Ciné-activism in an Archipelagic World

Sabu Kohso

Archipelagic thinking flows along with the course of our worlds. It borrows from their ambiguity, fragility, and derivativeness. It accepts the practice of detour, which is neither escape nor renouncement. It acknowledges the trajectory of the imaginaires of the Trace, which it sanctions. Is it to renounce self-government? No, it is to accord with that which, from the world, has diffused into the archipelagos precisely, the diversities in expanse, which nevertheless gather the shores and marry the horizons. We recognize that which existed in the continental, in its thickness, and which weighed heavily on us in the sumptuous thinking of the system that until today controlled the History of humanities; and that they are no longer adequate to our explosions, neither to our history nor to our no less sumptuous wonderings. Archipelagic thinking, based upon archipelagos, opens these seas to us.
-- Édouard Glissant 1

Intermundia today
        At least three times in Capital Karl Marx referred to the pre-Socratic philosopher Epicurus’ concept of Intermundia, indicating the interstices of the worlds where only Gods exist, namely, the domain unbeknownst to us humans. In Marx this ancient metaphor became a spatial trope for the origin of commodity exchange, the space where trading nations or those whom we call nomads were active.2 If we consider it in a concrete topographical context, it might be transposed to indicate oceans, deserts, and, those oceans/deserts of people, cities. Touching upon the idea of space he also says: “The exchange of commodities begins where communities have their boundaries, at their points of contact with other communities, or with members of the latter. However, as soon as products have become commodities in the external relations of a community, they also, by reaction, become commodities in the internal life of the community.” This phrase suggests an origin of commodity economy as an internalization of external relations -- that which involves various types of unprecedented encounters--including violent ones. This is a kind of an original gap wherein the languages and rules of communities cannot be directly applied; this is the space of non-knowledge. It is also this space that is deemed chaotic or rampant with violence (“warre of every man against every man” for Hobbes) and calls for the sovereignty and state’s intervention (“Leviathan”3). In the ages of modernity, this space came to be identified mainly at national borders, with the few exceptions of large metropoli. But after the collapse of the socialist bloc and under the rule of the neo-liberalist economy, the situation has changed: now the spatial trope should be applied omnipresently to our life-world. What does it mean?
      Social democratic programs that used to protect the public domain (to a certain degree) have been largely lifted and global capitalism has been rushing into the gap in the pursuit of interest, destroying and transforming our urban spaces under projects of gentrification. In the post 9/11 climate, under the pretense of protecting (American) people, what Giorgio Agamben calls a “state of exception” has been legally declared, for the sake of allowing the (US) government to do whatever it wants to wherever on earth. 4 This has become the way of ruling the everyday of the world. The Iraq War diverges from the Vietnam War in the sense that it is no longer supposed to end. Hence in the world in which we live today, an increasingly exposed Intermundia is under the grips of the capital and state power, more greedily and nakedly than ever. This is the advent of global corporate fascism.
      It is a grim world and its absurdity and cruelty are new. At the same time, however, it seems also true that we are finally pushed so close to the edge as to question: is there anything other than these two – capitalism and war – that could happen in Intermundia? One can sense this urge for “another world” by observing the appearance of a wide range of activisms on a global scale. Though the goals of these activisms might vary, and though they are not united toward one stated goal yet, together they embody an alternative mode of being (life form) that itself gives a glimpse of another world. Or at least it could be that if there is anything in the world that shows an alternative, it is only these activisms en masse, for it is only they that seek to grasp the nature of Intermundia in a new manner. In this sense Intermundia is returning as the only topos whereupon (though oppositionality is certainly expected) renewed human relationality could be constructed. Therefore, for activism en masse, Intermundia is no longer national borders or the borders of an enclosed terrain that assumes a center and periphery such as a continent, but archipelagos that both differentiate and connect us singular beings across the world.
      The objective of this essay is to identify a few aspects of the activisms en masse from the vantage point of a cinema-screening movement rooted in Japan.

Three Modes of Translation
We write in the presence of all the languages of the world.
-- Édouard Glissant 5

To move further, I have to touch upon the transformation of ‘translation’ as one of the epitomic events in Intermundia and the basis for the cinema-screening movement.
      There are roughly three strands of modern thinking on translation. The first is that translation was responsible for the formation of national languages/nation-states. Out of Imperial languages such as Latin and Han, texts were translated into a multitude of dialects; this was how, for instance, Germanic writing was formed--by way of translating the Bible. Japan created its pre-modern writing system by systematizing the reading of Chinese texts in its own vernacular (phonetic system). It was a formation of national interiority by borrowing/transforming the écriture of the Other. This practice of translating Imperial languages into national languages set the norm of translation that the transference should be from foreign to mother language, and not vice versa. Walter Benjamin’s famous metaphor of the Original as the complete body of a vase and the translation as its broken pieces was based upon this model. 6
      Meanwhile the West ascended to the imperialist power. While it colonized the world, its languages permeated (along with its capitalism, Christianity, and civilization) actively translating themselves into various non-Western languages, ultimately overpowering even Chinese and Arabic. Then there arose anti-colonial, independence movements in the third world, in tandem with which many national languages were formed. While this was a continuation of nation-building, it involved a powerful impetus toward global equality and plurality. Eventually, texts from these languages came to be translated into Western languages, or more precisely, they chose to translate themselves. (This was the second model of translation: from mother to foreign language.) As a result, the influential power of languages became equal to the economic and political status of individual nations in the new world scheme.
      Along with the first and second modes of translation, however, there was a sub-current –- so-called Creole or pidgin – this is the third model of translation. Beginning from the slave trade and then followed by massive immigration, colonialism was responsible for great movements of peoples from all the continents of the world. What was crucial was that all the peoples carried with themselves, with their moving bodies, their cultures. This as a form of struggle created a tremendous variety of hybridization of cultures as well as languages. In the context of anti-colonialist struggles, a “hundred flowers” began to babble, inscribing innumerable differences within the dominant languages. We no longer need strive for gluing the broken pieces of a vase together, but break them into even finer pieces.
      When I came to New York in the early 1980s, postcolonial debates were beginning to dominate the cultural and intellectual scene, while various forms of postmodernism were attacking the dominance of Western male subjectivity. In such a context, I decided to take on the translation from Japanese to English. It was an inverse of the first model, the norm of translation; however or therefore, I thought it would be a form of struggle. Knowing that Japan was a late-coming colonial power that sought to rule Asia, yet I hoped to identify some elements of Japan as a power that could fight the Western domination that still haunted the world. This thinking was based upon the assumption that the most radical and powerful Japanese intellectual practices could challenge those in the West. Or at least present productive anomalies. In other words, I was relying on the ‘difference’ based upon the idea of equivalency and comparability. All in all, this thinking was still motivated very much by a nationalist impetus (the second model).
      Around the turn of the century the global anti-capitalist movement that began in Seattle became prominent. This announced the advent of a new mode of global networking, a new type of global synchronicity, made possible by the World Wide Web. It made a new mode of translation possible as a universalization of Creole. First of all, the new movement brought with it the possibility of appreciating and learning from the new kinds of struggles occurring in the world such as the Palestinian Intifada and the Zapatistas in Mexico -- struggles that were militant yet very different from those which sought to be state powers themselves. The whole paradigm of the movement showed us that the time had and has come for a movement that decomposes state power by cherishing and developing the various domains related to ‘affect’ that had formerly been ignored almost entirely by political practices. This new movement was no longer led by a leader as ideologue but was truly populist; it was no longer organized but rather coordinated; it is no longer projected toward the eternal future, but incorporates various temporalities. All along, my idea and practice of translation transformed as well. That is, I realized that a ‘coalition’ is possible based very much upon the true ‘difference’ that no longer assumes equivalency and comparability. A coalition is formed not by certain principles but by an elaborate coordination of pure differences. The translator is no longer a species of teacher/cultural introducer or native informant, but an individual person speaking for oneself in an anomalous foreign language – an universal creolization. Thus my choice of the texts to be translated too has altered – I am no longer attracted to those thinkers whose main concern is to compete with Western oeuvres, but to those activists who struggle in the actual situation in Japan – the contemporaneous difference of the fighters for another world.
      To follow the topographical metaphor by the Martinican poet, Édouard Glissant, this paradigm shift was a release from the grips of “continental thinking,” and a blossoming of “archipelagic thinking.”
Screenings as an Urban Archipelago
We share [all the languages of the world] without knowing them. We invite them into the language we use. Language is no longer the mirror of any being. Languages are our landscapes, which transform us with the passing of the day. (. . .)
      The imaginary irradiates and remakes itself in the hybridization of the “totality-world.” The hybridization of languages in its turn makes legible to us the language we use: our usage of language can no longer be monolingual.
--Édouard Glissant 7

A series of film screenings took place in November 2004 in New York City. It was a collaboration among two Japanese--Go Hirasawa, a film critic/activist and Takashi Sakai, a social critic/activist--and myself. We categorized three kinds of vanguard films and chose three kinds of spaces in confrontation with their tendencies – one in a university, one in an avant-garde music club, and one in an activist space.
      The event, entitled “Cinema and revolution,” showed two films and a video statement by the legendary film director/activist Masao Adachi at the Department of East Asian Studies at New York University. Adachi’s work, theory, and life have very directly engaged revolutionary situations of the world, while at the same time they demand highly theoretical scrutiny. So we chose the academic environment. The films provoked heated discussions about the boundaries of fiction, documentary, and propaganda as well as the transformation of revolutionary situations.
      “Cinema and Situations” showed the films of Motoharu Jonouchi and Yoshihiro Kato (Zero Dimension) at Tonic, New York’s hottest spot for experimental music. Jonouchi shot the footage during Nihon University’s barricade struggle and the related street fights in the late 1960s, which were montaged with the least possible narrative intervention; the films let the details of the physical situations of the struggle speak for themselves. Kato’s works were based upon radical street performances. They are both examples of a merger between artistic and political avant-gardism, including careful uses of music. Tonic offered an ideal context for these.
      “Yama – Attack to Attack” is a film about Japanese day-workers’ lives and struggles in Sanya, the largest ghetto in Tokyo. The two directors, Mitsuru Sato and Goichi Yamaoka, were assassinated one after another by the Yakuza organization which feared the exposure of their shameful deeds in the film. In spite of the tragedy, the film was completed in 1985 by a committee with an outstanding result. It not only shows the details of the life situations of the most oppressed informal workers in Japan and their struggles against labor brokers (the Yakuza organization) and the police, but also presents a geographical trajectory of the workers who are by nature migrant and spatially fluid. The filming subject travels from Tokyo to the Western and Southern parts of the Japanese archipelago, visiting other slums and finally pointing to the Genkai Sea whose opposite end is the Korean Peninsula. Beginning from the urban space, it depicts a globality of the workers’ lineage under the rule of Imperialist Japan. We showed the film at ABC No Rio, an activist space on the Lower East Side. This space began as a squatters’ movement in the early 1980s and continues to struggle for survival against gentrification. Established by the collaborative efforts of young activists and the people in the community, it symbolizes the struggles of people in an historically multi-ethnic underclass community. The screening of this particular film in this particular space was significant. It set up an occasion where different struggles encountered and celebrated each other. It exemplified a new mode of unification among the struggling subjects. Neither side imposed anything upon the other. Neither side instructed anything to the other. People who gather at ABC No Rio realized that in Japan, a country that tends to be represented mostly as a place of consumerist freaks, there too are those people who struggle under extreme oppression, equally by capitalism and state power, but in different geo-political conditions. They said they received a blast of energy from the film and were extremely encouraged. In return, on the occasion of the twenty-year anniversary of the film, ABC No Rio sent a greeting of unification to Sanya.
      One objective of the screening movement was to establish a new kind of coalition with a new (and the third) mode of translation: people speak for themselves “in the presence of all the languages of the world.” Another objective was to coordinate an urban network -- or ‘urban archipelago’ -- between academia, avant-garde art, and activism. Cities used to be equipped with a space called bohemia, where all sorts of minor forces met and exchanged. Usually located in the vicinity of ethnic minorities, the political left, artistic vanguards, and gender minorities move in and new political and cultural impetuses grow. But today, due to the severe violence of gentrification, it is becoming harder and harder for such a space to grow in a real topographical sense. This is why strategic efforts are required to assemble a committee among different urban functions that exist separately so that they form an archipelago in the virtual sense. The screening movement’s choice of spaces reflected this problematic consciousness.
      The power of a screening movement -- that is absent in private video viewing or internet exchange -- lies in that those who make/deliver the film and those who see it meet in life in front of a screen; they can talk to each other before and after the screening. This involves actual traveling and welcoming. No matter how big or small the budget, it is a special moment that transforms the location into a festival space. On this occasion, two urban spaces-- Sanya and the Lower East Side--joined to form a strategic archipelago within the continent of the global empire. Here the Intermundia being hostaged by the empire was recaptured, even for a brief moment, by the heterogeneous topoi.
      Speaking of the screening movement, its forerunner for us was no other than the director Masao Adachi, who returned to Japan in the year zero from a long journey of his quintessential cine-activism.
The World Filled With Both Grief and Hope
(. . .) this model of the absolute enemy should be abandoned by now, precisely because of its being insufficiently radical. It is not appropriate for the struggles that seek to undermine the economic/judicial order of capitalist states and challenge the fact of sovereignty itself. It is in this contemporary context – that is sometimes referred to as a return to the Middle Ages -- where the modern state declines while sovereignty is being transferred to the Empire. That is to say, what is required here is an oppositionality that refuses the cycle formed by the establishment of sovereignty, resists centrist, centripetal impetuses, and forms a coalition in order for singularities to develop and disperse. This oppositionality is that which protects plural experiences, signs of the advent of a non-statist public sphere, and progressive life forms. Simply said, it is necessary to stop representing the Hobbesian “state of nature” consisting of unorganized individuals and groupuscules merely as a chaotic space of fear. We should affirm this “state of nature” as a productive topos for life experiments and developing open relations.
-- Takashi Sakai 8

To scrutinize Adachi’s entire trajectory requires a major piece of writing (that cannot be accomplished here) so I shall just make a few points about it for a future “cine-activism.”
      In 1969, Adachi, who had already made a number of important films, led a group of people, who were all in the vanguard of filmmaking in Japan, in making a film called “AKA. Serial Killer.” The camera eye mostly shows various landscapes across Japan, following the itinerary of a young informal worker, Norio Nagayama, who ended up committing a series of shootings in these places. Then a relatively known film director made a narrative film about Nagayama’s miserable upbringing and tried to make a statement about the social inequality that was supposed to have been responsible for his crime.9 Meanwhile this group decided to pursue a totally different approach, which, precisely speaking, is neither a story film nor documentary. It is an attempt to see exactly what Nagayama saw along his itinerary looking for a better job, a better place, which never existed. The resulting film shows a series of terrains that have been transformed to the effect of losing genius loci or the singularities of place and became a series of postcard-like landscapes. This was the most straightforward critique of capital’s “real subsumption,” namely, the overall commodification of the everyday, which corresponds to the critique of “spectacle” by Guy Debord.10
      After such a ‘limit-experience’ of filmmaking, Adachi’s next major work turned out to be a film that juxtaposes the struggles of the Red Army faction and PFLP in the style of news reportage, “Red Army/PFLP: The Declaration of World War” of 1971. It provoked a heated debate at its US screening, as it exists on a sensitive borderline between propaganda for and critique of the Red Army Faction. All in all, what is clear is that Adachi’s ultimate point of reference was struggling people--mostly Palestinians, and to a certain degree, the farmers in Sanrizuka. At this stage, his ciné-activism involved both making a film about the people he believes in and sending it back to the same people by showing it to them. First he organized the Red Bus Screening Troops in Japan, and for the sake of returning it to the Palestinian people, he flew to the Middle East. This was a revolutionary effort to connect two struggling peoples and a pioneering act of creating a virtual archipelago beyond the logic of the continent. This was a radical shift from the critique of landscape/spectacle to global ciné-activism. Thereafter he spent almost three decades as part of the international volunteers who participated in the struggle of Palestinian refugees with camera as well as guns. Though the end result was that all of the film work he made during this period was destroyed by the turmoil of war, the experience is alive with him in Japan at this moment. 11
      During this time, Adachi also experienced a radical shift of the global situation vis-à-vis war and revolution at the very battleground. The early 1970s were a time when Palestinian guerrillas began to use highjacking as a means of making their voices heard in the world. It was highly successful. It was the time of revolutionary war of the people, and the period when Adachi was fighting with and for the Palestinians. But beginning from the First Gulf War in 1991, the world situation gradually shifted toward the state that I described earlier, where Intermundia being disseminated omnipresently -- or the Hobbesian “state of nature” exposed omnipresently -- is appropriated fully by the corporate/military conglomeration. The age is that of the war of Empire. In this context, in 1997, Adachi was captured in Beirut by the Lebanese Government and deported to Japan in the year 2000.
      Here in this new paradigm, the destiny of the people is double-fold: on the one hand, losing the bases for struggle, the production point as well as the land, they appear to have lost all bases from which to strike. They appear to be powerless under the overwhelmingly powerful and advanced military of the Empire. By losing so much, they are forced to retreat into the domain of body, affect, and intellectuality, their last stronghold and their only real asset. It might be the ultimate point of retreat wherefrom turnabout is the only choice; and it is for this reason that they have finally reached the realization that there is no sense whatsoever in overtaking the state; rather what they should do is decompose it in a specific way (which activisms en masse are still developing).12 Furthermore, the target is becoming clearer and clearer for people world over. This is a hope. This is why Adachi expresses both a deep sense of grief as well as a new sense of hope. And this is the reality that the people of the world must share.
      Adachi’s return to Japan was significant, especially for activists of the younger generations. Although Adachi belongs to the 1960s generation and persisted in militancy and radicalism more than anyone else, he was anti-sectarian and open to various practices unlike many activists from the same period. As he claims, he is a ‘surrealist’ after all. He has always considered his artistic practice and political struggle as one and the same. His concept of undo [movement/activism] in Japanese is that which is applied not only to group dynamics based upon the individual as a self-identical unit but also, and more crucially today, to the stage of pre- and poli-individual formation that struggles concerning ‘affect’ have to largely engage.13 In this sense, he is both old and new; he connects two different temporalities; he is a trans-historical figure. So it is this encounter between the old and new radicalisms that offers the ground for a new ciné-activism that is yet to come out from Japan.
      This essay has been thinking in tandem with virtual topography: Intermundia, continent, and archipelago. To conclude this thinking, we also have to call for virtual temporality – that which works together with virtual spatiality and can cause a “general strike.”14 Looking at New York City amidst gentrification, not only space but also time seem to be commodified to the limit. That is to say, future time is totally controlled by the time of development. As long as we look at the prospect of a planned future, there seems to be no hope for people’s intervention. Yet people have their own times. Though it could be extremely slow or short, and it could easily slip from the institutional coding, there are actions that have unique and complex temporalities. As Glissant -- and Bakhtin for that matter -- pointed out in terms of the intervention of the oral tradition into writings, people’s time involves plurality, circularity, repetition, accumulation, and so on, namely, the strategies of “relation.”15 This can be observed, for instance, on the last Friday of every month, for the Critical Mass bicycle ride that paralyzes New York City traffic. The fully developed Disney kingdom of 42nd street is in a total stasis during the daytime, but transformed into a sphere of dynamis for rappers’ competitive performances after midnight16. Historically, the massive exodus of Negro slaves (as well as white peasants) along the Underground Railroad from the Southern Plantations to the Northern cities ultimately caused the collapse of the Confederacy. And in the various spontaneous actions of peoples world over . . . “Trans-history expands!” 17


      1) Édouard Glissant, Traité du tout-monde, Poétique IV, Éditions Gallimard, 1997, p.31.
“La pensée archipélique convient à l’allure des nos mondes. Elle en emprunte l’ambigu, le fragile, le derive. Elle consent à la pratique du detour, qui n’est pas fuite ni renoncement. Elle reconnait la portée des imaginaries de la Trace, qu’elle ratifie. Est-ce là renoncer à se gouvener? Non, c’est s’accorder à ce qui du monde s’est diffusé en archipels précisément, ces sortes de diversités
dans l’étendue, qui pourtant rallient des rives at marient des horizons. Nous nous apercevons de ce qu’il y avait de continental, d’épais et qui pesait sur nous, dans les somptueuses pensées de système qui jusqu’à ce jour ont régi l’Histoire des humanités, et qui ne sont plus adéquates à nos éclatements, à nos non moins somptueuses errances. La pensée de l’archipel, des archipels, nous ouvre ces mers.” Translated from the French by the author.
      2) Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p. 182.
      3) Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck, Cambridge, New York, Port Chester, Melbourne, Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
      4) Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, translated from the Italian by Kevin Attell, Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
      5) Glissant, Traité du tout-monde, Poétique IV, ibid., p 85.
“Nous écrivons en presence de toutes les langues sdu monde.” Translated from the French by the author.
      6) Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” included in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, New York: Shocken Books, 1969.
      7) Glissant, bid., p. 85. “Nous les partageons sans les connaitre, nous les convions à la langue don't nous usons. La langue n’est plus le mirroir d’aucun etre. Les langues sont nos pausages, que la poussée du jour change en nous. (. . .) L’imaginaire irradie et se refait dans l’emmelé du Tout-monde. L’emmelement des langues à son tour nous est rendue lisible par la langue don't nous usons: notre usage de la langue ne peut plus etre monolingue.” Translated from the French by the author.
      8) Takashi Sakai, The Philosophy of Violence [Boryoku no Tetsugaku], Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2004, p.188. Translation from the Japanese by the author.
      9) The film is “Naked Nineteen [Hadaka no Jyuukyuu-sai]” directed by Kaneto Shindo, 1970.
      10) The key word used in the debate provoked by the film was fukei in Japanese, which is commonly translated as “landscape.” As opposed to that, the music critic Yuzo Sakuramoto suggested to use “spectacle.”
      11) There is a book of Adachi speaking about his entire life and work, edited by Go Hirasawa. Cinema/Revolution [Eiga/Kakumei], Tokyo: Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 2003. This book is significant not only in the sense of knowing Adachi’s extraordinary engagements but also in terms of understanding the natures of both artistic and political vanguardism in postwar Japan.
      12) The works of Pierre Clastres and Deleuze/Guattari are increasingly important in this sense. Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, translated by Robert Hurley in collaboration with Abe Stein, New York: Urizen Books, 1977; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
      13) For the theoretical aspects of pre-individuality, see Sakai, ibid., and Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, translated from the Italian by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson, New York: Semiotext(e), 2004.
      14) See Rosa Luxemburg, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions,” included in The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004.
      15) See Glissant, ibid.
      16) For the dynamic transformation of the space, see a series of photos by Yuji Agematsu.
      17) Glissant, ibid., p.113. “La Transhistoire s’etends.”