The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle / Edition 1

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This book explores early-twentieth-century representations of non-Western indigenous people in films ranging from the documentary to the spectacular to the scientific.
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Editorial Reviews

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The Third Eye is an extraordinary contribution to both film history and the theorization of the ethnographic gaze. Informed by Rony’s close involvement with contemporary art practice and documentary film production, this fascinating book breaks with familiar genres of academic writing to provide an exciting new take on practices of ethnographic looking, the cultural history of the body, and the racial and sexual politics of visual culture in colonial science.”—Lisa Cartwright, University of Rochester
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822318408
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/1996
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Fatimah Tobing Rony is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

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The Third Eye

Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle

By Fatimah Tobing Rony

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1840-8



Félix-Louis Regnault, the Narrative of Race, and the Performers at the Ethnographic Exposition

Explorers do not reveal otherness. They comment upon "anthropology," that is, the distance separating savagery from civilization on the diachronic line of progress.– V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa (1988)

You can divide humanity into those who squat and those who sit. –Marcel Mauss, "Les techniques du corps" (1934)

(1) You are a Wolof woman from Senegal. You have come to Paris in 1895 with your husband as a performer in the Exposition Ethnographique de l'Afrique Occidentale (Senegal and French Sudan) because of the promise of good pay. You have been positioned in front of the camera, and you are thinking about how cold it is: you can't believe that you have to live here in this reconstruction of a West African village, crowded with these other West African people, some of whom don't even speak Wolof. Every day the white people come to stare at you as you make your pottery. You make fun of some of them out loud in Wolof, which they don't understand. You understand some of their French; after all, you are from the port where there have been French traders for as long as you can remember. Two men with cameras have been filming you and others making pottery, grinding grain, and walking. Right now, you have been told to walk straight ahead carrying a calabash on your head.

(2) You are the French physician Félix-Louis Regnault, and you are behind the camera. Both you and your colleague Charles Comte are using the chronophotographe, the camera invented by the physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey intended for fast serial photography. Fascinated by pathological and criminal anatomy and the new field called anthropology, you are delighted by this ethnographic exposition at the Champs de Mars. Finally you can study the movements of African people in the flesh–people you and other anthropologists catalog as "savages"–instead of getting mere descriptions of their movements from written accounts, photography, and art. You are convinced that these chronophotographic documents will elevate the new discipline of anthropology to the realm of science.

In the scenario just described, the divide between observer and observed appears clearly marked. The exchange of looks in the chronophotography produced by Regnault, however, belies any simple polarity of subject and object. There is, for example, a Frenchman, dressed in a city suit and hat, who accompanies the woman as she walks, never taking his eyes off her. His walk, meant to represent the urban walk, is there as comparative point of reference to what Regnault terms the woman's "savage locomotion." In addition, he acts as an in-frame surrogate for the Western male gaze of the scientist. There are also two other performers visible at frame left, watching the Frenchman watch the woman. Finally, a little girl, also West African, stares alternately at the group being filmed and the scientist and his camera. She appears to break a cinematic code already established in fm-de-siecle time motion studies: she looks at the camera. In this scenario of comparative racial physiology, the little girl has not learned how properly to see or be seen. At the nexus of this exchange of looks is the Wolof woman. She, however, is not the agent of a look. Rendered nameless and faceless, it is her body which is deemed the most significant datum: she is doubly marginalized as both female and African.

This description of the chain of looks is taken from chronophotography by the physician Félix-Louis Regnault. I will refer to the chronophotography of Regnault as "film," even though they were not meant to be projected. Invented by Etienne-Jules Marey in 1882, chronophotography was a form of proto-cinema which used cameras with oscillating shutters, so that precise intervals of movement could be distributed over one fixed plate. Although Regnault's images have been largely ignored by film historians, visual anthropologists eager to establish a lineage for their endeavors now claim Regnault's work as a precursor. Moreover, in the historiography of ethnographic film, Regnault is significant not only for his proto-cinema, but also for his body of theory on film as ethnographic tool. His conception of ethnographic film as positivist record to be stored in archives and examined repeatedly, frame by frame, forms the basis for dominant conceptions of the anthropological research film.

There are two principal reasons why I wanted to show the chain of looks in this series of images. The first reason I begin with the idea of a chain of looks–or who's viewing who–is that I would like to begin to pose the question of what it means to see ethnographic film as performer, filmmaker, and audience. In The Invention of Africa, V. Y. Mudimbe describes a fundamental paradigm of the type of knowledge–his term is gnosis–determined and made possible by anthropological, colonial, and historical discourses on Africa as one which opposes Tradition and modernity, a binary opposition also manifested as savagery versus civilization, and pathology versus normality. Mudimbe shows that the categories used to classify "natives" in the 1600s such as physical description, trade, arts, morals, customs, language, government, and religion continued to be used in the twentieth century: what changed was not the sophistication of the tools of knowledge but the system of values concerning otherness. The fundamental paradigm opposing tradition and modernity remained. Thus explorers– and one should include in that category many anthropologists–do not reveal otherness, they comment upon "Anthropology."

The second reason for the chain of looks is to underline the point that the West Africans and Malagasy filmed were performers, and not just bodies. These performers were people who returned gazes and who spoke, people who in many ways also were seeing anthropology. Of course, since we have no written record of the thoughts of these particular individuals, and of many of the other indigenous peoples who were made the object of written and filmic forms of ethnography, I agree with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak that there is no simple way of recovering their subjectivity, of hearing them speak. Yet, at the same time an exclusive focus which critiques the white anthropologist, writer, or artist all too often leaves in place the process by which indigenous people continue to be reified as specimens, metonyms for an entire culture, race, or monolithic condition known as "Primitiveness." The problem is compounded by the renewed reproduction of images which feed "fascinating cannibalism." The chain of looks shows that more than one subjectivity surveyed the scene.

In order to show how the emergence of cinema is critically linked to the emergence of anthropology and its visualizing discourse of evolution, and equally importantly, to describe the historical conditions under which indigenous peoples increasingly confronted the image-hungry West, this chapter focuses on the historical and intellectual context in which Regnault worked. As I hope to show, the imbricated networks of science, spectacle, and seeing in popular culture, early anthropology and film brought into view by this examination underlie all of "ethnographic cinema." In chapter 2 I move from an analysis of the historical and intellectual context to a detailed visual analysis of Regnault's films themselves. I examine Regnault's conception of film as the ideal positivist scientific tool for recording movement. In Regnault's films, as in ethnographic film generally, the viewer is confronted with images of people who are not meant to be seen as individuals, but as specimens of race and culture, specimens which provide the viewer with a visualization of the evolutionary past. Like much of what is now termed early "ethnographic" cinema, Regnault's films appear to have no narrative. I contend, however, that there is a narrative implicit in these films, a narrative implicit, in fact, in all ethnographic film. The narrative is that of evolution. Although the Wolof woman and the Frenchman walk within the same space in the above example, they are made distant from each Other both spatially and temporally by science and by popular culture.

History as Race: Anthropology/Medicine/Imperialism

Who was Félix-Louis Regnault? Not a founding father of French anthropology like Paul Broca, nor an inventing pioneer of cinema and physiology like his teacher Marey, nor a flamboyant social hygienist like the Turin criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, Regnault would seem to deserve his obscurity. Yet he is precisely the sort of historical figure about whom people like to say that if he had not existed, he would have been invented. For Regnault was an astonishing figure: his films from 1895 and his huge output of writings reveal most of the nineteenth-century scientific obsessions that focused on the body. Using medicine, anthropology, prehistory, sociology, history, zoology, and psychology, Regnault wrote about the human body within an evolutionary conception of history. Although there is little evidence that Regnault continued to make time motion studies after 1895, he made extensive use of museums, collections of skulls, photography, and art, and he lobbied for the creation of museums of films of "ethnographic interest."

Born in 1863, Regnault came from a bourgeois family from the provinces where his father was a professor of mathematics. As an adolescent, Regnault began what was to become a lifetime passion for prehistory: later in life, from 1928 to 1938, he was the president of the Société préhistorique française. He finished a medical degree in 1888, but up to the time of his death in 1938, he was better known as avid amateur prehistorian, anthropologist, teacher, active medical journalist, and editor, than as physician. He also wrote several books on such varied topics as hypnotism, religion, prostitution, decadence, and, of course, human locomotion.

As early as 1893, Regnault studied with Marey at the Station physiologi-que at Boulogne, France. The work of Marey, who invented chronophotography, and studied the movement of humans and animals, together with that of Eadweard Muybridge, who produced the first serial photography, is often considered to mark the beginning of cinema. Marey's films of humans focused on the movements of male European athletes, highlighting muscles and tendons, often in situations with strong homoerotic overtones,- Muy-bridge filmed Euro-American men and women performing simple gender-specific movements. Regnault on the other hand was interested in filming the movements of peoples from areas in Africa which were recently colonized: West Africa and Madagascar. His films, of which there are some seventy-five existing examples, can be divided into those recording the movements of West Africans and Malagasy performers from expositions ethnographiques and those recording the locomotion of French soldiers.

Regnault's interest in the body clearly stemmed from his fascination with anthropology, an emerging discipline of the nineteenth century, a discipline which took race as its defining problem. Just as the nation-state, to use Benedict Anderson's phrasing, is an "imagined political community," race was not only the guiding construct of early evolutionist thinking, it formed the basis of an imagined biological community. The desire to demarcate difference and the quest to describe pure racial types coincided with the rise of imperialism and nationalism: the discourses of race, nation, and imperialism were intimately linked. Indeed, the concept of "nation" became common at around the same time as the concepts "race" and "volk," and these terms in the beginning of the century were fluidly intertwined: in the late eighteenth century, the word "race" appears in the work of natural historians but is used interchangeably with "nation" and "people." The present-day breakdown of anthropology into physical anthropology and cultural anthropology (ethnography being the principal tool of the latter) did not emerge until the mid–twentieth century: in the nineteenth century, racial heredity was believed to determine culture.

In France, the most important anthropological organization was the Société d'anthropologie de Paris, of which Regnault was a member. Founded in 1859 by biologist Paul Broca in the same year that Darwin's The Origin of Species was published, the Société promoted a form of Lamarckian evolutionism called transfoimisme, which emphasized the importance of milieu or environment and the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Darwin's conception that evolution was arboreal, involving chance, was not readily accepted by late-nineteenth-century anthropologists, many of whom conceived of human history as a linear evolution. Tiansfotmisme became the French alternative to Darwin: it allowed for both a linear evolutionary history and sudden leaps in the form of spontaneous generation. It accommodated French positivist ideas concerning progress as a process guided by natural laws.

A positivist zeal for the physical description, measurement, and classification of racially defined bodies was the driving force of anthropology at the Société. Since it was thought that brain weight correlated with intelligence, and since it was often impossible to study the human brain itself, cianiology, the study of cranial measurements, came to be considered the most important tool of racial studies. One racial category seen as scientific was the capacity of a race to become civilized, its "degree of perfectibility." Broca wrote, "What varies above all is the degree of activity of intellectual functions, the predominance of this or that group of faculties, the development of the social state and perfectibility, that is to say the aptitude to conceive or receive progress." As George W. Stocking Jr. writes, physical human variety was interpreted "in regular rectilinear terms as the result of differential progress up a ladder of cultural stages (savagery, barbarism, civilization) accompanied by a parallel transformation of particular cultural forms (polytheism/monotheism; polygamy/monogamy." The polygenist doctrine of Société anthropology conceived of the races as being almost species-like, revealing a fear of mixture and hybridity: Broca, for example, believed that interracial children were likely to be sterile. The impulse to characterize most non-European groups as having all the features that the West found undesirable and morally reprehensible was clearly one means of creating a broad Western subjectivity that reached beyond the nation. Anthropologists took Primitive (Savage) society as their special subject, but, as Adam Kuper explains,

In practice primitive society proved to be their own society (as they understood it) seen in a distorting mirror. For them modern society was defined above all by the territorial state, the monogamous family and private property. Primitive society therefore must have been nomadic, ordered by blood ties, sexually promiscuous and communist. There had also been a progression in mentality. Primitive man was illogical and given to magic. In time he had developed more sophisticated religious ideas. Modern man, however, had invented science. Like their most reflective contemporaries, in short, the pioneer anthropologists believed that their own was an age of massive transition. They looked back in order to understand the nature of the present, on the assumption that modern society had evolved from its antithesis.

The Primitive was the "pathological" counterpoint to the European. For example, sub-Saharan Africans and Australian Aborigines were classified as "missing links" between man and the animal kingdom, and were described as oversexed, intellectually inferior, and childlike. L. J. B. Bérenger-Féraud, the chief medical officer of Senegal, wrote that it appeared to be more natural for Wolof women to walk on all fours due to the angle of their pelvic bones and spine. He also believed that the big toes of Africans were large and more capable of independent movement, as did Regnault. If one relates such ideas about the "Animality" of West African movement to Regnault's chronophotography, one can begin to place Regnault's work in the context of a knowledge system whose paradigm was relentlessly comparative. In 1880, Société d'anthropologie de Paris member Charles Letourneau wrote, "In spite of its imperfections, its weaknesses and vices, the white Race, Semitic and indo-european holds, certainly for the present the head in the 'steeplechase' (sic) of human groups."

The "steeplechase" is an important metaphor. History was a iace: those who did not vanquish would vanish. It is significant, therefore, that Regnault would use film to record the movements of the performers he observed at the ethnographic exposition: film would inscribe race through the body (human difference) and would be evidence of history (which was also a race). Time was thus conceived in evolutionary terms, with race as the key factor, and the body as the marker of racial and thus temporal difference.

The question of why anthropology had such a voracious appetite for the Primitive body may be answered in part by looking at anthropological discourse in relation to the construction of the Social and/or National body. The 1890s was a period of great concern with modern urban change: theories of degeneration, a belief that the overstimulated modern urban citizen had become nervous and weakened, were prevalent. Max Nordau's Degeneration (1893), for example, was a popular treatise. City life, Nordau believed, led to degeneration and to the effeminization of "man," understood to mean white man. Consistent with this theme, early chronophotogra-phers took hysteria and neurasthenia as subjects, as Charcot's Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpetrière attests, and Regnault centered his researches on the "ethnographic" body, seeking in part to gain insights for use in ameliorating the condition of the urban French body. The "ethnographic" Other was thus not just "savage" and pathological, but was also physically closer to the genuine and authentic in man.


Excerpted from The Third Eye by Fatimah Tobing Rony. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
I Inscription,
1 Seeing Anthropology,
2 The Writing of Race in Film,
II Taxidermy,
3 Gestures of Self-Protection,
4 Taxidermy and Romantic Ethnography,
III Teratology,
5 Time and Redemption in the "Racial Film" of the 1920S and 1930S,
6 King Kong and the Monster in Ethnographic Cinema,
Conclusion. Passion of Remembrance,

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