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Visualizing Culture: Inscription as an Ethnographic Artifact

Matthew Wolfgram
The George Washington University

The illiterate man’s thought . . . remains concrete. He thinks in images and not in concepts. His thought is, in fact, a series of images, juxtaposed or in sequence, and hence it rarely proceeds by induction or deduction.

(UNESCO Regional Report on Literacy 1972) Replete with Claude Levi-Strauss’ familiar dichotomy of concrete and abstract thought (1966), this early nineteen-seventies United Nations report is based on the dubious assumption that there is a natural link between inscription and the uplifting of human cognition. In anthropology, my natal discipline, the idea that writing transforms consciousness has served as a favored concept for explaining large-scale processes of cultural change. By objectifying spoken language in a visual form – permanent, transportable, external, and silent – it was argued that writing led to a fundamental change in the way people think; what the anthropologist Jack Goody characterized as a "cognitive divide" between literate and oral cultures (1977; Goody & Watt 1963; also see Ong 1982).

On theoretical and ethical grounds, this grouping of people in terms of literacy, a highly essentialized and politically saturated cultural practice, has been met with considerable criticism. The empirical integrity of these categories became suspect when all manner of cultural practices specifically correlated with literacy were observed in non-literate societies. A spectacular case of this is the formation of a science of linguistics in pre-literate South Asia (Staal 1996, pp. 37-46, 371-372). On the other hand, it was clear that the adoption of literacy did not necessarily lead to the decline of oral culture. For example, the classicist Albert Lord predicted that bardic poetry, which remains today among literates in Central and Eastern Europe, would decline with the introduction of writing because the performance is bound to oral conceptions of tradition and memory (1960; for more on literacy and cognition see Scribner and Cole 1981).

As in the anthropological treatment of literacy, human science scholars have often relied on the formal properties of technological innovations to explain cultural change. This paper starts by examining the work of Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and Frederic Jameson, critiquing what can only be understood as a tendency to understand history by conceptually privileging the role of visual technology. This manner of technocentric analysis, a kind of Marxist materialism, has the unfortunate effect of defining the historical subject as the passive recipient of their material culture, as well as marginalizing the importance of belief and agency. In part because of the influence of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutic approach (1981), processes of inscription have become highly celebrated in the human sciences and, I believe, not yet subject to the rigor of a sustained analytical critique. In particular, I argue that the human sciences’ romance with inscription is primarily focused on the structural properties of the visual channel and not on how these properties are culturally mediated. The second part of this paper illustrates the fallacy of technological determinism by concentrating an historical analysis on the treatment of visual inscription in anthropology’s disciplinary evolution. Throughout the history of anthropology, beginning with nineteenth century evolutionism and continuing today, ethnographers have employed technologies of visual inscription as methods of scientific documentation and dissemination. I argue that although photography, film, and now video have provided ethnographers with new kinds of data to examine anthropological problems, this history is marked by the conditioning of these media by the practitioners’ analytical ideologies. With such considerations, a place must be made for the instrumental role of cultural belief in constructing histories of technological change.

Vision and Inscription

It is apparent from the exceptionally diverse participation at this conference, that, as a category of knowledge production, the human sciences tend to lack much of the imagined cohesion that the historical disciplines often struggle to maintain. Given this current state, it is not surprising that the intellectual preceptors I have chosen to compare are in fact three diverse and highly original thinkers situated within the experience of very different historical and intellectual contexts. Although it is true that each scholar has asked different questions of different objects, I propose that their methodologies are at times equally based on the assumption that it is the form of visual inscription, and not primarily the beliefs of the consumers, that leads to profound cultural change.

In his pioneering text Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault taught that the act of observation inevitably constitutes an asymmetry between the see-er and seen, arguing that it is by employing the gaze as a "technique" that the individual body becomes a site for the production of "power and knowledge" (pp. 170-194). His text traces the evolution of Western European society and penal practices from an ideology of "spectacle" to one of "surveillance" (p. 217), a protracted historical process in which Jeremy Bentham’s invention of the "Panopticon" is given a primary status. In contrast with the visual channel of interpersonal interaction, all bodies situated within a panoptic structure can, without warning, be observed from a visible yet unpredictable location. It is by fixing vision with such asymmetrical and centrally controlled properties that the panoptic ideal functions as a favored model for cultural change. Foucault writes, "The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function" (p. 207). Similar to photography, film, and other current methods of visual inscription, the panoptic architecture was conceived as an autonomous and formal device completely separate from its context of use. This decontextualized technology spread to other social domains such as medicine and education, signaling the dawn of a culture of "surveillance."

In his brief yet profoundly important article, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1986), Benjamin puts forth a theory of history that favors the effects of replication on the notion of "art," situating this phenomenon within the political dialectic of Fascist Europe. By making esoteric visual forms available to "the masses," the technological reproduction of a work of art strips the object of its essential connections to history and to the intentions of the artist, what Benjamin terms the object’s "aura." He explains:

that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition (p. 221). The circulation of reproduced art created a perception of objects devoid of aura, uniqueness, and authenticity, a process which for Benjamin resulted in "The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality" (p. 223). In consequence, by reproducing objects with new formal qualities, the techniques of reproduction in effect produced a new mode of experience that resembled the political aesthetic of Fascism.

Jameson’s work (1991) addresses the role of video in drastically undermining the most basic processes of signification. Although the influence of the previous scholars is both transparent and celebrated, Jameson’s profound trust and implicit praise of technology’s transformative destiny goes well beyond his predecessors. Video encodes time in a linear sequence of which we are "helpless spectators," subject to the "effects of this technological appropriation of subjectivity" (pp. 73-74). Jameson describes video consumption as an experience of "total flow," a kind of rapid sequencing and information overload that results in:

a ceaseless rotation of elements such that they change place at every moment, with the result that no single element can occupy the position of "interpretant" (or the primary sign) for any length of time but must be dislodged in turn in the following instant (p. 90). Jameson credits video’s unique temporal properties with a profound change in the way we think, producing "that pure and random play of signifiers that we call postmodernism" (p. 96).

The common thread between these arguments is the assumption that technologies of inscription, particularly those media that fix vision with novel formal qualities, have, or will come to have, a transformative effect on human consciousness. Each of these writers and many others under their influence, have employed this assumption in an uncritical way to explain large-scale historical change of various kinds. It is necessary to underscore the apocalyptic character of this particular form of technological determinism; once a method of inscription is invented, it is only a matter of time before it circulates and fundamentally reorganizes the way people think (the change is nearly total and we cannot go back). As human science gurus of high repute, their work is indicative of a method of argumentation that can be observed to underlie part of what is now characterized as post-structuralist social thought.

Ethnographic Vision

More than other sub-fields, the specialization of visual anthropology tends to define itself in terms of the technologies it employs. According to the ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall, "visual anthropology is not about the visual per se but about the range of culturally inflected relationships enmeshed and encoded in the visual" (1997, p. 288). This range is usually framed with a dual orientation – the visual features of the cultures that anthropologists study and the visual methods these ethnographers use to analyze and disseminate anthropological knowledge. I examine the history of these methods in their intellectual context, focusing especially on photography, film, and video media. As opposed to being constrained by clearly defined formal properties, the kinds of information that ethnographic inscriptions are believed to encode has changed dramatically since they were first employed by tourists and Victorian anthropologists in the late nineteenth century. As well, the properties of transportability and reproducibility, although clearly important as potentials of these media, are equally conditioned by the changing character of the dominant anthropological ideology. In part because modern visual anthropology is notoriously reflexive, a feature I discuss in turn, there is already a sizable corpus of historical research documenting the anthropological use of visual technology (see especially contributions to Edwards ed. 1992).

The unfortunate beginnings of what is now the professional discipline of anthropology are well known to the critics of the academy’s complicity in the histories of colonialism and racism. With the intellectual inertia of Darwinian natural selection, Herbert Spencer, Edward Tyler, and others argued with great public support that race and cultural complexity were situated in an evolutionary hierarchy. Departing from the totalizing orientation of traditional intellectual history, George Stocking (1974) has shown that nineteenth century anthropologists, despite the apparent similarities, had considerable disagreements on many fundamental issues of evolutionary theory. It is clear that an obsession with human biological form, conflated with concepts of morality and culture, was one factor that unified much of this methodological and conceptual diversity. Physical morphology became an index of the racial categories used to support the evolutionary and intellectual superiority of white people, an agenda for which technological developments in photography became a useful means of obtaining objective and comparable morphological data (Edwards 1990). Displaying the naked body of "the primitive," as film historian Alison Griffiths describes:

Two full length photographs would be taken of each subject – one frontal and the other in a profile – and supplemented with full-face and profile portraits of the subject’s head . . . (Spencer 1992: 102) . . . The detection and measurement of individual anatomical features was seen to offer the perfect solution to the problem of how to guarantee objectivity and "truth" in anthropological investigation (1996/1997, p. 20). Long before the professionalization of anthropology and the notion of compulsory fieldwork, the popular field manual "Notes and Queries on Anthropology" (four editions were published between 1874 and 1920) articulated similar methods for travelers, natural scientists, and colonial administrators to return to England with photographic evidence for arm-chair anthropologists to ruminate upon (pp. 21-22). In this context, there was very little concern given to the modern methodological distinction between direct and indirect inscription – i.e., the artist and audience – because photography was viewed as an objective representation of racial morphology that was transparent and portable, reporting the same information in dispersed communities of reception.

The positivistic conception of visual inscription that characterized early ethnography, itself organized by competing ideologies of evolutionism, also had the counter-effect of challenging the racial underpinnings of anthropological theory by capturing the complexity of so-called "primitive societies." Visual anthropologists Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy convincingly argue that, racism aside, "many pioneer ethnographers were motivated by the desire to document what they observed" (1997, pp. 7-8). Two such individuals were Alfred Cort Haddon and Walter Baldwin Spencer, the first ethnographers to record moving pictures in the field. They were equally impressed with the truth-telling properties of filmic representation and its potential to inscribe the level of detail required in scientific analysis. Ironically, many anthropologists rejected cinema as exploitative because it catered to the public’s desire to consume exotic imagery. Clearly the tools were cumbersome and not amenable to harsh environments, but of equal importance may have been that movement was not favored as a signifier of static racial and cultural forms (Griffiths 1996/1997; a notable exception is the French physiologist and ethnographer Felix-Louis Regnault who used film to map cultural differences in locomotion, de Brigard 1995, pp. 15-17). In an interesting analysis which greatly problematizes technological determinism, Griffiths questions the familiar distinction between sequential or narrative time and static visual representation. In terms of the formal encoding of time, Haddon and Spencer’s films are "marked by long takes and medium-long shots rarely linked in cause and effect logic" (p. 26). Still photographs, in contrast, are often indexical of the larger sequence of activity in which they are embedded. Thus, a filmmaker’s framing of the recorded event can manipulate, or at least off-set, the formal qualities of the media (1996/1997).

Bronislaw Malinowski, showing with unmistakable clarity the importance of protracted fieldwork, knowledge of the local language, and first-hand observation, was instrumental in shifting the ethnographic gaze away from the physical body and toward the description of cognitive and social functioning. In an intellectual environment that gradually began to privilege mental phenomena and their behavioral manifestations, the role of the photograph in capturing race/culture was replaced by written description. The same medium that had been an objective tool of anthropological analysis, that had spoken so clearly for the late nineteenth century evolutionists was now, in the 1920’s and 30’s, all but silent. Photography’s link to the history of racial typing, still fresh in the minds of many anthropologists, also led to the decline of its use as a method of analysis. With the rapidly growing acceptance of Malinowski’s ideas, the ethnographic monograph became the preferred method of representing cultural knowledge (Banks & Morphy 1997, pp. 7-8; de Brigard 1995, pp. 17; Griffiths 1996/1997, p. 23). With only scant exceptions, the visual in anthropology was not seen as data, and thus, the interior psychology of the native (i.e., culture) was communicated in earnest by the written ethnographic narrative. This relegated photographs, if they were used at all, to a very subordinate role in the construction of the written ethnographic narrative - what Lucien Taylor has called anthropology’s "Iconophobia" (1996).

A separation of film and text that privileges writing as a medium of ethnographic representation, iconophobia’s still current manifestation (pp. 66-68), remained a serious constraint on the development of visual anthropology in the early decades of the twentieth century. It was during this time that films were first used in anthropological teaching – they were silent with intertitles, event-centered (e.g., a ritual or craft production sequence), and primarily employed to supplement other forms of anthropological knowledge (de Brigard 1995, p. 20). While the inferior role of visual inscription continued at anthropology’s center, commercial filmmakers, unconstrained by ethnographic ideologies of culture, acted on market and technological opportunities and recorded a sizable amount of ethnographic material. Although much of this data is subordinate to a dramatic narrative, for current anthropologists it has functioned as an important visual record for historical research (de Brigard 1995; Dunlop 1983).

It wasn’t until 1942 when Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead published "Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis" that the ambivalent place of the visual in anthropology began to shift. In addition to exposing a sizable amount of motion picture film, they used photographs to document various aspects of Balinese life. They believed that the reproducibility and transportability of photography and film was an invaluable tool for fixing in time these rapidly changing cultural practices (i.e., salvage inscription). Mead and Bateson were motivated by a belief that later anthropologists, whom they hoped would have more sophisticated methods of analysis, could provide explanations that they themselves could not (Lakoff 1996). But the couple was far from unified on the relationship of visual inscription and what it encoded. Whereas Bateson, in a spirit of induction, planned to conduct an inquiry through inscription, Mead wanted to collect the data and analyze it later, believing that the visual form was sufficient empirical support for an illuminating cultural analysis (Jacknis 1988; MacDougall 1997). Mead in particular seems to have viewed photographic and filmic inscription in a practical, yet idealistic and uncritical way. In an article introducing the edited volume "Principles of Visual Anthropology" (1995), she responds to serious theoretical concerns about subjectivity and the presence of the anthropologist in the field with a purely technical solution: leave the camera on a tripod and let it record whatever happens to occur in its field of view (p. 9).

In current anthropological experience, some argue that visual inscription provides a model for reflexivity because the image implies the presence of a person behind the camera who is situated in the actual event. It is accurate that ethnographic filmmakers were the first anthropologists to focus on the role of the observer and to seriously question the feasibility of realist representations of the truth (Taylor 1996, p. 79). This must as well be considered in the historical context of late twentieth-century anthropology because, of course, all media of visual inscription are easily reproducible and imply an observer; including racial typology photographs and Mead’s positivistic accounts of Bali. In the current academic climate with opportunities for both collaborative participation and the open contestation of knowledge, video in particular has been the focus of much interdisciplinary research because all participants can view the data on equal footing. This feature is particularly useful as a way of yielding some of the power differences structured into the university classroom; by giving the students relatively unfiltered and equal access to the same data the instructor can allow for the possibility of a more negotiated learning experience.

Contemporary visual anthropologists tend to view inscription as useful type of data that indexes particular features of human experience and, as Mead predicted, there are currently various programs of microanalysis that have already pushed recorded visual and linguistic data far beyond its original conception. As well, the comparative analysis of the older film materials with the current ethnographic record, complemented by a growing concern with cultural change, has encouraged some exciting new possibilities in historical research (see Banks and Morphy 1997; and essays in Hockings, ed. 1995). Although this work is highly specialized and not yet circulated in mainstream anthropology, there is clearly a growing acceptance of visual phenomena as part of the purview of anthropological inquiry.

This brief historical narrative of visual anthropology – only covering the most emblematic events – shows the importance of anthropological knowledge in reconstituting the formal properties of inscription. The assumption that the media of photography, film, and video necessarily encode experience in a particular way must remain problematic given the ubiquitous tendency for cultural and institutional contexts to shape a mode of inscription or, at the very least, to facilitate its systematic neglect. The concepts and histories within which anthropologists work, the goals of the research, the institutional constraints on the audience, and of course, the intentions of the ethnographic collaborators all tend to influence the types of content an inscription encodes. But it is necessary to note that the potential qualities of a medium are an important factor in formulating the kinds of questions anthropologists can examine and consequently technology has played an indispensable role in the history of social thought. The fact that anthropologists construct their objects in particular ways and use visual inscription and representation toward particular ends cannot be excused as a natural result of the technologies employed in anthropological work. This discourse is part of a larger post-positivist critique of representation which, as the ethnographer and filmmaker Terence Turner points out in his usual pithy manner (1995), only mystifies the ideological, political, and social realities with which individuals struggle in the production of anthropological knowledge.

Ethnography of Inscription

The human science scholars examined in this paper have provided some interesting questions for continued research, but the methods used in approaching this problem need to be seriously reconsidered. The recurrent strategy, introduced by Marx and championed by Foucault, Benjamin, Jameson, of explaining change solely in terms of an iconic resemblance between technological and cultural form will no longer suffice. My remarks should not be taken as an attempt to marginalize inscription as a relevant concept in the human sciences – I only ask that it be situated more holistically and critically amongst other methods of analysis. David MacDougall has done this in an article on subtitles in ethnographic film which, in conjunction with historical shifts in ethnographic methodology, appear to have contributed to a change in the reception of film narratives from "receiving information to interpreting content" (1995, p. 83). Although inscription does not necessarily transform thought, people do organize themselves toward media in profound and complicated ways. Empirical research in this area is thin but, at least in terms of literacy (e.g., Heath 1983), a few ethnographers have examined written inscription as a cultural practice and, in archeology, writing continues to be a useful index of bureaucratic complexity (also see works cited in Scribner & Cole 1981).

In an interesting article on the concept of "visualization" as an objectifying process of science (1986), Bruno Latour argues that instead of focusing on writing itself, we need ethnographies of inscription that include print, but also things like body art, money, ritual objects, and computer media. Of course, anthropologists have commonly observed non-literate forms of inscription and commented on them, but because of the conceptual hegemony of writing as a historical prime-mover, the actual role of inscription in local processes of cultural change remains largely unexplored. This will require us to expand Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutical approach to both incorporate and problematize other forms of inscription besides writing (1981). The history of ethnographic vision is a narrative of individuals enmeshed in the ideological context of their era, of which technological innovation is one important part. Inscription has provided constraints and possibilities; it did not in any unified way determine the character of anthropological thought. More than just a cautionary tale, the history of ethnography foregrounds the idea that both vision and inscription, like all technologies, are cultural artifacts constructed in the experience of a particular historical moment.


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