Fact and truth, text and body

Is film a viable medium for communicating scholarly knowledge? Such is the question driving the Seminar in Visual Ethnography that John Jackson (informally) co-teaches with Professor Stanton Wortham in the Graduate School of Education. I attended the class yesterday to see a friend of mine, Noam Osband, guest lecture. Noam is a doctoral candidate in anthropology and has successfully lobbied the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to accept a filmic dissertation. If film can serve as a means of communicating ethnography – and as Noam sees it, a unique and inherently valuable medium for such endeavors – how does one strike the perfect chord between fact and truth, didacticism and lyricism, knowledge and poetics?

Striving toward such a balance guides Noam’s work. In class, he presented snippets of ethnographic films by Margaret Mead, Ray Birdwhistell, and Robert Gardner, the latter of whom serving as a benchmark for excellence in ethnographic film making. And fairly so. That Gardner’s films convey poetically theoretical and conceptual advances alongside factual information is undeniable. They are a welcome departure from the didactic portrayals of Mead’s Bathing Babies in Three Cultures or Birdwhistell’s Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos, both of which are films that relay what are merely anthropological facts. Gardner’s Dead Birds and Rivers of Sand, on the other hand, lyrically communicate meaning alongside truth, and speak to more than simply the will to knowledge. Indeed, they are important and artful texts within the canon of ethnographic film.

But there it is again, that word – “text”. We are compelled to liken scholarly film to text by virtue of textual hegemony within the academy. This, truly, is the heart of the matter –how to justify within academia the value of sensory excess, all that which cannot be captured in text, as worthwhile scholarly endeavors: simultaneity, excess, nonverbal communication, emotion, affect, timbre, convergence – in sum, the body. What place has art, the traditional placeholder for textual surplus and the body, within the communicative faculties of the ivory tower?

Noam gets at this by borrowing Werner Herzog’s concept of “ecstatic truth,” a phrase coined while arguing for the “fictions” that the auteur chooses to include within his documentaries: something may be factually wrong, but truthful and ecstatically so. Ecstatic truth refers to the irrational, the corporeal excesses that distinguish film from texts. But these excesses are also the barriers that work against the prospect that film might be a worthwhile medium for conveying academic knowledge. The culture of the academy has for so long foreclosed the idea that “theory” is found in combinations of words, not images and sounds. But there is hope. For if it is true that we are in the midst of an “affective turn” in the humanities, wherein nonrepresentational theories give scholarly purchase to the nondiscursive, shouldn’t we then be considering the notion that film might be the only medium with which to portray such ecstatic knowledge?

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The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists.
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