Panel: Abjection and Infection
Because they are too dirty! Abjection and the Films of the Contemporary Brazilian and Portuguese Filmmakers Cláudio Assis and João Pedro Rodrigues
Antônio M. da Silva
Birkbeck University of London
In recent years there has been a variety of artistic creations that represents abjection in different ways, including film and literature for example. Films such as A Serbian Film (Serbia) and Dogtooth (Greece), literary works such as Dirty Havana Trilogy (Cuba), Twentysix (England) and Stella Manhattan (Brazil) have engaged with themes that cross patriarchal boundaries yet still raise eyebrows. An example of this is the problematic reception and consequent censorship of A Serbian Film. Similarly, themes considered abject are evident in Brazilian and Portuguese cinematic production. To illustrate this, this presentation will discuss the works of two ‘controversial’ contemporary directors: Brazilian filmmaker Cláudio Assis and Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues. Both directors have depicted themes in the construction and portrayal of their characters that bring to the fore subjectivities and behaviour that are deemed abject in such cultures. This presentation will therefore engage with Kristeva’s (1980) understanding of abjection as “all those things which threaten society’s established boundaries, disturbing order or identity” to discuss how abjection permeates the films. In so doing it also aims to show that although philosophical discourses have not been central in most analyses of the cinematic production from the countries discussed herein, philosophy does constitute an important tool to understand such films and cannot be ignored.
Infection on Film: Biopolitics and the Imperative of Health
Recent British and American cinema has been energized by a concern with infectious disease and the threat of epidemic. These films play on fears of contamination by some invisible or unknown substance that shows no concern for biological, legal or physical boundaries. Despite the variety of forms and approaches employed within the genre, response to the outbreak is consistently accompanied by military intervention and systematic quarantine. It is my contention that ‘infection films’ reveal the often unperceived yet decisive function of medical-scientific ideology within systems of power. Indeed, drawing on the concept of biopolitics from the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, I demonstrate the ways in which the representation of infectious disease creates a state of exception that reveals the mechanisms of modern-day sovereignty.
In the first part, I deliver a genealogy of the infection film from its origins in science fiction (The Andromeda Strain, The Angry Red Planet) through to the ‘realist film’ (Outbreak, Contagion) and the post-apocalyptic narrative (28 Days Later, I Am Legend). I identify three recurrent tropes including refugees, simians, and flags that symbolise boundaries determined by language, blood, and territory respectably. These tropes relate biology to politics, thereby bringing to light the distinction between two forms of state power: the police, or the fight against enemies at home or abroad, and politics, or the positive care and growth of citizens’ lives. This is linked to the double bind of the subject who during the transition from antiquity to modernity has constituted him or herself as a subject, and, at the same time, bound him or herself to a power of external control.
In the second part, I engage in close textual analysis of I Am Legend as an instance of the return of the biological (threat of death) over the political (control of life). In a series of flashbacks to the state’s response to the initial outbreak, the film demonstrates the limitations and machinations of sovereignty which thrives within a state of emergency. However, the film also occupies the ideological role of legitimising the modern state by generating fear of a return to the threat of death implicit within the pre-modern state.