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    Entries in Communications (5)


    Indigenous Images and Stories: The Case of Eric Michaels

    I will weave through a series of juxtapositions in this blog entry drawn from a number of experiences which I have had in the "field" of ethnography and documentary film — a kind of bricolage — or as James Clifford  has put it, an 'ethnographic surrealism'.(1)

    In retrospect these fragments are linked in ways which I could not have anticipated before I made the attempt to understand the connections. This kind of reconstruction interests me because it is a combination of personal history, fieldwork and theoretical exploration, evidence of an effort to explore and map the relationships among subjectivity, analysis and experience.

    The etymological origin of the term documentary is rooted in the notion of the lesson and is connected to docility, doctrine, indoctrination and didacticism. Docility suggests someone willing to be taught and also someone who is teachable. To be responsive, to be taught, to be open to the information which is presented — information which, if it is to function as document must reproduce in as great detail as possible the world being pictured.

    Search a bit further into the etymology and the stronger connection is to doctrine and indoctrination which have roots not only in teaching but in notions of specialization — in the idea of a specialist able to instruct, someone whose knowledge cannot be questioned, the documentary filmmaker.

    I bring up this tableau of origins because although a consensus has developed around the definition of "documentary" the debate at this stage pivots on questions of realism almost, though not completely, in opposition to questions of pedagogy. Documentaries however, exist as object lessons in themselves of a desire to teach and thus to enter into a system of communication (or to create one) which links images with specific outcomes or results. The instrumental logic of the documentary is so deeply ingrained that the technology of image creation is now geared to increasing the probability of specific effects upon the viewer.

    I am speaking here about the hybridization of light-weight video, film and computers, a kind of postmodern brew designed to make the experience of viewing more immersive, hence more real.

    Let me contrast the above with the work of Eric Michaels, a documentary/ethnographic imagemaker who worked in Australia with Aboriginal peoples. He died in 1988 but the impact of his undertaking will continue to be felt for a long time. His essays and his brilliant monograph entitled, *Aboriginal Invention of Television* (1986) reveal a sensibility closely tied to some radical innovations in documentary and ethnographic thought over the last decade. (2)

    Michaels explored the frontiers of one of my major interests, the impact of video and television on indigenous cultures. He achieved this by rethinking the notion of "effects" — the ways in which Western cultures control and attempt to dominate other societies — and not positing anything like a linear model for what happens when new technologies are thrust upon indigenous peoples. Michaels worked on both sides of a complex process. He was aware of the need for indigenous peoples to take control of the media they were being exposed to. He was also very sensitive to the specific choices, which they made with respect to images. His approach interests me because he questioned the roots of instrumental thinking by looking at the way in which another culture responds to the logic of images — to modes of storytelling and representation.

    His insights in this regard are very significant. In his essay on Hollywood iconography (Michaels 1988:119) Michaels points out many of the radical differences in understanding, which the Aboriginal group, the Wapiri have with regards to American films and television. Not only are the plots dealt with differently, but the characters in these films are reinterpreted according to the specific exigencies of Walpiri culture and social life.

    All of this is of course a way of questioning the role of documentary images precisely as devices of teaching and learning that may have cross-cultural value. It is also about how to analyse the strategic choices, which different cultures make in response to the influences, which they have on each other. The question of vantage point — where and how these choices can be examined was a central concern of Michaels. He tried to draw upon the experiences of non-print media and apply them to the process through which ethnographic knowledge is transferred and transformed into visual and oral documents. He noted the specificity of Aboriginal approaches to images and celebrated the differences in how they interpreted documentary claims of truth and realism.

    This is made very clear in his article entitled, "How to Look at Us Looking at the Yanomami Looking at Us," (3) in which he says: "A solution is to address the entire process of visual media as a problem of communication, more specifically in cross-cultural translation." (Michaels 1982:145)

    It may be that nothing of value to indigenous cultures can be yielded in the process of translation and that the role of visual media is more important for Western cultures than for colonised ones. But this would presume, as Michaels so often pointed out, that colonised cultures themselves have somehow escaped the influences of modern media, which as anyone who has been watching the growth and development of video for example, knows is not the case.

    This still doesn't lessen one of the central dilemmas of ethnographic and documentary work with film and video. For the ethnographer it may be more important to uncover both the applicability and effects of the technology than to let the technology work its way through the society in question and let that society find the measure of its own response.

    I think that it would not be too radical an assertion to say that the response of indigenous cultures to cultural phenomena cannot be ascertained clearly until those cultures have devised strategies of response, whatever form those responses might take.

    Working its way through — what do I mean? A process perhaps which may not be open to external examination and without wanting to push the point too far, a process which may produce forms of internal and culturally specific images which cannot be judged, evaluated or examined from the outside. I want to be careful here because I am not suggesting that a vantage point couldn't be found which might permit one culture to examine another, but there is the matter, and I consider it to be an important one, of how we go about understanding our own history with respect to modern media, let alone the history of other cultures.

    There is a tendency, manifest in many ethnographic and documentary projects but even more so when film and video are put to use, to presume that what other cultures choose as images can actually be translated, and it is this presumption which I think needs to be contested because what is inevitably involved are complex sign systems which our own culture has had difficulty in interpreting for itself let alone for others.

    This is a fascinating and perplexing problem. It suggests a kind of opaqueness, which the universalizing tendencies of modern film and television production have not grappled with. We need to celebrate the complex and rather 'different' images, which the Aboriginal peoples of Australia have produced, and which Eric Michaels documented. (3)

    (1) See Chapter Four of *The Predicament of Culture* (1988) in which Clifford argues for a redefinition of the history of surrealism in order to show the close if not parallel development of ethnography and surrealist thinking.

    (2) I am thinking of the work of Edmund Carpenter (1970); James Clifford (1988); Jean Comaroff (1985); Vincent Crapazano (1980); Michel De Certeau (1984); Johannes Fabian (1983); Clifford Geertz (1988); George Marcus and Michael Fischer (1986); Paul Rabinow (1977).

    (3) Eric Michaels (1982). This is an essay in a superb collection edited by Jay Ruby, entitled, A Crack in the Mirror (1982).


    Are Social Media, Social? (Part Ten)

    The ties that bind are more often than not based on memories. Memories of events, people, relationships, daily life, and exceptional moments, both personal and historical. Our bodies are like scrapbooks. We write our memories all over our bodies in the course of a lifetime.

    We are in the early days of lives lived at the edges of the virtual and the real. Notwithstanding the power of the computer screens we hold in our hands or the larger screens that now broadcast to us, all screens are flat and in the case of the iPad thin and beautiful. These mediated instances bring us closer to the people we love (through Skype or Facebook) and distance us at the same time from the physical pain and joy of touch and embodied dialogue. So close and yet far away. As more information floods into our minds and bodies and as more and more of the communications process is governed by mediators of greater and greater complexity, we have to start asking some hard questions about the fragile nature of what we are doing.

    For example, much of the electronic information of the 1980’s is lost. More importantly, so much of the material produced during that era cannot be easily transferred from its original form into more contemporary technologies. In fact, how much of the massive exchange of information that we are now producing will still be around and accessible ten years from now? The pace of change means that even if the information is available, will we be able to realize its importance? What interpretive tools will we be able to apply to processes that appear and disappear so quickly? History may provide us with narratives, but personal memories are unstructured and thus for the most part forgotten. Many people now have thousands of photographs stored on computers and hard drives. The challenge is how to manage all of that data. The even greater challenge is to link memories to the images as the pictures proliferate.

    All of this is a round about way of saying that online communities of varying sorts are highly mediated not only by technology but by time. We tend to think of networks in spatial terms. Time is more difficult to picture because in the case of Internet time, it is non-linear.

    In other words, as we glance about picking this and that from the Twitter stream, or quickly reading a short piece on a web site and then just as quickly clicking through a series of links, we are creating a non-linear time line. The results are more like a montage, abstract and real at the same time. I find it amusing that the Twitter stream is timed according to date and time of entry. Add hash marks and we are speedily scrolling through a web of links, comments and further comments. Even if the streams were preserved, the context would be lost. Even if our memories were perfect, the cumulative effect cannot be contained.

    Non-linear processes are wonderful because they defy easy explanation. They cannot be packaged into neat or modular statements. So, the irony is that social media are drunk with the use of language and constrained by the fact that most of the discourse they produce is so specific to the moment, that it cannot last. I am not one to argue for the end of history, but our memories are normally fragmentary and even as we build narratives around those fragments, we lose far more than we retain. So, this raises the further point around the necessity of conversation through social media. Clearly, as an extension of existing friendships or as the base for building new ones, social media work. Conversations in this ever expanding universe are complex and of great utility to interlocutors. But, the intensity of fragmentation has also been accelerated and with it comes the dangers of even greater loss.

    Time is a strange creature. Virtual spaces make it seem as if time can be manipulated. (This is after all the central theme of William Gibson’s early work on cyberspace.) The interface of the real and the virtual makes it seem as if the preservation of memories can be achieved by archiving them. But no one anticipated the human obsession with data. How many of you would knowingly explore a three year-old website? It just doesn’t feel relevant.

    Social media are redefining this complex communications landscape. But what if that landscape has no solid geography? What if the history of its formation cannot be traced other than through a series of fragments that don’t connect? We are seeing the formation of a new kind of oral culture and as historians know, oral cultures retain the stories they want to hear and quickly dispense with everything else.

    This is the last entry of this series. Follow me on Twitter @ronburnett

    *Take a look at the video below*. The first cinematic encounter with wireless technologies from 1922!!

    " Two women walk towards the camera on a city street. They stop beside a fire hydrant (this is presumably the United States of America). C/U of the women winding a wire around the top of the fire hydrant. One of the women holds a small box."

    "It's Eve's portable wireless 'phone - in 1922." (from the Pathé archives)





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    Are social media, social?

    Warning: This is a long article and not necessarily suitable to a glance. (See below on glances.)

    I have been thinking a great deal about social media these days not only because of their importance, but also because of their ubiquity. There are some fundamental contradictions at work here that need more discussion. Let's take Twitter. Some people have thousands of followers. What exactly are they following? And more crucially, what does the word follow mean in this context?

    Twitter is an endless flow of news and links between friends and strangers. It allows and sometimes encourages exchanges that have varying degrees of value. Twitter is also a tool for people who don't know each other to learn about shared interests. These are valuable aspects of this tightly wrought medium that tend towards the interactivity of human conversation.

    On the other hand, Twitter like many Blogs is really a broadcast medium. Sure, followers can respond. And sometimes, comments on blog entries suggest that a "reading" has taken place. But, individual exchanges in both mediums tend to be short, anecdotal and piecemeal.

    The general argument around the value of social media is that at least people can respond to the circulation of conversations and that larger and larger circles of people can form to generate varied and often complex interactions. But, responses of the nature and shortness that characterize Twitter are more like fragments — reactions that in their totality may say important things about what we are thinking, but within the immediate context of their publication are at best, broken sentences that are declarative without the consequences that often arise during interpersonal discussions. So, on Twitter we can make claims or state what we feel with few of the direct results that might occur if we had to face our ‘followers’ in person.

    Blogs and web sites live and die because they can trace and often declare the number of ‘hits’ they receive. What exactly is a hit? Hit is actually an interesting word since its original meaning was to come upon something and to meet with…. In the 21st century, hits are about visits and the more visits you have the more likely you have an important web presence. Dig into Google Analytics and you will notice that they actually count the amount of time ‘hitters” spend on sites. The average across many sites is no more than a few seconds. Does this mean that a hit is really a glance? And what are the implications of glancing at this and that over the period of a day or a month? A glance is by definition short (like Twitter) and quickly forgotten. You don’t spend a long time glancing at someone.

    Let’s look at the term Twitter a bit more closely. It is a noun that means “tremulous excitement.” But, its real origins are related to gossiping. And, gossiping is very much about voyeurism. There is also a pejorative sense to Twitter, chattering, chattering on and on about the same thing. So, we are atwitter with excitement about social media because they seem to extend our capacity to gossip about nearly everything which may explain why Justin Bieber has been at the top of discussions within the twitterverse. I am Canadian and so is he. Enough said.

    Back to follow for a moment. To follow also means to pursue. I will for example twitter about this blog entry in an effort to increase the readership for this article. In a sense, I want you the reader, to pursue your interest in social media with enough energy to actually read this piece! To follow also means to align oneself, to be a follower. You may as a result wish to pursue me @ronburnett.

    But the real intent of the word follow is to create a following. And the real intent of talking about hits is to increase the number of followers. All in all, this is about convincing people that you have something important and valuable to say which means that social media is also about advertising and marketing. This explains why businesses are justifiably interested in using social media and why governments are entering the blogosphere and the twitterverse in such great numbers.

    Here is the irony. After a while, the sheer quantity of Twitters means that the circle of glances has to narrow. Trends become more important than the actual content. Quantity rules just like Google, where the greater the number of hits, the more likely you will have a site that advertisers want to use. Remember, advertisers assume that a glance will have the impact they need to make you notice that their products exist. It is worth noting that glancing is also derived from the word slippery.

    As the circle of glances narrows, the interactions take on a fairly predictable tone with content that is for the most part, newsy and narcissistic. I am not trying to be negative here. Twitter me and find out.

    Part Two


    Communications: The Discipline and its Transformation (1)

    Brief Overview — Strategic Approaches to the Study of Communications. The following list is not intended to be comprehensive, rather it articulates some of the many (too many?) debates and ideas that circulate within the study of communications. The discipline has become so broad because of a misconceived idea of multi-disciplinarity to the point where it is unclear what the boundaries are between different areas of study. Perhaps, the very notion of a discipline needs to be rethought. Or, perhaps the evolution of Communications into something far greater than the term itself can contain, suggests that the work of the next few years will be around meaning, creativity and classification. Think of it this way, the taking of digital photographs is less and less about aesthetically rich images and more about organizing large amounts of information into meaningful patterns. The software that we use to organize our images is dependent on a tagging system that is above all else semantic and is driven by language, by what we say about the photos and less by the photos themselves. The danger is that as classification becomes central and as the sheer bulk of images increases that it will be more and more difficult to frame and critique what is being produced. This is a difficult challenge to the development of disciplines because it implies a continuous and evolving fluidity that institutions in particular have a hard time containing.



    Literary, Legal and Historical Inquiries into the Press —
    News as Information — Growth of Print Culture



    Intersection of Sociological and Institutional Analysis — Electrification —
    Telegraph — Telephone — Radio — Cinema



    Broadcasting — Audience Research — Social Sciences
    provide main model
    for analysis — Empirical Methodology



    Frankfurt School — Cultural Analysis — Popular Culture as Category —
    Models of Consumption and Commodity Fetishism — Intersection of Psychoanalytic,
    Sociological and Anthropological approaches —
    Language as Paradigm for all modes of Communication



    Television — Mass Communication Studies — Relationship to Policy —
    Communications and Development — Questions of Economic and Political Control — Ownership of Media — Democratic Control



    Paradigms from Literary Study — Applications of Textuality — Homology
    between written and visual-oral texts Structuralist claims with
    respect to the Production of Meaning —
    Efforts to link Media Analysis with Semiotics and Deconstruction— Intersections with Ethnographic Research — Shifts in Anthropology and Sociology



    Ideology — Cultural Analysis — Marxist and
    Post-Structural Models —
    Reconfiguration of Institutional Analysis — Reaction to Positivist Empiricism —
    Dissolution of Base-Superstructure Paradigm for the Explanation of Cultural Processes —
    Links between literary analysis and
    development of Communications and Media Studies



    Feminist Reconfiguration of Communications and Cultural Studies Paradigm
    Shift in Concerns for Audience to notions of Reading, Spectatorship —
    Post-Colonial Discourses — Challenges to the hegemony
    of 1st world views



    Postmodernism — Redefinitions of the theory—practice dichotomy—Move
    to Discourse models—Shift in Language Paradigm—Shift from Representation
    to Simulation



    Virtual Reality—Hyperreality—Cyberpunk—Cyberspace—Reconfiguration of Computer—C.D. Rom—Notions of Infinite Memory—Multi-Media



    The above taxonomy and the way in which I have separated its historical constituents should be seen as entirely heuristic. My aim is to show the inherent intersection of concerns between the humanities and the social sciences, but also to talk about the way in which communications has colonised many different areas of research and thought over the last twenty years.

    This process of boundary creation and dissolution — the inherent weakness of any attempt to lock boundaries into place — has produced an almost non-stop integration of disciplines into communications with the result that what we may need to examine at moment is a redefinition of the very notion of a field of study or a discipline. The presumptions which guided the creation and installation of disciplines in universities up until the early 1980's may be in need of serious revision.

    Let me explore this a bit further. It can be argued that any attempt to define the domain of communications study runs into a classic confrontation — the vested interests of the humanities and social sciences both converge and diverge. Though the latter has taken the mantle of leadership upon itself, the most interesting research of the moment is going on in cultural studies, games, computer-human interaction, digital communities and design. But even as I say this, the disciplinary framework of cultural studies represents a challenge of its own because it is so very fluid as to definition and even more so as to direction. The question of what constitutes cultural studies finds itself in precisely the same crisis of definition as communications. Is this because of the nature of the phenomena under examination?

    (End.....part one)


    Geographies of Dissent (2)

    There is another term that I would like to introduce into this discussion and that is, counter-publics. Daniel Brouwer in a recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communications uses the term to describe the impact of two “zines"? on public discussion of HIV-AIDS. The term resonates for me because it has the potential to bring micro and macro into a relationship that could best be defined as a continuum and suggests that one needs to identify how various publics can contain within themselves a continuing and often conflicted and sometimes very varied set of analysis and discourses about central issues of concern to everyone. It was the availability of copy machines beginning in 1974 that really made ‘zines’ possible. There had been earlier versions, most of which were copied by hand or by using typewriters, but copy machines made it easy to produce 200 or 300 copies of a zine at very low cost. In the process, a mico-community of readers was established for an infinite number of zines. In fact, the first zine convention in Chicago in the 1970’s attracted thousands of participants. The zines that Brouwer discusses that were small to begin with grew over time to five and ten thousand subscribers. This is viral publishing at its best, but it also suggests something about how various common sets of interests manifest themselves and how communities form in response.

    “One estimate reckons that these "Xeroxed, hand-written, desktop-published, sometimes printed, and even electronic" documents (as the 1995 zine convention in Hawaii puts it) have produced some 20,000 titles in the past couple of decades. And this "cottage" industry is thought to be still growing at twenty percent per year. Consequently, as never before, scattered groups of people unknown to one another, rarely living in contiguous areas, and sometimes never seeing another member, have nonetheless been able to form robust social worlds? John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Documents. Clearly, zines represent counter-publics that are political and are inheritors of 19th century forms of poster communications and the use of public speakers to bring countervailing ideas to large groups. Another way of thinking about this area is to look at the language used by many zines. Generally, their mode of address is direct. The language tends to be both declarative and personal. The result is that the zines feel like they are part of the community they are talking to and become an open ‘place’ of exchange with unpredictable results. I will return to this part of the discussion in a moment, but it should be obvious that zines were the precursors to Blogs.

    As I said, the overall aggregation of various forms of protest using a variety of different media in a large number of varied contexts generates outcomes that are not necessarily the product of any centralized planning. This means that it is also difficult to gage the results. Did the active use of cell phones during the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO contribute to greater levels of organization and preparedness on the part of the protestors and therefore on the message they were communicating? Mobile technologies were also used to “broadcast? back to a central source that then sent out news releases to counter the mainstream media and their depiction of the protests and protestors. This proved to be minimally effective in the broader social sense, but very effective when it came to maintaining and sustaining the communities that had developed in opposition to the WTO and globalization. Inadvertently, the mainstream media allowed the images of protest to appear in any form because they were hungry for information and needed to make sense of what was going on. As with many other protests in public spaces, it is not always possible for the mainstream media to control what they depict. Ultimately, the most important outcome of the demonstrations was symbolic, which in our society added real value to the message of the protestors.

    To be continued...