Saturday, 13 January 2018

Un-speakable and Un-hearable but still perceivable voices

The Message, the story of Islam by Moustapha Akkad

In the context of Muslim culture, the audiovisual representation is a subject of permanent discussions and controversies. The representation of the Prophet Mohamed is even considered as the main taboo. A few years ago, caricatures of this holy figure lead to passionate international debates and even to diplomatic tensions. This was a case where an icon of a culture was represented and placed in a debate which is taking place in another culture. Some would be pleased to talk about a clash of cultures.
It is not my intention here to go back to this discussion, neither to approach it from the broad intercultural point of view. A lot of literature is also to be found about the anthropological and theological interrogation of this phenomenon. Whatever the angle from which we consider the discussion of the representation of the Prophet of Islam, we are confronted to the ineluctable question of censorship on the name of a supposed religion precept. For sure, this shows how sensitive the problematic of audio-visual representation can be. However, I think that the debate is considered too much from the point of view of the interdiction and never, or at least much less, from the creative point of view. This seems to be a contradiction and this is precisely the challenge I am planning to address in this paper.
When art comes across a religious dogma, we often talk about the fact that the Religion is an obstruction to artistic freedom of creation. One would object to me that this can be possible in a culture and completely not in another. Let us keep the discussion on a universal level. We know how Art served Religion across human history. It is not my purpose here to talk about all this. It would be too pretentious and hence too superficial. Let me however remind one example of this paradoxical but also extremely rich and inspiring encounter between the Religious and the Artistic in cinema. To make The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini first made a trip with Don Andrea Carraro to Palestine looking for locations and preparing the shooting. The result was a documentary which can be seen as a tow perspective reflection about this debate from both a priest and a filmmaker. We know how Pasolini’s Gospel will be seen as a master work of art in quite a perfect cohesion with the holy text and the precepts of the Church.
This paper is dedicated to a comparable case study in the Muslim Culture. I mean The Message, the Story of Islam by Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad. In begin the early 70ies of the last century, the filmmaker decided to challenge the big taboo of visual representation of the Prophet by making The Muslim peplum or epos ever. I call this film the illustration of the creative and paradoxical encounter between the basic freedom of art and the so-called religious interdiction. I am planning to address it from a semiotic perspective usign the theory of interpretation of Umberto Eco. By referring to the definition of the Sign and to the idea of the Open Work, I will demonstrate that Akkad reaches the high level of artistic creativity by seeking the compromises with the red lines of “religious” forbid. I will analyse the film on the bases of the unlimited Semiosis that the Italian semiotician borrows to philosopher and mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce.
The first part of my paper will be dedicated to the constructive aspect of the theory of interpretation. In this frame, the basic definition of Sign as a process of meanings production is a part of a pragmaticist vision of the translation of the relation between the mind and the Being as an existential continuity. For me the two intellectual demarches in verbis and in factis, initially seen as incompatible, can be complementary. The analysis of some key moments in the film where Akkad flirts with the interdiction will show how the contradiction can lead to some fruitful esthetical compromises.

Unlimited Semiosis
Let me first remind the key concepts to which I will very often refer. The first one is the definition of the concept as a triadic structure in opposition with the dual definition. This is the first aspect of the contradiction between the artistic open vision of meaning and the religious limit to any effort of interpretation. The second aspect is to be seen in the opposition between two mental postures towards the existence. In verbis is a posture where the subject is central and the meaning is beforehand conditioned. In factis, thus, is a posture giving a priority to the object. Hence, the meaning is an occurrence of the Being in the sense of a moment when it manifests itself. Finally I will conclude this part by pointing at the impossible closure of the meaning and that the interdiction of any interpretation can not be the result of an intrinsic reality but the fact of an ideological call, and even a political decision in the narrow sense of the word.

The sign
Umberto Eco’s theory of interpretation is based on the Peirce’s definition of the sign. This philosophical filiation is to be seen in quite all theoretical writings of the Italian semiotician but especially in an essay dedicated to semiotics and philosophy of language. There one can read the following definition of the sign: We have a sign only when an expression or representation is immediately in a triadic system in which the third term (the Interpretant) generates automatically a new interpretation, and this goes on indefinitely.”
This is a quasi-plagiat of Peirce’s definition:
"A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all aspects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representation.”
The touchstone of this definition is that the Semiosis as an infinite process of meanings production is the Triad: •S=Sign •O=Object •I=Interpretant. The interaction between these terms does not lead to a meaning, but to a new Sign (different signs) which needs to be in relation with a new Object and a new Interpretant (Figure 1) to make sense. The same relation must be repeated endlessly. By doing this, the iteration of the same produces paradoxically and continuously different and new meanings. Peirce talks about a translation of the sign in “a system of signs” such as it is to be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1

This has to do with the idea of openness of every concept we are dealing here with. None of the three terms has an autonomous existence. This is what can be seen when we consider the Triangle of meaning developed by Ogden & Richards (Figure 2). For each of the terms there is more than one nomination. Furthermore, the relation between them is visualised by non-continuous lines. This is to say that neither the concepts nor the relations between them can be object of exact definition and hence of certainty.

Figure 2

Eco is a rationalist and even a positivist thinker. His solution to all this ambiguity is the concept of Encyclopaedia. In the process of interpretation, we are not dealing with signs, objects and interpretants as unities, but each of them is a set of possibilities of significance. At a given moment, a “sign” can be also a “representamen” or more vaguely a mental “representation.” A Sign is not more than a “ground” on which a signification is possible. This ground is defined according to a time, a space and a subjectivity. Hence, only some characteristics of the sign are making meaning, only some aspects of the object are able to determine the condition of significance of the sign and the relation between both is made by the Interpretant according to specific aspects (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Having said this, I would like to make a link between the Unlimited Semiosis and the idea of truth. The fragmentation of all these concepts is the guarantee of its extreme relativity. The absolute truth is always and continuously postponed. Peirce uses the “torch of truth” as metonymy of the truth that is handled from a Sign to an Interpretant. This latter becomes a representation/representamen which needs a new Interpretant which is open to “another infinite series” of meanings.
To say it in a nutshell, the Unlimited Semiosis is the opposite of the dualistic, and therefore closed, system of significance where a sign has an exclusive and one meaning. Describing the relation between the three terms of the semiosis, Peirce uses vague notions like “action”, “influence” and “cooperation”.
As for Eco, he translates this opposition by trying to identify the locus of the truth. For that, he uses two concepts: In verbis for the dualistic system and in factis for the triadic system. These are for him the two phenomenons of the semantics of the conditions of the “Truth”. The former covers statements that are true under a set of postulates of meanings; the latter those which are true in virtue of what is being. He considers the catachresis (like metaphors and allegories) as example of closed meaning in an in verbis process. His argument is that there is no particular hermeneutic effort when the meaning is, or supposed to be got directly. However the open meaning, in an in factis process, is a condition of the dynamic of the significance and hence a promise of new meanings.

A cultural Semiosis
In Umberto Eco’s system in verbis and in factis are two modes of sign-production ruled by two different attitudes or mental postures: ratio facilis and ratio difficilis. In the first one, an “expression-type” is replicated by an “expression token” and, hence, it is a closed dual system of significance in which a sign corresponds to a presupposed meaning. In the second, a “content-type” is correlated with an “expression-token”. The replication in the first mode doesn’t allow anything new to occur. However, the correlation in the second mode is a dynamic articulation which requires a third term (the Interpretant) to make an open system.
Let’s have a look now to the implication of these semiotic notions in the frame of a reflection about the dynamic of a culture. The controversy around The Message is an example of the process of cultural integration of new significances. I will consider the film now from a cultural semiotisis. It seems to me opportune to translate the notion of in verbis into the culture of oppression, in a broad sense of the word. In verbis culture is based on social monolithism as a massive undifferentiated or rigid “whole” where there is no matter of nuance, difference and individualism.
Yuri Lotman suggested an interesting schema to visualise the relation between these two locus of truth. In his book Universe of the Mind, he defines two areas of significances in a culture: The Centre and the Periphery. For him, the centre is monological. It is the locus of meta-language and therefore attempts to regulate the entire semiosphere, translate it into its own language: The Centre imposes a certain perspective and forces the subject to accept certain contents and beliefs. It is a positional power based on presuppositional statements (in verbis). However, the Periphery, dialogical and polyphonic, is a zone of polyglotism is an  "area of semiotic dynamism ... where new languages (and meanings) come into being”.
The interaction between the two areas in Lotman’s Semiosphere, and the antagonism between Eco’s two modes of sign production are for me translations of the condition of a Cultural Semiosis. It is for me clear that this tension between two poles is behind the extraordinary dynamic that produces chef d’oeuvres which are able to produce new signs.
However, this Semiosis is fragile and becomes impossible when the Centre takes all the power and brings everything to itself and allows only what Herbert Marcuse calls “the affirmative culture." In such a condition, it becomes impossible to talk about beauty or the importance of Art. On a political level this can be translated into intolerance, totalitarism, or fascism. For Eco, the semantics of openness is a condition of a positive and constructive ethic in which sign production is tightly connected to the corporeality of individuals as he writes in Five moral pieces:
… this semantics has become the basis of an ethic: first and foremost we must respect the rights of the corporeality of others, which also include the right to talk and think. If our fellows had respected these “rights of the body”, we would not have had the Slaughter of the innocents, the Christians in the circus, saint Bartholomew’s Night, the burning of heretics, the death camps, censorship, child labour in mines, or the rape in Bosnia.”
The in verbis culture reacts in different ways. Al-Azhar as institution remains completely disconnected from the evolution of its society. The ban of the film has to lifted. It has no sense anymore because the film had already been seen everywhere. The revision of such decision of ban would mean only a formalisation of a real situation against which the institution could do nothing. Akkad was busy with a juridical struggle against this ban right before his death. Indeed, the film faced another more radical judgment. Akkad received a death threat from radical Muslim groups. He will die in a terrorist attack in Amman (November 2005, Jordan).

The Message, a semiosic film

I chose The Message precisely because it is a typical example of a work of art which could exist despite not only a censorship institution but even a very hostile cultural context to visual representation. In the following paragraphs, I will address some scenes which illustrate the mechanism of the Unlimited Semiosis as a dynamic process of sign production leading to poetic renewal. In a second moment, I will place the description of this film in the frame of a Cultural Semiosis to show how the contradiction between the two attitudes towards the production of signs can be productive but also can lead to cultural impasses.

Over visual representation
I am convinced that the whole polemic around The Message is artificially created. The interdiction of any visual representation in Islam is more a prejudice than a real theological postulate. As I said in my introduction, according to my own lecture to the Koran this interdiction doesn’t exist. Very often it is considered as a cultural tradition in the broad sense of the term. It is also a question of a politically motivated interpretation.  
Furthermore, some visual representations of the Prophet and/or holy figures of Islam concerned by the prohibition are indeed attested in the iconographic tradition of Islamic cultures. Figure 4 is probably a Persian painting from the 16th century representing a scene of the Prophet on the throne surrounded by his companions. Figure 5 is another Persian painting from the 17th century where we see the Prophet during his mythical holy trip. I must admit that there is a trace of the iconographic interdiction in these two paintings. The face of the Prophet is indeed undistinguished.

représentation du prophète au visage voilé dans un manuscrit de Bagdad datant du 16ème siècle.jpg

Figure 4

Représentation de l’ascension céleste du Prophète de l’Islam, dont le visage est voilé (Mi’raj, Ispahan, XVIIe siècle).jpg Figure 5

Figure 6, below, comes from another area of the Islamic world, to be more precise from Tunisia. It has to do with another kind of Islamic heritage. The drawing is a cover of a book containing stories about Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and fourth Khalifa of Islam. He is considered for both Sunna and Chiat as a holy religious icon. However, he is represented visually. For some reasons this visual representations did never constitute a subject of a discussion or polemic.
Said Ali.jpg
Figure 6

It seems that a visual representation could be accepted if it obeys to certain characteristics: not being realistic, show the glory of the personage, being made for a didactic goal. The visual representations are attested in far regions from the centre of the Islamic world (Arabia). This raises a lot of questions about the lack of any paleontological studies about the heritage of pre-Islamic civilisations nor the early Islamic times. There is somehow, according to me, a will not to show that something else that what exists now has ever existed.
This confirms the political reason behind the whole polemic around visual representation. The one about the Danish cartoons few years ago is a good example. Rachel Saloom gives two explanations. “The first argument -she writes- is that the cartoons are absolutely prohibited under Shari’a. Drawing on the main sources of Shari’a—the Qur’an and the Sunna—the prohibition of the cartoons is explained.” I can’t agree with this argument. Nevertheless it shows how strong this interdiction is and how far the prejudice is spread. “The second argument, for Saloom, is that the cartoons are based on negative stereotypes of Muslims and Islam.” This is understandable as I mentioned above how an ameliorative aspect can be a reason for which a visual representation would be tolerated. An idea that I found also in the essay of Freek Bakker when he comments the different visual representations of the Prophet of Islam especially in the Persian area. A pejorative aspect thus is, a contrario, a reason for a strong prohibition.

The conjunctural ban
From that viewpoint, The Message is also a special case where we can see that the prohibition depends from the conjuncture and doesn’t obey to an undisputable dogma. At the beginning of the credit, we are explicitly informed that the film was after the agreement of The University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon. The filmmaker took care to let us see that the two highest scientific and theological centres of the Islamic world approve the accuracy of the film. Even though, this would not be enough to avoid censorship afterward. The film will be released for the first time in London and it seems that one or more screenings took place in Lebanon in 1975. In Egypt and in the rest of the Islamic world, especially in the sunnit part, the film is till our days forbidden. The reason according to the Islamic Research Academy (the censorship administration in Al-Azhar) is that the film visualizes Hamza, the Prophet’s uncle.
This explains how both Ragab Bayoumi, chairman of the Islamic Research Academy, and Akkad are busy with the semiosis by seeing that Hamza as a sign stands for the Prophet. However, they have two different perspectives. The theologian thinks on dual mode of representation and has an in verbis reading of the case. Hamza is the Prophet in the film and this cannot be because the Prophet is only one. Akkad considers the Prophet as a sign which is spread like the message he has brought. It can be then seen in every character according to the principal of the Unlimited Semiosis: every sign is an interpretant of another sign which has another interpretant in an infinite chain.
The theologian sees Hamza as an incarnation of a person, but the filmmaker sees him, from an in factis perspective, as a medium which is the message in the McLuhanian sense. Moreover, this is how the film could reach the mass of Muslims. The film has now such a success that, every year by the end of the holy month of Ramadan, it is screened in quite all Arab televisions. Whatever Al-Azhar has done, the film could reach its audience. This has to do mostly with the way Akkad made compromises the prohibition of audio-visual representation and thinking, probably unconsciously, in terms of Unlimited Semiosis.
First of all, there is this idea that the film itself as sign stands for another sign (s). On the level of text readings, to go back to Umberto Eco particularly, this can be translated by the relation between the text and the prototext. A text stands for a previous set of texts and is part of a new set of texts. From a phenomenological point of view, a text is a sign as far as it contributes to a change of episteme: Making new meanings possible and acceptable. And this is what happens with The Message.
The film is the syntheses of the oral narratives and the Koran around the story of the first years of Islam. All these stories are known for the audience. The Muslim world knows the story of the birth of Islam from the Koran itself and from the oral and written stories transmitted from a generation to another. What the film could reach is the taboo of visual representation by making it so emotional and so poetic that it would be accepted.  
When it comes to the representation of the Holiness in the Islamic tradition it is important to think about the dialectic between absence and presence. The idea behind the prohibition of visual representation is that the visual absence makes the spiritual presence stronger. The political translation behind this is that as far as someone decides where the limit is, this one has the power. The genius of Akkad in his film is that, without going against the prohibition itself, he makes the Prophet visible from a filmic perspective.

Unlimited Semiosis as Praxis
There are scenes in the film where the Prophet is supposed to appear physically. To avoid the gap of prohibition, Akkad uses different processes of substitution. When the moment to talk about the new religion has come, the Prophet and his first companions went to the Kaaba (The black cube at the centre of Mecca) in order to spread the new message to the people. Once there, it is supposed that the Prophet self talks. Instead, what we see is that one of his companions goes up the stairs of the Kaaba and starts to talk on behalf on the messenger reciting verses of the Koran. We understand this through the articulation shot /reverse shot. When the personage is pushed by Abu-Lahab, he falls between the groups of believers. Then we see the same character protecting the Prophet whom we do not see but we see Abu-Lahab talking to the crowd and pointing his finger towards the Prophet especially calling the people to stop him because he is a liar. We understand that he is not addressign the man we saw when this latter calls his companions to protect the Prophet. This method of substitution is very often used in the film: there is always someone who is talking or standing in the place of the Prophet.
The other strategy is the subjective camera. The same scene ends with the intervention of Hamza with his impressive appearance from the depth of the frame. A perfect protector of the Prophet but also his alter ego as incarnation of beauty, glory, strength, and heroic aura. Once the crowd is dispersed, Hamza turns to his nephew and talks to him. In this face-to-face encounter, only Hamza is to be seen, visually should I say. From the Prophet we see only his presence through the movement of the camera. Hamza is seen in a reverse shot which starts in a low angle and ends on a man’s high level.
Other scenes of the film are considered a supreme moment of elevation which does not have to do with the events but more with miracles as signs of the holy aspect of the character. These scenes coincide with few key moments in the story like the epic arrival in Medina and the foundation of the first mosque ever or the divine intervention in the desert when the Prophet fled Mecca. In the first scene, through the subjective camera, the Prophet looks at the crowd of believers welcoming him and lets his camel go to the place where the mosque must be built. This is a moment of glory and the character is in a perfect union with everybody in a sort of spiritual continuum represented by the camera which is not only the substitute of the personage anymore but it’s a presence watching the world of Islam at its birth.
This presence is made stronger in the scene of the cave through the effect of suspense. The Prophet and his best friend are hidden in the cave because the enemies follow them. A spider and a pigeon protect them. From inside the cave, the camera shows the followers going away mislead by the two creatures. At that moment, a voice over describes the scene and tells what happened in the cave between the Prophet and his companions. This shot is comparable to what Noël Burch calls “pillow shots” or “cutaway still-lifes” when he analyses the empty shots in the Japanese cinema. By empty shots it is meant shots where there is no persona, no human visual presence: “The particularity of these shots, Burch writes, is that they suspend the diegetic flow […] while they never contribute to the progress of the narrative proper, they often refer to a character or a set, presenting or re-presenting it out of a narrative context. Pillow shots (the term is derived from Japanese poetry) most often achieve their uniquely de-centering effect by lingering unexpectedly on an inanimate object. ‘People are perhaps known to be near, but for the moment they are not visible, and a rooftop, a street-light, laundry drying on a line, a lampshade or a tea-kettle is offered as centre of attention. The essence of the pillow shot, then, lies in the tension between the suspension of human presence and its potential return.”
In fine, the non-visual representation of the Prophet puts him out of the human condition and gives him the strong aura of holiness he is supposed to have. The scene of his camel deciding for the place of the first mosque of Islam is very representative of this.  It is an important decision and it should be a very particular moment. Akkad makes a special filmic moment also by showing that it is not a human decision. While the animal moves forward, there is no talk. The movement of the animal is only accompanied by a percussion rhythm as if it is dancing. We see the animal but in fact, the presence of its owner is stronger in our mind. This phenomenon is called by Michel Chion a “transensorial perception.” He means “… sounds which leave us with a memory that is more visual than auditory […] concrete music in its conscious refusal of the visual, carries with it visions that are more beautiful than images could ever be. »  The relation sign to sign is in this kind of situations the translation of “phantom-image track” in the sense of a strange and unexpected articulation between the images and the sound as explained by Rob Bridget. “Auditors, he writes, are simultaneously drawn to imagine the visual causes of the sounds heard, while drinking in imagery through the eye. The additional interpretative readings that the audience, as individuals, bring to this montage ensures that the space in which interpretation occurs is filled, temporarily, with personal pictures, emotions and sensations. »  This is precisely what Akkad could achieve. Usign the substitution process to avoid the visual representation of the Prophet, he permits to the viewer to activate his imagination and even his phantasm. By doing this, he increases the emotion and the effect of the images on the viewer.  

These personal pictures emotions and sensation are what I would consider as the interpretant, the third term in the semiosis that the chairman of the censorship commission of Al-Azhar refuses to see. By accepting the principal of the prohibition of the visual representation of the Prophet, Akkad allows his audience to be actively interactive at the moment of the reception of the film. These moments of visual / audio absence of the holy character are moments of encounter between the Subject (audience), the Object (the film it is seeing) and the Interpretant (all the possible characteristics that is possible to assemble at that moment).  
What is not seen and what is not heard is not completely absent. The image and the sound “off” (in the sense of out) can have a stronger effect of presence than those “in” especially in the case of holiness. Commenting the use of the “sound off” in Bresson’s and Tarkovski’s films, Michel Chion concludes that the filmmakers use the sound ambiguity to increase the possibilities of signification of the image. The intersensorial editing  (montage inter-sensoriel) allows an infinity of interpretation in the mind of the audience. The audio-visual absence/presence of the Prophet, is an in factis modus of significance. It operates an aperture on all kinds of emotions and believes and hence, arouses a positive contribution to the meaning of the film.
From that point of view, I consider that The Message of Moustapha Akkad is a film which is functioning according to the Unlimited Semiosis. The principal of non-representation of the Prophet instead of inhibiting the filmmaker from making his work, allowed him to make an open film. By involving the audience in the production of the meaning, he contributed to a change in a whole episteme. In recent years, many visual material could exist while it would probably never could if The Message did not exist. As a matter of fact, an Arab Television produced a series dedicated to Omar Ibn Al-Khattab who is the third Khalifa and one of closest companions of the Prophet. Until at least the seventies, time when The Message was made, this would have been completely inadmissible. In 2002, Muhammad: the last Prophet, an animation film was made in the USA but unexpectedly did not provoke any reactions like the ones inspired by the Danish cartoons.

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