This post is a response to the following two videos (below). The focus of the critique, through class discussion, has been the importance and context of the first or third person perspective in these pieces and in and of academic/ media content in general. It may be interesting to view the videos and review them firstly for content and secondly for context in relation to the second video.
Cultural response to Cricket in PNG: Content
in the first film, the narrative is initially sparse and is presented in a very flat and matter-of-fact tone. It presents historical and cultural knowledge in definitive, positivist manner and in the familiar factual style of the third person narrator. There is no music, no attempt to use music to lead the senses. The narrator uses terms familiar to typical western social/ anthropological study. The film clearly attempts objectivity in its style, avoiding perjorative or subjective terms; this could be viewed this as an attempt to a) create parallels of equality between the subject and object to show objective balance or b) an imposition of western values and perspectives that may or may not be appropriate to the culture being viewed…or possibly not relevant. The audience being a western one and the content being about the process of colonialism through a managed cultural response to sport, we can see even the indiginous ‘stakeholders’ as part of this colonial paradigm: how has their response been affected by the colonial input? Have they now lost entirely the ability to have a pure cultural response to events post-colonialism?
I am interested whether this colonial perspective feeds into (for example) a current local study by a white researcher studying a school of children from a predominantly Middle-Eastern, African or Islamic ethnic background (for example)? Is there a historically cultural relationship/ perspective that affects this dynamic? Could we apply this dynamic as a methodological problem to academic study of a cultural ‘underclass’ or ‘youth culture’? Is there an inherent superiority assumed by an academic, educated observer (or by the subject) where a culture is measured by standards other than that which the subjects within a culture measures itself?
A text always has an author (or authours), so to remove the possessive ‘I’ from a peice of work and speak in the hypothetical third person – is that more or less disingenuous than being explicit about an authour’s culpability and responsibility for the content of a piece? To be an honest or truthful work of non-fiction, does a piece have to be objective? Can it be objective? Do we automatically equate objectivity with objective truth? Correctness? Viable proof? Is the separation of object and subject just an illusion?
Look at the video below:
For some people (of a certain age and cultural background!) this is a familiar film from 1921. It is a depiction by Robert J Flaherty of the indiginous family of the eponymous ‘Nanook’ in the Canadian Arctic. I wish to avoid debating the cultural context, accuracy of and perspective of Robert J Flaherty’s vision, but focus instead on the very apparent ‘I’ in the author’s introduction. We are being shown a view of Nanook’s life though the author’s-eye-view which is made explicit throughout the piece. The lack of objectiveness is for me the most noteable element of the text and the film: Flaherty’s reference to Nanook as a friend – the ‘kindly, brave, simple eskimo’ and of his respect for the subject of his film. It says to me ‘this is what I have seen and this is how I interpreted it’ without an apparent awareness that anybody else might view the experience differently. But to me, the film never proports to be anything but a document of experience. Again I want to ask: is this any more or less dishonest/ truthful than a more deliberately objective film. Whether akcnowledged or not – the author is present in both ‘Nanook’ and ‘Trobriand Cricket‘, even if ‘he’ is well hidden.
So the second video in this post is from a (possibly hypothetical!) series called ‘Other Countries, Other Customs’. I interpreted it as an attempt to turn the camera on traditional anthropological study as a subject – turning the camera both outwards toward the viewer and inwards on the subject; this is what I understand as an example of post-modernism: in a way, ‘breaking the fourth wall’ as if the camera can see out as well as in. I must include the idea that any post-modern or culturally satirical understanding relies on the predicate that the viewer is familiar with the common tropes and cultural references common to the normalised western citizen in the subject matter. To somebody not understanding the references, this (to me) obvious satire could superficially appear to be a straight documentary, which I believe is intrinsic to it’s purpose as a peice of film with layered meaning. This method of using the peculiarities and idioms of a subject to throw a critical light inward upon itself is familiar to me though Armando Iannucci‘s many projects (often with Chris Morris): Time Trumpet, Brass Eye, Day Today, Jam, Blue Jam.
To return to the idea of objectivity: by framing something, you are putting the viewed object or subject on one side of the camera and the viewing subject on the other. If you accept that the general perception of a documentary’s purpose is the representation of facts (subjective or otherwise): I think that this provides the impression or supposition of the separateness of things, that the viewer is seeing an objective representation of a subject or object which exists in a different context to the one the viewer resides. There is also a question of whether the viewer really views the subject/ object as being ‘real’ in the same sense as the chair they are sitting on.
There are many ways that the preconceptions of factual material can be manipulated and I believe the complex relationship of western audiences to the media is one reason that the medium can be interpreted in such a way as to effect so many different reactions and conclusions depnding on the way it is used: again, Chris Moriss, Armando Iannucci and Adam Curtis come to mind.
The medium seems to me to create a paradigm, it creates a boundary, or the impression of a boundary. It forces us to separate ourselves from that which we are looking at. It also isolates and separates, pays particular attention to a particular thing, which surely will give us the impression of that thing’s importance (how many times have you seen a camera pan down at a sensitive moment to an interviewees wringing hands? The camera is emphasising meaning just by pointing at it – inversely could you emphasise meaning by what’s NOT on the camera: recall (or imagine) the final scene of Grizzly Man in which the main protagonist and his girlfriend is mauled to death by a Bear off-camera, leaving the viewer to imagine the scene from the remaining audio.
Research and the Third Person
So just looking at / framing/ attending to a problem or a phenomena or entity emphasises its importance and can change (or remove) context. So then we get back to the importance of context when framing, viewing and as a result, isolating a subject, object or phenomena. How important is what is outside/ behind/ around or within the ‘camera’?
Is writing in the third-person an explicit attempt to distance the author from the subject? Is it healthy to put objectivity on a pedestal and view subjectivity as somehow not evidential especially when it is possible to argue that pure objectivity is a construct? Does it promote healthy discourse to view a text as somehow a product of the conclusions indicated by the evidence and not as a subjective expression of opinion born from dilligent research and personal understanding? or is it somewhere inbetween?
You can have discourse with a person, but not with a text. Text can stimulate discourse: be produced from discourse and represent discourse – be a part of the mechanism of discourse. If you take a particularly structuralist view of language (as I understand it) you also believe that it consitutes and shapes discourse and understanding. Human beings/ Subjects, not objects, produce texts. Subjectivity reflects the bias, the complex web of influences and relationships between us and the subjective and/or objective world around us. Are we ourselves a product of a mixture of a subjective and objective world? Awareness of our subjections and the way they affect our conclusions is not being objective in the strictest sense of the word. Does our ability to get close to conclusive thoughts that reflect reality (any reality, objective or subjective) depend on skill? Understanding? Is education and knowledge aquisition the only way to refine a view of the world into something close to a reality and is aquiring knowledge the same as understanding? Is intellectual understanding enough or is an emotional, connective knowing – feeling needed: an assimilation into a full, practicable, inhabitable paradigm?
If we place ‘I’ at the centre of our research we are merely being honest about authorship – not removing the possibility of objection or an attempt at objective practice. ‘I’ created this text: this is ‘my’ view based on ‘these’ facts that ‘I’ understand in ‘this’ way. Can we circumvent our minds and objectify ‘outside’ of that which has been affected and shaped by our experiences? Well I can’t in any case! Although my transendental meditation is coming along in leaps and bounds!
This is how ‘I’ understand ‘these’ concepts!
- Objective perspective invective (demillsresearch.wordpress.com)
- Objective/Subjective (tbyrnesblog.wordpress.com)
- Subjectivity VS. Objectivity (ganzang21c.wordpress.com)
- Are a scientists’s observations subjective or objective? (jayscheurle.wordpress.com)
- Objective/Subjective/Environmental_Object_Study (joemcguiggin.wordpress.com)
- Subjective or Objective? (worldwithoutcorners.wordpress.com)
- Quick Write (dschung2.wordpress.com)