‘A Weak Messianic Power’: Yamashiro Chikako’s “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat”
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Walter Benjamin completed what is widely believed to be his final work, the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in 1940. In that essay, Benjamin calls for a dialectical historian who thinks the specificity of a given moment within history in relationship to the totality of history. This historian would challenge traditional historiography, which Benjamin dismisses as a narrative produced by and in support of the ruling classes. Instead, Benjamin’s historical materialist “regards it as his task to brush history against the grain” in order to rescue the histories of the oppressed from the elision produced by the march of history’s victors.
For Benjamin, the mediating link among generations of the oppressed in the past, present, and future keeps alive a “spark of hope in the past.” This spark carries the concrete promise of a better future and enables us to critique and refuse the unbearable conditions of the present. This is a project of critical importance for marginalized subjects (queers, people of color, women, postcolonial subjects, and the working class, for example) insofar as our shared erasure from history can be thought of as an attempt to extinguish our revolutionary vision for radically different conditions of collective existence in the future.
I begin by returning to Benjamin’s frequently cited “Theses” to open a discussion of the revolutionary power of the link that bonds generations past, present, and future. The conditions of World War Two, within which Benjamin wrote the “Theses,” will serve the organizational locus around which this short essay is structured. In what follows, I will move between the specter of Fascism in Benjamin’s Europe and the atrocities of the Battle of Okinawa, in Japan, reading Benjamin’s “Theses” alongside a 2009 work by the Okinawan artist Yamashiro Chikako: “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat.” I will argue that both Benjamin’s essay and Yamashiro’s video illuminate the power of the link that connects people in the past, present, and future. This power is nothing less than the revolutionary glimmer of hope that one generation transmits to the next in the shared struggle to bring about a better world.
Although my remarks do not explicitly address the question of diaspora, they do explore concerns of importance to many of us who are the aftermath of a series of Asian diasporas. It is no secret that many of the early waves of migration across the Pacific—among them the great bulk of Okinawan immigration to the United States in the early twentieth century—were in response to historical forms of violence (especially war and colonialism). As a result, second- and third-generation diasporic Asians often inherit the material and psychic legacies of violent events that remain temporally and geographically remote. This inheritance may be compounded with the structural and systemic racism faced in our adopted homes, or the places that we are passing through.
How, then, are we to negotiate our relationship to the experiences of our predecessors and, perhaps more important, what are we to do with what I will describe as the incommensurable rupture (in space, time, and experience) that separates us from these formative historical events? How, in short, do we sustain the generational link that Benjamin understood as critical to the revolutionary project of constructing a better future without subsuming and appropriating the specificity of the violence endured by our predecessors as our own?
For Benjamin, earlier generations transmit and preserve the hope of a better future. In this light, it is difficult not to read his “Theses” as a letter to an improved tomorrow—one in which he imagined he would not exist. He completed the work shortly before he committed suicide, at the Franco–Spanish border, after failing to escape the widening sphere of Nazi occupation. Before his death, he mailed a manuscript of the “Theses” to his friend and fellow philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had fled the threat of Nazi Europe years before it became reality. If Benjamin could not survive fascism’s victory in war-torn Europe, the “Theses” are an address to those who survived his unlivable present.
In her 2009 installation and video work, “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat,” Yamashiro Chikako uses her body as a conduit through which we receive a similar series of intergenerational transmissions. Yamashiro was born in Okinawa in 1978, and her work consists primarily of photography, video, and installations that explore the legacies Japanese colonization in the nineteenth century; the brutal Battle of Okinawa, during World War Two; and the ongoing occupation of Okinawa by both Japan and the American military in the present.
Before I present a reading of Yamashiro’s work, I must provide context by way of a short history of Okinawa. Although today a prefecture of Japan, the multiple islands that comprise it were an independent, sovereign nation (the Ryukyu Kingdom) for five centuries preceding its official annexation by Japan during the Meiji Restoration in 1868. After the colonization and forced absorption of the Ryukyus in 1879, the Japanese government treated Okinawa with an administrative neglect that resulted in poverty and periods of epidemic illness and famine. A combination of the Japanese colonial order’s dismantling of the previous social order, administrative neglect, and a series of environmental disasters in the early twentieth century led to a significant surplus labor population whose only option for survival was emigration (largely to work on sugar plantations in Hawai’i). The early twentieth century saw a series of Japanization programs that effected the erasure of Ryukyu’s history, language, and culture, and considered Okinawans a subordinated ethnic minority within the general population of Japanese citizens. This status continues into the present.
Yamashiro organizes “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat” around the events of the Battle of Okinawa (1945). During the war, Japan turned to Okinawa as its primary line of defense. The Battle of Okinawa, which lasted for eighty-two days, resulted in the death of one-fourth to one-third of the Okinawan civilian population: between 150,000 to 240,000 people died, at least twice the number of losses suffered by the American and Japanese militaries combined. In addition, bombs from both nations virtually destroyed the main island. The civilian populations took shelter in the few caves that weren’t occupied by the Japanese military. These caves became a staging ground for extreme brutality, as many civilians were subjected to abuse, rape, and starvation before being manipulated or forced into committing suicide by the same Japanese soldiers who were sworn to protect them.
Yamashiro’s exploration of these events consists of a seven-minute digital film played on a loop. Produced in wide-screen format, the viewer sees Yamashiro’s face framed by a white background. She wears a white shirt and looks just to the side of the camera, carefully avoiding the gaze of the spectator. She opens her mouth but from her throat comes the voice of an elderly man. As he speaks, she synchronizes her lips with his monologue as he tells the story of his struggle and survival during the war: “One bomb shelter after another, without food, no water. We were forced to live like that. Not even working in fields for food.”  With her body as the channel for his memories, Yamashiro stages the link between survivors of the Battle of Okinawa and the inheritors of this legacy.
To create the piece, the artist conducted a series of interviews with aging survivors of the war in an Okinawan nursing home. She observed that, when making the work, “[r]ather than objectively listening to the pain they felt, I endeavored to imagine the stories that they were telling me as if they had actually occurred to me, while also trying to feel their pain as if it were my own.” She had to relinquish this presumption, however, because “there were definite moments when I felt that it was impossible for me to share their experiences.” As such, the staging of the work has as much to do with the transmission of memory across time as it evidences the incommensurable break that exists between the previous generation and the present one.
My use of the language of incommensurability invokes José Muñoz’s deployment of the term, drawn in turn from the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, who describes a relationship of “nonequivalence, something incalculable that needs to be ‘shared out.’” Rather than being a hindrance to the production of emancipatory forms of sociality, Muñoz posits our incommensurable relationships to each other as those that serve as the foundation for something that exceeds and thus replaces the stultifying limits of politics founded upon a false and impossible notion of equivalence. The incommensurate is directly characteristic of the intergenerational mode of relationality staged by Yamashiro’s film.
The incommensurable space between Yamashiro and the man whose voice emerges from her mouth is a central conceit of the film. At the beginning, she mouths the story in perfect sync with the man’s voice as tears begin slowly to form in her eyes. The man says that “life in the bomb shelters became our daily lives” before his voice breaks for a moment, which is followed by a long pause. He recovers, only to say: “Then we gathered in the tip of the island. Then people jumped off from the cliffs into the ocean.” At this point, Yamashiro stops mouthing the words and we hear only the man’s voice as she looks forward, tears now streaming down either side of her face. He continues: “Then people jumped off from the cliffs into the ocean and killed themselves.” The man stops speaking and we hear his sobbing before a chorus of other elderly voices gather around him, comforting him. “Everybody else of my family jumped off from the cliff and died,” he says. There is a long pause and the artist continues to look forward.
In my description of this scene, the emphasis is on the fact that Yamashiro stops synching her lips to the man’s story at the precise moment that he becomes emotionally overcome by the burden of talking about his entire family’s suicide/murder. I interpret this as a point of recognition in which she performs the impossibility of experiencing his loss with him; the piece is thus a portrait of the incommensurate. This is a productive moment of non-equivalence insofar as it reveals the tenuousness of our links to those who have come before, links that are structured by incommunicable caesura in our experiences. Benjamin understood these links to be imbued with the power to construct a better future. But given their tenuousness, how is it possible to access this power?
In the second thesis, Benjamin cites the philosopher Hermann Lotze, who wonders that humanity reserves its petty jealousies for those who exist together in the often unlivable conditions of the here and now, even as they maintain the belief that something better is a concrete reality for those who will inhabit the future: “One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,” writes Lotze, “is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.” For those of us living in the present, Benjamin understands our orientation toward a better future for those yet to come as the simultaneous possibility of our own redemption: “our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.” This image of a redeemed future ties us to our ascendants, who insisted on the potential of this future for us. And so a thin thread begins to tie the past to the present. Linked by the vision of a better future, we form a bond that Benjamin describes as “a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.”
To settle this claim means we must carry “the spark of hope in the past” forward at the same time that we reconcile with and recognize the record of injustice and barbarism that characterizes what Benjamin describes as “the tradition of the oppressed.” When we do this, we come to share that “weak Messianic power” that animates our struggle to build a just and better future. But as Yamashiro’s work reminds us, there is an incommensurable break that often keeps us from being able to fully share the experience of past injustice. This is one reason why the redemptive, messianic, or revolutionary power transmitted to us from the past remains weak. We honor the past when we acknowledge this rift rather than pretending to overcome it. And we are given a responsibility to keep alive the hopes of previous generations even as we struggle to protect them from the violence of the dominant power’s eliding and negating forces a second time over. As Benjamin remarked, “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” This is a fact borne out by the modern history of Okinawa and Japan as, in recent years, a resurgence of military nationalism has inspired the Japanese central government’s push to revise high school textbooks so as to gloss over or eliminate all references to the atrocities of the Battle of Okinawa and to Okinawan colonization.
It is important to note that although Benjamin was gesturing to the specific case of the Nazis, he does so within a discourse on the tradition of the oppressed across history. Thus, “this enemy” must also be understood as the locus of subordinating power that has animated class struggle, domination, and exploitation throughout the world and throughout history. The struggle today takes the form of the battle between capital and the multitude, the major and the minor, the center and the periphery. At this very moment we find it in Gaza and Ferguson, MO. Through the ages, this has taken many forms, including, but not limited to, battles between the aristocracy and the peasantry, slaves and slaveholders, the colonized and the colonizers, the conquered and the conquerors, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the police and the people.
Okinawa’s past contains many of these overlapping struggles and, as such, Yamashiro’s performance of the link between the colonized survivors of the Battle of Okinawa and contemporary Okinawans is itself an exercise in activating and strengthening the revolutionary “spark of hope” that flows between the past and present. As I have argued, her body becomes the index through which this power is transmitted and archived. This is confirmed visually in a brief sequence near the middle of the film in which the camera cuts to footage of an archive and moves among bookshelves. The camera then returns to the artist. This interregnum gestures to the resemblance between Yamashiro’s performance of the survivor’s stories and the objects and items in an archive in that both mediate the connections of people in the past and present.
It is particularly poignant, given that most of the records of Okinawa as a sovereign nation were destroyed during the war, when American and Japanese fighting burned Okinawa’s Royal Archives to the ground. Thus, whereas Okinawan history was annihilated by the Japanese colonial order, the war, and US occupying forces, Yamashiro uses performance to execute Benjamin’s insistence on “brush[ing] history against the grain” to reveal the barbarism and the oppression that are omitted from the victor’s final account.
In the final segments of the film, the artist again opens her mouth and the elderly man’s voice emerges from it: “I saw many people die. . . . All dead bodies were buried in [holes] without being identified. After the end of the war, we dug them up again to gather the bones. . . . But we could not tell which bone belong[ed] to whom. Most of us didn’t bring back the bones again. We could not.” As she mouths the words, a projection of the old man’s face crosses hers. At some points it is perfectly aligned with hers, making it difficult to determine where either face begins and ends. As Ayelet Zohar argues, this visual portrait points to a convergence of the two subjects: “The projection [of his face] over her face creates a lingering effect of convergence: the young face of Yamashiro, her cheeks wet with running tears, merged with the elderly, wrinkled features that float upon her visage, creating a ghost-like haunting vision.” By turning to the language of haunting, Zohar also allows us to see the space between Yamashiro and the old man, which renders this convergence incommensurate.
Zohar’s invocation of ghosts and haunting emphasizes the interstitial break that separates Yamashiro from the older man. It recalls Jacques Derrida’s observation that “being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.” This is a politics that is produced by way of the incommensurate, or what Derrida describes as an “out-of-joint” experience of time when ghosts are present. “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat” visualizes the simultaneity of convergence and being “out-of-joint,” this necessarily incomplete conjunction of past and present. We see it as the man describes the digging up of bones, during which the artist’s mouth drops out of synch. But when he turns to talking about his hopes, their lips align. Indeed, she begins to speak the words in unison with him, but now in her own voice: “So we must never let war happen again. We must be against war no matter what. It wastes people’s effort, destroys their lives.” Yamashiro stares forward and blinks as a tear moves down her cheeks. There is a long silence and then a fade to black.
Kondo Kenichi, a curator at the Mori Art Museum, in Tokyo, argues that this piece is “another attempt by Yamashiro to surmount the difficult of inheriting history by understanding the man’s experiences as her own.” My analysis, however, demonstrates the opposite. The work stages her inheritance of history even as it emphasizes her inability to share or understand his experiences and losses precisely because of their incommensurable nature. It is when he speaks of his personal losses and the bodies of his dead that her synchronous performance comes undone and her lips fail to match his words. But despite this incommunicable rupture, she maintains their link and in so doing is able to access his messianic and revolutionary vision of a future without war. This is why it is only when he articulates his forward-dawning hope for a better tomorrow that her voice joins in chorus with his, communicating the power of this shared vision.
Yamashiro’s “You’re Voice Came Out Through My Throat” is thus a visual articulation of Benjamin’s “weak Messianic power.” It achieves what Fredric Jameson describes as “Benjamin’s experience of time: a present of language on the threshold of the future, honoring it by averted eyes in meditation on the past.” Speaking together in the final moments of the film, Yamashiro and the survivor no longer use their own voices. Instead, they speak with that collective and revolutionary voice that reaches from our generation into the past. It is imbued with a messianic power that foretells new and better worlds. And it is by listening and adding our voices to this choir that we begin the work of making this future a reality.
Joshua Chambers-Letson is assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies. He is the author of A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America (NYU Press, 2013), winner of the 2014 Outstanding Book Award from the Association of Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) and is currently working on a new book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance. Other articles can be found or are forthcoming in Social Text, Cultural Studies, Political Theory, Criticism Journal, MELUS, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Theater Survey, and TDR: The Drama Review.
There is no way he could have known with any certainty that he would not survive the war, but—and especially given his status as a German-Jewish communist—he was well aware of the possibility that, as he put it, “Fascism [had] a chance” of prevailing. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 257.
Kerr’s comprehensive history of the island (marked as it is by its own historical and colonial biases) offers substantive documentation of this period. See George H. Kerr, Okinawa: The History of an Island People, revised ed. (Tokyo; Rutland, Vt; and Singapore: Tuttle, 2000), 400–58.
For an exploration of contemporary conditions in Okinawa, particularly through contemporary Okinawan performance practices, see Christopher Nelson, Dancing with the Dead: Memory, Performance, and Everyday Life in Postwar Okinawa (Durham, N.C.: Duke, 2008).
Suicide is common to both the events in Okinawa and Benjamin’s death at the Franco-Spanish border. I will refrain from analyzing either acts of suicide here. Benjamin’s suicide, for example, might be interpreted in a range of different ways: as an act of hopelessness in the face of the Nazi threat of annihilation (or worse), a means of avoiding the misery of life in Nazi custody, or even a strategic attempt to deny fascism its claim to Benjamin’s life and his death. As such, rather than focusing on the tragedy of these suicides, I am following the glimmer of hope that survives them. As Ernst Bloch reminds us, hope is predicated upon its disappointment: Ernst Bloch. "Can Hope Be Disappointed." Translated by Andrew Joron and Others. In Literary Essays, 339-45. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998). Even acts that seem pregnant with hopelessness (such as suicide) may be outlived by a sense of hope. Hope, as that which lingers after and survives hopelessness, is manifest in the form of Benjamin’s final manuscripts, sent to friends for safekeeping, or in the survivors of the Battle of Okinawa’s willingness to witness and recount this past for Yamashiro.
Importantly, though Yamashiro interviewed this man in an Okinawan nursing home, he is actually a survivor of the Battle of Saipan. By choosing this interview, Yamashiro emphasizes the shared colonial experience of the survivors of these battles in places occupied by the Japanese military and coveted by the American military. The man acknowledges this connection: “I think that the battle of Okinawa was the same,” he says.
Chikako Yamashiro, “Filmwork: Your Voice Went Through My Throat [Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat], as the First Step in Imagining and Contemplating ‘Passing Down the Memories of the War,’” unpublished artist statement (Yumiko Chiba Associates, 2009); on file with the author. [Note: The difference in title here, appears in the official English translation of the artist statement issued by the gallery. I have included the paranthetical to avoid confusion.]
José Esteban Muñoz, “Race, Sex, and the Incommensurate: Gary Fisher with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,” in Queer Futures: Reconsidering Ethics, Activism, and the Political, eds. Elahe Haschemi Yekani, Eveline Kilian, and Beatrice Michaelis (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2013), 104.
Ayelet Zohar, “Camouflage, Photography and [In]visibility: Yamashiro Chikako’s Chorus of the Melodies series (2010) and Beyond.” Trans Asia Photography Review (3:1, 2012). http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7977573.0003.105.