From the Series: In Whose Name?
Written by Isabelle Carbonell in collaboration with Golden Snail Opera contributors Yen-Ling Tsai and Anna Tsing.
The tool de rigueur in many documentaries and ethnographic filmic methods is the interview. Given its ubiquity, it is surprising there hasn’t been more expansions on its conceptual and practical applications in either film or anthropology. In documentary studies, there is a whole host of verbiage that orients itself entirely on the interview-as-backbone-of-the-film method. For example, terms like “A-roll” and “B-roll” still circulate widely, or people often make a so-called paper edit of the film prior to editing. A paper edit refers to making a transcript of all of the words – without inflections or comments on other sounds – said during an interview onto paper. The text is then cut and pasted to create a flowing argument that is the structure of the film. Bill Nichols calls this making “a series of imaginary puppets conform to a line” (1983, 27). Irina Leimbacher explains that it is “ventriloquizing the invisible authorial presence who appears to grant them agency only in order to conceal his or her own” (2017, 295). Often this agency is argued to “give a voice to the voiceless,” supposedly to empower those without a platform, when instead, as Katherine Boo points out, “The problem (then, now) is not a lack of voices but of listeners.”
The way interviews and talking-heads are used in film, often only for their informational value, eclipses their possible sensory surprises – the utterances in between, above, below, or through the words, the silences, the furtive moments of hesitancy. A voice’s grain and texture, its musicality, its sonorous aliveness, or the gait of someone’s walk and the way they move through space. Leimbacher, evoking Mladen Dolar, calls the voice a “go-between,” a “transient, transforming wave of sound through which we connect to each other.” She coined the term haptic listening which allows for and attends to an “embodied expression as much as to lexical meanings” (2017, 293). The call for a different kind of listening entails an attentive listening which reaches beyond just linguistic meaning to become receptive to the unknown, the elusive, and the unfamiliar. Perhaps I can go one step further towards a kind of haptic sense-making, or what I would call a panesthetic attunement, a term I will explain in a moment.
To make matters even more slippery, interview methodologies in practice and in theory, when discussed, usually remain firmly in the realm of Homo sapiens. Perhaps rightly so, the interview might reside as an essentially anthropocentric method. Can we attempt to expand the concept of the interview beyond the human? Immediately, questions arise, such as: how can we tune into otherness in an open-ended way? How can we “listen otherwise” and simply stay with something, receptive or engaging, experiencing the resonance in the world without translation?
In my own film and audio work as both a scholar and an artist, I became very motivated to discover ways to expand the approach to interview around the more-than-human, when thinking through environmental issues, slow violence, and multispecies relations. My first encounter with this quest was during the filming of The Golden Snail Opera (2016/2019), which is a film-and-text piece made in collaboration with Yen-Ling Tsai, Anna Tsing, and Joelle Chevrier, along with a myriad of nonhuman collaborators as well (willing, neutral, or unwilling: many are cited in the credits). Yen-Ling and Anna both concocted an open-ended collaboration, and then drew me and Joelle into the project. I was tasked with visually and sonically delving into the specific ecosystem of Yen-Ling’s rice paddy in Yilan, Taiwan, an agricultural region dealing with the complex history of the invasive golden snail. I tried a series of filmic and sonic interventions that prioritized a host of relationships and senses that weren’t easily accessed only through voice or explanation. I came to view being in conversation with, thinking with, and interviewing a broad array of phenomena as a series of attunements I was making to this unique ecosystem and all its complex relationships. Practicing panesthesia – an awareness of all senses at once – along with receptive openness to sensorial input – was my lodestar for the project. I call this a panesthetic attunement.
But I don’t mean to imply that my attunement was achievable on my own. Yen-Ling, who is teaching anthropology in Taiwan, has a deep, historically rich, and familial connection to the land, and years of hands-on direct experience with rice farming that allowed for a unique set of observations from which the seeds of this project arose. Yen-Ling and Joelle both work long hours every day in the rice paddy: whether planting rice, weeding, trying to make scarecrows for the birds, unknowingly interacting with the paddy ghosts, collecting the daily influx of golden apple snails by hand, or eventually harvesting the rice. In addition, they are both part of a larger farming community of old and young that combines generations of experience with rice, water, weather, offerings to the ghosts, snails and other creatures, with more modern experimental techniques. Anna, who has decades of experience investigating, practicing, theorizing, and writing about different attunements to multispecies life, not only acted as the initial connector between us all but also catalyzed a unique collaboration while the piece was coming together after the physical act of filming: while I was editing small pearls of the film to share with the rest of the team, Anna, Yen-Ling, and Joelle were writing and experimenting with the text. This wide, collaborative set of relations formed the basis for an incredible opportunity to attune beyond the human.
If we consider seriously that a landscape, or a waterscape, is an assemblage of more-than-human relations, an embodied historical accretion, then can we ask: can nonhumans make worlds? If so, can we think with, and not just about, this ecosystem as it leads us to multiple ways of knowing? And, if we attempt to think with more-than-humans through new investments in sensorial, embodied, and speculative practices, how might this translate to our practice of the interview?
In this proposed expansion of the term interview, I continue to muse on the term attunement as perhaps a more productive framing of the interview for the more-than-human. Julien Brigstocke and Tehseen Noorani ask, “What happens when we attempt to attune ourselves to forms of agency that do not possess a conventionally recognized ‘voice’ to be amplified?” (2016, 1). How might we attune our bodies to different spatio-temporal registers that allow us to encounter an environment, an ecosystem, a being, and acknowledge their co-production of the world(s)? I do not use the term attunement to invoke normative ideals of being in harmony with nature. Tuning, for example, to environmental disasters with their spatio-temporalities so different from ours, is actually an exercise in detuning – an event and environment exceeding the limits of our human perception. These violent and haunted temporalities are disorienting. Perhaps attunement here “speaks not only to relations but also the absence of relation…with lost futures and haunted presents” (2016, 3).
After The Golden Snail Opera, I have made several other film and sound projects that have enacted a panesthetic attunement as an expansion of the interview: The River Runs Red (2018), Songs of Mud (2019), The Camel Race (2019), The Blessed Assurance (2019), The Mississippi Multiverse (2020), The River in 24/7 (2020), A Pluriverse of Polyps (2020), Portal Blooms (2020), A Mirror of the Cosmos (2021), Medusa's Mirage: A Tidal Opera (forthcoming).
In sum, a panesthetic attunement has enabled me to interview an ecosystem, or vibrate with a place or creature or fellow human (in or out of tune), to perform a kind of haptic sense-making and listening that allows for a co-existence with otherness, the makeup of which we sometimes know we know, know we don’t know, or we don’t know we don’t know. In this expansion of the interview, a panesthetic attunement to more-than-human worlds requires a decentering of authority and a deep acknowledgement of the co-existence of our multiple worlds and temporalities.
Boo, Katherine. n.d. “On Not ‘Giving Voice to the Voiceless.’” The Pulitzer Prize. Accessed April 8, 2021. https://www.pulitzer.org/article/not-giving-voice-voiceless.
Brigstocke, Julian, and Tehseen Noorani. 2016. “Posthuman Attunements: Aesthetics, Authority and the Arts of Creative Listening.” GeoHumanities 2, no. 1: 1–7.
Carbonell, Isabelle. 2018. “Coming to Our Senses Beyond the Talking-Head: the Panesthetic Documentary Interview.” Conexión: Departamento de Comunicaciones de la PUCP 7, no. 9: 83–108.
———. 2019. “A Correspondence of the Senses: Panesthesia as Research Method.” Correspondences, Fieldsights, February 11.
Leimbacher, Irina. 2017. “Hearing Voice(s): Experiments with Documentary Listening.” Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 39, no. 3. https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/discourse/vol39/iss3/2.
Lipari, Lisbeth. 2009. “Listening Otherwise: The Voice of Ethics.” International Journal of Listening 23, no. 1: 44–59.
Nichols, Bill. 1983. “The Voice of Documentary.” Film Quarterly 36, no. 3: 17–30.
Tsai, Yen-Ling, Isabelle Carbonell, Joelle Chevrier, and Anna Tsing. 2016. “Golden Snail Opera: The More-than-Human Performance of Friendly Farming on Taiwan’s Lanyang Plain.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 4: 520–44.