Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Screening Question

In Reading Hurricane Katrina, Giroux writes “The Hurricane Katrina disaster, like the
Emmett Till affair, revealed a vulnerable and destitute segment of the nation’s citizenry that conservatives not only refused to see but had spent the better part of two decades demonizing.” Did the destructive nature of Katrina indeed expose clearly the structural racism and systematic discrimination that already exists in society? Particularly the gap between blacks and whites— those who suffered the most and the least? In the film Trouble the Water, Kim and Scott films/narrates their experiences surviving Katrina, the rescue of their friends, and the devastations of their community in the 9th Ward. How effective is their personal footages in revealing “what really happened” during and after Hurricane Katrina? How different is it from the media footages that the public is given?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Framing Question: Capturing Nature

In his assessment of the biopolitical implications of Hurricane Katrina, Giroux asserts that television image can be revelatory, insisting that the images of black suffering propagated throughout the mainstream media revealed the typically obscured, racist biopolitical machinery of the nation at large:

“The Hurricane Katrina disaster, like the Emmett Till Affair, revealed a vulnerable and destitute segment of the nation’s citizenry that conservatives not only refused to see, but had spent the better part of two decades demonizing…the black bodies of the dead and walking wounded in New Orleans in 2005 revealed a different image of the racial state, a different modality of state terrorism, marked less by an overt form of white racism than by a highly mediated displacement of race as a central concept for understanding both Katrina and its place in the broader history of U.S. racism.”

Here Giroux’s appeal to the Emmett Till affair, and to the rise of a new state racism harkens to Foucault’s biopolitical turn--whereby the power of the state to kill and to control the population through death is replaced by a new form of biopower where the state has the power to let some live while others suffer and parish. He seems to think that the images of dead black bodies on the national news revealed the normally concealed workings of a biopolitical apparatus that makes some members of the citizenry disposable.

Yet how powerful do we really think the television image can be? In her analysis of TV news coverage of catastrophe, Mary Ann Doane stresses that the TV device is perfectly compatible for expressing information constantly in the present tense. Unlike a filmic representation of the world (which can be seen as a past, already created art object to be critiqued in the present) television informs us of the way things are in a steady stream of now.

In her discussion of the liveness of TV, Doane speaks of the almost fetishistic quality of the medium: “the impression of a unity of ‘real time’ is preserved, covering over the extreme discontinuity which is in fact typical of television in the US at this historical moment”. Like the fetishized commodity—which appears natural and ahistorical to the consumer, and thus obscures the different forms of labor and exchange that went into it’s production—the television image appears always in the present tense, a perfect live window into another world. The realness of TV is aided by the presence of the television reporter, on the scene. In CNN coverage of Hurricane Katrina, Anderson Cooper’s presence in the middle of the storm gives legitimacy to the newscast. His normally perfect white hair is disheveled, and as he turns to face the wind he describes the pain of “pin pricks on his face”. We feel his momentary suffering as a sign of the realness of the information he is presenting, despite the fact that (like the humanitarian workers in Fassin) he can always hop in the van and leave when reporting on the news becomes too dangerous, too uncomfortable.

The question then remains how the fetishistic television image can be as powerful as Giroux suggests. How can information image seen on CNN explode the glossy coating that obscures the racist nature of a biopolitical state that would be willing to let some of its people die so that others might live in opulence? From there, does the film Trouble the Water potentially present us with a representation of Katrina with more liberatory potential than the information of a newscast? If so, why? Is the representation versus information distinction a good one? Do the autoethnographic techniques employed in the film bring us closer to the experience that we might experience a fuller presence within the catastrophe? Or is the documentary just another layer of unacknowledged mediation akin to the Anderson Cooper live-streaming newscast?

Week 13 Close Reading: Information, Crisis, Catastrophe

In "Information, Crisis, Catastrophe," Doane argues that the catastrophe, rather than representing a rupture in the continuity of television's stream of images, in fact reflects the very mode of television's operation in its insistence on the immediate, the urgent, and the discontinuous. Catastrophe, acting as a "mirror of television's own functioning," (234) thus activates two poles of TV's claim on the "real": the discontinuous and the continuous, technoscientific failure and unstoppable progess. Doane seems to suggest that catastrophe gestures outside the realm of signification itself, even though television operates on the level of images, sound, and text:
It is this remainder, this residue, which televisual catastrophe exploits. The social fascination of catastrophe rests on the desire to confront the remainder, or to be confronted with that which is in excess of signification. Catastrophe seems to testify to the inertia of the real and television's privileged relation to it. In the production and reproduction of the metonymic chain--the body-catastrophe-death-referentiality--television legitimates its own discourse." (236)

A couple of questions emerge: first, we have encountered over the course of this class, the notion that "states of exception" to a norm in fact aid in the production and reproduction of certain assemblages of knowledge-power and discourses, for instance the concentration camp in the context of biopolitical logics underlying racism. How does catastrophe legitimate television? On page 238, Doane claims, "If information becomes a commodity on the brink of its existence or loss, televisual catastrophe magnifies that death many times over." What is the function of maintaining the apparatus of television on the brink of existence? Stated differently, how does maintaining death as the limit of technology and signification help underpin particular modes of representation?

Another series of questions also come to mind: in what ways has this notion of the limit of signification emerged in this class? I'm thinking now of Foucault's argument regarding ethnology and psychoanalysis, which he argues attempt to leap over representation. In this case, Doane is discussing the limits of signification in the context of "referentiality" within television's economies of meaning. In what ways does Doane's critique resemble Shukin's attempt to locate the animal within the material and symbolic mechanics of capital? How does Doane's argument regarding the limit of death as the ultimate point of referentiality articulate with the other readings this week on biopolitics?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Autoethnography Week (make-up blog)

To answer a peer’s question of what’s at stake in the timelessness of these indigenous films, I would answer the preservation and presentation of authentic cultural experience.

In Marketing Alterity, Moore argues for the function of indigenous films. One interesting quote s in the following: “The Asch/Chagnon films, however, used formal tropes for disorientation and unfixing authorial positions to gain a rhetorical advantage for science and explanation…What comes to us from the synch sound and apparently candid images of people is, always, strange and chaotic. The sound from the ethnographers by contrast…is full of reason and explanation” (129).

Because knowledge and evidence are the priorities, there seems to be a kind of authorial devices used by Asch/Chagnon and it is evident that they have an intellectual curiosity in their endeavors as well. Furthermore, the silence of the majority of the films (especially in the weaving woman) served to reinforce the intimate nature of the images. Silence as an auditory device posits a powerful question: did the filmmakers use silence as a metaphor for the voiceless? If so, a potential interpretation is one of empowerment, what we might consider ‘the roar of silence’; on the other hand, the empowering dimension rendered by the absence of audio might perpetuate a cycle of marginalization if the message is lost upon some of the audience.

I feel as though the indigenous filmmakers, in an attempt to showcase and preserve their native culture, opened a portal between themselves and their ancestral past and in so doing embarked upon a journey of self-discovery that “solves their problems and not ours” (137). As one peer pointed out Moore’s “theoretical burdens of representation” and “self-ethnography,” we must remember the importance of representation and what images presented can come across. Although the Navajo Project “legitimizes” and epitomizes oppositional and expresses the participatory studies, we must keep in mind the significant events that occurred during this period such as post-colonial and the radicalization of 1960s in our understanding of the penetration of video and community films. It is also important to note the time gap between the films’ movements. Ginsburg uses the metaphor of the “parallax effect” and remarks on the framework that it can allow us to view ethnographic film and indigenous media. Again, we are still operating on these assumptions of perhaps our preconceived notions of culture and what may be our “realist illusion” within a Westernized gaze (171).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Screening Question

In looking at William Wegman's Alphabet Soup, the viewer is presented with scenes in which a family of dogs, often accompanied by human limbs, use their physical body to act out letters and associated words of the alphabet. These images are accompanied by the narrator, Wegman, who incorporates instances where the dogs are unable to keep their composure (typically when food is involved) into their narrative dialogue. This is an instance of interspecies intimacy, a term used by Shukin in Animal Capital to represent a human-animal kinship of "contemplative coexistence and interspecies civility". Shukin writes, "the right relationship toward our animal kin... is one of aesthetic appreciation" (pg 200). This is most evident in the final scene when the camera zooms in on a-z letter blocks placed is various positions on top and around the curving lines of dog's body. The film also follows Shukin's descriptions of the Gulf Oil image 'The Creation of Adam' in repeatedly capturing a gesture of trust between animal and man while existing in a time outside of history. With this in mind, to what extent does this treatment of dogs efface a history of the wild beast in support of the tamed animal. Does the limitation of activity to cooking, writing and interpreting words prevent the horrors bound in breaching species barriers (pandemic speculation pg 211)? If not, what does allow these scenes to transcend multispecies intolerance/ 'sickness'? In thinking back to L'enfant sauvage, Wegman's film can be seen as a manipulation of the trope of the civilized man teaching the primitive animal levels of signification. The roles however are not completely reversed -- the man is still always present in voice and hands. What is at stake in the animal as instructor, but only through its corporeal form?

Question for 4/20: Zoographies

Close Reading Quesiton:
Nicole Shukin's Animal Capital: Rendering Life in the Biopolitical Times provides a unique critique of the inadequacies of the emergent field within cultural studies and literary theory of "animal studies." Shukin, through her proposed project of "rendering," accounts for her desire to formulate what she calls a "biopolitical approach to mimesis." This methodology, "suggest that textual logics of reproduction can no longer be treated in isolation from economic logics of (capitalist) reproduction" (20). Shukin notes rendering not only as a dominant or hegemonic discursive practice but also as a critical practice. By doing so, she not only addresses the material and therefore capitalist economic conditions of animal capital but also the metaphorical and textual value of animal capital in economies of meaning. This setting allows us to understand her critique not only as an attempt to bring these discourses together, but in doing so to create a counter-hegemonic logic. It is by this logic that Shukin continues to show the productive task of biopolitical critique--a critique that emerges and resists power at the source of its hegemonic production--that we saw in not only Foucault but also Rey Chow in the previous week.
With this in mind I would like to turn to a particular section of Shunkin's work Automobility of which she says,
names a complex of cultural and economic relationships that are by no means finished and that exceed historical containment in the past. The material-semiotic network of automobility emerges, but does not end, with three early time-motion economies: animal disassembly, automotive assembly, and moving picture production. Automobility refers to the "moving" effects of cars and cinema, effects achieved by technologically as well as semiotically mimicking the seamless physiology of animals in motion.(90).

With the notions of motion in mind Shukin attempts to render what she notes as the "material unconscious" of culture surrounding the production animal capital. The notion of the material unconscious is borrowed from Bill Brown and his invocation of Walter Benjamin's formulation of history, "not as a past chronology of finished events but as unsettled fragments still up for revision" (89).
Shukin suggest that the vertical abattoir can serve as a proto-cinematic spectacle, one in which the "animals hoisted onto moving overhead tracks and sped down the disassembly line constituted one of North America's first 'moving pictures'" (92). Just a sentence later, Shukin points out that the exhibition of the world's developing motion picture technologies at the World's Columbian Exposition signaled a dangerous possibility. This possibility is one in which the "mimetic media were, for a brief historical instant, dangerously contiguous with their material unconscious" (93). In constructing the tours as a "material 'negative'" of the moving cinematic image and linking the production of gelatin to the creation of photographic mimetic media, the exhibition of these technologies appears to have threatened the distinction between the metaphorical and material currencies of animal capital. Shukin earlier notes "the contradictions of animal rendering are productive so long as they are discursively managed under the separate domains of culture and economy" (21). In footnote 24 to chapter 2, Shukin comments on this "dangerous" moment noting the movement of slaughter from a productive (in terms of capital gain) "visibility" to a cultural invisibility.
Do you find Shukin's reading of this historical moment to be productive in thinking through the politics of animal capital? Can we read her suggestion of the contiguousness of the mimetic media and the abattoir as symptomatic of her view of history through Brown (and Benjamin)? How can one see the work of discursive productions of (bio)power at stake in the transformation from "visible" slaughter to one that is "invisible" and used for political means (see Shukin's note 24 on page 255)?
-Sean F

Monday, April 12, 2010

Questions for 4/13

Hi All. Sorry for the lateness of these questions. See you in class tomorrow.

Framing Question:

Within the somewhat dizzying turns that Rey Chow makes throughout The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the discussion of coercive mimeticism in ethnic subjects is particularly provocative in regards to the (im)possibilties of radical identity politics and their relation to biopower. The desire for a self-preferentiality of one’s (ethnic and local) experience, the celebration of such a performative identity, as many of the films and reading that we have encountered have posed, became a means of empowered representation and as something in resistance to hegemonic power and representation. Autoethnography offered then, through the shift of means and authorship of production and representation, a possibility for a radical identity politics, a genre that would give a “voice” to those that previously had none in mainstream media. However, as Chow argues, ethnicity does not become something outside of circulation and exchange, and more fundamentally power, but rather as an already biopoliticized economic relation, then this resistance would seem to not only be subsumed under capitalism and biopower, but moreover as flowing from and built into these processes. So how can we make sense of postcolonial cultural politics? For this shift, Chow turns to mimesis as a way to think through cross-cultural interactions and exchange. Chow writes,

“There nonetheless lingers a fascination with mimeticism as an older – indeed, anthropologically primitive – mode of representation, wherein a magical, immanent resemblance between sign and thing can somehow still be fantasized, imagined, posited” (102).

In this discussion of mimesis, one is immediately drawn to Taussig’s discussion of mimesis in the other’s ability to imitate, an ability that is primitivized. In Taussig’s project, the act of becoming (like) someone else seems complicated when taking into account the asymmetrical conditions of exchange in mimesis that Chow finds in this cross-cultural relation. On another level, Chow seems to go farther with her third level of mimesis – “the level at which the ethnic person is expected to come to resemble what is recognizably ethnic” (107).

Drawing from the Foucauldian notion of the confession, the act of performing one’s ethnicity becomes on the one hand a form of self-mimicry, but also becomes a symptom of a collective subjection through a coercive mimeticism­, where one’s authenticity can be legitimated and whose social and cultural existence can be rewarded.

Mimesis, an act that ethnic subjects perform “in order to exist as themselves,” becomes a modification of desire itself, where the ethnic subject compulsively confesses their own authenticity. This mode of power is not to be found outside of the self, but rather internalized and engendered as an ethnic subject. Does it become a question of the exteriority versus interiority? Whereas Taussig fails to provide a theory of subjectivity, Chow would seem to argue that it is the mimetic compulsion of the ethnic subject that continually determines and drives subjectivity.

How does Chow’s notion of the compulsory self-ownership of ethnicity and the performative confession that is required for the “authentic” subject complicate Taussig’s argument? How does Chow go farther? If reiterations of self-mimicry are linked to the confession's application in biopower, allowing a most intimate and internalized power relation, where the radical becomes complicit in the very powers that subordinate it, what does Chow see as a radical form of identity politics, if any?

Close Reading :

From Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume I, P. 29:

Before the assembled public, one of the professors, a certain Wolke, asked the students selected questions concerning the mysteries of sex, birth, and procreation. He had them comment on engravings that depicted a pregnant woman, a couple, and a cradle. The replies were enlightened, offered without shame or embarrassment. No unseemly laughter intervened to disturb them--except from the very ranks of an adult audience more childish than the children themselves, and whom Wolke severely reprimanded. At the end, they all applauded these cherub-faced boys who, in front of adults, had skillfully woven the garlands of discourse and sex.

In this passage, Foucault describes an effort typical of modern (European) sexual education amongst children to incite in them a highly codified discourse about sex. Against assumptions of a Victorian-style silencing of children's discursive treatment of sex, Foucault argues that the sexuality of children, in the case of boarding schools as one primary example, was a constant issue not only amongst teachers, architects and psychologists, but also in conversations between adults and children. This discursive production of sexual subjects, he argues, has been instrumental in a state power that ensures its economic viability through biopolitical means.

While Foucault lays out a rationale for regulating and producing a sexual discourse amongst these children, he leaves the laughter of adults uninterrogated. Within the analytic framework she sets out, can this episode be understood as an imitation of the assumed primitivity of the children's sexual drives? What work is the instruction's reprimanding intended to accomplish? If we take his irritation to be an attempt to prevent the debasement of the purity of the children's discourse, what work does the moment do for the construction of adult subjects?

What role do children as 'pure beings,' an element contained within Man yet separated by a caesura, play in the development of the modern biopolitical order? What links can we draw between their purity, and that of whiteness within the discourse of a liberalism that, as Chow argues, tends to construct images of essentialized, yet 'equal' ethnic identities, as it obscures the political plane upon which a process of hierarchization and exclusion take place?

Screening Question:

In Born Into Brothels, as in "News Advisory--Listen to the Children," children are positioned as the figures who are to give insight of "detailed knowledge," as phrased in the News Advisory, of their personal experiences, through the use of their “voice” as a kind of confessional. Inciting a discourse on the part of these children, moreover, is represented as capable of somehow saving them. Such an optimism for the mediums of speech and videography can be seen as a kind of 'ethnographic compulsion,' or the desire to gather a detailed account of their lives through the confessional. If biopower can be seen as a protection and promulgation of pure or bare life, a life that must be protected at all costs, then what kind of violence do we think Chow would argue is justified, even mandated by these depictions of the kind of life to be saved? What liberation or salvation is to be found in this particular instance of an 'incitement to discourse,' and what role does that incitement play in the construction of a biopolitical order?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Screening Question

What I found striking in the Navajo Project Films is the subject matter. Out of the seven films, almost all showed what could be classified as traditional cultural acts, i.e. the spinning of blankets, the shamanistic healing rituals, the silversmithing, the shadow myth and the building of a well. Of these, several are shown to be affected by modern technology, mostly the well and the smithing, but still seem to remain local and specific to the context. For example, the silver is melted with a modern tool, but the act of collecting, in the filming of which the local flaura plays a very big part, still relies on traditional ways of locating silver. The outside influences are always presented as things that make old tradition easier, but never seem in any way to change or replace old ways of acting.

This brings to mind what Moore says about the self-ethnography, namely that "indigenous video inherits the theoretical burdens of representation" (p. 127). I think a she poses is also relevant to these films"Are these conventions learned from television and anthropologists, or do they reflect the general state of affairs as well?" (p. 128). We should also consider the indigenous "voice" (p. 131) that is activated from the outside and whether we can see ways in which the ethnographic films embrace and challenge "the savage empiricism" (p. 137). Lastly, I want to raise the question of what is at stake in the timelessness in which many of these films are presented? Especially when considering questions of authorship and audience, we should keep in mind the important role time plays in many ethnographic movies like Nanook of the North.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Week10 autoethnography: framing question

Framing Question:

This week's readings have revolved around the ramifications and critiques of indigenous film movement's transfer of the power of production over to the subjects of the film. Although this allows for an authentication of ethnographic media, in so far as the structuring of the text is a self-interpretation and presentation, this mode of communication arguably "inherits the theoretical burdens of representation - problems that are, after all ours, not theirs" (Moore, 127). Tied to this burden is the questionable stake the western world has in facilitating an interaction/contract which allows
for the giving over of an ostensibly empowering technological faculty (to the Kayapo and Navajo tribes, as examples from the reading). This teaching relays not only the mechanical information for visual documentation but also an awareness of the potential for cultural expresion. While survival prior to the Kayapo video project encouraged a westernizing trend in activity and appearence, self-documentation augments the political benefits of indigenous ritual performance. The motive of the filmmaker/speaker is therefore a redemption of their political/cultural clout through the filmic image. And the motive of viewership arguably becomes a redemption of the filmic image through authentic primitive archival, rather than determining what is exactly being structurally communicated through indigenous film. Although this access to 'authentic representation' is an obvious desire for handing the camera over to the other, who does this authority of the image belong to and how can we benefit/take pleasure in it? Additionally, do the political motives for the performance of alterity disturb this authenticity/authority?

Close Reading Question:

Most of us know, or confidentely assume, that communication through film takes place...Given that deep underlying assumptions, however, it seems all the more remarkable that we do not know more about the generalities of film, we do not know much about the patterns of its use...and we have no idea the possible rules of inference and implication that govern that improbable moment when someone sees a film and says "I know exactly what he meant."(16)

In How do People Structure Reality Worth and Adair set forth a model which serves a good hermeneutic, or mode of intepreting, to compare what linguists strictly define as language and "film language." However, with post-structuralist analysis available in retrospect, many elements of their text seems to fall prey to normative and arbitrary constraints present in western practices which they seek to veer from. Their analysis seems to rely on "Chomsky (1965) and others [hypotheses] that what actually happens when one learns to speak a particular language is that one learns the relations between the innate deep structure of language in general and the particular surface structure or grammer of his language (17)." A relationship which is arguably out of reach of anthropological grasp because one must grasp the "general" nature of language in terms of specific languages, either by their relationships between their units of communication and their referents or among various languages themselves. Furthermore, the "I know exactly what he meant." of the film viewer doesn't differ much from the same utterance in reference to a novel or other speech act. It is still plagued with the same questions applied to other mediums/methods: How can we be sure we understand? Who is it that we really understand? Do we understand the film creator as s/he wishes to be understood or is it possible to perceive meaning that wasn't meant to be sent?

Even if we continue to use linguistic analysis the relationship of specific languages to a great, imaginary "general" language must certainly be looked at as relationships between signifiers and signified, with the anti-positivist and contingent foundations attributed to signs. Even if these relationships are real and "visible" would not the subjective interpretation of them lead to complications and dead ends in ways of defining their structure? And do these problems become augmented when dealing with cultures who do not have the same (historical) relationship to film 'language', or any language, or form of communication (think Derrida's critique of Triste Tropique) for that matter