In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 164.
In her essay “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco writes that ethnographic displays of non-Western peoples have historically depicted their cultures inaccurately, serving as performances in which the Other fulfills the role of the savage as directed by the fantasies and desires of the colonizer. A prominent photographer during the U.S. colonization of the Philippines, Dean Worcester, for example, wanted to “convince his [American] audience that the Philippines was incapable of self-government,” and that its non-Christianized tribes required the presence of the U.S. to lead them toward “civilization.” Worcester, as Mark Rice notes in his book Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines (University of Michigan Press, 2014), was a trained zoologist whose photographs of native Filipinos were influenced by a desire to taxonomize peoples as a zoologist would taxonomize animals. Rice notes that, in pursuit of instantiating his argument for colonizing the Philippines, Worcester convinced and, at times, forced Filipinos into his photographs, where they performed the role of the fantastical exotic Other.
These photographs became integral to the project of writing my first book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, a book-length hybrid essay that explores American imperialism, the colonization of the Philippines, and its afterlives as manifested in my subjectivity as a dual citizen of the United States and the Philippines. Encountering Worcester’s photographs, I was captivated by what I call “the blur,” parts of the image that are out of focus or blurred. The blur, as Fred Moten theorized in Black and Blur: Consent Not to Be a Single Being (Duke University Press, 2017), is a site of inscrutability, agitation, and excess. In a similar vein, philosopher Keith Allen identifies the blur as the “overrepresentation of experience.” In Worcester’s photos, attempts to document the native subject and her environment are dislodged by the persistence of what exceeds the photographer’s intention and, by extension, the imperial project of capture and erasure. Instead of a traditional ekphrastic endeavor of lyrical description propelled toward the epiphanic moment, I sought to write within and through the ruptures in clarity. I sought to write into the potential for resistance that resides within the images.
I began with one image emblematic of Worcester’s visual motifs meant to reinscribe the Western and “savage native” subjects into their respective categories. In the photograph, Worcester stands fully clothed beside a short Negrito man, with the jungle in the background. (The term Negrito refers to several Indigenous peoples of the Philippines; the photograph does not indicate which tribe the man belongs to.) In Mistaken for an Empire, I wrote about this image to both indict Worcester’s colonial mission as paradigmatic of the “white man’s burden” while also calling attention to the way in which the Negrito man resists passivity through his blasé expression and intentionally slouched body—potentially registering an unwillingness to be seen that exposes the artifice of the photograph’s construction. Yet there is something else within the photograph, lurking both between and behind Worcester and the Negrito man: blurred branches, reminiscent of the urgently frenetic strokes of one of Fernando Zobel’s abstract paintings. In contemplating this blur, I am reminded that Worcester was not a trained photographer but an amateur. This blur is a sign of his lack of training; it should not be overlooked, but rather seen as indicative of the limited vision of the imperial gaze, stemming from a false belief that the Western eye is the same as the “objective” eye of the camera. In addition, the blur appears as a fissure between Worcester and the Negrito man. It is a fissure that can be read as a refusal to reify the constructed boundaries between white and non-white individuals. The accidental blur disturbs the careful composition of the photograph, threatening its stability and betraying the reality it seeks to present.
In another photograph, Worcester stands in a group of Indigenous tribesmen, all carrying traditional shields and axes, in front of a wooden hut where two women watch Worcester and the rest pose. That Worcester stands comfortably with the native Filipinos even as they bear arms demonstrates his confidence in his subjects’ obedience. However, a man with a shield and sword, at the edge of the scene, seems to have been caught mid-motion. His instability is not a result of the limits of early photographic technology or the delay of the photographer’s hand. It comes from the movement of his body, which is both concealed and indexed by the blurring of his shield and axe. While we cannot know why exactly the man moves, it opens possibilities for speculative narratives of resistance and refusal, narratives which expand the life of the archived person beyond the confined spaces of colonial representation and subjugation.
Writing the blur of the colonial archive and imagining narratives beyond the frame, I keep scholar Saidiya Hartman’s “critical fabulation” in mind. In her essay “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman writes that through critical fabulation’s process of speculative storytelling and historical research, the captive subject becomes an “agent that performs action.” However, this practice must “enact the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration,” Hartman writes. With critical fabulation in mind, I can consider the blur as a reminder to reject any determinative impulse directing my research and writing, to refuse “to fill in the gaps and provide closure.” The blur’s agitative force not only disrupts the restraints of the still image but agitates me into entering and dwelling in uncomfortable states of unknowing.
In rewriting and writing against Worcester’s photographic archive, I must contend with the danger of reinscribing its violence. Critical speculation about the blur requires an interrogation of the politics and ethics of my own gaze. Am I refusing, as Moten writes, the “full richness of [the blur’s] resistance to valuation”? How do I write about the blur without resorting to a gimmicky approach to its representation in language? How do I write with what Édouard Glissant calls “the right to opacity”—the right to resist being a completely legible subject whose difference can always be explained and assimilated? Moreover, how do I position my own gaze? Who am I in relation to these photographs? In writing through the visual blurs of twentieth-century colonial photography of the Philippines, what would it mean to extend the concept of the blur beyond the photograph? How can “blurring” become a framework by which I write through my own multitudinous and fragmented identities? I have no immediate answers to these questions, but I feel that my writing cannot be divorced from this persistent critical inquiry. In writing with the blur, I must continue to dwell in its tremors and move where it takes me.
Christine Imperial is a PhD student in cultural studies at the University of California in Davis, where she was awarded the Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship. Her first book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, won the 2021 Gournay Prize from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press, where it was published in April. Her work has appeared in American Book Review, Inverted Syntax, Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts.Art: Jolly Lau