“Family Viewing”

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When Aristotle writes early on in his Politics that human beings are “by nature” political animals, he can do so because he has stated, earlier on, that “those who cannot exist without each other necessarily form a couple, as [1] female and male do for the sake of procreation (they do so not from deliberate choice, but, like other animals and plants, because the urge to leave behind something of the same kind as themselves is natural), and [2] as a natural ruler and what is naturally ruled.” The couple thus becomes the smallest possible unit of politics. Politics finds its origin in the procreative union of the active, “ruling” male and the passive, “ruled” female. No comment.

If the way in which we view politics is indeed linked, as Aristotle suggests, to the way in which we view the family, then the intimate, private sphere of the family suddenly takes on tremendous political importance—not so much as something that needs to be overcome, as some have argued, but as one realm in which political experimentation is possible. (Another one that should be mentioned is the realm of teaching, which Walter Benjamin offers in his essay “Critique of Violence” as one example of the violence that he calls “divine.”) In her work on Antigone, Judith Butler has observed that today, perhaps more than ever, the model of the nuclear family has entered into disintegration and new (and political) forms of family living and loving are coming into being.

This raises the stakes for those “writing” the family today. In Malene Dam’s film Faroe Islands, Jamaica, Denmark, family weighs. To say that it weighs down on us would somehow be to miss its specificity. The family weighs down in us, it weighs us down. It’s in the sarcastic–from the verb “sarkazein,” “to strip off the flesh”–representation of the half-sister; it’s in the daughter’s love for a father whom she does not know–they call him “Chuck,” after “Chuck Norris,” whom we all know without knowing. Most of all, it’s in the artist’s self-representations that recur throughout the film: when she films her own reflection in the window of her father’s truck, a mirror-image that contrasts starkly with her father’s presence behind the wheel; when she films herself on the phone with her mother, crying about how difficult it is to be “related” to someone one doesn’t really know; when she films herself and her half-sister, drunk, faces pressed together, but strangers to each other (and painfully so). The film’s opening shot, which is split between the artist and her mirror image, undermines even the nuclear family of the self: it writes its unity, but only across the multiplicity of its divisions. Its weight is the weight of politics.

References: Aristotle, Politics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998). Image: Malene Dam, Faroe Islands, Jamaica, Denmark, video, 16 min., 2008.

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