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This review appeared in Volume 6 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
New Worlds From Fragments: Film, Ethnography, and the Representation of Northwest Coast Cultures. By Morris,Rosalind C.,1994. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. xii + 202 pages. ISBN 0-8133- 8783-3.
The photographic image is not an unmediated depiction of reality, but rather a complex strategy of representation, imbued with the ideology and conscious choice of the photographer, interpreted by the eye of the beholder. It is thus doubly mediated. From an early point in its history, photography was enlisted in the colonial project, with an eye to depicting essentialized differences among humans (see Edwards 1992). Over time, representations of others have reflected and reinforced domestic political ideologies in a rather straightforward way. Roland Barthes spoke of the "mythology" underlying a Paris-Match photograph of an African colonial soldier saluting the tricolor (Barthes 1972:116-117). The message has to do with the ideals of the French empire, universalist and "colorblind" in a Napoleonic fashion; in the brief respite between World War II and the Algerian War such ideas were sustained by the Gaullist state. The depiction of others is at the same time, and perhaps more importantly, a representation of ideals of self.
Rosalind Morris begins her engaging book with a Barthesian reading of a journalistic photographic essay published in Time magazine in 1991 under the title "Lost Tribes, Lost Knowledge." She deconstructs the images and text, which combine powerfully to tell a story about the "disappearance" of tribal peoples. While Morris understates the degree to which this narrative is a valid depiction of contemporary reality, she nevertheless isolates the techniques used by photographer and writer to exoticize and "alienate" the tribal subjects. For instance, while anthropologists and other Westerners are conventionally depicted in middle- range shots, posed and staged with maximum kindness to the subject, photographs of "tribal are often close- ups, taken from odd angles, making the subjects appear grotesque, like Diane Arbus' carnies.
At work here is the principle of bothering," in which differences between viewer and subject are highlighted and essentialized. Unlike the soldier in Barthes' photograph, which represented the ideal of assimilation of black Africa, the other here is transformed into an alien and alienated being. In both cases the subject ultimately loses his or her own individuality, becoming rather a token of a single type: the "black Frenchman" or the "disappearing tribal."
These two rhetorical poles--assimilation and exotification--have both been important in the representation of tribal peoples. However, it is the powerful trope of exotification that has provided the foundation for both photographic and cinematic depiction of non-Western peoples from the very beginning of photography. Exotification implied disappearance. The inevitability of their disappearance was a fact foreordained by the superiority of Western civilization (see Berkhofer 1978:92). This assumption was accepted by all concerned with the production of ethnographic images until the 1960s. Indeed, Moris' book traces variations on this single theme, which has maintained hegemony for over a century.
Among purveyors of this imagery, the only disagreement was whether this fact was a cause for celebration or melancholy reflection. This disagreement divided anthropology into two main camps, evolutionists, usually institutionally based in museums and allied with national policies of racial and cultural "improvement," and Boasians, based in universities and opposed to such policies.
Evolutionists were great believers in progress in its Victorian mode. They were interested primarily in material culture, which was the raw data for the comparison of cultures, and which was a sensitive index of cultural progress itself. Thus, in some of the earliest films of Northwest Coast subjects, and continuing into the 1950s, material artifacts provide a main focus. It may be that traditional woodworking tools were replaced by modern ones. Or the collector/photographer may instead focus on the products of those tools. The image of the rotting totem pole is one of the most persistent in the history of ethnographic film of the Northwest Coast.
In his 1927 film Saving the Sagas (the title visually strongly suggests the word "savage") film maker B.E. Norrish juxtaposes images of decay with images of hope and renewal. This renewal is not, in the modern mode, a renewal of Indian culture, but one based on the hope of Christian salvation, which takes the form of a Salvation Army mission. Interspersed are images of cultural "decay": gambling, polygyny, and alcoholism. Death is a central image, as a chief is shown to be praying over his own gravesite in the middle section of the film. However, the film provides moments of desire, bordering on the prurient, among the "Indian maidens". Indian culture (for the specific tribe and locale is not named) is pictured in turn as desirable, in the manner of an illicit love affair, as pitiable, and as salvageable. This complex message was directed at the diverse audience who would have viewed the film at a museum on a weekend afternoon. While the "lower" orders among that audience may have enjoyed the depiction of Native women as wanton, the proper and official message was that of salvation.
The opposition to this mode of depicting Northwest Coast cultures was provided by Franz Boas, his students, and his sympathizers. Boas too believed that these cultures were fast disappearing, but did not think this a good thing. It was his duty to record as much as possible of the culture--specifically the Kwakiutl of Alert Bay-- before it disappeared. This was a continuation of his textual ethnographies of the 1880s-1920s, which aimed to catch the living cultures in their myths and texts, like a fly in amber. By 1930, when he made The Kwakiutl of British Columbia, he believed their traditional culture to be so far gone that he filmed only staged performances of traditional dances and activities, cordoned off from the living village. Backdrops were used to avoid showing the villages's clapboard houses and people dressed in contemporary Canadian dress. In a sense, the title of Morris' book is ironic; it is a quotation from Boas, who remarked the ability of myth--and, by extension, cultures--to reorganize themselves in bricolage. But in his ethnographic practice after the turn of the century, including his work in film, Boas never betrayed the slightest interest in the actual social reality of the people with whom he worked.
This romantic view of the disappearing savage is at least as powerful and persistent as its antithesis. The photographer Edward Curtis, although despised by Boas because he was an amateur anthropologist, produced much the same image, although in a technically more sophisticated fashion. His melodrama In the Land of the War Canoes portrays an idealized Native culture, stripped (literally, in the case of Western clothing) of all traces of contact. While an explicitly imaginative and commercial venture, this film was consistent with the Boasian project of recreating a pristine and static ideal of Native culture. Like the films of Norrish, it portrays Native cultures and Native bodies as objects of desire.
Desire is indeed a central theme of the narrative of the disappearing savage (see Berkhofer 1978:99). Such desire may be crudely sexual, as in the films of B.E. Norrish, or sublimated, in the romantic mode. This theme reached its peak of Keatsian melancholy in the salvage ethnography films of the 1950s. Morris discusses two of these: Blunden Harbour and Totem. Both are films about the past, and the aestheticization of the past-in- the- present. Of the two, Robert Gardner's Blunden Harbour presents the most aestheticized view of "Indian" culture (as in Norrish's films, the specific tribal and linguistic affiliation of the group is never mentioned). Indeed, they cannot be specified because they are presented as tokens of a type: the noble savage wrestling a living from the environment, facing the certainty of death and decay.
There is little narration in this film, but that which exists serves to universalize the everyday lives of the Kwakiutl of Blunden Harbour, as representatives of a noble and highly mythicized existence. As Morris points out, Robert Gardner does not dwell upon the inevitability of culture death in the same way that other film makers of the period do. However, in his aestheticization and essentialization of Kwakiutl culture, his isolation of the Kwakiutl from the surrounding world, he creates an "island of no history" as Morris phrases it. she draws upon the work of Johannes Fabian (1983) who speaks of a "denial of coevalness" which characterizes metropolitan discourse of ethnic others. This is common to virtually all ethnographic representations until the 1960s, but is particularly true of this film.
Totem, made at the end of the 1950s, returns to the Boasian project of reconstructing dead cultures. The living Haida who inhabit this film are used for ironic counterpoint to Curtis' photographs of noble, Vanishing Indians. The film documents an archaeological expedition to Anthony Island to recover some poles "almost reclaimed" by the forest. But the researchers are just in time to collect valuable data about the abandoned village of Ninstints, the destruction of which in the post- contact period, represented the end of Haida culture. The romantic strain is especially strong here, as the viewer is left with little choice but to reflect upon impermanence. Shelley's Ozymandias well captures this mood: "Near them on the sand/ Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown/ And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,/ Tell that its sculptor well those passions read/ Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things/ The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed." This stance is ironic considering the film's narrator is Bill Reid, who was to become as a sculptor the central figure in the renewal of traditional Haida arts, demonstrating not only that they were not lost forever, but that they were capable of creative adaptation.
Beginning in the 1960s, the master trope of culture death, while persisting to this day, was largely replaced in ethnographic film (although not in more popular representations of tribal peoples) by the trope of renewal and continuity. In part, this represents a reassertion of control by Native groups over their own representation, and especially over their Cultural patrimony. Many of the more recent films were produced in cooperation, and sometimes under the control of, Native institutions. Gloria Cranmer-Webster of the U'mista Cuitural Centre in Alert Bay, B.C. had editorial control over the film Potlatch . . . A Strict Law Bids us Dance, which documents the unjust confiscation of art objects by the Canadian Government in the 1920s, as well as the cultural renewal of the 1960s and 70s.
Morris' analysis of these recent films of renewal is insightful and sensitive. While it is evident that a tradition is being invented, à la Eric Hobsbawm (1983), and not simply depicted, such phenomena are nonetheless very important and culturally interesting. Contemporary cultures may consume the neotraditional narratives presented in these films, and use them as the basis for further innovations, and for the restoration of a sense of continuity that was largely impossible under the narrative of disappearance. That is to say, inventions are not necessarily inauthentic, a point made long ago by Anthony Wallace (1956).
Morris writes against an older positivist tradition in ethnographic film studies epitomized by the work of Karl Heider (1976). Heider believes that one can quantify the "ethnographicness" of a film by measuring the correspondence of the images and narration to an objective world. Such a naive view of signification leaves no room for the role of interpretation of signs, àla Peirce, or indeed for any discussion of symbols. Moreover, the belief in an objective world is really, as Morris has richly demonstrated, the belief in a particular master narrative. "Objectivity" has often masked a specific theoretical project; Morris has shown how (non- Marxist) materialism, evolutionism, and racialism provided the subtext of many of the films of the Northwest Coast. Nor need such theoretical bias be politically reactionary. l remember viewing a film as an undergraduate, which depicted Hindu Indian culture as an obsession with ritual lavishness that maintained the lower castes in utter poverty, blocking any possibility of class consciousness.
In some ways, we get the impression that ethnographic film is dangerous to the degree that it is based on the illusion of objectivity. A popular opening shot, from the bow of a canoe or boat, establishes the deictic certainty that the film maker is "I-witnessing" to use Geertz' (1988) phrase. This is easily transformed into the idea that the film maker is depicting things as they really are, rather than as one person chose to see them. Morris espouses a characteristically postmodern solution to this problem: films should become more reflexive, more open to Native voices (like many of the Northwest Coast films of the last 20 years), and should draw on surrealism, rather than realism, for narrative direction. While it is hard to imagine what a film that fully realized these strategies would look like, there are certainly films that move in that direction. Those of the Australian film maker Dennis O'Rourke come to mind, especially his 1987 film Cannibal Tours, which explores the world of rich, largely German tourists who travel up the Sepik River to find their own heart of darkness. He com- bines interviews with tourists and Natives with reflexive commentary. While hardly "surrealistic," it certainly violates the norms of established narratives of ethnographic film. This is undoubtedly the direction in which ethnographic film for elite audiences--those shown at film festivals and in anthropology classes--is moving. However, by far the largest market for ethnographic film remains television. There can be little doubt that National Geographic, for instance, will continue to utilize eye-and voice-of-God techniques to instill in viewers an unquestioning belief in the objectivity of their representations.
Rosalind Morris' book, while interesting, is far from flawless. It is not especially well- written or edited, and is thus not nearly as readable or accessible as it might have been. The author is a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and the familiar language of the seminar room inevitably makes its way into print. At one point she calls for a critique of anthropology's "imbrication in the history of representational othering" (p.168). A less than stirring call-to-arms!
A more serious flaw is the author's lack of ethnographic and historical expertise in the Northwest Coast. While one has the impression that she is genearlly well-read in the field, several mistakes call her mastery of the material into question. In what one hopes is a typo, she has Alexander MacKenzie visiting Bella Coola in 1873 rather than 1793 (p. 168). She misidentifies Blunden Harbour as Clayoquot, calling the latter "Kwakiutl," when it is really a Nuu-chah-nulth area on the opposite side of Vancouver Island (p. 107). She makes the absurd statement that Canadian Indian policy has been "much more liberal" than American policy, and that flaws in the former are attributable to the "social and political dependency" of Canada on its southern neighbour (p.117). This unscholarly bit of nationalist paranoia (the author is indeed Canadian) ignores the very real home-grown racism that influenced Canadian Indian policy. Nor is that policy particularly "liberal," even by the low standards of American Indian policy. She should be aware that in the region about which she writes, only in the U.S. has aboriginal title to land been recognized. In terms of resource management and political autonomy, aboriginal groups in Alaska and Washington are far ahead of those in British Columbia. The fact is, neither nation has treated its aboriginal inhabitants fairly, never mind "liberally."
Ultimately, these failings detract from but do not overwhelm this quite interesting book. It is hard, after reading it, to underestimate the importance of film in influencing popular opinion, as well as theoretical trends within professional anthropology. Far more work needs to be done on the nexus between ethnographic film as semiotic vehicle and shifting political currents within societies with either internal or external colonial policies, such as Canada, Brazil, and the United States.
Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. Annette Lavers, trans. New York: Hill and Wang.
--- 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Richard Howard, trans. New York: Hill and Wang.
Berkhofer, Robert F. Jr. 1978. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York:Vintage.
Edwards, Elizabeth, ed. 1982. Anthropology and Photography. 1860-1920. New Haven: Yale University Press, with the Royal Anthropological Institute.
Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.
Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Heider, Karl. 1976. Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wallace, Anthony. 1956. Revitalization Movements: Some Theoretical Considerations for their Comparative Study. American Anthropologist 58:264-281.
Michael Harkin has published articles on ethnohistory, tourism, and political anthropology. Among his recent works are "Modernist Anthropology and Tourism of the Authentic" (Annuals of Tourism Research, in press), "Contested Bodies: Affliction and Power in Heiltsuk History and Culture" (American Ethnologist 20:586-605,1994), and Dialogues of History: Power. Meaning, and Change in Heiltsuk Culture (University of Nebraska Press, in press).