Visual anthropology review


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So what does it mean when Western viewers laugh at Papua New Guinean natives being frightened by a gramophone or airplane? Following Obeyesekere’s myth model, there is a distinct—and unflattering—possibility that they are laughing at the naivete, irrationality, or stupidity of the natives. But even if such feelings of superiority may be at play in immediate reactions to certain scenes, I think that ultimately the students see the film as confirming the rationality of the Papua New Guineans.

A good example is the scene in which the natives examine the Australians’ excrement, to see if they’re human. The reported conclusion of that test— “Their skin is white, but their shit smells like ours”—seemed funny to the overwhelming majority of students: 15/18 in the 100-level class marked it as funny, and 13/19 in the 300-level class did the same, making it, along with the headdress scene, one of the scenes most consistently perceived as funny. Once again, this scene had a strong element of incongruity and surprise. In one sudden, unexpected moment, a number of distinctions between the cultural actors in the film were collapsed and reversed:
Skin vs. Shit
Body exterior Body interior
Gods/spirits Humans

(previous status of (new status of Australians, post-test results)

Difference Sameness
Added to all these reversals, nervous energy is released by the mention of “shit,” a taboo subject in Western culture (see Morreall 1983). The combination of incongruity and taboo works to great comic effect, with almost every single student finding this scene funny, despite the lack of intonation (the “shit smells like ours” line appeared in subtitles) or a special visual image (the shot here is simply a highlander talking with minimal facial expression).

It would be easy to say that this scene is also funny because it reveals the technological inferiority of a non-Western culture. In fact, William Thompson interprets student reactions to a similar scene in John Marshall’s “The Hunters”(1956) in precisely this way:

At one point [in “The Hunters”], Kaow, “The Beautiful,” picks up the fallen dung of the giraffe, smells it, and crumbles it in his hand. It is, anthropologically, a beautiful moment in the film, for it always raises laughter and disgust in a student audience. The average student is revolted by his perception of a savage crumbling giraffe dung in his fingers and so he is confirmed in his conviction of civilized superiority (Thompson1971:107).11

Yet, as Thompson goes on to say, the better students in the class recognize this “dung test” as the work of rational intelligence, the counterpart to Western medical science:

The perceptive student, however, is confirmed in his conviction of the Bushman’s intelligence. Kaow crumbles the dung, examines its texture, and smells it to see how far the poison has been assimilated into the animal’s system, and to guess just how long he has to wait before it drops. In what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss calls “The Science of the Concrete,” the mind of this savage is thinking concretely in terms of what we would more abstractly call the animal’s mass, its metabolic rate, and the extrapolated time of death. It is the average student who is revolted by the sight of dung who is the real intellectual primitive, and, in fact, if he were to be trained as a doctor, he would have to learn how to handle his data as dispassionately as Kaow (Thompson ibid.).12

This example raises an important question: Do viewers actually see the Papua New Guinea “feces test” as rational and logical? I investigated this issue by asking the students three follow-up questions (without using terms like “rational” or “logical,” for fear of unduly shaping the answers): “1) Could the PNG have used tests of Australians’ humanness that would have been more effective than inspecting their feces?; 1a) If so, please specify those alternatives; 1b) If alternatives existed, why do you think the PNG chose to study feces instead?”13 The students all concluded, in effect, that examining the Australians’ feces was the most effective, logical test for humanness given the circumstances. The combination of their answers to #1a-b made it clear that they were saying “no,” i.e., in those circumstances, there could not have been a more effective test than the feces examination. 15 of the 16 students thought of other tests that, hypothetically, could have been as effective as the feces test, such as seeing whether the Australians had blood (6 students thought of this alternative), seeing their anatomy when naked (5), checking their breathing (3), and inspecting their food (2).14 Yet none of the students ultimately thought that these alternative tests would have been more effective than the feces test: as every single student said in answering question 1b, the feces test was the safest way to test for humanness since it did not involve physical contact with the Australians (as opposed to drawing a blood sample or seeing them naked, etc.). Here is the way one student put it:

  1. I think the PNG checking the feces of the Australians was fine. Breathing, eating, and getting rid of waste is something all living things do, so it only makes sense that the PNG would investigate all 3 attributes of the Australians. Also, checking the feces isn’t something so far fetched that Westerners wouldn’t do it either.

1b) I think checking the feces was an easy way to determine if the Australians were human that involved little direct contact, and it transcended the language barrier—Sally Bullock.

So the students recognized the intelligence of these non-Westerners, granting them what Obeyesekere has called “practical rationality.” The “feces test” nicely fits Obeyesekere’s distinction between practical reality and common-sense utilitarianism in terms of the former’s reflective quality, a “calculation or weighing of the issues involved in any problematic situation” (1992:20). You could say that the Papua New Guineans, like the !Kung, used astute common sense to track animals by examining their feces, but for Obeyesekere, that would only be an example of Lévi-Strauss’ science of the concrete, which Obeyesekere finds is still dangerously close to older theories about mystical primitives, such as Lévy-Bruhl’s (Obeyesekere 1992:15). The test of the Australians’ feces, on the other hand, showed that the Papua New Guineans confronted a novel, problematic situation—first contact with outsiders, who were not known to exist previously—and, through conscious reflection, were able to make sense of that situation. In fact, the Papua New Guineans’ conclusions are coterminous with Obeyesekere’s premises, as well as those of Buddhism, in which the human body reveals humankind’s biological sameness: “Not in the rump, sex-organs or the breast…Nothing unique is in men’s bodies found” (Buddah, quoted by Obeysekere in Borofsky 1997:272). Obeyesekere—and presumably others—would therefore be glad to know that these students recognize the practical rationality of these non-Westerners. The “shit smells like ours” line initially seems funny to the students because of its incongruity and taboo subject, but it ends up being one of those jokes that has more truth to it than one first realized. Perhaps if Thompson had directly asked his students what they thought of the giraffe-dung test, he would have found that there was not such a large gap between the “average” and “perceptive” student. Or perhaps the rise of multiculturalism since the time he was writing has closed that gap (more on this below). For whatever reason, my students grant enough rationality to the Papua New Guineans to make the superiority theory of humor an improbable explanation for why they laugh when hearing about the feces test of humanness.

You can see a similar dynamic at work in the headdress scene. In the second class session, I asked the students to answer the following question individually, in writing: “Can you think of any historical situations in which Westerners placed tremendous value on something of no value to the other culture (like the PNG headdress with the biscuit box)? Please give examples (if any exist).” Most of the students made the comparison with Western money and gold, including the Australians’ search for gold in the film. In the 300-level class, 11 out of 15 students compared the headdress with either the gold in the film or with oil; and in the 100-level class, 7 of 16 students mentioned gold or money.15 Without any prompting, these students were able to close the loop, to see the parallels between the two cultures despite all the ostensible differences. Both cultures placed great value on a rare hard metal and used it for ornamentation purposes. This is not to say that the students endorsed the Australians’ search for gold, just that they perceived a cultural equivalence, and, the headdress, like the “feces test,” was deemed logical. Confirming the view that Obeyesekere and Sahlins are not always as far apart as they claim (Borofsky 1997; Geertz 1995), the students combine Sahlins’ sensitivity to cultural symbolism with Obeyesekere’s emphasis on human commonalities.

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