Unreal Nature

December 31, 2009

Happy Bloopers!

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 3:05 pm

Previous here.

(above) Almost angelic. I keep hoping I’ll get one that looks like some famous religious persona. (You know, like the burnt toast thing.)

(above) Practicing his right-turn signal; or providing landing signals for incoming flights.

I have an unusually aggressive bunch this year. Pretty much everybody wants to fight all the time. Sharing is not an option.



The Shortest Route

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:12 am

Enough with all this fluffy philosophy stuff. Let’s get right to the nitty-gritty:

… The development of modern photographic and engraving processes might not have been so rapid and so amazing if what they had to offer had not so well answered the demand of the modern mind for a quality best described as “instantaneousness.”

As living has become more complex, as the boundaries of communication have been pushed farther and farther out, until every man’s thoughts and interests encompassed the entire earth, the mental and emotional reaction has been one of stripping away all that was superfluous and cumbersome, in order to arrive at essential things as rapidly as possible.

In the arts, in architecture, and in the applied arts, this speed or “purism” of the modern mind has resulted in forms which the artist is apt to call “elemental” and which the everyday man dubs “streamlining.” The word is a graphic one and has come to be applied to everything from a skyscraper or an automobile to the latest forms of layout for the newspaper front page. Perhaps most streamlined of all is modern thought itself. It has cast off all the curlicues of olden days and insists at arriving at beauty, at fact, and at knowledge by the shortest route.

The quotes above and below are from a book, Pictorial Journalism by Laura Vitray, John Mills, Jr., and Roscoe Ellard (1939) that is itself being quoted from within an essay, Photographs as Facts by Dona Schwartz. In other words, these are third-hand quotes:

… All news, near or far, concerns four great elemental human themes: Survival, sex, ambition, and escape. These are the four great motives or instincts, which form the patterns of man’s existence on this earth. Of the four, survival is perhaps the most elemental … Survival — or anything that threatens it — is news. Next to survival, sex is probably the second great human interest … Sex — romance, love, and hate — is news. Third of these great pillars of the news is the ambition theme — the appeal to man’s urge to surpass his fellow, to gain power, to be an important person in wealth or in influence over the lives of others … Ambition — getting to the top — is news. Fourth of the forms of news appeal in pictures is escape … Escape — adventure, prowess, and daring — is news.

Essayist Schwartz describes the Vitray, Mills and Ellard book as “[a]n early textbook devoted to graphic journalism… written in 1939 by a group of journalism professionals, all of whom had at the time worked at the Washington Post. Laura Vitray and John Mills, Jr., had gone on to other jobs by the time of the book’s publication, and Roscoe Ellard was a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri.”

I am not sure if this means that  boogers and crabs can’t be news. Where would they fall in the survival, sex, ambition and escape categorization? What about crabs with boogers?



December 30, 2009

[In] Versions

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:51 am

… [In the 1930s before WWII.] Some reporters argued that photographs should be denounced altogether, saying that “we’re on our way backward to a language of pictures, to the Stone Age of human intelligence [J. L. Brown, “Picture Magazines and Morons” 1938]. The work of photographers, said one British journalist, “is important and valuable but it is not journalism, and I am not prepared to receive them as journalist colleagues” [F.J. Higginbottom, “Work of News Photographers is Not Journalism” 1935].

This is from an essay, From the Image of Record to the Image of Memory: Holocaust Photography, Then and Now by Barbie Zelizer, a revised version of what first appeared in her 1998 book, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye.

… So reporters in the press admitted photography but only in predetermined ways, as “fillers and story illustrations, but not a principal method of telling the news.” What was emphasized was photography’s role in providing a medium of record that catered to its referentiality, indexicality, and ability to reference a real-life object. What was undermined was the image’s cogency as a symbolic tool and its universality, generalizability, and ability to position a real-life referent within a larger interpretive scheme. That meant that journalists, in inviting photographers into their midst, emphasized the former over the latter. They welcomed photographs only so long as they figured they would help denote things happening in the real world, playing an indexical role in news rather than an interpretive one. It was assumed that photography could help bolster journalism’s authority for relaying the events or real life, supporting its aspirations toward objectivity and helping reporters become better journalists — or at least so went the refrain before the war.

Yet atrocity photos were produced through an inversion of that logic.

… [In many of the photos of Germany after the end of the war.] No identified place or date accompanied the photographs, there were no definitive details about the people being depicted, nor were there any credit lines. The images depicted generalized moments of suffering, but the relationship between the pictures and the accompanying text remained ambiguous.

This thrust away from the contingent details of what was being photographically depicted characterized most photographs of Nazi atrocities. Many photos lost their referentiality in face of their invocation as symbols, their connection chipped away as they became less definitive indices of a specific place or location and became more general reminders of the atrocities of Nazism. It was within the move from referentiality to universality that the pictures became particularly meaningful. Within a general story about the German war machinery it mattered little where in Germany a specific picture had been taken. What remained important was that the picture depicted life under the Nazis. Yet referentiality was what journalism was expecting photography to uphold, suggesting an inversion of what it was expected to do for journalism.

… Within days of the arrival of photographers in the [death] camps wire services were flooded with explicit and gruesome snapshots of horror the likes of which had never before been seen on the pages of the U.S. and British daily and weekly press.

The images did not often bear a definitive link to the stories they illustrated. One typical photograph was used alongside the official report compiled on the liberation of Buchenwald in April 1945. while the verbal report constituted one of the most detailed (and indexically powerful) narratives of the camps, presenting verbatim numbers, routines, death counts, and horrific procedures in considerable detail, the picture that accompanied it showed little more than three gaunt men and the caption offered little information. There was no date, no attribution, and little identification of the objects of the camera. The public viewed the image and knew little about who the men were, where the picture was taken, or who took it. Even at the time of the liberation a different degree of detailing was expected from images and words. Pictures were set up as universal accompaniments to the boldly indexical narratives at their side. Again, it was a reversal of the role expected of photography in news.

… captions often bore a mystical quality that left their relationship to the image unclear. One set of photos of a stack of human bodies, depicted alongside a crouching U.S. army major, appeared twice within a week in two separate U.S. publications, Newsweek and Time. The same stack of bodies was identified as being at two different camps: Buchenwald and Ohrdruf. On the level of referentiality — that is, an image’s ability to denote a specific action in a specific time and place — the caption specifying Buchenwald was wrong. Yet on the level of the image’s universality, that wrong information mattered little. At a more general level the image provided proof of the atrocities, even if they were labeled as being in the wrong place.

… symbolism was achieved through presentations that seemed to suggest that events depicted in the photographs could have taken place anywhere in the Third Reich and any time under its reign. … the photographs were invoked less as identifiable markers of specific activities and more as representative indices of general wartime circumstances. Images were pushed from fulfilling the role of referentiality to that of symbolism surrounding the war and the potential for human evil.

… Because standards for using photographs had not been sufficiently thought out, the press inadvertently allowed the photograph’s symbolic force to flourish over its referential dimensions. One final example illustrating the thrust away from referentiality can be found in Stars and Stripes (“The Pictures Don’t Lie” 1945). Intended as a rebuttal to lingering claims that atrocity photos had been faked or otherwise forged, the article tackled the authenticity of images. But the image it used to illustrate its claim was telling for its own lack of referential traits. The image that depicted the burned corpse of an unidentified laborer was uncaptioned and unattributed. Although the photograph, a depiction of a slave laborer, was in fact from the Signal Crops and had arrived over the wires complete with extensive documentation that said it had been taken in Leipzig, such documentation did not gain entry into the press, even in a piece on the authenticity of pictures.

… This rather hearty thrust toward using photographs as symbols rather than as tools of referential documentation suggests that photographs and photography entered newswork precisely along the least expected fault lines for doing so. The fact that photographs resonated as symbols not only as reportage but also as a mode of remembering suggests the need for a closer examination of the way in which they become co-opted in memory work.



December 29, 2009

Attention Paid

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:01 am

… attention is the means by which an individual observer can transcend those subjective limitations and make perception its own, and attention is at the same time a means by which a perceiver becomes open to control and annexation by external agencies.

This is from the book, Suspension of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture by Jonathan Crary (1999). I’m taking bits from the Introduction, and then from the Epilogue:

… Western modernity since the nineteenth century has demanded that individuals define and shape themselves in terms of a capacity for “paying attention,” that is for a disengagement from a broader field of attraction, whether visual or auditory, for the sake of isolating or focusing on a reduced number of stimuli. That our lives are so thoroughly a patchwork of such disconnected states is not a “natural” condition but rather the product of a dense and powerful remaking of human subjectivity in the West over the last 150 years. Nor is it insignificant now at the end of the twentieth century that one of the ways an immense social crisis of subjective dis-integration is metaphorically diagnoses is as a deficiency of “attention.”

… Attention, as I will detail, was an inevitable ingredient of a subjective conception of vision: attention is the means by which an individual observer can transcend those subjective limitations and make perception its own, and attention is at the same time a means by which a perceiver becomes open to control and annexation by external agencies.

That was from the beginning of the book. This is from the end:

… For [William] James, individual attentiveness to the fringes, transitions, pulses of one’s own particular “pure experience” was never effectively reconciled with “experience” as immersion in the tangled density of a shared, mutually inhabited world.* In its overwhelmingly pervasive forms, modern attention will coincide with an individual evasion of both history and memory. Habitual and commodified, it becomes an imaginary deletion of all that is unbearable or intolerable in collective and individual experience. But for the ways in which attention is indispensable to the functioning of what Bataille calls homogeneous society, in which perceptual selectivity sustains usefulness and efficiency, attention is also, as I’ve tried to show, an opening onto a heterogeneous world of nonproductiveness, of decomposition: in itself, it leads to the ruin of certainties and stabilities. In the works I’ve examined by Manet, Seurat, and Cézanne, a sustained attentiveness was never fully separate from a complex social and psychic machinery of sublimation; an absorbed perception, for each of them, was the disavowed, the evasion of a vision that laid bare an injured horizon of unfulfilled yearning. Yet in its suspension, it also produced the conditions in which the apparent necessity and self-sufficiency of the present could be dissolved, allowing the anticipation of an ineffable future and also the redemption of the shimmering and derelict objects of memory.


* See William James, Radical Empiricism and a Pluralistic Universe (New York; Longmans, 1912), pp. 39-91, 277-300. “the rush of our thought forward through its fringes is the everlasting peculiarity of its life. We realize this life as something always off its balance, something in transition, something that shoots out of a darkness through a dawn into a brightness that we feel to be the dawn fulfilled … In every crescendo of sensation, in every effort to recall, in every progress towards the satisfaction of desire, this succession of an emptiness and a fulness that have reference to each other and are one flesh is the essence of the phenomenon” (p. 283). Crucial here is James’s insistence on the self-canceling nature of experience, in which even the most traumatic events are dissolved into the primary reality of flux and insubstantiality. See the discussion of James’s conception of selfhood as private property, “the most radical of all possible alienation and disconnection,” in Frank Lentricchia, Ariel and the Police (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), p. 118. But this very subjective isolation and separateness, Lentrichia insists, is deployed “to preserve a human space of freedom, however interiorized, from the vicissitudes and coercions of the marketplace.”

I’ve included his footnote, in its entirety (numbered 3 on the page though I’ve used an *), because I like it.



December 28, 2009

In Congruity

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:40 am

Here is a little break from photography, photography, photography all day long. This is a long, but very readable essay in homage to Leonard Michaels; Once, with Attention by Elizabeth Tallent in the Winter 2010 issue of The Threepenny Review. It has enjoyable story-telling such as this:

… In my twenties I was a bookstore clerk in Santa Fe, which meant far away from everything and really far away from New York. MFA programs weren’t obligatory for writers then; New York was. The bookstore clerks all wanted to be writers. We lived in hope of writer-sightings but the only famous face we saw, now and then, was Georgia O’Keeffe’s, and she didn’t come into the bookstore but leaned in the black-shawled, smoldering remoteness of immense fame against the adobe wall across the street, picturesque as a nomad. An assistant came in, anxiously asked for the books she wanted, and filled out a check that already bore the inimitable signature, worth more than the figure the assistant scribbled in, but the bookstore’s owner knew if he didn’t cash the check she would never come back.

And there is some theory in it, too (you must always eat your vegetables …) :

… In his incisiveness he was a genius deviser of paradox. He may have liked the way it dissembles about the degree of craft involved. Look what I found, paradox says. This weird pairing. See what you can make of it. The deadening intrusion of the writer’s determination to achieve certain effects is hereby avoided, and this can hold true at the macro level of structure through a work’s imagery and down to individual words. The restless, careful searchingness of his essays often has, as its generating note, the chime of irreconcilables, some puzzle or incongruity literary, intellectual, or linguistic, present in his own life, or in his own head, which the essay approaches with sidling skepticism about his right to talk about it in the first place — with a fastidiousness the equal of his fascination. It was as if he felt one way to handle mystery without injuring it was to wrap it in paradox.

Take a look. I think you’ll like it. [ link ]



There Is No Possession In It

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:31 am

… Perhaps the most extreme case of film as simulacrum is the nature film. The creature under view stands for the life of its entire species in the undisturbed depths of nature, while it has in fact been trapped, manipulated, surrounded by equipment, and finally edited into a replica of what it might have been and done, but didn’t, or at least not in that order. Its image has been trapped, possessed, and, by our imagination, fertilised into a whole new organism of meaning. Film and photographic images are altered, recomposed, and transformed in many ways and yet still retain the sharpness of form and detail, the whiff of actuality, that allows us to continue in our happy pleasures of mistaking it for reality.

This is from an essay; Cultures, Disciplines, Cinemas by Leslie Devereaux in the book, Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography eds. Leslie Devereaux.and Roger Hillman (1995). (This should be the last take from this book.)

… Perhaps the most extreme case of film as simulacrum is the nature film. The creature under view stands for the life of its entire species in the undisturbed depths of nature, while it has in fact been trapped, manipulated, surrounded by equipment, and finally edited into a replica of what it might have been and done, but didn’t, or at least not in that order. Its image has been trapped, possessed, and, by our imagination, fertilised into a whole new organism of meaning. Film and photographic images are altered, recomposed, and transformed in many ways and yet still retain the sharpness of form and detail, the whiff of actuality, that allows us to continue in our happy pleasures of mistaking it for reality.

… In the past decade critics have been considering the nature of the post-Enlightenment self as it is visible in poetry and autobiography as well as other forms of expressivity. This self is a coherent, unified, self-aware agency, constructed both by the Christian discourses on the disembodied nature of the spirit and by the Cartesian ego that knows itself by its own act of thought. This thinking self is the product of a historically male, for the most part leisured, European bourgeoisie free from the bodily necessities of self-support and the deprivations of hunger or poverty. Thus, it has enjoyed the luxury of an imagined transcendence, mind detached from body and unencumbered by the particularities of circumstance, geography, and time.

… Writing about Victor Segalen’s travels in Tahiti and China, emblematic of a moment in Western culture, James Clifford noted that by the end of his life Segalen had lost faith “in the possibility of sharing other lives, of erotically possessing the other, of shedding a given identity.” Erotic possession. Penetration. Knowing the other. Intellectual and carnal knowledge. This universe of eroticism is suffused with power: taking possession, doing something to someone else. The (male) European subjectivity in search of the boundaries of itself.

My own experience of eroticism is closer to Eros. It is replete with difference, full of Yes. In touching I am touched, suffused by touch, and in the mutual movement toward each other I come to a place of no boundaries. I experience my self as the other; there is no possession in it.

In the movement of desire, in knowing, can there be the mutual experience of no boundaries? What can we know? For what is the pursuit of knowing? To know the other without knowing the self, without opening the self to being known, is truly an act of taking possession. The colonial legacy of lands and peoples taken possession of has fortified the boundaries — the heavily policed borders of the nation-state. These borders separate tribal and peasant villages, canonically the destination of anthropological study, from the postmodern urban subcultures that produce the film and written texts that cultural studies critically analyse.

In the section of Minima Moralia titled “Keeping One’s Distance,” Adorno cautioned that critical “distance is not a safety-zone, but a field of tension,” and this tension cannot be relaxed by a posture of relativity. Relativism, that “modesty” that is content to stay within whatever boundaries have been set for it, cannot, indeed, experience its own limits, cannot truly acknowledge all the many distances that attend knowing. Relativism ramifies boundaries by holding truths within them, while only the stance that clasps untruth to itself can “lead to the threshold of truth in its concrete awareness of the conditionality of all human knowledge.”

If all knowledge, all sedimented concept of human history, is conditioned, then that very history is our only guide, say the cultural critics, looking back to the immediate intellectual past and finding there, under the mask of universal and transcendent truth, the self-interested, (over)-determined, and limited point of view of someone on their way to becoming us. The development toward progress appears unidirectional. This is, of course, a crippling view. It condemns us to regard ourselves as the perpetual apex of history, and it makes it very hard to imagine difference in a nonhierarchical formation.

… We could with some justification regard anthropology as one arm of the incorporation into Western discourse of all that lay without it, as the intellectual act of subduing under logocentric oppositions the thought worlds of humanity, universalising our own pattern and putting all modes of existence, being, and doing into an ordered place within our own. We could say that anthropology has no alternative, since we apprehend the world with the intellectual tools of our cultural selves. But there is always room for new information. Is there the possibility in this meeting with the eternally constituted other of unsettling this discourse of incorporation?

… what happens when the film has in fact ridden out, seized, and possessed the other and brought it back to us to regard in the comfort of our living rooms (since most documentary film funding stands or falls on TV sales)? Does cinema, with its love of disguised repetition, render us incapable of broader acquaintance? Do the conventions of cinematic narrativity doom us to perceive the other only as stereotype of disowned aspects of ourselves? Does the projection of the cinematic aspect inscribe us with our own projected shadows in the mistaken form of the other?

A broadened acquaintance has more appeal than a trapped and possessed other. In this the phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas … may bring the crisis of representation, which is simultaneously the crisis of anthropology, to a moment of greater clarity. Levinas bases the encounter of self with other in a priority of the other. The self is in fact evoked and called forth by the other, whose alterity is thus not a subordinate term in an A, not-A logic but preexists in a semiotic field that constitutes subjectivity, variably, within it.

Under these epistemological conditions of alterity neither subject nor object can be fixed in a final totalising analysis. Alterity exceeds the capacity of the subject to grasp it in its entirety. Seizure and possession are transformed into awareness, excess, and movement. Conversation becomes the model for knowing in place of penetration or dismemberment.

… This is a philosophical orientation to social living that keeps us always in relationship, an orientation broaching on the contingent and permeable and quite far removed from the “egotistical sublime,” as Keats referred to the autonomous Cartesian self expressed in Wordsworth’s poetry.

I think that the book from which I have been quoting over the last few days, Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography eds. Leslie Devereaux.and Roger Hillman (1995) — is outstanding. If you’ve enjoyed my selections, I highly recommend that you get a copy of the book for yourself (no, that is not an affiliate link; I don’t wish to make money off of my recommendations).



December 27, 2009

Iran Today

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 3:50 pm

For excellent ongoing coverage, see Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

[His first post on the day’s events is here. Start with that one and go forward.]



Photography and Modern Warfare

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:14 am

… secondhand experience, from the newspapers, the news-reel, the wireless, is one of the dominating realities of our time. The many people who are not in direct contact with the disasters falling on civilization live in a waking nightmare of secondhand experiences which in a way are more terrible than real experiences because the person overtaken by a disaster has at least a more limited vision than the camera’s wide, cold, recording eye, and at least has no opportunity to imagine horrors worse than what he is seeing and experiencing. — Stephen Spender, Guernica

This is from an essay, Modernism and the Photographic Representation of War and Destruction by Bernd Hüppauf in the book, Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography eds. Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (1995).

… The representation in photography and film of modern warfare provides us with a disturbing example of the fading link between experience and knowledge and an asymmetrical relation between abstract and pictorial representation based upon an unresolved contradiction between images and structures.

… Aerial photographs are symptoms of and at the same time forces in the process of changing the mode of perception by fusing aesthetic effects and highly functional military information. Their space is emptied of moral content and experience. A reconstitution of the soldiers’ self went hand in hand with the destruction of experienced and morally charged space and its reconstitution in technical terms. The new landscape, a “dreamlike landscape like a furnace,” as Ernst Jünger called it, provided no source for empathy.

… The question has to be asked … whether a position based on empathy and moral value judgements in relation to the nature of technology will find a space in the discourse of modern warfare that would enable it to unfold political power, which is its prime objective.

… The domination of abstract and mediated constructions made possible strategic operations with modern armies of millions of soldiers and long-term planning involving huge spaces. In opposition to abstraction as the precondition of modern warfare, the antiwar film of the late 1920s created a visual code that emphasised the closeness and concreteness of the experience of individuals and groups. The structural dilemma seems inevitable: the ethical motivation of these films required an aesthetic regression behind the modes and techniques of production and destruction practised in modern warfare. … This dilemma between the modernity of the war and the archaic quality of each and every individual death — even if repeated millions of times — had to be faced by film and photography to a much greater extent than by traditional media, partly because of the intrinsic nature of each medium and partly because of the commercial conditions under which it is produced and distributed.

… The construction of war by analogy with aerial photographs would now have to be linked to the conception of nonemotional and basically empty space. It is this geometrical and abstract space that makes strategic mobility of mass armies and related gigantic logistics possible. The effectiveness of the moral antiwar film, however, is based on the creation of a space of experience. In such a space, constituted through human action, emotion, and evaluation, no modern war could be conducted. While, from the Trojan War through to the wars of the turn of this century, interaction with structured space formed part of the warrior’s identity, this is no longer required in modern warfare when — as World War I after 1916 illustrated — complete devastation of an environment creates ideal conditions for the operation of modern armour, communication, and surveillance devices and is linked to a technologically induced desert of the mind. It was the antiwar film and photography that maintained an emotionally laden space, thereby involuntarily contributing to the maintenance of obsolete images of war, because the space of suffering is also the space in which images of heroes have survived the end of its period. The representations are separated by political associations, but they are also part of the dual structure of a moral space. Only mathematical space emptied of human experience but structured in abstract detail will provide the smooth sphere for the “pure” war of technology.

Attempts to develop an image of warfare that simultaneously reflects the human ideal are linked to the imperative of creating a space within which suffering and terror can be experienced by the victim and located and spatially assessed by the viewer. These images are based on the assumption that an antiwar mentality will never emerge without such an anachronistic framework. The modern technological definition of warfare, however, has no room for experience and reduces time, space, and motion to abstract mathematical and physical quantities that enter into calculable operations. … Compared with this mathematical-strategic construction, the image that most antiwar films create of a space constituted by fighting, suffering, and dying soldiers is an anachronistic image designed as a life support system for a threatened moral position.

… It might … remain the task of film and the electronic media to fill in the empty space and counterbalance the technological vision of pure war. In the apparent absence of any justification other than that of an anachronistic morality it seems unlikely, however, that the image of the human face will have an impact on the self-regulating system of technology. Attempts aimed at an education of the senses have remained marginal, and a more powerful project of a new aesthetic seems unlikely to emerge.



What Was Missing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:09 am

… What was missing was not the body but the experience of existing in it.

This is from the same essay as was used yesterday; The Subjective Voice in Ethnographic Film by David MacDougall in the book, Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography eds. Leslie Devereaux.and Roger Hillman (1995). The middle part of the essay is about the various approaches that different filmmakers have used to try to include the subjective in the documentary. This first quoted bit is a description of flimmaker Jean Rouch “using himself rather than others as a primary subject. (In speaking of La Chasse au lion à l’arc, begun at about this same time, he said, “The film … is much less the lion hunt as it actually exists than myself in the face of this phenomenon.”)”:

Tourou et Bitti, made in 1971, directly concerns spirit possession, which can only occur upon the playing of two ancient drums, “Tourou” and “Bitti.” The film is essentially a single sequence shot of ten minutes’ duration. Afterwards, upon viewing the film, Rouch said he believed the camera acted as a “catalyst” for the trance and that while filming he himself had gone into what he called “cine-trance,” an idea he was later to describe in the following terms: “I often compare it to the improvisation of the bullfighter in front of the bull. Here, as there, nothing is known in advance; the smoothness of a faëna is just like the harmony of a travelling shot that articulates perfectly with the movements of those being filmed … It is this aspect of fieldwork that marks the uniqueness of the ethnographic filmmaker: instead of elaborating and editing his notes after returning from the field, he must, under penalty of failure, make his synthesis at the exact moment of observation.”

I interpret this notion of cine-trance literally and metaphorically. There is no doubt that filming can induce a trancelike state in which the camera operator feels a profound communion with surrounding people and events and indeed feels possessed by a spirit emanating from them. In these curious ballets, one moves as though directed by other forces, and the use of the camera feels more than anything like playing a musical instrument. Nevertheless, I believe that what Rouch means to suggest by “cine-trance” is a more complex idea about ethnographic representation. The filmmaker can never duplicate another people’s experiences, but Rouch proposes, by internalising aspects of their life he or she can reproduce them in the first person through the camera. Cine-trance perhaps represents a form of ethnographic dialogue, or at least one half of such a dialogue, in which the ethnographer celebrates his or her own response to a cultural phenomenon.

[ … ]

There is an irony in the disjunction that has grown up steadily between anthropologists and filmmakers, in that anthropologists, by and large, have wished film to make increasingly accurate, complete, and verifiable descriptions of what can be seen — that is, of behaviour, ritual, and technology — whereas filmmakers have shown a growing interest in precisely those things that cannot be seen. It was never the physical body that was felt to be missing in ethnographic films. The body was constantly and often extravagantly before us in its diversity of faces, statures, costumes, and body decorations. It was all too easy to present such images with their accompanying exoticism. What was missing was not the body but the experience of existing in it.



December 26, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:56 am

… The willingness to borrow, to cut across the grain of human perspectives, has become a way of combating intellectual and moral tunnel vision. This sometimes creates a kind of vertigo as anthropologists and critics stand on the boundaries of their disciplines. They rightly fear losing their balance, but there is often, as well, a powerful urge to jump.

This is from an essay, The Subjective Voice in Ethnographic Film by David MacDougall in the book, Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography eds. Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (1995)

… We are taught that observation should precede analysis, that before one can interpret one must read. But critical theory and anthropology have often run aground on the problem of reconciling the analytical with the experiental, just as the mind balks at entertaining two readings of a visual pun or geometric figure at the same time. The predicament of the critic has been put succinctly by Bill Nichols, with regard to film criticism, in the paradox: “If I am to analyse this film properly, I must not mistake it for reality; but if I do not mistake it for reality, I cannot analyse it properly.”* For the anthropologist the paradox might go, “If I am to understand this sociocultural system properly, I must not adopt the indigenous view; but if I do not adopt the indigenous view I cannot understand it properly.”

In recent decades there has been a growing conviction that analytical and experiental perspectives are neither opposed nor hierarchical — that is, that experience is not just the messy prerequisite for knowledge. Rather, the two are complementary and of comparable importance.

…for the first time since the splintering of philosophy into separate disciplines, there is a current in the direction of a reintegration of knowledge, not by means of grand theory but by borrowings between disciplines and, more broadly, between the arts and the sciences. This process has been described as a blurring of genres. I prefer to see it as an effort to heal what are increasingly regarded as ailing genres, flawed by reductionism and ethnocentric thinking. The willingness to borrow, to cut across the grain of human perspectives, has become a way of combating intellectual and moral tunnel vision. This sometimes creates a kind of vertigo as anthropologists and critics stand on the boundaries of their disciplines. They rightly fear losing their balance, but there is often, as well, a powerful urge to jump.

[ … ]

The value of the subjective voice, in anthropology and in the documentary film, is that it can give access to the crossing of different frames of reference in society — to what otherwise is contradictory, ambiguous, and paradoxical. One can plot these forces objectively, but it is arguable that one can only understand them experientially.

… The fiction film creates a multilevelled web in which its characters are contained and seen to struggle. The documentary film attempts to contain the historical person through a parallel set of strategies but also by allowing us to glimpse the ultimate failure of those strategies — by creating, as Nichols puts it, “the subjective experience of excess, the discovery … of a magnitude of existence beyond containment.”* It thus perversely denies what it offers. This effect is partly produced by the recognized gulf between film images and their profilmic antecedents, but it is also achieved through evocative and ironic tactics that put the historical person in a dimension beyond that attainable by the film.

[ … ]

Critics such as Nick Browne have shown that the conventions of filming and editing do not simply direct us to different visual points of view in a film but orchestrate a set of overlapping codes of position, narrative, metaphor, and moral attitude. Subjectivity is therefore not merely a function of visual perspective.** We are, in Browne’s terms, “spectators-in-the-text.” Our reading of a film, and our feelings about it, are at every moment the result of how we experience the complex fields this orchestration creates — partly dependent again upon who we are and what we bring to the film. This complexity extends to our relation to different modes of cinematic address.

… Although our access to fictional characters is limited, how much more limited must be our access to the mind and body of a historical person? Further, our relation as spectators to the narrative agency of documentary is more complex than in fiction. Rather than dealing with products of the imagination, we are dealing with real human beings encountering a filmmaker who coexists with them historically. The question of the filmmaker’s agency in representing them is thus implicitly pushed into the arena of the film. We are faced with a double task of interpretation.We interpret the perplexing exteriors of social actors in some ways as we interpret people in daily life, but we also perceive them through the narrative apparatus that the filmmaker has erected for us. On this epistemological level, at least, documentary confronts us with more complex forms than we are asked to deal with in fiction.


* Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image (1981)

** Nick Browne, “The Spectator-in-the-Text: The Rhetoric of Stagecoach,” Film Quarterly 29, no. 2, (Winter 1975-76)



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