Wednesday, June 30, 2010

RESPONSE to “The Science of the Concrete”: the bricoleur and the engineer

In Levi-Stauss’s model, the bricoleur is defined as “someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman”.  This is the loose French translation that Levi-Strauss (LS) uses to differentiate between modern, Western science (the engineer) and what LS explains as the traditional Neolithic, or early historical man’s science.  This early science is also employed by ‘primitive’ cultures which Western ethnographers of LS’s day chose as subjects. 

LS writes that an important difference exists between the engineer and the bricoleur.  The bricoleur, when looking for a specific tool or method for a certain project, looks to past uses of this tool and is limited by this history.  The engineer on the other hand has a limitless toolkit since he looks to the universe for methods and has more than his own history examine. LS explains that this is why there was “several thousand years of stagnation” between the Neolithic revolution and modern science.  He is basically saying that “primitive” groups have been using the same “toolkit” they have been using (here he groups “them” all into a large group with common descendants presumably) since the early domestication of plants/animals, metallurgy, and trad medicine. 

It is interesting to note that while LS uses certain phrases in this passage to equally qualify these two distinct modes of scientific thought - e.g. “These are certainly not a function of different stages of development” - overall his argument is laden with ethnocentrism. For example, portraying the early science used by “primitive“ people as stagnate, the cultures as stuck in their past or histories.  There are also undertones to his argument that bring back Derrida’s critique of LS in “The Violence of the Letter”, where the ethnocentrism expressed is not overt but buried in the presupposed logic that “primitive” societies possess greater integrity than modern Western cultures - in other words “the noble savage” perspective.     


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Povenelli/ week 4

To understand Povenelli's arguement, it seems first important to understand Marx's conception of labor in the Western world. Marx believed that through capitalist modes of production, labor itself became a commodity and that this drastically restructured power in society to the point where an almost unbridgable divide between the burgeious and proletariat developed. This capitalist structure directly informs our current economic policies and philosophies- Povenelli's work takes issue with the way in which the government has applied a "Western political- economic framework" to the Aboriginal Belyuen community of Northern Australia and attempts to assess its labor practices determine its land rights according to Western models of productivity that cannot really be applied to them in a fair or meaningful way.

It seems helpful, also, to discuss Levi-Strauss' concept of the engineer and bricoleur here. I tend to agree with Maureen. As she stated in her post:
"Levi-Strauss seems to have observed a cosmetic difference--perhaps in varying types of 'labor'--and spun a mythology of his own."

How might this be applicable to the Australian government's catagorization of the Belyuens as transient people- hunter-gatherers?

According to Povenelli:
"From a perspective of classical political economy, "Fourth World" hunter-gather peoples neither sufficiently produce(or differentiate) themselves as subjects in relation to natural objects and animals nor are they sufficiently productive in terms of transforming objects and animals into depositories of value. At most they 'own' (because they in some way make) the things they hunt and gather but not the land on which they pursue these practices."

How can "anthropologies and histories and cultural and political-economic approaches" account for the "entanglement of cultural expression"- specifically Aboriginal and Western- in political economies?

How are dominant government institutions such as law and economic policy used to discredit indigenous perspectives?

How has ethnography played a role in discrediting indigenous perspectives or creating a ethnocentric binary between indigenous societies and the western world? And how can we reverse or prevent this?

How are the gleaners in Varda's film like the Belyuens? and how can their rejection of capitalism and relationship to the land be related to Povenelli's article?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Response, "The Science of the Concrete"

I find this conversation interesting on the heels of last week, as again I question why the distinction between 'engineer' and 'bricoleur' is so important Levi-Strauss would devote a massively dense chapter to its construction.

It seems separation by place and time was not enough to satisfy his need for 'otherness'; he has also journeyed to the roots of thought, invention, and spirit to suggest there are fathomless differences between the functions of "the savage mind" and those of his own society.

In answer to Daniela's last question, I do not agree with placement of the artist in the engineer and bricoleur dichotomy, as I do not agree with the premise.

The distinction between engineer and bricoleur itself strikes me as rather arbitrary.

Engineers also work within the constraints of the physical world; he or she does not "change the world" (p. 22) so much as restructure it. Even artificial intelligence is arrived at by way of manipulating materials and laws of the natural world.

Similarly, bricoleurs rely on scientific principles to understand the fusion and use of materials. What is "mythical" about this process remains unclear to me.

Levi-Strauss seems to have observed a cosmetic difference--perhaps in varying types of 'labor'--and spun a mythology of his own.

Remembering Derrida's earlier critique, I also suggest Levi-Strauss is at his most ethnocentric in the moment he is claiming not to be.

Even though the chapter does include some equalizing language, his entire approach is that of the scientist: deconstructing, categorizing, and labeling, while writing of these two disciplines as if he is not engaged in one.

I would also argue this tendency in the west--to divide up disciplines into distinct zones, and then shuttle students between 'art' and 'history' and 'science' class--is not a very productive enterprise, and leads to a limited understanding of the interconnectedness of all practices.

And so I wish Levi-Strauss had stayed on the categorization of fruit, which I can see as having some practical benefit; drawing lines between 'bricoleur,' 'scientist,' and 'artist' I do not.

- posted by Maureen

Make up response: Ethnographies as Texts (Marcus and Cushman)

I believe what Cushman and Marcus meant by ". Ethnographies have been punctuated with explicit us-them differences, in which the "us" is monolithically referred to as the West... and is contrasted to the 'them', which is the specific village, group or culture as subject of the ethnography"(p. 49). Experimental ethnographies have shifted to a "me-them" form of contrast” is that we should constantly challenge this monolithic world view, the narrative text exists as a critique of the very foundation of contemporary civilization—the objectification of self and other and in many cases the redundancy and destructive usage of the West versus East dichotomy, which is a result based upon a monolithic view of human existence. The challenge to this objectification created by narrative ethnography opens the possibility that we can develop a dialogic language of ethnography which allows us to confront the flux and ambiguity of existence. By doing so human colleagues can create themselves from something NOT inside or outside them, but rather BETWEEN them. It is precisely the between that fosters the dialogue that is needed to remind us that we are all in fact human with stories story to tell and share (sharing in my opinion is an offshoot/and extension of the between). Narrative ethnography meets this demand by placing at our fingertips the possibility of both reflexively understanding the story of the self and other as well as developing the language to authentically represent that story.

The science of concrete/ week 4

In the first chapter Levi Strauss established two types of gaining knowledge. One is the “science of concrete” or mythical though and the other the scientific investigation.

The Mythical though “and exploration of the sensible world in sensible terms. This science of the concrete was necessarily restricted by its essence to results other than those destined to be achieved by the exact natural science” (p16) Scientific though in the other hand have an answer for what we can’t see. To explain this definitions Levi Strauss draw an analogy. Can you explain what he means by ‘bricoleur’, ‘bricolage’? And how this concept is related to these ways of acquiring knowledge.

Does Levi Strauss put any of theses approaches over the other one?

Levi-Strauss argued that artist “is both something of a scientist and of a ‘bricoleur’” structure and event. He based this argument on "to understand a real object in its totality we always tend to work from its parts" (p 23) What is he saying here? Is he triying to say than an artist is something in between an ethnographer and a scientist, a translator of the world? “reduction in scale reverses the situation. Being smaller, the object as a whole seems less formidable. By being quantitatively diminished, it seems to us qualitatively simplified.” Is he saying that this way is easier to grasp concepts, that the artist is in between worlds, theory and practice, myth and science. Do you agree with him?

Friday, June 25, 2010

MAKE-UP RESPONSE: Foucault and Berger WEEK 3 (in response to Jen)

The evidence of biopower can indeed be observed in the modern state(s).  A merger of Foucault’s biopower and Berger’s “enforced marginalization” of animals brings to mind an evolutionist view which justifies using animals in product testing, hormonal altering of livestock, genetically modified foods, and countless other exploitations of the environment to further our human endeavors, for the good of the people.  These practices are fueled by politics and capitalism in that they are viewed and posited as necessities for the good of the people.   When genetic sciences are applied to Homo sapiens however, it gets (even more) scary.  When a state has the authority to decide what is to be cloned or modified, the results - keeping biopower in mind - will be racist. 

Foucault of course is more interested in the control biopower possesses over and between states, cultures and especially races.  Nazism, and the apparent threat that the Jews imposed upon the nationalistic foundations of Hitler’s Reich is an example of how biopower is utilized not only to improve the quality of life of those in power but to protect the state in order to keep that power.  The Jews were a threat to the Nazis because they were community-minded (exclusive) and because the Third Reich needed an enemy in order to maintain control over their own people.  An internal enemy. Here we see the reason why Foucault describes Nazis as “suicidal”.  They needed to fight the inferior race to secure their control over their people, the state.  In doing so, they expose themselves.  Aggression breeds dissent and this places the state in a position of heightened power and added conviction.  The state uses the “aggression” of others as fuel for their own exploits.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Of course, the Nazi state was especially horrible, brutal and effective at enforcing and motivating a population to concede to principles and ideals the state thought were ultimately essential (and Foucault goes into this concerning Nazis, but to be honest I don’t entirely understand it - something like a trifecta of disciplinary power, biopower and self-destruction).  But isn’t it obvious that the foundation of this practice is still alive and well in the US of A?  The red scare of the mid-20 century gave way to a new enemy, a new fear (a new state, a new race) that now, even in post-Bush years, poses a threat to our security and - if one is sold on the awfully convincing military industrial complex- also serves to boost our economy among other things. These things combined position America at the top and all others are a necessary threat to secure the power. Any aggression from the “inferior” race serves to heighten the power, the conviction, the crusade of the democracy wielding state, simply because it reinforces the threat. This is an external threat (Al-Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, etc) and an internal threat (terrorist cells, islamic radicals, and in the Bush days... anyone who didn’t hop on board the “patriot train”... “you’re either with us, or against us”).  Yikes.     

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Response, "The Open: Man and Animal"

Agamben presents theories from many disciplinestheology, biology, taxonomywhich have attempted to delineate various forms of life: human, animal, vegetal, and even what we consider non-living or inanimate beings. In so doing, he reveals how arbitrary the practice can be.

What I find of particular interest in many of the examples is the authors seem to begin with a conclusion (ie. humans are superior to animals) and then work backwards to determine why. This makes me wonder why these distinctions are so important, or have been to so many throughout history? Where would be without them, and what do they allow us to justify or ignore?

In Misogyny: The World's Oldest Prejudice, Jack Holland writes "In the dominant version of the Fall of Man myth common to both Greek and Judaeo-Christian myths, man came before woman, created autonomously by the gods or God. Man therefore was seen not only as having a special relationship to the Divinity, but also as being somehow separate from the rest of nature itself. He was a separate creation, set apart from nature, with a unique relationship to his creator. The creation of woman ended that relationship, and introduced into man's world all the features associated with nature. Man was suddenly subjected to the same needs and limitations as any beast, including copulation, the pangs of birth, the struggle for existence, the experience of aging and of pain, the deliberation of various illnesses and finally the ignominy of death." He references this myth as a mark of many dualisms with vast implications: "between soul and body, man and God, man and woman, the world of the spirit and the world of the senses," as well as man and nature.

Clearly the act of distinction and categorization is far from neutral. Following the story above, throughout much of Christian history woman has been associated with the 'inferior,' nature, flesh, (which lead to death), and man with the 'superior' realms of logic and spirit (leading to eternal life). This conflation of nature with the negative is evident in many of the writings Agamben references, and its further conflation with female nature led to the degradation of both.

In the vein of categorization, the readings this week have reminded me of Caster Semenya, and the battle which science has set out to "settle" over the "question" of her "gender." (Excuse the quotations, but they are merited.) The inability to define the gender of any given individual seems to incite fear, anxiety, and disgust. Again, why is this distinction so important to us, our functioning, and our understanding of ourselves and the world?

On a different note, this week's discussion also brought to mind the question of plant's rights.

And if you haven't listened to 'The Opposite of Tarzan," I highly recommend it. It's a sort of inverse of L'Enfant Sauvage, and massively intriguing.

- posted by Maureen

QUESTION: From Giorgio Agambe, The Open: Man and Animal

First of all, I do apologize for the late post.

With that said, my question for this reading is has the relationship between man and animal changed or has animal taught something about man and vice versa that scientist haven't already answered?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Question: From John Berger, "Why Look at Animals?"

We all understand that animals represent different things for different people in any place or given time. I would like to follow up on the question, what separates humans from animals and how is are uniqueness recognized? Is it more then just a "skin deep" explanation or is there an underlying truth as to how we communicate with animals so well these days. What does this communication mean?

Response to Jen's post on Human/Animal: Foucault and Berger, Week 3:

Berger reveals the inherit dualism in man’s historical and paradoxical relationship with animals. On one hand, there is this deep and fascinating history of man revering animals and placing them on a God like pedestal to be “observed”, worshipped, and its characteristics be attributed to that of humans. However, the paradox lies when the observation serves as a degradation tactic and inferiority being given an educational cover in the form of the spectacle . The animal is uprooted from his natural environment and taken into one that is artificial and constructed by man. This couldn’t ring more true in my opinion than with the concept of the Zoo or as Berger would call it “enforced marginalization”. Berger says: 'The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.' So while humans think they are gaining more knowledge by visiting the zoo and studying animals, they are in fact “caving” into its to artificiality, thus driving a deeper wedge between them and animals. This is how I interpreted Berger’s “The more we know, the further away they are”. I would even push it further and say “The more we THINK we know, the further away they are, AND THEM FROM US”.

Foucault and Berger both touch on the themes of racial inferiority and heirachy in their writings. Although Berger focuses on Human-Animal interactions, one cannot help but think that he is somehow subliminally referring to the interactions and relations humans have with each other, and what better way to understand ourselves than through animals, who have taught us all the basic needs for survival since the dawn of time. I found that reading Berger first and then moving on to Foucault actually lends itself quite well. The Foucault reading from point of view is an extension of Berger’s ideas on the hierarchy of the species, with humans being on top of the chain, no different than Foucault’s ideas on racial inferiority, biological hierarchy and “natural selection”.

The study of animals and their relationship with man is imperative and vital in the development and progression of the human species. Berger’s writings provide the foundation and basis for such a study, and Foucault extends into the human to human dynamic. In Foucault’s writing he mentions how “the most murderous states are also, of necessity, the most racist……….. How can one both make a biopower function and exercise the rights of war, the rights of murder and the function of death without becoming a racist? That was the problem, and that, I think, is still the problem”. The problem to me seems to lie in our willfully ignorant treatment of animals who are the most marginalized by us human even more so that our treatment of each other. Like the wise Mahatma Gandhi once said: “"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Week 3: HUMAN/ANIMAL: Foucault and Berger

According to Foucault, disciplinary power involves power over individual bodies. Biopower, on the other hand, centers on the regulation of individuals as a "global mass" or "species." As such, biopolitics concerns itself with "the mass effects characteristic of a population," ie. birth/mortality rates, modes of production, biological disabilities, the effects of the environment, etc. In Foucault's words:

"Both technologies [of power] are obviously technologies of the body, but one is a technology in which the body is individualized as an organism endowed with capacities, and the other is a technology in which bodies are replaced by general biological processes" (p. 249).

Foucault argues that science and politics are increasingly -- and inextricably -- linked. For example, he notes how late-18th-C biological evolutionalism -- the notion that "natural selection" eliminates the less fit in a species -- was used to justify acts of colonization, war, and genocide. As another example, he shows how modern racism creates a biological hierarchy of races within a population, and makes it so that killing is acceptable as long as it results in the elimination of a biopolitical threat to one's race.

This intersection of science and politics immediately brought to mind the rhetoric used for recent controversies topics ranging from racial profiling to gay marriage to birth control. Do you agree that our modern political system is one centered upon biopower? What are some other recent examples in the media where the language of science is invoked for political ends?


While Foucault draws parallels between modern racism and Darwinian evolutionism, John Berger analyses the marginalistion of animals from humans, paying particular attention to media representations and sites of "enforced marginalisation," including zoos.

"Animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance... they are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are" (p. 16).

How can we apply Berger's quote above to the experience of watching King Kong? More broadly, how does Berger's analysis of human-animal observation compare and contrast to some of the topics we have been discussing in class ie. the subject-object relationship, nostalgia, authenticity, and notions of Otherness?


Saturday, June 19, 2010


In a way, looking at a blog (such as this one) we do become a "third eye" for the person responding or posting a question about the reading. We see where the previous author is coming from and see how can incorporate it with the following response. I feel that this "third eye" helps other students see a piece of the text and reveal clarification and raise new questions as to what the author might be saying.

In the last two films viewed in class (Anselmo and the Women/Reassemblage) we see how the film maker constructs the film and the messages that the authors where trying to portray to the audience. As discussed in class I explained that Levi Strauss follows a "Textbook" answer as to what ethnography is and how he goes about his thinking. On the other hand, Strand does not follow the "textbook" answer and incorporates a lot of self-reflection and describing what she sees and how she will portray it in the viewers eye.

In the end, we look at different things with "different eyes". No matter how vague, vacant or bold, we will never see "eye to eye" on everything exactly the same, but rather look at something in a way we haven't see before. Is that not the point of "the third eye" to see something in someone's else "eye" as if you have never thought of their explanation that way before?

Friday, June 18, 2010


The shift in experimental enthnographic writings from us-them to me-them is interesting to consider in regard to the relationship that can be established between the readers of these texts and their subjects. Marcus and Cushman also emphasize the importance of this trend in writing as legitimizing or at least acknowledging the "dialogical mode embodied in the discourse between ethnographer and informant".
As Chris referred to in his post, this new framework allows for multiple world views and also attempts to allow the subjects of the field work to speak for themselves.

"Realistic ethnographic account has long been almost dogmatically dedicated to presenting material as if it were , or faithfully represented, the point of view of its cultural subjects rather than its own culture of reference"(34)

Marcus and Cushman write that this movement toward ethnographer as the "translator" of a culture is more honest and actually works more effectively to establish authority than the previous fundamental model where the ethnographer wrote in a more absolute and scientific matter, essentially removing himself from the final text.

"Ricoeur provides the theoretical stimulus for accomplishing the textualization of fieldwork discourse so that data can be framed in a way that compliments the conception of the ethnographer as translator or reader of texts...these generalized texts, set up for interpretation by the ethnographic writer, are presumably authored by the culture."(43)

This new experiemental model works to reposition the reader of ethnographic writings by taking analysis of the field work itself out of its more traditional framework and allowing the reader the room to synthesize his own conclusions. Though this theory has its own flaws, the idea of making ethnographic writing more honest in its representation of its subjects moves us closer to bridging the gaps inherent between ethnographer, subject, and reader.

Thursday, June 17, 2010



THE THIRD EYE Fatimah Tobing Rony

Experimental ethnographies have shifted to a "me-them" form of contrast. What does Marcus/Cushman mean by this and how does this reposition the reader of ethnographies?

“Through a glass darkly” or “darkly as through a veil”

By now we know that everything we express (write, photograph or film) is tinted by our personal experience and point of view. In a film we choose what to film, how to film it and what to cut, in a photograph we choose what to frame and how to frame it and in writing the same thing. Is there a way to get closer to reality? Is it really bad to see reality through our own eyes through our own experiences? Well, even if is good or bad there is no other option that is the way we see the world. I do think is not necessarily bad. The people that choose to work with the complexity of “observable life” are helping us to understand the world. Field work, documentary work bring us closer the world around us but at the same time there are many questions and challenges to consider.

Fabian proposes what he calls the “me-them” vs the “us-them”.

“to frame cultural differences in the text by the rhetorical use of comparative contrast on a different plane of representation than in the past”

Also he talks about some sort of open conversation between the reader and the ethnographer, to open the text to discussion. The reader will no longer have a “writing lesson” like with Levi-Strauss but will help make sense of a reality.

He also talks about “dispersed authority” as a way of including native text. He also poses the problem of the translation of these texts. At the same time this makes me think of the reading "the third eye". In this open discussion there could always be someone with a third eye to help overcome misconceptions.

Announcement re: posting Responses

Dear all,
As per our joint decision in seminar yesterday, all responses will not be posted under a new heading (NOT using the "comment") function. This will allow you to use all of the style correction tools such as italics, colors, font etc. in your responses. Please label all of your responses clearly (eg: Response to Chris's post on Marcus-Cushman, Week 2: "Our Time/Their Time")

Needless to say, all responses posted prior to this week can be found under the Questions for each session. Please have a look through all of these when coming up with topics for your formal Response Paper #1. Instructions for the same can be found under "Assessments" on Blackboard

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

ETHNOGRAPHIES AS TEXTS marcus and cushman:

Good evening/morning to you all. As we have read, the Marcus/Cushman article delves into themes we discussed last session:  writing of/and ethnography.  To me, this article frames the problems of interpretation (of the reader and the writer) and representation of the "Other" in ethnography in an interesting and perhaps a more comprehensible form.

I know we are limited for our in-class discussion of the subject due to the films we will be watching, so I'm going to bring up just a couple of issues that we can hopefully discuss.

Let's talk about dispersed authority and  us-them vs. me-them.

One way that experimental ethnographic writing can break from the previous models - the ethnographic realism - is through what Marcus/Cushman describe (through Clifford) as dispersed authority.  "Dispersed authority is the attempt to overcome the domestication of ethnographic text by the controlling author through the reconciliation that knowledge of other forms of life involves several de facto authors who should have narrative presence in ethnographies".  This would open the ethnography from "a single dominant authority" to a text that would incorporate multiple realities, including the publishing of "native texts".  What are the problems with this methodology?  Can the native voice be written in an ethnography?  Can "dispersed authority" ultimately be achieved in ethnography?  (pp. 43-44)

Much of what the article is speaking to is the way the writer constructs authority in the ethnography.  This is done through many techniques but from what I gather is basically through the manner the writer can express fieldwork experience in writing (of the ethnography) to the reader. A writer has an audience is mind and this shapes the way one writes.  It is a synthesis of interpretation on the part of the anthropologist and the interpretation on the part of the reader.  ".. Ethnographies have been punctuated with explicit us-them differences, in which the "us" is monolithically referred to as the West... and is contrasted to the 'them', which is the specific village, group or culture as subject of the ethnography"(p. 49).
Experimental ethnographies have shifted to a "me-them" form of contrast.  What does Marcus/Cushman mean by this and how does this reposition the reader of ethnographies? 

See you in class.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Christopher's response (re)post to "The Violence of the Letter":

Enthnocentrism v. Anti-enthnocentrism (cont...)

I found one of the most interesting themes of Derrida's "Violence of the Letter" was his critique of Lévi-Strauss's ethnographic view of 'primitive' culture as enthnocentric disguised as anti-enthnocentric. Ethnocentrism is defined as understanding another culture through one's own cultural lens, or "judging other cultures by the standards of your own, which you believe to be superior"(according to OSU).

In this case, Lévi-Strauss (LS) tried to integrate into the Nambikwara culture to study and observe behavior as an unbiased social scientist. Ethnocentrism had been defined and discouraged by the Anthropological community at the time of "Writing Lesson" and undoubtedly, LS saw his ethnographic view as anti-ethnocentric.

As we discussed, and what becomes apparent through Derrida's critique, is that LS came to the Brazilian rainforest carrying the baggage of enthnocentrism disguised as anti-ethnocentrism. His educated, western worldview placed non-western "primitive" cultures in a Utopian light. Academics in the social sciences were no doubt sympathetic toward the "untouched" cultures that still existed in the world during this post-colonialist, post-WWII period (Tristes Tropiques, 1955). Derrida touches on the guilt that western anthropologists placed on themselves, perhaps because of the colonial past and the growing empirialism, the increase of technology, industry, population growth, etc. These are the burdens that LS carried with him as he entered the rainforest. Although he may not have seen his own culture as "superior", he is in the position of power (and notes this throughout his travelogue), he blames himself for inciting violence among the Nambikwara people (as Derrida explains so well using LS's writing lesson), and he constructs the Nambikwara people as the "noble savages". 

Derrida critiques LS's ethnography an as ethnocentric work (among other things). I tend to agree with one reservation - how does an anthropologist escape their own biases? We are all subject to our environmental and cultural influences. Is it possible to escape ethnocentrism? If not, is there a way to speak to that fact to construct a more accurate or honest ethnography?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Our Time/Their Time: Fabian & Nanook of the North

Fabian argues there was a shift from a sacred to secular use of time in the enlightenment era. But this new understanding was far from neutral:

"It was Degérando who expressed the temporizing ethos of an emerging anthropology in this concise and programmatic formula: 'The philosophical traveller, sailing to the ends of the earth, is in fact traveling in time; he is exploring the past; every step he makes is the passage of an age.' … travel itself, as witnessed in Degérando's statement, is instituted as a temporalizing practice" (pg. 6-7).

Fabian calls this the 'denial of coevalness', a fantastic rendering of the anthropologist in the present but all subjects in the past. He argues language such as 'savage' and 'kinship' further separate and situate subjects in a distant past.

It seems the classification of countries today is similarly beleaguered by issues of hierarchy and temporality. The terms "third world," and "first world," (was there ever a "second world"?) have been abandoned, to be replaced by "developing" and "developed," or "pre-industrial" and "industrial." Are these neutral expressions or do they exemplify the anthropological use of time Fabian critiques? What are the implications? Are there alternate terms that avoid issues of temporality?

Fabian also critiques anthropologists for using what he calls a 'reflective' rather than 'reflexive' voice, one that hides the presence of the author. He says this can lead to a "epistemological hypocrisy," (page 90) and points to a passage of (the apparently much abused) Lévi-Strauss, who wrote "the American Indian who follows a trail by means of imperceptible clues…"

Clearly the cues were imperceptible to the observer, not the observed. And so subjective interpretations infiltrate texts without being overtly exposed as such. Another example, Fabian suggests, is the assertion "'they are born with rhythm,'" when in fact "we mean 'we never saw them grow, practice, learn.'" (page 91). Fabian goes so far as to suggest all anthropological work is nature "autobiographical."

This is interesting in the context of current debate around documentary film. While often made by liberal filmmakers with good intentions, a common approach is to infiltrate a differing socio-economic group (such as in Hoop Dreams, Boys of Baraka, or Girlhood) and present the filmmaker's interpretation up for popular consumption. (I suspect Fabian would also critique this as a 'commodification' of others' lives.) Is it possible for media requiring an intimate relationship with the subject to attain objectivity? Is it even desirable? Do audiences perceive nonfiction films as self-portraits or objective truth? How does revealing the presence of its maker impact perception and reception of a film?


Sequences of Nanook of the North represent past traditions of the Itivimuit tribe, such as the walrus hunt. In Flaherty's defense, some of these scenes were suggested by the participants themselves. And, at least according to Patricia Aufderheide, "generations of Inuit have also watched Nanook with pleasure, regarding it as a gift allowing them to know their traditions." (Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction) But when shown to audiences, no reference was made to the fact these practices were not contemporary. Can we speculate on the motivation for this? Was it an ethical decision? What are the implications?

- posted by Maureen

PS.- A Note on Nanook

I studied Nanook of the North in class last year too and in reviewing some of the texts thought others might find the information helpful in placing to film in context. Its making and reception are really an interesting and perplexing story in themselves. If interested, read on. All quotes are from Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film by Erik Barnouw.

Nanook of the North is considered the first feature-length documentary, and as such will always be an object of fascination.

The project began while Flaherty was was working as a prospector for a Canadian railroad company---a career which quickly brought him fame as an explorer. When it was suggested he bring a camera on his expeditions, he took a three-week cinematography course and began shooting Inuit life in 1914. "The film activity, begun casually, soon became an obsession that almost obliterated the search for minerals."

By 1916 Flaherty had edited a film---all 30,000 feet of which fell victim to a stray cigarette. Flaherty risked his life trying to salvage his work and was hospitalized for severe burns.

But with characteristic enthusiasm, as indicated in the opening sequence, Flaherty decided the accident must have been for the best and began planning to reshoot. He spent an additional four years fundraising before gaining adequate funds from the Revillon Frères fur company.

"The full collaboration of Eskimos had already become the key to his method … Some [of them] knew his camera better than he did: they could take it apart and put it together--and did so, when the camera fell into the sea and had to be cleaned piece by piece."

The main character was truly a famed hunter of the Itivimuit tribe, but his real name was Allakariallak. In addition to changing his name, Flaherty created a family for purposes of the film. Allakariallak (hereafter Nanook, for simplicity) had unbound zeal for the "aggie," or film. It was he who generated idea of staging a walrus hunt as had been done in earlier days of the tribe.

"Suppose we go," Flaherty said to him, "do you know that you and your men may have to give up making a kill, if it interferes with my film? Will you remember that is the picture of you hunting the ivuik that I want, and not their meat?"

"Yes, yes," Nannok replied. "The aggie will come first."

In this interesting way, the subjects became actors and collaborators in the staging of their own lives.

They worked in temperatures so cold at times the film shattered. One scene recommended by Nanook--a polar bear hunt--was unsuccessful and the journey home brought the group near starvation. They used film to kindle fire--an interesting symbol of their mutual struggle for survival, and for the film.

Filming inside an igloo proved too dark and so they built an enormous, oversized igloo to shoot. Still finding light inadequate, they sheared off one side---and so in the scenes Nanook and his family rise and go to sleep, they are doing this in freezing air, for the benefit of audiences.

Flaherty struggled to find a distributor (one said "the public was not interested in Eskimos; it preferred people in dress suits") but once the film was taken up by Pathé it was an instant success. The film even became a Broadway song, with a chorus of:

Ever-loving Nanook,

Though you don't read a book,

But, oh, how you can love,

And thrill me like the twinkling northern lights above…

When traveling in Berlin years later the Flahertys found a smiling image of Nanook on the wrapper of an ice-cream sandwich.

Even as late as 1964, at the Mannheim film festival, when asked to select the greatest documentaries of all time, filmmakers from across the world chose Nanook of the North more than any other.

Flaherty is said to have captured the grammar of fiction film for documentary.

Interesting in context of the discussion last week is a certain guilt and romantic motivation on the part of Flaherty.

Early in his life he saw the American Indians who "sometimes came to his mother's kitchen for food and warmth, were a pitiful lot, bearing the marks of civilized disease, including alcoholism."

"When Flaherty first met Eskimos, he saw the same deterioration at work. But as he went further north, where contacts with explorers, prospectors, and entrepreneurs had been less extensive, he had glimpses of what seemed an earlier nobility. On this he riveted his attention. He had reasons for doing so.

One was a growing sense that he himself represented the cultural destruction that troubled him. … Flaherty did not come to grips with this inner conflict; he relentlessly avoided it, in Nanook as in most other films, by banishing the intruder from the world he portrayed. Flaherty wrote:

I am not going to make films about what the white has made of primate peoples …

What I want to show is the former majesty and character of the people, while it is still possible--before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well.

The urge that I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them."

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Hi everyone,
Please make sure you are signed up for 2 Questions and 4 Responses over the course of the class--i.e. 1 Question and 2 Responses in UNIT I and 1 Question and 2 Responses in UNIT II.
You can choose which weeks you want to sign up for, although this will be on a first-come-first-served basis. I have configured the blog to allow you to edit this post, so go to "new post" and use the "edit" function on this post in order to add your name. Make sure your name is in Red wherever you sign up.


Monday June 7
Course Overview and Introduction
In-class Screening: L’Enfant Sauvage (Francois Truffaut, 1970; 83 mins)

Wednesday June 9
Claude Lévi-Strauss, “A Writing Lesson,” Tristes Tropiques, 286-297.
Jacques Derrida, “The Violence of the Letter: From Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss,” Of Grammatology, 101-141.
Recommended reading: Kaja Silverman, “From Sign to Subject: A Short History,” The Subject of Semiotics, 3-53.

Assignment: Meet together and watch Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922; 79 mins) BEFORE Monday June 14.

Monday June 14
Johannes Fabian, “Time and the Emerging Other,” “Time and Writing about the Other,” Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, 1-35; 71-104. (Excerpts TBA)

Wednesday June 16
In-class Screening: Excerpts from Anselmo and the Women (Chick Strand, 1986; 35 mins) and Reassemblage (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1982; 40 mins)
Fatimah Tobing Rony, “Introduction: The Third Eye,” The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle, 1-13.
George Marcus & Dick Cushman, “Ethnographies as Texts,” Annual Review of Anthropology 11 (1982): 25-51.

Assignment: Meet together and watch King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933; 100 mins) BEFORE Monday June 21.

Monday June 21 ***RESPONSE PAPER 1 DUE***
In-class Screening: The Couple in the Cage (Paula Heredia, 1997; 30 mins)
John Berger, “Why Look At Animals,” About Looking, 3-28.
Michel Foucault, “Lecture 11,” Society Must Be Defended, 239-264 ONLY (not the chapter summary); skim 239-253 and focus on pp. 253-264.

Wednesday June 23
In-class Screening: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968; excerpt—“The Dawn of Man”)
Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal. (Selections TBA)
Martin Heidegger, “The Animal Is Poor In World” (Excerpt), Animal Philosophy, ed. Matthew Calarco and Peter Atterton, 17.

Monday June 28
In-class Screening: The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000; 82 mins)
Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Science of the Concrete,” The Savage Mind, 1-34.
Karl Marx, “The Fetishism of the Commodity and the Secret Thereof,” Capital Vol. 1, 163-177.

Wednesday June 30
Elizabeth Povinelli, “Introduction,” and “Legal Entanglements: Aboriginal Action and Identity,” Labor’s Lot: The Power, History, and Culture of Aboriginal Action, 1-20; 23-63.


Assignment: Meet together and watch Through Navajo Eyes (selected films) BEFORE Monday July 5.

Monday July 5 NO CLASS TODAY – Buildings Closed
Sol Worth and John Adair, Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology. (Selections TBA)
Take-Home Assignment: Blog a response to the Through Navajo Eyes project, addressing both the reading and the films. Your response can be on any topic, but should contain at least one close reading of the text and the film.

Wednesday July 7
Screening: The Spirit of TV (Vincent Carelli, 1990; 18 mins)
Monica Frota, “Taking Aim: The Video Technology of Cultural Resistance,” Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, 258-282.
Rachel Moore, “Marketing Alterity,” Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R, Ed. Lucien Taylor, 126-139.

Assignment: Meet together and watch Desire (Julie Gustafson, 2005; 84 mins) and Born Into Brothels (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, 2004; 85 mins) BEFORE Monday July 12.

Monday July 12 ***RESPONSE PAPER 2 DUE***
Michel Foucault, “The Incitement to Discourse,” History Of Sexuality Vol. 1, 17-35.
Mary Celeste Kearney, “Developing the Girl’s Gaze: Female Youth and Film Production,” Girls Make Media, 199-212.
Rey Chow, “Introduction: From Biopower to Ethnic Difference” “The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1-50.
Look at: Desire Website.

Wednesday July 14
Susan Herr and Dennis Sykes, “News Advisory: Listen to the Children,” Children and the Media, 135-139.
John. L and Jean Comaroff, Ethnicity Inc. (Selections TBA)
Rey Chow, “Keeping them in Their Place: Coercive Mimeticism and Cross-Ethnic Representation,” The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 95-127. (Excerpt TBA)
Look at: Kids with Cameras Website.

Monday July 19
Screening: Electrocuting an Elephant (Thomas Edison, 1903; 1 min)
Alphabet Soup (William Wegman, 1995; 30 mins)
Animal Cam series TBA (Sam Easterson, 1998-present)
((((( ))))) (Leslie Thornton, 2009; 9 mins)
Beatriz da Costa, “Reaching the Limit: When Art Becomes Science,” Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience, ed. Beatriz da Costa and Kavita Philip, 365-386.
Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital (Selections TBA)

Wednesday July 21
Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital contd. (Selections TBA)

Assignment: Meet together and watch Trouble the Water (Carl Deal & Tia Lessin, 2008) BEFORE Monday July 26

Monday July 26
In-class Screening: Excerpts from Hurricane Katrina CNN/MSNBC Broadcast
and Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996)
Mary Ann Doane, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” Logics of Television, ed. Patricia Mellencamp, 222-239.

Wednesday July 28
Henry A. Giroux, “Reading Hurricane Katrina: Race, Class, and the Biopolitics of Disposability,” College Literature 33.3 (2006): 171-196.
Didier Fassin, “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life,” Public Culture 19:3 (2007): 499-520.


Jen's Response to Daniela

Thanks Daniela for kicking off this thought-provoking discussion.

In response to your question: "What is ethnographic work nowadays? How can you escape the “misconceptions” that Derridas critiques about Levi Strauss work?" As I mentioned yesterday, I find it hard to respond to this question from Derrida's perspective. I appreciate his deconstructive analysis of Levi Strauss' research, and in many ways agree with his critique of "ethnocentrism in the consciousness of a liberating progressivism" (pg. 120). Nonetheless, I don't think Derrida successfully proposes an alternative model for a more responsible, or less ethnocentric, ethnography. In retrospect, I wonder if Derrida would find the activity of modeling alternative ethnographic methods a useful exercise at all -- probably not.

Derrida's main goal seems to be communicating an overall suspicion of any framework that attempts to implement an overarching hierarchy or rule set to what's "real." Toward that end, Derrida's critique is always formulated as a reaction to a reaction (to a reaction and so on). One topic that we didn't discuss in depth yesterday was what this means to our (linear) notions of "progress" -- one of the most controversial ideas in the discipline of anthropology, I'm sure. I'm very interested in how other scholars we read will address this topic throughout the rest of the course.

In response to your other question: "If Levi Strauss had a different conception of writing, maybe his conclusions about the Nambikwara would had been different?" Yes, I think Derrida persuasively argues that Levi Strauss' conclusions would be vastly different had he had a less narrow, "phonocentric" conception of writing. If Levi Strauss had approached writing from this broader perspective, he would have conceived the activities of A Writing Lesson not as a singularly violent "infiltration" of the Nambiwaka's "radical goodness" (pg. 119), but as a more complex (still violent) process of identification.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Of Interest

Hello all and thanks for the thought-provoking conversation today.

Just wanted to point out this article on "the new cavemen movement." It came to mind when we were discussing the inclination to romanticize certain cultures: be they elsewhere, or simply earlier. I find it particularly interesting this group has picked attributes of an era they find desirable and discarded the rest: ie., they have organ meat, but they keep it in ... refrigerators.

Also, thought you might be interested in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center this weekend.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

First week- The violence of the letter

I just finished reading the violence of the letter for the second time and I have to confess I didn’t understand anything the first time. Also it took me ages to read it the first time maybe it is an ESL problem, who knows.

Since this text is constructed in such a complicated way I will try to de-complicate the few things I understood.

Every write (Derridas included) is based on a system of assumptions. We don’t start from scratch and try to find all the truth of the world. Derrida’s analyzes these “pre-assumptions” and deconstructs them. He talks about the différance, how the meaning of something is never fully comprehended, but is always deferred to another system of things, for which that first meaning has opened a new set of things and continues like this in an endless chain that can only be stopped by writing.

What is ethnographic work nowadays? How can you escape the “misconceptions” that Derridas critiques about Levi Strauss work?

(p. 123) Levi Strauss implies according to Derrida that the Nambikwara “only draw lines” He assumed they don’t have writing because they have no word with that definition or something approximate. For Levi Strauss it has only and aesthetic value, as something extrinsic to linguistic value. If Levi Strauss had a different conception of writing, maybe his conclusions about the Nambikwara would had been different?

What do you think Levi Strauss would have said about the wild child?

Do you think he would have seen his innocence corrupted by society?