Monday, September 17, 2007

Mead versus MacDougall

Ethnographic Authority

Authority, fieldworkers are given the opportunity and have the power to show their subjects in light they wish to portray them. Some people could prefer to show everyone that anything outside the Western world is a savage, and some could prefer that anything outside the Western world is struggling to live.

When considering who had the best intentions of portraying cultures in the truest form, the MacDougalls are more likely to be regarded in a better light than Margaret Mead.

In James Clifford's Predicament of Culture, he outlines six points of authority that existed before contemporary theorists created new guidelines for portraying the subject.

Margaret Mead/Bateson's "Trance and Dance in Bali" can be identified the closest to the fourth
and sixth points. The fourth contains an "inventory of customs and beliefs." Instead of studying the tribe as a whole she decided to portray one aspect on film the ritual dance of a witch and a dragon. Her narrative throughout the movie is one of an adult speaking to a child. The natives are rarely if not even heard from at all throughout the film. From Mead's narration one cannot gather that the tribe even had a say in how they were portrayed. Which brings up point six; short-research activity. From what was heard in the movie it could have been just as easy for Mead to travel to Bali film ritual and return back home dubbing over the narration without any communication whatsoever.

David and Judith MacDougall's film on the Turkana tribe brings up the point of experience versus interpretation. Unlike Mead, the MacDougalls gave the Turkana tribe a voice, from letting them speak to the camera to holding the camera. They participated with them, initiated conversation, learned their language and acquired knowledge. To erase any assumptions that the Turkana might be confused by the cameras was not apparent in the film. The MacDougalls show us that we can think they're weird for piercing their bodies so much just so much as they think Westerners cars are funny looking.

Visually the MacDougalls tell us more. They go with them as they find the homes. They sit with the people and converse the leaders. The leaders who are wise are willing to tell the MacDougalls and the audience anything they wish to hear. Through their movie other cultures are given life. Mead gives life too, a bit more dramatic and staged, which was normal for back then. We are talking about a generation in which when the first movie was shown, everyone ran away from the screen because they thought that a train was actually moving towards their seats.

Now what I think is slightly overlooked, the difference between Mead/Bateson and the MacDougalls is the time. Just because someone is a scientist of natural history does not mean that they will be completely free of prejudice. Her remarks are just as likely as the MacDougalls giving the Turkanas the camera. It is a matter of time. Distant people in distant lands have always been thought of as savages. But now of course, no one should make that remark because we know better.

1 comment:

alex esca said...

I found this piece to be interesting because I agreed and if not brought up these similar points in my own blog. I think however Mead is not necessarily trying to act like adult vs. child however it does indeed come across that way in Trance and Dance in Bali. i liked your description of how the Turkana tribe found the cars to be very foreign and interesting just as much as the McDougalls found the Turkana tribe to be. I think you have to take into account the idea that these movies were set in two very different times. By the time the McDougalls came out with their piece the standards and norms for "ethnographic" film-making had changed and evolved little by little. It is important to note the biggest difference however which you did. That is the McDougall's gave the Natives their voice in the film, you knew exactly what the Turkana tribe felt and they were allowed to explain things in their own words. In Mead's piece you could not necessarily understand how the Natives felt about their ritual, you only heard the narrating voice of Mead.