Monday, July 5, 2010

Notes on Week 5 materials on "Autoethnography"

Dear all:

Since we didn't have a chance to meet today, here is some info to help contextualize the link between the Through Navajo Eyes project from 1966 (which you're blogging about) and the readings on Indigenous Video Movement which would follow in the 1970s-1990s (which you'll be reading for Wednesday):

It's important that we think historically about the Navajo Project and the Indigenous Video Movement, and situate them as products of specific historical, political and technological events:

The Navajo Project is considered by many (and indeed declares itself) to be the originator of the model of "handing over the camera to others". When thinking about Worth and Adair's research objectives, do keep in mind that this project predates the "poststructuralist" turn in ethnography (Marcus-Cushman, Fabian) by 20 years. It also predates the emergence of Screen/Film Theory as a discipline and "visual anthropology" as a sub-field of ethnography with devoted conferences and journals. The Navajo Project, along with the "participatory ethnography" method of the filmmaker Jean Rouch in the 1950s played an important role in legitimizing the practices of "shared anthropology" and also in legitimizing film as an object of academic study.

The Navajo Project was also an important moment in the history of the "politics of representation" -- "culture" would become a keyword in the 1970s and onward, and with the emergence of cultural studies, poststructuralism, and discourses of multiculturalism, "diversity" would also become a major academic buzzword in the 1980s and onward. So before designating the project as "racist," we need to keep its historical context in mind.

A series of events intervene between the Navajo Project and the Indigenous Video Movement, which would adopt the "autoethnographic" (more on this below) model in the 1970s and onward. One major event involved the postcolonial movements toward self-determination, and the radicalization of the academy in the 1960s, all of which led up to the poststructuralist turn in anthropology in the 1980s.

The 1970s and 80s also saw some largescale changes in the global dissemination and penetration of mass media. One important development was the emergence of VIDEO technology in the form of cheap, portable, and user-friendly camcorders. 16mm (used in the Navajo project) and 8mm were popular as amateur filmmaking technologies before then, but there was no real "equivalent" of video until video. Broadcast TV and VCR technology were another major and aggressively marketed force--there was a lot of excitement in the late 1970s and 80s, well into the 90s, around public access TV, pirate radio, community TV, alternative video, guerilla TV, deep dish TV etc. While on the one hand this has been described by some scholars as an intensification of what was felt to be "American imperialism" in the form of syndicated American TV and film programming, there was simultaneously the possibility, others like Frota and Faye Ginsburg argued, of having locally produced media from remote places no one had even heard from before, at a relatively affordable rate.

The Frota piece should evidence this sense of celebration and excitement around the new and relatively democratic-seeming possibilities surrounding video--these rapid technological changes were thought to have a real potential for transforming representational politics. Indigenous Video was felt to be a change both at the level of the economic base and the ideological superstructure; hence the emphasis on providing access to "others" to the means of production of discourse. Technological changes in media have obviously happened very quickly since then, with the emergence of digital technologies, social networking, which we're not really going to get into. But the Indigenous Video Movement should give you a picture of the excitement around "democratic social media" at a moment well before Web 2.0.

But in order to critically examine the phenomenon of Indigenous Video on Wednesday, we need to consider what kinds of assumptions it made about the relationship between media and political change. When reading, try to consider what aspects of the Navajo Project's research interests Indigenous Video scholars like Frota want to turn away from, and the stakes of the same. How does Rachel Moore critique this? How are the aims and problematics of the Through Navajo Eyes project and Indigenous Video distinct from each other?

Finally, here is some background on the term "autoethnography," which is used to describe this week's materials on the syllabus:
This term is used differently by different scholars. The sense in which I've used it is derived from the scholar Mary Louise Pratt, who coined the neologism "autoethnography" in her seminar critique of European travel-writing: Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992). She describes autoethnography as follows: "if ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations." Pratt's understanding of autoethnography, which emphasizes transculturation, hybridity, and ideological struggle in cross-cultural representation, provides a theoretically sophisticated rubric through which to revisit the impetus behind Worth and Adair's notion of "biodocumentary" in Through Navajo Eyes. How does the discourse of Indigenous Video scholars like Frota dovetail with or depart from Pratt's understanding of autoethnography?

A less predominant use of autoethnography is the use of the term as a shorthand for self-reflection or reflexivity in ethnographic work. For instance Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner propose "evocative" or "autobiographical" narration on the part of the ethnographer as a postmodern strategy for challenging devices of "ethnographic realism" like empirical evidence, self-present voice, and coherent subjectivity.

Rey Chow (who we'll read next week) has recently appropriated the notion of autoethnography in her book Primitive Passions (1995) to describe situations where cultural or ethnic "others" engage in an act of self-othering or self-orientalization in a bid to enter into a profitable situation of exchange with the West. She argues this is done by drawing on marginalized or deviant groups within the other culture, and reifying those groups' subalternity as a means of rejuvenating and modernizing the image of the dominant social groups. Chow locates this self-orientalizing tendency as the flipside of the liberatory impulse of autoethnography, whose advocates typically assume that something in a state of repression needs to be "set free" or "liberated".

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