Little to look at in history of seeing

The Ethnographer's Eye

五月 10, 2002

A spate of writings about visual anthropology as a field of study and domain of practice has washed across my desk of late. Such a near-surfeit of generic introductions testifies to an academic discipline that sees itself as having come of age. But this volume by Anna Grimshaw differs substantially from other "how to do" visual anthropology books.

Grimshaw trained as an academic anthropologist (her Servants of the Buddha: Winter in a Himalayan Convent was published in 1992), then, after a break to serve as literary executor of the estate of C. L. R. James, worked as a researcher for Granada Television. Later she left Granada to study film-making at the National Film School, which prepared her not only for her current job lecturing at Manchester University's Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology but also for her own film-making practice.

While this heterodox history eminently qualifies her to write yet another text informing aspiring ethnographic film-makers about creating documentaries simultaneously true to the field and attractive to a popular audience, Grimshaw has instead provided a critical history of the way vision has operated in the collection and representation of anthropological knowledge over the past 100 years. In so doing, she opens new and important paths of inquiry and reflection.

The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with visual evidence - cinematic and photographic - between 1895 and 1945 through the work of W. H. R. Rivers, Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. The second examines the postwar period through the films of Jean Rouch, David and Judith MacDougall and Melissa Llewelyn-Davies.

The first half places "early 20th-century (anthropology's) development alongside changes in the visual arts which found expression, and above all cinematic expression, during the early decades of the century". Grimshaw uses the analytic diagram to link Rivers with cubism (and Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein), romantic nostalgia to link Malinowski with Robert Flaherty (director of Nanook of the North ), and the drive for enlightenment through classification to link Radcliffe-Brown with John Grierson and the British documentary school.

These chapters - and their extensive footnotes - bring the history of anthropology into productive juxtaposition with other intellectual and technical developments of the "modernist" first half of the 20th century. The second half, in which Grimshaw abandons montage as an organising principle and presents a series of case studies, disperses some of the excitement accrued in the first half.

Grimshaw argues that Rouch, influenced by Georges Bataille and the surrealists, worked as a seer, disrupting "the boundaries between the self and the world, mind and body, the mind's eye and the surveying eye", while the MacDougalls are impelled by a "drive for clarity... desir(ing) to banish darkness through the exercise of the light of reason". She closes by examining Llewelyn-Davies's Masai films made over the past 30 years for Granada and the BBC, lauding her move from the objectivism of her early films to the almost soap opera-like concern of her later films with personalisation, orality and the foregrounding of relationships. Llewelyn-Davies produces what Grimshaw calls a "feminist anthropology", "exploiting television's distinctive genres for the generation of new kinds of ethnographic understanding".

Grimshaw discusses Rivers's fascination with the intense visuality of "primitive peoples" and of soldiers shellshocked in the trenches of the first world war, and his desire to balance the western "epicritic" - evidenced in abstraction, objectivity and rationality - with the "protopathic" - characterised by emotion, subjectivity and vision - he saw in those "others". The Ethnographer's Eye would benefit from such a balance. There are no pictures and little textually that could be described as illustrative. The book for the most part tells us in abstract terms what the author and her sources think; it does not show us those thoughts or relay the experiences out of which they developed. This is a shame; Grimshaw has seen visual anthropology from both sides, and film-makers and lecturers could learn more if that stereoscopic vision were shown more palpably.

Glenn Bowman is senior lecturer in anthropology, University of Kent at Canterbury.

The Ethnographer's Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology

Author - Anna Grimshaw
ISBN - 0 521 77310 5 and 77475 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 222



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