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spectre of the national cinema Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2006

 


The Spectre of the National that Haunts Singapore (Cinema), Or,
You Can Only See Ghosts if You are Blind


Jeremy Fernando
European Graduate School

 

A phenomenological meditation on cinema, this article attempts to look at how the state relies on the metaphysical concepts of cinema in order to continue its own existence. The state relies on the concept of 'identity' or to be more precise 'national identity' in order to legitimize its existence. Film is one such medium in which this concept is played out: in many ways, the film industry (infrastructurally and content-wise) is reflective of the state of Singapore. In its essentially one-party hegemony, film works as a simulated critique of the state in the absence of any (credible) opposition. In fact, I posit that the simulated critique (in film and symbolic opposition) acts as the auto-immunity to the fantasy of the ruling party (which is that of a one-party rule). Film festivals - where 'transnational films are celebrated - are co-opted by states in this function: the concept of trans-national rest on the hinge of the national. And in this performance, it is the state-funded Raintree Pictures that is the radical figure. The film-makers that continue with the traditional critique of the state's lack of identity are only contributing to the myth that the identity exists in the first place. Raintree's abandoning of this idea in the claim that as long as there is Singapore(an) involvement in a film (through the brand of Raintree), it is a Singaporean film, exposes the "perverse core" [Zizek] of identity (and film) - both are empty and this is precisely the manner in which they seduce us.

 

The great stars or seductresses never dazzle because of their talent or intelligence,
but because of their absence. They are dazzling in their nullity, and in their coldness -
the coldness of make up and ritual hieraticism ... The cinema has never shone except
by pure seduction, by the pure vibrancy of non-sense - a hot shimmering that is all the more beautiful for having come from the cold (Baudrillard, 1990: 96).

Introduction

1. In the derogatory term assigned to the island state of Singapore, the 'red dot', lies a truth that escaped then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir: the strength of the state lies in its ability to be weak. The state's strength lies not in a great display of power but rather in the fact that it displays itself in its utmost vulnerability. It is in its show of weakness - 'we are a small island with no one to depend on except the people' - that lies the secret to its power. The error of the British Empire lay in its attempt to brand Singapore as the 'Impregnable Fortress' and it is precisely this state's willingness to do the exact opposite - absorb all external influences (the Swiss have a good economy: let us adopt their model; Israel has a powerful military: we shall adopt their model; etc) [1] - that has allowed the state to flourish. And it is this secret of weakness, the secret of the void, the Abyss, which we must look to in order to catch a glimpse of what 'national' begins to even mean.

2. It is in this scene of absence, the scene of nothingness, which we must look to, in order that we may begin to catch a glimpse of the possibility of a national cinema in this state. It is not so much in attempting to sieve through the rhetoric of a Singapore cinema that we are able to come to the truth (this is a hangover of the Enlightenment), but it is rather through an immersion in the phenomenon of 'national cinema' in Singapore that we may catch a glimpse of this spectre.

3. In order, however, to immerse into this phenomenon, we must enter into this rhetoric, in particular its deliberation on what can be considered 'Singapore cinema' (and by extension what is other to 'Singapore cinema'): the underlying assumption being that one can define 'Singapore' in the first place. It is of absolutely no interest to claim that rhetoric is a mere simulacrum - are we expecting to find something real? - but instead it is the simulacrum that will allow us a glimpse of the communication that takes place. After all, communication only takes place in and through the simulacra: as Lucretius posits, the simulacra is the skin which acts as the medium in, and through, which two subjects communicate (Lucretius, 2005: 39-60).   In this sense, there is never a transmission of information (hence the entire question of accuracy becomes a moot one) but instead communication is the simulation of commonality via the phenomenon of communication itself - truly an ecstasy of communication taking place. This is the true radicality of the phrase 'manufacturing consent' (which is missed by Herman and Chomsky): it is not that consent is manufactured (in the sense of manipulated), but that the very idea of consent (in the very basic sense of communication between two or more persons) is already manufactured (in the third). It is not as if truth can be approached in an objective form, for

there is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective 'knowing'; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our 'concept' of this thing, our 'objectivity' be. (Nietzsche, 1989: 119)

Perhaps within this phenomenon lies the potentiality of a truth. But crucially, it is only the potentiality of a truth. And by definition, there is only potentiality if there is a potentiality 'not to' be at the same time. Otherwise, it would merely a phase of actuality and nothing more. Hence there is always a chance that there lies absolutely nothing but lies.

4. This paper will argue that the manner in which 'Singapore cinema' is defined, is symptomatic of the manner in which the nation defines itself.      

National Identity and the State: What does 'Singapore' even Mean?

5. All states, even though they are in reality geographical concepts, in the sense that they are territorially defined, rely on the concept of nationality in order to legitimize their existence. This is especially true when it comes to legitimizing the state to the people within their borders. In order for the people to submit to the rule of the state - even if one wants to posit that they all do so voluntarily under the auspices of a social contract - they have to first believe that they belong to that state. This is where the concept of the 'nation' - which is a metaphysical concept as it has no basis other than being a pure idea - works: the person within the state (now called a citizen) can then cling on to this concept of 'nation-hood' and feel as if they belong to the state. Hence, 'nation-hood', and all other markers of 'national identity', is one of the primordial concepts of the state: it precedes all instruments of discipline; after all, without any subjects, the state has no one to discipline.

6. The importance of this issue to the state can be seen very clearly in the popularly used term 'fabric of the nation': Singapore is portrayed as a quilt and it is the coming together of different patchworks that composes the nation. The perverse core of this image of the stitched-together nation is as follows: the government is the seam that holds everything together, and more crucially, if you do not fit into the overall design - like in any quilt-work - you will be cut out. This is shown perfectly by the originating idea for the patchwork, a three part documentary by ChannelNewsAsia called "Threads that Bind": in Singapore, the officially accepted position is precisely the bind that will tie you up, and if you do not accept this position, you will be cut. [2] 'Nation-hood' is literally a sorority: if you do not fit in and abide by its rules, you are completely ostracized.

7. In Singapore, both in and outside of cinema, this is the crucial issue: can one speak of Singapore critically? A more precise framing of the question would be, 'can one portray Singapore in a manner contrary to the official branding of the state?' What is at stake is the place of the subject within the state: if one can only speak of Singapore in a prescribed manner, there is then little space for contrary/oppositional opinions within the state. Since the media is almost entirely state-controlled in Singapore, a critical question that must be addressed is, 'is there is a link between state-ownership and criticality?'. Further, if such a link exists (in the sense that films cannot make overtly critical comments about nationhood), then where is the site of critical discourse in Singapore cinema?

State Ownership and the Issue of Criticality in Films

8. The exact question that must be addressed when it comes to film in Singapore is: what is the effect of state ownership when it comes to the question of criticality in films? If state ownership ties the hands of the film-makers, then by extension, there can be no critical films made by the major player in the field, Raintree Pictures, by virtue of the company being completely state-owned; a subsidiary of the Television Corporation of Singapore and Temasek Holdings. If that were so, the only sources of critical films in Singapore (assuming of course that they exist) would then be the privately owned production houses. In order to explore this, we will look primarily at Raintree Pictures and occasionally venture to privately owned production houses (Zhao Wei Films, and J-team Productions among others) as test sites.

9. A glance at Zhou Wei Films' Mee Pok Man and 12 Storey suggest that there might be a nugget of truth in this claim: both films directly address the issue of the 'under-belly' of Singapore - the unspoken 'truths' of life in this state that are never officially mentioned. One could thus argue that both (privately funded) films have taken a critical stance towards the state by critically addressing the issue of nationality, that is, what it is to be Singaporean. Films of this nature - which include Royston Tan's Shi Wu/15 and Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen's Singapore Dreaming - question the fact that the state is only accepting of particular measures of success (primarily economically defined): subjects who do not fall into these categories of success are left behind. In this manner, Singaporeans are only valued if they can contribute to the economic success of the state. These films draw attention to the subjects of the state that have been left behind, and who are never mentioned in any state discourse and hence are almost non-existent in the consciousness of the nation.  

10. However, Raintree Pictures does produce its fair share of critical films as well, especially those concerning social conditions and the education system: the inequality of the system seems to be a primary focus of the critique in these films. Three such examples are the critically acclaimed Money No Enough, I Not Stupid, and I Not Stupid Too (all three films have been helmed by the same director, Jack Neo) . This is especially significant when one considers that the state constantly attempts to quell any association with Marxist thought, particularly in the light of the fact that this was precisely the platform on which the incumbent ruling party came to power.

11. What this suggests is that state-owned and privately owned production houses do produce critical films, especially when it comes to the issue of 'nationality' and what it is to be Singaporean. What emerges from this is the question: are they the same kind of critique or do they serve different functions?

12. The common way of looking at it is that ownership does not necessarily impinge on the content of films. In that sense, as Daniel Yun (CEO of Raintree Pictures) claims, Singapore is becoming a more mature society in that the state does accept its fair share of criticism. This is very much in line with the official state ideology of it becoming a more 'open society'. But even if we take Yun's logic of "doing first and asking for permission later" (Nayar, 2003), it still follows that the state is the ultimate gatekeeper: it decides what the subject will be able to view (or not). This follows the logic of the state's policy towards dissent: it is not so much that dissent is not allowed, but more so that dissent is only allowed when approved by the state. This symptom is exemplified by the fact that protests are not outlawed, but that one has to apply for a permit in order to protest. It is exactly the same logic that applies here: it is not so much that critical films are not allowed, they just have to come from an officially approved source, in this case Jack Neo whose official seal came in the form of the Cultural Medallion which he was awarded in 2005. The fact that all films, whether produced by private or state owned production houses, have to be approved by the state seems to suggest that the ultimately who owns the production house makes no real difference.

13. Another way of looking at this issue is to recognise that critical films (of the state and its policies) are part of the narrative of the state itself. In order to hold up the logic of the narrative of the 'open society', the state has to allow for 'critical voices' to appear: appearance is the key here. Any attempt to completely shut out 'alternative voices' can only serve to nurture the creation of real dissent: the Soviet Union under Stalin is a prime example of this phenomenon; and the Left Wing is going through a mini-revival in the United States under the regime of George W. Bush. What any attempt at complete eradication serves to achieve is the creation of an Absolute Other. In this sense, it is a perfect state policy of control to simulate alternative voices through its own mechanism - "there is nothing more important than a planned simulation" (Delillo, 1999: 196). This logic plays out especially in the light of the simulated terror attacks that the state has been carrying out on its own subjects [3]; no where else is the internalization of the Other, that is inherent in terrorism, so clearly displayed - almost a logic of 'there is no need for the Other, we can do it to ourselves'. It is precisely this logic that allows one to go to the doctor and simulate an illness in order to get a medical certificate. There is absolutely no reason for the doctor not to issue one to the patient in this circumstance (not so much because (s)he has no choice - the doctor can always choose not to believe you) but that there is absolutely no difference between a real symptom and a simulated one: the patient is incapacitated in the same manner when they are performing their symptom(s). In this exact sense, even if the critical films are state approved, they would serve the same function as a 'real' critical film. For

... is not the manufacturing of a substitute-formation, which recompenses the subject for his loss of reality, the most succinct definition of paranoiac construction as the subject's attempt to cure himself of the disintegration of his universe? (Freud in Zizek, 1999: 35)

14. This serves the same function as the creation of choice: pick any of the twenty shaving creams on offer; it makes absolutely no difference, they are all exactly the same anyway. But all the same, it is absolutely crucial that one is given that option: this satisfies the desire to be able to choose for oneself, to make one's own decisions. It can no longer be called a choice though, for options are always already pre-laid in front of the subject: a real choice requires an element of the unknown: where "understanding is in want of understanding" (Hamacher, 1996: 1). Since the boundary has been set already - produce a critical film but make sure that there is no real critique - the options have already been served to the Subject. This is precisely why it is termed an 'alternative' voice - it is just one of the many options that have already been laid out for the Subject.

15. Yet another perspective is that the 'critical films' are the symptom of the state refusing to allow its fantasy of total control of the subject to be fulfilled. In this sense, the 'critical films' function as the auto-immunity of the state (Derrida, 2005: 44-55). In order that the fantasy does not completely fulfill itself - which can only lead to a nightmare situation - the state has to construct the seeds of its own dissent. This is symptomatic of the political scene in this state as well - the opposition parties are the auto-immunity of the People's Action Party (henceforth PAP), preventing the actualization of a one-party state. Who cares if we practically function in this manner - the presence of an opposition is more important than the opposition itself. By coming to power through democratic procedures (through the form of elections), the first performance of people power is fulfilled. However what is even more crucial for this performance to hold is the presence of an opposition on the stage, without which the illusion of democracy falls apart: the hinge of any political party in a democracy is precisely this spectre of an opposition. [4]

16. The same logic applies to political films in Singapore: under the Film Acts, all films of a 'political nature' are banned. It is not as if the people do not realize how the political system here works - everyone knows that it is a virtual one-party state - but in a game of appearances (and what is politics if not surfaces), appearances are all - the surface is all, and pointing this out in a medium of appearances is the fatal blow to this game. This is also the reason why the worst thing that can happen to the incumbent party in the elections is to win every seat: this would be the moment in which the traumatic Real bursts out (when the fantasy of complete control is actually fulfilled). In the game of politics, the appearance of an opposition is more important than an actual one. It is exactly the same logic as why in a war, the appearance of an enemy is crucial: this is why terrorism truly frightens all states; the enemy has learnt the game, and has disappeared.

17. The nightmare of the dispositif is not the resistance of the Subject - this is crucial to the disciplinary mechanism - but the exact opposite. Without any resistance, the disciplinary mechanism loses all meaning. In effect, when it works too well, it ensures its own demise. Hence in order to ensure its continual existence (and relevance), the state (and the hegemon) has to ensure that there are continual 'dissenting views'. The subjectivity of the Subject (or at least the belief in this concept) is the hinge on which the disciplinary mechanism revolves.

18. The issue of whether the film comes from a state-owned production house or from a privately owned one is a moot issue: the source of the critique, and whether the critique is real or simulated, does not matter; its effects are the same. The simulated critique functions on a logic of paralogy - regardless of whether it functions to provide options (as opposed to real choices) for the subject, or is an auto-immunizing mechanism of the state fantasy, it allows the state to manage its subjects at maximum performativity, precisely by performing democracy itself.

Trans-National Nationality

19. Democracy in its fullest sense is a method rather than a result. As explored by Derrida in Rogues (Derrida, 2005), it is erroneous to assume that a democracy will have a corresponding system of governance (that which we usually define as democratic). In a true democracy, it is the people who speak, and then whatever the results of the election, they are accepted. In this sense, George W. Bush's claim that HAMAS is not a legitimately democratic government in Palestine is invalid (Davis, 26 January 2006; Wilson, 27 January 2006): a democratic process must always already include the possibility of a non-democratic power being chosen. It is this profound understanding of the concept of democracy that allows the PAP to maintain its (virtually) one party state control over Singapore. It is also precisely this logic that results in the predominant type of film in Singapore - regardless of production house - to be of the trans-national variety, as the trans-national film fits in perfectly with the logic of Singapore: it doesn't matter exactly what you say or who you are saying it to, as long as the outcome is the same; performativity. [5]

20. In the same vein, the discussion over 'national identity' has been pushed into this realm of trans-nationalism, not because it is un-important, but precisely because it is the hinge upon which the legitimacy of the state rests. It is so important that it can never be dealt with directly (or everything risks crumbling apart) and so the discussion must be managed (or even simulated).

21. The strategy that Singapore takes when it comes to 'national identity' surfaces in the debate over whether to allow casinos to operate in the state. The strategy that the state has adopted is the adaptation of the content of the Other (in this case, primarily that of Las Vegas and Macau) and then backing it via finances. In some sense, this was what we have always been doing, even back when there was a Cathay-Keris: Malay films, Indian script writers, Chinese money. One reading of this strategy would be that the signifier 'Singapore' is readily accepting of any signified - the content of the film (or casino in this case) matters not, as long as it is funded by money from the state (or people within the state), it can be considered a Singaporean film. This is the comment that Daniel Yun makes when he claims that

it's a blinkered point of view to think of a Singaporean film only as one that's by and for Singaporeans. We have to broaden our view. I'd say a film is Singaporean if at least a quarter of the investment is from here and/or there's a meaningful involvement in front of or behind the camera. (Nayar, 2003)

22. The strategy that is used here is one of de-territorialization. This is truly what is 'uniquely Singapore': the fact that there is nothing unique about it except the fact that we take in anything, and everything, and then we trans-substantiate it into a 'Singaporean' thing. In many ways, this is the phenomenon of the "Body Without Organs" [6]: letting 'Singapore' act as an empty signifier onto which anything can be attached. A conventional cultural critic will call it a 'cultural desert' (but they always miss the point), for culture is always a desert - there is absolutely nothing to culture but an illusion.

23. In the realm of cinema, Raintree has superbly followed the model of Singapore: do an essentially meaningless film (The Maid , the Truth bout Sam and Jane etc) and then attach the 'Singapore' brand to it (via funding of course). The films could really have been about anywhere and anything. Is this not a reflection of Singapore though? When you stand on Orchard Road, you can really be anywhere in the world and it will look exactly the same: for best effects, stand at the 'snow making machine' at Tanglin Mall during the Christmas season in order to be transported to Lapland. The direction of Raintree in creating 'Singaporean' films without any Singaporean-ness about them echoes the dominant logic of the state: a distinct trace of this logic can be found in a speech made by Ho Peng Kee when he said, "we must be independent, but not too independent" (Ho, 2003). In effect, he could have been saying: 'Be Singaporean, but don't be too Singaporean' which translates to 'Be Singaporeans, but for goodness sake don't actually believe that'.

24. Once in a while Raintree has to do a more 'concretely' Singaporean film: enter Jack Neo. Just like Neo in The Matrix, Jack is the ultimate agent of the system: in his bringing out of issues of 'identity' in particular, is Neo not just reiterating the standard formula of the state? - 'we desperately need an identity (this is an attempt at re-territorialization taking place) whatever it is; we'll take anything'. More crucially, in challenging the kind of identity that the state discourse is building in Singaporeans (that of an un-caring people; that of people that are merely interested in material goods and results and not about fellow citizens; etc), what occurs is a strengthening of the underlying assumption - that there is an identity - in the first place.

25. The trans-nationalization of film is the strategy of the global: the attempt to flatten such that there is total and complete exchangeability. This is why film and cinema everywhere seems to be more and more similar (one has to produce a formula that everyone can understand) and this is the way in which one can distribute and re-produce the film: is not surplus value the ultimate aim of globalization? [7]

26. All past attempts to resist - Third Cinema and its attempt to call for resistance against capitalism through cinema for instance (Solanas & Getino, 1976) - have not gotten anywhere. Third Cinema has made its mark mostly in the form of critical acclaim. However, critical acclaim now comes from the same sign system: 'critically acclaimed' film-makers are the very people that make films for the awards. Even if they do not specifically make films in order to win the awards, there is no doubt that their 'critical acclaim-ness' comes as a result of having won (or at least having featured in the running) awards at one or more of the various festivals worldwide. The fact that there are more and more film festivals being set up shows not so much a dilution of the awards (though to ignore the fact that some awards are more equal than others would be delusional) but rather how important awards have become in the public consciousness. The usual analysis is that Third Cinema's acceptance through this 'critical acclaim' is precisely its death knell: its call for active rebellion has been rendered impotent by its acceptance by the very forces it opposed. Ironically though, it is the extreme commercialization of cinema - of which 'Third Cinema' has not been spared - that has been far more radical in showing what Third Cinema itself failed to: that 'cultural commodification' is a tautology. In this sense, it is the failure of Third Cinema itself (through not being able to stem the commercialization that it openly and actively despises) that opens up the truly transgressive moment. [8] This is akin to the Archie Bunker phenomenon: despite the failure of the character as a parody of American racism (he was well loved by American audiences), this showed more than ever that America was a truly racist country.

27. But of course, taking anything to its logical extreme is also always the ultimate form of resistance: in this sense, Singapore has played the game very well.

28. Forget revolutions: they merely revolve, and end up at the same point. By following this formula - or to be more precise, a non-formula - of empty signifiers, Singapore film is perversely the most transgressive: not because it shows that Singapore film is empty, but that is shows that film itself is an empty medium. The 'eye of truth' (Kino Pravda) no longer sees, not because it is closed - it is still very much open and looking - but because it sees too much, and no longer can tell the difference between what is true and what is not. Truth lies in the image: image lies in the truth. They are all lies. 'National cinema' is a dead concept. But more radically, nationality itself is narrated only within film: there is no India except when you watch a Bollywood film; the people within India associate themselves with the various states rather than the country as a whole. The exception may be when India is playing Pakistan in a cricket match: but then again, the sporting arena has long relied on the representation of countries via flags to drum up nationalistic sentiment. In many ways, the World Cup of soccer (and perhaps the Olympics) is one of the few moments when people feel a sudden affiliation to their nation: but the fact that the people in London support England during the World Cup and Great Britain during the Olympics suggests that the concept of the 'nation' is a rather flexible one. The recent incident when Eric Khoo's Be With Me was disqualified from the 2006 Oscars (in the Foreign Film category) as it had too many English words (and not enough 'national tongue' - whatever that even means) shows this: in the concrete phenomenon that is Singapore, no one believes in a national tongue but clearly in celluloid land, there is a 'Singapore' that comes packaged with a national language.

Trans-Nationality and Trans-National Cinema

29. The types of films that are produced by Raintree (or co-produced in many cases) tend to fall under the category of the pan-Asian film: this is in line with the current trend of producing 'Asian' films that aren't particularly Asian except for the fact that they are helmed and/or star people of Asian descent. A few instances of such films include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Promise, and Hero. In many senses, Wong Kar Wai's films could also be regarded as part of this category: there is really nothing distinctly Asian about his films; the only thing is brought up is his - always undefined - 'Asian sensibilities'. His films also seem to be making more headway at the film festivals rather than in any country in particular: in fact, one could probably argue that the jury at Cannes is his primary audience. Another argument that stands as well is that films that appear in Cannes (or any other major film festival) do so because they are good. It has nothing to do with who they are made to appeal to or whether they have any mainstream success. What this opens for consideration is: what constitutes a 'good' or 'bad' film? It does seem as though film festivals have become the bastion of what is 'good' and 'bad' - this in some sense is a shift away from using the box office as the main arbiter of taste, but it is merely a shift in paradigm (or criterion of judgment). What this opens up is a consideration of Althusser's conception of interpellation: the Subject as the embodiment of the social conceptions of 'good' and 'bad', neither of which has any meta-grounding.

30. If one meditates on the concept of the trans, then essentially national (cinemas) has no more meaning - for in this manner anything can be a national film. [9] This is precisely what Daniel Yun is arguing for when he proclaims, "we must broaden our idea of what a Singaporean film is" (Nayar, 2003). In essence what Yun is saying is that as long as there is an element in the film from Singapore (even in the form of an investment), then it qualifies as a Singaporean film. It is the same logic that allows Chen Kaige's The Promise to compete at the Golden Globes and the Oscars as a film from China. Similarly, this allows Yun to promote Raintree's latest film One Last Dance (which has Singaporeans in only bit-parts at best) as a Singaporean film as well. This of course has long fit in with Singapore's state policy - nationalization of anyone who fits in with the aims of the state, or allows for those particular aims to be fulfilled. It takes its most obvious manifestation in the sporting arena - this is by no means a new concept: France's football team is as French as fries are.

31. This fluid concept of the national - through the ' trans ' - is the strategy of the state to deal with globalization. Since calculatability is the key (not to mention reproducibility), the concept of the ' trans ' works perfectly; 'national' must work as a meaningless - and if not meaningless, then very much devoid of anything concrete at least - signifier. This is precisely the logic of the perfect seductress: "I can be whatever you want me to be". [10]

32. Seduction never takes place because of power and strength but rather by weakness; one is seduced not by the greatness of the seductress, but when the seductress puts forth a lack - the very lack which you fill: that is the precise moment at which you are ensnared. This is why "the dead letter of writing often has much more influence than the living word" (Kierkegaard, 1997: 158). At the moment of interpretation, when the reader inscribes meaning into the dead letters, (s)he is re-writing the text into being - make no mistake, this is necromancy at play - and at thatvery moment, (s)he is sutured into the text: it is its emptiness, its nothingness, its Abyss, that has drawn her/him within. The phoenix does not merely rise; it requires you to become its ashes first.

33. The question that remains is: does the very meaninglessness of 'national' (cinema) provoke the injection of meaning back into the signifier? The state (and the subject in many senses) will never tolerate the complete vacuumization of this concept: we see that in the refusal to give up the concept of the Other, particularly in these times of 'terror' which bring along with it the disappearance of the obvious Other, the enemy that is so crucial to politics and nationhood. States are more and more desperate to re-discover (or re-create to be more precise) the concept of 'national cinemas': this is seen very clearly by both China and Taiwan clamoring to claim films made by the same directors as their own - before long even Hong Kong will be staking a claim for Lee Ang. It is this very logic that allows Daniel Yun to claim, with great credibility and accuracy, that One Last Dance is indeed a Singaporean film.

34. Film festivals, like Cannes and Venice, allow for the concept of trans-national cinema, but it is precisely this that strengthens the (non) concept of national cinema even more through the creation of an Other (whether this exists or not is a completely different question and it does not matter either way). In this time when the concept of the 'nation' and by extension 'national cinema' is being questioned, we require the trans-national film more than ever before, if only to hold on to the notion that there is a national film (even, and maybe even especially, if one is absent).

35. One question that remains is who defines 'national cinema' in the first place? This is crucial as the place of definition is the usually the source of power: this was realized very early on by Stalin as he continued to keep the power of appointment for himself throughout his rule. This is why the Secretary-General is the key position in the Soviet Union. Whoever has the power of appointment has power as (s)he can influence the position in whichever way (s)he deems fit: in other words, this is the power of definition; by appointing particular people, (s)he gets to define the position. In the case of Singapore, the Media Development Authority (MDA) takes this role of the Primordial Father: the question asked of all film-makers in Singapore is not whether they agree or disagree with the guidelines, but whether they will 'follow or not follow'. Even though Daniel Yun's proposition that one should always "make movies first and get permission afterwards" (Nayar, 2003) may sound transgressive, this merely strengthens the logic of the gatekeeper: at the end of the day, one must always still "get permission"; whether it is before or afterwards is immaterial. Not only do the regulations and requirements become the benchmark to which all production companies (in the form of whoever makes a film/television program) adhere to, this desire for adherence drives all production companies to attempt to become more MDA than MDA itself. This is almost a perfection of the panopticon that Bentham proposes: complete self-regulation - the MDA is not needed any longer and the Subject has not only embedded the ideology but become the MDA itself: truly a case of 'I love you so much that I have to consume you' and if that is not enough 'I love you so much that I have to consume you in order to become you'.

36. Consider the 'critical films' that are produced in Singapore: whilst they might seem transgressive on the surface, their underlying logics never stray far from the official ideology. For instance I Not Stupid questions how the under-achievers are treated in a society that is obsessed with success. But the underlying premise still remains that it is the state that determines how its Subject feels: in this sense, the state still functions in the role of the Primordial Father - 'it is my law that all must obey'. Change is only enacted not through the thoughts/acts of the Subject, but rather by the benevolence of a change in my laws. Or even more obscenely, 'all under-achievers can now feel not so much of a failure precisely because I deem it is alright to under-achieve now'. The recent privately funded local film Singapore Dreaming has been lauded for being overtly critical of the fact that Singaporeans who do not follow the standard, prescribed route are left aside by the socius. Far from being radical, this instead strengthens the logic of the paternal state: 'you can only feel a part of society if you are allowed to by us. Otherwise you will be an outcast'. A more brutal translation of this logic would be: 'without us - the state - you are nothing'. This is precisely reflected in the state's stance towards protests and demonstrations: 'we are not against protests; you only have to apply for a permit'. Which translates to: 'dissent is perfectly permissible as long as we are the arbiters of permissibility'. [11] This is a demonstration of the state's true understanding of the law - it is never a question of justice nor fairness nor (even more so) what is right/wrong, but a question of 'will you follow or not? It is for this reason that Justice is blindfolded.

37. If one wants to argue that content is the basis of a 'national' film, that is, it has to be about Singapore, then it is a matter of sign systems. In that sense, even if Be With Me was directed by Tarantino, and used an exclusively foreign crew with foreign investment, it would still be a Singaporean film (for having displayed the signs of Singapore - language, place, look, feel, etc). In that manner, Daniel Yun would be completely off the mark when he claims that "as long as there is Singaporean involvement in it (by way of crew or investment), it is a Singaporean film" (Nayar, 2003). Nobody considers the films produced by Cathay-Keris as Chinese films (although the investment was almost exclusively Chinese): they are Malay films: all that anyone sees is what is on the screen, save the people who are in that industry itself and they are but a minority. The only reason that directors are in fashion nowadays is because of the award shows: in this manner, they have entered the same sign system as celebrities. In fact in many ways they have over-taken the actors themselves - just look at the way in which films nowadays are introduced; many a time the director's name is used especially if (s)he has entered the realm of celebrity-hood: make no mistake, it is indeed a hood, a gang, a sorority. But in another sense, he is completely on the mark as well. As it is widely known that Raintree is a state-owned enterprise, it has entered the same sign system (through branding): the moment anyone sees its logo attached to any film, immediately the state of Singapore comes to mind. Hence his statement would hold absolutely true: any involvement which has Raintree in it automatically becomes a Singaporean film - the sign system has been adhered to.

38. The more the lack of a Singaporean film identity is criticized, the stronger the concept itself becomes as one can only be critical if one has a notion of what it should be: this can only strengthen the existence of the concept itself. It is exactly the same with all media studies: they only serve to strengthen the (simulated) link between the event and the representation - which is news. In fact,

... the greater the reader searches for depth in news (that is the search for meaning), the greater the seduction of news. In this sense, all traditional forms of resistance to the mass media - for instance, in the form of media literacy, mass media studies, visual literacy, and the like, are all doomed from the beginning to failure - in fact, what they are doing is propagating the seduction to an even greater extent (once again, searching for inaccuracies and paradoxes only strengthens the myth that there is a meaning, a depth, to this entire game in the first place). (Fernando, 2005)

The eternal search for a lack: this is the game of identity that is being played. The fantasy of identity - and the auto-immunity of the system that ensures that this elusive 'identity' will never be found - ensures that the fantasy can continue. This is the jouissance for, and of, the Subject; this unending search that continues to ensure that the Subject has a notion of subjectivity. Finding this 'identity' would only confirm either its complete alienation, 'I am completely individual: I can relate to no one else, all links are impossible' or conversely, 'I am just like everyone else', complete Objectivization.

39. It is this constant search for the elusive signified, 'Singapore', that continues to drive film in this state. In many senses, it is the driving notion behind the entire arts scene. There is no Singaporean novel that doesn't dwell on what it is to be Singaporean; one would be hard pressed to find a Singaporean play that doesn't attempt to dwell on these concerns (or a facet of this concern). It is this concern that continues to haunt 'national' film in Singapore: this search for the spectre that will never show itself.

What is to be done? Or I Refuse to See and Choose to be Blind

40. It is Lenin who we must turn to for the question, but not the answer: spectres must always be approached but never reached; for it is at that moment when they are reached that they disappear. The only chance to catch a glimpse of this spectre is to not look directly at it. Or more radically, by refusing to see, we might see more than we wanted to see.

41. When Martin See made his documentary Singapore Rebel, it was an attempt to look directly into the private life of opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, perhaps in the hope that it might shed some light on the political climate of Singapore. The film, as expected, was banned as a party political film under the auspices of the Films Act. [12] However, it is the state's refusal to allow anyone to see what See saw that has captured the imagination: no one was particularly interested in the daily life of Chee, but the fact that we were not allowed to see it showed more than the film itself ever could. Ironically, it was the censors that turned out to be the true Singapore Rebel. It is the same kind of irony that played out when some Christian Churches felt the need to debunk the fictional work The Da Vinci Code . In feeling the need to combat a work of fiction, by showing that there were factual errors in Dan Brown's work (of course it is not factually correct - it is a work of fiction), they have exposed the obscene under-belly of their own understanding of Christianity more than Brown could have ever done: that Christianity itself, which can be threatened by fiction, is nothing more than fiction.

42. When Pontius Pilate asked "what is truth?" the only answer that could be given to a question of this profundity was not 'nothing' but rather 'everything': the concept of 'nothing is true' can only hold if there was a meta-concept of truth. This absolute Truth, which can only be a transcendental Truth, is the ghost of the Enlightenment that we must attempt to exorcise: not so much the belief in the idea of Truth itself, but rather in the ability to reach it. And it is in fidelity to Truth itself, or at least its possibility, that we now must proclaim everything to be true. It is not nihilistic (for that would be the proclamation of 'nothingness') but the exact opposite: the truly radical claim of belief. For now the claim is, 'what I say is true not because it is a transcendental Truth, but because I believe it to be so'. Belief is what capital cannot cope with. This is why the suicide bomber is the enigma that can never be subsumed by globalization and its logic of exchange: if one is willing to die already - the ultimate loss is already agreed to without any returns - then what defense is there any longer?

43. In this light - or perhaps lack of light - it is Daniel Yun who is the radical figure in Singapore cinema. In his taking the logic of the state to its extremes, he has exposed the perverse core of the state - that nationality itself rests on absolutely nothing. And hence, like the 'everything' of Pontius Pilate, the nation state that is Singapore sucks every signifier into itself: it is itself purely trans-national. It is not what is shown to be seen on the screen that tells the story: it is what we cannot see that shows us everything. The obscene under-belly of Yun's statements that Singapore has to be a more "open society", and that " it's a blinkered point of view to think of a Singaporean film only as one that's by and for Singaporeans ... We have to broaden our view", is this: 'Singapore' itself is the master-signifier that can openly accommodate your desires - just fill it in accordingly as long as you follow the over-arching law, which is to produce. Or even more radically: there is no 'Singapore' as such, it is but a quilt; it can be anything you want it to be, as long as you don't burst the seams - just make sure that at the end of the day, you fit into the patch-work.

44. The only way in which one can see the obscene under-belly of Yun's statements is not to examine them too closely - you'll only get caught up in the stitches - but to deliberately miss what he is saying: only then can the under-side emerge, if only fleetingly, like a ghost.

 

Jeremy Fernando is a doctoral candidate at the European Graduate School, where Avital Ronell is his mentor, and is tutoring at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the co-author of Between Technocratic and Cultural Nationalism: New Singaporean Cinema in the Making which will be out in mid-2007. Email: alfiemotosan@yahoo.com

End Notes

[1] It is after all the model that is real. The time of the model representing reality has passed - it is precisely this representation now that is true: not only does it precede reality, but more radically, it is the model that is now real (it is now without reference), and all attempts at verification are not only futile but instead do nothing more than verify the model itself.

[2] More information on this can be found at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/fabric/background.htm.

[3] In fact, the state has used this logic in other instances, most prominently in its 'war against terrorism.'   Recent 'emergency exercises' where there have been simulated bomb attacks in the Mass Rapid Transit system (the local subway) in order to prepare for a terrorist assault is the most obvious instance of this logic at play.   For more please see Teo Hwee Nak (2 October, 2005). 'Without warning, next month, there will be explosions', Weekend TODAY.

[4] In a perverse sense, Saddam Hussein has an excellent understanding of the democratic process. For it is not mere play acting that occurs when the Baath party goes through the motions of an election but rather the recognition that democracy is a procedure that can accommodate within it non-democratic elements. In this sense, the performance of democracy is a perfectly legitimate way to be in political power; after all, it is always already a performance that is taking place: the legitimacy lies not in the result, but in the ritual. The issue of non-democracy in democracy is explored by Jacques Derrida (2005) in Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. This is also the same logic that is functioning in the incumbent's 'challenge' to the opposition parties to contest the 2006 general elections in Singapore. It is not so much of real challenge but a plea instead: a plea to perform accordingly in order that the elections be played out as credible. The Thai opposition parties seem to be the only radical political parties at the moment. In their refusal to participate in the bi-elections, they have shown the perverse core of politics: the performance of opposition is the hinge. It is their refusal to play the game that has ultimately been the nightmare for the incumbent, and it is for this reason that Thaksin was asked to step down. The moment the opposition parties agreed to play the game again, we saw the return of Thaksin - the appearance is restored; the game can continue.

[5] This is shown very clearly in the manner in which Singapore reacts to the issue of homosexuality, which its law technically prohibits. Instead of opposing and attempting to destroy it (which might be expected since it is out-lawed), Singapore chooses to subsume it under its dominant logic: allow it under particular circumstances because of the 'pink dollar' that is generated. This is because capitalism is never concerned with morals and values but operates under the logic of reproduction and surplus value: who cares who you sleep with, as long as you generate surplus value. Surplus value is no longer limited to merely (re)producing another person - we have long ago already commodified persons (which by definition means that they are exchangeable: can't produce another person, replace her/him with something else) - as long as there is (re)production everything is fine. This also goes to explain why 'human resource' management is the new trend: we have come to realize that humans are resources (just manage their desires, and everything else falls into place). As long as you think that you have a choice, you do; and often-times that is enough.

[6] The term 'body without organs' is adopted from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia . In some sense, in the wake of globalization, states almost function as 'organs without bodies': floating signifiers (empty and always already full at the same time) sans any 'meaning' that holds them together except this empty signifier called 'globalization'. In this sense, not only is globalization a simulacra, the state within the 'global metropolis' is now a simulated simulation. This is the true seductive nature of the state (which will ensure the survival of this concept). The term 'organs without bodies' is adopted from Slavoj Zizek (2004) Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences.

[7] This issue has been explored in depth by Jean-Francois Lyotard, amongst other places in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984). Lyotard traces the changes in the nature of 'truth' and 'knowledge' (or perhaps more aptly, the 'truth in knowledge') and notes that in this 'post-modern' era, truth and reproducibility are intimately linked or, to be more precise, inseparable.

[8] The failure of Third Cinema and its transgressive moment is discussed in Su Cui (2006) "Is Third Cinema Dead?" (see especially pp. 12-15).

[9] And more crucially, if everything can be 'national' film, then what this shows is that absolutely nothing is 'national' any longer. For instance, in this day where everything is considered political, we are in the realm of the trans-political (the colour of the bagel that you are selling could be construed as a political statement/act). This then means that since everything can be construed as a political statement/act, there is no longer any true politics: it has entered every realm but in doing so, has cemented its own death, its own nothingness. For a meditation on the 'trans', please read Jean Baudrillard (1993) The Transparency of Evil: Essays in Extreme Phenomena.

[10] 'Whatever' is the key term in the phrase. For the seductress does not suck you in through subjectivity, but rather in 'being whatever you want me to be' - the perfect Object to which any, and all, signifieds will be able to attach themselves.

[11] There is an echo of de Sade within this logic. For in Sadism, it is not so much what I make you do, but rather the fact that I can make you do it. The same logic applies here: it is not whether your film agrees with the logic of the state, or whether you are protesting/dissenting, the important fact is that it is up to me whether you do so or not. This is a true understanding of absolute power which is always best displayed when giving the Subject permission to display its 'Subjectivity': it is through this that the subject is completely and utterly eradicated, subsumed, Objectivised.

[12] This policy was formulated and implemented in 1998, with offenders - anyone convicted of importing, making, reproducing, exhibiting, or possessing for the purpose of distributing party political films - risking a fine of up to S$100,000 or a prison-term of up to two years. The censors considered See's film about the opposition leader Dr. Chee Soon Juan biased and partisan and thus a 'party political film'.

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