ASA12: Arts and aesthetics in a globalising world

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 3rd-6th April 2012

(P15)

In-between fiction and non-fiction: reflections on the poetics of ethnography in film and literature

Location Arts and Aesthetics Lecture Hall No. 102, SAA-I
Date and Start Time 05 April, 2012 at 08:30

Convenor

Michelangelo Paganopoulos (Goldsmiths, University of London) email
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Short Abstract

This panel aims to take on the challenge of expanding the field of anthropology towards fictional novels and films, and the question to be raised is: if we accept ethnography as a semi-fictional genre, the ethnographer as an auteur, and the monograph as a chronotope, what can the anthropological thought gain by a turn towards fiction?

Long Abstract

In the past, the anthropology of art focused almost exclusively on collective works of traditional art, or on individual revisions of similar themes, traced back to the world of mythology and cosmology. In this sense, it distinguished between traditional (i.e. 'indigenous') works of art, from modern art, in terms of non-fiction and fiction respectively. Questions of authorship and modernity in anthropology challenged this distinction, highlighting a general affinity between ethnographic vision and fiction (Needham 1984, Clifford and Marcus 1986, Turner 1987, Clifford 1988, Deveraux and Hillman 1995, Barba 1995, Foster 1996, Sen 1996, Gell 1999, Thomas 2000 and 2003, Grimshaw 2001, Hart 2003, MacClancy 2003, Paganopoulos 2007). This affinal connection was further illustrated by ethnographic film-makers, such as Maya Deren, Jean Rouge, and Robert Gardner, who blurred experiential avant-garde aesthetics with 'scientific' principles of visual anthropology (Eaton 1979, Russell 1999, Barbash and Taylor 2007, Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009, Paganopoulos 2011). In respect to widening the scope of ethnographic theory, the papers proposed for this panel highlight the affinity between ethnography and fiction, in order to articulate an anthropological perspective towards fiction. Instead of avoiding the question of subjectivity, the panel will investigate the charismatic auteur as an ethnographer, a poet, a film-maker, a traveller, or simply a participant observer (a role often avoided to be acknowledged). By comparatively using illustrations taken from monographs and novels, documentaries and films from across the globe, the aim is to highlight some of the challenges raised in the path towards an anthropology of fiction, including questions of personal experience and aesthetics, participation and perception, illusion and disillusionment, as the subjective means for articulating a political vision towards a diverse world society.

Discussant: Michelangelo Paganopoulos

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Robert Gardner's "Forrest of bliss". Potentials of ethnographic film beyond objectivism and deconstruction

Author: Norbert Schmitz (Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and Design)  email

Short Abstract

The lecture is about Robert Gardner’s „Forrest of bliss". The film focuses on the problems of the relation between classical ethnografic objectivism and the potential of experimental artificial documentary film strategies in the perspective of an critical postmodern epistemology.

Long Abstract

Robert Gardner's "Forrest of bliss" is set in Benares, the holy Indian city of death, as an ambivalent place of transcendent and profane space. The documentation of the ritual journey from the Ghats at the holy river Ganges to the fields on the outskirts of town to pick the flowers for the ceremonies connects time and space with a unique film language in the tradition of the avant-garde. However, the film was accused of reproducing a mere aesthetic fiction.In the history of ethnographic film the "Gardner case" came to be the epitome of fierce discussion on the relation of scientific objectivism as the paradigm of classical ethnology and anthropology and possible experiments on artistic form. However it is only the use of explicitly artistic fiction that provides an opportunity for documentary elements beyond naive objectivism, which veils its implicit assumption of authority.

Reflecting on poetics of ethnography in literature

Author: Prarthana Saikia (University of Delhi)  email

Short Abstract

Anthropological methods have been used by many fiction writers to get a detailed account of their literary theme. Present focus in the field of anthropological methodology is the way new anthropology is coming up reflexively. We have anthropologists presenting their field data in a fictional form. The representation of the data changes as the practices change accordingly with the position of the narrator. The paper tries to reflect upon these issues and to bring out subjective understanding of this theme.

Long Abstract

Fictional depiction of anthropological data has widely been used not only by the Anthropologists but also by various fiction writers. Ethnography as fiction or fictional depiction of ethnography is the issue of recent debate. Different arguments are put forward by different scholars at different time. Besides this, anthropological research methodologies are finding its popular place in different literary works and people without having anthropological training are applying these methodologies to collect data and representing these in a fictional form. We have lots of such examples in world literature as well as in Indian literature. Assamese literature is not an exception to this. Some very famous fictional works in Assamese literature are based on Anthropological data gathered by using anthropological methodologies by authors without having anthropological training. At the same time, anthropologists are also depicting fictional accounts of their anthropological fieldwork findings in the same literary field. My own experience as a fiction writer in Assamese also provides me the understanding of the difference between these two types of practices- fictional depiction of anthropological data by an anthropologist and writing fiction with the help of anthropological methodology by non-anthropologists. It helps in exploring the relationship between writer, audience, and subject. The keywords are reflexivity and subjectivity in modern anthropology. A detailed study of such practices can unfold new themes for exploring anthropological gain in this context. The paper would reflect upon a comparative study of such practices citing examples from Assamese literature.

Understanding Multinational Corporate Culture in India through Fiction: An Anthropological Study

Author: Geetika Ranjan (North Eastern Hill University)  email

Short Abstract

Anthropological analysis of two works of fiction on corporate culture in India argues the fictional representation of a culture built on the pedestal of macro economic growth but influencing other integrated , non separable dimensions of life.

Long Abstract

Literature or fiction , a form of art, mirrors the culture against which it has been constructed and also perhaps through the author's intellect foresee the future happenings in a way. The present paper proposes to anthropologically study the feel of corporate life as portrayed in two works of fiction of recent times - If God Was A Banker (2007) by Ravi Subramaniam and Puppet on the Fast Track (2010)by Ilika Ranjan. The two works of fiction delve into the inside view of the multinational banks functioning in India. The narrative involves the day to day workings of sales, marketing, presentations and similar activities which infuse the office environment with an air of fast and furious competitive clashes. Post 1991, the boost which Indian economy got with the influx of multinational companies and banks, further proliferated the growth of what can be termed as 'corporate culture'. As an anthropological study , the present paper attempts to understand holistically the burgeoning multinational corporate culture in India and its interconnect with attitudes, mindset, values and mores of people who are part of it. While considering the debates revolving around seeing Anthropology as fiction and fiction as anthropology, the study of the two works mentioned above shall focus on arguments concerned with seeing fiction as representation of facts and discussing the link between the text and the reader.

The Construction of Disability in Popular Hindi Cinema:An Exploration of Select Films

Author: Shubhangi Vaidya (Indira Gandhi National Open University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores the construction of the disability experience in mainstream Hindi cinema through an examination of three films, ;Black' (2005),'Taare Zameen Par'(2007) and 'My name is Khan'(2010)and attempts to show how global discourses of disablity intersect with local understandings,thus recasting the subject in new and interesting ways.These films shape and are shaped by changing understandings of disability and personhood in contemporary Indian society.

Long Abstract

The articulation of the 'social model' of disability and the flowering of Disability Studies resulted in exciting work in the humanities and social sciences on the disability experience and identity and the discourses underpinning them. Persons with disability have always found a place in the language of Hindi cinema, largely as peripheral characters whose impairments are the objects of pity or charity. However,the discourse has changed in recent years and stories centering around their lives and experiences are being told. The films taken up for discussion in this paper are 'Black' (2005), 'Taare Zameen Par' (2007) and 'My Name is Khan' (2010). 'Black' has as its theme the story of a young girl born blind and deaf and deprived of the opportunity to develop her 'human' faculties. This changes with the advent of a middle-aged male teacher who makes it his mission to 'make' her human. 'Taare Zameen Par' is a sensitively told tale of a boy with Dyslexia, whose 'hidden' disability is dismissed as indiscipline and inattentiveness by a social and educational system which privileges conformity and compliance. 'My Name is Khan' is a narrative of 'otherness' ; a Muslim man with Autism in post 9/11 America tries to make sense of a world that has changed forever. The paper attempts to map changing trajectories of disability discourse by deploying the anthropological concept of 'liminality'; the 'betwixt and between' threshold that challenges the notions of what it means to be 'human'.

Archiving a cultural idiom: film, fiction, biography, art and document

Author: Surbhi Goel (Panjab University)  email

Short Abstract

The blurring of lines between fiction, personal and artistic responses, Mani Kaul's SIDDHESHWARI defied any genre, which is at once a monograph, a document as well as poetic articulation, almost a painting. Yet, it involves archiving of a cultural idiom that is an ongoing gesture - rather than a framed text.

Long Abstract

A film is not just a directed, edited document, but becomes a fluid text which transgresses and transverses the boundaries and genre. Mani Kaul's SIDDHESHWARI is fiction, document, a painting, personalized biography - where the focus of the film is not a person, which is merely an occasion to access the inner spaces of - space, time, identity, affect. The film traces a cultural geography of Benaras, Music traditions, family as a socio-cultural unit - while breaking the myth and reclaiming the personal and the individual.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea: Mapping the rise of subversive slave consciousnesses in his film The last Supper (1976)

Author: Ira Vangipurapu (English and Foreign Languages University)  email

Short Abstract

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea: Mapping of the rise of the slave consciousness in Cuba from the time of the historic sugar plantations to the Great Sugar Harvest of Cuba in 1970 in his film The last Supper (1976)

Long Abstract

Praised for its aesthetics of colour and framing as well as its treatment of the ontological slave presence in Cuban society, Tomas Gutierrez Alea's film The Last Supper (1976) explores the politics of the relationship between the slave owners and the slaves in the era of the sugar plantations. Playing on the deeper cultural and religious archetypes that are revealed by Leonardo da Vinci's revisionist painting of the same name, Alea creates his own surrealist reading of the Holy Week and through subtle comedy and intentional subversions brings out the instrumentality of Christianity on the slave plantation where the Count of the film decides to 'play' Christ and chooses twelve of his slaves to act as the apostles - slaves who read in the Bible not only a tool for consolidating their esclavitud but also one that privileges the outcasts, the enslaved ones. By meticulously reproducing the events of the Holy Week and the last supper, Alea crafts the irony of this farce and the contradictions it throws up into an argument for the evolution of the slave consciousness at the time of the Great Sugar Harvest of 1970 when Cuba was once again perceived by many Cubans, to be subjecting itself to slavery to the Soviet Union for the sake of, ironically, maintaining itself as a free country.

The fiction of anthropology: content without audience

Author: Filippo Spreafico (UCL)  email

Short Abstract

Anthropology’s unsuccessful performance in delivering social messages beyond the academic walls is due the rejection of its own literary character. Subjectivity, imagination and narrative are overlooked due to the retention of an obsolete notion of social science, as today’s anthropology denies its artistry and stages its rigour.

Long Abstract

The article tackles the current state of delusion surrounding social anthropology's effectiveness; it reconsiders its literary potential by analyzing the discipline's repression of narrative; it challenges anthropology's self-advocated re-conceptualism by exposing the paralysis of the academic method. Albeit claimed otherwise, anthropology does not challenge its own frame of reference, academic logics, in order to deliver its sociocultural messages, the content of which ultimately (and ironically) refers to the transgression of so-called 'western categories'. Such concern reinforces the existence of those very categories, as the appeal to academic debates forecloses their departure and dumbs down the power of intuition, empathy and imagination, key to the liberation from rules and mental habits.

Anthropology has not yet come to terms with its narrative and literary legacy. This soft form of schizophrenia prevents the discipline to perform effectively out of the academic fences. Concomitantly, the dominant notion of social science prevents the discipline from treasuring its own subjective character. The preposterous denial of subjectivity decreases the anthropologist's capacity to reach wider audiences, due to the fear of oversimplification.

Eventually, the experience of fieldwork as exaltation of intersubjectivity is wiped out, while fieldwork as academic category is maintained. The retention of scholarly character in the otherwise emphatic content of fieldwork diminishes the anthropologist's credibility before the laymen.

Ultimately, it is claimed that the only literary character that anthropology employs is the fiction through which it denies authorial power, a fiction infinitely less persuasive than the deliberate fictional and factional contents of cinema and literature.

Fiction: a cultural mirror

Author: Manisha Sharma (Virginia Tech)  email

Short Abstract

The proposed paper will analyze the relationship between ethnography and fiction from the point of view of a creative writer.

Long Abstract

The proposed paper aims to answer whether fiction informed by ethnography helps understand, across a wide range of audience, the theoretical constructs of culture better or not. The paper will talk about the relationship between ethnography and fiction from the point of view of a creative writer, and compare films to written fictional accounts. I argue that ethnography and fiction share a parasitic, interdisciplinary affinity, where each discipline informs the other, making them richer. On the other hand, an imbalance between the two often results in disaster. The paper is divided into two parts. The first will talk about culture as both liberating and esoteric. I write fiction, teach women's studies, and have terminal degrees in creative writing and literature. My personal experience as a writer in creative writing workshops will highlight writers' struggle to grapple with the culture they represent in the world they create. The second part will analyze fiction by emerging and established writers, and compare it with efforts in films and documentaries.

The Changing World of Satyajit Ray: Anthropological Reflections on Authorship and History

Author: Michelangelo Paganopoulos (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the complementary relationship between the charismatic auteur and the role of the anthropologist in an ever-changing world, through the realist cinema and world vision of Satyajit Ray.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the concept of authorship in relation to the role of the anthropologist in the world, as manifested in the cinema of Satyajit Ray. Ray's marginality, working in between the artistic tradition of his Brahman family and the 'Bengali Renaissance', and his European 'humanitarianism', were seen either as contradictory, or as complementary, to his 'Indianess' (Cooper 2000: 74, among others) echoing the question of universalism in anthropology (Sen 1996). His visual style fused the aesthetics of European realism with evocative symbolic realism, based on classic Indian iconography and theory, which he incorporated in a self-reflective way into his film-making as the means of observing the human condition in a rapidly changing world. This unique amalgam of expression expanded over three periods of Bengali history, from the Indian declaration of Independence and the period of industrialization and secularization of the 1950s and 1960s, to the rise of nationalism and Marxism in the 1970s, followed by the rapid transformation of India in the 1980s. The paper will discuss each period with references to a number of selected films, focusing on memory, nostalgia, and self-reflection, as well as, disenchantment, disillusion, and alienation, during a period of rapid economic, social, and political change. Ray's films offer a historical record of this transformation, not only reflecting upon the changes in the collective consciousness of the society and the time they were produced, but also on the notion of authorship in itself, challenged in his last film Agantuk (The Stranger 1991) by the caricature of the lost uncle who suspiciously claims to be an 'anthropologist'.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.