Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

The Eyes Don't Have It: Video Images + Ethnography

Visual Media and Indigenous Cultures

Screen shot 2010-08-24 at 9.41.17 PM.png

I will weave through a series of juxtapositions in this essay drawn from a number of experiences which I have had in the "field" of ethnography - a kind of bricolage - or as James Clifford has put it, an 'ethnographic surrealism'. In retrospect these fragments are linked in ways which I could not have anticipated before I made the attempt to understand the connections. This kind of reconstruction interests me because it is a combination of personal history and field work, evidence of an effort to explore and map the relationship between subjectivity, analysis and experience. More than that it is a way of specifying and revealing the presence of 'theory' within the subjective - a strategy for talking about theory 'through' subjectivity and for me, in this context, a convenient tool for linking the work of Eric Michaels with my own concerns.

It is of course more than appropriate that I dedicate this essay to the memory of Eric Michaels. His essays and his brillant monograph entitled, Aboriginal Invention of Television (1986) reveal a sensibility closely tied to the radical innovations of ethnographic thought over the last decade.2 Michaels explored the frontiers of one of my major interests, the impact of video and television on indigenous cultures. He achieved this by rethinking the notion of "effects" - the ways in which white, imperial cultures control and attempt to dominate other societies - and not positing anything like a linear model for what happens when new technologies are thrust upon indigenous peoples. His insights in this regard are very significant.

In his essay on Hollywood iconography (Michaels 1988:119) Michaels points out many of the radical differences in understanding which the Wapiri have with regards to American films and television. Not only are the plots dealt with differently but the characters in these films are reinterpreted according to the specific exigencies of Walpiri culture and social life. The suggestion for example that violent films available through video stores produce violent effects upon the peoples who watch them, or that the Walpiri might suffer irreparable harm due to the cinema that they are exposed to, is a condescending and disrespectful attitude which does not account for the very particular context of the viewer nor of the specific culture in which they live. The 'effects' of western cultural phenomena cannot be approached as long as there are intellectual models in place which patronize 'other' cultures and deny to them precisely the strength to resist and recreate what they are exposed to. (The current use of video by the Yanomami in the Amazon rain forest is a testament to this creativity and the impact of their videotapes has been felt world-wide.) To his credit Michaels understood the depth of Walpiri creativity and also the important political ramifications of their video work.

All of this is of course, in part, the very question of ethnography itself - a question to ethnography - about how to analyse the strategic choices which different cultures make in response to the influences which they have on each other. The question of vantage point — where and how these choices can be examined was a central concern of Michaels. He tried to draw upon the experiences of nonprint media and apply them to the process through which ethnographic knowledge is transferred and transformed into visual and oral documents. This is made very clear in his article entitled, "How to Look at Us Looking at the Yanomami Looking at Us," in which he says: "A solution is to address the entire process of visual media as a problem of communication, more specifically in cross-cultural translation." (Michaels 1982:145)

It may be, contrary to the instincts and method of Sol Worth and John Adair, and in contradistinction to the desires of Michaels, that nothing of value to indigenous cultures can be yielded in the process of translation and that the role of visual media is more important for imperial cultures than for colonised ones. But this would presume, as Michaels so often pointed out, that colonised cultures themselves have somehow escaped the influences of modern media, which as anyone who has been watching the growth and development of the video cassette recorder for example, knows is not the case. This still doesn't lessen one of the central dilemmas of ethnographic work with film and video. For the ethnographer it may be more important to uncover both the applicability and effects of the technology than to let the technology work its way through the society in question and let that society find the measure of its own response. I think that it would not be too radical an assertion to say that the response of indigenous cultures to cultural phenomena cannot be ascertained clearly until those cultures have devised strategies of response, whatever form those responses might take.

Working its way through - what do I mean? A process perhaps which may not be open to external examination and without wanting to push the point too far a process which may produce forms of internal and culturally specific images which cannot be judged, evaluated or examined from the outside. I want to be careful here because I am not suggesting that a vantage point cannot be found which might permit one culture to examine another, but there is the matter, and I consider it to be an important one, of how we go about understanding our own history with respect to modern media, let alone the history of other cultures.

There is a tendency, manifest in many ethnographic projects but even more so when film and video are put to use, to presume that what other cultures choose as images can actually be translated, and it is this presumption which I think needs to be contested because what is inevitably involved are complex sign systems which our own culture has had difficulty in interpreting for itself let alone for others. This is a fascinating and perplexing problem. It suggests a kind of opaqueness which the universalizing tendencies of modern film and television theory have not grappled with. But the question needs to be asked otherwise we may have to accept Marshall McLuhan's predictions about a global village produced through technologies of communications. If we do accept his predictions then the complex and rather 'different' images which the Aboriginal peoples of Australia produced, and which Eric Michaels documented, simply become part of a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon.

If you want to read the rest of this essay, download the PDF.