Bison/Bonobo/Kerala music video

This was rejected for publication, so I thought I might as well post it here. It is a discussion of the music video for “Kerala” (2016), a track by Bonobo (Simon Green), directed by Bison (Dave Bullivant).

The music itself is midtempo electronica (125 bpm), fairly bright and relaxed. It’s an instrumental track, mostly strings and percussion, with wordless vocals (a repeated “hey yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” sampled from the chorus of Brandy’s 1994 song “Baby”) added in the second half. “Kerala” starts out sparse, but becomes increasingly dense as instrumental layers are added, one at a time. These layers occasionally stutter or syncopate, but usually stay on the beat. The samples wash through the song in repeating loops, invoking the ebb and flow of (not very funky) dancing. At the same time, the piece’s changing textures do suggest a limited degree of narrative progression. As the sounds thicken, a simple two-chord alternation is fleshed out into an almost-melody. Bonobo avoids the dramatic soars and drops of mainstream EDM; but the song does build in intensity, with occasional lighter interludes. There’s no climax, however; rather, the track ends with an extended coda, allowing its energy to slowly dissipate. All in all, “Kerala” walks a fine line between putting the listener into a hypnotic trance and sounding, well, cheerily chintzy.

Why does the track have this particular title? Kerala is a state in southwest India. It is best known, internationally, for the fact that it has been under Communist Party rule for most of the past sixty years, and that it has flourished as a result. (According to Wikipedia, Kerala has the highest Human Development Index, the highest literacy rate, and the highest life expectancy of any state in India). Bonobo says in an interview, however, that he named the track because the state is an important stopping-place for birds from North Asia, migrating south for the winter. In any case, “Kerala” is drawn from an album called Migration (2017), whose sonic palette is diversified with touches of “world music.” With such a soundscape, Bonobo might well be accused of musical tourism or colonialism. But I am willing to accept at face value his claim that the album is not really engaged in appropriating cool sounds from the developing world. Rather, as its title indicates, the album is concerned with passages from one place to another. Bonobo is more interested in shifting identities, and in the process of transit itself, than he is in identifying, or appropriating and laying claim to, fixed points of origin and destination. He says on the album’s Bandcamp page that he is fascinated by “how one person will take an influence from one part of the world and move with that influence and affect another part of the world. Over time, the identities of places evolve.”

If Bonobo’s music evokes passages and transitions, then Bison’s video for “Kerala” itself performs an additional act of transfer, moving the track into an entirely new register. On the most obvious and literal level, the video is set in London, rather than Kerala. But Bison transforms the song in more complex ways as well, radically altering its mood and its import. The video for “Kerala” shows a woman (played by Gemma Arterton) in a state of absolute panic. She runs through a park, past some shops, down a street, and up to the roof of a high-rise building. The video begins with a shot of the sky, seen through the crowns of some trees, accompanied by the background noise of birds and traffic. The camera descends through branches, and down the trunk of a tree. As the first layer of music fades in — a loop of two alternating, arpeggiated guitar chords — the camera circles around the tree and closes in on Arterton. She is squatting with her back against the trunk, shaking and panting in fear, with her eyes closed. A second instrumental loop begins: a short synthesized drum roll, one long beat and three short. At the very first beat, Arterton jerks herself upwards and abruptly opens her eyes. She pulls herself to her feet and begins to run. The camera backs away from her, keeping her face in focus, while the background goes blurry.

From this point on, the video employs a remarkable visual stutter effect. There’s a jump cut at every return of the opening beat of the drum roll, which is looped continually throughout the song. (The drum roll is sometimes syncopated or phased slightly, but it remains the track’s most fundamental and steady pulse). This means that there is a visual discontinuity roughly every second. But where most cinematic jump cuts tend to elide a few seconds of action, pulling us slightly forward in time, Bison instead uses these cuts to repeat action, jumping backwards in time. The image track’s repetitions answer to the repeating loops out of which the music is constructed. But these image repetitions, unlike the sound loops, are never total. At each strong beat, the cut brings us back to partway through the previous shot. For each second of elapsed time, we are pulled back something like half a second. Each new shot repeats the latter portion of the previous shot, and then extends a bit further — at which point it is interrupted and partly repeated by yet another shot.

The video’s action is therefore cut into overlapping segments. Each gesture is broken into multiple iterations: Arterton spinning around, glancing back anxiously over her shoulder, running and stumbling and recovering and running on. She turns a little, then the frame jerks back, then she turns a little more… The rapid cuts produce an uneasy feeling of speed and agitation. At the same time, the reversions and repetitions stretch things out: actions unfold with a dreamlike slowness, and the simplest gesture seems to turn into a Sisyphean task. We never get a moment to relax, but we also never break free of the nightmarish sense that time has somehow congealed, and become an impediment that can only be overcome through titanic effort. This amounts to a violent reinterpretation of the relaxed back-and-forth dance rhythm of Bonobo’s track. Instead of measuring repeated motion, time in Bison’s video seems to hold back motion, preventing it from accomplishing itself. Zeno’s arrow gets stuck at every point along its flight.

These jump cuts break up what would otherwise be three long takes with a highly mobile handheld camera. This is evidenced by several reconstructions on YouTube which remove the repetitions: and

In the first of the jump cuts, Arterton stares towards the sky, as if looking at something beyond and behind the camera. She runs away from whatever it is she sees, while still fearfully glancing backwards at it. She bumps into a businessman walking along a path, jostles him, stumbles back, grabs at him to avoid falling, and whirls around as the camera moves to keep her in frame. The businessman waves his arms in remonstration, but Arterton turns away from him and runs forward along the path. The camera pulls back as she heads in its direction; it keeps her in focus as the background once again devolves into a blur.

The second section of the video (corresponding to the second long take) starts at 1:35, when the choral vocal sample is heard on the track for the first time. We get a brief respite from the drum loop, and therefore also from the jump cuts. Arterton is hunched up against a wall, her eyes closed, with an anguished expression. For about ten seconds, we see her face in extreme closeup; the camera is jittery, but without a break. Starting at about 1:47, when the drum loop resumes, Arterton opens her eyes again and stands up; the camera pulls back from her, and the jump cuts resume. As Arterton runs, she shakes herself away from various people who try to grab her, whether in order to help and comfort her, or to restrain her. At one point, she bumps into a man holding a bag of chips; as she jostles him, the chips pop out of his hands and fly through the air. At another point, she momentarily stares at a television in the window of a shop, which is playing footage of her running, from a slightly later section of the video. (The television appears between 2:21 and 2:30; it shows a sequence that itself appears between 2:50 and 3:00). She eventually turns a corner, and runs down the street without any more interference. The jump cuts continue, but the camera ceases to follow her as she draws further and further away.

The final section of the video (corresponding to what would be, if not for the jump cuts, the third long take) coincides with what I have called the song’s coda. The instrumentation becomes sparser and lighter; eventually, tones are held for longer intervals, until they gradually fade away. Arterton emerges onto the roof of a tall building; she runs to the edge, still frequently glancing backwards in terror. She looks down at the ground, turns away, and collapses into a heap, her hands holding her head in despair. The camera then passes her by, instead gliding over the edge of the roof. It shows us, way down on the ground, a parking lot eerily filled with people standing motionlessly in rows, in an orderly grid, looking upwards. The jump cuts finally cease. The video ends by reversing the movement with which it began. The camera pans upwards from the parking lot, to take in the London skyline shortly before sunset. The music is replaced by traffic and other city noises; an enormous swarm of black dots (birds? or something more sinister?) swirls menacingly on the horizon.

Aside from this main action, there are many subtle, creepy background details scattered throughout the video. You can only notice them by paying close attention to the background; it took repeated viewings for me to find them. The director says in an interview that he thinks of them as “easter eggs,” like the ones hidden in DVDs or pieces of software. These glitches are rare at the beginning of the video, but they become more frequent as it proceeds. Online fans have obsessively scrutinized the video in order to pick out these anomalies, on websites like Reddit. For instance, when Arterton is running through the park, a rock in the far distance appears to levitate (1:08-1:30). Later, a metal gate on the side of a building suddenly buckles inwards as Arterton passes it (2:02-2:05). Still later, as Arterton is running down the block, a parked car changes color with each looped repetition (3:02-3:16). A man seems to be suspended in midair, arms stretched out (3:06-3:20). A fire breaks out on an upper floor of a high rise council building (3:19-3:22).

These signs and portents only last for a few seconds each, but together they help to account for Arterton’s panic. For they suggest that something is seriously wrong, either with the world or with the way that we are perceiving of the world. Fan theories online are split between subjective explanations (Arterton’s character is suffering from drug hallucinations, or from a schizophrenic breakdown) and objective ones (she is witnessing an alien invasion, or even The Rapture). In the same interview I cited before, Bison says that he “like[s] everyone else’s theories about it – I think they’re really interesting.” He does not endorse any particular interpretation as being definitively correct, but he says that the range of responses gave him “all the stuff that I wanted, really – I kept it purposefully open.”

It is crucial to note that the bystanders in the video do not notice any of these glitches; even Arterton’s character doesn’t necessarily see them, since she is usually looking in a different direction. In effect, the anomalies only exist for us, the viewers of the video. (This is even literally the case, since they were evidently added in post-production). The looping repetition of footage would also seem to be something that we experience, rather than a process that Arterton’s character is going through. In addition, we never actually get to see just what it is that so terrifies Arterton’s character. She is always staring (or in one case, pointing – 2:35-2:38) out of frame. Even when she glances backwards, more or less towards the camera, she is not looking towards its actual position, but rather beyond it (as it were, over its shoulder). In other words, Arterton is condemned (Cassandra-like) to witness what she is unable to share with anyone else: visions that even the camera is unable to show us. It is only at the very end of the video, on the roof, when the camera abandons Arterton, that it pans down and shows us what she might have been looking at a moment before: the enigmatic sight of people lined up motionlessly in the parking lot.

We are therefore closed off from Arterton’s character. We cannot really “identify” with her; we see her staring, but the reverse shot of whatever she is staring at is systematically withheld from us. Indeed, we only get near enough to see her face in close-up at the two moments when her eyes are closed. As soon as she opens her eyes again, the camera pulls away, even as the jump cuts resume. By closing her eyes, Arterton’s character refuses the horrific vision with which she has been cursed. As Bison says, this is what makes her “the one fighting against” whatever it is she sees; “she did have power, she knew that if she shut her eyes she could have an element of control.” But in thus closing her eyes when the camera holds her in a close-up, Arterton also refuses any sort of reciprocity with the camera’s own gaze, or beyond it with the gaze of the video’s spectators.

The video, then, is neither purely objective (creating a consistent fictional world) nor purely subjective (giving us the perceptions of Arterton’s character, or putting us in her position). Instead, it is something in between; the video engages in a sort of free indirect discourse. Pier Paolo Pasolini introduced this literary term into the theorization of cinema. A novel engages in free indirect discourse when its omniscient, third-person narration takes on some of the linguistic and subjective characteristics of the character it is describing. We do not get all the way to a first-person voice or point of view, but the impersonal narration nonetheless seeems to be tinged by the traces of that first person. The novel’s creator takes on some of the characteristics of what she has created. According to Pasolini, something similar happens in movies when the director “looks at the world by immersing himself in his neurotic protagonist,” to the point that the director “has substituted in toto for the worldview of [the protagonist] his own delirious view of aesthetics.” We find ourselves in a strange position in between subjectivity and objectivity, in between the first person and the third person, and in between the existential suffering of the character and the expressive aestheticism of the director.

This situation is perhaps even more complicated in the case of “Kerala.” For the ambiguity between Bison’s point of view and that of Arterton’s character is doubled by a similar ambiguity between Bison’s perspective and Bonobo’s. The video translates its implicit narrative into formal terms, by means of its glitches, its looping repetitions, and its refusal to align gazes. These strategies are tinged by the protagonist’s experiences, but they do not work in any direct way to convey those experiences to us. Rather, they alienate us from those experiences, by refusing any possibility of representing them. On a meta-level, however, this process is itself analogous to the way that Arterton’s character is radically self-alienated. For her very experience is one of the failure of experience: that is to say, of being unable to bear, let alone to grasp, the events that are nonetheless being imposed upon her, and that she is forced to witness. In a similar manner, the video closely follows the formal articulations of the music for which it provides an image track, giving visual equivalents for changes of rhythm and timbre. But at the same time, the video does not express the feelings conveyed by the music in any straightforward way. To the contrary, it denatures and uproots those feelings. Bonobo’s “Kerala”, heard by itself, is a bright and inviting track. It idealizes migration as a sort of open, equal exchange, as influences fluidly move from one place to another. But Bison’s video insists instead upon the impossibility of any such exchange. It envisions the flow of influences from one place to another as a traumatic, irreversible process of irreparable loss.

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series

Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Night Masquerade (available on January 16 – I was lucky to get to read a pre-publication copy) is the third (and at least for the moment, final) installment in the series that began with Binti (2015) and continued with Binti: Home (2017). The three books individually are of novella length; though the third installment is almost as long as the previous two combined. Indeed, the three together can be regarded as a single novel, both in terms of word length and in terms of imaginative scope.

The Binti series is Afrofuturist science fiction. The eponymous protagonist and narrator is a young woman from the Himba people of Namibia. This group is known today for the way that they strongly maintain their traditional practices and ways of life, while at the same time engaging fully with social and technological modernity, and the other peoples with whom they interact. This is still the case in the future world of the novellas: the Himba rarely leave their desert territory, and they keep to something like their traditional ways of life; but at the same time they are known for their cutting edge technology, which they sell to other peoples on Earth, and even to beings from other planets.

Binti herself is a mathematical genius, who comes from a family who make their living by manufacturing astrolabes – handheld electronic computing and communications devices which are small enough to fit into a pocket, but at the same time evidently far more powerful than our present-day phones and other computing devices. Binti is proud of her Himba heritage; the traditions with which she has grown up are an essential part of her. But at the same time, she has outward ambitions and desires that go beyond what these traditions can accomodate. Her mathematical skill and passion is something universal, rather than particular. She often goes into a trance — she calls this process “treeing” — while envisioning mathematical equations, such as the formula for the Mandelbrot Set (which produces infinitely ramifying fractals). Treeing is all at once psychological (she often enters into the state in order to calm herself, when she is feeling stressed or anxious), imaginative (it allows to to contemplate extended possibilities that she would not be able to see otherwise), and powerful (through envisioning the mathematical structures she is able to call up electrical currents that she can direct so as to manipulate aspects of her body and her environment). Mathematics is finally Binti’s mode of access to the universal, or to order of the universe (an intuition that has often been expressed by mathematicians and physicists; it exists at the point of union of the mystical, the scientific, and the real). (Though Binti insists that, while mathematics is her route to something like the ultimate, other people may well have other routes to the same asymptotic goal).

In any case, one could say that the conflict between the particular and the universal is what drives and underlies the narrative of the whole series. Though I should add that I am unhappy with the Hegelian tone of this formulation, which is not Okorafor’s but just mine; I’d like to figure out a way to say it less grandiosely, and less totalizingly — which would be more in tune with the way the novellas actually work themselves out. Binti’s Himba identity is very important to her, at the same time that she has desires that point beyond it. The first book begins with Binti doing what she cannot help thinking of as a transgressive act: she leaves her family and community behind — indeed she leaves the Earth itself behind — by getting on a spaceship and travelling to Oomza Uni, on a distant planet. It’s the best university in the galaxy; and Binti has been admitted thanks to her mathematical genius. But leaving her family and her homeland goes against her heritage; the Himba don’t like to travel, and they strongly value staying together. Binti leaves early in the morning, when everybody else is asleep, and without her family even knowing that she plans to go.

So the first Binti novella begins as a coming-of-age story: a feminist and Africa-centered version of the “myth of the hero’s journey” we’ve heard about so many times. (In interviews, Okorafor has made no secret of her love for the Star Wars series, probably the best-known work explicitly modeled on that so called universal myth). Personally, I hate Joseph Campbell and all the hero’s myth stuff – there is nothing more boring and oppressive than being told that there can be nothing new under the sun (or even in the whole galaxy), just recapitulations of the same fucking story. So I love the ways that Okorafor departs from the myth, and pushes her story in new directions that change things radically. Of course, it still remains possible for a reader to subsume everything that happens in the three books under the “monomyth” after all — that is part of what I hate about the theory: it can take anything whatsoever and subsume it into itself. But if you read the Binti series in such a way, you lose what is most rich and exciting about it. The novellas continually surprise us because, behind the story of the plucky young woman discovering her true potential and becoming a hero, there are all kinds of swerves and deviations, which turn the story into something else.

For the Binti series is not just about the universal, but equally about particularities, and all the ways that – for both good and ill – they resist being subsumed into the universal. Mathematics gives Binti a universal structure; its abstractions mean that she can use it to comprehend just about anything. But she also continually has experiences that push her beyond her limits (to the point where the only use she has for her beloved mathematics is to calm herself). In the first novella, when Binti defies her family, leaves town, and gets on a spaceship, her trials are only beginning. All the other human beings heading to Oomza Uni are Khoush — a lighter-skinned ethnic group that control most of the Earth, and who are mostly racist, looking down condescendingly at the Himba. The Khoush really are Hegelians (though Okorafor never designates them as such); they cannot accept the stubborn refusal of the Himba to be subsumed within the “higher” universality that they represent. But as soon as we think Binti has gotten a handle on this problem — she has made friends with many of the Khoush students, gotten them to accept her, and found common terrain with them — something else happens. Another intelligent species, the Meduse — their bodies are sort of like giant jellyfish — invades the ship, commandeers it, and kills all the Khoush — Binti is the only human being left alive, aside from the pilot. It turns out the Meduse have grievances against the Khoush, who have behaved towards the Meduse in the same arrogant, colonialist fashion as they have towards the Himba. The Meduse at first try to kill Binti as well, but they fail — it turns out she has both technologies that repel them and are dangerous to them, and technologies that can soothe them and cure their ailments.

I won’t discuss all the turns and twists of the plot in the three novellas (I justify what I said above about the first volume because it was published long enough ago that nobody has the right to object to spoilers; but I will avoid any spoilers regarding the new volume). Suffice it to say that the Meduse invasion of the ship is only the first of many situations, throughout the three novellas, in which the Star Wars heroic paradigm simply fails to work. Not just in the early part of the first volume, but through all three novellas, Binti is continually faced with problems that cannot be resolved either by antagonism, or by cooperation towards some higher cause. She has to find (or better, to improvise) oblique solutions, which involve the contingencies of particular cases and particular histories as much as they involve the universality that can be (to some extent) realized through mathematics.

These oblique solutions are also always partial and temporary. There is no repose and no completion: no sublation into the universal, and no self-reflexivity to close the circle. Even though all three volumes have happy endings, there is never a real sense of closure. Binti always remains afflicted by anxiety and by a violent ambivalence. There are always dissonant notes in her harmonies. I use the word “harmonies” here advisedly; Binti’s vocation, according not only to the Himba but also to others, is to be a harmonizer. This means that she is able to pull things together and allow them to coexist; when faced with an intractable opposition, she is able to perform “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast” (to use Whitehead’s great phrase). Her harmonizing conversions are not reconciliations, however; tensions and inequalities always remain. Okorafor’s future Earth, and indeed her galaxy, remain subject to colonialism and racism, and other forms of oppression just as the actual Earth does today. Harmonization is less than revolutionary transformation; what it is about, ultimately, is finding a way for oppressed or subordinated groups to not only survive, but even flourish, in spite of the (continuing) state of oppression. Binti harmonizes by improvising, finding the best solution she can in situations that remain unsatisfactory.

Binti’s harmonizing improvisations are characterized by two things: diplomacy and hybridity. I mean diplomacy here in the strong sense that has been developed by Isabelle Stengers (in the final volume of Cosmopolitics, as well as elsewhere):

What is difficult and interesting about the practice of diplomats is that it frequently exposes them to the accusation of betrayal. The suspicion of those whom the diplomat represents is one of the risks and constraints of the profession and constitutes its true grandeur. For what is demanded of the diplomat is characterized by an irreducible tension. On the one hand, diplomats are supposed to belong to the people, to the group, to the country they represent; they are supposed to share their hopes and doubts, their fears and dreams. But a diplomat also interacts with other diplomats and must be a reliable partner for them, accepting as they do the rules of the diplomatic game. Therefore, the diplomat cannot be one with those she represents.

Binti faces this problem, mediating between the Meduse and the Khoush — who have been bitter enemies for a long time — as well as between both and the Himba (and also among other groups of humans and sentient extraterrestrials whom we meet throughout the three novellas). Binti’s Himba heritage is what allows her to be a harmonizer, or a diplomat in Stengers’ sense; but her assuming this role means that she also finds herself apart from the Himba, and can no longer unproblematically belong to them or be one of them. This logic is alreadyat work from the very beginning of the first novella, when Binti violates her heritage while clinging to it at the same time. The paradox of diplomacy is not only the displacement of the diplomat, but also the fact that, on the one hand, without diplomacy we are doomed to the horrors of continual unabated conflict; while at the same time, there is never any guarantee that diplomacy will work: it is always susceptible to failure, and even at best its improvisations are fragile and ephemeral. We experience all of this — the failures as well as the partial successes — throughout the course of the three novellas.

Binti’s activity as a harmonizer is also an adventure of hybridity. She is no more able to just exist, rootedly and unproblematically, as a Himba, than she is able to cast off her Himba-ness and dissolve (as it were) into the universal. Over the course of the three novellas, she enters into several symbioses — at once cultural and biological — first with the Meduse, and later with other groups both human and nonhuman. Hybridity does not mean merging, or entering into a “melting pot.” Binti remains, or increasingly becomes, an assemblage of identities, or characteristics, from different sources, that do not coalesce but must learn to coexist. Her vocation as a harmonizer or diplomat must first, and most importantly, be exercised for, and upon, herself. Her emotional ups and downs in the course of the story are aspects of this process. It’s a trajectory that never comes to a definitive ending point, but needs to be renewed and maintained throughout, and this is still the case at the end of The Night Masquerade.

I will stop here. Saying more would involve getting into the details of the new volume, and I promised not to introduce spoilers. I am also leaving for a later time questions about how Binti relates to the rest of Okorafor’s fiction, and to Afrofuturism more generally. Here I can only testify to how compelling and impassioning a read the Binti saga is, how absorbing it is on a page-by-page and line-by-line basis, as well as all the deeper questions it raises.