Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Skin of the Other: Documentary, Ethics, Embodiment

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Skin of the Other: Documentary, Ethics, Embodiment

Article excerpt

The face is a living presence; it is expression.... The face speaks. The manifestation of the face is already discourse.

-Emmanuel Levinas (1969, p. 66)

And the whole body-a hand or a curve of the shoulder-can express as the face.

-Emmanuel Levinas (1969, p. 262)

It is immediacy of a skin and a face, a skin which is always a modification of a face, a face that is weighted down with a skin.

-Emmanuel Levinas (1991, p. 85)

Disturbing Encounters

Jay Rosenblatt has remarked that seeing an image of Adolf Hitler eating was the disturbing encounter behind his 1998 film Human Remains. Human Remains is Rosenblatt's best known and most discussed film. It is also one of his most controversial because of its relation to the skin of the other and to the skin of its viewers. This simple image, of possibly the most infamous dictator in modern history, involved in the simplest and possibly most commonly shared human activity, provokes us to recognize Hitler as human and disturbs our simplistic image of him as a monster. The image gets under our skin and reminds us that ethics needs a body. It reminds us that only someone who can hunger can give food. Only someone who eats, sleeps, and is weighted with skin can be ethical. Only an embodied, vulnerable human being is able to respond to the call of the other. No longer an icon of inhumanity, the ultimate sign of evil, nor a superhuman idol outside the law, the simple image of Hitler eating disturbingly thrust upon Rosenblatt the unmistakable recognition that Hitler was and will always remain human and responsible for his actions. Provoked by an image, Rosenblatt turns in Human Remains to provoke his audience with sounds and images that call us to recognize and respond to our own disturbing encounters with the duality of the skin of the other.

In her book, Selfless Cinema?: Ethics and French Documentary, Sarah Cooper (2006) asks what it might mean in ethical terms not to see the face of the other as our own. What might it mean, ethically, if we were to acknowledge an irreducible alterity that comes from cinema but also slips the bonds of cinema? What if we acknowledge the difference the cinematic apparatus creates but cannot control? She claims, on the one hand, that within documentary film, as well as in all cinema, subjects of films "might be seen to resist reduction to the vision of the film-maker who fashions them, aligning this irreducibility with the asymmetrical relation to the Other in Levinasian thought" (p. 5). And, on the other, that some images "not only escape the control of the film-maker who fashions them but also the spectator" (p. 6). Some images, Cooper argues, because they provoke us to see in excess of what we expect to see, show us how elements of "documentary may resist the reflective mechanism that would refer one back to oneself or one's own world" (p. 8). When what we see exceeds what we expect, the limitations of film-making, the inability of films to completely objectify and totalize the world, disturb us with an encounter of the face and skin of the other not as our own. When we see what exceeds our expectations, our spontaneity and authority are called into question, our powers of control are interrupted, and our sovereignty is overthrown. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas (1969) writes, "we name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics" (p. 43). In such disturbing encounters, argues Cooper, "Ethics ruptures the being of documentary film" (p. 12). Ethics interrupts and disturbs cinema, calls into question its spontaneity and authority, its ability to capture and re-present the other. However, this parallel between ethical and cinematic disturbances is not static. For, as Cooper explains, "the ethical traverses the filmic but shatters an exact mirroring of the terms of Levinasian ethical debate and discussion of cinema in general or documentary in particular, since neither can contain the other" (p. …

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