Visual anthropology review

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Myth models do exist, as Obeyesekere argues, but the way they affect the interpretation of specific texts by actual audiences always remains an open question. This can be clearly seen in the differences between “FC” responses documented by Martínez and myself: relatively slight differences in audience position—same age group and “culture,” different time period, campus, and course design—resulted in radically different perceptions of the same film text and genre. In fact, Martínez himself (1996:87) found changes in student responses after only a five-year period: “In 1987 students were comparatively more prone to express their spontaneous, ethnocentric interpretations and ‘negative’ judgements of the represented, and to reject cultural behaviour they disliked or could not process adequately. By 1993, viewers appeared more ‘savvy’ and ‘relativisitic’ in their interpretations, yet also more reserved and deceptive in their personal opinions.” Martínez attributed such sensitivity to “increasing socialization of students into multicultural contexts, the impact of postmodern media, instructors’ heightened attention to the politics of representation and corresponding critical teaching practices” (ibid.).

If audience responses can vary this much after only five years on the same college campus, we can only imagine how much variation divides 21st-century North American students, early-20th-century Australian colonialists like the Leahy brothers, and the explorers of Captain Cook’s day. Even within a single historical moment, receptions of cultural representations will be determined by differences in social positioning, including variations by culture, religion, occupation, ideology, and gender (Jhala 1996). Even within the same demographic, differences will be found according to student background: in this study, only students in the 100-level class made comparisons between natives and children, and the 300-level students were quicker to see the connection between Australian gold and PNG tin headdresses. If I focused less on an emotional response like laughter and more on anthropological interpretive strategies like the ability to read cultural symbolism or critically evaluate evidence, I’m sure I would have found even more significant differences between my lower-level and upper-level students. With baseline studies like this one and further research with larger, more varied samples, researchers could look at the way responses to ethnographic film vary according to these and other factors.

Without the ethnographic research that Ruby (2000) and others have called for, we risk conflating all these distinctions. We risk falling into what Greenblatt calls “a kind of sentimental pessimism that simply collapses everything into a global vision of domination and subjection” (1991:152, note 4); or, echoing critiques of Said’s “Orientalism,” we risk falling into an essentialist reading of the West that replicates precisely that which it criticizes.

Certainly interesting questions remain about student receptions of ethnographic films. Although I have tried to show that incongruity explains most of the film’s humor, I still would not rule out the possibility that student laughter was fueled by some sense of superiority as well. Notwithstanding the evidence presented above against it, the superiority interpretation is still plausible. It’s probably flattering to most Westerners to think that their technology could have such effects on other peoples. The students’ comparisons of the PNG with children are also suggestive, even if only 4 out of 37 students made them. I did not otherwise find specific evidence for superiority humor, but perhaps other research designs could produce different results. Whether in a study of this film or others, humor will continue to provide an interesting angle precisely because it tends to be so ambiguous and complex.

Complexity will also abound as we move from the empirical to the ethical: that is, questions about our moral obligations, as film directors, viewers, and instructors. MacBean (1994, 1995) takes Connolly and Anderson to task for not more fully contextualizing PNG cultures, thereby leaving their films open to racist interpretations. Up to a certain point, I accept Connolly’s response, which was to deny responsibility for every conceivable reading of his films. A reviewer got it right when he said that what makes “FC” such a great film is that the directors “never explain too much” (quoted in Connolly 1996:100). As Connolly says, the challenge filmmakers face is to “make the drama meaningful without clogging the film’s arteries…because nothing destroys a film as easily as too much information” (Connolly 1996:100). In fact, the same point applies in the print medium: as I have written elsewhere (Wogan 2004a:136), many ethnographies are needlessly marred by an “’everything and the kitchen sink’ mode, [in which] five examples are used where one would have sufficed….” But at what point is it acceptable for filmmakers to proclaim, as Connolly does, “we are filmmakers, not publicists or educators” (1996:100)? This sort of dichotomy between professional filmmakers and trained anthropologists is precisely what Ruby (2000) sees as the fundamental shortcoming of most ethnographic films. It seems disingenuous for Connolly, who has addressed anthropological audiences and even stated his affinity for anthropological methods (Lutkehaus 1994), to turn around and use his status as a filmmaker to swear off responsibility for his films.

MacBean (1994, 1995) insists that his most damning criticism is that “FC” leaves a gap between “then and now.” In a spirited response, Connolly (1996:99-100) argues that some of the information omitted in the film would have actually been more damning of the Papua New Guineans. Connolly could argue that the film’s “then-vs.-now” dichotomy actually protects the Papua New Guineans by preventing the viewer from realizing that, to this very day, some New Guineans see white visitors as powerful spirits (see Leavitt 2000 for descriptions of such reactions). Does MacBean really want to argue that this film should have informed Western viewers that they are still being viewed this way? MacBean should be careful in calling for the elimination of then-now gaps: he might just get what he wishes for.

I personally don’t wish for the elimination of all ambiguity, since that would mean the death of art and thought. I’m comfortable saying this because I believe responsibility for cultural representations ultimately lies with viewers and instructors. I found a discrepancy between the 100-level and 300-level classes in terms of the latter’s students more quickly catching on to the parallels between the Australians’ obsession with gold and the Papua New Guineans’ ceremonial use of tin cans and other “trash.” This difference between the two classes can be partly credited to the value added by age/maturity and anthropology coursework, both of which seem to heighten sensitivity to Western colonialism and cross-cultural comparison. Another factor apparently at work was that the 100-level students were more easily misled by my question, assuming that the other examples I asked for had to come from other cultures, rather than under their noses, in the film itself. But I wouldn’t exaggerate these differences. After I pointed out to the rest of the 100-level class that other students saw a parallel between the Australian gold and PNG tin cans (the perspectival problem of trash-vs.-treasure distinctions), the point immediately clicked, and they said, in so many words, “Ah, of course—we should have thought of that!” This example demonstrates that we should give student viewers and ourselves more credit: we should recognize our capacity as instructors to fill in filmic gaps that trouble us, and we should allow students to wrestle with complexities.

We also need more humor, not less. Humor is not just a way to reach the masses (no small benefit for anyone who believes in a public anthropology), but a way to create insight into complex situations—and to create cultural critiques, which, like incongruity humor, employ techniques of juxtaposition (Marcus and Fischer 1986) and subversive verbal play (Rosaldo 1993:192). “Nacirema” is wonderful, but the field of anthropology, after a hundred years or so of professional existence, should be able to come up with more than this one good joke and the few others that get trotted out at times like this. Even now, in an age of experimental ethnographic writing, few anthropologists have answered Renato Rosaldo’s call for satirical, insightful cultural analyses in the tradition of Veblen and Goffman (1993:62). Whether inspired by Goffman, Montaigne (see Basu 1999:384; Greenblatt 1991:119-151), or Seinfeld, we could use some more jokes.

Of course humor risks offending people, so it will not make a simple addition to our rhetorical repertoire. It may be precisely Connolly and Anderson’s lack of formal status in anthropology—their liberation from fears of offending anthropologist colleagues and PNG collaborators—that allowed them to create such a complex, funny film. But, in a sense, being on the verge of offending others is as it always has been in anthropology. As Geertz said in his reflections on the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate, anthropology is a discipline designed for vexation: “Anthropology generally, and cultural anthropology in particular, draws the greater part of its vitality from the controversies that animate it” (Geertz 1985:4). All the more reason, then, to make each other laugh—and think—while we’re at it.


1 As a reflection of his vision of more rigorous, theoretically-grounded filmmaking, Jay Ruby (2000:6) proposes reserving the term “ethnographic film” for “those works in which the maker had formal training in ethnography, intended to produce an ethnography, employed ethnographic field practices, and sought validation among those competent to judge the work as an ethnography.” Although I agree with Ruby’s vision, I use the term “ethnographic film” here simply because it is immediately recognizable.

2 Ruby (2000:183, 190-191) cites a book chapter by Jayasinhji Jhala (1994), and conference papers or unpublished manuscripts by Thomas Hearne and Paul DeVore, Sam Pack, and Naomi Offler. For excellent recent, published work in this area, see Pack (2000).

3 “FC” has won the following awards: Academy Award Nominee; Festival de Popoli, Florence, Italy, First Prize; Cinema du Reel, Paris, Grand Prix; Sydney Film Festival, Best Documentary; Australian Film Institute Awards, Best Feature Documentary; Silver Sesterce, Nyon; San Francisco Film Festival, First Prize in Sociology; American Film Festival Red Ribbon; Australian Teachers of Media, Best Documentary.

4 Other anthropology instructors, including instructors from universities in the U.S. South who heard my conference paper on this topic (Wogan 2004b), told me that their students always laugh at “FC.” This is not to treat students as a homogenous group; various students presumably laugh at different scenes and for different reasons, as ethnographic studies would show.

5 Although MacBean is not sure whether the record-biting scene was invented by Flaherty, it was, in fact, a filmic recreation of something Flaherty saw Nanook do (Rotha 1983:31).

6 Strathern is primarily concerned with Papua New Guinean perceptions of the Australians. As I note below, many of her conclusions diverge from those of the film.

7 In a follow-up during the class period after the initial survey, I asked for written answers to the following questions: 1) When did you see “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” if ever?; 2) If you saw it, do you see any similarities with “First Contact?” Please explain.

Student answers to # 2 included connections like the following: “”Interest in objects from our culture. Thinking white men were gods or thinking in terms of the heavens (the bottle came from the heavens).”

8 Tomaselli, for example, argues that Gilliam, Blythe, and others have sometimes exaggerated (Tomaselli 1990); Afrikaneers may be more taken with pastoral longings than pro-apartheid sentiments (Tomaselli 1990:77; 1992:213); and the San themselves do not necessarily agree that “GMBC” is racist or that hunting is primitive essentialism (Tomaselli 2002:208-209). Gordon also refers to Rosaldo’s thesis as a “crude psychologism” (Gordon 1995:44), and he altered some of his own views on cultural authenticity between the writing of the first (Gordon 1992) and second edition of his book (Gordon and Douglas 2000).

9 I agree with Oring (2003:4) that children’s humor is generally a problematic guide to adult humor. I only use this toddler example, however, to illustrate the theoretical possibility that humor could be based on incongruity alone—and the toddler, who clearly has no sense of superiority, is uniquely qualified to illustrate this point.

10 Even though I realize humor does not always result in outward “laughter,” I use the transitive verb “laugh” sometimes in order to reduce the number of passive-voice constructions like “was seen as amusing,” etc.

11 Thanks to Tad Tuleja for drawing my attention to this passage.

12 Indeed, stool samples can symbolize bio-medical, scientific knowledge: in “GMBC,” the white “scientist” studies elephant dung with elaborate equipment. None of the students in either class ever compared this aspect of “FC” and “GMBC,” perhaps because most had seen “GMBC” more than seven years prior and only remembered more central, reoccurring symbols like the Coke bottle. Also, there is minimal comic effect the first (and only) time we see the scientist taking a dung sample in “GMBC”: this action is not accompanied by special music or slapstick-style speeding up of the film, and it is not even immediately clear what the “scientist” is doing. And the dung only gets mentioned once more in the film. In this case, as in many others, the mention of feces is automatically funny to Western audiences.

13 These questions were asked at the start of the class session after the film was watched, and the questions were only asked of the 100-level class. I still had not yet explained any of the results of the survey, nor my reasons for asking all these questions. Questions were written on an overhead transparency, and students filled out answers independently, on their own paper. Two students were absent, so the total number on this follow-up survey is 16, rather than 18. To clarify question #1, I added verbally that any alternative test of humanness would have to use the level of technology that the PNG seemed to have had at that time.

14 Perhaps this misreading of the exact question occurred because a) the wording and/ or numbering was confusing (in retrospect, I should have numbered the questions as “1a,” “1b,” and “1c”); and/or b) the question was written on a transparency projected onto a screen at the front of the room, which made it harder to see the exact wording of the questions (especially the phrase “more effective”). For all the other surveys, each student had a photocopied “hard copy” form at his or her desk. I used the transparency, rather than a sheet with pre-set spaces for each question, in order to save paper and not limit or affect the length of answers.

15 Four students in the 300-level class did not answer this question because they took more time on earlier questions and ran out of time. The other four students answered as follows: solitude, the outdoors, weapons, and food.

16 The one student who did find this funny said he did so because he “was unaware that fear and confusion were directly related to bowel movements”—Henry.

17 The survey allowed students to list as many funny scenes as they wanted, but it asked them at the end to put an asterisk “next to the two scenes that you thought were the funniest of those described above.” Both classes overwhelmingly marked the headdress and “shit smells likes ours” scenes as the two funniest. Of the six students (in the 300-level course) who also found the gramophone scene funny, all six marked the headdress scene as one of the two funniest scenes; four marked the “shit smells” scene as one of the two funniest; and two marked the “they must have huge penises” scene as one of the two funniest.

18 Although MacBean (1994, 1995) and Ruby (1995) debate the relationship between these sound effects and the film’s anti-colonial message, they agree that the initial music was ominous.

19 This was also true of the final scene of the movie, where the New Guineans are shown laughing at the earlier Leahy footage. As one student noted, “It’s like seeing a home movie of yourself years later and you see yourself so differently” (Jessica Berger). Not only does such PNG laughter make it easier to laugh along with them, it makes it easier for students like Jessica to empathize with the New Guineans.

20 But just as an excess of difference or wonder can result in mental and moral paralysis, as these philosophers noted (Greenblatt 1991:20), so incongruities must be moderate and comprehensible to be deemed funny (Murray 1993:15).

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