Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 2, 1990
Communication and Tradition: Essays after Eric Michaels
Edited by Tom O'Regan


Tom O'Regan

When Eric Michaels was ill and the idea of getting people to think, extend and write about Eric's work for Continuum was first hatched, it seemed this issue would serve to keep 'alive' Eric's work after his death. It would help us discern a project of sorts in his diverse published writings and to act as a catalyst for interest in the issues Eric seemed to be raising for anthropology, for the visual arts, for communication and media studies, and for policy analysis. But now, three years later, this original purpose for a publication has been superseded by the success of For a Cultural Future and the high profile which his Art & Text articles have achieved. Additionally with Eric's video and published work being catalogued, his unpublished writings being assembled at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and the possibility of a definitive collection of his work being published through the Institute, there is surely no danger that Eric Michaels' work will drop out of sight. This issue's purpose has consequently changed. It can take its proper place as an appraisal, as a 'turn' in the long and indeterminate intellectual conversation about Eric's work that surely must continue through the 1990s. Continuum offers these readings, criticisms, and extensions of Eric Michaels' work in a context in which there are, already, so many competing 'readings' of Michaels in different places, disciplines, and for different publics.

Eric Michaels wanted this appraisal to be an issue of Continuum placed and framed in the ephemeral space of Continuum's other issues. He said it was too early for a book. Too much writing was unpublished or barely digested; the video output barely touched. It is in that spirit - rather than in any claim to a 'definitive reading' - that Continuum presents this issue. Perhaps your 'reading' of Eric Michaels does not appear in this volume: at Continuum we would welcome further critical responses and submissions on Eric Michaels' work (and this issue's representation of that work).

A measure of Eric Michaels' achievement is that his work touched so many intellectual fields from aesthetics to policy analysis; from TV studies to ethnographic filmmaking. This collection covers some, but not all of these intellectual fields. A number of people were approached to either write on Eric's work or to use it as a starting point. Eric, whom I initially approached to write for Continuum, even suggested some of these people. Still other writers came out of my own immediate circle of contacts and people. Some were happily accidental. Still this editor's interests, contacts, geographical location in Perth, and moral persuasion (an indispensable prerequisites to getting copy) gives this issue a certain bias toward screen and cultural studies. This therefore pushes Eric's work in a particular direction away from other useful - and perhaps more important - directions in which it could be taken.

And I do not want to paper over the important gaps in this issue. One in particular stands out. Continuum here reveals the very politics of voice and 'speaking for' that Eric Michaels so disavowed. It contains no Aboriginal contributors. Eric's 'politics of speech' deserved better - and so did the contributors. Excuses can be found for my failure as an editor here but they still cannot alter this fundamental fact of 'omission'.

What we have in this issue is a set of essays taking up some of the 'cultural politics' of Eric Michaels' work. The first section considers its relevance for the study of TV, the making of community or ethnic video, and the study of 'art' objects. Eric in a previously unpublished paper, 'A model of teleported texts' proposes a holistic model for televisual meaning based on the specification of the distinct texts in the production, transmission, and reception cycle and their interconnection in a 'hermeneutic circle'. Jay Ruby in 'The belly of the beast: Eric Michaels and the anthropology of visual communication' describes Eric's intellectual history. He sees Eric's work in some sense completing the larger project of an 'anthropology of visual communication' begun by Sol Worth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 'TV as cultural technology: the work of Eric Michaels', I suggest that Eric's position on televisual meaning considers TV as much as an 'information' technology as a cultural form. The 'praxis' and ethics of 'ethnographic' and 'community' video are taken up by Ron Burnett on the one hand and Keyan Tomaselli and Jeanne Prinsloo on the other. They relate Eric's work on the styles of 'indigenous' and 'local' production/meaning strategies to their own involvements whether in the Marshall Islands in the case of Ron Burnett or in the South African townships in the case of Tomaselli and Prinsloo. Finally Alec McHoul discusses the 'rhetorical styles' of Eric Michaels raising questions about the manner in which 'aesthetic' questions are framed in his discussion of Aboriginal Art. He argues that Eric's work 'is often very specific in its local and particular detail while refusing to add up to anything like an explicit 'position' on more global matters'.

The second section considers Eric's work in relation to Aboriginal issues. Tim Rowse in 'Enlisting the Warlpiri' explicitly addresses the politics of research acts in the Yuendumu community where so much of Eric's research took place. Rowse outlines the historic formation of Yuendumu as both a community ration settlement and as an anthropological research site, suggesting that Eric's construction of 'community' does not sufficiently account for the fragmented nature of the 'community' itself. Deborah Bird Rose in 'A distant constellation' considers Aboriginal story telling among Yarralin people in the Northern Territory from a position of belief in the possibility of an intersubjectivity which 'does not seek to dominate and is grounded in the recognition of shared time and space'. Robert (Bob) Hodge considers Eric's work in relation to broader discursive formations on Aborigines in Australia, arguing that Eric's work both went beyond but also subscribed to a predominantly 'Aboriginalist' conception of Aboriginal 'law' and 'dreaming'. Hodge argues that it is time that such 'Aboriginalist' conceptions were replaced with more adequate conceptual schema for understanding Aboriginal culture. Finally there is a bibliography 'Eric Michaels: a partial guide to his written work' included to assist reader's access.

For their considerable assistance and useful advice in the preparation of this issue I would particularly like to thank Robert Hodge and Alec McHoul. For her help with proof reading and copy editing I would like to thank Marion Benjamin. Finally I am grateful to the authors for their work on this issue. Without their help this issue would not have been possible.

Murdoch University
Perth, June 1990

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