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I argue that, while online life challenges traditional assumptions of place-based ethnography and the anthropological subject, practices of networked media reconfigure experiences and imaginaries of place, identity, and embodiment, without dematerializing these as sites of subjectivity and sources of anthropological insight.
My scholarly agenda is shaped by a commitment to public scholarship and to the insights anthropology's holistic and comparative perspective can bring to understanding the contemporary world through local articulations of global processes and structures. Earlier this year, I became Media Editor for Anthropology Now, a print magazine committed to claiming a public voice for anthropology. People back Faculty Staff Alumni. Biographical Sketch I am a social anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker whose work focuses on cultural production and reproduction in the U.
The second is the focus of my current work on the ethnography and cultural history of networked social media. From to , I lived and worked as a participant-observer in Cyborganic, an intentional community of web geeks whose members brought Wired magazine online, launched Hotwired, the first ad-supported online magazine, led the open source Apache project, and staffed and started dozens of Internet enterprises, such as Craig's List, during the first phase of the Web's development as a popular platform. My research of digital media and is motivated by what I see as a critical need for grounded, humanistic study of the discourses and practices of technopower.
I study the social construction of new media and dominant cultural imaginaries and narratives of technology.
Before he is expelled from Niger for observed closeness to workers, presumed Gaullist sympathies , and before he goes on to fight against the Germans back in Europe, Rouch's African initiation has begun. When ten men are killed by lightning at a worksite, Rouch asks a faithful Muslim in the Public Works Department what to do.
The latter could not say, as the workers had nothing to do with Islam. When they develop the photos, translate and transcribe the ritual texts, minutely describing the details of the ceremony, they send off the material to Griaule at the Society for Africanists in Paris. Germaine Dieterlen encourages Rouch's enquiry, sending him a model questionnaire on the cult of the water spirits. Rouch asks Kalia one of the questions, whether the victims of the water spirits have their nostrils and their navel cut, and Kalia surprises him: "Of course! But if you already know so many things, why bother me with all these simple questions?
It is the beginning of Rouch's ethnographic career. He devoured classic texts on African history, and read Griaule's Masques Dogons. When in , Rouch is filming the Sigui, an itinerant Dogon ceremony commemorating the death of the first ancestor performed over a seven year period every sixty years , he is able to draw on the minute descriptions of Griaule and Leiris, who had not attended the Sigui, but twenty years after its performance, devoted a great deal of study to its customs, rituals, language and signification.
Such poetic conceptions are a long way from what Paul Stoller describes as "plain style" anthropology, in which "ethnographic film" supplements a written text where the proper analysis is done and the real theory lies.
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The answer could be an easy yes only if poetry, narrative and drama were not already built into everyday life. In Africa he is working with people "who are champions of the oral tradition" and he is obliged to surrender himself to "this improvisation that is the art of the Logos, the art of the word and the gesture" Rouch always comes back to recalcitrant, "wonderful and mysterious" human beings who refuse to live "theoretically", believing that the trouble in anthropology and film studies is the construction of ever more theory out of sync with practice.
And it is from this recognition that his work so forcefully dissolves and obliterates parochial distinctions between fact and story, documentary and fiction, knowledge and feeling, improvisation and composition, observation and participation Rouch's "observation and participation" entail long-term commitment. When Fulchignoni talks about the "Dionysian" quality, the "double possibility of maximum joy and maximum tragic furor" in some of the Dogon films, Rouch insists that while he began to shoot the films about death among the Dogon of the Bandiagara Cliffs in , it is only thirty years later that he begins to understand what is happening.
The Sigui ceremonies posed questions, not answers, to initiates, and this, he thinks, is what he has tried to do in films, "to pose riddles, to circulate disquieting objects" One of his stories casts a magical light on his way of working: When Nietzsche was walking in the streets of Torino and wrote those sublime lines And this poetry was made up of factory smokestacks, of the outskirts, of walls of crumbling brick, of smoking locomotives, and of those infinite shadows that announced something more. He too had dreamed of creating a myth, a modern myth that is the world of those avenues.
I know there are places in the world where I walk around and I suddenly come upon this peculiar perspective: 'grace,' a grace which depends on a certain mood, which depends on a certain season.
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So when I make my films, it's sort of like that. I would like to paint with movement, with color, moments like those that ask questions of the viewer and give no answer This film, made at the request of participants of the Hauka possession cult, cannot be said to be guilty of the "flight from truth's terror" which Nietzsche evoked, or the "need to create textual order out of experiential chaos", which has such a long history in the Western philosophical tradition.
In what Stoller has called "horrific comedy", and Rouch "entertainment which was better than cinema, full of fantastic things" , participants go into trance, become possessed, speak a polyglot language part pigeon English, part broken French , handle fire and reach into boiling water, without being burned. They break traditional religious taboos, eating pig, and, in this ceremony, a dog.
Music orchestrates movement in this public, out-of-town ritual, performed under the sun.
The Camera Possessed
People's limbs stiffen, they walk like monsters, their bodies losing softness, familiarity; they foam at the mouth. We watch what we would normally look away from, "matter out of place", uncontrolled body substances usually seen only briefly on the faces of babies, the ill, the dying. The blood of the dog mixes with the foam, and on the face of one young man, eyes look with a wildness, a terror, something language, ordinary or scholarly, would struggle to describe.
Yet the actors communicate, make decisions, and after a time, look at their watches. If they do not wrap up the ceremony, they will pay overtime for the taxi waiting to take them back to Accra. Rouch ends the film revisiting the participants in town the next day, looking straight to camera, with open faces, smiling, with everything back to "normal" at the workplace. Rouch's impromptu finishing commentary suggests that far from these men being insane, their performance of the ritual was like a therapy that enabled them to cope in the colonial situation, "to function in normal society with less pain" While he now has no particular commitment to what may be an outdated Freudian summation, it should be noted that his practice of spontaneous voice-over narration is important to him.
But the American distributor cut out these segments of the film, and the narration also let it down. Since the narration of professional actors has tended to betray communication, intruding with false drama in the foreign versions of his films, Rouch prefers to do the narration himself "even in bad English and with a bad accent" Subtitles, once sync sound is possible, present no simple solution.
Apart from "mutilating the image", it is often impossible to condense and cover everything said within a given screen time. Rouch advocates companion pamphlets or booklets to accompany films for those who want to know more.
We find the accent, the small mistakes in pronunciation, charming the participants eat the "cook-ed" dog, one of the men is "imp-o-tent", because he had "inter-courses" with his friend's girlfriend. The fact that anthropologists contextualize what students will see beforehand, "arming" them against shock, tends to mean students find the film more assimilable than they otherwise might.
And yet — it still tends to astound. We too know this intensity. Not cognitively, but imaginatively, carnally. The people performing the ceremony are different from us — yet like us. One showing, I remember the unexpected happened after class. A student, Michael Filipidis, had never thought, he said, he would find William Blake performed in film: Tyger!
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Rouch says they insist that they are not engaged in mockery or revenge, and he believes this to be true — at last at a conscious level. At the beginning the Islamic priest persecuted them as heretics. The French administration, fearing the revival of "strong animistic faiths that might turn political" did likewise.
What the Hauka did was creative and implicitly revolutionary, just as the authorities feared" David MacDougall's recent encapsulation of the problem of meaning could not be more pertinent: In a sense ethnographic films do not 'mean' anything, but neither do they mean 'anything'.
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They situate us in relation to objects, deploying what is suggestive and expressive in the world. Thirty years ago, in "The camera and the man", Rouch was addressing head on questions of for whom and for what reason he made his ethnographic films. His first response was for himself. While he might be able to justify his filming scientifically for archives , politically "sharing in the revolt against an intolerable situation" , or aesthetically to capture the fragility of beauty or movement , Rouch speaks of his own necessity to film His second response is that film is the only means he has to show someone else how he sees him.
Unlike books and articles, the "participating camera" offers the possibility of direct communication with the group he studies It opens up a new type of relationship between the anthropologist and the people, the first step toward shared anthropology. Feld notes that the attitude entailed in the latter term is similar to what is now called "self-reflexive" anthropology. The possibility of "feedback" film, which Rouch calls "audiovisual reciprocity", becomes a stimulant for mutual awareness: "This type of research", he says, "as idealistic as it might seem, appears to me to be the only morally and scientifically feasible anthropological attitude today" His third response to the question is that he makes his films for "everyone, for the largest viewing public possible": Why?
Because we are people who believe that the world of tomorrow, the world we are in the process of building, cannot be viable without a regard for cultural differences; the other cannot be denied as his image transforms Let us be hard headed realists about this. The world of tomorrow looks like a nightmare if some understanding, respect for difference, recognition of political-economic injustice, doesn't become the common concern of us all.
Having lacked allegiance to either capitalist or communist blocs, Rouch would no doubt agree with Albert Camus' argument for "relative utopias" as our only "realistic" choice today, realism forcing us to this "utopian" alternative. Here fiction, as Feld suggests, "is taken to deeper levels of both fantasy and political statement" Among those met in Paris who will return with the pair to Ayorou, is Safi Faye, who after this collective improvisation, will herself go on to become a major African filmmaker.
The film is full of strange encounters, surrealist touches, music, movement and humour. It is in relation to Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet , where once again the "Rouch gang" undertook an adventure, that both Rouch's way of filming and his deep politics clearly reveal themselves. His greatest popular success in Africa and perhaps the most fun to make, the film is a "collective improvisation on a Nigerian fable". Cocorico had its American premiere at the Margaret Mead Film Festival and Cineaste suggested that for those unfamiliar with the African situation, what they saw seemed to reinforce basic prejudices against Africa.
It seemed that the Africans treated their car like stereotyped "dumb hillbillies" would, the type "used as comic relief in Hollywood films and on American television" While the interviewers themselves might seem a little "rabid", their criticisms very "of the period" Feld notes that this interchange has an "edge" the other interviews do not , similar objections could easily be put today by those wanting their documentaries to expose political-economic realities, to picture third world people with dignity — and surely not joke like this.
People are aware, say Cineaste, that Africa is in transition, but in this film "there doesn't seem to be anything positive going on, concretely or in consciousness" For Rouch, on the contrary, "it is absolutely positive". He praises the resourcefulness of the people in the film as "a kind of populist avant-garde". They are "marginals" who see "the economic absurdity of the system" within with they must make a living without being trapped As he expresses his criticisms of outsiders' "goodwill" in other interviews, here he stresses the fact that national and international experts come and tell Africans what is wrong with the way they live and work, without learning what native Africans themselves know and do.
Most experts deal in fast surveys, quick reports, while long commitment is needed for any worthwhile change.