Becoming Light (on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives)

For Einstein, light was the absolute limit of the universe. In his view, provided I have understood it correctly, nothing can move faster than light.

Without light we cannot see. This does not mean per se that we cannot sense without light, but even non-seeing species have skin that is sensitive to light and also to the warmth that light brings. Plants, for example, convert light into growth and life – as per photosynthesis. Perhaps human vision is simply the very long and slow development of photosensitivity (sensitivity to light) as a means of survival.

Human perception seems to be based on the ability to see different objects. Different objects are visible as a result of the simultaneous existence of light and, as far as the human eye is concerned, the ability of organised and solid matter to reflect and to absorb certain frequencies of the light spectrum.

If there was no light, there would only be darkness. Without any light to see, then, we might be able blindly to bump into things, but our ability to divide the world into different objects, surfaces and so on and so forth might be heavily compromised.

Similarly, if objects all absorbed and reflected the same frequencies of light, then we would not be able to see depth or different objects; all would be monotonous as we fumbled blindly in a ganzfeld.

We have light, then, and we have matter.

It is only as light travels into ’empty’ space that it illuminates things for us to see them. Without that light, that section of the universe is as good as non-existent; it is only when/that we can see it that it can be said to exist. In this sense, space is only as big as the area into which light can/has fallen.

We know how old the universe is because of how big the universe is. It is because light has an absolute speed that we can put a time value on the distance value; in fact, we cannot really measure distance without measuring time. In some senses, then, speed (namely, light speed) is the known measure of the universe. Time and space are inseparable; one is the measure of the other.

This part of the argument is somewhat harder to follow: if light allows us to see different objects in space, then perhaps light is also useful in allowing us to perceive different moments in time. If without light all objects in space would not so much cease to exist but collapse into one, inseparable chaos, then so, too, might this happen with time. An absence of light would not necessarily lead to the cessation of change (over time), but it would lead to an inability to perceive difference over time. That is, radioactive material might still decay at a predictable rate, but we’d not be able to measure this.

If light is what enables time and space, because it enables the perception of both spatial and temporal difference (and I would take these arguments further, since they are somewhat incomplete here, if sufficient for the hypothetical argument I wish to make in this blog), then light also enables history and memory. History is the process of change itself – the ongoing creation of differences that is perhaps the stuff of all life. And memory is the imprint of that change; it is perhaps, after a fashion, its own form of photosynthesis – an intake of light that is stored in the body, but converted into something else, something that allows us to grow by allowing us to retain information and to learn. It is, like a plant photosynthesising light, not a direct storage procedure, but a transformation, a turning of light into some form of energy, here called memory.

In this sense, memory is a form of photosensitivity (and here I can expand a little outwards from the ‘limited’ argument confessed to above: by ‘light’ I suppose I am talking about waves in the widest sense of the word – we may only see 5 per cent of the light spectrum; I am talking about all frequencies of eletromagnetic radiation; I might even say that I am talking about all that touches us – sounds and matter included, but this is a much bigger argument I cannot get into here, but it seems vaguely plausible provided I have not misunderstood the occasionally derided theory of superstrings, whereby all – everything – may consist of base ‘particles’ that vary in mode as opposed to kind).

If memory is considered as a form of photosensitivity, then it is important to remember that memory needs matter, it needs a body for storage purposes.

The problem with matter is that it changes over time. Or rather, part of this change, as far as the temporary units of organised matter that are called human beings are concerned, is death – and death does pose a problem to those who are particularly attached to their bodies (as we all can but be, whether we ‘like’ our bodies or not).

I occasionally take the radical point of view that there is no death, per se; the matter of which I consist will travel onwards and be involved in ever more intricate/basic (self-)designs, regardless of my involvement as ‘me’ in the process. Even though I say so myself, this is radical, because I do not draw a hard and fast line between life and death; I see life as a process of organisation, as the process of organisation. The principle requirement for organisation is matter. That is, all matter has the potential for life; I just happen to be a clump of matter that is more intensely or complexly organised (and by virtue of my relative complexity, I would hazard that I am a relatively inefficient organisation of matter, if the KISS rule of Keeping It Simply, Stupid applies here as it does in most places). And since I measure that potential as being real, I conclude – like I say, occasionally – that everything is alive, that there is only life.

By ‘only life’ I don’t necessarily mean only life; I’ll get on to that in a sec. But first: why only occasionally? Because I am of course scared of dying when on occasion I feel the vanity of not knowing what it would be like without my body. And second: light is a wave and a particle; light is life as much as the more recognisable objects around us (‘matter’) are life, according to my slightly wacky proposition.

If it is our bodies that set the limit to memory storage – if our bodies expire, and basically we humans are bound to die – then one means of trying to survive beyond our physical deaths would be to outsource as much of existence as possible from our bodies.

If memory is the incorporation of light in its widest form (if it is ‘experience’ felt in the body), then we reach something of a cul-de-sac: how can we do without our bodies, when every attempt at outsourcing experience (i.e. technology, including cinema) requires our bodies in order to exist? In fact, technology perhaps constitutes that (admittedly changing) boundaries of our bodies as much as we constitute the boundaries of technology (though whether we can actually pin a boundary down regarding where I begin and it ends is not something I would like to try to do with any accuracy at all).

One way might be to change the nature of that body; that is, to have a body that is dispersed across space and time in such a way that it is always alive, if that makes sense. To be omnipresent in terms of time and space. There is a substance that is the limit of time and space, and which therefore might a convenient tool both for memory storage, but also for the embodiment of our continued selves that, through this new ubiquitous and everlasting ‘body’, would ‘live forever.’ That is, if one could become light, then perhaps one could live forever.

Cinematography means writing with movement; but cinema is dependent on light in order to exist – both in terms of its construction and in terms of its reception. To become light, therefore, might involve some element of becoming cinema. Or rather, to become cinema feeds into the idea of immortality, via becoming light.

The title character of Loong Boonmee raleuk chat/Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands, 2010) explains a dream he has had. In this dream, ‘future people’ exist as images, or so Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) seems to suggest. ‘Past people’ are not welcome in this world, and when they are discovered, they find themselves projected in such a way that, for this viewer (me), they are brought into ‘the future.’ This involves, presumably, leaving their bodies behind.

This obviously has geopolitical resonance. In a film that, like others of director ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul, pits modernity, particularly in the form of medicine, against ‘tradition’ – in the form of superstition, religion and, most of all, nature as manifested in the jungle, there is a sense in which Uncle Boonmee is about that which is not – that which perhaps cannot – be made into a film. That which cannot or is not allowed to become cinema. This is geopolitical, because within the (admittedly and alas quite specialised) realm of cinema, there are the stars (those which have become light, as stars are) of mainstream cinema – and then there are the forgotten whose existence onscreen is only ever as a minority – if they exist onscreen at all.

Cinema has a tendency, then, of leaving out ‘past people,’ and/or if it spots them, it projects them, too, on to a wall such that they also become light. But that which is apparently ‘worthy’ of cinema – that which attracts the most attention in terms of audiences (who are inculcated only to ‘like’ certain types of cinema) – is only that which is glamorous and spectacular. The slow, the obscure, the unpretty, the old: these are things that for most people are not ‘worthy’ of cinema. And yet this is precisely what cinema, if it were democratic, can and should bring to light. And, within the rarefied field of ‘film festival films,’ perhaps it does.

But this is not without its paradoxes. For, to lose one’s body and to become light, to become a spectacle that is/has only a spectral/unbearably light existence is to forego life; it is to become a spectre, or ghost. To become immortal, one must perhaps die in the most profound sense of the word: one renounces the possibility of change, the possibility ever of becoming something different again, instead being fixed forever in a limited form by the images that become our constitution.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Boonmee seems to fear the contents of his dream. For as he knows too well thanks to his ailing kidney, he is his body. And if immortality requires the giving up of the body, then the immortality that is becoming light, that is becoming cinema, is fundamentally to give up what he is.

In other words, cinema can never truly depict that which it seeks to; it can never truly have a body in the material sense that humans have bodies, even if the human body is a constituent, perhaps the key component of the cinematic experience. Or rather, if light is matter, it is not the same matter as human life is at present.

What is the difference between the matter of light and the matter of a human (or other) body?

I shall answer this question shortly, but first I shall try to reconstitute the above in a different fashion, one that is far too JudeoChristian/Western for Uncle Boonmee (as a Thai film), but which seems relevant. It is ironic that so much Christian thought relies upon the renunciation of the body, based as it is upon the purging of sins committed by the flesh, since to be made up of flesh seems an originary sin without which none of us is. For if to be without a material body is to be light, then to be ‘en-light-ened’ (the ‘civilising’ drive of the West as it brings the rest of the world into the age of Empire) is also to be prey to Lucifer, whose name means ‘bearer of light.’ In other words, there is potentially a satanic element to becoming light.

This must be worked through a little bit more, as per the question above. Light is a form of matter, just a form that is different from the organised body that we inhabit if we have eyes, brain or internet voice software to read or hear this blog. So if I am talking about becoming light as a means of constituting a different form of body, what is it that I mean?

Principally, it is this: as humans made up of matter, we are not simply made up of light, even if the ‘particles’ that in string theory potentially constitute everything are the same ‘in’ light as they are ‘in’ me and other ‘solid’ forms of matter. What particles we are made from are in a different mode (or oscillating at a different frequency) to light itself (which must be the case, since if we oscillated at the same frequency as light, we would not be able to tell it apart from ourselves; it is the different speed, or temporality, of our oscillations that individuate not just us as human beings, but all different bits of matter; different temporalities articulate difference itself; in short, every thing has a different tempo).

In fact, humans are not made uniquely from light; we are also made of what I shall term darkness.

I term it darkness because this is as good a term as any to think of that which is ‘not light.’

It is also useful because we know that we need darkness in order to see. Blinking in the human’s way of periodically assuring that we continue to see. Not only does this protect our photosensitive eyes from too much light – which would blind us – but it also moistens our eyes so that the heat from the light does not dry them out, thereby similarly saving us from blindness (it does not matter what ‘colour’ blindness is; simply that blindness means an impaired or void capacity to see difference).

These seemingly imperceptible periods of darkness help us to see. However, there is more darkness to us. Our brains are permanently in darkness, as are most of our insides, unless we happen for some sad reason to be ripped open. Our skin is the barrier that separates us from but also connects us to the world, and our skin is photosensitive, as we know from its fluctuating pigmentation under sunlight (and sunbeds). We do feel things beneath our skin, from vibrations in our viscera, to memory in our muscles. But these things are for the sake of present circumstances invisible; they are in darkness – and they are as constitutive of who we are as any interaction we have with the light of this dimly lit universe. If we became wholly en-light-ened, these invisible parts of ourselves would be fundamentally destroyed; by being brought into the light, they would cease to be.

In other words, it seems that our bodies are darkness. We can reason that we die anyway, so if we became light, this death would only be a different form of death, perhaps less unpleasant, than the physical decay that our bodies will inevitably undergo. Indeed, if we are destined to evolve, then perhaps becoming light is the next step of evolution, so maybe all of this is a ‘good thing.’ Why the long face about the end of darkness, then?

Perhaps what I am terming geopolitics can once again step in to help us think about this: if humans are destined to evolve in this fashion, then so be it. But perhaps there is no need to impose this process on everyone. If ‘darkness’ is all that one has, then perhaps some people do not want to or would feel unhappy about the prospect of having even that taken away from them under the presumption that other people know what’s best. Perhaps some people do not want to live forever. Why force it on them?

Alongside economic and military warfare, perhaps cinema is the imperialistic tool par excellence – and by cinema I mean here cinema in its most expanded form, to include maybe all audiovisual media, but certainly the mainstream ones. It is arguably a force for homogeneisation – the rendering similar/same of all things, the production of a cultural ganzfeld in which difference is lost.

If this ‘ganzfeld‘ is created by making everything visible, then within the geopolitical realm of cinematic production and distribution (and reception?), there resides an enormous paradox: maybe some filmmakers need to resist the ‘monstrous’ drive of cinema to show any and everything (‘monstrous’ because montrage, from the French montrer, to show, wants to show us everything; the word also implies the economic imperative of exploiting all things for profit by showing/making a spectacle out of them; as Jean-Luc Nancy has pointed out, moneo, implying a warning, is also the root of money; perhaps showing (etymological) roots are the money of all evil).

If some filmmakers take up the challenge of hiding things, of working with the invisible, of working with and in darkness, then Thai cinema emerges as particularly relevant – though I could not be sure as to why. For one of the most important moments in recent cinema, a moment that brings us to the black hole of cinema, can be seen at the climax of Weerasethakul’s Sang sattawat/Syndromes and a Century (Thailand/France/Austria, 2006), in which the camera tracks calmly around an empty room before honing in slowly on the black hole that is the end of a ventilation shaft/extractor fan.

All that we can see is supported by all that we cannot (consciously) see. To emphasise, as cognitive film studies perhaps tends to do, the purely visible elements of cinema is to miss half the story (not least because of the darkness that lies between every cinematic frame). That which exceeds our vision is always inherently in the image: the excess incessantly ‘inceeds’ the image, even if it exceeds our vision.

A final paradox: perhaps light itself is invisible, too. We can see the objects illuminated by light because they absorb some frequencies and reflect others. What it is harder for us to see is the light itself. As if each photon were only visible because it comes into contact with matter in another mode, contact which switches it from invisible to visible. As if vision itself were vision of vision; that is, the photon is invisible until it touches matter in another mode, which switches it from invisible to visible, meaning that we cannot see, but can only see that we can see. As if within light itself there were its opposite, or darkness.

The blind leading the blind.

I need to sign off, and so beg forgiveness for these ill-considered thoughts. If at all they merit interest, there will be more to come, but not within the time and word limits my body has set for myself tonight.

Certainly there is a great mystery afoot, a black hole the effects of which we can see even though we cannot see it itself, and which lies at the core of our understanding of cinema, perhaps ourselves, and perhaps the universe we inhabit (which is a too bold proclamation to make by far, no doubt).

If it cannot be seen, then perhaps it cannot be shown, even if we can see its effects and claim at times to feel it. Perhaps it is the God particle that is also made up of fragments of soul. Time must also be considered more thoroughly to get into this conundrum.

This blog cannot do so tonight and perhaps will never do so as much as watching Uncle Boonmee, together with Syndromes and a Century, can do. But these are – I wonder, I vainly hope – the absolute limits of… something. Lame last sentence: no wonder the Cannes jury felt that it was worthy of this year’s top honours.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in Film reviews, Thai cinema, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Becoming Light (on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives)

  1. Pingback: Becoming Light (on Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) « Roehampton Film Extra

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