Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain

Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain

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This groundbreaking volume showcases the exciting work emerging from the ethnography of media, a burgeoning new area in anthropology that expands both social theory and ethnographic fieldwork to examine the way media—film, television, video—are used in societies around the globe, often in places that have been off the map of conventional media studies. The contributors, key figures in this new field, cover topics ranging from indigenous media projects around the world to the unexpected effects of state control of media to the local impact of film and television as they travel transnationally. Their essays, mostly new work produced for this volume, bring provocative new theoretical perspectives grounded in cross-cultural ethnographic realities to the study of media.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520928169
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/23/2002
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 429
Lexile: 1520L (what's this?)
File size: 4 MB

Read an Excerpt

Media Worlds

Anthropology on New Terrain

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23231-3

Chapter One

Screen Memories

Resignifying the Traditional in Indigenous Media

Entangled Technologies

In a familiar moment in the history of ethnographic film, a well-known scene in Robert Flaherty's 1922 classic Nanook of the North, the character identified on the intertitle as "Nanook, Chief of the Ikivimuits" (played by Flaherty's friend and guide, Allakariallak) is shown being amazed by a gramophone. He laughs and feels the record three times with his mouth, as if tasting it.

We now recognize the scene as a performance rather than documentation of first contact, an image that contradicts Flaherty's journals describing the Inuit's sophisticated response to these new recording technologies, as well as their technical expertise with them by the time the scene was filmed (Rotha 1980). Like the gramophone scene, the film itself obscures the engagement with the cinematic process by Allakariallak and others who worked on the production of Flaherty's film in various ways as technicians, camera operators, film developers, and production consultants (as we might call them today). Not long after the character of Nanook achieved fame in the United States and Europe, Allakariallak died of starvation in the Arctic. Although he never passed on his knowledge of the camera and filmmaking directly to other Inuit, the unacknowledged help he gave Flaherty haunts Inuit producers today as a paradigmatic moment in a history of unequal "looking relations" (Gaines 1988). Their legendary facility with the camera-from imagining and setting up scenes, to helping develop rushes, to fixing the Aggie, as they called the camera-foreshadows their later entanglement with media-making on their own terms.

The Nanook case reminds us that the current impact of media's rapidly increasing presence and circulation in people's lives and the globalization of media that it is part of-whether one excoriates or embraces it-are not simply phenomena of the past two decades. The sense of its contemporary novelty is in part the product of the deliberate erasure of indigenous ethnographic subjects as actual or potential participants in their own screen representations in the past century. These tensions between the past erasure and the current visibility of indigenous participation in film and video are central to the work of the aboriginal media-makers who are engaged in making what I call screen memories. Here I invert the sense in which Freud used this term to describe how people protect themselves from their traumatic past through layers of obfuscating memory (Freud [1901] 1965: 247). By contrast, indigenous people are using screen media not to mask but to recuperate their own collective stories and histories-some of them traumatic-that have been erased in the national narratives of the dominant culture and are in danger of being forgotten within local worlds as well. Of course, retelling stories for the media of film, video, and television often requires reshaping them, not only within new aesthetic structures but also in negotiation with the political economy of state-controlled as well as commercial media, as the following case makes clear.

The Development of Inuit Television

In the 1970s, half a century after Nanook was made, the Inuit Tapirisat, a pan-Inuit activist organization, began agitating for a license from the Canadian government to establish their own Arctic satellite television service, the Inuit Broadcast Corporation (IBC), which was eventually licensed in 1981 (Marks 1994). The Tapirisat's actions were a response to the launching over their remote lands of the world's first geostationary satellite to broadcast to northern Canada, Anik B (David 1998). The small-scale encounter with Flaherty's film apparatus was nothing in comparison with CBC television programming's invasion of Inuit lives and homes: the government placed Telsat receiving dishes in nearly every northern community, with no thought to or provision for aboriginal content or local broadcast (Lucas 1987: 15). The Inuit Tapirisat fought this imposition and eventually succeeded in gaining a part of the spectrum for their own use. The creation of the IBC-a production center for Inuit programming of all sorts-became an important development in the lives of contemporary Canadian Arctic people, as well as a model for the repurposing of communications technologies for indigenous people worldwide.

By 1983 it became apparent that although IBC programming was remarkably successful, distribution was still problematic because Inuit work was slotted into the temporal margins of the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) late-night schedules. In 1991, after considerable effort, a satellite-delivered northern aboriginal distribution system, TV Northern Canada (TVNC), went to air, the first unified effort to serve almost 100 northern communities in English, French, and twelve aboriginal languages (Meadows 1996; Roth 1994). By 1997, TVNC, seeking ways to hook up with aboriginal producers in southern Canada, responded to a government call for proposals for a third national cable-based network that would expand beyond northern communities to reach all of Canada. The group was awarded the license and formed the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). This publicly supported and indigenously controlled national aboriginal television network, the first of its kind in the world, officially went to air in September 1999 (David 1998: 39; Roth 2000).

Rather than destroying Inuit cultures as some predicted would happen, these technologies of representation-beginning with the satellite television transmission to Inuit communities of their own small-scale video productions-have played a dynamic and even revitalizing role for Inuit and other First Nations people, as a self-conscious means of cultural preservation and production and a form of political mobilization. Repurposing satellite signals for teleconferencing also provides long-distance communication across vast Arctic spaces for a range of community needs: everything from staying in touch with children attending regional high schools to the delivery of health care information (Brisebois 1990; Marks 1994).

Prominent among those producing work for these new aboriginal television networks is Inuit director and producer Sak Kunuk, a carver and former Inuit Broadcast Corporation producer. He has developed a community-based production group in Igloolik, the remote Arctic settlement where he lives, through a process that, ironically, evokes the method used by Robert Flaherty in Nanook. Kunuk works collaboratively with the people of Igloolik, in particular elders, to create dramatic stories about life in the area around Igloolik in the 1930s before settlement. Along with his partners, cultural director and lead actor Paloussie Quilitalik (a monolingual community elder) and technical director Norman Cohn, a Brooklynite relocated to Nunavut, who together make up the production group Igloolik Isuma, Kunuk has produced tapes such as Qaggiq (Gathering Place; 1989, 58 min.), depicting a gathering of four families in a late-winter Inuit camp in the 1930s; and Nunavut (Our Land; 1993-95), a thirteen-part series of half-hour dramas recreating the lives of five fictional families (played by Igloolik residents) through a year of traditional life in 1945, when the outside world was at war, and a decade before government settlements changed that way of life forever.

These screen memories of Inuit life are beloved locally and in other Inuit communities. They also have been admired in art and independent film circles in metropolitan centers for their beauty, ethnographic sensibility, humor, intimacy, and innovative improvisational method. While reinforcing Inuktitut language and skills for younger members of the community, at a more practical and quotidian level, the project provides interest and employment for people in Igloolik (Berger 1995a, 1995b; Fleming and Hendrick 1991, 1996; Marks 1994). For Inuit participants and viewers, Igloolik Isuma serves as a dynamic effort to resignify cultural memory on their own terms. Their work not only provides a record of a heretofore undocumented legacy at a time when the generation still versed in traditional knowledge is rapidly passing; by also involving young people in the process, the production of these historical dramas requires that they learn Inuktitut and a range of other skills tied to their cultural legacies, thus helping to mitigate a crisis in the social and cultural reproduction of Inuit life. In the words of an Igloolik elder posted on their website: "We strongly believe this film has helped in keeping our traditional way of life alive and to our future generations it will make them see how our ancestors used to live." In December 2000, they premiered Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), a film based on a traditional Igloolik legend and set in sixteenth-century Igloolik. It was the world's first feature-length dramatic film written, produced, and acted by Inuit. By summer 2001, it had picked up awards all over the world, including the prestigious Camera d'or at the Cannes Film Festival, awarded to the best feature.

There are those who argue that television of any sort is inherently destructive to Inuit (and other indigenous) lives and cultural practices. They claim this despite the fact that many of those participating in media projects had themselves been critical of the potential deleterious effects of media and had sought ways to engage with media that would have a positive effect on local life. The participants are also acutely aware of the necessity of such work in a wider context in which native minorities in Canada are struggling for self-determination. For them, these media practices are part of a broader project of constituting a cultural future in which their traditions and contemporary technologies are combined in ways that can give new vitality to Inuit life. This benefit is apparent not only in the narrative constructions of Inuit history on their own terms, but in the social practice of making the work, and in seeing it integrated with Canadian modernity, embodied in the flow of television. One outside observer, after spending time in the Arctic in the 1980s in settlements where Inuit were making community-based videos about their lives for the IBC, concluded that:

The most significant aspect of the IBC's progammes is that they are conceived and produced by the Inuit themselves.... and it brings a new authority to the old oral culture.... When IBC producers first approached elders in order to record songs and stories from their childhood, they took a lot of persuading because many believed that these activities had been officially banned by missionaries. But now, as old crafts and skills have appeared on the IBC screens, so they have proliferated in the settlements. Watching the fabric of their everyday lives, organized into adequate if not glossy TV packages introduced by titles set in Inuktitut syllabics, has helped to weaken for the Inuit the idea that only the whites, with the unrelenting authority of the literate and educated south, can make the final decisions on the value of the Inuit lifestyle. (Lucas 1987: 17)

This effort to turn the tables on the historical trajectory of the power relations embedded in research monographs, photography, and ethnographic practice is intentional, a deeply felt response to the impact of such representational practices on Inuit society and culture. Thus, it is not only that the activity of media-making has helped to revive relations between generations and skills that had nearly been abandoned. The fact of their appearance on television on Inuit terms, inverts the usual hierarchy of values attached to the dominant culture's technology, conferring new prestige to Inuit "culture-making."

Claims to the Nation: Aboriginal Media in Australia

A decade after the Inuit postwar encounter with televisual media, indigenous Australians faced a similar crossroads. In part because of their early consultation with Inuit producers and activists, they too decided to "invent" their own Aboriginal television (Michaels 1986) initially by making video images and narratives about and for themselves, shown locally via illegal low-power outback television similar to the Inuit projects described above. By the late 1990s, Aboriginal media production had expanded from very local television in remote settlements to feature films made by urban filmmakers that have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Today, the people who are engaged in media work across many divisions within Aboriginal life, which are themselves influenced by the shifting structures of the Australian polity that have provided resources and ideological frameworks for the development of indigenous media.

The embrace of media-film, video, television-as a form of indigenous expression coincided with an increasing sense of empowerment for Aboriginal people that has accelerated since the 1960s. Until the 1996 elections that brought in the conservative government headed by John Howard, Australian social policy under Labour Party leadership had made a commitment to social justice for indigenous Australians, establishing in 1990 an indigenous body, the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islanders Commission (ATSIC)-a complex and sometimes controversial Aboriginal bureaucracy-to govern the affairs of Aboriginal people. In these kinds of formations, media played an increasingly important role in dramatizing Aboriginal claims on the nation. By the 1980s, as part of their demands, both remote living and urban activists increasingly insisted on Aboriginal control over media representations of their lives and communities, which quickly escalated into explicit interest in gaining access to production. At the same time, Aboriginal culture was becoming critical to a distinctive Australian national imaginary linked to its land and oriented away from its European origins.

The evident and often conflicting interests of both Aboriginal Australians and the Australian state in media as a site for the production of local identity and sociality as well as claims to a presence in the national imaginary is apparent in the extraordinary development of indigenous media over the past two decades. Questions about the impact of mass media on Aboriginal lives first received widespread public attention in the mid-1980s with plans for the launching of Australia's first communications satellite over Central Australia. As in the Inuit case, its launch generated considerable debate among Aboriginal people, policy makers, and academics about the impact of "dumping" mainstream television signals into traditional indigenous communities in this remote desert area (Ginsburg 1991, 1993; Michaels 1986).


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