Joe's questions

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1.) In Rony's essay "Flaherty's Nanook of the North" he states that "the indigenous woman is there to be uncovered, her body - and this is true of ethnographic cinema in general - to be scopically possessed by the camera/filmmaker and the audience as well." Is this subjugation to scopic possession unique to the subjects of ethnographic cinema or is it a problem inherent to film itself? In what ways does this tie into Foucault's theory of film as a form of punishment?


2.) Rony also quotes Bronislaw Malinowski as saying, "The final goal, of which the Ethnographer should never lose sight... is, briefly, to grasp the natives' point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision, of his world." In what ways does this statement represent an attempt to possess "nativeness"? Why is it important for the anthropologist/European to become native; what political, ethical, or institutional purpose does this act serve?


~ Joe Krall


2 Comments

Patti Sloan's response to question one:
While "scopic possession" of women has a tendency to be present in all categories of film and photography, I would argue that it is not inherent in either. The definition of inherent is, according to Encarta World English Dictionary, "unable to be considered separately from the nature of something because of being innate or characteristic." I think choices are habitually and repeatedly made that objectify women in film, but that they are decisions and not natural to the medium of film or photography. The tendency in ethnographic film of presenting a woman as only in her natural state if unclothed is so prevalent, it is often the accepted truth of how indigenous women live. This exacerbates the feeling that these women are different from other civilized women.
In Nanook of the North, Nyla is almost always shown exposing some flesh, regardless of the cold. The "natural morning" scene in the igloo, in which Nyla is unclothed, limits the ability of the audience to understand the character beyond her nakedness. There is no shot of Nanook fully naked, although he must be at some point in his morning. I agree that this scene is scopic possession, because there is no reason for this objectified image in the film. It is a choice by Flaherty. The scene limits the depth of Nyla's being, by controlling the visual information. The audience is possessed with the concept that a core part of Nyla's truth is nakedness. The scopic possession that takes place would not be possible, however, if the viewer did not come with unchallenged truths about indigenous women. If there is an expectation from the audience that somehow ethnographic film is actually giving a complete reality of the complex life of a human being, than the fault lies with both the director and the viewer. An ethnographic film, like any other film, is the perception of one human being about another human being. This can be expanded from one group of human beings to another group of human beings. Flaherty dishevels the equal ground human beings stand upon intentionally, as he controls/possesses Nyla's image. Flaherty's film contains Rony's first characteristic of ethnographic cinema, "a focus on the indigenous body." (306) My knowledge of Foucault is limited to the information in the essay question. In any medium, the objectification of women is a form of punishment to their identity.

Response to question two:

This European probing fascination is something that I have definitely thought about before. I can only hope that the desire to possess “nativeness” comes from a person’s honest admiration for the Indian rather than the destruction of him or her. While life occasionally has the ability to be grand and friendly fascinations may be true for some, the case of the European anthropologist seems to boil down more to jealously of the Native culture and the fear of feeling that way than anything else.
Although I am not sure if the anthropologist’s attempt to posses nativeness serves any political agenda, if it did it would be one hell of a contradiction, it does seem to have an underlying ethical function. Maybe somewhere deep down the anthropologist/ethnographer understands the severity of their actions and romanticizing about native culture seems to be the only way to halt the irreversible.
It seems like the desire to grasp a native point of view and to realize the vision of their world has much to do the undeniable understanding that the Native way of life is far more conducive with the world around them than is the life of a European anthropologist. And maybe it is this that creates that sense of jealousy. Despite the fact that it is the ethnographer who is building barriers, it is he who wishes more than anyone to live a life as connected. They observe the Indian way of life, break it down to make the natives look like the ‘other’ or the outsider and then the ethnographer rebuilds the ‘story’ of the culture in a way that allows them to vicariously live the life so desired. Or something.
I appreciate that Malinowski places such an emphasis on keeping the native perspective alive and it can’t be out of spite that he does so but one simply needs to be careful in the attempt to show admiration because that admiration quickly turns destructive and confusing when the matter at hand is romanticized.


Nikki Morris

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This page contains a single entry by Carter Meland published on September 21, 2009 8:46 AM.

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