Attention Deficit Ethnography

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane’s previous posts: post 1 -- post 2 -- post 3]

Our final prompt in this series asks about the possible virtues that emerge from the necessities of marginality or academic precarity, the effects on ethnography of such “new intellectual possibilities.”  On the whole I’ve so far stuck with the trajectory I laid out for these posts, engaging with precarity and ethnography first via my experience of living in a London suburb in over the last several years and then on the subway I used to get aroundwhile living there.  In both cases I focused on my own ethnographic practice and experience and particularly on observational practice.  For this final post though I want to shift the focus to the effects on ethnography not “as practiced” but “as taught or learned,” not as observational technique but as representational technique.  The post-millennial relevance of this seems clear, with a number of the conversational threads on SM proceeding from the observation that information technology and digital media are having an expanding range of effects not just in the field of anthropology but in education (that other domain inhabited by so many practicing anthropologists).

My earlier posts also (I note in looking back over them) relied pretty heavily on metaphor and pop culture/sci-fi references, but I can’t think of a good reason to change that now, so: for better and for worse, one of my last opportunities to be social before leaving the UK last month was spent in front of the IMAX screen at the British Film Institute (“the largest film screen in the UK”).  The BFI’s performative apparatus is matched only by the fantastic quality and diversity of films routinely screened there, but this particular outing (with several participating students and other friends) was centered around a pop-culture event with a dash of speculative pseudo-archaeology: Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to the 1979 film Alien.  Overall the film is pretty awful in largely predictable ways (did I mention this was a 3D screening?), but it serves to illustrate my point here, particularly in a fleeting reference the film makes to Lawrence of Arabia (a quite different film about a quite different type of alien).

I should first situate myself as an adherent to the school of the cinematic craft championed by Sir David Lean.  Whatever their bases in romantic grandeur and colonialist fantasy, I’d put myself in that camp that sees Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, and Lawrence of Arabia as rare and invaluable representational achievements.  In ethnographic film I’d likewise have to go back to Forest of Blissor Gardner’s other works as successful in the same way and similarly rare (I make no bones here that I may just be showing my age).  Two things impress me in particular about the epic as a cinematic form: first, its sweeping, spectacular visual character never seems to subordinate depth or nuance of character or plot.  Second, the raw fact of their duration seems crucial in the development of that depth and nuance, accommodating audiovisual subtleties that would otherwise might be impossible to sustain (e.g. the mirage-like entrance of Sherif Ali in the desert, or Lawrence’s long, slow first interaction with his thawb).

You can understand, then, why the (potentially significant but ultimately pretty empty) reference to this film in Prometheuswas especially annoying.  The two films may share something in the way of cinematic technique (long, slow pans of sweeping landscapes), but are worlds apart in terms of their development of character or how compelling their narratives are.  The admittedly fascinating visual surfaces–the bizarre landscapes, the ship and its various interfaces, the aliens themselves–dominate, relegating any narrative about humanity (whether literal or literary) to the background or erasing it entirely.  How could Ridley Scott (whose Ripley character from Alien is absent from this film) think enough of Lean’s epic to refer to it and yet still put his name on Prometheus?

The epic as a cinematic form may well be a thing of the past (at least within Western cinema), and I mean to be provocational in asking if there aren’t some noteworthy parallels to be made with the ethnographic tradition.  Both representational genres depend on specific affordances in productive process and in medium (e.g. the linearity and narrative temporality afforded by multi-hour films and the monograph).  The landscape of institutional structures and funding sources for film have changed dramatically since Lean’s time, though, trading many of those affordances for others (computer graphics in particular).  The academic precarity we’ve been discussing is similar in some ways, entailing shifts to shorter-term institutional memory, curricular modularization, flexibility of labor, loss of professional privileges, etc.  What does this do to the way ethnography should be taught as a writing technique?

Critical scholars of media have observed the rise of the “franchise.”  More and more often, filmic productions are made now as part of a larger narrative framework that includes other quite distinct formats: television spin-offs, merchandise, graphic novels, videogames and fan events (Prometheus, for example, can reasonably be viewed as one branch of the phantasmagoric Alien vs. Predatorfranchise).  Knowing beforehand that the characters or milieu of a film are also going to figure into other, largely distinct productions shapes not only the productive process of the film but its content (landscapes and costumes, for example, must be smoothly realizable as extruded plastic toy sets, computer renderings, or retail clothing).  We can judge the emergence of the franchise as a “bad” or “good” thing (in terms of media control and cultural vitality, say) and AvP is undeniably an indicator of the worst that franchises have to offer, but perhaps it also doesn’t really represent the zenith of what the franchise as a form could be.

Let me put that a different way.  There seems to be some general agreement that the precarity of academic work shapes the ethnography we do and in general this is neither a good or bad thing on its own.  The question is how can a critical edge be sustained even through that transformation?  Does the waning of the epic and the waxing of the franchise suggest a way that might happen?

I’ll close by broadening those questions a bit.  Given the forces under which ethnographic productions gestate (as we’ve articulated in this series), how do we navigate between tradition and innovation in the training of future ethnographers?  Is it possible we’re doing a disservice to students by directing them in a way framed by the traditional ethnographic monograph as the singular product of merit?  Does that practical association with writing obscures the more salient place of literacy?  The fascinating program in “digital ethnography” at Kansas State is among the most trenchant engagements with these questions, and in some of the well-known video productions of Mike Wesch and company I think their significance really becomes apparent.

I would hate to think that the AvP franchise is the future of the LoA epic, and we have plenty of examplesof the problems that can arise when ethnography is taught as a set of methods (without addressing ethnography as a literature or as an interpretive/representational approach).  I know I’m not alone, though, in occasionally wondering if we’re not walking on thin ice in presenting too nostalgic a vision of “ethnographic writing” to our students, one that bears deep contradictions with the realities of academic precarity under which they’ll have to work, if not thrive.

Lane DeNicola is a Lecturer in Anthropology at University College London and the inaugural convener of UCL’s masters program in Digital Anthropology. His PhD in Science & Technology Studies was completed at RPI in 2007.

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