MacDougall (1997). The visual in anthropology. (Rethinking Visual Anthropology)

MacDougall, D. (1997). The visual in anthropology. In M. Banks & H. Morphy (Eds.), Rethinking Visual Anthropology (pp. 276–295). New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
“But the problem remained that there was something disquieting about visual images. They appeared to show everything, and yet, like the physical body, remained annoyingly mute.” (p 277)
“For a general public imbued with ideas of social Darwinism, the visual appearance of exotic peoples was the most obvious way of placing them on a scale between civilised man and animal.” (p 279)
“The visible emphasises what one is not. For the colonisers as well as for the colonised, a concept of purity and impurity was an underlying principle of social segmentation. Manipulating human categories reinforced the colonisers’ sense of difference as well as their sense of power.” (p 280)
“Such forms of measurement may have paid meagre returns in terms of actual knowledge but they had the satisfying look of knowledge.” (p 281)
“Photographs were a prominent feature of ethnographies until the 1930s but become progressively scarcer in later works. … If visual anthropology later became less focused on content than on method (ethnographic filmmaking and photography), as Morphy and Banks note in this volume (chapter 1), it is perhaps partly because such interests were soon hived off into studies of primitive art, technology and folklore.” (p 281)
“But there were other reasons too. Grimshaw (chapter 2, this volume) argues that the end of the nineteenth century ushered in a shift in attitudes towards the visual in which the assumed coherence and superiority of European civilisation’s vision of the world was finally shattered by the First World War.” (p 282)
“There are of course alternative views, but the history of visual anthropology suggests that most anthropologists have never known quite what to do with the visual. … Words, on the other hand, have little more to say once you have written them.” (p 283)
“On the other is the visual anthropology that uses the visual media to describe and analyse culture. In Sol Worth’s terms, this is the difference between ‘using a medium and studying how a medium is used’ (1981: 190).” (p 283)
“As an anthropology of visible cultural forms, ‘visual anthropology’ is now broadening its scope in two ways. It is expanding to embrace indigenous media production as a parallel strand of cultural representation; and amongst academic anthropologists it is beginning to pay attention to a range of cultural forms that have received only patchy anthropological attention before: historical photographs, news photography, sports events, comic books, postcards, stereographs, body decoration, indigenous painting, ‘tourist art’, home movies, family snapshots, itinerant theatre, vernacular architecture, children’s drawings, political regalia, court ceremony, gesture and facial expression (although these have a longer history of study), advertising, costume and personal adornment, industrial design, and so on — in short, any of the expressive systems of human society that communicate meanings partially or primarily by visual means.” (p 283)
“For indigenous people, the visual media can serve as an instrument of political action (as among the Kayapo), cultural reintegration and revival (as among the Inuit) or as a corrective to stereotyping, misrepresentation and denigration (as among many Native American groups).” (p 284)
“The visual media make use of principles of implication, visual resonance, identification and shifting perspective that differ radically from the principles of most anthropological writing. They involve the viewer in heuristic processes and meaning-creation quite different from verbal statement, linkage, theory-formation and speculation. … Above all, the visual media allow us to construct knowledge not by ‘description’ (to borrow Bertrand Russell’s terms) but by a form of ‘acquaintance’ (1912:46-59).” (p 286)
“But essentially it reveals dissatisfaction with earlier models and a straining at the boundaries of anthropological understanding — a need to pass beyond received conceptions of representation to what Tyler (1987: 199-213) has called ‘evocation’ and Barthes has called ‘figuration’ (1975: 55-7). This is the experiential field that film and other visual media at least offer anthropology.” (p 288)
“Here it is necessary to insist that visual anthropology is not about the visual _per se_ but about a range of culturally inflected relationships enmeshed and encoded in the visual.” (p 288)
“If we consider the visual as offering pathways to the other senses and to social experience more generally, then what may be required of the viewer will often combine psychological or kinaesthetic responses with interpretive ones. For example, a work that invites us to enter into a visual narrative as a participant may also require us to place that experience within the context of how the experience has been created for us, and what indications there are of the visual anthropologist’s own engagement with the situation at the time. The anthropologist may never be able to articulate this fully outside the matrix of the work itself.” (p 288-289)
“What was paradoxical about visual imagery, as against written text, was its apparent plenitude, which flooded the observer with concreteness and detail, yet revealed little in the absence of a surrounding discourse. Just so, the advertised product speaks only within a cultural discourse of fashion and desire, the pornographic image within a narrative of improvised fantasy.” (p 289)
“To the anthropologist who knew the cultural context, the visual image spoke volumes, but that power was also a source of danger. An uncaptioned photograph was full of undirected potential. Unlike written descriptions, which always provided some sort of context, a photograph could be supplied with any sort of meaning by the viewer — from competing scientific discourses, or unwelcome popular ones such as racism. It all too easily escaped from professional control. Similar fears are heard today from anthropologists who deem certain films to be dangerous to the public (or their subjects) through what they omit to show or to say. There is a moral imperative against allowing viewers to jump to the wrong conclusions.” (p 289-290)
“_Balinese Character_ finally falls between two divergent conceptions of photography — one an extension of the mind, the other an extension of the eye.” (p 292)
“They involve putting in temporary suspension anthropology’s dominant orientation as a discipline of words and rethinking certain categories of anthropological knowledge in the light of understandings that may be accessible only by non-verbal means. In exchange, visual anthropology offers the possibility of new pathways to anthropological knowledge, as in understanding the transmission of culture and in newly identified areas of cultural construction.” (p 292)

Selected References

  • Banks, M., & Morphy, H. (1997). Introduction: Rethinking visual anthropology. In M. Banks & H. Morphy (Eds.), Rethinking Visual Anthropology (pp. 1–35). New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
  • Barthes, R. (1975). The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill
  • Bateson, Gregory and Margaret Mead (1942) Balinese Character: a Photographic Analysis, New York Academy of Sciences, Special Publications 2, New York: New York Academy of Sciences.
  • Grimshaw, A. (1997). The eye in the door: Anthropology, film and the exploration of interior space. In M. Banks & H. Morphy (Eds.), Rethinking Visual Anthropology (pp. 36-52). New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
  • Russell, B. (1912) The Problems of Philosophy, repr. edn, 1988, Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
  • Tyler, Stephen A. (1987) The Unspeakable, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Worth, S. (1981) Studying Visual Communication, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


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