ASA05: Creativity and cultural improvisation

4th - 7th April 2005, University of Aberdeen, UK

Panel 4: The creativity of anthropological scholarship

Panel convenors: Dr Mark Harris & Dr Clara Mafra,
Panel abstract

This panel aims to consider the various ways in which anthropological knowledge is generated and contested, from the reciprocal relations of fieldwork to seminars, workshops and classrooms, from notebooks, photographs and footage to texts, exhibitions and films.

Against other humanities and social sciences subjects, anthropologists have prided themselves on the intrinsic originality of their method, collecting material first hand by being there. Has this empirical focus meant a disregard for theoretical generalization? Can knowledge be properly created, or be creative, without a series of 'processors' to explain, indeed generate, it? On the other hand, if the fieldwork is the foundational education for anthropologists, how can we transfer this dialogic attitude to the theoretical and educational arena? Is improvisational knowledge synonymous with weakness?

More than other social sciences, anthropology is dedicated to the production of abstract and self-critical knowledge. Is this the result of the way we carry our responsibilities in terms of teaching and publishing at the expense of scholarly creativity? How can we be creative practitioners of the learning and teaching of anthropology, without dismissing the importance of transferring information?

This panel will open up these questions to critical debate, contesting the idea that the singularity of anthropological creativity lies in its disobedience to its institutional limits, in following human or conceptual trails across boundaries. As such anthropology should be well placed to invigorate intellectual reflection on the world with its distinctive vision.

What does it take to do anthropology by using images?

Patricia Monte Mor, State University of Rio de Janeiro

Visual anthropology already possesses a long tradition and there have been several occasions in which film-making and anthropology have met. The present paper aims to reflect upon the several possibilities of doing anthropology with images, pointing out projects that have succeeded in accomplishing the main proposals put forward by such a challenge: writing anthropology with images. It does not mean only making an anthropological account by means of images, but rather exploiting language’s imaging capacity and counting on ethnographic film/video as one of its main products. How to address anthropological issues that arise by the use of images? How to translate the issues into images? How to build characters from informants? How to make ethnographic cinema? In order to answer such questions I will talk about a group of over 900 documentaries, both Brazilian and foreign, which were shown on Mostra Internacional do Filme Etnográfico, Rio de Janeiro’s main documentary film festival since 1993, of which I am the curator. I will give special emphasis to recent Brazilian productions and choose some titles for analysis.

Little by little, since the 1960s, the use of images has been systematically incorporated as an important tool to make anthropological cinema in a variety of trends and experiences. From a cinematographic point of view, the period marks the main trends of documentary cinema: the cinema vérité, the direct cinema and the cinema novo. Documentary film-makers found their ability to “tell stories” by means of their films before social scientists; this brought them closer to anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s, a period of discipline renewal, when anthropologists’ capacity to “tell stories” was rediscovered.

The debate over post-modernity has helped to re-define ethnographic research. Academic authors realized they had to re-think anthropological text authorship and started to question subject/object relationships within research and came to emphasize the constructed nature of their text. One of the main outcomes of this debate is the creation of a new place for ethnographic films and a new way of debating their production.

The recently deceased film-maker Jean Rouch marks a break in the process of re-thinking ethnographic film-making. Having produced more than a hundred films, among documentaries and ethno-fictions, Rouch was the precursor, in the 1960s, of the reflection that has been established in today’s anthropological practice over the use of images for an understanding of social life, its aesthetics and ethics. It is also Rouch who  points, in a singular manner, by means of his ethnographic film-making, to the fundamental question in the process of distinguishing between “good” and “boring” documentaries: i.e., film-makers’ creative capacity. Is that a basic distinguishing aspect in films? What skills are needed to make a good ethnographic film, by putting together theoretical depth, knowledge of reality, art and techniques? Far beyond the distinction between documenting and documentary, as Paul Henley puts it, how can we define a “good” documentary?

In his classic definition of documentaries, the film-maker John Grierson has valued a “creative way of dealing with reality”. It is especially from this point, i.e., what could be called “creative way of dealing with reality”, that I want to reflect upon the recent production of Brazilian ethnographic documentaries. In doing so, I will focus on three documentaries taken from the files of Mostra Internacional do Filme Etnográfico and made within the context of recent university production.

The eternal Pygmy? Creating repetition in the visual imaginary

Stan Frankland, University of St Andrews

Ever since the Pygmies were ‘discovered’ deep in the ‘unexplored’ heart of Africa in 1870, they have become one of the classic images of anthropological difference. From this moment onwards, fact and fantasy fused; the remote in time were conjoined with the remote in space to create a very modern legend, the myth of the Pygmies. This contemporary mythology captivated and continues to fascinate Western audiences, setting in motion a pattern of collection and consumption that has had profound consequences upon our knowledge and understanding of these ‘mythic’ beings, framing and distorting perceptions of their contemporary cultural realities. Through the physical and symbolic extraction of the Pygmies from their rainforest environment in the ‘dark heart’ of Africa, the object of curious desire has been collected, consumed, interpreted and simplified down to key symbols that have only strengthened the mythic properties extant within the Euro-American imagination. Reproduced and refined within an ever-massing media, the myth of the Pygmies has become a potent fantasy of primitivism. This paper examines the mythic process in the context of visual representation, tracing the history of Pygmies as they have appeared on film. Across a range of cinematic genres, there has been a powerful and dynamic repetition of representation that has moulded, remoulded and reinforced the myth of the Pygmies. The identity of the filmic Pygmy as a symbolic figure embodying Otherness was created and is recreated by and through an imaginal repetition that relies on exoticism of the body and of the quotidian as well as the reification of a romanticized state of nature. As ‘savage icons’ in cinematic and televisual media, the fetishized Pygmy replicates the fantasy of idealized essence that lies at the heart of the myth, reinforcing yet further the fascination with the Other that underpins our engagement with the world. As a consequence of this imagination of the world, myth and knowledge cannot be distinguished. Rather, they are entwined in a mutual process in which fantasy is as constitutive of what we assume to be knowledge as science.

Aesthetic ethnography – a reconciliation of the use of the imagination in anthropology and art?

Amanda Ravetz, Manchester Metropolitan University

My presentation will explore the notion of an aesthetic ethnography. Conceived of as a third space between anthropology and art, this form of practice builds on Russell’s conception of experimental ethnography, a hybrid crossing of ethnographic and experimental film (1999).

I will examine my own attempt to work with the notion of aesthetic ethnography – to forge creative new ground between the 2 poles of my identity as a fine artist and an ethnographer. In the creation of an installation, Clearings, and more recently in my  practice-led research amongst Master in Fine Art students, a growing appreciation of differences and similarities between anthropology and art have become central. If both practices require acts of the imagination – the ability to imagine other lives and to elicit other ways of seeing – then each also constructs a different relationship to the real. The presentation will explore whether an aesthetic ethnography offers a way to reconcile these different expectations.

Creativity in anthropology and fiction writing

Trevor Stack, University of Aberdeen

This paper compares the creativity of anthropology to that of fiction writing. It does so not simply in terms of rhetorical choices, like the Writing Culture volume (1986), but in terms of the broader experiential process through which anthropologists and fiction writers do what they do. It looks at the experience of doing anthropology as reflected in interviews with anthropologists and in published accounts of the process and it looks at fiction writing through a similar range of sources. In addition, it will analyse feedback from anthropologists who also write fiction. The intention is to examine several key aspects of the creative work of anthropology and fiction writing. Firstly, it will look at the relationship between the research and writing of anthropology and of fiction, asking how research gets turned into writing in each case. (It will also ask whether new ethical demands for fully anonymising subjects in ethnographic research are making anthropology more similar to fiction writing.) Secondly, it will examine the physical and social contexts in which people do anthropology and do fiction. It will ask, for example, whether the fiction writer really does work alone while the anthropologist is surrounded by others, whether ethnographic subjects or academic colleagues. Thirdly, it will probe the ways in which anthropologists and fiction writers imagine their audience and how this weighs upon their work, as well as looking more broadly at the fears and anxieties that arise from doing anthropology and fiction writing. The goal of this paper is not simply to critique the scientific pretensions of anthropology by exposing its rhetorical devices, but instead to achieve a fuller understanding of its peculiar creativity.

A world without anthropology

Clara Mafra, State University of Rio de Janeiro

Anthropology is a recent discipline in the history of the Western world.  Old Greece had its poets, philosophers, artisans, priests, physicians but not anthropologists.  Among the Greeks, anthropology did not exist, even as an issue, because of a general incapacity to recognize the Other.  It was only through the touchstone of the Enlightenment, with primitive man’s transposition from the plane of ideas to the plane of experience, that the modern anthropological project achieved its own shape and expression.

If the previous paragraph makes sense, if the disciplinary vigour of Anthropology is strongly associated with the knowledge of alterity which is the acknowledgement of the Other, we can then postulate that in the future, in a world pacified in relation to differences, the discipline will disappear.  The success of the anthropological enterprise presupposes its own dissolution.

The news we have, however, are distant from this future, if not by the frequency of wars and conflicts, then by the tremendous multiplication of Anthropology’s presence around the world.  Paradoxically we are watching the dissolution of the discipline’s vigour together with its multiplication.

In Brazil, for example, a census carried out in 2002 by the Brazilian Anthropology Association (ABA) revealed astonishing figures: about 3.5 million graduated students; 23,359 M.A.s and 6,893 PhDs.  It is a considerable amount of students graduated from the universities that the market tends to absorb: the great majority of these students is employed.  “What do they do in their jobs? “, asked a renowned anthropologist.  She answered herself using a metaphor: anthropologists are in the NGOs, in commercial enterprises and in the government, fulfilling the function of Jiminy Cricket.  Not wishing to be jocose, the author explained: having been trained to have attentive eyes and ears, anthropologists are supposed to be much more prepared than other professionals to ask pertinent questions.  Certainly, the metaphor bears other much less well behaved senses.  What is shocking is the news about a certain diminution of the anthropological project.  After all, what is the creative vigour of a Jiminy Cricket?

On submitting without reflection to the pressure of issues outside its disciplinary field, Anthropology flattens itself out and fails halfway.  In the opposite sense, to face unsuccessful dissolution involves being aware of radical and constitutive aspects of the anthropological practice: the moment of mutual acknowledgement, for example.  In this lecture, through re-reading some ethnographies, I will discuss the statute of the instant of mutual acknowledgement in relation to the anthropological creative impulse.  In the field, we experience moments of intense tuning between researcher and researched, who rip apart even though briefly their mutual obscurity, providing us with clues to mutual understanding.  Successful anthropological works, I suggest, are those that manage to rekindle these instants, re-educating the reader in the understanding that it is the Other who ought to offer the chance of discovering him/herself.

Anthropological knowledge and the anthropologist’s acknowledgements: Montserrat and the questionable Irish connection

Jonathan Skinner, The Queen’s University Belfast

This paper looks at the different constructions and creations of anthropological knowledge. It does so by looking at three phases in the ‘anthropological’ representation of Montserrat, a British colony in the Eastern Caribbean. First, it chronicles the invention and diffusion of the ethnic category of the ‘Black Irish’ of Montserrat by the American anthropologist John Messenger in the late sixties. This contentious suggestion has led to the identification and celebration of this category by Montserratian British subjects and the Montserrat Tourist Board such that it is played out daily around the island, through the air waves and in the indigenous and non-indigenous writings.

In the second phase of this paper, I evaluate Messenger’s work in light of his fieldwork practices, his methodological claims based upon verstehen interpretation, and my interactions with him whilst also conducting fieldwork on the island at the same time (1990s). Drawing parallels with the creation/destruction tensions surrounding the production and commodification of anthropological knowledge in Bali, these two phases I my paper show how devastating the academic reification of cultural beliefs and practices and can be.

In the third phase of this paper, I look at how my own anthropological knowledge has been appropriated, translated and received in Belfast as my ethnographic knowledge of the island and the debates about identity which I had written and spoken about were turned into a play for public consumption – a political critique of Irish colonialism in a Catholic festival. This final phase turns the debate full circle as it shows how all-consuming anthropological knowledge can be. Ethnographic truths, anthropological epistemologies, and creative mediums/reception theories will also feature in this paper.

Dream-sharing and revelation: an ethnographic experience with Zulu diviner-healers

Penny Bernard, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa

In recent years a number of anthropologists have argued that when conducting anthropological research among groups that place a high value on dreams, the ethnographic task is facilitated using the technique of dream-sharing. In such groups one often finds that the reality of the dream-world is given greater credence than that of the world of wakefulness, and dreams are essential for revealing the ‘truth’ that lies beneath everyday facades. As a result, among such groups, the use of dream-sharing techniques in the ethnographic process allows for greater inclusion of the ethnographer in the lived world of her informants and reveals cultural processes that may have been hidden.

Among the Zulu people in South Africa, diviner-healers regard dreams as authoritative sources of information from the ancestral world. Dreams are central to the process of becoming and being a diviner. They guide the novice/healer in innumerable ways (making each diviner’s training process unique). The paper will briefly examine the numerous functions dreams serve in this respect. An important function of dreams is they reveal the hidden motivations of agencies that negatively impact on healers and others lives, and they help them negotiate the numerous obstacles and dangers in the context of contemporary South Africa.

Drawing from her own experiences of being initiated into a Zulu divining school the author examines how the process of dream-sharing (her own and a diviner friend/colleague, among others) provided information to reveal the deeper meanings behind a number of crises affecting the latter’s life. These dreams provided directives for action through various ritual processes. The analysis reveals that while dreams are regarded as valuable sources of information, they are sometimes partial and inadequate and have to be supplemented through other means of esoteric knowledge.

The paper then analyses a series of three rituals that were initiated and guided by dreams. Each ritual had a common central component: the use of the branch of the umlahlankosi tree, used to collect and transport the spirit of the deceased. The analysis shows how such rituals cannot be regarded as being mere products of creative cultural imagination or improvisation, or the static reproduction of a standardized repertoire of traditional ritual techniques, but must be understood in relation to the dynamic context of the forces that have framed and contributed to the affliction crisis.

Making worlds -- making ourselves: creativity as ‘doing’ imagination

Griet Scheldeman, University of St Andrews

An author writing, a sculptor sculpting, a photographer making pictures.

What happens? How to define these creative processes? Is it merely a matter of putting imagination into practice?

This paper looks at some concrete processes in which people create. It then reflects on agency and intersubjectivity, through a phenomenological lens. Is creativity a manifestation of individuality, or rather a particular instance of dividuality, of intersubjective performance? 

To create can be seen as taking part in the world and becoming part of it. Being is then not only always bodily being but also creative being. Can we see creativity, like identity, as an intersubjective process? Like identity, creativity  is not a matter of having ‘control over’ but of ‘participating in’. Like identity, creativity is never finished. To quote Crapanzano “a work of art requires the interpretation of the viewer” (Crapanzano 2004 Imaginative Horizons: 54).

‘Radio elicitation’: new directions in radio research

Richard Vokes, University of Oxford

The last decade has seen an unprecedented expansion and diversification of African radio cultures. This has resulted from the explosion in the number of radio stations – national, commercial, regional, community, rural – which accompanied the economic liberalization policies of the early 1990s. A burgeoning anthropological literature has begun to explore the implications of this expansion for research. One key strand of this work has highlighted the ways in which more complex radio environments complicate our existing notions of both ‘audience’ and ‘reception’. Another has focused on the challenges the new radio diversity poses to our broader notions of social ‘pluralism’ (and to our understanding of political pluralism, in particular). However, throughout all of this work, the focus has always been upon radio as an object of research. The central argument of this paper is that the new radio environments also offers unprecedented possibilities for the use of radio as a tool for research. This argument is developed through an elaboration of the new concept of ‘radio elicitation’, defined as a series of techniques for using radio programming as a basis for interviewing. Basing the argument on fieldwork carried out in the complex radio environment of rural South-western Uganda (research was conducted in four periods between March 2000 and May 2002), the paper demonstrates how radio elicitation can usefully be used to address various types of broader research questions.

Discussants: Kai Kresse, University of St Andrews