Too personal to live up to its subject's just deserts

Lawrence of Arabia

January 14, 2000

Steven Caton, following a pattern set in his Peaks of Yemen I Summon (1990), opens his study of Lawrence of Arabia with an extended elaboration of a childhood memory.

However, whereas in the earlier book Caton soon departed from the memory palace of his American youth and entered into the field to develop a nuanced empirical study of the topic indicated by the book's subtitle, "Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe", here the subtitle, "A Film's Anthropology", is an unreliable guide to what is contained within. In part, this unreliability is an effect of the author's use of the term anthropology.

Caton proposes that his anthropology of a film will provide an ethnography of audience responses, present a number of contextually determined perspectives on the same object or event and interpret the film as a profound moral allegory on the practice of anthropology. Frequently the book provides new perspectives on an old film through its unorthodox practice of "anthropology".

Caton's "dialectical critique", which proposes that a text can speak against its own hegemonic positioning, offers a valuable corrective to readings of the film as simply Orientalist.

Unfortunately, however, much of the book fails to escape the autobiographical. The audiences whose responses Caton impressionistically relays, are for the most part students he has taught; the varying perspectives he recounts are in large part his own at different moments of his life, and the referent of the allegory of the anthropologist turns out to be himself.

Caton does not claim to do traditional fieldwork here: he opens by announcing that "although this book is based on a great deal of research, it does not provide data from previously unpublished sources". He has read prolifically in film studies, cultural studies and post-colonial studies and weaves the insights gleaned from these fields as well as from biographies of those involved in the film's production into a close reading of the film as object and experience (inexplicably he rarely refers to T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom in analysing the reasons behind David Lean's and his scriptwriters' organisation of the narrative). His interpretation of the American film industry's 1950s development of an internationalism in production and subject matter is hardly innovative, but it works well to introduce the problematic history of the making and distribution of Lawrence of Arabia as well as issues of cultural authenticity and the representation of Arabs that proved central to the film's reception. Caton's use of Vivian Sobchack's phenomenology of film watching in discussing the film's wide-screen format enables him to discuss topics ranging from camera work and Brechtian "alienation" to the issue of audience identification with the film's various subject positions.

It would be good to believe that Caton called his book an "anthropology" to seduce unsuspecting anthropologists into a demonstration of the analytic power of the more rigorous tools of contemporary cultural and film studies. If so, the cavalier way he occasionally substitutes guesswork for research (for example, his unverified hypotheses about distribution and Afro-American reception), combined with his tendency to posit subjective experiences from objective correlatives, will encourage anthropologists to persist in their unjust disregard of these fields.

The book's eventual bemirement in often-unmotivated vignettes of the author's life forces this reviewer, at least, to abandon the seduction theory. Instead, I propose that two incompatible voices coexist in this text. The first is that of a sophisticated critic operating in the cultural-studies mode, the second that of a reflexive cultural anthropologist who has substituted self-exposure for fieldwork.

Glenn Bowman is lecturer in anthropology and image studies, University of Kent.

Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology

Author - Steven C. Caton
ISBN - 0 520 21082 4 and 2 1083 2.
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £31.50 and £12.50
Pages - 316

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