Lights Out: The Darkroom
Organizer: Mayanthi Fernando
Panelists: Lisa Sang Mi Min, Mayanthi Fernando, Franck Billé, Elizabeth Dunn, Lucinda Ramberg, Eduardo Kohn, Manari Ushigua, Aisha Beliso-de Jesús, Abou Farman, Aimee Cox
Sponsor: Society for Cultural Anthropology
To be heard, or read aloud.
The lights switch back on. Squints, laughs, smiles, contemplation, connection, longing. Desiring the dark for just another moment. We were holding each other a second before: hands held lightly, tentatively forming a circuitry of entangled thoughts, experiments, experiences. Guided, copresent, attentive, yet these hands each betraying distinct temperatures, textures, and points of connection. Reflecting on the “Lights Out” session at this year’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, I attempt here to trace one route through an interconnected series of experiments in the dark.
A first impression: rushing in, others rushing out to the hectic, bubbly corridors of acquaintances. This room is aside, apart: breath, breath, breathing, breath. Attempting to attune, aware of bodily vitality, aware of my own heartbeat, here, beside other bodies, here. No linear time here, but stretching moments, bending back on themselves.
One cluster of experiences gathers around the concept of the interval. Lisa Sang Mi Min guides us through words and soundscapes to approach the Korean DMZ: a rustling climb up the mountain, newscasters narrating the Cold War, scratchy music of a bygone era. We approach the border through structured senses: sight and sound and touch. But Min raises a possibility: must these senses frame, or can they open out differently? Can we sense darkness as a portal to a forbidden place? We approach the in-between space, too, in Mayanthi Fernando’s presentation, as she sketches out the dreaming world where she encounters her cat’s ghost in the barzakh. The dream is not a psychoanalytic projection but an immaterial encounter of spirits, loosened from sleeping bodies and secular sensibilities. In the in-between, we do not take seriously by rendering logical, but by giving ourselves over to encounter.
Fear emerges through sound collages compiled by Franck Billé and Elizabeth Dunn. The news, Crossfire-style, yelling over one another’s humanity, and then a baby begins to cry. Where does the sound collage begin and end? Is the baby in the room? In my memory? In the soundtrack? The child is hushed, a deep voice, a parent’s embrace in the dark. Nightmares, external fears warded off. The sounds shift to a mother’s story. She tells us of children playing in the camps, playing war. Her son emerges from a bush, asking “what’s this?” with a cluster bomb in hand. The adults, not playing, not breathing, wish it down, down, gently, down. A shell, just a shell: relief. Darkness in two types: external fear, encroaching; parental comfort, embracing. Min’s border returns to me: there is an interval between fear and comfort, the darkness, its excess, a portal to an otherwise.
Fernando reminds us what we are doing here in the dark: exploring alternatives to a “modernist ocularcentric epistemology” (Hirschkind 2006, 18). Aural pathways abound. Soundscape portals rustle, dislodge, and ignite engagement. Eduardo Kohn and Manari Ushigua have assembled and curated a soundscape, which they reveal to us, guiding us into dreaming. Rich, overlayed, textured exploration in a forest. Shimmering presence, direct vibrational contact—into the rustles, my presence begins running, into the rustles—my hair growing, feeling my hair, an unfamiliar sensation, the waking dream unfolding unexpectedly, in every direction, outward, around. And then. The soundscape breathes in and coalesces: a single pitch. A singing bowl. Playing here before us, present, growing, layering, resonating, piercing. Into clear, intense, sonic direction. Inward. Just between the eyes. Another sonic portal gathered up, embodied, revealed by Aisha Beliso-de Jesús. Here. She gathers us here. Then, in conclusion, another sonic portal. This time rich, overlayed, textured, resonant, echoes of the forest soundscape. But it is dance: the theory of her footwork, the concept-making choreography. Guided, tracing carefully, centered.
In the dark, there are many injunctions to imagine. Min’s excess of the senses leads her to the imagination; Fernando asks us to close our eyes and follow. Abou Farman also directs us to imagine—this time, that we are undocumented migrants, waiting in a church. We are simultaneously holding ice cubes, cuing a heightened sense of touch, focusing our attention to the point of contact between flesh and ice. Chill to the bone. Yet I find myself wondering: What distances can we close with this imperative: “imagine!”? What gaps are impossible to traverse? What is the work of imagination? Who is the “we” that is imagining? What blindnesses do we carry over into the dark? I realize that there are many genres of storytelling here: some are spectacular stories, told around a campfire, flights of fancy. Certain possibilities open on demand, while others are occluded. But it matters too how imagination fails to broach the gap of another’s experience: did we reflect long enough on impossibility? Other stories crisscross in the dark as well: descriptions with no imperatives, and invitations into oneself.
Darkness was here before we started. It is the preparation, the launch pad. The gathering space, the possibility, in Farman’s rendering. “The inhale before the sigh, laughter, or the scream,” for Aimee Cox:
Quiet, not silence
the place of possibility
the site where seeds of action are planted
Quiet is potential.
Beliso-de Jesús makes it precise: not whiteness. How to do or at least start to do the work of decolonizing anthropology, through darkness. Cox guides us into our own breath, our own voices—not outward but inward, filling the shape of our form, voices bodying forth in strange polyphony/cacophony. I hear once more Fernando’s cat purring. Beliso-de Jesús’s footwork. The rustle as we approach the portal. But it is difficult to distinguish; my voice is mixed in with it all. The sounds reach out and then still, once more in preparation, in potential. Lights out.
Hirschkind, Charles. 2006. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.