I got into media studies, as an anthropologist, because I believed the media were the belly of the beast, and because I thought TV was central to the creation of the extraordinary contradictions that plagued the contemporary world. (Eric Michaels, 1983)
It would seem that Malinowski's stricture that the function of the ethnographer was to see the native's culture from the native's own point of view could at last be achieved - literally, and not metaphorically.
What would such a world be like, and more importantly, what problems have we to set before our students now that will, at the least, not hinder them from coming to an understanding of an age in which man presents himself not in person but through the mediation of visual symbolic forms. It is now no longer possible for the student of culture to ignore the fact that people all over the world have learned, and will continue in great numbers to learn, how to use the visual symbolic mode. Anthropologists must begin to articulate the problems that will face us in trying to understand others when their point of view is known to us primarily through movies distributed by broadcast TV and cable. footnote1
This essay is an exploration of Eric Michaels' contributions to an anthropology of visual communication. His publications represent a significant step forward in the application of ethnographic methods to our understanding of the role mass mediated pictorial forms play in our lives. Michaels along with a handful of others (Intintoli, Andrew and Harriet Lyons footnote2) provide a framework for the development of an anthropology of TV.
Michaels' conclusions about the relevance of linguistic paradigms and the concept of culture for the analysis of film and TV should be widely discussed among media scholars. His study of the incorporation of TV into the lives of Australian Aborigines is important for anthropologists interested in cross-cultural studies. Based upon his findings, scholars and bureaucrats in development studies and implementation should consider what they now seem to take for granted about the value of new technologies for nonindustrialized people. Unfortunately, his work has not had the impact, outside of Australia, it warrants. Its implications are too far reaching and subversive to be acceptable by people with a vested interested in maintaining their position and the status quo. footnote3
This is an essay predominantly in the first person. I will reflexively frame my remarks within the history of my own ideas as well as others who have had an impact on Michaels' work. The position I speak from is that of a U.S. visual anthropologist. footnote4 I cannot comment upon its quality in terms of Australian anthropological literature; critique it from the perspective of mainstream communications or development studies; nor can I follow his ideas about the limited usefulness of linguistic paradigms in the study of pictorial forms to their logical conclusions about semiotic research. I am not in the business of communication or development and would not even hazard a guess as to the practical realities of Michaels' suggestions. I will attempt to place it within the scholarly tradition of an anthropology of visual communication and make some comments about the cultural implications of his findings from the point of view of the U.S. situation. I do so as someone involved in formulating the tradition who, for a time, had an influence on Eric's thinking.
I knew Eric Michaels for almost 20 years, first as a student and then colleague and friend. I first met him while organizing Temple University's Conferences on Visual Anthropology (1968-1980). He had recently returned to Philadelphia from a hippie commune near Taos, New Mexico where he had lived for several years. He wanted me to see a film the commune made - Love, Peace, Taos - 1968 - for possible inclusion in the Conference. It was very much a reflection of the pretensions of the hippie movement. The film must have gone on for hours with its home movie exploration of the 'folk'. I don't think either of us were very impressed with the other. Within a year Eric returned to Temple University, where I am on the faculty of Anthropology, to complete his undergraduate degree. His experience as a hippie now became transformed into an ethnographic analysis of the commune as a "deliberate society" and a chapter entitled, "The Family" in John Hostetler's Communitarian Societies. footnote5 Although an English major, Eric took several of my courses in visual anthropology and the anthropology of visual communication. When he left Philadelphia to do his graduate studies at the University of Texas, Austin, Eric had two interests firmly in place - ethnography and the exploration of visual communication from an anthropological perspective. He pursued both for the rest of his life. We stayed in touch by letter, phone, and the occasional visit and exchanged critiques of each others' work. I published two of his papers. Just before he became ill, I unsuccessfully tried to locate an academic position for him in the U.S.
Prior to accepting a research position at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1982 to study the effects of satellite TV on remote aboriginal communities, Eric undertook two research projects. He became involved with video artists like Juan Downey (who were producing cross-cultural video art) as a result of organizing a symposium and screening series at Temple's Conference on Visual Anthropology. He was interested in discovering whether anthropologists could benefit from collaborations with video artists whose work might help avoid the fallacy of associating ethnographic film with the realist conventions of the documentary. He co-produced a videotape, curated a show in 1979 of Video Art at the Long Beach Museum of Art (California) entitled Videthos and wrote an ethnography of his experience - "How to Look at us Looking at the Yanomami Looking at us." footnote6 While the results of this work are far from conclusive, the project established Eric as someone willing to take risks and play at the margins of several disciplines. It also served as a useful initiation into the world of avant-garde, non-standard TV that enabled him to understand Warlpiri TV from a perspective lacking in other researchers. footnote7
Between 1979 and 1982 Eric conducted ethnographic field work in Amarillo, Texas for his doctoral dissertation. footnote8 The theoretical problem he explored was "Do relations between people change with respect to TV's usage?" The research involved an exploration of an attempt by fundamentalist Christians to influence a TV stations' programming with boycotts. Partially sponsored by the Southwest Educational Development Lab and under the guidance of his dissertation advisor Horace Newcomb, the study was also an attempt to explore the relevance of anthropological concepts like culture and techniques like ethnography for the study of TV. The research design, involving a re-study three years after the protest, did not yield sufficient data to enable Eric to complete the work as contemplated. It was what might be called "an interesting failure." The people in Texas tried to gain some control over what values TV presented to them. They failed but it gave Eric a chance to consider issues that dominated the remainder of his career. Consequently, this study's value is not so much in terms of the conclusions derived from an analysis of the data but in the design. The 'meaning' of TV was sought in the social relationships of the people who watch it not in the 'text' of the programs. It is a nascent attempt to develop an anthropology of TV as a culturally bounded communication form.
Eric defended his dissertation after he had accepted a post at A.I.A.S. In fact, the promise of the position was a major motivation for his completion of the degree. For the next six years, he conducted ethnographic field research, and wrote an amazing number of papers and monographs before his death in 1988.
Before attempting a critique of some of that work, it is necessary to explicate the larger historical and conceptual framework it was derived from and comments upon. The anthropology of visual communication is a relatively new area of study, a field yet to 'realize its potential' - a polite way of saying that few people are interested in it. It is three times marginal. It deviates from the mainstream of anthropology, communication and visual studies.
Anthropologists have traditionally studied the folkways of non-industrial, tribal people - the fourth world. Our initial concern was to salvage the remnants of the disappearing world of colonialized people - their languages, custom and artifacts. Studies were located in a time and place known as "the ethnographic present" - that is, prior to significant European intervention. When it was no longer possible to locate any "undiscovered" people, the "ruined" savage was reluctantly acknowledged. It became acceptable to admit that our subjects were often economically disadvantaged, politically disenfranchised and, at times, eagerly sought after those aspects of our culture we found undesirable if not disgusting. Those appetites are usually regarded as signs that the culture was unhealthy rather than regarding the acquisition of certain technologies and skills as adaptive mechanisms that might insure the survival of some aspects of traditional cultures. Any attachment to or involvement with technologically complex forms of European mediated communication by our "exotic others" remains, more or less, unexamined from New Guinea rock and roll bands to Inuit TV.
At the same time as anthropologists lost "the savage" as their traditional subject matter, some researchers began to realize that one of our commonplace research methods, ethnography, had utility for the study of our own cultures. In the U.S. anthropologists joined sociologists in ethnographic studies of the educational system, the world of drug users, pimps, and occasionally some non-pathological communities. As some would suggest, Anthropology moved from fieldwork to yardwork.
For reasons unclear to me the application of ethnographic methods to the study of mass communication still remains a novel and little used technique. Among some communications scholars it has become chic to talk about and employ some "qualitative" methods. However, mass communications research is dominated by quantitative methods that are culture blind. Anthropology and communication studies have failed to realize the potential power of ethnography for gaining insights into western culture and, as a consequence, those people empowered to make policy decisions about how TV will be regulated reply upon information designed to ignore the cultural aspects of the question.
An alternative to the dominant attitudes within anthropology and communication described above emerged in the late sixties in the U.S. primarily as a result of the work by Sol Worth, his students and associates like Larry Gross and myself. footnote9 It constitutes a foundation for Michaels' work. Eric summarized the attitude In The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia:
Communication isn't some quantifiable thing like houses or water bores, where a demonstrated lack is solved by increased numbers. Communication is relational; it brings about relationships between people.... culture is itself information, and kinship and social structures are communication systems which bring certain people together, but exclude others, protecting communication pathways and the value of information they carry. This suggests a deeper and less obvious concern with media's effects than simply worrying about whether viewers might imitate anti-social or cultural destructive behavior they see on TV. footnote10
The foundation of an anthropology of visual communication is the assumption that the unit of analysis should be the community and the community members' social interaction with these events and not focus exclusively upon the product or artifact. footnote11 The goal is to discover how people become competent in and use visual and pictorial forms in their everyday lives as a means of maintaining their social identity. Social behaviors which surround the making and using of these 'artifacts' are the key to understanding the visual/pictorial domain as communication. We lack sufficient understanding of the role of visual images in our lives. It can only be gained through a long-term intensively participatory and comprehensive study of movies, houses, snapshots, TV, etc., as they appear in the everyday lives of people. Our systems of mass communication literally circle the globe from the New Guinea native to the New York urban sophisticate. Their pervasiveness and seeming power cannot be questioned. We need a holistic understanding of their place in our lives.
With this paradigm in mind and with the knowledge that Sol Worth and John Adair had successfully constructed a study in which Navahos invented their own movies, footnote12 Eric Michaels arrived in Australia. He entered the field assuming he would replicate the Worth/Adair study by having Australian Aborigines make videotapes. In 1966 anthropologist John Adair and communications scholar Sol Worth taught the technology of film production to a group of Navajo Indians in New Mexico without suggesting what the films should be about nor how they should look. The purpose of the study was to discover whether the Navajo would create films unique to their view of the world. Would a discernable Navajo film style emerge? The researchers concentrated on semiotic questions about the production of the films and the ways in which the makers attempted to produce meaning. They were not concerned with the ways in which Navajo audiences responded to the films or the possibility of any long term media use by the Navajos. The results seemed to indicate that Navahos organized their films in keeping with other narrative forms in their culture. footnote13
Michaels' mandate as well as the cultural reality of the people he was to study and the politics of the 1980s were significantly different from the Navajo study, thus making his initial intentions impossible to fulfill. In "Television - Drawing the Line," an unpublished AIAS seminar report (21 April 1983) presented a few months into the project, Eric acknowledged the uniqueness of the opportunity, his theoretical stance and at the same time how and why he had to modify his preliminary illusions.
I embark, therefore, with no direct precedent. The literature on TV's introduction is only partially useful and it asks very different questions of very different circumstances than those before us now. I believed, and believe, that the subject can and should be addressed as an anthropological study, because it is human expression and human symbolization which are at stake here, and it is human relationships which are affected.
I realized early on that TV would be a great missionary of post industrial ideology, and that throughout my lifetime, the situation I am now commissioned to research in remote Australia, will reoccur. Less than a decade ago, the Christian Bible was shown to what was probably the last uncontacted society. The process took nearly two thousand years, required the invention of the printing press, the associate rise of Protestantism, capitalism, and the industrial empires. TV was aired commercially for the first time just about when I was born. By the time I die, barring Apocalypse, everyone will probably have seen TV, everyone in the world. I share, therefore, an imperative that each generation of anthropologists has identified; to grapple with the loss of one kind of life and to prepare people to encounter another. Typical change agents in the past were genocide, disease, literacy and technology. The contemporary world adds novel agents: in the form of electronic media. But there is a difference than I take to be significant; earlier anthropologists were well versed in the characteristics of the change agents, they knew diplomacy, medicine, reading, and writing, and how to use manufactured tools. But we really don't know much more about TV than the people at Yuendumu do. We are all, as McLuhan pointed out, primitives in the electronic age. Where previous generations of anthropologists recognized that one of the priorities of research among exotics was to inquire into modern life as well as to document tradition, this point is highlighted in the case of TV. Critical questions about that medium have failed to find answers in the context of Western research on western producers and users. The Aboriginal experience may therefore have a kind of immediate pertinence, be able to make a profound contribution, not only to our understanding of their situation but our own as well.
I had intended to introduce video in the Australian bush in a very similar fashion (to that of Worth and Adair), with the difference that I would document the process more thoroughly, by reference to the Navajo experiment. I would also be paying particular attention to categories of activity and behavior that one would expect to be affected by exposure to TV.. these would have much to do with who watched TV, when and with whom... and what immediate effects could be observed in conversation, play and other forms of expression. This would provide a kind of ethnography of viewing.... What appears to have happened in places like Yuendumu is that for the first time I've heard of, an absence of broadcasting resources, combined with the availability of videocassette players has produced a situation where the community can approximate a broadcasting schedule from videotape. The schedule is listed in the council building in the store, and a number of other public places. It announces not the programs, but the hours of viewing... and, significantly, hours when men view, hours when women view, and hours when teenagers can view. So it appears that the TV in Yuendumu is being designed, at the reception end anyway, to conform with some of the principles of social organization in that community.
For the three years (1983-6), Warlpiri people at Yuendumu in the Northern Territories, Australia learned the technology of video production, how to create and manage a "pirate" low-power transmission facility and the economic and political realities of fighting the world of TV broadcasting. They produced hundreds of hours of videotape productions, invented ways to make and show their works that would not violate their own values. They established the Warlpiri Media Association so that they could continue to function after the research project ended. Three years after the study was concluded, they continue to produce new tapes and narrowcast their programs. footnote14
While in the field, Eric walked on the tightrope many ethnographers find themselves. He was researcher and scholar reporting his findings to colleagues at conferences and in journals while he was also facilitator, advocate and cultural broker attempting to assist the people who gave him access to their lives in their struggle to gain some control over their media fare. At the same time he was "explaining" the implications of his study to broadcasting bureaucrats. The Aboriginal Invention of Television, footnote15 a summary of the project, was prepared in 1986 to satisfy the terms of his contract. It had one of its intended effects in that it annoyed and confused the establishment. footnote16 Michaels most literary and generally useful statement about the work is found in his 1987 monograph For a Cultural Future: Frances Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu. footnote17
This project has significance for a number of academic disciplines as well as broader cultural implications. One could argue that Eric discovered little that was not already known or at least imagined to exist. The importance of his findings lies not so much in the uniqueness of the information but in the fact that prior to this work many assumptions about media, information, culture and TV were suppositions or vaguely worded programmatic ideals with sparse empirical evidence. Eric field tested concepts and consequently was able to argue his position from an actual case study. It is in this way that his work is important. We no longer have to imagine what things mean to other people. Through Eric's eyes, we could see the production and consumption of meaning in an actual situation.
The most important ideas I derived from his work can be summarized as follows:
1. The utility of perceiving culture as communication and social systems as regulators of information and thereby dismissing the notion that information ever flows freely in any society;
2. The fundamental differences between oral and electronic information societies and the implications of those differences when considering the introduction of a new communications technology;
3. The ethnocentricism of Western/European notions of freedom of expression, the press, artistic licence, the need to know, what constitutes privacy, and our facile dichotomy between fiction and non-fiction narratives;
4. The advantage of ethnography for communication studies;
5. The need for anthropologists to take active role in communication and development studies;
6. The somewhat hopeless nature of our struggle against the image empires.
I will briefly comment upon these ideas in reference to our general understanding of the place of TV in society and the relationship between anthropology and TV studies.
Warlpiri, the Australian Aborigines that Michaels studied, are an oral, kin-based people where the exchange of information is conducted on a face-to-face basis. While the contrast between "oral tradition" societies and the West is, in many ways, obvious, Michaels' examination of these differences in terms of the introduction of TV into the world of the Warlpiri was innovative. Information in Warlpiri society is owned, inherited, and regulated in complex ways. Knowledge is the social, economic and political glue that holds societies together. Some people have the right to know, others may have the right to use and still others have the right to hear or see or perform. From this perspective, cultures are viewed as systems of communication regulated through a social system. To put it in another way, understand the flow of information and you have a key to understanding a culture. European cultures have been striving to invent more efficient ways to increase their capacity to "broadcast" as much information as possible to as many people as possible, while oral tradition societies need to "narrowcast" information in a very controlled manner in order to survive.
Contrary to McLuhan and Carpenter's fantasies there never was a place where information flowed freely. A pre-industrial "Global Village" is simply another Western construction of the exotic other. It is only with the advent of the "space age" technology of tele-communications that information can be even thought of as instantaneous. Our notion of the cultural function of information stands in direct contrast with all oral tradition peoples. We believe in the freedom of expression and the press, in the right of all people to have open access to information. We believe that disclosing as much information about as many things as possible is the only way a open, democratic and free society can function. The clear implication of the Warlpiri study is that some of our fondly held liberal notions about education, information, etc. are ethnocentric and potentially dangerous to the cultural identity of people who do not share them. Our world views are dichotomous and not easily resolved.
Oral societies are a kind of 'information society' in which access to knowledge is of particular social and economic consequence, and typically highly regulated. The introduction of new information technology to traditional information societies poses fundamental challenges to the maintenance and legitimate evolution of these groups. To the extent that new technologies alter traditional means of access and control of information, and to the extent that novel information (content) devalues traditional knowledge and the authority of its purveyors, the integrity of the society as a whole is at risk.... the economies of satellite distribution are essentially the inverse of the information economics of oral, face-to-face society. If such societies intend to participate in new communication technology, complimentary and corrective technology on the ground, at the local level, is suggested as a first priority. footnote18
The conflict between oral and electronic traditions about the flow of information should cause us to revise our thinking about our production of images of native peoples and the introduction of TV, literacy and other western forms of information dispersal into oral societies.
Michaels articulated four areas where aboriginal society and European society's values clash as regards the right of individuals to produce and use visual information. There are:
1. Unauthorized display or transmission of secret or otherwise restricted materials, such as stories, songs, dances, graphic designs, and even oblique references to secret knowledge encoded in the landscape.
2. Violation of mortuary restrictions which may prohibit reproduction of a deceased person's body or voice in the presence of their relatives. This restriction may include songs, dances, or objects associated with the deceased person.
3. Invasion of privacy may include spaces regarded by Europeans as public.
4. The transformation of Aborigines into an exotic other. footnote19
The question of whether any group of people can assume that they have "the right" to be fairly represented is something, that until recently, we have seldom considered. footnote20 The roots of our cultural insensitivity to this issue are complex. Briefly stated, it is to be found in our naive hope in the objectivity of the image (and the associated corollary that images reveal the truth) and the idea that film artists have artistic licence to interpret the world as they please. As a consequence, the issue of representation appear not to be problematic. We believe strongly in notions of freedom of the press, freedom of expression and the primacy of knowledge and therefore feel imagemakers have licence to represent others. To use a recent fiction film example, Peter Weir did not see any need to consult with the Amish before he transgressed upon their world in making the film, Witness. footnote21 As the notion of objectivity becomes challenged and the political and moral assumptions of imagemakers are called into question, the need for a new way of thinking and justifying our representation of Aboriginal life becomes apparent.
Michaels' solution to the potential conflicts outlined above was to suggest that imagemakers behave like ethnographers, that is, to spend sufficient time with people prior to taking images to develop a collaboration that allows you to take pictures that are not offensive and still useful. While the suggestion is, in many ways, self-evident, it is also deeply subversive to the model of work found among news-gathering and documentary producers, if not the whole of TV production. Driven by the need for more and more product in the fastest possible time, the idea of allocating months of field time to a production of a program about Aboriginal life is sadly unrealistic.
Most "communications effects" research assumes one can examine the content of a TV program and discern its potential impact.
Because people concerned with the introduction of TV to traditional communities want to know what the eventual effect of this introduction will be on Aborigines and their traditions, there is a tendency to jump directly from western evaluations of TV content to effects on Aboriginal audiences. Usually, they employ a simple cause-effect assumptions. footnote22
Michaels' work suggests that it is not so much the content but the form and presentation of the programs that are potentially the most revolutionary and destructive challenge to Warlpiri world view.
It is not a question of whether or not violence on TV "causes" people to be violent in real life, but, for example, what will the introduction of fictional narrative into Warlpiri world view do to their society?.
...fictional genres in the European sense are not apparent in the Warlpiri repertoire; fictional framing, the willing suspension of disbelief, the elements required to negotiate the fictional collusion between storyteller and audience, is absent. For all Warlpiri, stories are true. A single word jukurrpa, stands for stories, and dreaming, but also 'law.' Observers have commented upon the particular difficulty Aborigines have in evaluating the reality of European stories in the form of movies and Hollywood videotapes, although the distinction is eventually realized. footnote23
TV caused Warlpiri to ask the question whether some stories are true or not - a query potentially subversive to the core of their world view, but the impact did not stop there. The imposition of European concepts of time in the form of a program schedule clashed with Warlpiri's seasonal divisions. Broadcast TV's need to maintain a centrally controlled, inflexible temporal structure was in direct conflict with Warlpiri's more flexible sense of when things are to be accomplished. In addition, the fact that most programs brought in from the outside were in English has the potential to produce a radical undermining of traditional patterns of authority and knowledge because younger people have a greater understanding of English and would therefore own the knowledge TV offered them and elders would be reduced to a lesser status as a consequence.
Where Aboriginal information is broadcast, especially when it is broadcast in English, a truly subversive and potentially 'culturecidal' situation is created. Here the authority for 'blackfella business' is wrenched from the appropriate local elders and the information made freely available to the young. footnote24
When Warlpiri became videotape producers, their culture did not emerge so much in a style peculiar to their productions but in the social organization of the production itself. Stylistically the tapes have the 'look' of amateurish Western 'cinema verite' documentaries or Western film students' first efforts. In discussing one of the early Warlpiri videos, Eric said
... the 'creation' of a videotape by directorial design was interpreted by Jupurrula to require that the entire taping event be organized consistent with the rules for story performance in the more formal and ceremonial terms of Aboriginal traditions... we might see this an an experiment by Jupurrula to embed the videomaking process in his own cultural forms and thereby create a tape which the community would agree was proper and authentic. footnote25
The clear implication is that schemes for training Aboriginal peoples modeled after European ideas that one always tries to find the "best" person for the job regardless of their social identity is in direct competition with Warlpiri's notions that kinship obligations supersede any other considerations.
The fundamental place of kinship rules will influence all media activities. Anything which is exempted from kinship will be assumed to be European in ownership and purpose. footnote26
Assuming that the illustrations given above are only the tip of the cultural iceberg, it should become clear that new communication technologies are never introduced into a vacuum but into a dynamic political, social and economic environment. In other words, studies designed to gain an understanding of what happens to a society when they gain access to a new means to communicate require an ethnographic approach to see the technology embedded in a socio-cultural framework.
The discovery of what Aboriginal people want from the media emerge only out of a dialogue that takes place around the production, post-production, viewing and reviewing of these tapes as they insert themselves into the community's life, or fail to. And these interactions lead tangentially into related areas of Warlpiri life which impinge on the question of communication, graphic production and interpretation, and traditional law. footnote27
Eric argued that the only way in which the Warlpiri or any other people who are invaded by our image empires, could survive the onslaught was to wrest some control over the transmission of programs from the agencies that normally dominate them.
... the economies of satellite distribution are essentially the inverse of the information economics of oral, face-to-face society. If such societies intend to participate in new communication technology, complimentary and corrective technology on the ground, at the local level, is suggested as a first priority. footnote28
The Warlpiri must create their own TV world mixing their productions with those from the outside. He also demonstrated that with a little money people with no background or particular western technological competence could accomplish this task. The Warlpiri made their own programs and ran their own station without significant financial or technical assistance.
The implications of these ideas strike at the very heart of most anthropological field work and the assumptions of many development programs. We have blithely gone into the field assuming we have the right, privilege, and licence to study others often without much thought as to our impact upon them. We introduce new technologies and ideas from literacy, and democracy to western medicine without much thought as to whether the ideologies that created these technologies are in destructive conflict with the world of the 'beneficiaries'.
Assuming the model derived from Michaels' study is supportable, it is possible to draw out of it additional support for an hypothesis about the relationship of TV and culture advocated by media scholars such as Gerbner and Gross. footnote29 TV, whether private or state controlled, whether broadcast, cable or satellite, is by its economic and technological construction a force for cultural centralization. A few conceive, construct and are empowered to transmit for the many. The socio-cultural purpose of TV is to reify, underwrite, support and espouse the ideology of the status quo. TV functions the way religion and other supernatural systems used to, that is, as the underpinning of official culture. I am not suggesting that the people in charge of a TV system conspire to oppress deviation or that they deliberately mean to support the status quo. Often, in the U.S. TV representatives espouse liberal sentiments about cultural diversity. I simply mean that those who are given the responsibility tend to come from a privileged upper middle class segment of society that has clearly benefited from the current structure of society. Without necessarily realizing it they assume the world they know is the only world possible and project that assumption into their work. While one can find some exceptions within every TV system, the overwhelming historical evidence suggests that TV has been and, by and large, continues to be a centralizing melting pot that opposes any sort of real programming diversity or willingness to share some of their broadcast power with producers from outside the mainstream.
When faced with linguistic, religious, ethnic or sexual minorities, the historical response of the TV industry in the U.S. has been to symbolically annihilate the group, that is, not represent them at all. If it is true that 80 some per cent of the TV viewers in the U. S. obtain information about world events from TV news, then the fact that a group seldom appears on TV becomes a serious issue. For example, if we are to believe U.S. TV, there are no lesbians in the U.S. or even the world. A minor variation of symbolic annihilation is the perpetuation of the dominant culture's stereotypic view of the world. Gays are seen as limp wristed interior decorators, while blacks appear as servants, criminals or preachers. Since the perpetuation of these clichs made the TV industry susceptible to liberal criticism, a change in representation ocurred that was designed to make the industry less vulnerable.
One, therefore, can note some 'progress' in U.S. TV over the past two decades - announcers are permitted to retain their regional accents, more blacks, women, and Hispanics are found in front and behind the camera. Cable and satellite systems make access to a wide range of channels relatively easy. It is important to note that the way in which diversity has been introduced does not seriously threaten the already in-place power structure.
Diversity is nowadays "mainstreamed," that is, having the appearance of minority representation without challenging anything. For example, programs are aired where minority characters are featured but they don't speak their native language or dress in a way distinct to their group, in short, none of the characteristics which provides the group with an identity are allowed to appear. In the U.S. African-Americans often appear as characters who display nothing unique to the African-American experience. In Out of the Silent Land footnote30 author Eric Willmot suggested that Aboriginal representation be "embedded" in regular Australian Broadcasting Corporation programming. thus the representation of disenfranchised urban aborigines as characters in regular programming could be regarded as a progressive sign. There is a joke circulating around U.S. TV circles that next season, some producer will propose a 'black' cover version of the Cosby Show!
In spite of the fantasies fondly nurtured by media freaks of the 1970s, cable and satellite systems have not significantly altered the centralized control of broadcast empires. They often represent more selections of the same basic fare. The model is still from the top down and a plurality of channels has not resulted in a significant increase in diversity of programming nor in the people who make them.
A conclusion one can draw from Michaels' study as well as the work of people like George Gerbner and Larry Gross is that broadcast TV regardless of the system employed, that is, on the air, through the cable or from the satellite, are fundamentally incompatible with notions of cultural autonomy and diversity. In the early 1970s Edmund Carpenter studied the impact of new media among traditional people in New Guinea. His deeply pessimistic conclusions seem to partially support Michaels' work.
Western audiences delight in stories about natives who use modern media in curious ways, their errors being both humorous and profound, suddenly illuminating the very nature of the media themselves.... Even when these stories are true, I think their importance is exaggerated. Surely, the significant point is that media permit little experimentation and only a person of enormous power and sophistication is capable of escaping their binding power. A very naive person may stumble across some interesting technique, though I think such stories are told more frequently than documented. The trend is otherwise. footnote31
Sol Worth told a story about first approaching the spiritual leader of the Navajo community in which they wished to conduct their research. The moral to this tale is something all who wish to study or aid minorities in their struggles against the mainstream should remember.
Although Sam was old, tired, and still coughing a great deal, there was no mistaking the authority in his manner. Finally Adair felt that it was time to bring up the subject of our visit. Adair explained that we wanted to teach some Navajo to make movies and mentioned Worth's part in the process several times. By the time Adair had finished, Yazzie was looking at Worth frequently, seeming for the first time to acknowledge his presence as legitimate. When Adair finished, Sam thought for a while, and then turned to Worth and asked a lengthy questions which was interpreted as, 'Will making movies do the sheep any harm?'
Worth was happy to explain that as far as he knew, there was no chance that making movies would harm the sheep.
Sam thought this over and then asked, 'Will making movies do the sheep good?' Worth was forced to reply that as far as he knew making movies wouldn't do the sheep any good.
Sam thought this over, then, looking around at us he said, 'Then why make movies?'
Sam Yazzie's question keeps haunting us. footnote32
Michaels reached a conclusion concerning the relationship between "remote Aboriginal" communities and satellite TV even before the field work was completed. It was straightforward and quite clear.
The question 'do people of different cultures see, and therefore represent the world differently through visual media' produces answers which can be offered as evidence to argue Aboriginals' rights to access the new media systems proposed for remote Australia.... That remote Aborigines are capable and motivated to produce media on their own terms, argues that they can be acknowledged as the experts in the matter and that training, production and distribution assistance by Europeans be reduced to an ancillary role. Schemes to achieve Aboriginal access to new media by importing European crews, or by training Aborigines in western production styles in urban institutions will inhibit the development of a truly Aboriginal media. footnote33
The reality of implementing his idea is altogether another matter - one that does not seem very encouraging.
I wish I could end this essay on an upbeat note. It would be comforting to be able to say that Eric's work had a profound impact on Australian government and TV bureaucrats and that they enacted legislation empowering Aboriginal people to gain control over their media fare. It did not happen and the likelihood of anything remotely equitable is dim. Besides such hopes would not be in keeping with the wonderful sometimes caustic cynicism that characterized Eric's attitude. Mainstream traditions have taken too long to create and too many people have too much invested in maintaining the status quo. Anthropology will undoubtedly continue to be, as Clyde Kluckholm characterized it so many years ago, "the study of oddments by eccentrics." Communications scholars will continue to think they need massive amounts of quantifiable data to impress people and visual studies folk will attempt to reify the obvious utilizing the most arcane language possible. The industries that profit from beaming down re-runs of Dallas and I Love Lucy will do so where ever they wish.
Sol Worth and Eric Michaels both died before they had the chance to "finish their work." The studies they conducted about how native people can adapt new media technologies remain seminal. In Worth's case he died at 55, just as he was to write The Principles of Visual Communication, a book that would have summarized thirty years of exploration and embark on an ethnographic study of visual communication in a rural U.S. community. footnote34 The Worth/ Adair Navaho project should have excited other scholars to replicate the study in other cultures. It did not. Instead it became fashionable to obtain grants for "native generated" films. Most of the "facilitators" of the projects were filmmakers or liberal do-gooders who wanted to "help" the downtrodden gain access to the media. The result were a number of pseudo-native films from the inner-city ghettos of the U.S. like The Twelfth & Oxford Street Gang's The Jungle, a Philadelphia produced "docudrama" purported to have been made by the gang members who acted in it but in actuality all significant decisions were made by a TV editor hired to assist the gang members or Martha Ansara's My Survival as an Aborigine and little else.
Eric Michaels died at 40. He had too little time to even begin to realize his potential and yet his gift to us was great. While it may be naive to think that we can ever win the battle against the destructive forces of our society, we are not without hope or courses of action. I don't believe that Eric ever really believed Aboriginal peoples could conquer institutions as powerful as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But that knowledge did not stop him from continuing to work.
We may not win the war but there are at least two battles where victories are possible. Eric demonstrated that it is the world of videotape and VCRs where one can hope for some real diversity in the production and consumption of images. The technology is relatively inexpensive, very decentralized and almost impossible to control. Warlpiri people had no trouble mastering the technology and developing their own strategies for the use of their tapes. The Kaipao Indians of South America appear to be using video technology as a political weapon. Recent events in Eastern Europe seem to confirm this power. Video technology contributed to the subversion of the hide bound regimes of Czechoslovakia and Poland. In Czechoslovakia people taped the demonstrations and then created an underground system of distribution that quickly destroyed the governments attempt to control information by censoring the state run TV broadcasts. Within a week of underground narrowcasting, the government allowed state TV to show the extent of the unrest, the government fell. Ethnic minorities and national cultures in the Soviet republics, the various sub-cultures who in someway deviate from the mainstream of the West could be given the chance to gain a little control of their own media destiny if we really care enough to do something about it. While the work of these people may be unattractive to the dominant classes, media self-determination is an important part of self-identity, even if your audiences consist of the "already-converted."
In addition, an interest in the political and moral implications of voice in documentary and ethnographic film footnote35 as well as in writing footnote36 holds the promise for more equitable collaborations between subject and imagemaker. There is a history of imagemakers attempting to relinquish some of their authority to the subjects of the work, for example, George Stoney's Canadian Challenge for Change program and his work with New York University's Alternative Media Center, Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling's Alaskan Heritage Project, and the McDougall's Australian films to name only a few. Unfortunately, these examples are, by and large, undocumented and therefore do not provide us with sufficient information as to how the authority is really shared. We need to more fully explore methods that allow us to accomplish our imagemaking in ways that are useful and not demeaning to our subjects.
Eric Michaels made us acutely aware of our responsibility and impotence. I believe he would have strongly supported Larry Gross' conclusion about our chances to have the image empires represent us fairly or their willingness to aid the oppressed in their attempt to maintain some cultural integrity.
History offers too many precedents of new technologies which did not live up to their advance billing; which ended up being part of the problem rather than part of the solution. There surely are opportunities in the new communications order for more equitable and morally justifiable structures and practices, but I am not sure we can get there from here. As Kafka once wrote in his notebooks, 'In the fight between you and the world, bet on the world'. footnote37
1. Sol Worth, "Studying Visual Communication", in Larry Gross ed., (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), pp. 94-5.
2. Michael Intintoli, Taking Soaps Seriously: The World of Guiding Light (New York: Praeger, 1984); Andrew Lyons, "The Television and the Shrine: Towards a Theoretical Model for the Study of Mass Communications in Nigeria", Visual Anthropology, v. 3, n. 1 and Harriet Lyons, "Television in Contemporary Urban Life: Benin City, Nigeria", Visual Anthropology, v.3, n. 1 (1990).
3. See Appendix 1 for a listing of Michaels' known work.
4. Tom O'Regan has pointed out that there is a qualitative tradition among British cultural studies analysts. He suggested similarities between Michaels' work and David Morley, Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure (London: Comedia, 1986).
5. Eric Michaels, "The Family", in John Hostetler ed., Communitarian Societies¨MDULø (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974).
6. Eric Michaels, "How to Look at us Looking at the Yanomami Looking at us" in Jay Ruby ed., A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).
7. Eric Michaels, "Aboriginal Content: Who's Got it, Who Needs It?", Art & Text, nos. 23-24 (1987), pp. 58-78. 1987a
8. Eric Michaels, "TV Tribes", Unpublished Phd. Dissertation, Communications, University of Texas, Austin, 1982.
9. See especially Sol Worth and John Adair, Through Navajo Eyes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972) and the posthumous¨MDULø collection¨MDULø Sol Worth, Studying Visual Communication: The Essays of Sol Worth (Larry Gross ed.) (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1981).
10. Eric Michaels, The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia, 1982-1985 (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Institute Report, 1986), p. 153.
11. See Sol Worth and Jay Ruby, "Made to Be Seen: Ethnographies of Visual Communication" in Worth, Studying Visual Communication, for a more detailed explication of this approach.
12. See Worth & Adair, Through Navajo Eyes.
13. Cf. Worth and Adair, Through Navajo Eyes for details.
14. Faye Ginsberg, "In Whose Image? Indigenous Media From Aboriginal Central Australia", CVA Review, pp. 16-20 (1989).
15. Eric Michaels, The Aboriginal Invention of Television.
16. See Eric Willmot , "Aboriginal Broadcasting in remote Australia - Review of Aboriginal Invention of TV", Media Information Australia, no. 43 (1987), pp. 38-40; and Eric Michaels' retort, "Response to Eric Willmot's Review", Media Information Australia, no. 43 (1987), pp. 41-44.
17. Eric Michaels, For a Cultural Future: Frances Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu (Art and Criticism Series, Vol. 3. Sydney: Artspace, 1987).
18. Eric Michaels, "New Technologies in the Outback and Their Implication", Media Information Australia, no. 38 (1985), pp. 69-70.
19. Paraphrased from an unpublished paper, "A primer of Restrictions on Picture-Taking in Traditional Areas of Aboriginal Australia, 1989, p. 3. To appear in Visual Anthropology.
20. For a more detailed discussion of these issues see Larry Gross, John Katz, and Jay Ruby eds., Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film, and Television (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
21. See John Hostetler and Donald Kraybill, "Hollywood Markets the Amish" in Image Ethics for a discussion of the Amish point of view.
22. Eric Michaels, "The Impact of Television, Videos, and Satellite on Remote Communities", in B. Foran and B. Walker eds., Science and Technology for Aboriginal Development (Canberra: CSIRO, 1986), p. 45.
23. Eric Michaels with Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, "The Social Organization of an Aboriginal Video Workplace", Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 1 (1984), pp. 28.
24. Michaels, "The Impact of Television, Videos, and Satellite on Remote Communities", p. 5.
25. Michaels and Jupurrurla Kelly, "The Social Organization of an Aboriginal Video Workplace", p. 32.
26. Michaels, The Aboriginal Invention of Television, p. 10.
27. Eric Michaels, "Ask a Foolish Question: On the Methodologies of Cross-Cultural Media Research", Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, v. 3, n. 2 (1985), p. 50.
28. Michaels, "New Technologies in the Outback and their Implication", pp. 69-70.
29. The following section is based a set of assumptions about TV's socio-cultural function. The ideas are grounded more upon personal feelings and the observations of an ethnographer looking at his own behavior and culture rather than any systematic research I have conducted. Support for the position comes from Michaels as well as the work of George Gerbner and Larry Gross and their long term Cultural Indicators project. See especially: George Gerbner, "Communication and Social Environment" in Communication, A Scientific American Book (San Francisco: Wm. H. Freeman and Co., 1972) and "Cultural Indicators: The Third Voice" in Communication Technology and Social Policy (New York: John Wiley, 1973); George Gerbner and Larry Gross, "Living with Television: The Violence Profile", Journal of Communication, v. 26, n. 2 (1976), pp. 173-99; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan and Signorielli, "The Mainstreaming of America", Journal of Communication, v. 30, n. 3 (1980), pp. 10-29 and "Charting the Mainstream: Television and Political Orientations", Journal of Communication, v. 32 (1982), pp. 100-127.
30. Eric Willmot, Out of the Silent Land (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1984).
31. Edmund Carpenter, Oh, What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me (Toronto: Bantam, 1974), p. 188)
32. Worth and Adair, Through Navajo Eyes, pp. 4-5.
33. Michaels and Jupurrurla Kelly, "The Social Organization of an Aboriginal Video Workplace", p. 34.
34. Sol Worth and Jay Ruby, "Made to be Seen: Ethnographies of Visual Communication" in Worth, Studying Visual Communication.
35. Bill Nichols, "The Voice of the Documentary", Film Quarterly, v. 36, n. 3 (1983), pp. 17-29.
36. James Clifford, "On Ethnographic Authority", in The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); George Marcus and Michael Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Movement in the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
37. Larry Gross, "The Ethics of (Mis)representation", in Image Ethics, p. 201.
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