Anthropologist Roxanne Varzi came to our UCLA working group Culture, Power, and Social Change last week and spoke and showed a courageous and wise reflexive ethnographic film “Plastic Flowers Never Die” on the religio-statist support of martyrdom in Iran. I asked a question about how to theorize the role of digital ‘texts’ in the present era of ubiquitous self-publishing and social broadcasting. I was thinking about jihadi videos that are shot and distributed on online video portals as advertisement, recruitment tools, or celebrations of religio-military success. According to the IntelCenter, jihadi videos can be categorized as operational, hostage, statement, tribute, training, and instructional videos.
Essentially antagonistic with technoprogressive modernity while exploiting the simplicity, freedom, and access that comes with new media, these videos can be described as vanguard, counter, resistant, or subversive to capitalistic modernity while using the forefront of the sociotechnical tools of that capitalist technocracy. Our models of user-generated labor, from Shirkey and Benkler’s celebrations of social production to Terranova’s Marxist perspective on exploitative and ‘free’ labor, might not fit this un-capitalist media production practice. It is going to take a mix of something new to get it. But what?
I asked Varzi about jihadi videos: “These strike me as a rich source of information about a culture that is otherwise inaccessible to anthropologists: jihadi martyrs. How would you go about developing a critical anthropological methodology to reading these video texts?” Correctly but dangerously she stated she wouldn’t do it without an ethnographic component. I thought to myself: Let me get this right. I gotta hang out, like, deeply, with jihadi terrorists? As an anthropologist I cannot make a statement about jihadi video production practices without having first squeezed my way into their schedule and shared a few meetings over tea with my local jihadist? I’d love to, frankly, but I doubt I can network into their cliques. Are we going to let these remarkably reflexive, vocal “weapons of the weak” go unnoticed? If we can’t talk about these videos we are losing our disciplinary focus on subcultural expression and resistance and an opportunity to expand our methodological repertoire.
Jihadi video producers and new media firms, my focus, share little but extreme privacy. The similarities end there, but the problems for the ethnographer of either are identical: gaining access. My subjects are powerful. They have ideas that are worth millions in venture capital. Their lawyers are all about intellectual property. They live comfortable lives. They don’t need my cultural capital. They don’t need me around. Infrequently and for whatever reason, they invite me into their world. The Frontline documentary Behind Taliban Lines is a rare example that follows a single video journalist into the operations of the Taliban attempting to blow up a US convoy. This rarely happens in every context where a researcher wants access. Our own Rex thinks our focus should be on the subtle and not the savage, he’ll be happy to know that anthropologists usually are aren’t gutsy enough to pursue such inaccessible subjects.
What if I couldn’t meet these wealthy entrepreneurs in person? What if they were so private that participant observation was impossible? I would be forced to construct something anthropological through their public representations. Thankfully, my subjects produce a lot of media. They socially broadcast on Facebook and Twitter and have scheduled relations with the public at conferences. (Except for TED, which at $6000 a weekend excludes most.) But with or without ethnography, this project, like a hypothetical investigation of jihadi video producers, needs to happen. If we have to begin-and probably end-with texts, what will we do? We’ll need to first develop an anthropologically specific way of reading these video texts and other public media artifacts.
The time is now to revisit our present anthropological theories about the role of textual studies. Finding its most useful expression in reconstructive indigenous and postcolonial historiographies, texts have long been an essential part of our field. But have we fully fleshed out a spectrum of specific theories for each type of text? I am not interested in adjudicating the validity or truthfulness of this text versus that. Colonial documents, biographies, and census records need to be differentially theorized not as statements of fact or fiction but as culturally situated texts. What I am fishing for is a debate on whether the new digital documents can find a home in contemporary anthropological theory. What differentiates paper-based from Web 2.0 personal documents and text from video? Most importantly, how can we take a culturally distinct but necessarily distant visual text of war and conflict, consider its technical and productive online existence, not defer to speculation on auteur intentionality, be mindful of the artifacts that appear on screen, and extrapolate back to the producer’s culture?
More broadly, we need to ask ourselves how to do an anthropological study of ethnographically inaccessible objects: leadership of corporations, governments, terrorist cells, elite institutions. Anthropologist Jane Weddell’s recent book, The Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government and the Free Market” is a fine example. Ethical problems abound in all these projects. Just as Nancy Scheper-Hughes prospered, so will the anthropologist of video culture of martyrdom and other inaccessible objects.