What Kind Of Threat Is The Wound That Does Not Heal?

Jonathan Galka‘s Commentary on



I have to start with a disclaimer: I don’t academically study the body or migration, nor am I obviously a film critic. But I know immigration and airports and missing places, and I think a lot about biology and sociality, so the film was deeply resonant. I’d like to raise some questions, on one hand, around themes that we historians of science might be thinking about, while also raising some questions around form and narrative content.

The film is structured by mixing the concern of human migration with one of cellular biology of the innate and adaptive immune systems. Shots of stained cells meeting, joining, and swimming apart from one another set to the sound of waves on a shore, are vivid and fluid. Cells have encoded (but always mutable) features; so do migrants’ accents. Anonymous human faces in shots taken from mapping programs are blurred, liable to change identity at any moment.

An article about the war in Ukraine says that when you leave your home behind, you are not a person, but a bundle of needs. This particular mixture of concerns is one that I think a lot of us (in our own history of science mode) think about – around uneasy but compelling meetings of biological social experiences. I’m thinking for example of the efflorescence of epigenetic work concerned with the shared and inherited experience of trauma over historical time. I’ve also often thought of cellular memory, especially of memory B and T cells, and the embodiment of experience. As a gay person, I’ve thought about how the resistance profiles of HIV+ people cycling through treatment, and the shared and transposed elements of their resistomes, might open an alternative telling of the social history of HIV/AIDS.

A question the film provokes is one always on our minds: Biology has often been used in a dominating social mode to classify, racialize, or gender bodies. How then can the biology of the body help us rethink cultural and social issues in helpful ways? Relating the biological to the social can be, in turns, alienating or comforting. But why? In what ways can thinking with our biology engender liberation?

The film opens with petals falling upward. The world is off kilter, unsettled–a notion that the film conveys in its manipulation of tempo and scale. I was reminded of the last line of a book written by a Quechan nobleman right after the Spanish invasion of Incan Peru; Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, lamenting the state of things in a letter to the Spanish king, simply concluded, “El mundo esta al revés”, the world is upside down. In an upside-down world, leaves will fall up. When, and for whom, is movement an invasion, or an incursion? What kinds of migration across what kinds of borders are wounding?

Thinking about what it means to wound with movement, and who is wounded in the process, provide access to what are, for me, more familiar kinds of questions asked by the narrators of the film–questions for which I’ve never had any good answers. If I’m all of that, what does it mean for my identity? How do choices made at the border mean we’ll live this future and not that one? What kind of wound is wanting to leave the racism and corruption of the United States? The film conveys a sense of never healing, and of never arriving. America reveals itself to be neither a healing nor an arrival. This is a wrenching realization when the sacrifice has been so great, and the wounding has occurred over such a length of time. What kind of threat is the wound that does not heal?

This reminds me of one last thing: Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s “The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow”, in which a young pregnant woman far away in a foreign place cuts her finger almost imperceptibly on a wedding rose and pays it no mind, but bleeds out from it nevertheless over the course of several days, which is enough time to drive her new husband to insanity.

Jonathan Galka is a Ph.D. student in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard. He studies the history of biology, technology and speculative futures, focusing on the life and resources of the deep ocean.

This discussion primer was written for the Science New Wave Film Fest @Harvard in March 2022.

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