June 23, 2011

VISUALISM (Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts) by Nigel Rapport and Joanna Overing

It is perhaps ironical that at the same time as there has been an anthropological desire to deconstruct the central place given in the West to vision as a form of knowing (where ‘I see’ is synonymous with ‘I understand’) (cf. Ong 1969; Dias 1994), and to recognize an array of other senses and forms (Stoller 1989b), visual anthropology has also grown into a methodological specialism—albeit one seeking to redress a traditional (Western) emphasis on the written word as a form of representing anthropological knowledge. Nor has the irony gone unnoticed. Indeed, visual anthropology has been critiqued from two vantage-points: the ‘traditional’, in whose view anthropology must perforce remain a logocentric discipline because of the need to convey abstraction and theory, and there being no clear route from the particularities of the image to the generalities of a holistic social structure (cf. Bloch 1988); and the ‘post-colonial’, in whose view the technologies of filmic representation are unavoidably corrupted by their being Western practices with a history and continuing provenance of ideological control.

Notwithstanding this, visual anthropology, the employment of pictorial media as means to communicate anthropological knowledge, has continued to grow; it has challenged notions that anthropological knowledge must needs be seen either as holistic or as hegemonic. It has argued that there are important contributions to be made via pictorial media to the study of the audio-visual dimensions of human behaviour, of culture as manifested in visible symbols and audible sounds—as gesture, script, oration, dance, ceremony, ritual, art-work, craft and material artefact.
‘Pictorial media’ has come generally to mean film and video, although there have been significant anthropological forays into study of and by other visual forms such as photography (Bateson and Mead 1942; Pinney 1990) and television (Intintoli 1984; Liebes and Katz 1990). (The anthropology of artistic-cum-visual forms has tended to represent another specialism again, linked with issues of aesthetics (cf. Layton 1981; Coote and Shelton 1991).) Even here, however, and with film and video being such accepted representational genres outwith anthropology, definitional problems have arisen concerning what is truly or distinctively ‘anthropological’ or ‘ethnographic’ in the pictorial. How seriously are aesthetic, emotional and sentimental registers to be taken as filmic components? How should documentation be validated, and how balanced with narrational needs? What poetic, even surrealistic, strategies are to be permissible in the conveying of subjects’ inner experiences? In short, how, and to what extent, should ‘ethnography’ take precedence over cinematography? Through a number of celebrated films—Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds (1963) and Forest of Bliss (1985); Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1965)—these issues have been brought to a head (cf. Heider 1976; Stoller 1992). Perhaps the best that can be said, following Sol Worth (1981), is that a film or video is anthropological if an anthropologist chooses to treat it as such, a judgement likely to be made on the basis of the extent to which the ‘screen-play’ can be seen to be informed by local ethnographic knowledge, while the subject-matter is local behavior which is normative (whether spontaneous or scripted) in a particular socio-cultural milieu.

Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts (page:386-388)
Nigel Rapport and Joanna Overing
First published 2000 by Routledge
11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE
ISBN 0-203-75937-0 (Adobe eReader Format)

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