Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video

Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video

by Catherine Russell

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Experimental film and ethnographic film have long been considered separate, autonomous practices on the margins of mainstream cinema. By exploring the interplay between the two forms, Catherine Russell throws new light on both the avant-garde and visual anthropology.
Russell provides detailed analyses of more than thirty-five films and videos from the 1890s to the 1990s and discusses a wide range of film and videomakers, including Georges Méliès, Maya Deren, Peter Kubelka, Ray Birdwhistell, Jean Rouch, Su Friedrich, Bill Viola, Kidlat Tahimik, Margaret Mead, Tracey Moffatt, and Chantal Akerman. Arguing that video enables us to see film differently—not as a vanishing culture but as bodies inscripted in technology, Russell maps the slow fade from modernism to postmodern practices. Combining cultural critique with aesthetic analysis, she explores the dynamics of historical interruption, recovery, and reevaluation. As disciplinary boundaries dissolve, Russell contends, ethnography is a means of renewing the avant-gardism of “experimental” film, of mobilizing its play with language and form for historical ends. “Ethnography” likewise becomes an expansive term in which culture is represented from many different and fragmented perspectives.
Original in both its choice of subject and its theoretical and methodological
approaches, Experimental Ethnography will appeal to visual anthropologists, as well as film scholars interested in experimental and documentary practices.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396680
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/12/1999
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,098,703
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Catherine Russell is Associate Professor of Cinema at Concordia University and the author of Narrative Mortality: Death, Closure, and New Wave Cinemas.

Read an Excerpt

Experimental Ethnography

By Catherine Russell

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9668-0


Another Look

I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it. – DZIGA VERTOV, "We: Variant of a Manifesto"

In the last fifteen years, experimental film has diversified into a range of different media, styles, and practices, many of which impinge on both documentary and fiction. Parallel to an increasing interdisciplinary interest in visual culture, experimental filmmaking is flourishing within a postcolonial, postmodern context. More and more artists and theorists are turning to film and video as a means of addressing social questions, from gay and lesbian identities, to diasporic politics, cultural and family memory, and histories of oppression, resistance, and criminal justice systems. These "issues" are all questions of representation and cannot be separated from the way that they enter and circulate in the media. To consider this vast spectrum of filmmaking as "ethnographic" is to recognize the expanding horizon of visual anthropology. To consider it as "experimental" is to recognize its challenge to conventional forms of representation and the search for new languages and forms appropriate to a more pluralist social formation.

A new critical vocabulary is desperately needed, appropriate to filmmaking that is simultaneously "aesthetic" and "ethnographic," work in which formal experimentation is brought to bear on social representation. Theorists and critics preoccupied with form, with modernism/postmodernism debates, with mainstream media, and with various political agendas have failed to keep up with this innovative work. And yet, as interest in experimental film has faltered in film studies, it has ironically been rediscovered by anthropologists and ethnographic theorists. George Marcus, for example, has embraced cinematic montage as an invaluable technique to "disrupt and reconceive the way social and cultural process as action is represented in ethnography." Marcus argues that cinema is the medium most suited to the "increasing de-territorialized nature of cultural process" because it is able to articulate the complex relations of time and space that characterize postmodern, postcolonial culture. I want to suggest that ethnographic theory might provide the critical tools appropriate to recent developments in experimental film and video practice–and even to the historical convergence of ethnographic and experimental cinemas.

Trinh T. Minh-ha has been one of the most prominent of recent filmmakers to deploy a radical film practice within a specifically ethnographic milieu. Her written critique of the conventions of ethnographic objectivity has been a catalyst in the rethinking and renovation of documentary practice. Trinh's most cogent critique of ethnographic film is the way it implies a division of the world into those "out there" (the subjects of ethnography) and those "in here" (in the theater, looking at them). She argues that the assumptions of documentary truth and veracity perpetuate a Cartesian duality between mind and matter in which the Other is objectified and the filmmaker and his or her audience are the subjects of perception. A more fluid conception of reality is required to transcend this paradigm, one in which meaning is not "closed" but escapes and evades representation. It is the otherness of reality itself that she argues must be reconceptualized, although she offers little advice on how this might be put into (film) practice. My objective in this book is to demonstrate how filmmakers have in fact experimented with the "otherness" of reality, and how that paradigm of objective realism is also a temporal historical one, with great implications to forms of cultural memory.

In her own films, Trinh is preoccupied with rural Third World cultures (in Reassemblage [1982], Naked Spaces [1985], and Shoot for the Contents [1991]), and to a large extent, her filmmaking remains locked within theethnographic model that James Clifford has described as "the salvage paradigm": "In a salvage/pastoral setup most non-Western peoples are marginal to the advancing world system. Authenticity in culture or art exists just prior to the present." In his key article "On Ethnographic Allegory," Clifford explains, "the most problematic, and politically charged aspect of this 'pastoral' evocation is its relentless placement of others in a present-becoming-past." The ethnographic pastoral embraces the myth of primitivism but is also characteristic of the very structure of ethnographic representation. "Every description or interpretation that conceives itself as 'bringing culture into writing,' moving from oral-discursive experience ... to a written version of that experience ... is enacting the structure of salvage. To the extent that the ethnographic process is seen as inscription, the representation will continue to enact a potent, and questionable, allegorical structure."

Johannes Fabian has argued that anthropology constructs Otherness by "using" time. The salvage paradigm is a "denial of coevalness" that is part and parcel of the forms of ethnographic representation: "Time is involved in any possible relationship between anthropological discourse and its referents." This is especially true of film, which feeds on photographic properties of preservation, fixing its referents in the prior time of shooting. In the cinema, the pastoral allegory becomes exaggerated by the role of technology in the act of representation, further splitting "the modern" from "the premodern."

Ethnographic allegory also refers to the process by which individuals are abstracted into general social patterns; individual subjects become representative of cultural practices and even "human" principles. Although ethnography will always be allegorical, Clifford argues that "the assumption that something essential is lost when a culture becomes 'ethnographic'" can be avoided through a "recognition of allegory" in ethnographic practice itself. In other words, ethnographic practices of salvage can be transformed by means of a structure of doubled representation in which singularities persist within the techniques of textual meaning production. Indeed, such a structure is necessary for a transformation of ethnographic practices.

Clifford insists that resistance to the salvage paradigm lies not in abandoning its allegorical structure "but by opening ourselves to different histories." By this I take him to mean two different things, both of which I intend to take up as forms of experimental ethnography. "Different histories" refers first of all to the voices and histories of the colonized, and to new forms of subjectivity articulated through texts that might be described as autoethnographies and indigenous ethnographies. Secondly, and not unrelated to these different histories, the salvage paradigm is also the expression of a teleological historiography. The primitive Other comes to represent the childhood of civilization only within a modernist historiography of progress. The recognition of this allegory is born of a different historiography, one that understands history as a series of disparate moments that have no "necessary" relation, progressive or otherwise. Such a perspective is associated with postmodernism and can lead to a dystopian view of historical repetition, stasis, and banality (the Baudrillardian position). Another perspective on postmodern historiography is provided by Walter Benjamin, who suggests that allegory itself is a means of articulating Utopian desires for historical transformation within a nonteleological critique of modernist progress. It is this theory that seems particularly appropriate to experimental ethnography in film and video.

Allegory is not a formula or a prescriptive method but a structure of representation that, in Craig Owens's words, has the "capacity to rescue from oblivion that which threatens to disappear." But allegory does so by means of fragmentation, appropriation, and intertextuality, resisting both symbolic and narrative relations as well as teleological forms. Developing Benjamin's theory, Owens describes the domain of allegory as "the arbitrary, the conventional, the unmotivated." Allegory embraces the salvage paradigm as a temporal inscription that renders representation a form of writing, in which meaning is produced as a supplement that is added to a text, not derived from it hermeneutically. The allegorical photographic image marks a historical break with its referent, which belongs to that other time of the profilmic (the pre-filmic; the time of shooting), and the relation between the two moments is dialectical.

The recognition and exploration of ethnographic allegory implies a foregrounding of "the time machine" of anthropological representation, a discursive production of the Other that may construct an Edenic, pastoral, authentic site of otherness, but only as a fantasy. The textual construction of otherness can be positioned as a form of cultural memory that is not grounded in empirical facticity, but is dynamic and dialectical, producing an ethnography that is oriented toward a history of the future. One of the themes of this book will be the fate of the primitive in postmodernity, which, I will argue, is the inversion of the salvage paradigm into a science fiction narrative. The task of postcolo-nial ethnography is not only to include the Other within modernity but to revise the terms of realist representation. If we seem to be launched into a postmodernity that threatens to obliterate historical memory, ethnography offers an alternative theory of radical memory. In its revisionist form, ethnography offers techniques for looking forward and backward at the same time.

Technologies, like cultures, are constantly evolving into new forms, generating a host of cultural effects in the process. Although I would insist that the relation between film and video is one of hybridity, it can also be construed as an instance of ethnographic allegory. Electronic Digital media at the end of the twentieth century have begun to alter many of our most precious assumptions about visual representation, as the image is no longer linked ontologically or indexically to something "out there" in the real world. Unlike the cinematic image, preserved on celluloid, the video image is made anew at every transmission; and digital image processing has opened up the possibility of infinite manipulation. In the light of the TV monitor, the cinema is reinvented as a site of disappearance, loss, and memory.

The replacement of film by video remains incomplete, as do the transformations of postcolonial societies. My intention is neither to declare film "dead" nor to salvage it as a lost medium. By drawing a tacit parallel between the cinema and "traditional" societies, I wish to foreground a relation between the aesthetics of "pure form," media specificity, and cinematic ontology on the one hand, and the status of cultural essences and purities in ethnography on the other. Both are "auratic" in Walter Benjamin's sense of the term. "The work of cinema" refers to the struggle of film to survive in postmodernity, but also to film's altered role. As a tool of cultural production, film's autonomy as a "work of art" is precisely what is vanishing. In 1935 Walter Benjamin argued that "mechanical reproduction," specifically the arts of film and photography, had altered the status and role of art as a social and cultural form. Video and digital media constitute yet another turn in that process, rendering film itself as a kind of historical horizon. For Benjamin, the vanishing of the aura is commensurate with the production of historical memory as a form of representation that is inherently allegorical.

Benjamin never directly addressed the question of ethnographic representation, but his merging of theory and practice was always a merging of viewer and viewed. In his theory of experience, subjective and objective poles of perception were potentially united. The flâneur is thus the field-worker and the first vérité observer; he is part of the crowd, but not part of the crowd. Benjamin's particular understanding of the collusion of ethnography and the avant-garde can be traced to his conception of experience, or "aura," as a lost quality of modernity. Benjamin's invention of aura on the verge of its extinction replicates the logic of the salvage paradigm and the invention of the primitive as the sign of cultural loss. Aura becomes visible only as it disappears. Auratic experience cannot be "salvaged" or resurrected in modernity, but it can be represented in allegorical form. Benjamin thus offers a way out of a typical conundrum of postmodern and postcolonial thought–how to theorize cultural memory without mystifying it as an originary site.

The loss of aura in mechanical reproduction is the sign of a new function of art, as it is released from its ritualistic basis in "the cult of beauty," and the "criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production." And yet equally important for Benjamin is the Utopian aspect of a "second-degree" realism: "The sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology." In the vanishing of aura, authenticity, and contemplative aesthetics, a new form of experience emerges that is immediate, fragmentary, and bound to the physicality of the viewing experience. Referentiality is conceived as a temporal process in which the past is always receding, the present is momentary, and the future is a kind of mirror image of the past, a projection of auratic experience, otherwise known as desire.

When Benjamin declares that film offers, "precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment," he is suggesting that as a technology, film invents the fantasy of a nontechnologized reality. This seems to me the image of analog visual media (film and photography) that is created by digital imaging: a "pastoral allegory" of transparent representation. Benjamin follows this provocative statement with "and that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art," referring to the assemblage of an image of reality from the fragments produced by the mechanics of cinematic découpage. It is precisely the doubling of technologized reality with its auratic fantasy that Benjamin reads as the historical dialectics of modernism. The myth of primitivism is likewise produced in colonial culture as an effect of technology seeking its other in the wholeness of cultures "free of all equipment."

Ethnographic truth, like the vanishing aura of Benjamin's modernism, is a realism that is conditional on the fragmented and transient present. Benjamin does make reference in "The Work of Art" to the techniques that would subsequently be identified with ethnographic film. He suggests that film will enable an analysis of behavior because "it can be isolated more easily." Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson began to apply film to fieldwork in Bali only a few years later for precisely this purpose, as I will discuss in chapter 8. Benjamin, however, also foresaw "the mutual penetration of art and science" implicit in such a practice and proclaimed it "one of the revolutionary functions of film." He goes on to explain that it is "evidently a different nature [that] opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye–if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man." The camera introduces "unconscious optics" into the field of vision, rendering the image a "second nature," a reality that has been penetrated by a technology of desire. Benjamin's poetics are grounded in a materialist dialectic in which the body, the physis, is given a new dynamic of experience, a dynamic that includes the body's mortality. "For the film, what matters primarily is that the actor represent himself to the public before the camera, rather than represent someone else.... For the first time–and this is the effect of the film–man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura." Thus allegorical representation in the cinema begins with performance as a process of doubling in which the body functions as the principal site of a loss of aura. Benjamin effectively demonstrates why cinema and ethnography are drawn together, and how they are two sides of a similar modernist preoccupation with loss.

Against the modernist myth of progress, Benjamin developed a radical theory of memory. In his major, unfinished study of the Paris Arcades, he suggests that the past persists in the present in the form of a dream, often commodified as a wish image. This conception of the past is precisely the allegory of the ethnographic pastoral, and it also captures the lingering traces of the modern in postmodernity, and the aura of cinematic pleasure in video culture. Anne Friedberg has drawn out some of the implications of Benjamin's theorization of modernity to the cinema: "The imaginary flânerie of cinema spectatorship offers a spatially mobilized visuality but also, importantly, a temporal mobility." The shopper in the Paris Arcades of the nineteenth century, like the tourist and the vcr time shifter, enacts a virtual gaze in and of history. Benjamin recognized that film and photography brought about a great change in "the subjective role of memory and history." Mechanical reproduction broke history down into discrete fragmentary moments, generating a discontinuity that Benjamin saw as having revolutionary dialectical possibilities.


Excerpted from Experimental Ethnography by Catherine Russell. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xi

Introduction to Experimental Ethnography

1. Another Look

2. Surrealist Ethnography

Documentary Before Documentary

3. The Body as the Main Attraction

4. Ethnotopias of Early Cinema

5. Playing Primitive

The Undisciplined Gaze

6. Zoology, Pornography, Ethnography

7. Framing People: Structural Film Revisited

Other Realities

8. Ecstatic Ethnography: Filming Possession Rituals

9. Archival Apocalypse: Found Footage as Ethnography


10. Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self





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