Jean Rouch and the Gay Science of Things

2020-04-27 看过

by Clara Pacquet


Rouch’s success among the heirs of Surrealism was decisive for what followed. In 1950, in Paris, when he was developing an interest in Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty,[ref]See Rouch’s text, “L’Autre et le Sacré: jeu sacré, jeu politique,” Jean Rouch: Cinéma et anthropologie (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2009), p. 30.[/ref] Rouch discovered glaring similarities between the corporeal techniques advocated by Artaud and the trance phases he had been able to observe during Songhai possession rituals. For Artaud, cruelty involved the usage of objects to attain a degree of bodily intensity. As accessories, costumes, and instruments used during rituals, dances, and ceremonies, but also as role reversals played out between animate and inanimate entities, the things involved become activators of affects whose role proves to be of a healing nature. Such healing is often tied to a practice of representation on the level of exaggeration and mockery that may go so far as caricature. Filmed in 1954 and brought to the public’s eye in 1957, the film Les Maîtres fous (The Mad Masters) fits into this fascination with possession whose therapeutic nature Rouch was exploring.

For, the possessed person is not a madman; he masters this state with the help of techniques requiring a period of apprenticeship. Rouch presented the possession cult of the Haouka, during the course of which initiates embody, in a grotesque manner, the symbols of colonialism through the invocation of new gods: those of technology, the city, and force.The followers of this cult were Songhai Nigerian immigrants living in Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast. Located predominantly on the bottom rungs of the social ladder, these people were forced to find methods for adapting and integrating themselves into society.During these ceremonies, the possessed individuals were transformed, via a trance state, into symbolic caricatures of British colonial-power personalities.

According to Rouch, this cult was the African expression of the West. The title of the film is a play on words, for it is indeed the British masters that are mad. First shown in 1955 at the Musée de l’Homme without sound in a first cut but accompanied by live improvised commentary from Rouch in the projection booth, the film was later to be marketed commercially. While it was violently rejected by the ethnologists present at the Musée screening and deemed “intolerable” or “racist,” it encountered real success from an audience of nonspecialists and won the Grand Prize at the 1957 Venice Biennale. Furthermore, it revolutionized the ethnographic approach to rituals. The fact that the participants in the Haouka cult were migrants is of key importance. These ceremonies could not be understood outside of the phenomenon of migration, and it is precisely this aspect that interested Rouch: adaptation, mixture, and the merger of ancestral genies with modern genies, which break with an essentialist approach to cultures that used the concept of “tradition,” and which break, too, with a hermetic view of the relations between self and other.


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