Citing/Laughter: Three Video Works by Ellen Zweig

Thomas Zummer

Printed in MFJ No. 42 (Fall 2004) Video: Vintage and Current


Ellen Zweig is not well known as a film-maker, although her work has involved media in general, and cinema in particular, for many years. She is well-known as a performance artist, though she started as a writer, and moved into writing, and doing, performative works with supplementary media such as Super-8 film and slide-dissolve sequences, as are found in Impressions of Africa, a series of works done in the 70s about fantasies and phantasms of Africa. In the 1980s Zweig designed and built various camera obscurae which involved dramatic sequences that were both live and recorded, written and improvised. In one case she installed a camera obscura in/as a moving stagecoach, a live, mobile and transmitted event addressing issues of spectatorship, transport, collection, and the Victorian mania for travel. Since that time Zweig has worked on various installations using sculptural/architectural elements with multiple monitors, which often reference their own mediality by re-presenting the images, traces and illusions of former technologies. In a work entitled Hubert’s Lure (1994), installed in a street-level window facing 42nd Street, she reconstructed, and updated, a well known proto-cinematic illusion known as "Pepper’s Ghost." This cinematic ‘trick’ uses an image reflected in glass that seems to float in an unearthly space through a suspension of one’s ability to perceive a fixed figure-ground relation. Zweig’s use of a luminous video image, projected in miniature scale, took up residence as an uncanny, impossible, apparition. It was at the same time a brilliant and incisive commentary on the economies of cinematic illusion, and public credulity.

Most recently Ellen Zweig’s work has shifted from the presentation of physical bodies and armatures, to the re-presentation of the traces of bodies in mediation. The familiar performative dimension of her works has now been inscribed— folded into— a purely cinematic space. Zweig often works ad seriam, exploring a theme or topic in contiguous sequences to trace the contours of a seductive and problematic cultural territory. In her current series of interrelated single-channel video works, Zweig explores, with characteristic generosity and obsession, the phantasmatic constructions of "China" wrought at the hands of philosophers, writers, scholars, and other odd souls. Three short works have been finished to date, with a fourth nearing completion. Zweig is producing a linked collection of "portraits" of Western figures all of whom have studied, invented, miscast or misunderstood, and been enamored with China. As spectators, we too, are implicated in these doubled fascinations, the guilty pleasures of a romanticized and voyeuristic "Orient." Familiar tropes and forms of address, fragments of the grammars of the cinematic avant-garde are cut loose, recast, arresting the viewer in the display of the exotic. The exotic as familiar is, as she well knows, a species of the uncanny. What emerges, through Zweig’s subtle deployments, is a palpable and concrete critique of the unconscious "orientalisms"—and some of their sources—that still haunt our global, political and theoretical, environs.


". . .a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a)belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’."

Michel Foucault’s famous paraphrasing of Borges1 traces the contours of the boundaries—often transgressed by laughter, as he readily admits— between our familiar and well-ordered schemes of things, and other more exotic taxonomies. The classificatory themes that domesticate and temper the wild profusion of extant things, which determine the tacit protocols in thinking notions of identity and difference, anomaly, possibility and the impossible. The Chinese encyclopedia, while it involves some unambiguously fantastic entities, nonetheless assigns to them a precise register, putting them into categories of their own, ‘framing,’ delimiting, and localizing their powers of contagion. One might add to this list the shaping and constraining of the profusion of narratological ‘attachments’ between words and things and images which render salient, almost like an ‘interference pattern’ between plural modes of thinking, a hitherto unsuspected complicity and resistance within representation. The Chinese encyclopedia "quoted by Borges," Foucault cites, with its proposed taxonomy "lead(s) to a kind of thought without space, to words and categories that lack all life and place, but are rooted in a ceremonial space, overburdened with complex figures, with tangled paths, strange places, secret passages, and unexpected communications. Foucault’s laughter is uneasy when confronted by an ordering of space, of entities and artifacts, that does not distribute the multiplicity of things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think, but which remains inscrutable.

What grid of identities, similitudes, analogies have we been caused to confront? What sort of coherence is here and apparent, which is not determined by some natural and necessary a priori configuration, nor imposed upon us by immediate perceptible contents? There is nothing more empirical and concrete, Foucault reminds us, than the process of establishing an order among things. The uneasiness of Foucault’s laughter is related to a profound distress, when the hidden network that determines the way in which words and things confront one another is nowhere in evidence, where there is no common locus, where the hierarchy of codes, schemas, and distinctions, which are indispensable for the establishment of even the simplest forms of order, are nowhere to be found. It is for this reason that Foucault draws a distinction between utopia and heterotopia. Utopias permit fables and discourse; they "run with the very grain of language," linked in part to the fundamental dimension of the fabula. On the other hand, heterotopias—such as those found so often in Borges— desiccate speech, stopping words in their tracks, contesting the very possibility of grammar at its source.

Enigmatic. Mysterious. Unfathomable. Opaque. Inscrutable. Other. In Western perceptions and representations of the ‘Orient,’ and of China in particular, these words are ready modifiers, slipping into place almost by reflex. As if they were quite natural. Borges’ heterotopic ‘non-place,’ the world circumscribed and entailed by a text, borrows its potent connotations of strangeness from the adjectival modifier: a ‘Chinese’ encyclopedia. Similarly, a ‘Chinese’ Room, a ‘Chinese’ box, puzzle, code, etc., operate as ready metaphors, supplements for a range of phantasmatic inscriptions.

This is where Ellen Zweig chooses to situate her video works, tampering with the register of affiliations and affectations with ‘China’ as a construct—phantasmatic and imaginary, already a part of the West for some time now—and often cast into stark contrast with a contemporary place bearing the same (non-Chinese) name: China. Her project, however, is not a simple deconstruction or re-territorialization of the questions of definition and consequence, but something far more interesting and difficult: an auto-deconstruction of the mediations—textual and paratextual, visual, auditory, linguistic—which deploy such taxonomic distinctions as unthinking familiarities. Her works do not give us an easy ‘read,’ or a topically ‘correct’ stance, and in fact they don’t diminish our index of labor at all, and may even increase it, albeit in some distinctly pleasurable ways.

Zweig is a writer, a poet, novelist and performance artist whose deep intoxications with language have found their way into cinematography and video. Her current project is a series of experimental ‘portraits’ of Westerners who have been obsessed, in a variety of ways, with ‘China’ or the ‘Chinese’, and who have studied, misunderstood, misconstrued, or invented, their ‘China.’ Three short videotapes have been completed to date, organized under the general heading of HEAP, and the final work, a collection of all of the interrelated ‘episodes,’ will be presented in the form of a multi-channel surround-sound DVD environment. The completed works are (The Chinese Room) John Searle, (Tongue Tongue Stone) G.W. Leibnitz,2 and (unsolved) Robert van Gulick.

Zweig’s films are dense, proleptically seductive, and, in their own way, enigmatic. They are unabashedly experimental, probing questions of form and address while examining the relations to ‘China’ embodied by such known Sinophiles as Leibnitz, Searle, and van Gulik (Zweig also anticipates examining such figures as Pearl S. Buck, Joseph Needham, Sax Rohmer, and Henri Michaux, among others). These works implicate the spectator in a certain, sometimes familiar, méconaissance—whether it is the romanticized China of Pearl Buck, the constant threats and perils of Rohmer’s demonized ‘creeping yellow peril’ in Fu Manchu, or Leibnitz’s productive and profound misunderstanding of the I Ching in the development of his binary calculations. While we may recognize some of these filiations, our complicities are of a more complicated sort than mere identification or consumption.

Zweig selects good ‘stories,’ compelling and interesting narratives, but her task is deeper than simple metaphor or description, and she rarely ‘tells the story’ in any conventional sense. In fact, sometimes one may have to already know certain stories before what is at stake comes clear, since they are not present at all, but only alluded to, signs and portents constituting a work which is still to be interpreted, positioned, domesticated. The works are haunted by the spectres of the people and events they (don’t) recount, and recognition operates across many sites (topos). One is confronted with the processes of (mis)interpretation of sounds and images, even—perhaps especially—as one ‘captures’ these images and events with the technological intercession of the camera (a not uncommon strategy of defamiliarization readily found in experimental cinema). As is the case in travel, even when we go only relatively short distances. Much of the base footage in Zweig’s work was shot on her first trip to China. Her traveling companion was a native Chinese-speaker (from Taiwan) and Zweig has been studying the Chinese language for several years. Her own fascinations and anxieties are salient, and, as they are reterritorialized within other ‘foreign’ incursions, stories or accounts where the rhetorical inflections and discursive modifiers of ‘China’ become clear, some of the intensity of that disquiet is discharged, illuminating in a flash the impossibilities of translation. Not that ‘translation’ (trans + latio, movement across/place) doesn’t occur—it happens all the time—but that it is also at the same time always impossible: there is no transparent, total, commutability, and there is always loss and gain, silence and noise. Difference. And proper names, of course, name nothing-—there is no commutability, translatability—between what they are and what they represent, they name only that which bears their name, and are therefore untranslatable. Like the proper name ‘China.’

Zweig presents artifacts which invite translation, by representing other translations, a trail of associations— encountering Leibnitz, for example, through "a Deleuzian language of fissures and folds"3 in (Tongue Tongue Stone) G.W. Leibnitz, [7:30 min., color, 2002]. The fascination of G.W. Leibnitz for ‘Chinese’ systems and calculations underscores his mathematical and computational achievements. In (Tongue Tongue Stone) G.W. Leibnitz, a bearded Western man speaks about stones, about a hermetic mathematical process for the collection of stones by discerning discrete surfaces by tasting them with his tongue. Of course, there is a long and involved fascination of the Chinese with stone lore,4 with the aesthetics of strange or unusual stones. But who is this man? What is the pattern, contour, of relations? Other things occur: a dog carries a stone in her mouth; there is the constant (a)rhythm of stones upon stones, a ringing sound brought about by the high iron content of certain strata, ‘singing stones.’ The man speaks, from the place (topos) of Leibnitz, citing the philosopher’s letters to Jesuit priests in China, and we ‘see,’ in images, the ghost of Leibnitz’s hand, the ghost of his voice, embodied, sited, simulated, through the voice of another (is the man acting, mimicking, G. W. Leibnitz?). All of these connections or assignments are tenuous at best, but slip, by reflex, into various default categories. And then there’s the dog, whom we learn in the final credits, has ‘played’ Leibnitz, a cinematic/textual marker for the absent presence of the philosopher, a bizarre misprision, intentional perhaps? And a bit of laughter amidst all the classifying, as certain things just don’t make sense, or as our unconscious reflex to organize and define is led into some truly strange territories. Cinematic codes and protocols are cut loose, cast adrift (what is an ‘actor’ anyway?), and our habits of viewing and consumption are incessantly tampered with (whose China?);(what are we seeing?).

In a sense all of Zweig’s films thus far are allegories. Not allegories of something else—China, for example—but of the process of allegory itself (wherein ‘China’ is a privileged topos). Allegory, in the very simplest terms, says one thing and means (refers to) another; in so doing, it destroys the normal expectation that one has of language, that words ‘mean what they say.’ At the same time, allegory is both a structural principle and a fundamental process of encoding speech (media), and it appears in an extraordinary and complex variety of forms. Allegory often calls attention to or indicates its own material armature as representation or conveyance of (absent/present) meanings. Allegory derives from allos + agoreuein (other + speak openly, in public community, i.e., in the marketplace or agora: "To speak otherwise"). Agoreuein has the connotation of public, open, declarative speech, a sense which is inverted by the prefix allos, giving something like ‘other than open, public, speech,’ so that allegory is often understood as an inversion wherein there is couched something different than can be seen in the literal sense. The term inversio in its original sense meant translation, while translatio simply ‘translates’ (is the Latin equivalent of) the Greek term metaphor. Allegory is traditionally defined as an extended metaphor, when, for example, the events of a narrative obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas or phenomena. It is important to point out the political overtones of the verb agoreuein which are reflected in a long history of situations which have demanded and produced indirect, devious, and ironical ways of speaking or depicting. It is also appropriate to emphasize the public nature of allegory, in the sense that when allegory occurs, as it does in parables or in painting, in utopian or dystopian tracts or fictions, it does so (from) within the public sphere, that is, within the community of common tradition and reference, and so reproduces the presuppositions of its source.5

At the same time, allegory is excessive. It often exceeds the bounds of the purely visual and the verbal, as in the case of dreams, where, since Freud, there is a recognition of unconscious or latent drives or conflicts residing within or hidden beneath texts and images, rendering them tacit psychological allegories. Allegory calls attention to the materialities and pluralities of signification and often involves pretense, as for example when one pretends to talk about one series of events when actually talking about another. Such pretense is often mere ornament, and empty, and so also excessive, allegory. More complex allegories tend to develop a strongly ironic tone, which may involve the recognition, implication or enunciation that one is reflexively performing an allegory. The pretense to simplicity, or stupidity, a tongue-in-cheek (stone-in-cheek?) reliance on something obviously wrong or blatantly ignorant masks the seriousness of critique or indignity. This sort of critical/theoretical stance is closely related to allegory, and is called allogoresis. It is a strategy that Ellen Zweig employs well in her experimentations with mediation and reference. The very form of the media artifact recasts the process of ordering, definition and interpretation that occurs within to a different register, where the work (text) itself becomes inscrutable, in its examination of inscrutability, an exemplar of its own topic (topos, place).

There is also an unruliness to allegory, an impossibility to set to rest its references, tempered only perhaps by unlikelihood, or the excessiveness of labor invested in making sense. This is a familiar postmodern/avant-garde tactic, wherein the endlessness of representation, the impossibility to contain reference where an apparent sense refers to an other sense, perhaps even another, casts one into a regressive abyss of signs and portents, a mise-en abyme. Allegory operates by revealing that the mimetic covers a kind of ‘hole,’ a negative space (mise-en-abyme) around which various discourses and desires are organized and articulated. Mise-en-scene (literally ‘casting into place’) is symmetrically bonded and contradistinct to this invisible mise-en-abyme (a ‘casting into the abyss’ of signs and representations, as, for example, is induced by the proper name ‘China’). It is only via the arrestment of the (absent, phantasmatic) image in the stains of the photo-chemical trace, by the engaged presence of a spectator, that the evidentiary claims of photography (and cinematography) exist.6 Photography is an art of memory, a prosthesis to our own recall. Paradoxically, it induces recognition in us of things which we cannot remember, which have preceded us, or taken place elsewhere, which we know only through reflections, reproductions, and rumours, or which we might suppose or imagine to have existed, and which we organize as such.

Artworks purporting to express, or indicate the impossibility of this ‘inexpressible’ may in certain senses be considered to be allegorical (as are verbal and textual definitions of the sublime). When one considers the materialities of mediation, especially of time-based media such as radio, cinema, television or digital recording and transmission, the question of the situatedness of allegory becomes more pronounced. Within a critical tradition of reflexivity and phenomenological introspection, even minimally time-based practices, such as photography, underscore their deictic (spatio-temporal) parameters by reference to what is absent. It is a rhetorical sleight of hand which preserves the presumption of the fidelity of the eye of the artist as commensurate with that of the spectator, in inscribing onto some surface or another, something of some originary scene, a generalized human presence which is recuperable to our own position, that is therefore real. It is just such incommensurabilities in the relations between texts and images, signs and references, that have grounded and informed Zweig’s considerations of China, and the conflictual attachments of ‘Chinese’ as a grounding modifier which refers to an unfathomable (absent) presence (mise-en-abyme).

There is too, a constant tension between mimesis and allegory, between patterns of identity and difference in the recognition, apprehension and consumption of texts and images. The mimetic simulates the real, while allegory, reflecting upon the material disposition of words and images, dissimulates. Moreover there is an ambiguous territory which mediates between allegory and mimesis, so that certain things, narratives, stories, or images may, according to specific interests or tactics, be assigned to either register. That is to say, that there is something tacitly allegorical in the mimetic recognition that something ‘looks like’ or is analogous to something else, and is therefore classified in such and such a manner. Allegory, in its turn, depends upon these similarities in order to render differences palpable. Between mimesis and allegory therefore lies a complex field wherein the precessionary composition of an image— before its instantiation through the intercession of the camera— uses certain forms of pretense to expose an apparently simple (but in fact complex and profound) occlusion of references where the limit points of mimicry and deferral play out. This process simultaneously completes the illusion of similitude, and punctures the illusion of identity: John Searle’s ‘Chinese’ Room (wherein resides an ‘insoluble’ problem), the ‘unfathomable’ machinations of the Oriental genius (so palpably embodied in Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu and Sumuru stories, or Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan); the seductions of the mysteries of the East (in Pearl Buck, Ernest Bramagh, and others), or the fascinating alterities of Chinese arts and technologies (Joseph Needham’s obsessive cataloguing of material culture, Robert Van Gulik’s fascinations with Chinese music, literature, and ars erotica, or Henri Michaux’s appreciative appropriations of the calligraphic arts). Ellen Zweig’s allegory of ‘China’ is an allegory of allegories, in pursuit of the ineffable through the spectrality of incessant substitutions, her own included.7

(unsolved) Robert van Gulik [18:00 min., color, 2003] is the most recent, the longest, and most dense, complex work in the series to date. It is also the most poetic and allusive. Short stories about unusual and mysterious events have a long tradition in Chinese literature, public performance, and theatrical plays. Robert van Gulik’s study, and translation, locates the development of popular longer ‘detective novels’ in the sixteenth century, with its greatest flowering occurring in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Van Gulik’s translation of an anonymous eighteenth century author’s Dee Goong An, as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee,8 occurred in 1941-45, during the war years, a decidedly difficult and unstable period for Sinology. In his introduction, van Gulik discerns five main characteristics whereby the ‘Chinese Detective Novel’ differs from its ‘Western counterpart.’ Sketched briefly, they are:

1. a ‘suspension’ of suspense. The criminal is generally introduced at the beginning of the story, and the ‘mystery’ of culpability as a proleptic structuring—an element of suspense—is missing.

2. an inversion of tropes. Citing the ‘innate love’ of the Chinese for the supernatural, as opposed to the gritty, realist, hard-boiled tradition in Western detective fiction, van Gulik describes ghosts and goblins, animated kitchen utensils and regular visits to the netherworld, in stark contrast to the familiar Western genre.

3. a passion for detail. Detective stories at the time, classic cases, were rather spartan, and digressions from the rhetorical shaping of the momentum and resolution of a tale were minimal, if present at all. Certainly one would not find lengthy poems, philosophical digressions, or the quotation in extenso of complicated official documents, as one finds in the Chinese.

4. complex and multiple dramatis personae. The Chinese tale supports a prodigious number of ‘protagonists,’ and requires an equally prodigious memory for names, places, relations, genealogies, and intricate, specialized vocabularies, where the Western case sets a singular and hierarchical relation in play among a few strong characters, with minimized subsidiary characters, often little more than textual markers, or types.

5. difference in emphasis. In the Western detective tale, descriptive detail is expended in shaping the (analeptic) resolution of the identity of the perpetrator of a crime, so that the issue of his or her eventual punishment is often left moot or suspended. In the Chinese model, there is an engagement, even a love of the details of punishment and execution, to the point of following the condemned to the Chinese version of ‘hell’ where his or her fate is examined in lovingly gruesome detail.

What is remarkable in van Gulik’s account—and this subtlety is not lost in Zweig’s work—is the incessant mirroring between West and East, the constant differencing and displacement that is carried out at every point. Not only is the Chinese detective novel older—it came about centuries before the birth of Poe or Conan Doyle—but it is also a symmetrical negative of the Western tale; everything that the Western detective tale foregrounds, is diminuated and deferred in the Chinese, at the level of plot, character, narrative, description, rhetoric, and even grammar. In this way the ‘Chinese’ detective tale takes place as reflection, as refraction and as mimicry. After having translated the anonymous author of Dee Goong An, Robert van Gulik continued to write of the exploits of the seventh century magistrate Judge Dee in a series of his own fictional novels and tales.

(Unsolved) Robert van Gulik begins with a diffraction, possibly a reflection of foliage in water, or through glass, perhaps even through a digital filter used to produce such effects ‘artificially’ (a reflection of a reflection, doubled in the latter case, as a secondary or tertiary reflection which appears on the surface of a screen). Ellen Zweig’s film is also interstitial, moving between performative and mimetic. It is structured (in English) via three primary intertitles, each of which cites—reflects—aspects of van Gulik’s ‘Chinese detective story.’ They are: ‘The Case of the Fake Lute,’ ‘The Case of the False Monkey,’ and ‘The Case of the Wrong Man.’ Each forms the topos of a divarication, a non-place, mediating between reference and phantasm. In some cases this is quite direct, as when two voices converge, two men who are both musicians, who speak about Chinese music, one citing the curious path through which he came to a practical relation with the instrument called a ‘guqin’ (which is not a lute) and the other who candidly confesses that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. The musical accompaniment, revealed in a series of cut-aways, is lovely, restrained and accomplished. It is followed by close up shots of a mechanical musical device (or devices), which is in effect an automaton, a ‘self-effectuating’ musical instrument. Or, in other words, a reflection of a performance, in much the same way that the intervention of the two men into what is for them a non-traditional musical instrument, produces a reflection of that music from—and located within—the outside. There are a series of ‘punctuations’ where we have a brief glimpse of make-up being applied to a face. Most of these occur in the section entitled ‘The Case of the False Monkey,’ and there is a compelling intertextuality accomplished in their pattern. There is an echo of Harun Farocki, especially in Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges, (1976)9 which is composed of archival footage, and images, and images of images, reflections ad seriam, whose strangest moments are marked by the repeated appearance of a woman’s passive face having (too much) make-up applied and removed. There is also a trace of Leslie Thornton’s Adynata (1984),10 a sustained and unnerving meditation on Orientalism and disfiguration which begins in an obsessive fascination with the face of a Chinese woman who is ‘cast’ before the camera—in every sense of ‘before’—as an image already composed and fixed, before it is reflected through the photographic/ cinematographic apparatus as an evidentiary or documentary trace. When, in the section entitled ‘The Case of the Wrong Man,’ we see the ‘re-membrance’ of previous shots of fragments of a body shoed, and costumed, and painted, starting to perform a complex and difficult form of singing, it is reminiscent of Gary Hill’s strategy, in Remarks on Color, (1994) of having a small child read, before a camera, sections from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color.11 There is both an echo—a reply, a replication, a replica, or copy,
(-pli- from the French ‘fold’) a reflection which folds itself back into the ‘original’ such that it ‘takes place’ (comes into being, occupies, displaces and stands in for) what is re-presented by marking a complicity of identity and difference. Zweig’s poetic allusions are in turn reflected and mediated by the tacit reflections/reflexes of cinema. Sometimes it is in the simplest details that the most poignant allusions come to rest, for example, with the appearance of a black aquatic bird, a gallinule or coot, which is such a commonplace along the Dutch canals, and which occupies the same cinematic non-places as other bits of Chinoiserie, an emblematic marker (perhaps) for van Gulik. Cinema, like theater, like words—and things—is both reflection and mask, sometimes mask as reflection, which replicates in an endless series of deferrals, as when one speaks, on screen, through a mask, the words, in a replicated voice, of another. Or when a monkey is taken for a man, or for a god, or a demon, or—even—a monkey.

It helps—a bit—in watching (The Chinese Room) John Searle [7:30 min., color, 2001], to have a glancing familiarity with analytic philosophy, and with Searle’s work. For Searle the exemplary empty room in his well known counter-argument to the claims of strong artificial intelligence,12 is a ‘Chinese’ room. Searle’s thought experiment is called "The Chinese Room Argument, no doubt to persuade its audience of the complexity and inscrutability of the room as a metaphor for the brain, as physical repository for mentation. John Searle's 1980 thought experiment is one of the best known and widely credited counters to the claims of artificial intelligence that computers do, or at least can (someday) think. According to his original presentation, the argument is based on two truths: brains cause minds, and syntax doesn't suffice for semantics. Searle names the target of his argument "strong AI." In Searle’s presentation "according to strong AI, the computer is not merely a tool in the study of the mind, rather the appropriately programmed computer really is a mind in the sense that computers given the right programs can be literally said to understand and have other cognitive states". Searle contrasts the "strong AI" position to what he terms "weak AI." According to weak AI, says Searle, computers just simulate thought, their seeming understanding isn't real (just as-if) understanding, their seeming calculation as-if calculation, etc.; nevertheless, computer simulation is useful for studying the mind (as for studying the weather and other things). Here is a account of Searle’s argument:

The Chinese Room Thought Experiment13

Against "strong AI," John Searle asks you to imagine yourself a monolingual English speaker "locked in a room, and given a large batch of Chinese writing" plus "a second batch of Chinese script" and "a set of rules" in English "for correlating the second batch with the first batch." The rules "correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols"; "formal" (or "syntactic") meaning you "can identify the symbols entirely by their shapes." A third batch of Chinese symbols and more instructions in English enable you "to correlate elements of this third batch with elements of the first two batches" and instruct you, thereby, "to give back certain sorts of Chinese symbols with certain sorts of shapes in response." Those giving you the symbols "call the first batch ‘a script’ [a data structure with natural language processing applications], "they call the second batch ‘a story,’ and they call the third batch ‘questions,’ the symbols you give back "they call . . . ‘answers to the questions’"; "the set of rules in English . . . they call ‘the program’": you yourself know none of this. Nevertheless, you "get so good at following the instructions" that "from the point of view of someone outside the room" your responses are "absolutely indistinguishable from those of Chinese speakers." Just by looking at your answers, nobody can tell you "don't speak a word of Chinese." Producing answers "by manipulating uninterpreted formal symbols," it seems "[a]s far as the Chinese is concerned," you "simply behave like a computer"; specifically, like a computer running Schank and Abelson's 1977 "Script Applier Mechanism" story understanding program (SAM), which Searle's takes for his example. But in imagining himself to be the person in the room, Searle thinks it's "quite obvious . . . I do not understand a word of the Chinese stories. I have inputs and outputs that are indistinguishable from those of the native Chinese speaker, and I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing." "For the same reasons," Searle concludes, "Schank's computer understands nothing of any stories" since "the computer has nothing more than I have in the case where I understand nothing." Furthermore, since in the thought experiment "nothing . . . depends on the details of Schank's programs," the same "would apply to any [computer] simulation" of any "human mental phenomenon"; that's all it would be, simulation. Contrary to "strong AI", then, no matter how intelligent-seeming a computer behaves and no matter what programming makes it behave that way, since the symbols it processes are meaningless (lack semantics) to it, it's not really intelligent. It's not actually thinking. Its internal states and processes, being purely syntactic, lack semantics (meaning); so, it doesn't really have intentional (i.e., meaningful) mental states.

Zweig begins (The Chinese Room) John Searle, [7:30 min., color, 2001] with an examination of the adjectival modifier ‘Chinese,’ as an exemplar of the exotic unknown.14 It is an exoticism similar to that which Searle evokes, the exteriority of the traveler to the unexpected fascinations that occur in crossing different places, that is, of translation, and transmission. As the unconscious optics of the camera frame ‘events,’ a female voice, confessional and reflective, admits to a certain ". . . embarrassment" in relation to the Chinese language, speaking from the outside, in well-learned Chinese, performing a language that she cannot inhabit. Words, signs, vocalizations, pass through this space (topos), a point of view, technically a deixis, marking a ‘here’ and ‘now’ of cinema’s claimed spatio-temporal index, cast (‘mise-’) over and against a ‘there’ and ‘then,’ an otherness which is incommutable no matter how you frame it. Something which is traceable in the camera’s mediations, if you look carefully. In other words, Zweig constructs an allegory of the camera—which as Walter Benjamin points out "does not see," yet serves as a tacit conduit for the eye of the observer, a prosthetic attachment naturalized as a form of subjectivity. The camera is an empty room, and works in much the same way as Searle’s favored example: put Chinese in, Chinese comes out. But the allegory is (already) doubled, as the ‘subject position’ of the spectator—which is rendered coextensive with a succession of substitutions, of other observers, the audience which occupies the position of ‘addressee,’ and the ‘empty room’ is the institution of cinema. An enigma. A mystery. Terms which attach very easily to the commonly held image (of China, for example) as an exotic, indecipherable trope. The uneasiness of citation and mimicry, of performing ‘Chinese’ by speaking in a voice which is ‘yours’ and ‘not yours’ in the same moment, a ‘monolingualism’ in the impossible and pluralized sense given by Jacques Derrida15 (and contradistinct to the performative sense advocated by Searle).16 A succession of empty frames (topoi), a cast—again, still— into the abyss of re/presentation. ‘China’ over and over, again and again; an endless succession of attachments—of words and things, names and desires, artifacts, claims and memories, interpretations, espousals, and denials, in circulation. Mise-en-abyme: an empty place full of everything. Ellen Zweig’s works touch, fleetingly, upon this emptiness in the profusion of signs, to induce a subtle and nervous laughter.


On May 20th 1989 commercial broadcast television was interrupted by a CBS Evening News Special Report concerning the events occurring in Tiananmen Square in the People’s Republic of China. Ellen Zweig recorded this transmission, exactly as it appeared, erupting out of prime time television. She then organized a conference around this footage, and several scholars and artists were invited to present their speculations on a public panel to address this strange artifact/event. On the panel were philosophers, artists, anthropologists, critics, writers and media producers. The collective discussion, between participants and with the audience, was unprecedented— a deconstruction avant la lettre of the verisimilitude naturalized and claimed by media. The tape showed a live shot in the hallway of the satellite transmission facility leased by CBS in Beijing, some 25 minutes from Tiananmen Square. On screen the image is of a nondescript hallway, in low light with small groups of American and Chinese standing in the foreground, and occasional people moving at the end of the hall in the background. The camera angle is low, and most of the lights are off. It is likely that the Chinese, who we learn have come to "pull the plug" of any news coverage, do not know that the camera is still on. The dialogue, via translator Betty Bao Lord, a CBS affiliate, is contentious and repetitive. Everyone is waiting for Dan Rather, who, we are informed, is en route from Tiananmen Square. It is clear that very little is known about the events taking place off-camera. It is a remarkable bit of television to emerge out of a primetime news broadcast, not only as ‘dead air’ but in its duration, somewhere around 20 minutes, wherein ‘nothing’ happens. Near the end of the transmission Dan Rather appears, entering in the background, at the far end of the hall, walking towards the camera. There is a brief shuffling for position, with Rather taking up the center-right location in the frame. As he asks whether anyone speaks English, he is introduced to the translator, and then the contingent of Chinese, the lights come on. In that moment Dan Rather is (already) composed as an image and the artifactuality of the ‘event’ is underway. Rather’s live transmission defines what is happening as an ‘event,’ and shapes the extent, and content of "Tiananmen Square." It is now a territory circumscribed by a proper name, defined by the mediated admission of evidentiary traces—the speaking bodies, witnesses, but also the descriptions of other, anonymous bodies, that are set into play. The "oppressive government" which attempts to "break the back" of a desire for "freedom, democracy, and reform" on the part of student protesters, the "rank and file’" Chinese who rose up to protect the students by, in some cases "embracing" the young soldiers, dissuading them from moving further in on the protesters, some "giving flowers to the soldiers," as two successive waves of camouflaged helicopters buzzed the square, and the plug was pulled on the live broadcast from Tiananmen Square.17 It is an unusually clear instance of what Bernard Stiegler and Jacques Derrida call artifactuality—one of the traits of media that constitute actuality: that in the very moment of its enunciation, speaking is an artifact, a public gesture which is—in the very moment of its happening—is calculated, constrained, formatted and initialized by a media apparatus. Actuality—the event— is made. It is not given, but actively produced in mediation, sifted, invested, performatively interpreted by, and within, numerous registers, which are in themselves factitious and artificial, selective and heirarchical, in the service of multiple interests. No matter how singular, tragic or irreducible the reality to which it refers, actuality comes into being, takes place, in the place of the real, as a fictional fashioning. Nonetheless we are persuaded, and we recognize Tiananmen Square as a particular sort of event. Still. Where did those tropes come from? It is unlikely that Dan Rather saw many of the things he recounts first hand. The two bits of footage shot earlier in the day in Tiananmen Square during Rather’s aborted broadcast that punctuate the CBS Live Report bear no clear indication of what is going on without a supplementary commentary. It is most likely that the image of Tiananmen Square was drawn from a ready archive of narrative fragments—student protests of the Viet Nam war, popular images of revolt, May of ‘68, Kent State, Columbia University—and that its claim to verisimilitude, as temoinage or speculation in language or photography is just such a hybrid and permeable artifact as we have been discussing. The events of "Tiananmen Square" began well before their insertion point as mediation, and continue well beyond. Marked, punctuated, constrained and defined by proper names, events are a contemporary species of mediation. Hegel’s philosopher was cajoled to read the newspapers daily. Today our responsibilities oblige us to learn how newspapers, documentaries, television broadcasts, digital transmissions are made, for whom and by whom. Derrida and Stiegler18 remind us that

. . . we ought never to forget the full import of this index: when a journalist or politician seems to be speaking to us, in our homes, while looking us right in the eye. he (or she) is in the process of reading, on screen, at the dictation of a "prompter," a text composed somewhere else, at some other time, sometimes by others or even by a whole network of anonymous authors. . .

To such an index are appended a plethora of proper names—9/11, Iraq, Saddam, Bush, bin Laden—numberless reasons and interests, and any number of pronomial claims to veracity, bodies (already artifacts) bearing witness:

"I know. . .," "I’ve seen . . .," "I feel . . ." "There are. . .," "There will be . . . ." "We must. . ."

Allegory takes the place of the ephemeral, events take place as artifacts, subjectivity is a consequence of mediation.

Ellen Zweig’s fascination with mediation, performance, and even with China early on, produced a singular and fertile intervention into the "unthinking familiarity" of media. This remains a guiding impulse in her single-channel video works. They are the result—one might even say the accretion—of a long, and deep reflection on the vicissitudes—and the promises—of media, a faith in its formal, critical, theoretical and ethical possibilities. Zweig’s intricate historico-literary deconstructions of phantasms masquerading as facts are a necessary, and refreshing, heuristic to our contemporary habituations within an increasingly global and globalizing media.19


1. Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, [New York: Random House, 1970]. This citation is from the Preface. There is no index or bibliographic apparatus in the English translation, and no indication of the source of this citation in the French edition. See: Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses. une archéologie des sciences humaines, [Paris: Bibliothèque des Sciences Humaines/Éditions Gallimard, 1966]. I have been unable to locate the precise citation in the works of Jorge Luis Borges.

2. Throughout this essay I follow Ellen Zweig’s choice of the Americanized spelling of "Leibnitz" in the title of her work rather than the more germanic and academic spelling of "Leibniz," in deference to her English-speaking audience.

3. This phrase appears in a communication from the filmmaker. It is a very suggestive prompt to her reading of Leibnitz and his involvement with China through the work of Gilles Deleuze. See, especially, Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley, [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993]; No less suggestive is the notion of reading Zweig’s treatment of Leibnitz through Deleuze’s work on cinema, for which see: Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans., Hugh Tomlinson, Barbara Habberjam, [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986], and Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans., Hugh Tomlinson, Robert Galeta, [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989].

4. On Chinese stone lore, see: Jing Wang, The Story of Stone: Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism of Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and The Journey to the West, [Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1992]; Robert Ford Company, Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China, [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996]; Derk Bodde, Essays on Chinese Civilization, [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981]; Joseph Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilization in China: 1, edited and abridged by Colin A. Ronan, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978]; and for classical sources, see: In Search of the Supernatural: The Written Record (a translation of Sou-shen Chi by Kenneth DeWoskin and J.I. Crump, Jr., [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996]; Cao Xueqin and Gao E., The Story of the Stone, trans., David Hawkes (Vol. I–III) and John Milford (Vols IV–V), 5 volumes, sixth edition [New York: Penguin Books, 1973-1986]; Wu Ch’eng-en, The Journey to the West, ed./trans., Anthony C. Yu, 4 Vols. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977-83]; Shih Nai-an, Water Margin, trans., J.H. Jackson [Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1937/Facsimile reprint, Cambridge, MA: C&T Co., 1976].

5. On allegory in relation to photographic/cinematographic and digital technologies, see: Thomas Zummer, "The Commutability of Traces," catalogue essay in Vik Muniz, ed., Matteo Agratti, [Milano: Galleria Cardi, 2003].

6. See: Thomas Y. Levin, "Rhetoric of the Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and the Cinema of "Real Time"," in CTRL SPACE Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, Peter Weibel, eds., [Karlsruhe/ Cambridge, Mass.: ZKM/Center for Art and Media/MIT Press] 2002. Levin’s argument is persuasive and brilliant, and he describes the rearticulation and re-appearance of the documentary ‘image’ as style, that is, as an index of the evidentiary, so that the surveillant look of the photo-chemical trace, hand-held or automatic camera movement, or technical glitches or infelicities trades its claim to verisimilitude for a rhetoric of spatio-temporal configurations in the service of narrative progress or closure. This also holds true in the consideration of the fragmentary nature of the photographic image presumed as an excerpt or arrestment from either an event, or a recording of an event.

7. I am here drawing an allusion between Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘aura’ as it is shaped in the essay of technical reproducibility, and other places, and the notion of ‘spectrality,’ or ‘hauntology,’ as it is formulated by Jacques Derrida. See Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility: Third Version," in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938–1940, Michael W. Jennings, Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, eds., [Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2003]. The use of the notion of phantasm and spectrality within the framework of technology derives principally from the works of Jacques Derrida, Bernard Stiegler, and Giorgio Agamben. For Derrida, see: Jacques Derrida, ‘La danse des fantômes: Entrevue avec Jacques Derrida’/ ’Ghost Dance: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,’ by Mark Lewis and Andrew Payne in Public 2, The Lunatic on One Idea, 1989; See also the following: Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. P. Kamuf [New York/London: Routledge, 1994]; and Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television, trans., Jennifer Bajorek, [Cambridge, Oxford, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2002]/Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, Échographies de la télévision, [Paris: Éditions Galilée–INA] 1996. 1994; Jacques Derrida, Mal d’Archive: une impression freudienne, [Paris: Éditions Galilée] 1995; Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, [Chicago: University of Chicago Press] 1995-96, and for Bernard Stiegler, see: Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, R. Beardsworth, G. Collins, trans., [Stanford: Stanford University Press] 1998; Bernard Stiegler, La technique et le temps 1: La faute d’Epiméthée, [Paris: Éditions Galilée] 1994; Bernard Stiegler, La technique et le temps 2: La désorientation, [Paris: Éditions Galilée] 1996; Bernard Stiegler, La technique et le temps 3: Le temps du cinéma et la question du mal-etre, [Paris: Éditions Galilée] 2002; For Giorgio Agamben, see: Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas. Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press] 1993; Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans., Georgia Albert, [Stanford: Stanford University Press] 1999; Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz. The Witness and the Archive, trans Daniel Heller-Roazen [New York: Zone Books] 1999.

8. See: Robert van Gulik, trans., Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An), An Authentic Eighteenth-Century Chinese Detective Novel, [New York: Dover Books, 1976].

9. See Harun Farocki, Nachdruck/Imprint; Texte/Writings, Susan Gaensheimer, et al, eds., [Berlin: Vorwerk 8, 2001]; see also, Harun Farocki, "Reality Would Have To Begin," trans Thomas Keenan, Thomas Y. Levin, Documents 1-2, 1992.

10. For two excellent, and quite different, accounts of Leslie Thornton’s Adynata, see: Mary Anne Doane, "The Retreat of Signs and the Failure of Words: Leslie Thornton’s Adynata," in Millennium Film Journal/20th Anniversary Issue, Nos. 16/17/18, 1986 (reprinted as "The Retreat of Signs and the Failure of Words: Leslie Thornton’s Adynata," chapter nine of Mary Anne Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, 1991) and Linda Peckham, "Not Speaking With Language/Speaking With No Language: Leslie Thornton’s Adynata," in Discourse 8, 1988 (reprinted as "Not Speaking With Language/Speaking With No Language: Leslie Thornton’s Adynata," Linda Peckham, in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, E. Ann Kaplan, ed., Routledge, 1990).

11. See: Robert C. Morgan, ed., Gary Hill, Art + Performance Series, PAJ [Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000]

12. See the following sources for Searle’s presentation, criticism, and responses of The Chinese Room Argument: John Searle, "Minds, Brains, and Programs." in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, pp. 417-424, 1980; John Searle, "Intrinsic Intentionality." in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3: pp. 450-456, 1980; John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984]; John Searle, "Reply to Jacquette." in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research XLIX: 701-708, 1989; John Searle, "Is the Brain's Mind a Computer Program?" Scientific American 262: 26-31, 1990; John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992]. For critical accounts of Searle’s position, see: Ned Block, "Troubles with Functionalism." in C. W. Savage, ed., Perception and Cognition: Issues in the Foundations of Psychology, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 9, 261-325. [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1978]; Paul Churchland and Patricia Smith Churchland, "Could a machine think?" Scientific American 262(1, January): 32-39., 1990.; Daniel Dennett "The milk of human intentionality." in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3: 429-430., 1980.; Jerry Fodor, "Searle on what only brains can do." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3: 431-432., 1980.; Larry Hauser, Searle's Chinese Box: The Chinese Room Argument and Artificial Intelligence. [East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University (Doctoral Dissertation, 1993)]; Frank Jackson, "Epiphenomenal qualia." Philosophical Quarterly 32:127-136., 1982; Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986]; And for relevant background to this problem, see: Thomas Nagel, "What is it like to be a bat?" Philosophical Review 83:435-450., 1974; Roger C. Schank, and Robert P. Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding. [Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press. 1977]; Alan Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence." Mind LIX: 433-460, 1950; and Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason. [San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1976].

13. Cited in Larry Hauser, The Chinese Room Thought Experiment, [] 2001. See also: John Searle,"Minds, Brains, and Programs." in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, pp. 417-424, 1980.

14. Zweig’s ‘point’ of departure is, of course, beside the ‘point’ of Searle’s argument [which is a variant of the ‘Turing Machine" scenario (See: Alan Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence." Mind LIX: 433-460, 1950)]. In positioning the choice of the word ‘Chinese’ as a modifier for all sorts of referential ‘trailings,’ Zweig both taps an unconscious (i.e., simply unthought) register of allusion, and redeploys that linguistic disposition as an enabling trope in her own investigations of allusive reflexivity about ‘China.’

15. Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other: or, the Prosthesis of Origin, trans., Patrick Mensah, [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998].

16. See the well-known debate between Jacques Derrida and John Searle, in the following publications: Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context," in Glyph 1 [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977]; John R. Searle, "Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida," in Glyph 1 [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977]; Jacques Derrida, "Limited Inc," in Glyph 2 [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977]; Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc abc ..., Glyph 2 (Supplement) [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977]; Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc, [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988]; Jacques Derrida, "Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Inc (2)," in Without Alibi, ed., trans., and with an introduction by Peggy Kamuf [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002].

17. See the CBS Evening News Special Report for May 20th 1989, archived in part online at the CBS site. The phrases appearing in quotation marks are citations from that broadcast.

18. Jacques Derrida, Bernard Stiegler, Echographies of Television, trans., Jennifer Bajorek, [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002].

19. Thomas Zummer, "postface" extracted and revised from "Arrestments: The Body in Mediation," presented at the New Museum for Contemporary Art, New York City on April 29, 2004; forthcoming publication in Stitch and Split: Bodies and Territories in Science Fiction, [Barcelona/Brussels: Fundacio Antoni Tapies & Constant vzw, 2004]