Updated: Sep 18, 2020
or Instructions on Incommensurable Witnessing for the Western Reader
Written by Khando Langri
Tibetan mythology has taught me the power of hungry ghosts; beings borne out of intense emotions and needs. They are said to have stomachs the size of mountains and mouths the size of a needle’s eye. They are paradoxical beings: perpetually hungry yet unable to eat. In turn, exile has taught me the power of intergenerational trauma. In a sense, this trauma is like a hungry ghost. At its core, there is a great unknowable something lost in time and space for which one hungers but can never attain. It is a being made up of loss and desire, something which is animated and animates in turn through images both concrete and abstract. How, then, can I make my ghost tangible to you? When discussing Israeli visuality and Palestinian testimony, Stein notes that Palestinians are “both incredible witnesses and ontologically impossible ones.” We Tibetans in exile find ourselves simultaneously incredible and impossible given that we are not cleanly delineated but rather hybrid beings composed of old deities and new demons, scattered across imagined geographies. I would argue that we are incommensurable witnesses (rather than impossible ones). We are what Feldman calls the “personification of intractable materialities” who suffer from the “experiential inadequacy of conventional representation.” Given that I cannot provide you with “unbiased” sources for my suffering; sources to be placed conveniently as a footnote to my witnessing who are not grounded in “alien sensory experience” which Western society has rendered inadmissible, here is what I will do instead. I will build a web of embodied images and cast it over you; entangling you in my project of incommensurable witnessing.
Didi-Huberman argues that “In order to know, we must imagine for ourselves.” For Tibetans in exile, this means recreating our “Contrapuntal sensory histories [which] can be recovered from the scattered wreckage of the inadmissible: lost biographies, memories, words, pain, glances, and faces that cohere into a vast secret museum of historical and sensory absence.” Here the act of witnessing can be reimagined not as static (snapshots of violent, salient images) but instead as dynamic and changing. In reimagining, what is to witness and to be witness to, vibrant, shifting embodied images emerge. These images are ripe with both intentionality and corporeality. They are beings that traverse time and space. In turn, they may act as antibodies inoculating us against cultural anesthesia which Feldman defines as: “the banishment of disconcerting, discordant, and anarchic sensory presences and agents that undermine the normalizing and often silent premises of everyday life.”
In 2016, I found myself becoming an incommensurable witness to my father’s past. We drove on the road connecting Dharamsala (the exile capital of Tibetans in which the Dalai Lama now resides) and Shimla (where Tibetans crossed over into India). When Tibetans first reached India, they worked breaking rocks with hammers to build this very road. When a section of the road was completed, they would pack up their tents and move up further along the road, having been forced to trade grass for gravel. As we drove on this road (now paved with asphalt), I looked for traces of these refugee camps. But all I could see were trees and undergrowth. Once we reached Shimla, we began our search for the home in which my father had lived those first few years in exile, a home for young Tibetan children run by Save the Children. As we climbed the hill, my father spoke of how he remembered chalk drawings of auspicious Tibetan symbols that had been drawn onto the road leading up to the house, in honour of a visit from the Dalai Lama. There were no traces of the drawings on the cracked pavement. We reached the house; a grand house with cracked paint and dusty windows. A groundskeeper approached us, and we asked him about the Tibetan children housed here in the sixties. He shook his head, unsure of what we were saying, but allowing us to roam around the exterior of the house, nonetheless. And so, we peered into the house, looking for traces of our communal past, the house peering into us in turn. The house, my father and I, witnessing and being witness to.
Guzman’s argues, in Nostalgia for the Light, that memory has a gravitational force which constantly pulls and pushes us. He notes that “those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don’t live anywhere.” My father has no memory of Tibet. Just as I have no memory of exile in India. Yet we are compelled to reconstruct the past together in an attempt to find truth, to find where we are from and where we may live. Memory and truth, then, are like a tapestry. In gazing at the Atacama Desert, Guzman superimposes different geographies: petroglyphs, observatories, graves and concentration camps into a “vast open book of memory to be read page by page.” By interviewing astronomers, archeologists, and women who search for their loved ones, Guzman exposes the irretrievability of bodies: be they celestial or corporeal. Despite this irretrievability, however, all beings remain entangled. As the daughter of two disappeared persons’ states: “I tell myself it’s all part of a cycle which didn’t begin and won’t end with me. Nor with my parents or with my children. I tell myself we are all part of a current, of an energy, a recyclable matter.”
Da Col notes that in order to have a revelation in Tibetan Buddhism, one must adopt a view from somewhen, for “a Being has to be conceived in time, being not a singularity but a multiplicity, not one life but a multiplicity of lives and perspectives: the sum of all the perspectives it will traverse during the course of the virtually infinite extension of its possible lives. And each 'perspective' or event is produced by a configuration of forces and is connected with other events to the point of containing them.” There are no pictures I can show you of the spaces I carry within me. Yet you must trust that they are there, the refugee camps by the road, the chalk drawings of conch shells. All of these images vibrate in my being; traversing time, space, and past lives. Beyond images, they are beings themselves. And now you carry them within you too, although, you have never seen them and never will.
I have nothing tangible to offer you for, in the end, you cannot see my hungry ghost. But I know that within you too there is a different kind of ghost whose textures and colours I cannot sense; a ghost who does not look like my own. What do you feed it? I wonder. So, here is what I have done instead. I have cast a web over you, you who are reading this, so that our ghosts may become entangled. You, whose eyes are not like mine; whose body moves through geographies unconstrained. Let us become polyphonic. Parallel yet intimately entwined. This act is not symbolic: it is a spell with the power to make and unmake. I aim, here, not to disrupt your worlds (as mine have been) but invite you to examine their uneven seams more closely. And soon, very carefully, you will find yourself unravelling them.
I will see you on the other side.
 Stein, Rebecca L. “Impossible Witness: Israeli Visuality, Palestinian Testimony and the Gaza War,” Journal for Cultural Research 16, no. 2-3, 2012, 144.  Feldman, Allen. 1994. “On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King,” American Ethnologist 21, no. 2, 405.  Ibid.  Ibid 406.  Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2008. Translated by Shane B. Lillis. Images in spite of all: four photographs from Auschwitz, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 3.  Feldman, Allen. 1994. “On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King,” American Ethnologist 21, no. 2, 415.  Ibid 405.  Guzman, Patricio. dir. 2011. Nostalgia for the Light. 89 min. digital file. Atacama Productions.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Da Col, Giovanni. “The View from Somewhen: Events, Bodies and the Perspective of Fortune around Karpo, a Tibetan Sacred Mountain in Yunnan Province,” Inner Asia 9, no. 2, 2007, 229.
Da Col, Giovanni.
“The View from Somewhen: Events, Bodies and the Perspective of Fortune
around Karpo, a Tibetan Sacred Mountain in Yunnan Province,” Inner Asia 9, no. 2,
2008. Translated by Shane B. Lillis. Images in spite of all: four photographs
from Auschwitz, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
1994. “On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King,” American
Ethnologist 21, no. 2, 404-418.
Guzman, Patricio. dir.
2011. Nostalgia for the Light. 89 min. digital file. Atacama Productions.
Stein, Rebecca L.
2012. “Impossible Witness: Israeli Visuality, Palestinian Testimony and the
Gaza War,” Journal for Cultural Research 16, no. 2-3, 136-153.