The transnational object

In Marta Rodriguez’s Love, Women and Flowers (1989/90) the transnational object is a carnation that travels from Colombian hothouse to KLM jet to European florist. The film takes a highly cultivated flower — it seems to grow right in the refrigerator — and endows it with the haunting histories of women’s labor. The flower’s low cost in Amsterdam reflects union-busting in Bogota; its conventional length is the product of women who mechanically lop off extra buds; its unblemished uniformity results from toxic fungicides that cause workers to sicken and die. In Deleuze’s terms, the carnation is a recollection-image of women’s work, pain and solidarity. In Appadurai’s terms, the film infills a knowledge gap about the conditions in which Colombian women labor, a gap that makes it easier for Northerners to buy the flowers. These films undertake the Marxist work of reconstituting human labor to powerful effect. Nevertheless, it is hard to see the traces of human presence in these objects as any sort of communication: mass-produced commodities are absolutely deracinated by transnational capital.

More complex intercultural movements endow objects with greater powers of memory and transformation. Jean Rouch has long exploited the transformations that people and objects experience as they cross between cultures, in films like Jaguar (1971), Petit a petit (1969), and recently Madame L’Eau (1993). Here what moves is windmills, from Holland to Nigeria, supposedly at the inspiration of Rouch’s Nigerian friends to relieve the drought in their region. Rather than being a miniature model of World Bank-style development, the importation of windmills is marked by magic and the mutual contamination of cultures. After the Dutch government has agreed to donate three windmills, the three Nigerians perform a divination sacrifice on the Dutch seacoast. Perhaps it is this ritual of translation that invests the windmill with non-Dutch powers, so that it causes a field of tulips to spring up overnight on the banks of the Niger.

Another sort of film that traces the movement of commodities transnationally, gathering and erasing meanings as they go, is that which reconstitutes the path of an object as it becomes commoditized. Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours (1988) and Ilsa Barbach and Lucien Taylor’s In and Out of Africa (1992), for example, trace the process of cultural translation that makes local African objects into artifacts for export. However, films like these follow not simply the process of commodification of indigenous use-values into exchange-values, but the willful creation of fetishes in transcultural translation. The latter especially, which follows the traffic of the Muslim merchant Gabai Baare between West Africa and New York City, shows how Westerners desperately desire to import not just commodities but histories, and how go-betweens pander to that desire. Baare hires African workers to carve massive numbers of traditional ritual objects and then age them with root-based dyes and mud. Again, the fake antiques prove to be recollection-images that put the lie to some of the collectors’ lofty notions of the universal beauty of African sculpture. When the American collectors buy these objects, they are buying, simply, aura: the encoding of human history in an object.

Other films trace the movement of objects whose meaning resides least in their identity as commodities and most as personal fetishes with the power to release memories. These processes are not “merely” personal but rather suggest how the personal and idiosyncratic may be the only visible aspect of widespread cultural flows.  The significance of this transnational movement cannot be understimated. How often have memories that were seen as “only” private proved to be the sole repositories of diasporic cultures? It is important to take seriously what seem to be isolated and idiosyncratic phenomena, because they may prove to be the only level at which widespread cultural movements are able to speak.