of imperialist expansion (226). In relations between Portuguese colonists and traders and West African peoples, the fetish served a dual purpose: to the colonists it represented the spiritual practices of the peoples they encountered; to the West Africans, it served to satisfy the visitors’ curiosity about their traditions while deflecting attention away from those practices they wished to keep private. This research supports the claim that the fetish has always been “an intercultural product” (226) rather than a “simple” artefact. It also highlights the active role played by subjects in how they represent themselves and the distance between people that much documentary representation strives to bridge.
The fossil metaphor is invoked by Marks in its Deleuzian sense: it refers “to the power of memory images to embody different pasts. When an image is all that remains of a memory, when the memory cannot be ‘assigned a present’ but simply stares up at one where it has been unearthed, then that image is like a fossil” (Marks 1999,227). Marks notes that Gilles Deleuze regards fossils as dangerous; like Rousseau’s “dangerous supplement,” the uncovered fossil is a sign that is related to other signs along a chain of signification that cannot be delimited or suspended. While it is possible to trace the histories of fossilized images, such efforts also risk disturbing “other memories, causing inert presences on the most recent layer of history themselves to set off chains of associations that had been forgotten” (227).
Documentaries behave in this way because they carry images that hold particular meanings in one culture and relay them to audiences from different cultures, for whom the images may have no, or a very different, significance. The filmmaker may attempt to provide some historical context or the viewer may be inspired to pursue the subject further. In either case, there is no way to guarantee which meanings will be drawn. While Norelli (City of Dreams 2001) attributes the Juarez murders to the city’s drug trade and to a pattern of male macho backlash against the growing social and economic independence of female maquila workers, Portillo (Senorita Extraviada 2001) emphasizes the role of the police in the carrying out and covering up of some of the killings. Without Portillo’s perspective and without a more nuanced understanding of the history of gender relations in Mexican society, northern11 viewers of City of Dreams may be tempted to simplistically and dismissively draw on stereotypical beliefs about Latino men and women in thinking about this story. This example illustrates Marks’s reminder that history is necessarily unfinished and that we must resist the urge to come to any definitive conclusions. To suggest such conclusions would be to lapse into stereotype and unhelpful cultural generalizations that would foreclose on empathy and understanding across cultures.
In her analysis, Marks (1999,224) emphasizes the material, tactile quality of film: “My use of the fetish and fossil metaphors relates to the materiality of film itself as witness to an originating object: to documentary’s indexical quality. To think of film as fetish or fossil requires an archaeology of sense experience and draws on an epistemology based on the sense of touch.” This effort to materialize human practices—phenomena that ultimately resist being captured or contained in any medium—may fail if this indexical quality to film becomes obscured. Indexicality is what gives film its representational power, particularly in the case of documentaries, which, as I observed earlier, are traditionally directed towards representation of the real. Marks explains that “by approaching the indexicality of film as a fetishlike or fossil-like quality, I mean to emphasize that this trace of the real on film is embalmed in layers of historical use and interpretation, which obscure and ultimately transform any original meaning it might have had” (228). So, we must bear in mind that such representations of other cultures may be in some sense fetishized and fossilized: decontextualized, oversimplified, or distorted images created for purposes that may not be immediately apparent to the documentary’s subjects, the filmmaker/s, or the audience(s).
Given the above discussion of Derrida’s treatment of presence, what meaning do words like “distorted” have here? If the presence of representation is elusive at best, then what is there to be distorted in documentaries? There are, I think, several modes of distortion possible in documentary and other forms of representation. First, the filmmaker or author may “misrepresent” the intended image projected by her subjects. Although Derrida (1976,158) has endeavoured to complicate the relation between intention (consciousness), representation, and interpretation, even he has no wish to dismiss the significance of intention entirely. This distortion of subjects’ self-representation occurs when the filmmaker is insufficiently knowledgable about the historical and cultural context within which particular practices are situated (i. e., Marks’s documentary as fossil).12 Without presuming to offer the definitive representation of what’s really going on in Juarez, we could ask: (how) do the backgrounds of filmmakers affect their accounts and analyses? For instance, does Lourdes Portillo’s Latina heritage and experience provide her with certain advantages in the making of her film, Senorita Extraviada: Missing Young Woman (2001)?
Second, misrepresentation can take place when the filmmaker intentionally or unintentionally imposes a theoretical framework of interpretation on a culture for which such a framework is unknown and/or inappropriate. Indeed, individual subjects may be more aware of the potential for this form of distortion than are the investigators. Thinking back to Marks’s history of the fetish as intercultural product, we are reminded of its decoy function.
Returning to the example mentioned earlier, in City of Dreams (2001) the narrative turns from a description of Juarez’s criminal underworld to a presentation of a backlash theory of male violence against women as the more compelling explanation for the murders. This analysis accords nicely with a (Northern) feminist political framework, making the problem more comprehensible to a Northern audience. While I do not wish to discount this theory, I am concerned that not enough historical and cultural specificity was provided in the analysis of gender relations in the Juarez context. Without this complexity, audiences may be unwilling to reconcile the large numbers of murdered women with a breakdown in gender relations, as represented in the film. The danger here is that audiences may choose to attribute this violent behaviour to some essential quality of Juarenses, Northern Mexicans, or Latinos generally.
Scholars in anthropology and sociology who are acquainted with the history of their fields also know the damage done by past investigators whose work was tainted by fetishizing practices. Although reports of researchers grossly distorting their subjects have become less common in these disciplines, what Marks describes as the fetishizing and fossilizing effects of documentary film speaks to the risk with which all authors who engage in crosscultural research, and who wish to avoid contributing to mediated neocolonization, must still contend.
Most important, because of the risk of potentially hurtful distortions, the metaphors of fossil and fetish identify the inherently political nature of (not only) cross-cultural representation. Marks (1999, 228-29) writes:
I want to stress that the intercultural space in which fetishes and fossils are produced are charged with power; it is not a neutral ground. Colonial power relations in particular, with their propensity for cross-breeding indigenous and imported meanings, are prime sites for the production of these objects. Where two or more material discourses crash together are formed any number of peculiar artifacts.
In thinking of the documentaries made about Juarez, we must consider the various economic, cultural, historical, linguistic, and other issues that inform this story. We must consider the significance of the story itself, how it is told, by whom, and why. With the exception of Maquila (2000), all of the other documentaries identified earlier focus their attention on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of so many women. To me, this is certainly the most wrenching aspect of the story. Yet, it also seems disturbingly consistent with the character of much of Western popular culture, in which sexually exploitative and violent depictions of women have become commonplace. With regard to the representation of women who murder, a similar point is discussed by Sylvie Frigon (chapter 1 in this collection). While the filmmakers’ motives for drawing public attention to the murder of Juarez women may be laudable (as a strategy for pressuring federal authorities to take more of an interest in the case, for example), by their very existence these documentaries add new images of battered and violated (Latina) women to the public imagination.13 Could the salacious details of this case explain, in part, why Juarez has received so much attention by the media over the years? Many of the murdered women were very young (teens and twenties), their corpses showing evidence of sexual assault. In one scene from City of Dreams (2001) the screen is filled by the image of a dead woman who has been dumped in the desert. Although her face is obscured, her naked abdomen and thighs are clearly visible. In considering Mexico’s colonial history and, in particular, the stereotypical depiction of Lati – nas, especially in the US media (see e. g., Valdivia 2000), we are justified in critically considering the impact (positive and negative) these representations are likely to have.
Following Derrida, we can identify a third form of distortion that relates to Marks’s reasoning: this occurs when the documentary itself supplants, as the source of meaning, that which it represents. We have established that documentary film mediates intercultural relations. Like fetishes and fossils, “they are those historical objects that contain the histories produced in intercultural traffic” (Marks 1999, 228). Documentaries, as with the Juarez example, document lived experiences and communicate something of those experiences to audiences who may be far removed—geographically, economically, culturally, and linguistically—from maquila life. To the extent that they serve to fix these experiences—this unfinished history—and are allowed to stand in place of the (absent) truth, documentaries distort their subject matter. As intermediaries these films act to displace, to supplement the presence of their subjects (e. g., what is happening in Ciudad Juarez and why)? If such a question is ultimately unanswerable, then how can a film, especially one made by a stranger, hope to answer it? Of what good are documentaries? Or, for that matter, representation in general?