Tuesday, October 25, 2011



What-- for it is a question not of who, but indeed of what-- is Karmen Gei? For it does seem inadequate simply to treat her as just one in the multitude of characters in Joseph Gai's adaptation of Georges Bizet's CARMEN, set in contemporary Senegal. She does not function according to the same rules as other characters, she does not operate in the same economy of relation, she occupies a separate ontological status. She cannot quite be fit into the scheme of the social order, in terms of occupying a functional productive slot within its system, but seems at the same time to be at the center of everything. What is she?

She is, for her community, the sacred, or the gate of the sacred. Karmen Gei is "she who creates havoc"-- not in the sense (necessarily) of chaotic destruction, but as a primordial chaos, the chaos of the sea, of an unrestricted current of energy. She dissolves the relationships of a restricted economy and liberates the energies and flows which it has contained.

A brief brief brief note on Restricted Economy/General Economy for those not familiar with the work of Georges Bataille: Bataille regards the world in terms of the flow and distribution of energy-- the base state being a vast powerful well of unrestrained energy with a maximum state of potential. In a civilization, some of this energy is naturally used towards satisfying the basic needs for survival-- the question is how does the rest of the energy get used. In what Bataille calls a Restricted Economy, all energy is directed toward some productive end, toward some utility or measurable yield (very often, the production of an economy) with no surplus energy left over. For Bataille, this is generally a pretty repressed and oppressive state of affairs. A General Economy (which, it must be noted, is not a state that can be fully realized; one instead takes steps toward it) expends energy with no quantifiable yield. For Bataille, these sorts of interactions are where serious gestures can be made and serious realizations can arrive. That's the brief brief brief version.

Is Karmen Gei not a force of excessive expenditure? What function does she play in her society? What does she "produce"? She certainly does not fit into the scheme of the repressive political authority of Senegal; even in the Dakar underworld, there is an order of functions-- the club runs, the lighthouse is manned, the drugs are smuggled, money is made-- an order which Karmen stands outside. Her contribution is the dance, the ritual (not commercial) performance, the dance for the sake of itself. The act is without quantifiable yield, but not without effect. Karmen's presence and performance works to sacralize spaces, to reterritorialize sites of oppression as occasions of celebration. Under her influence, the women's prison becomes a place of joy and freedom-- it is almost as if it becomes her temple.

How does a space become sacralized? It becomes sacred when it is removed from the relations of restricted economy. Karmen supersedes restricted economy by way of the gift. The nature of Karmen is to give, and give freely, but not to take. She gets money, she gives it away freely. She may love but will not accept a suitor ("Let's go away together," Lamine says after the smuggling transaction. She rejects him).

This transformation initiated by the gift is displayed remarkably during the arrest of Karmen by Lamine. As he leads her off to jail, her manner becomes coy. She is a gift to him, she suggests, and she plays with the rope by which he has bound her, looping it around a lamp post, forcing Lamine to come to her. For Karmen, what had been a detention now becomes an offering. For Lamine, what was seizing has now become receiving.

If there can be an exchange for Karmen's gifts, it must take place only in the mode of ritual-- in song or dance. These occasions open up a space outside of economy, a discourse that can comment on the present situation but is not fully anchored within it, which instead seems to float above it. The manner in which Karmen may be approached is embodied by the blind woman on the beach who sings to the sea, an expenditure without stake to a force that cannot be measured.

In the latter section of the movie, both of Karmen's rejected lovers mount separate attempts to "contain" her, and it is by this entanglement in restricted economy that Karmen's luck, her grace, ultimately runs out.