If modernity’s defining dream is the “mastery of nature’s contingency” (7), then “Reel World,” Anand Pandian’s exploration into what he calls “An Anthropology of Creation,” offers an alternative way of living in a world that can never fully be mastered. In this book, which follows the various paths through which Tamil films are made, another kind of dream emerges—one that allows us to re-envision the anthropological (by which I mean the human) project as one concerned with learning to open oneself to the wild world beyond what we think we can control.
Anand’s “anthropology of creation” aims to keep “the horizon of possibility alive even in the face of accumulating knowledge” (249) and thus to revitalize anthropology by going back in a new way to what it already is: “fashion[ing] anew worlds of life and thought, rather than simply reproducing some reality that already exists” (14). It does so by attending “to those forces and processes that make human beings other than what they are” (270). Anand proposes doing so by learning to “think like cinema thinks” (16) because cinema thinks in some of the ways the world thinks. How can ethnographic writing learn to think like cinema? “What,” he asks, “if this writing, this medium of mine, could follow some of the twists and whorls through which things like cinema surface in their newness” (156)?
This, for Anand, is a way to go “back into the world” (19), beyond the “conceits of human agency” (17). And herein lie the stakes of his project. Anand’s book emerges in the shadow of the Anthropocene, the proposed name for our geological era, which, you might say, is defined by the ways in which our attempts at mastering “nature’s contingency” have come to wreak havoc on planetary life. Opening ourselves to Tamil film, although seemingly far removed from the environmental politics that have informed so many of Anand’s scholarly interests, is a good place to begin to think about what Bruno Latour calls “ecologizing” as an alternative to “modernizing” (Latour 2013). That is, it is a good place to find new ways to live creatively with those creative beings and forces that lie beyond us.
What does it take to tap into creation? The directors and cameramen we meet are contradictory characters. On the one hand they are cocky. They seem to own the world as they drive through the streets and alleys of Chennai in search of the perfect shot location. But they are also able to submit fully to this world beyond themselves. That is their great talent. Submission, then, requires being selfless. However, it also requires a kind of selfishness. One has to be able to sever many of one’s other worldly ties to be able to open oneself in this way (the anthropologist, too, we sense, struggles with this as he is pulled between his “reel” world and that of his children who were born—and borne along—with this project). And yet, as Anand reminds us, a creative life can never fully be a solitary one: “one never walks alone along the path of creativity” (Lévi-Strauss, quoted on page 76). This extends both back and forth in time. One works in a tradition, even when one is the origin of a new tradition: “to be original means necessarily to be the origin of a lineage” (Latour, quoted on page 78).
Nonetheless, the artist (be she a scientist, anthropologist, or filmmaker) requires a certain freedom to be that creative catalyst that can make what is there despite her presence, manifest because of her presence. And this, Anand reminds us, is what anthropology “might or could be” (280). “Working with the momentum of emergence,” anthropology can find ways of reflecting on experience such that the world’s unknown forms, heretofore invisible, can come to the fore (46).
How to become a vessel for emergence? It is not enough to be open to the world, for this openness, this ability to work with its forms and forces, to tap (or “harness” them, I dare say) takes skill: “a little bit of control” as well as “a lot of acceptance” (110). It also requires being out of time. That is, although the director must be “in” the moment, he must also see what might or could be: “what the director sees does not exactly belong to the present moment the rest of us share. The ordinary span of his perception has been extended by cinema; he looks at a virtual frame yet to be established by the film” (145). This involves a sort of attunement. The filmmaker must learn to direct his attention inward to how he is listening to the world, “thinking with the cadences of his own body, catching hold of such rhythms in order to grasp the motion of an entire world” (207).
Anand is careful to remind us that cinema is not just the product of a relationship between the filmmaker and the world. There is always an Other involved in this creative process—the spectator. Cinema is found, according to Kurosawa, “in the space between two shots” (quoted on page 32). Filmmakers need to make space for the viewer’s creative imagination. This has its dangers. The viewer cannot be so easily controlled. Fans can go wild (with violent consequences). But, more prosaically, they can grow bored. Given that these film projects are “nakedly commercial” (97), this is a problem.
What do these Tamil films—almost always flops, not to mention also uncomfortably misogynistic—teach us? To my mind they teach us something about “gambl[ing] with fate” (7). They teach us to inhabit the world of the unforeseeable in which, despite our attempts to master it, we all willy-nilly live. They teach us that creating is vital, but also dangerous, and risky, and that when playing seriously with those dangers and risks we expose ourselves to a sadness we need to learn to accept. “Almost all films,” Anand tells us, “fail to do nearly as well as their makers had expected them to do… films are fashioned with a unison of feeling in mind, but they splinter, for the most part, into a bedlam of discordant reactions. Joy is fleeting, evanescent” (262). He is, of course, referring to the “reel” world of Tamil cinema, but he is also writing about the sadness that arises when so many of the dreams in our other “real” worlds are destroyed. One of the great strengths of this book is to be psychically attuned to how this darker side is also a necessary part of an anthropology of creation.
Latour, B. 2013. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Eduardo O. Kohn is the author of How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (University of California Press, 2013), which won the 2014 Gregory Bateson Book Prize. He teaches anthropology at McGill University.