Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Questions: Camaroff & 'Born into Brothels'

Camaroff presents a provocative look at the branding of culture, perhaps best summarized with the line,

"in an age in which 'fantasies work where reality fails,' contemporary advertising techniques, those neoliberal weapons of mass instruction, are replicated in the production and alienation of culture; culture, that is, not in the anthropological sense of the term, but in the guise claimed by those who would assert a collective subjectivity by objectifying it for the market." (18)

My first question is quite broad, but: What examples of the commodification of culture or national identity can we think of?

One striking example is Aveda's Uruku makeup line. This is Aveda's official version of the partnership. (It's under five minutes and very interesting.)

These are samples of their ads:

And an image from a fashion show with Chief Tashka Yawanawa. Yes, I believe he is applying eyeliner.

And we seem to have arrived again at the idea of an aura. I think anthropology may use it in a specialized sense, and I know professor Rangan spoke of its allusion to 'power over the viewer', but I can't find a definition outside the general:

1. An invisible breath, emanation, or radiation.
2. A distinctive but intangible quality that seems to surround a person or thing; atmosphere. (Free Online Dictionary)

Camaroff writes of "the aura of ethno-commodities" and debates if it dies with their reproduction. Yet he posits perhaps "authentic reproductions, like 'genuine fakes,' tend to underscore the uniqueness of the original." (20)

This language made me wonder what consumers seek in the marketplace of culture. What is the appeal of "licensed shamans," "ancient Shapibo ceramic artwork" and "retreats in jungle lodges"? (2-3) Does it tie into the anthropological impulse? Is it an attempt to escape the trappings of consumerism ... by falling into its newest manifestation? What sort of 'aura' does it hold in Western eyes?

Lastly, Born into Brothels presents a lot of information in its first four minutes. It opens with moths beating against a lightbulb and proceeds, with a throbbing score, to move between images of crowded streets, a child's face, men counting money, and prostitutes soliciting customers. After the title scene, we see rodents, disturbing excerpts of an interview with a child, and black and white images of prostitutes with clients.

The filmmaker then introduces herself with the voiceover and words, "It's almost impossible to photograph in the red light district."

How does this introduction predispose the viewer to interpret the rest of the film? How does it position the filmmaker in regards to the story? Did she gain your trust as a voice of authority in the first 20 minutes?

Also, the film did win an Academy Award, but amid a large chorus of praise in the U.S. media there was a smaller voice dissent. This article seems to present all the major criticisms of the film and may help inform our discussion.

--posted by Maureen

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