Photos by:Kayhan Kaygusuz

Heads, Bodies, Openness, and Response-ability

Sibel Yardımcı

The Unknown Girl (2016) by the Dardenne brothers starts in a doctor’s practice late night. The working day is over, and Doctor Jenny Davin evaluates the day with her assistant. The doorbell rings. Jenny tells her assistant not to open the door because it is late. She learns the next day that the caller was a young woman who was found dead. The film is about Doctor Davin’s pursuit of this woman’s story, whose identity cannot even be identified. At the end of the film, which revolves around complex questions about how we take responsibility, the doctor confronts the person who caused the young woman’s death:

-I can’t sleep because of the girl, she’s always in my mind. If you had opened the door all this would not have happened.

-She’s always in my mind, too. […] You should tell the police.

-I will lose everything, I do not want to. […] I cannot, I cannot. Why would I ruin my life?

-Because she wants it from us.

-Who?

-That girl.

-She doesn’t care, she’s dead.

-We wouldn’t have her in our mind if she were dead.

The unknown girl has no papers. As an immigrant, poor black woman she is vulnerable in many ways. She is neither protected by any form of civil law, nor a family shows up to claim her body. Her death record has no name. But she resists oblivion and demands that people take responsibility for her death. According to Butler, who quotes Lévinas, this ethical demand of the other, which is not always verbal, manifests itself in the face: “The face is the other who asks me not to let [her] die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in [her] death.” We know that what is meant here by face is not exclusively the human face (according to Lévinas, for example, the backs, necks, and shoulders may also be sobbing, screaming). The face or the back calls out to us in a way “we are not free to refuse” and demands an answer: “To respond to the face, to understand its meaning, means to be awake to what is precarious in another life, or, rather, the precariousness of life itself.” Responding to this precariousness is a fundamental responsibility.

Today, new lines of thought such as Science and Technology Studies and post-human debates open this demand to a world that is not only human, while offering the opportunity to question how distinctions such as subject-object, self-other, or nature-culture are established and functioning. Conceptualizing “responsibility” as an ability to respond (“response-ability”), Haraway and Barad not only inherit Lévinas’s intellectual legacy but also transform it with the tools of biology, quantum physics, and science fiction. We now have a new conception of the world in its continuous materialization and a new definition of responsibility/response-ability that cannot be limited to the realm of humans. The world, as understood by Barad, is not shaped through inter-actions between existing units, but within the (intra-)activity that establishes the units themselves; every duality (including the distinction between self and other) is constructed, repeated, or dissolved by the cuts that are enacted in this unfolding. Ethics, here, is not about “right responses to a radically exteriorized other [for there is no such externality], but about responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming, of which we are a part.” Thus, humans need to account for the position they hold as the centre of life, history, and science, and with all the privileges and discriminations established based on this position. While Barad questions the cut that separates humans from other species, severing it from the becoming of the world, Haraway connects humans to the family of companion species of which they are a part, emphasizing that the history of the earth is the history of this inter-species becoming-with. In this conceptualization, we cannot talk about self-defined units such as genes, cells, organisms, humans with strict boundaries, and in this new political horizon humanity recedes into distance. “Perhaps” says Haraway “we can learn from our fusions with animals and machines how not to be Man”.

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Yaşam Şaşmazer’s artistic production ranging from heads through bodies to body-like shapes can be read in this context. What kind of gaze do these wooden heads, covered with lichen and fungi, invite? These almost shapeless bodily parts whose curves are filled with soil, lichen and fungi - what kind of a responsibility do they impose on us?

 

I prefer to read these works not as images of the (counter-)occupation of humans by nature, but as those of the becoming-with Haraway proposed. The narrative on occupation and counter-occupation repeats the absolute separation between Human and Nature, as sealed-off entities one of which dominates the other. On the contrary, these bodily parts are more like permeable and incomplete sections from the continuous becoming-with of the earth . The series of heads that face us are very different from the busts we are familiar with. They move away from a visual tradition that regards the face as the distinctive image of the human (busts, portraits of course, but also passport photos), placing it back into the inter-species becoming-with of the world. So do the bodies and bodily parts Şaşmazer depicts - the broken, cracked organic materials are dwellings to fungi settling on the eyelids, grasses growing in cracks, lichen spreading over the shoulders, and soil piling up in folds. As such, these heads and bodies, remind us that the face (or the back) is never just the face (or the back), but always also wood, stone, soil, lichen, cork, rust, coffee, walnut, as well as other things. In a continuous becoming-with them, they invite an ethical-political outlook that cannot be limited to the Human (his face, his back). Bodies enfold and enact, wide open to the becoming of the world - continuously because stone, soil, fungus, lichen, and wood are also becoming(-with) over time.

 

Can we learn “not to be Man”? This is both a potentiality and a responsibility. Either… Or… (2021) seems to chase after this potentiality once again, listening to the soil, fungus, and lichen, trying to look at human bodies in order to “learn how not to be Man.” Different from the comparatively well-defined wooden limbs and bodies of Devastation (2016) or Ravage (2017), the bodies of Either… Or… let go of the head (the face), twisting, rolling, and turning into paper silhouettes that dissolve (with time?) into each other. Indeed none has a name. These silhouettes invite us to explore the potentiality of becoming-with, and of life as common, by asking “Whom/what do I become(-with)?”.