Chagnon vs. Asch


It seems a lot of anthropologists have had cause to write angry letters in response to Chagnon’s latest book: Sahlins, Fuentes and Marks here on Savage Minds, and a host of others elsewhere (see Anthropology Report for a good rundown). But I thought Jay Ruby’s criticism was unique enough that it deserved it’s own post. Sent to VISCOM, an email list for visual anthropology, Ruby wrote the following:

For me, the most annoying thing about this book is Chagnon’s attempt to erase Tim Asch’s contribution to the production of the Yanomamo films.  At one point, Chagnon even refers to the films as “my documentary films.” I knew Tim Asch as a friend and colleague.  We had many discussions about his collaboration with Chagnon.  Anyone interested in reading about Asch’s view of the collaboration should look at Chapter 4 of my book, Picturing Culture (2000, U of Chicago press). When it was commonly assumed that the best way to make an ethnographic film was for a filmmaker to collaborate with an ethnographer, The Asch-Chagnon collaboration was regarded as the model. Few people knew that the partnership was a disaster with Asch literally begging Chagnon to spend more time working on these films. Their relationship was so unpleasant that when Asch died in 1994, Chagnon refused to contribute to a planned memorial.  To say Chagnon’s treatment of Asch in this book is unjust and petty is an understatement.

4 thoughts on “Chagnon vs. Asch

  1. In his chapter, Ruby quotes from a telephone conversation where Asch tells him; “It’s a fascinating world out there — I mean, the most beautiful thing that humankind has created is culture. Then why the hell are we not learning more about other cultures and sharing them and enjoying them?” (135). In my reading, such as when Asch in 1991 describes how he wanted to train Yanomami in film making (“I would like them to make a film which they think represents who they are and how they live today”), he still thought of them as an anthropological specimen. He went from thinking that the natives could only be rendered in film by outsiders, to assuming that they could be self-revealing for the benefit of westerners who delight in “sharing and enjoying” other cultures. Is this in the same league as World Music?

  2. Although not in relation to Asch, the “world music” aspect of indigenous media in anthropology has been written about by both Faye Ginsburg and Harald Prins:

    Ginsburg, Faye, “Indigenous Media: Faustian Contract or Global Village?” Cultural Anthropology Feb 1991, Vol. 6, No. 1: 92-112.

    Prins, Harald E.L., “Visual Media and the Primitivist Perplex: Colonial Fantasies, Indigenous Imagination, and Advocacy in North America,”

  3. So presumably Asch should get the credit for “Ocamo is My Town”? It follows a Salesian missionary who appears to be rather hands-off about missionizing. The film is much more valuable (in my view) than the famous ones that rest on convictions about the Yanomami as a specimen for anthropologists (and others) to typecast. The film reveals complexity that does not match The Ax Fight (and other “fierce” films) or its opposite in Asch’s many “quiet” films (“A Father Washes his Children,” “A Man and his Wife Weave a Hammock”, and so on). Watching the Ocamo film, it seems that for at least that time, Asch and Chagnon were able to collaborate on something that balanced out their contrasting priorities, and which never packages the “natives” in any singular way for the viewer. Did money help, the fact that Asch got an NSF grant for a “filming expedition” in 1971? As Ruby (126) phrases it, this was among the last NSF grants, in the “fear of Sputnik” era, for improving science education. If Asch got the grant, maybe he could call the shots for some of the time (aggravating the fierce anthropologist)? The whole thing is very “post-divorce” now, but this particular film comes across as one unexpected and interesting offspring of the unstable union.

  4. I found “A Man Called Bee” on VHS but the copy was so poor, about half of it was unwatchable. The audio was still good throughout, so I could hear Chagnon’s narration. I took notes on it, thinking it would make a good blog post while people were still on the subject, but I don’t feel like I’ve really seen the documentary!

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