Visual anthropology review

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There was a fair degree of consistency in what the two classes identified as funny in “FC,” perhaps for predictable reasons. Both classes were especially amused by the scenes in which a Papua New Guinea man wore a headdress made with a tin can, as well as a similar, immediately-subsequent shot in which a man is wearing a headdress made with a box that says “Kellogg’s Whole Wheat Biscuit.” 94.4% (17/18) of the students in the 100-level class independently marked those images—treated here as one “headdress scene,” since they appear together—as funny, and 68.4% (13/19) of the students in the 300-level class did the same, making it the single most commonly-cited funny scene. Apparently the film’s distributors also see this as a noteworthy scene, for a still image of the man with this biscuit-box headdress appears in promotional materials for “FC” (see Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 HERE. CAPTION: This promotional still photo of the headdress scene, and none other from “FC,” can be viewed on the film distributor’s web site:]
Moreover, some student comments seemed to confirm Obeyesekere’s worries about ingrained Western views of irrational natives. For example, some students (4/17 in the 100-level course) saw the natives as “child-like, a common paternalistic term in stereotypes of non-Western cultures (Springer 1987):

1) Comparison: “Other kids movies where they put the metal spaghetti strainer on their head”—Ashley San Blise.

2) Comparison: “It’s like seeing a baby wearing a grown-up shoe: something that’s totally familiar and therefore “disproportionate” to the culture of the baby”—Renee Koenig.

3) Why funny: “It seemed childish somehow.”

Comparison: “Not sure of what book, but in a children’s literature book [there was] a boy with a raccoon who absolutely loved shiny objects and would stop at nothing to get his paws on them”—John.

4) Why funny: “The general innocence and wonderment of the PNG people when they saw these new things was funny to see, especially the story about the tin lid and the kids laughing about it now.”

Comparison: “My one year old niece loves playing with the wrappers of candy bars, or any sort of ‘plastic, shiny, crackling noise thing.’ It’s just funny to see her so fascinated with something we hold no value to”—Rita.
Given these comparisons with children, it would be easy to claim that this scene’s humor is rooted in a self-congratulatory Western sense of superiority to the innocent, if not ignorant, Papua New Guineans. Such an interpretation would employ the well-known superiority theory of humor, which is most commonly traced back to Thomas Hobbes’ claim that laughter is a “sudden glory arising from some conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” (see Morreall 1983:4-14). Other scenes deemed funny would seem consistent with this view of PNG inferiority, such as when the New Guineans thought that perhaps the Australians’ wives were packed in their bags (marked funny by 8/19 in the 300-level course, 11/18 in the 100-level course), and seeing the gramophone as a box of dead ancestral spirits (6/19 in 300-level course, 3/18 in 100-level course).

The gramophone scene, in particular, disturbed film critic James Roy MacBean, who had similar concerns about the portrayal of superior Western technology in this film. Comparing this scene with the amazed Eskimo reactions to a gramophone in “Nanook of the North” (Flaherty 1922), MacBean writes:

Surely, there is something emblematic about these documents of indigenous peoples reacting with amazement to the technology of the white man. A whole set of relations is here represented, especially the way western civilization likes to dazzle non-Western peoples with demonstrations of its technological superiority. In this kind of encounter, an eminently colonial one, the white man is represented as the active agent making the demonstration happen, while the Other is represented as the passive spectator, if not the “butt,” so to speak, of the joke over how this ‘primitive’ would respond (1994:59).

MacBean sees these technological displays as “performances of mastery, of dominance,” even more clearly revealed by the firing of guns: “the demonstration of what a rifle can do by shooting a pig is a performance of dominance, the explicit intent of which, as the Leahy brothers acknowledge, was to intimidate (and thereby dominate) their New Guinea audience (1994:60). Like most critics of representations, MacBean does not question the veracity of such scenes so much as the consistency with which they are represented: “Whether Nanook was acting spontaneously, was staged by Flaherty, or had internalized Flaherty’s agenda, what is at stake is the same—Flaherty’s mise-en-scene of how a ‘primitive’ responds to the white man’s technology. The same issue is a stake in Michael Leahy’s mise-en-scene…of the New Guinea highlanders’ response to the gramophone played at the airstrip” (1994:59).5

Although Flaherty’s place in ethnographic film remains a matter of dispute (see Ruby 2000:67-94), various scholars would agree with MacBean that there is something symbolic and troubling about recurring images of natives reacting with amazement at Westerners’ (usually Western males’) technology. For example, Michael Taussig (1993:208) refers to gramophone scenes in various 20th-century films (including “FC”) as “frontier rituals of technological supremacy.” Fatimah Tobing Rony similarly sees the gramophone scene in “Nanook of the North” as a demonstration of technological superiority (1996:113), as well as highlighting Nanook’s identity as an authentic primitive man of an earlier epoch (1996:103, 112).

Moreover, similar “techno-dramas” appear throughout Western history, from early-modern travel accounts to contemporary fiction films. Michael Adas (1989) shows that ever since the 14th century Western writers have been pointing to their technological achievements as proof of their cultural superiority. Even when religion was a primary distinguishing factor in such evaluations in the 14-17th centuries, technology was often celebrated as the most tangible proof of Western superiority, until it became viewed as the single most reliable gauge of human achievement at the height of industrialization in the 19th century, before melding with anatomical, racialist measures in the 20th century. If we included alphabetic writing (a “technology” that, to this day, is used to distinguish Western and “non-literate” peoples), such classifications would have an even deeper history (Adas 1989:53-59; Certeau 1988; Mignolo 1995; Wogan 1994, 2004c). But perhaps the closest counterparts to “FC’s” Leahy brothers are the many European travelers who, like the following French traveler of the late 1700s, have amused themselves by overawing African natives with simple technological devices:

He [Francois Le Vaillant] grew fond of amusing himself and dazzling the “natives” with demonstrations of relatively simple European contraptions. Le Vaillant delighted in the open-mouthed awe shown by some “Hottentots” for a mouth harp that he drew out of a box with the “art and mystery of a quack.” He conceded that they rather quickly mastered the “ridiculous instrument,” but he never seemed to tire of describing the Africans’ fascination with the shining buttons on his coat or the hatchets and axes in his wagon (Adas 1989:114).

Even in the 1800s, we find that “Nowhere was the technological gap that grew ever wider between nineteenth-century Europeans and Africans more graphically depicted than in the hundreds of incidents in which travelers, settlers, and missionaries reported the awestruck responses of Africans to even the simplest mechanical devices” (Adas 1989:159). Such technologies, especially firearms, were expected to create fear and obedience (Adas 1989:162).

Despite the centuries and continents separating them, these European-African interactions seem of a piece with the Leahy brothers’ delight and amusement in “FC” over Papua New Guineans’ awe in the face of Australian technology. As Marilyn Strathern noted, “For their part, the Australians seem to have been rather taken with themselves as ‘spirits,’ and kept up what they regarded as the appropriate charade, producing a gramophone, for instance, to play to an open-mouthed crowd—showing off the technological marvel” (1992:252, note 2).6 In their book First Contact, Connolly and Anderson make a similar observation: “Michael Leahy was fascinated by the Hageners’ response to Western-made items—gadgets, guns, mirrors, record players…”(1987:228). Michael Taussig concurs, pointing to Leahy’s aggressive insistence, as captured in “FC,” on Papua New Guineans’ awe at his gramophone: “It’s as if he’s more obsessed with white man’s magic than the natives are, and this obsession demands showing showing. First he has to capture the phonograph in action to Them. Then he has to capture the phonograph-display on film” (1993:206-207). Moreover, Taussig goes on to note that the directors of “FC” capitalize on the ongoing fascination in the late twentieth century with such technology scenes: “Then years later, correctly anticipating the late twentieth-century Euro-American hunger for such revelation, Connolly and Anderson display the display for us—and repeat it more than once, notably and lengthily at the very end of the film First Contact, as the credits roll to the dazzling incongruity-effect of ‘Looking on the Bright Side of Life’” (1993:207).

Ruby (1995) also argues that “FC” aggressively and consistently employs manipulative editing techniques, in both the assembly of the historical footage and the creation of a soundtrack. For example, the Leahy footage is spliced together in order to create technology reaction shots where none existed originally (e.g. PNG reactions to the airplane and the pig being shot), and the soundtrack supplanted over the Leahy’s original, silent-film footage—such as the sound of the airplane landing—is a post-facto invention. Ruby points out that the only reason most academic viewers don’t notice or object to such “manipulative devices” is that the film complies with their own liberal sentiments: “As the old cliché goes, it is educational when we agree and propaganda when we don’t” (1995:143).

MacBean (1995) and Connolly (1996) contest Ruby’s interpretation, but presumably nobody would disagree that the technology scenes in “FC” ostensibly fit Obeyesekere’s “myth model,” in which Europeans expect to be deified and feared by non-Westerners. For example, Obeyesekere sees the mapping activities on Cook’s voyages as “symbolic performances” of colonial dominance (1992:12). And Borofsky concurs that the “British had a drama of their own to play out. There seems little doubt, for example, that the British—with their weaponry, astronomical navigation, and ability to manufacture daggers prized by Hawaiians—viewed themselves as technologically superior to the Hawaiians” (1997:263).

Critics like MacBean are right, then, to say that there is something problematic about “FC”’s depictions of natives reacting with awe at Western technology. Although my students have not read these travelers’ accounts, their viewing of “FC” is prefigured by exposure to other media representations of “techno-dramas,” not to mention their own daily dependence on technology. When asked on the written survey to compare funny “FC” scenes with other texts or experiences, students cited various popular Hollywood films, including Disney films. The single most common comparison, though, was with the South African blockbuster “The Gods Must Be Crazy” (Uys 1980). In the 300-level class, 6 out of the 16 students who had previously seen “The Gods Must be Crazy” (“GMBC” hereafter) compared it with “FC.” Five students made the comparison in terms of the celebration of Western trash by indigenous peoples in both films, i.e., the Coke bottle in “GMBC” and the tin lids and biscuit boxes in “FC” (the 6th student compared “GMBC” with the confusion in “FC” over how the white men excrete). After being asked in a follow-up survey whether they saw any connections between the two films, all of the other 10 students who had previously seen “GMBC” also made specific comparisons between “FC” and “GMBC,” especially in terms of the Coke bottle and headdress.7 In the 100-level class, nine of 18 students had previously seen “GMBC”; four of those nine made comparisons with various scenes in “FC,” including the wives packed in bags (2), the headdress (1), and seeing the plane as a bird (1).

These comparisons with “GMBC” do not reflect well on “FC,” given that the former has been thoroughly condemned by anthropologists and other academics. The main charges are the following: “GMBC” perpetuates a mythical, stereotypical image of isolated, pristine, harmonious natives while ignoring the brutal history of exploitation of the “Bushmen” under white colonialism and South African apartheid (Blythe 1986; Garland and Gordon 1999; Gordon 1990, 2000; Tomaselli 1990, 1992; Volkman 1986, 1988); by exaggerating Bushmen tracking skills, it justified the recruitment of Bushmen to the South African Defence Force, to fight against SWAPO (Gilliam 1984; Gordon 2000); it exaggerates racial differences and justifies South African apartheid by providing a parallel story of incompetent black guerillas, Bushmen who do not need or want money or modernization, and white governance through superior scientific understanding and rationality (Davis 1985, Gilliam 1984, Gordon 2000; Volkman 1988); it animalizes the Bushmen (Blythe 1986; Gilliam 1984); and it obscures processes of domination through “imperialist nostalgia” (Rosaldo 1993). This is not to say that all these authors agree with each other, or that their critiques are unsusceptible to dispute.8 But these multiple critiques at least indicate that “GMBC” is a problematic representation of non-Western Others. Indeed, “GMBC” received an official condemnation from the American Anthropological Association (see Volkman 1988).

It seems likely, then, that students’ perceptions of “FC” were mediated by their previous experiences with popular films like “GMBC.” In fact, Sam Pack has persuasively suggested that, in general, mass media images have this sort of effect:

I contend that negative stereotypes of the ‘primitive’ are inherited by and perpetuated through popular media representations. After a lifetime of television programs, feature films, music videos, video games, etc., how can consumers of the electronic age view the “exotic” in any other way? (Pack 1998; see also Pack 2000, 2002; Chalfen and Pack 1998).

Pack’s argument is plausible: it is consistent, for example, with Hayden White’s theory (1978) about the influence of literary models on historical writings. Of course, the students, when responding to my request for comparisons with other texts, may have simply recalled “GMBC” without that film having significantly influenced their viewing of “FC.” Although it is hard to rule out that possibility, the consistency with which students in two different classes made these comparisons with “GMBC” suggests that it did influence viewing of “FC.” But whatever the exact level of that influence, the striking parallels between these two films—which other viewers would presumably recognize as well—should raise alarm bells. We could say that “FC” is guilty by association with “GMBC,” particularly in terms of the latter’s exaggeration of racial/cultural differences through portrayals of native awe and misunderstanding of white technology. (Other critiques of “GMBC,” such as elision of colonial history, perpetuation of Edenic imagery, and justification of army recruitment, do not clearly apply to “FC”; see MacBean 1995:116.) When this culpability is combined with the above-noted problems with superiority humor and spectacles of technological dominance, “FC” starts to seem like a deeply flawed representation—yet another case, in other words, of the racist stereotyping identified earlier by Martínez. In fact, Martínez himself also observed students’ reactions to “FC,” and found they came away from it viewing the New Guinea highlanders as “almost sub-human and savage cannibals that needed colonialism in order to ‘understand the world’” (1992:137). It would therefore be easy to conclude, as Martínez did, that students continue to take away toxic images from this film.

But that is precisely the problem: it is too easy to draw this conclusion. As I show in the remainder of the paper, there is much more going on here than racist stereotyping; other interpretations of student responses to the film complicate and challenge everything said thus far.

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