Under the exotic skin

Scholars strive to find explanations that clarify without stereotyping

September 25, 2014

How can academics who study distant times or places make their work accessible to the wider public without falling back on “exotic” stereotypes such as naked savages or ripplingly muscled heroes?

That question was up for debate at a one-day forum for postgraduates and early career researchers, Beyond Exoticism: Opening Up Remote Cultures, sponsored by the British Academy and held at the University of Liverpool on 8 September.

Thomas Harrison, organiser of the event and Rathbone professor of ancient history and classical archaeology at Liverpool, admitted that until recently: “I gave no thought to an audience and just wrote the books I wanted to write.”

A BBC commissioning editor, he recalled, had once told him that documentaries about the ancient world were always built around two stock stories: “hidden mysteries” or “We’re all Greeks”. Yet Professor Harrison worried that scholars can “get trapped in these narratives” and wanted to ask: “How can we subvert or break out of them?”

These themes were taken up by Jon Hesk, senior lecturer in Greek and Classical studies at the University of St Andrews. There was a great appetite, he suggested, for stories about “how the ancients created important stuff, from democracy to underfloor heating”. These ran the risk of being “arrogant, imperious and simplistically mendacious” - although it was all too easy to recycle them when trying to “sell” the subject to potential students and their parents, he added.

So too, when people praise Greek tragedies for their “relevance” in depicting “the terrible suffering of women and children in war”, there was always “a danger in hyping up similarities at the expense of differences or exaggerating what we know”, he continued. Responsible classicists, in Dr Hesk’s view, often faced the difficult challenge of “saying ‘It’s more complicated’ in an accessible way”.

As a “user” of academics and their research, television producer David Williams urged them to “put the emotion in, big it up. Make the audience feel - don’t deliver an argument to them.” These comments struck a chord with Professor Harrison, who remembered a producer telling him he needed to get more excited on screen about the archaeological expeditions to the Egyptian desert which had found evidence of the Lost Army of Cambyses.

A series of speakers then offered examples of the techniques they had used, and compromises made, in reaching out and trying to make an impact through their work.

Keir Martin, associate professor of social archaeology at the University of Oslo, described the dilemmas of presenting the fieldwork he carried out in Papua New Guinea, “one of the most exotic regions of the world, ‘a last unknown’, a region where TV crews still go in search of Stone Age tribesmen to put into documentaries or reality shows”.

But although “exoticism has always been associated with the region”, he argued that “this has not always been an entirely negative phenomenon”. Since the experience of “exotic shock” was inevitable, it seemed better to acknowledge it and then use it to combat preconceptions.

As an example of this, Professor Martin cited sorcery - a topic that could certainly attract attention and seem very alien to readers and viewers. However, this interest could be used to explain how sorcery “acts as a mechanism for enforcing an egalitarian ethos in which those who accumulate too much and do not redistribute enough are cut down to size, [so] what appears irrational from one perspective appears highly rational when viewed from another”, said Professor Martin.

This, in turn, he continued, could be used to draw parallels with more familiar forms of behaviour: “Selling shares below their fundamental value (a highly irrational action when viewed from certain perspectives, such as that of the ‘economy’ as a whole, or indeed from a long-term perspective) can be seen as highly rational from the individual perspective of a trader looking to hold on to his job at a time when prices are dropping because of everybody else’s panic.”

Furthermore, today’s global economy means that “the cocoa farmer’s fears of sorcery and the cocoa futures trader’s fear of panic-driven slump are clearly connected”, argued Professor Martin. Acknow­ledging “exotic” aspects of life in Papua New Guinea can thus be a good way of addressing the underlying similarities and “mutual entanglements”, he added.

Background information

Timothy Insoll, professor of African and Islamic archaeology at the University of Manchester, described Fragmentary Ancestors, an exhibition he had put on at the Manchester Museum in partnership with Benjamin Kankpeyeng of the University of Ghana. This brought together 60 striking clay figurines from a remote region of Ghana, including two-headed humans, a chameleon, a crocodile, a man on horseback and people apparently suffering from congenital conditions such as anencephaly.

Since these figurines are up to 1,400 years old, have no connection with living populations and little ethnographic context, there was a real risk of their seeming baffling or “exotic” to a non-specialist audience. In order to get round this, Professor Insoll and his team provided some basic background information in the exhibition about African religion and healing and additionally played up a powerful medical narrative that was “there to see in the material”.

Meanwhile, Roger Luckhurst, professor in modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, University of London, noted that “many academics shove a book out and hope no one will read it, and are opposed even to sending out a press release”. One colleague refused to write for a magazine again after they changed a single comma of her text, he said.

Those who really hoped to get their work out to a non-specialist audience need to be a bit less precious and “help the external relations department at their universities as much as possible”, he said.

Yet they would do well to remember that “there is a range of media which offer academics everything from complete control to none”, said Professor Luckhurst. “With radio and television you must realise that you are just providing raw material.” When he submitted a television script based on his recent book, The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy, he was told by the production company: “It’s completely brilliant, but we need to change everything - and would you mind saying that mummies’ curses are true?”

Along with more gratifying public attention, Professor Luckhurst added, publication had led him to be contacted by people who believed themselves to be reincarnations of Egyptian pharaohs.



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