Off Screen Vision -- Thinking with Teshome

Lecture at UCLA (unpublished)

Off Screen Vision – Thinking with Teshome _________________________________________________________________________________________

When Aamir approached me and insisted that I speak at this event – where I was rather hoping to stay in the background – he offered me not just a command, but a topic and a title: Colonizations of the Ideal. Encrypted in the title is a whole network of elements and registers, which actually shed light on my hesitation to speak but also, strangely, the exact opposite – why Aamir was right to insist against my discomfort. To open up this nexus – and please pardon me for asking here for your indulgence – I will need to speak autobiographically, at least for a few minutes at the beginning before, as you will see, I turn to the voice of a crucial figure in our discussion, who, had he been able to be here, would have embraced us all with the most joyful of spirits, for the very idea of Bandung Humanisms, especially here at UCLA, would have provoked him into the heartiest, most magnanimous laughter of celebration.

When Aamir and I conceived the idea to pursue a research project on what we came to call “Bandung Humanisms” we were connecting along the lines of vast terrain of intersections in our thinking but, even more, our mutual trajectories of social and historical experience. I will not go into details as far as those go, for I will not presume to speak for him, but I will confess that, as much as I understood from the beginning the enormous importance of rethinking the legacy of Bandung from the standpoint of our globalized present, and as much as I am intellectually positioned within this legacy and politically committed to its contemporary significance, I nonetheless always felt a personal hesitation regarding my presence in it. 

After all, what does a Greek have to do with Bandung? As we know, the original congress was conducted in the name of Afro-Asian cooperation. And, yes, it’s true that Cyprus had sent a delegation – incredibly while still under British colonial control – and furthermore, in the quick subsequent reconfiguration of the Congress into the Non-Aligned Nations movement, Yugoslavia came to be an absolutely central figure, still, Yugoslavia and even Cyprus were not / are not Greece. At the time, in the late 1950s-early 60s, Greece belonged squarely to the Western bloc of the Cold War polarization, having been placed there in perfectly colonial-mapping fashion, without obviously any choice or consultation, by the tripartite agreement between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at the famous Yalta conference when the planet was summarily and cynically carved out. 

(As a parenthesis, it is necessary to add that this externally imposed regime of post-War national independence had decided the outcome of the Greek Civil War before this war even began, dragging hundreds of thousands of hapless people to their deaths, to the destruction of their homes and families, the burning of their villages, to forced expatriation, to concentration camps and exile islands, to court martial executions, and decades of compulsory social and economic marginalization when all these things failed.) 

But whatever the contemporary condition that determined where Greece resided in the planetary sphere of politics, Greece had no experience of colonialism and would be, by this fact alone, not quite appropriate for inclusion in a Bandung formation. (I say this keeping in mind the short-lived early 1960s youth peace movement provoked precisely by the challenge of the Non-Aligned Nations constituency.)

One might object that this is a very literal response to the geographical and historical parameters of the Bandung Congress, and that instead the intellectual and political resonance of the event would be a better key to influencing my judgment. Surely I would agree, but in my case the actual connection would turn out to be much more organic than it seems at first glance, and speaks directly to the legacy of Bandung, as history unfolded outward and onward from its inception. 

So, I come back to title. Aamir was not being coy or unreasonable. I had after all coined the term “colonization of the ideal” (in the singular), on this very campus at some point in the summer or fall of 1989. It was then at the advanced stages of my PhD dissertation, and it dawned on me, seemingly out of the blue, as the most succinct way to explain how the dominant cultures of 19th-century Europe conceptualized and capitalized on the figure of Greece in the process of consolidating their own national-cultural formations, making Greece indeed necessary to their national-imaginary existence. 

We all know which Greece became necessary to European national-cultural modernity. The power that an essentially constructed classical legacy – of dubious, to say the least, connection to ancient historical reality – exercised over the project of European modernity was enormous. Indeed, it would have been impossible for European modernity to have existed – to have established its hegemonic paradigm – without it. This is especially the case with the formal structure of the national-cultural paradigm as such, for this invention of ancestry (and the subsequent requirement of a necessary middle – a Middle Ages – to create a continuum from antiquity to modernity) became the model for all nation-building to this day. All this is well known. But what concerned me at the time, as I was trying to elucidate the peculiar historical institution of a Modern Greek national culture, was how, in the process of actualizing national independence, Greeks in the 19th century internalized this alien reconfiguration of their ancestry as hegemonic modernity

The effect was double pronged. An inimitable and unreachable ancient Greek ideal, as it was constructed and defined by European Philhellenism, precipitated a permanent sense of modern inadequacy. This was not alleviated even by the construction of the Byzantine era as the necessary Greek Middle Ages by 19th-century Greek national historians, which assured the mediated continuum between antiquity and modernity that the European national-cultural model made paramount. The unreachable ancestral ideal and the permanent inadequacy of peripheral modernity created a simultaneous desire for and resentment against the Europeans who had it all, while from the other side, the European adoration of the ideal ancient Greeks went hand in hand with the contempt for what became expressly the Orientalized modern Greeks. Indeed, the Orientalist industry was one and the same with the Philhellenist one, oftentimes shared by the very same individuals in the domains of philology or travel narrative. From this standpoint, yes, Greece did indeed experience colonization, not quite actual in the sense of land possession, but rather symbolic possession of both its historical and its imaginary parameters – this is what I called the “colonization of the ideal”. 

But, as historically evident and accurate as it may have been, this notion would have never occurred to me – at least, in this form – had I not been caught into a specific historical nexus that affected most American universities at the time: the broad but quite specific spectrum of theoretical and historical reflections that we have come to know as “post-colonial thinking”. For me specifically, Edward Said’s thought was all over this argument – it is Orientalism’s actual practices and patterns that Philhellenism shared – but also a kind of onslaught of knowledge beyond my Europeanist training: Fanon, C.L.R James, Subaltern Studies, négritude, but also Black American traces of political and cultural struggle from Malcolm X and the Black Panthers to Afrofuturism in Black film and musical aesthetics. But all this lightning speed learning took place as an extraordinary collective process, for graduates students from all sorts of places in the non-European world (India, North and West Africa, the Caribbean, Japan, Lebanon, Iran, Brazil, as well as a small Balkan contingent) and from an array of disciplines across campus – literary and film studies primarily, but also architecture, public health, anthropology, political theory, geography, gender studies – were gathered together nominally around a journal project (Emergences), and self-titled as the Group for the Study of Composite Cultures. 

The catalyst and protector of this rather undisciplined and occasionally even intellectually reckless collective was Teshome Gabriel, an Ethiopian professor of film, who is credited with the first theorization of what is known as Third Cinema. (The term originated in a in a 1969 manifesto by Argentinian film-makers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino after their pioneering film La Hora de los Hornos – The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968). Teshome, I can now say with total certainty, was a quintessentially Bandung figure, very much a figure of the generation of the “voyage in” as Said had named the historical juncture of radical intellectuals and artists from the colonized periphery converging on the various colonial metropoles, carrying along the full experience of colonialism’s unraveling right into the heart of hegemonic cultures. The “voyage in” precipitated “a still unresolved contradiction or discrepancy within metropolitan culture” and registered as “a sign of adversarial internationalization in an age of continuing imperial structures” (C&I, 244). If we can talk of the legacy of Bandung today – Bandung as a certain moment in the human imagination that produced several strands of international (now we would say global) history that is still in effect – we would have to mark this diasporic movement as a catalytic historical moment of discrepancy  and adversity that radically altered the pattern of conceptualization at the core of so-called ‘Western’ thought.

Teshome’s “voyage in” started in 1962 – he was 23 and forced to leave Ethiopia because of his anti-State student activism. His subsequent experience of American student radicalism in the late 1960s was thus permeated with what he had brought along from his African youth days – a perspective he never abandoned and which indeed became essential in his “Third Cinema” and later “nomadic aesthetics” interventions. (His editorship of the African Studies journal Ufahamu at UCLA in 1970-73 is a case in point.) He only returned to Ethiopia almost 40 years later, when amnesty was declared, an experience of enormous psychical gravity, for his sense of exile remained unwavering, even if, by sheer personality, he never allowed it to interfere with his joyful embracing of life wherever on earth he happened to place his feet and gather around whoever came to listen to his incomparable spirit. Teshome’s worldly grounding was unparalleled – it’s taken me years to realize his influence on me on this specific aspect – and his own relation to the Ethiopian expatriate community in LA, in relation to which he served as a sort of intimate and revered soundboard for all sorts of problems, from cultural to domestic concerns, was predicated on this worldliness.

Anecdotes about Teshome’s mode of being abound. I was the one who, rather brazenly even if humorously, first called him “chief” which he heartily embraced as a call of recognition, not of authority, mind you, but of locus centri, of serving as the central reference point for a whirlwind of activity that he seemed to provoke and procure without lifting a finger, just by sheer presence – magnetic presence, for gatherings would happen around him without call or plan, by sheer accidental convergence. It’s really impossible to convey in words. These gatherings used to happen under one of those enormous trees across from what now is called Luvalle. Teshome never held office hours – he really abhorred indoor spaces. You couldn’t really find him anywhere by appointment, certainly not reach him on the phone. You could count on the fact that at some point in the day – every day – he would be waiting under this tree. Sorry, “waiting” isn’t the right word, for he had no sense of waiting, as he had no sense of temporal discrepancy between being and doing. Time was always in a state of plenitude for him, in the most palpable sense of time-space continuum I have ever seen in my life. He carried his most precious intellectual things in his mind – and in his pocket, his coat pocket. He would carry what he considered valuable correspondence, with envelopes perfectly intact, in his pockets for months on end – we used to say that his pockets were indeed abyssal – along with hand-scripted notes of fragments of ideas. In the midst of animated conversation, in which he would have been mostly silent, it was common to see him take a piece of paper out from his coat pocket, write a couple of words, and place it right back amidst the voluminous envelopes. 

From these scripted fragments came much of his writing, which was itself deliberately fragmentary and organized around singular concrete figures that acted as literalized metaphors: river, gift, breath, ruin, stones, weaving. As a writer Teshome was an essayist; he favored the short form which epitomizes the situational and worldly character of thinking as opposed to the canonical (and ultimately transcendentalist) writing of systematic theory. This was even true of his work on Third Cinema as such, which is itself, both geographically and formally (in terms of film style), a heterogeneous  proposition. Again, as example of his active presence in LA culture as such, I would point to his direct involvement in the Black radical film movement, known as “LA Rebellion”, which grew out of UCLA Film School in 1968, and is now recognized a groundbreaking moment, chronologically coincidental with Third Cinema and very much in its vein stylistically and politically. Teshome was the first to make this connection, therefore breaking very early with the literalist geographical association of Third Cinema with the “Third World”. In this sense, Teshome’s take on this term – which after all he had brought single-handedly into common usage – was always critical and driven by the exigency of revision and reconfiguration as historical conditions changed. It is worth hearing his voice directly on this matter, for it resonates uncannily with the sort of reflection upon and reconfiguration of the Bandung legacy we are engaging with: 

TG --Third Cinema Updated: Exploration of Nomadic Aesthetics & Narrative Communities


The early, revolutionary period of Third Cinema deserves to be remembered and eulogized. Its spontaneity, groundbreaking formal innovations, political commitment, and the visceral impact of these films serve as an archival memory that filmmakers of today continue to draw upon. Yet, while these roots remain important, Third Cinema can no longer be defined solely in terms of its radical beginnings, its ancestry. While we should honor and draw strength from this cinematic inheritance as we do our own flesh-and-blood ancestors, we cannot live in the past. Third Cinema was always a cinema of change; to define it simply in terms of its original ideas is to reduce it to the status of a static historical phenomenon: something past or dead. Third Cinema, however, continues to live on, and like all living things, it cannot stay the same.

[We can easily substitute “Bandung” for “Third Cinema” and have direct insight into its make-up.  Note Teshome’s insistence on the notion of “living” and the unavoidable condition that living always entails a continuous process of change: to live is to change – change both oneself and the world in which one lives.]


One of the great mistakes of “left” politics has always been to imagine itself as pure and unambiguous in its oppositional stance. Rather than setting itself simply in opposition to capitalism, a composite politics, by its nature, works to disorganize the rigid “Us versus Them” structure upon which globalization, imperialism, and other forms of oppression are based. Third Cinema, at its best, always drew its strength from this sense of complexity, diversity, and multiplicity. 

Today, the multivalent, composite character of Third Cinema and its narrative community has gained particular resonance as a means of resistance to global capitalism. For the inverse side of global centralization is to be found in the movement and mixture of peoples and cultures. Thus, just as with diasporic movements of people, Third Cinema has also spread, crossing oceans and national boundaries, moving to new places, adapting to new conditions. As it has moved, it has also changed. From its historical roots, a variety of new forms, styles, and approaches to filmmaking have come into being. Third Cinema has branched out, diversified, multiplied. Third Cinema can no longer be defined as a singular, univocal idea if, indeed, it ever could. It has become more complex, multifarious, heterogeneous. Third Cinema, in other words, has become Third Cinemas.

[I reiterate here Teshome’s return to Bandung/Third Cinema’s prerogative for changing conditions – both as forces of alteration (and self-alteration, if we speak from the standpoint of subjectivities). But the prerogative for change is associated with movement, and I am not suggesting that Teshome was an Aristotelean (although he would have been very amused by the notion), but that he understands a basic condition of something that is living in history – that living being is mobile, adaptive, and therefore altering and self-altering. The most significant alteration here is what he configures as historically determined pluralization: Third Cinemas.]

This distinction between the singular concept of Third Cinema and the plurality of “Third Cinemas” is, to some degree, no more than a change in emphasis within the original ideas of Third Cinema, but it also indicates an important conceptual shift, which responds to fundamental changes in the contemporary world. If early Third Cinema was resolutely oppositional in its stance, the idea of Third Cinemas implies a more multifaceted resistance to power. One might say that the concept of Third Cinemas suggests a more dispersed positionality, but only if one conceives of dispersion as a multiplication rather than as a loss of political will or a diminution of social forces. As, moreover, Third Cinema has moved, traveled, relocated, spread, it has become more than simply a Third World phenomenon. It has crossed the lines of geography, culture, class, race, gender, and religion, moving into the First World, into 'white' and other 'privileged' areas, where it has combined with other cultural forms, becoming increasingly hyphenated, intermixed, composite. Third Cinemas are precisely a matter of these multiple, nomadic, diasporic forms and identities.

[Analogous to how we are thinking of Bandung Humanisms – in the plural: crossing geographies = reconfiguring the conceptual frameworks of geography. But also the terms of conceptual shift, as well as TG’s understanding of the radical politics that overcomes the politics of mere opposition, is also part of the content of plurality.]

[What is the space of Third Cinema?]

So, while it is very important that the concept of Third Cinemas maintain and conserve many of the ideas that defined early Third Cinema, it must also be conceived in a way that allows space for a variety of approaches, styles, and projects. Here is where the idea of a third vision becomes powerful, needed and useful, for in stressing heterogeneity, mixture, multiplicity, irony, differences, it enables us to see and conceive of our relationships to one another and to the world in ways that are not dependent simply on binary oppositions. This multicultural, polyvocal status of Third Cinemas need not, I stress, imply a loss of political commitment (as is sometimes claimed), but rather a multiplication of modes of resistance.

[But also, importantly, Third Cinemas provide an alternative third space where we can engage in ideas about imagination, about dreams, tales, and magical vision. Inasmuch as so-called oral and/or traditional cultures were not as strongly bound to oppositional Western thinking, they always provided an opening to this more mixed social or collective imaginary. And while there are many who are skeptical of the linkage between oral cultures and electronic culture, or information culture, I believe that there is indeed a worthwhile connection. Of course, mainstream media attempts to continually reinstate clear vision and boundaries and oppositions in, say “cyberspace,” to mark it clearly, to make everything easily navigable, yet it still has difficulty keeping everything in check, flowing smoothly. Consumer or cyberspace culture is based on organized choice, organized freedom. A third approach here would embrace a more dispersive, disseminatory, disorganized or complex movement. Complexity and mixture allow magic to take place, because they do not try to organize everything into rational categories, but instead rely on emotions, paradoxes, ironies, etc. And what is magic, ultimately, but mixing and connecting things that do not seem rationally connected?]

 [Useful to consider this as analogous to the ancestry of Bandung]


Off-screen: Third Space 

What is called ‘magical’ is concerned with those aspects of life that cannot be easily explained in rational terms. Magic is what seems to escape the gauges and instruments of scientific-technological thinking. Magic is, in other words, concerned with what lies beyond, with the invisible.

Cinema, of course, is generally understood in terms of the visual (or the audio-visual). In films, the visual field is defined by the frame. When we go to the movies our attention is generally focused within this frame; it is like a funnel that draws our eyes into the screen. The movie shapes a given field of view inside its rectangular frame; it distinguishes what is relevant from what is not; it concentrates movement into distinct objects; it defines the world depicted on the screen. Yet, at the same time, the frame also inevitably implies something outside itself; it suggests a relation to something that exists outside of the frame.

[TG’s notion of off-screen space] [Third Cinema operates very much in the off-screen space]

That which lies outside of the frame, outside of our immediate view, provides a means through which multiple meanings can enter the frame. In every framing of a given field of vision, there is inevitably a shading-out of that which is outside the screen. Yet, when something is not on the screen, it does not mean that it is not active within the cinematic relationship, within the minds of the audience. Although the space outside the frame is usually considered to be “invisible,” it is an active presence that is open to the process of interpretation by the spectators. In other words, the area outside the frame provides a “blank space” that the spectator helps to fill in. This “blank space” is not only where the magic of cinema takes place, it is also the place that provides the spectators with multiple options to participate and even to assume a role as co-authors of the work. The “blank space” is a crossroads where we discover movements -- of spreading out, of moving in many directions at once -- not towards the center, but towards the margins.

What does this off screen space mean to Third Cinemas? It means that a “true” Third Cinema thinking, a more thought-out and reflective Third Cinema, would issue from both sides of an opposition onto a third space – the “blank space” – the place of imagination and conjunction. This third way steps beyond the mere oppositions of seen and unseen and becomes a way of both disorganizing and complexifying not only cinema, but the worldIn other words, in redefining Third Cinema, we are also defining it as a Third way of seeing, one in which allusive, imagistic, poetic, and magical styles enter the imagination. It is in this third space that these styles become ideas with a life of their own beyond anything the filmmaker might have imagined.


Third Cinema as Performance

Third Cinema is a type of performance art. Performance is an element of all cinema, but for Hollywood-style films, performance is generally relegated to the realm of acting. In Third Cinema films, on the other hand, performance becomes a basic aspect of the filmmaking process itself.

In this respect, Third Cinema is closely related to jazz. Jazz, in its essence, is live music – that is, it is live in the sense that it provides a space for complex interactions and improvisations. Spontaneous vibrations flow from and through it. Third Cinema, as a relational art today, seems to perform in a kind of dominant, up/down or minor/major key. Third Cinema practices like music should not be seen as merely a product but as a system of interaction, as a type of performance art, as a process – which jazz is, which blues is.

Third Cinema is a relational art in that it also allows the spectator to create new relations, open new horizons, new possibilities of engagement with the work in whatever format it may be between filmmakers and film viewers. The aspirations toward audience participation and interaction among early Third Cinema filmmakers were very valid, and remain important for artists today. They wanted the social context of their work to be included within it; they wanted a distribution environment that was more varied and more open. These were valid concepts then and they remain valid today.


To conclude:

It’s important not to get caught up in the overweighted notion of “third” space or “blank” space as conventionally understood. Both words are working here in a sort of self-animating ambivalence. They are relational terms quite obviously – not merely in the case of “third” meaning simply other or alternative, or a term of resolution of binary opposition (Hegelian or otherwise), but rather as indicative of an off-screen or outside-the-frame notion. And understood certainly politically – Third World obviously – as the excluded world, the world that has no recognized authorial power. In this sense, “third” does come to mean “blank” – but not blank as pure, unadulterated, open field of meaning to be inscribed or conferred upon as if it is an inert object, but “blank” as that which is “shaded-out”: a beautiful term, for it is a term of color, of erasure yes, but not in terms of clearing but of obscuring, of darkening. Simultaneously, the “blank” space, which I repeat is hardly empty but replete with writing, with meaning, with its own authorial capacity, is the excluded space, the space, that needs to brought forth, (re)written by another sort of vision – what Teshome calls off-screen third vision.

Encountering Teshome’s words again in this fashion raises a question for me, a question that indeed emerges from within both his and our context and needs to be elucidated in those terms, perhaps by his very language: what is the off-screen space that the Bandung moment opened up? and how are we to configure its pluralization in the many acts of its humanism – the arts and artworks that pluralize its humanism – which carries it forth as an adversary of globalized centralization, as Teshome says, or to think of Said, as a discrepancy that “disorganizes and complexifies” the monolingualism or monosignification of the global? The multifarious paths of elucidating this question is for me the crux of the Bandung Humanisms project.