Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Uneasy Objects: The Film Body in Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance [1]

Katharine Young


Film conjoins the audible and the visible. If what is heard is what is seen, their conjunction is naturalized, as if there were but one perceptual reality. But even if what is heard is not seen or what is seen is not heard, the conjunction of any audible with any visible interanimates them. Mona Hatoum’s 1988 video collage, Measures of Distance, conjoins two auditory realities with two visual realities, none of which, with the exception of a single specific but unlocatable moment, intersects any other. The film refuses to anchor its perceiver in any one perceptual reality that might draw the others into its wake. How, then, does the film hold together its multiple realities? Where can I find anchorage among such uneasy objects?

Part I: Spatio-temporal Laminations

Temporal laminations I

The temporal present of Measures of Distance has two layers, one, a voice reading a series of letters, apparently in the order in which they were received. Certainly the last letter received is the last letter read. This is one temporal present.           

Through this reading voice, we hear the second temporal present of the film: a conversation between two women. We expect either that the voiceover monologue will fade out and the film open up on a scene of two women talking or that the voiceover conversation will fade out and the film will open up on a woman reading, revealing which is to count as the temporal present of the world the film presents, which, adapting narrative convention to film, I call the film world.[2] Neither happens, so the question of the temporal anchorage of the film cannot be resolved. Instead we oscillate between anchoring ourselves in the act of reading, which conjures up a narrative reality or taleworld (Young 1987, viii) in which another woman writes what this woman reads, and anchoring ourselves in the conversation, a different occasion in the same film world, which puts us in the presence of two women talking.

This oscillation is complicated by the fact that over the course of the film we realize not only that the woman reading is reading the letters the woman writing has written, but also that the reader and the writer are the women having the conversation, and that the reader is the writer’s daughter. We are engaged in one of the impossible temporalities[3] film makes possible: hearing at the same time the voice of the same woman, the daughter, speaking at two different times, the time at which she is reading and the time at which she is conversing. Though read in one voice, the daughter’s, the letters are written in another voice by a second narrator, the mother, on various prior occasions in the film world. Reading the letters is at once an act at one spatio-temporal locus in the film world, with effects on both their reader and her hearer, and an aperture into another spatio-temporal locus in which the second narrator writes. A gesture of the hand on that occasion is reanimated as an utterance of the voice on this one.

The reader in the film world speaks to an implicit but imperceptible hearer, her narratee, in Gérard Genette’s term (1980, 31), for whom she conjures up the taleworld in which a woman writes. The writer writes to an embodied but absent reader, her daughter, who is her narratee, for whom she conjures up another taleworld, in which she and other characters act. Both reader and writer are intradiegetic narrators narrating from within the realities they inhabit; they are inside the diegesis, part of the same reality (Genette 1980: 214).[4] In each instance, a character is telling a story. Their narratees are also intradiegetic, though only one of them is perceptible in the narrative reality: the writer’s addressee, her daughter, the reader.[5] The reader’s addressee is I who am interpolated into the film world by the reading of the letters as their (implied) hearer. Reader and hearer inhabit a space in the taleworld to which my only access is the reading voice. Within the taleworld, they jointly construct a discursive event called a storyrealm, in which the act of narration occurs (Young 1987, viii). Voice itself has two aspects. It is at once the narrative modality that affords me access to the taleworld and the perceptual modality that solicits my ear in the storyrealm.

The film world presents an angle of entry, a location in or outside that reality from which the perceiving body angles in on the events that unfold there. This angle determines the perceiver’s perspective on those events. In narratology, perspective implies somebody who perceives, paradigmatically, somebody who sees in or sees into the taleworld; voice implies not only somebody who tells the story but also somebody the teller tells the story to (Rimmon-Kenan 1984, 71, 88-89). Though the act of narration calls forth a dialogic relation between narrator and narratee, the film world only opens up from one angle for all perceivers. Perspective is monologic. The space hollowed out for the perceiving body in the film world is inhabited by both the body we understand to be perceiving it – either a character who sees in the film world or a perceiver who sees into the film world from elsewhere – and my body. It affords me my perceptual footing in the film world. In Measures of Distance, hearing the daughter read her mother’s letters puts me in an otherwise imperceptible auditory space, suffused with the sound of a voice. This narratee-perceiver the film constructs I call the film body.[6]

The Film Body

Film is not a record of the perceptual sensibilities of the filmmaker. The most obvious evidence of this are spatial cuts and sutures, and temporal contractions and expansions. The filmmaker’s visual field exceeds the edge of the frame, runs over the end of a shot and precedes its beginning. The filmmaker’s auditory field includes sounds that were not there and excludes sounds that were.

The edges of shots suture together discrete spaces and jump over intervening time. Film can condense a slow event into quick time – we see the blooming of a flower – or expand a quick event into slow time – we see a runner suspended languidly in air.

Vivian Sobchack argues that the body doing this slow or quick seeing, this zigzag hearing is the film’s body. The film, for her, is a body whose seeings we see, whose hearings we hear. “A film is an act of seeing that makes itself seen, an act of hearing that makes itself heard, an act of physical and reflective movement that makes itself reflexively felt and understood” (1992, 3). The body doing this seeing, hearing, and moving is not the film goer’s body. The film is not whatever I happen to make of it. Rather the film’s body elicits in me, out of my body, a perceiver to participate in its seeings and hearings. This is not my own body but another body with quite different perceptual acuities or obliquities, a body that inhabits impossible temporalities, impossible spatialities. This is the perceiving body the film constructs. I call it the film body.

The film body is the body the film calls forth in its perceiver. This body, like the film’s body, is filmically constructed. It offers me its strange faculties as my angle of entry into the film. It does not belong to me nor am I attached to it. To take up a phrase of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (1962, 139), it inhabits or haunts me. In it, with it, as it, I can dive down the rabbit hole without crashing on the bottom. In fact, the film perceiver’s body can only do what the film’s body is doing. As an actual perceiver, I could resist doing what the film’s body is doing –  most obviously by closing my eyes – but my perceiving body cannot do what it likes. It cannot do what the film’s body is not doing. Just as there is a distinction between the actual filmmaker’s body and the film’s body, so there is a distinction between the actual film perceiver and its film body.What I perceive is only what the film constructs for me. The actual film perceiver’s body cannot move around in the film world on its own. As perceiver, my body is bound to the film’s body.

That other body lends me its ears, focuses my eyes. Film transforms my senses,

altering them, deforming them, turning them to its own purposes. It makes me a kind of monster or a kind of expert. Experts are kinds of monsters, creatures with strangely distorted senses, acutely attuned to some things; utterly indifferent to others. At the same time, I lend the film’s body my ears; I give it sight. It is I who hear, who see. I animate it as much as it animates me. The film’s body and my film body cohabit the perspectives the film opens up for perception. I am the film body.

Temporal Laminations II

Though each act of narration, the daughter’s and the mother’s, evokes a different moment in the same film world, both moments are evoked simultaneously. The mother’s story is a story within the story her daughter narrates. As the film opens, the film body is entered into a taleworld in which a character reads. This act of narration conjures up a second taleworld in which another character writes. The writer’s act of narration in turn conjures up other taleworlds in which yet other characters, including both the writer and the reader in other places at other times, do other things. If the other characters also told stories, each of these would conjure up its own taleworld in which yet other characters would appear, creating a mise en abyme or infinite regress of stories within stories (Rimmon-Kenan 1984, 93).

As in an epistolary novel, as the reader reads the letters, we are her narratee even as she is her mother’s narratee. The reader is the narrator in one storyrealm and the narratee in the other. Even as the sound of the voice anchors the film body auditorily in the uppermost or outermost taleworld in which the story is being told, the story the voice tells launches the film body narratively toward the events in the lower or inner taleworld that the story is about. This is the narratological structure of multiple realities (Young 1987, ix). 

A narrator above and beyond the uppermost outermost level of the film world, who is understood to have made all the judgments about how to present that reality, is extradiegetic, as is her narratee, who appreciates the presented effects. Though they are outside the diegesis, these figures are likewise filmic constructs and are not coincident with the filmmaker and the film receiver, about whom we have no evidence from the film, in the same way that we have no evidence from the novel about the author who wrote it or the reader who reads it, only about their textual constructs (Rimmon-Kenan 1989, 87). Peter Verstraten argues that there is always an extradiegetic narrator who has designed the film text even when there is an intradiegetic narrator who tells the story to an intradiegetic narratee inside the film world. He calls this the filmic narrator (2009, 130). But in this instance, the addressee of Measures of Distance understands the reader in the film to be the filmmaker (or rather to be the narratee-perceiver the film constructs), Mona Hatoum, who thereby narrates the film from within the world the film conjures up. She is an intradiegetic narrator who is, in effect, telling a story about herself telling a story.

In contrast to an extradiegetic narrator who is conjuring up an alternate reality, an intradiegetic narrator is narrating her own reality, presenting the past from some moment in the film world’s future, rather than from outside the film world. Because Mona Hatoum is an inhabitant of the reality she narrates, this is an instance of first-person narration in which the I of the intradiegetic narrator presents the film world to the you of the intradiegetic narratee. One unfolds a story for the other. Mona Hatoum is an intradiegetic narrator telling a story in which she appears as a character-narrator who reads. The film is her story of doing this. In contrast to Verstraten, I grant the intradiegetic narrator the same power to present the film world he grants exclusively to the extradiegetic narrator. The disjunction between an extradiegetic narrator and the film world is clear when the film is fictional. When the film is supposed to be factual, no narrator can stand outside it. The film world is continuous with the real. Membership in the reality the film conjures up is the specific mark of cinéma vérité, in which the film world is understood as the real.[7]

Within the film world she conjures up as the intradiegetic narrator, Mona Hatoum turns up as a character, not visibly but audibly. She is the reader who reads letters from her mother to her invisible and inaudible narratee. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan calls a character in a story who tells a story a hypodiegetic narrator (a narrator who is below the diegetic level (1983: 92).[8] If the reader in the film were reading fiction, she would be a hypodiegetic extradiegetic narrator, not involved with the characters in the fictional taleworld she conjures up in the act of reading. If the stories these characters told were fictions, so would they. Hatoum, by contrast, is a hypodiegetic intradiegetic narrator.

Whether the film narrator is constructing a reality or a fiction is at issue in this film. Its internal contradictions, impossible hearings and, as we shall find, impossible seeings, suggest fictionalization but the artifacts from which the film is made – a collection of letters, the recording of a single conversation, and a handful of slides – are material traces of the real. In either case, the film moves auditorily between two diegetic levels, one conjured up by storytelling as an act of reading and the other by storytelling as an act of writing. As in The Arabian Nights ( A Thousand and One Nights), in which the narratee’s attention shifts between the framing story in which Scheherazade tells the king tales in order to postpone her execution, and the embedded stories she tells, within some of which characters tell other tales (Ryan 1991, 176), in the film, our attention shifts between the framing story in which a woman reads letters and the stories embedded in the letters she reads, within which characters might tell stories. The reader is an intradiegetic narrator, narrating the story of a reality from within it but her compass includes, not only the act of reading but also the circumstances of hearing and seeing brought forward around the moment of reading. Reading is an act at the diegetic level but the taleworld the act of reading conjures up extrudes an alternate reality, a second taleworld.

The writer in the second taleworld is also an intradiegetic narrator, narrating the stories about the reality she inhabits from within it, each of which generates its own taleworld at a third level. Her compass includes not only the act of writing but also the circumstances that surround the moment of writing. The mother is a character in the daughter’s story, indeed its only character, generated in the act of reading; both the mother and the daughter, along with a number of other characters – the father, the cousin, sisters, uncles and aunts, vague marauders – are characters in the mother’s stories, some of whom also have stories, generated by the act of writing. The dialogue between the mother and daughter in the letters constitutes the film’s story, though we know the daughter’s side of the story only as it is reflected in the mother’s responses to her in her letters. So although the act of writing is intradiegetic to the second taleworld, the stories the mother writes are, in Rimmon-Kenan’s terms, hypo-hypodiegetic, they bring forth taleworlds not present at the time of writing (1983: 92). The writer’s stories are stories within the reader’s story, itself a story within the film narrative. Because the film narrator turns up in her narrative as the reader-narrator, she, and of necessity her narratee, are intradiegetic; because the reader-narrator turns up in her narrative as the writer-narratee, the reader-narrator and the reader-narratee are intradiegetic and hypodeigetic; because the writer-narrator turns up in her narrative as a character, she and the writer-narratee are intradiegetic and hypo-hypodiegetic. In each case, the storyrealm conjures up a taleworld in which the teller turns up as a character.

Though Mona Hatoum is thrice invoked: by the film as its narrator, by the letters as their reader-narrator and writer-narratee, and again by the letters as a character, her mother is the writer-narrator of the lowest, innermost story. At bottom, Hatoum has been enclosed in her mother’s story as a character as she has, up to then, enclosed her mother is hers. None of these invocations tells us about the real Mona Hatoum; only about the Mona Hatoum figured as a character in her mother’s stories, as the reader of her mother’s letters, or as the narrator of the film.

In her letters to her daughter, the mother tells a number of stories. Each story conjures up its own local taleworld at various times and places in the encompassing taleworld each partially illuminates. But although the embedded stories are all about the same taleworld, they are not necessarily told in the order in which they occurred in that reality and the order in which they occurred is not always possible to tell from the stories. The one narrated event that can be fairly precisely located in time is the blood story, the mother’s story of the onset of the daughter’s menstrual cycle. The daughter would have been between about ten and fourteen at the time of onset and the mother comments that “it was nearly twenty years ago now,” so we know that at the time of writing the daughter is in her early to mid-thirties. The deepest temporal locus of the mother’s stories is either one about which the she writes, “You say you can’t remember that I was around when you were a child” or another about which she writes, “you’ve always been your father’s daughter.” Except that they are connected with the daughter’s childhood, these allusions are temporally unanchored. The shallowest temporal locus of the mother’s stories is a future narrative, a prolepsis or flash-forward: “I’m sending you this letter with your cousin [Aran], who is leaving for Bahrain tomorrow.” At the time of writing, that has not happened yet. As the letter has, in fact, arrived, presumably it did happen sometime between the writing of that letter and the reading of it. All the other embedded narratives are analepses or flashbacks from the time of writing (Genette 1980, 40-80).

Between the earliest events narrated and that last event, all the other stories the mother writes are temporally located, some – the post-office burning down, for instance – within a fairly narrow time span, the span between letters, others – “I suppose he still can’t forgive you for taking those pictures of me in the shower” – afloat somewhere in a wider time span that may have occurred anytime after the daughter took slides of her mother and before she put them into the film; and other yet suffusing a vaguely located period that both precedes and succeeds the time of writing – “there are always rockets falling on the main road, so I don’t like to venture that way anymore.”

Each story is a little narrative in itself but the little stories are embedded in a framing story with its own narrative arc. The act of reading the letters brings forth this framing narrative at two temporal loci at the same time: the moment at which a woman reads and the moment at which a woman writes. In the framing narrative, the individual stories hang together as a series of loosely related episodes in a longer story of the mother’s life. In literary theory, episodic narratives of this kind are called picaresque tales. The overarching framing story forms the narrative armature of the film. It enunciates the unforetellable unfoldings, as Erving Goffman puts it (1974, 506), that arouse narrative desire (Brooks 1992, 37). Narrative desire, figured in miniature in each of the mother’s little stories, is cast globally over her framing story. At both diegetic levels, we want to know what happens next.

The film moves us among each of its levels or rather, since two levels, the writing and the reading, are ongoingly sustained over the course of the film and the third, the embedded narratives, are intermittently laminated onto the others, their co-presence makes it possible for us to move ourselves as narratees among levels. At times we are attentive to the reader reading; at times we are attentive through the reader reading to the writer writing; at times we are attentive through the stories to the events the writer recounts. The “accent of reality,” in Alfred Schütz’s turn of phrase, shifts between the act of reading, the act of writing, and the things that are happening (1970, 254-255).

Through the voice of the daughter reading we hear the voices of the mother and daughter talking as an unkept promise, the promise of an elucidation that will never come, and this for two reasons. One, the conversation is in Arabic. Unless the film body is Arabic-speaking, its content is forever foreclosed. And two, the conversationalists never appear. What remain for the ear are the intonations of a conversation heard only as phatic communication.[9]

Spatial Laminations

Juxtaposed to the two temporal presents of the film, the voiceover monologue and the voiceover conversation, are two spatial surfaces. These, too, are overlaid one on the other. The upper or outer surface is a field of writing suspended on a transparent membrane through which we see the lower, inner field, initially amorphous glowing patches of colored light, which very slowly over the sixteen minute course of the film resolve themselves into the naked body of the mother showering. The film begins with the overlay of writing by itself, underneath which the blurred light field comes up, followed by the overheard conversation, through which the voiceover monologue becomes audible. These constitute the spatio-temporal laminations of the film.

Measures of Distance 2 minutes: 24 seconds: Blurred light field glowing up under black Arabic writing

The voluminous space of the light field comes into focus as a body very slowly over the course of the voiceovers but neither of the voiceovers, nor any of the embedded narratives, is contemporaneous with the body. The light field seems to belong rhythmically to the present of the voiceover monologue in tandem with whose narrative disclosures it discloses a body. The slow resolution of the light field suggests that we are seeing how somebody sees something at which the seer is unable or unwilling to look clearly. The mother’s body, however, belongs to the past, a past surrounding two of the embedded stories, the story in which the mother gives her daughter permission to use the slides she took of her in the video she is making and the story in which the father objects to either taking them or using them. The light field changes its ontological status right before our eyes.

Measures of Distance 3:07 A field of fleshy folds, not clearly identifiable as parts of a body

Measures of Distance 7:40 The same topography of folds now identifiable as woman’s arm folded across her breasts

The field begins as blur, as if the the eye could not quite focus or the object could not quite materialize. The blurred screen couples two filmic effects: one effect is the refusal of the aperture between the visual space of narration, which I call the film text, and the space it narrates – the film world – to open up. We are prevented from treating the film text as a transparency to the film world, from seeing through, from seeing in. It insists upon itself as an opaque surface. As a consequence, the film body is held outside as an external perceiver, seeing the film as text, as a surface to be read, a surface of a certain texture, of light patches amove in a sticky, gluey, viscous element from which they do not emerge, do not crystallize into intelligibility, readability, clarity. Clarity, once it arrives, at once precipitates the film body into the film world, which now shows up unproblematically around it. By setting up the film body’s angle of entry so that the visible world closes up behind it, this new clarity now prevents the film body from seeing the film narrator at work. Once in, either the film body discovers that its angle of entry rides with the body of a character – the blur resolves into, say, a blinking eye – or the film body finds that the perspective from which it sees and hears belongs to nobody and it has been released into the film world dematerialized into a magic ear/eye that perceives anything but is itself imperceptible, the classic condition of the external perceiver.

By initially excluding the film body from the film world by blurring the surface, the video forces the film body into the subjective position. I am seeing somebody seeing, not what she sees but that she sees. At the outset, the film world is neither transparent to me nor am I transparent in it. It does not simply show up around me, announcing itself as an accessible space, either to my body as the internal character-perceiver who inhabits that reality or to my body as the transparent external perceiver who flies around in it, unencumbered by the limits of flesh. Visually, the film refuses the imperceptibility of the perceptual apparatus altogether. I am tangled up with a body that is having trouble seeing. It is as if the film narrator is saying to the film narratee, “I am having trouble figuring out how to describe this to you,” not by saying that but by miring me up in the trouble perceptually. The film body finds itself enmeshed in the film narratee’s subjective confusion. The film announces itself in the voiceover monologue as a subjective film, a first-person narrative presented to a second-person narratee in the I-you dialogue that constitutes the relationship between teller and hearer. But perceptually, as always, we are one body, I and the film’s eye. The dialogic relationship between narrator and narratee folds together into the monologic perception of the film body. The film begins with the act of perception, not the world perceived.

The other effect the blurred screen creates is the one Laura Marks identifies as haptic, Vivian Sobchack as tactile, and Jennifer Barker as both (Marks 2000, 2, and 2008; Sobchack 2000, 54-55; Barker 2009, 3). Marks writes: “Haptic visuality is distinguished from optical visuality, which sees things from enough distance to perceive them as distinct forms in deep space: in other words, how we usually conceive of vision. Optical visuality depends on a separation between the viewing subject and the object. Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to lunge into illusionistic depth not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. It is more inclined to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze” (2000,162). Sight is a sort of anticipatory touch. It is not only that the eye appreciates what we think of as peculiarly tactile, the texture of things, for instance, but also that the eye can reach its object before the hand and instruct the hand in how to apprehend what it is about to feel.

What Jennifer Barker calls the tactile eye treats film as a painter might, as an array of colors, textures, and lines rather than a configuration of objects in space.[10] If the film obliges its perceiver to attend to its surface as if it were opaque rather then permitting the perceiver to see through the surface as if it were transparent, it breaks the film surface off from the film world and prevents the film body from entering into the film world as an alternate reality. “Haptic cinema does not invite identification with a figure – a sensory-motor reaction – so much as it encourages a bodily relationship between the viewer and the image. Consequently, as in the mimetic relationship, it is not proper to speak of the object of a haptic look as to speak of a dynamic subjectivity between looker and image” (Marks 2000, 164). Marks thinks of touch as mimetic knowledge in which the hand configures itself to the contours of the object it perceives, the skin is reticulated by the roughness of the object’s surface, the body is warmed or chilled by the object’s temperature. Touch requires the body’s imitation of what it perceives in the act of perception. Marks is interested in film she takes to arouse the senses in just this way. It is what she calls haptic cinema. Haptic cinema expresses a “suspicion of visuality, a lack of faith in the visual archive’s ability to represent cultural memory” (2008, 300). This suspicion shows up in the film’s refusal to let the film body pass effortlessly through its surface into the film world.

For Sobchack, the sensuousness of the screen is just the first, shallow, move toward this embodied engagement with the sensuousness of film perception. I am moved by the movies as a body that “makes meaning before it makes conscious, reflective thought” (Sobchack 2004, 59). Sobchack calls the body’s unconscious, pre-reflective thoughts “carnal.” My body is already in thrall to the film before I have figured out much about it. In Paul Valery’s phrase, the film thinks itself in me before I can think about it (Quoted in Merleau-Ponty 1962/1995, 214). Taking up Merleau-Ponty’s argument for the intertwining of the body and the world, Elizabeth Grosz writes: “Things solicit the flesh just as the flesh beckons to and as an object for things. Perception is the flesh’s reversibility, the flesh touching, seeing, perceiving itself, one fold (provisionally) catching the other in its own self-embrace” (quoted in Sobchack 2004,66). As a consequence of this reversibility, this intertwining, Sobchack writes: “Experiencing a movie, not ever merely ‘seeing’ it, my lived body enacts this reversibility in perception and subverts the very notion of  onscreen and offscreen as mutually exclusive sites of subject position. Indeed, much of the ‘pleasure of the text’ emerges from this carnal subversion of fixed subject position, from the body as a ‘third term’ that both exceeds and yet is within discrete representation” (2004, 67). Sensuousness saturates me ahead of sense.

Interfolded Laminations

As the blurred image that opens Measures of Distance solicits the tactile eye, the film body experiences itself as pressing through a thick resistant substance. Even as the eye blurs, the voiceover narrative offers an aural lucidity echoed in the clarity of the visible writing. The field of writing partially intersects with the narrative present of the voiceover, figuring as a singular token of the letters the daughter reads, and also partially intersects with the alternative temporal locus of the narrative past, as an equally singular artifact of the act of writing.

Both visual spaces are temporally static. Even though the visual field of writing expands and contracts, and the visual image of the body is ongoingly replaced by other images in which the body becomes clearer even as more of it becomes visible, nothing in either visual space moves. Measures of Distance is, in some sense, not a movie. In this respect Measures of Distance preserves Leonid Tchertov’s argument that temporal relations do not generate meaningful units in spatial forms (2005: Section 1, paragraph 6). Toward the end of the film, the visual images themselves replicate and overlap. But these manipulations of the visual spaces do not take up time in any of the narrative realities, the time of telling, the time of writing, or the time of events. They are acts of the film narrator that play with the presentational surface of the film’s skin, without activating the acts and objects to which the surface gestures.

The relationship between the naked body and the overheard conversation is parallel to the relationship between the field of writing and the voiceover. In both cases, the visible image slices out and freezes one moment in the temporal unfolding of the audible voice. At some moment in the voiceover reading, the voice reads the fragment of the letter that appears on the screen; at some moment during the visit on which the conversation was recorded, the daughter photographs the mother. The narrative is entirely carried by the voiceover; there is no visual narrative. Because the film never brings forth the body that speaks, the speaker is an acousmêtre.

Michel Chion defines as acousmatic any sound whose source is invisible to the film body. If the sound comes from something in the film world, it is diegetic acousmatic sound; if it comes from outside the film world, it is non-diegetic acousmatic sound (1994, 71). Music that arises as if from an invisible orchestra an instance of non-diegetic acousmatic sound, as is a voiceover by a narrator who is not a character in the film world.

A voiceover by a narrator who is a character in the film but whom we do not see Chion calls acousmêtric (1994, 72). Because the acousmêtric voice saturates the visual space as if from elsewhere but inhabits it and speaks from some mysterious place in there, it has both the near omniscience of extradiegesis and the immediacy of intradiegesis. Chion calls the person who speaks so the acousmêtre. “The Acousmêtre is, for various reasons having to do with our perceptions (the disembodied voice seems to come from everywhere and therefore to have no clearly defined limits to its power), a uniquely cinematic device” (Walter Murch in Chion 1994, xxii). The reader is such an acousmêtre.

Once the acousmêtre becomes visible, it loses its power, as does the wizard in The Wizard of Oz, once Toto tweaks aside the curtain, or the mother in Hitchcock’s Psycho, once we see her (Murch in Chion 1994, xii). Hatoum, whom we never see, never loses her acousmêtric power. Her voice haunts the film. At the end of the film, it is the acousmêtric voice that remains perceptible after the visual fields vanish and the other auditory field falls silent, and fades out last over the black screen.

Though the body of the mother is visible to the film body from the internal perspective of her photographer, the field of writing is only visible from a perspective external to that reality. It is another of the narrator-perceiver’s plays with surface. Similarly, the conversation is audible from the internal perspective of the daughter as a character who is present to it, the reading voice is audible only from a perspective external to that occasion. But although the conversation presumably occurred on the occasion that the body was photographed, the audible present of the conversation refuses to coincide with the visible present of the body. They are in each other’s penumbra: at some time on that day, the daughter and the mother talked; at another time, the one photographed the other. As Don Ihde points out, the horizon of the visible is the invisible; the horizon of the audible is the silent. And the realm of the visible and the realm of the audible overlap so that some things are both visible and audible. But here, the realm of the visible captures a region of the aura of silence beyond the edge of the audible just as the audible captures a portion of the aura of invisibility beyond the edge of the visible (2007: 52-53). Though the conversation, as it were, keeps time, and the stills, dilated over the duration of the talk, suspend time, it is they that anchor the film body by holding the eye.

The conversation becomes the auditory, temporal, and memorial field through which the image breaks as a visible, spatial, corporeal presence. A sign of the ear’s subsumption to the eye is that the film body is not necessarily expected to understand what the characters are saying – they speak in Arabic – but only to hear the intonational textures of their voices. Though it is the naked body that holds the eye, it is the narrating voice, who speaks in English, that holds together the story so the film body enters into its temporalities, the multiple temporalities of the stories and the sustained temporality of their telling.

The appearance of the field of writing over the naked body is an effect of the intradiegetic narrator on what Laura Marks calls the skin of the film (2000). It inscribes her subjectivity into the materiality of the film text. The intradiegetic narrator-perceiver is showing the film body how she saw something she is no longer seeing but we are, even as she narrates things unseen. The reading voice, issuing acousmêtrically from some ethereal off-screen space and/or from some vague future time, floats above both the visible body and the audible conversation but it touches down lightly on the visible writing at some unknowable moment in the course of reading. The writing inscribes an ephemeral temporal moment into a durative visual space. These dilations, intersections, overlayerings, and hoverings tug the film body toward the film’s impossible temporalities, giving the film an animation its visual stills cannot.

Because the body’s image holds down the core of the film, the film body expects something to be revealed about it but the body reveals only itself. Despite the perceptual pull of the body on the perceiver, it is the narrative pull of the reading on the narratee that sustains the narrative flow of the film. Visual desire folds in on itself whereas narrative desire opens to the disclosures of time. It is, in fact, only the narrative that reveals something and opens out the temporal wings of the film over its spatial body. And the narrative is in the letters.

The letters have two narrative arcs, unfolding in dialogue with each other: one, the long arc of the daughter’s gathering emotional intimacy with her mother since childhood, during which, you remember, she experienced her mother as absent, up to the moment of narration; the other, the shorter arc of the physical estrangement of the daughter, who is in London, from the mother, who is in Beirut – indeed of the mother’s estrangement from all her daughters, all of whom are elsewhere – and the encroaching danger to the mother’s body at home in Lebanon: the post office has been blown up; she has become afraid to go outside. This film narrative is itself a micronarrative of the scattering of the Palestinians from their homeland. In that respect this narrative is what Amy Shuman calls an allegorical story, a particular local personal story that comes to be understood as emblematic of a global human condition: the Palestinian diaspora (Shuman 2005, 124). This narrative is encapsulated in the intersection of the audible and the visible in the filmic moment when in her letter the mother writes, “I personally felt as if I had been stripped naked to my very soul. I’m not just talking about land and property left behind but with that our identity and sense of pride in who we are went out the window” at the moment we most clearly see her naked body.

Measures of Distance 11:26 The torso of a woman showering

The last letter is the only letter that features, as I say, a prolepsis: a flash-forward to something that will happen in the future, instead of the far more common analepsis or flashback, the insertion into the narrative present of something that happened in the past. The mother writes that she will give this letter to the daughter’s cousin, who is going to Bahrain, where he can mail it. Clearly, he has mailed it. The letter has come. But we do not know what has happened to the mother. One of the possibilities of this film is that it is her epitaph.

The dialogical tension between the increasing emotional intimacy between mother and daughter and the increasing spatial distance between them, which gives the film both its delicate sadness and its deep joy, hovers on the edge of tragedy because the return of the daughter, emotionally or physically, to the body of the mother may never be completed. We are left with the possibility of her death.

These are the film’s measures of distance.

Part III: Skin, Hand, Voice


Only gradually, over the course of this film, do we realize we are looking at a body, that we are looking at a naked body, that we are looking at the naked body of a middle-aged woman, and that the naked body of the woman we are looking at is the narrator’s mother. There is something uncomfortable about this.

The body holds still – is held still – for us to look. It is we who run our eyes over her skin, not she who moves under our eye to reveal herself to us. It is the tactile eye on the move, reaching to touch her skin. As the film unfolds and we catch on to the presence of a body, we squint to make it out, to bring it into focus. As with any unveiling, the unveiling of a veiled body, the unclothing of a clothed body, we desire the focalization of this unfocused body. It is a seduction in which we are made complicit. We want our eye to touch her skin. Because it is we who move – she is stilled in the slide – we are guilty of something.

And not just of voyeurism. Voyeurism is precisely looking without touching, looking without the intention to touch, a hunger of the eyes. But this is neither the plastic, glossy, spectacular surface of the hyperbolic pornographic or sexualized body nor the attenuated, desexualized, retracted armature of the model body on which surface effects are hung, through neither of which does the inner life of giving birth and getting old protrude. It is a full-fleshed, full-breasted, full-bellied mature female body whose lush excess is at once seductive and repulsive.

Why? Because it is the mother’s body. We are invited here to look in surrogate at the body in whose belly we once lay, through whose loins we once passed, at whose breasts we once suckled. Because of the narrative pull of disclosure and deferral, both visually and auditorily, we desire to look at the naked body of our mother. It is the incest taboo that disturbs us. And fascinates us. The film invites us to reenter a body from which we have become estranged. Part of the melancholy vein of this film is this estrangement of the body of the mother from the body of the child, which can never be assuaged. For all of us, this the mother body to which we can never return.


Between us and the body a very thin film is suspended – sign and token of our estrangement – on which writing appears. Writing is the trace of the movement of a hand over a surface, an act, displaced in time, which has left its spoor, its afterprint, on the materiality of the world. The very thinness of this materiality, of paper, attests already to the fragility of the trace, as if language barely clings to things, as if it might peel off. Here even the paper’s thin materiality has vanished and only the script remains, suspended between us and our perceptual object. But unlike the spoor of a rabbit, the hollow its body makes as it crouches down, immobile, to hide itself, this trace, activated by the eye moving across it, is mobilized. It preserves in its cursive lines – I think especially in the curves and arabesques of Arabic writing (surely the origin of that movement dancers call an arabesque) – the choreography of the act of writing, as paint does the brushstroke of the painter. Writing is the notation of a movement set amove again by reading.


What is for a seer the spoor of a gesture of the hand is for the hearer the material evocation of a voice. The eyes’ curves compose the ear’s intonations. The daughter reading hears her mother’s voice. When she reads the letters, she ventriloquizes the mother’s voice for her hearers. In doing this, the narrator makes the great anthropological gesture: she speaks for the other. Speaking for, as Donna Haraway points out, is the anthropologist’s moral quest, to give voice to the voiceless, to the unheard, to become the medium through which otherness sounds (1992, 312-313; see Shuman 2005: 130). The trouble with mediums is that we have to go through them to get to the other, to what is literalized (if that’s the word I’m after) as the spirit of the other. Mediums get in the way. On the other hand, they get us there. They are both obstacles and conduits. This is inevitable. Ventriloquialization requires its practitioner to make a judgment about how much to sound like the other and how much to sound like yourself. It produces that oscillation between voices Mikhail Bakhtin calls heteroglossia in the audible instance of free indirect discourse (Bakhtin 1981: 271; Rimmon-Kenan: 110-116). It is a problem of translation.

Here, of course, the narrator translates the Arabic writing into English speaking. But translation is not just from language to language but also from culture to culture, or poetry to prose, or prose to film, or emotion to language, or the audible to the visible, or, as here, from the visible to the audible, while preserving its visibility as writing. But it is more than translation. In the ventriloquialization she undertakes here, the narrator voices her mother’s voice, embodying the voice that once embodied her, the sound that resounded in her when she was drowned in the audio-tactile sea of her mother’s belly – the word ventriloquialism means to speak from the belly – so that she is both mothering and othering. In this double-voicing we hear in the texture and timbre of her voice both the child’s yearning for the lost mother and the mother’s yearning for the lost child. We hear, that is, her response to her mother in her voice even as we hear her mother’s voice in hers. It is the translation of emotion into language, not as word but as the inscription of emotion on the voice.

The audible field of the voiceover monologue cannot be pierced through to the audible field of the conversation in the way that the visible surface of the writing has been pierced through to the visible surface of the body. Voices do not come in over other sounds; they come in through them. Visible objects are discrete; audible objects are indiscrete. The exquisite faculty of the ear is to pick assemblages of sound out of sound blends, to gather up strains of sound from the past and cast them forward into the future as the unfolding threads of, for instance, two voices in conversation.

Though the reading voice preserves its rather grave, even tone throughout the reading, it is tinged with melancholy. Perhaps precisely because it eschews such emotional markers as catches in the throat, drops and lifts in pitch, stuttering, gasps, sobs – the repertoire of melodrama – it seems to stand aside from the story it voices. Melancholy is estranged, contemplative. By contrast, the conversationalists’ voices are suffused with joy, pleasure, and presence. Even without understanding what they say, we hear the rhythm of intimacy, the overlapping of voices, the tune of pleasure, the synchronous bursts of laughter. In these voices, precipitated into the narrative present of reading from somewhere in the past, we hear the very intimacy the mother and daughter of the letters have lost.

Mikhail Bakhtin calls the intricate relationship evidenced here between space and time the chronotope: chronos, time, plus topos, space (1981, 84). It is the machinery of narrative: as temporality pulls at spatiality, space drags on time. For us, the pulls and drags, the accelerations and retardations, are pulls on the body. Through the aperture of the ear the past is poured into the present, which is made to vibrate to its rhythms. It is twice-poured, from the past into the film and from the film into the film body, or multiple pasts are poured into multiple presents, which they materially transform. There is no auditory past; we live among echoes, in a present endlessly resounding with the past. Resonance is our auditory knowledge of time.

Whereas the voice projects through time, the skin projects through space. It is impossible, I think, to be absorbed in looking at skin without arousing tactile perception. The body is titillated by the visual perception of skin. The skin of the film choreographs the touch of the eye. If the grain of the film is coarse, the texture of its skin tickles the papillae of the fingertips; if the resolution is soft, the film’s skin solicits the pressure of the fingers, as if they might indent it; if the surface of the film is glossy, its skin presents a certain stickiness, perhaps to the tongue as much as to the hand, as if it had been coated in its own secretions. This solicitation of the film body by the film’s body participates in Sartrean viscosity, as if it were the film that stuck the materiality of the world onto the skin, as if it were our membrane, the film that glues us onto things (Natanson 1973, 55).

In perceiving film, we are animated from elsewhere, our bodies partially colonized by the film’s body, revealing to us the interobjectivity, as Vivian Sobchack puts it (2004, 296), of our being in the world, of things’ adherence to our skins, of our perceptual extensions curled, unfurled into the film’s body, as if we had grown plant tendrils and marine tentacles. The film body, like all our bodies, is a cyborg (Haraway 1990: 149). The term cybernetics is derived from the Greek word for steersman. The body navigates cybernetic seas and matrixed bodies, looped together in an ecology of skin and thing as what Merleau-Ponty calls the flesh of the world (1968, 143-144). The impossible temporalities these interfolded spaces and times produce unsettle me: at no time do audible sounds issue from visible objects. The visible is mute; the audible is blind. It is this unsettledness that brings about the film’s uneasy objects.


Hatoum, Mona (1988) Measures of Distance (16 minutes) [Beirut, Palestine/Lebanon and London, UK, in Arabic and English]


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Bal, Mieke. 2007. “A Thousand and One Voices.” Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology, unpaginated.

Barker, Jennifer. 2009. The Tactile Eye: Touch and Cinematic Experience. Berkeley: University of California.

Berkeley, George. 1709/1732. An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision. Toronto, Ontario: York University.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. 1993. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Brooks, Peter. 1992. Reading for the Plot. Cambridge: Harvard University.              

Chion, Michel. 1994. Audio-vision: Sound on Screen, tr. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia.

Cimitile, Maria and Elaine P. Miller. 2007. Returning to Irigaray: Feminist Philosophy, Politics and the Question of Unity. Albany: State University of New York.

Genette, Gérard. 1980. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, tr. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis. New York: Harper Colophon.

Hansen, Per Krogh. 2008/2009. “Unreliable Narration.” Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology 5, unpaginated.

Haraway, Donna. 1990. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.      

Ihde, Don. 2007. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. New York: State University of New York Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1960. “Closing statements: Linguistics and Poetics,” Style in Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. New York: MIT, 1960, 350-377.]

MacDougall, David. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton: Princeton.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1923. “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages.” The Meaning of Meaning, ed. C. K. Ogden & I. A. Richards. New York, Kegan-Paul, 451-510.

Marks, Laura U. 2000. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham, NC: Duke.

Haptic Cinema.” Visual Sense: A Cultural Reader, ed. Elizabeth Edwasrd & Kaushik Bhaumik. Oxford: Berg, 399-407.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. The Phenomenology of Perception, tr, Collin Smith. London and New York: Routledge.

1968. The Visible and the Invisible, tr. Alphonso Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University.

Natanson, Maurice. 1973. A Critique of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Ontology. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. 1983. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 1991. Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

Schütz, Alfred. 1973. On Phenomenology and Social Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Shuman, Amy. 2005. Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

Sobchack, Vivian. 1992. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University .

(2004) Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California.

Tchertov, Leonid. 2005. “Spatial Narratives and the Semiotics of Time.” Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology, unpaginated.

Verstraten, Peter. 2009. Film Narratology, tr. Stefan van der Lecq. Toronto: University of Toronto.

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[1] I developed this analysis while teaching “The Film Body” in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010, and presented a version of it at the 2012 Society for Visual Anthropology Meeting in San Francisco. My thanks to Peter Biella for the frame grabs and his realization of the Timeline diagram.

[2] Adapted from taleworld, Katharine Young’s term for Gérard Genette’s histoire or diegesis or Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s story (Young 1987, viii; Genette 1980, 25-27; Rimmon-Kenan 1983, 3).

[3] The notion of impossible temporalities is Ariel Perloff’s (2005: Personal Conversations).

[4] Some contemporary narratologists, following Plato and Aristotle, take diegesis as the act of narration, the storytelling, in my terms, the storyrealm (Rimmon-Kenan, 106-107); others, following Genette, understand diegesis as the world about which the story is told, in my terms, the taleworld (Rimmon-Kenan, 47). Film theorists typically follow Genette (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993: 69), as do I here.

[5] Vivian Sobchack suggestively describes film as an address of the eye (1992, xix).

[6] My use of the term film body is akin to Jennifer Barker’s use of the term the film’s body. She writes, ‘For me, the “film’s body” is a concrete but distinctly cinematic lived-body, neither equated to nor encompassing the viewer’s or filmmaker’s body, but engaged with both of these even as it takes up its own intentional projects in the world’ (2009, 7-8). Like her, I take film body to name neither the actual filmmaker nor the actual film receiver but to shape the spoor into which they press their bodies in order to enter into the film world. The film body is a filmic construct. It seems to me curious to claim, as Barker does, that the film body has its own intentionality, as if it went on in the film world without me, but certainly it affords me such intentionality as I am able to bring off in that realm. David MacDougall neatly outlines a range of ways in which films have been said to “be” or “be like” bodies, symbolically speaking, then asks, “to whose body do they correspond? Is it the body of the subject? Is it the body of the spectator or the filmmaker? Or is it an ‘open’ body capable of receiving all of these?”’ (MacDougall, 2006, 29-30). Clearly, the latter.

[7] Narratology takes the language of perspective from visual art and the language of voice from oral narrative, neither of which is going on in the written narrative to which it has classically been applied. The two lineages have never quite settled in together. Conflating them as point of view made matters worse.

Perspective is fundamentally perceptual with epistemological, psychological, and ideological aspects (Rimmon-Kenan 1984: 77-82). Voice is a matter of sensibility and judgement about the manner of presentation (Genette 1980; Rimmon-Kenan 1984) though not necessarily a verbal rendering. A mime could tell a story without saying a word. Film makes perspective visible again but it does not necessarily make voice audible. In consequence, as Per Krogh Hansen notes, film theory is beset with confusion between who is telling the story and the stories characters are telling (2008/2009: Unreliable Narration in Film and Literature, paragraph 1).

From an external perspective or focalization, to take up (as Hansen does) Genette’s term, the film perceiver can see or hear anything in the film world without being seen or heard, including, in its most omniscient form, perceiving what is going on inside characters’ minds, including what they see and hear. What Hansen dubs “unreliable focalization” is properly external focalization of this sort: seeing though a character’s eyes without being the character. It is perfectly reliable representation of what is going on in the head of an unreliable perceiver. From an internal perspective, focalization is restricted to what the character doing the perceiving can see and hear, and is inherently unreliable. There are virtually no films that have actually “restricted the focalization to one character,” as Hansen puts it (2008/2009: Unreliable Narration in Film and Literature, paragraph 1). Almost all of them show from outside the body of the character from whose perspective the world is claimed to be perceived. (One exception is Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film Lady in the Lake, in which, except for a couple of moments in which the character addresses the narratee-perceiver diirectly, the perceiver sees only what the character sees, never the character.) What film theorists often take to be internal character perspective is the external perspective of a perceiver with unrestricted access to the interiors of characters’ minds.

The filmic equivalent of voice is the explicit or implicit sensibility who decides the order, duration, and frequency (Genette’s terms) of the presentation of events, which Mieke Bal calls the rhythm that discloses a narrating body in film (Genette 1980; Bal 2007, Voice and Documentary Tradition section, paragraphs 1 and 2). All intradiegetic character-narrators are by definition unreliable, not as a moral judgement in Ansgar Nünning’s sense (quoted in Hansen 2008/2009: Opening section, paragraph 3) but because they are inhabitants of the reality they narrate and have limited knowledge, personal involvement, and/or problematic value schemes, to take up Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s terms (1983: 79-82). Extradiegetic narrators who are not inhabitants of the reality they narrate are typically reliable but can become unreliable if they fail to show what Hansen calls “signs of omniscience” (2008/2009, Unreliable Narration in Film and Literature, paragraph 1).

It is the narrator, not the perceiver, who decides that the lines of script that would have taken only a moment to read visually transfix the whole of the oral reading, only one moment of which will coincide with the reading of those lines, but that the temporal duration of the represented conversation will match the duration of the conversation being represented. The narrator decides that the series of still images of the woman’s body will blur and clear, grow and shrink, appear, disappear, and coalesce, and that none of them will match any narrated moment. These are all signs of unreliable extradiegetic narrators (Hansen 2008/2009: 2). Extradiegetic narrators are not inhabitants of the reality they narrate and are imperceptible in them. As a consequence, they are typically reliable. If, however, such a narrator betrays evidence of interfering in the act of narration, that narrator becomes unreliable even though extradiegetic. The narrator’s interference with the act of narration constitutes a claim to extradiegesis. But it is a false claim. The narrator-perceiver who designs Measures of Distance for the film body is an inhabitant of the reality she narrates: Mona Hatoum. Because like many documentarians and ethnographers, the filmmaker is implicated in the film world, she lends the film some measure of authority by adopting signs of exteriority even though doing so sacrifices reliablity. To claim authority, intradiegetic film narrators adopt the conventions of objective narration, moving their narrative as near as possible to the authoritativeness of extradiegesis; an extradiegetic film narrator who adopts the conventions of subjective narration disclaims that authoritativeness (Hansen 2008/2009: Subjective, Objective and Pseudo-objective narration, paragraph 3).]

[8] Genette uses the term metadiegetic (1980: 228).

[9] Roman Jakobson took the term phatic, meaning emotionally inflected speaking independent of what the words spoken mean, from Bronislaw Malinowski’s 1923 essay, “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages.” Jakobson 1960, 355).

[10] The notion of the tactile eye, much discussed in phenomenology, seems to have originated with the Anglo-Irish philosopher, Bishop Berkeley’s claim in his 1709 An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision that visual ideas are merely signs of tactile ideas. In The Visible and the Invisible, Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes seeing as a mode of contact between the interfolded flesh of the world and the body. “Vision is a palpitation with the look” (1968: 134). As Maria Cimitile and Elaine P. Miller write, “for Merleau-Ponty, vision is movement, more like a caress than a grip, more like a motion picture than a photograph (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 162)” (2007: 123).