CRITICAL APPROACHS TO CULTURE, COMMUNICATIONS AND HYPERMEDIA
CRITICAL APPROACHS TO CULTURE, COMMUNICATIONS AND HYPERMEDIA
DR. RON BURNETT I recently received a superb essay from a student of mine on the history and development of community radio in Canada. He argued for community radio as a tool of liberation, unfettered by the requirements of visual representation, not constrained by the centralised control of modern media monopolies. He talked about participation, about the opening up of a personal space for discourses which are fundamentally oppositional and guided by a sense of alternativity. ãAn alternative is an-other. In the sense of alternative media, alternative is perhaps the others. In the sense of community-oriented radio, it is the alternative to rigid formatting, highly packaged, regurgitated information, the search for profit and slickness at the expense of content and social responsibility. It is the Îotherâ: the blacks, the women, the gay men, the prisoners, the adolescents, the community centres, the hispanics, the lesbians, and the children. It isn't just things about them, Îforâ them ÷ it is by them, and of them.ä 1 This important concept ÷ meaning recovered and then transformed by political and cultural activity, is being found at the margins of an increasing number of social configurations. There is a close yet ambiguous link between all of these actvities and the growth and development of new technologies. From lowcasting to camcorders, from electronic publishing to facsimile machines we have entered an era in which the way information is transmitted is of less consequence than the use which is made of information. This proliferation, however, carries with it a number of dangers, not the least of which is an overinvestment in the effects of information, an overestimation of the changes which are produced through this circulation of knowledge. I would characterize this latter problem as the remnants of an attitude which seeks to construct an utopian ideology on the rather slippery foundation of communication and exchange. Thus what is important about experiments in community radio is the way in which they allow disenfranchised members of the community to enter into the technology of sound, to engage with the technology not so much to produce a representation which communicates but to participate in the creative process. I make this point as an indirect way of commenting upon many of the articles in this issue of the CVA Review. All the articles are evidence of this rich contradiction at work. The articles reveal an effervescence of activity at so many different levels that any effort to reassemble them into an argument about social change may be doomed to failure. It seems clear that the Îvisualâ in visual anthropology is doing very well indeed but that something crucial is missing when Îsoundâ is so obviously left out of the nomenclature. Yet, there are few ethnographic films which do not make use of sound, which are not steeped in traditions of the oral and the auditory. In fact it was with the coming of sound in 1929 that ethnographic films gained an authority with regards to the visual which was not questioned in great depth until the early 1970's. There is of course a link between the evolution of the documentary cinema and the role of ethnography and anthropology as underpinnings for a neo-positivist approach to social, political and cultural realities. Too often, however, ethnographic and documentary films are conflated into one as if their histories have followed a similar route. The contexts out of which the former developed are substantially different from the latter. This has as much to do with disciplinary boundaries as it does with the way in which knowledge circulates, particularly knowledge which has been configured as Îvisualâ. As Johannes Fabian has so cogently argued, the relationship between the visual and visualism has historically been dependent upon pedagogical strategies designed in the first instance to both validate and organize knowledge into a presentable form.2 The visual in this sense depends less on the truth or on the real than it does on the use to which the images are put, on their location in a particular culture and the applications which are made of the information which is produced. Yet as Christopher Pinney has argued in a recent issue of the "Studies in Visual Anthropology" the residual effects of naturalism, which has been a guiding element in the development of ethnographic films and videos, remains in place in even the most progressive of texts, those premised on self-reflexivity and on a critique of ethnographic truth. This is because ethnography still sees fieldwork as the underpinning for the discipline, as the basis upon which images as such, can be produced. ãGiven this historical legacy of a particular method of data production the whole project of anthropology remains dependent on the acknowledgement that the whole thing is the product of the individual being there, being Îexposed to the lightâ. Within this inescapable parameter, reflexivity, the Îcrack in the mirrorâ always becomes further proofs, further guarantees of the truth of the representation.ä3 An argument can be made that when the disenfranchised gain a voice, as has been the case with community radio, that the result challenges the very idea of fieldwork and its forms, the very notion of an elsewhere which can be found either through research or through the image. This argument was brought home to me when I viewed some the footage shot by Andris Slapins and Yuris Podnieks, filmmakers and members of the growing nationalist movement in the Baltic states of the Soviet Union. The letter by William Fitzhugh in this issue commemorates the unfortunate and politically motivated death of Slapins who to my mind was a great cinematographer. The footage I saw just could not have been made by a foreign ethnographer. My aim in saying this is not to produce an essentialist argument or to suggest a kind of outside-inside distinction the parameters of which are locked or frozen in time. The boundaries between different cultures have been broken down to such a great degree, that there are no original or unique moments left outside of a vast mosaic of interchangeable elements. But the Slapins-Podnieks imagery is striking because it comes from, springs out of, a deep sense of disenfranchisement. The voice which speaks in their films is experimental, documentary, fictional, ethnographic. Their's is a postmodern assemblage in the tradition of Trin Minh-ha, a self-reflexivity which does not have to declare itself. Its modus-operandi from the start is to make the medium speak because it has been silenced for so long. Their films echo with the excitement of discovery as if the medium of film has been dormant for decades, as if the forms we have grown accustomed to can be remade, reworked. Their fearless use of montage echoes Eisenstein and Dziga-Vertov, a combination which neither could have forseen and which neither would have desired. I began this editorial with a comment on sound and on the visual in visual anthropology. It is thus not an accident that Duncan Holaday's piece in this issue has as its sub-title, Toward Media Anthropology. Hopefully that is what we can move towards, a discipline in which the visual is removed from its exalted place with much the same critical energy that has informed the re- evaluation of anthropology as a discipline over the last ten years. The decentering of Îvisualismâ is part of the same process of reenfranchisement which marginal activities have produced with increasing energy. In order to accomplish this we will have to much more closely link the activities of Cultural Studies and Communications with Media Anthropology.
1. Ian Pringle, Active Culturalism ÷ Cultural Activism: The Advent of Community-Oriented Institutional FM Broadcasting in Canada, (Unpublished essay) 1991, p. 8.2 2.Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, (New York: Columbia University Press. 1983). See in particular pages 110-140.3 3.Christopher Pinney, ãThe Quick and the Dead: Images, Time and Truth,ä in Society for Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 6, Number 2, Fall, 1990, p. 53.
Labels: Cultural anthropology