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Exposing yourself: Reflexivity, anthropology, and film (1)

Exposing yourself: Reflexivity, anthropology, and film (1)JAY RUBYSemiotica 30-1/2 (1980), pages. 153-179. (Note - original pagination has been preserved for citations purposes.)

Self-consciousness about modes of representation (not to speak of experiments with them) has been very lacking in anthropology.

(Geertz 1973:19)

In our profession there is a lack of awareness even today that, in searching for truth, the student, like all human beings whatever they try to accomplish, is influenced by tradition, by his environment, and by his personality. Further, there is an irrational taboo against discussing this lack of awareness. It is astonishing that this taboo is commonly respected leaving the social scientist in naivet about what he is doing.

(Myrdal 1969:4)

This paper is an attempt to explore the relationship between reflexivity, anthropology, and film.(2) To be more precise, I am interested in the implications of regarding these three terms in a particular way. I make no claim that the conceptualizations proposed are the only, or even the best, ones. Rather, I wish to argue that if one examines anthropology in terms of reflexivity, then film assumes a particular role in the communication of anthropology. To be reflexive, in terms of a work of anthropology, is to insist that anthropologists systematically and rigorously reveal their methodology and themselves as the instrument of data generation. Since it is possible to argue that narrative is the logical way to report ethnography, film as an inherently narrative medium (at least in our culture) has great potential as a mode of anthropological communication. Finally, to be logically consistent with the position that I espouse in this paper, I should reveal myself as producer and the process I employed in the construction of this work; that is, I should be reflexive about my ideas of reflexivity.

My interest in these ideas stems from what began as an elitist fascination with 'backstage' (Goffman 1959). I was convinced that if I could understand how someone made something and who they were, that that knowledge would cause me to become an 'insider'. In time, the interest broadened and became more sophisticated. It caused me to

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admire the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Tom Robbins, the music of Frank Zappa, the photography of Lee Friedlander and Duane Michaels, the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Woody Allen, the paintings of Rene Magritte, and the comedy of the Firesign Theatre and Monty Python. Whatever else these people may be doing, they are trying to raise the critical consciousness of their audiences by being publicly, explicitly, and openly self-aware or reflexive.

There are two other factors which figured in the development of my interest. For the past ten years I have been engaged in exploring the theoretical possibility of an anthropological cinema (Ruby 1971, 1975). During this process I discovered an apparent conflict between the scientific necessity for the anthropologist to reveal his methodology and the conventions of documentary film, which until recently have virtually prohibited such a revelation. In seeking a solution to this dilemma, I was drawn to the literature on reflexivity. In 1974, during the Conference on Visual Anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia, I organized a series of film screenings and discussions on autobiographical, personal, and self-referential films. (3) In doing so, I began in a more formal and systematic way to explore the relationship between what I am now calling reflexive film and reflexive anthropology.

Finally, like many anthropologists, I have felt a progressively widening ethical, political, and conceptual gap between the anthropology that I learned in graduate school and the world as I have come to know it. Among the wedges, I would note the publication of Malinowski's diary (1969) and the public disclosure of the clandestine use of social scientists in Latin America and Southeast Asia. These revelations produced a crisis of conscience and loss of innocence for many of us which placed our personal dilemma about the role of the researcher in research into moral and political perspective (Hymes 1969). It should be difficult if not impossible now for us to continue to defend our naive assumptions about our responsibilities toward the people we study and toward the intended audiences for our work. We should stop being 'shamans of objectivity'. After Viet Nam, it is an obscene and dishonest position.

It should be obvious by now that I am partisan. I strongly believe that all serious filmmakers and anthropologists have ethical, aesthetic, and scientific obligations to be reflexive and self-critical about their work. I would, in fact, expand that mandate to include anyone who uses a symbolic system for any reason.

Lest the reader be led to believe that what follows is some hackneyed political and moralizing sermon on the sins of objectivity and value-free science, I wish to reassure them that, having exposed myself sufficiently to make everyone aware of the motivation for this paper, I will now attempt

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a more reasoned argument for a reflexive anthropology as the basis for an anthropological cinema.

One final point should be made in these introductory remarks-the ideas espoused in this paper are clearly not idiosyncratic to me, nor for that matter to film or anthropology. Being reflexive or publicly self-aware is becoming almost commonplace in every communicative form (4) in our society, from so-called high art to television commercials. While this is not the time or the place to attempt a survey of the various manifestations of reflexivity within our society, a brief mention of some of the more obvious might be in order.

I believe they are to be found in the growing realization that the world is not what it appears to be, and that on a very serious and commonsense level what you don't know will, and often does, hurt you. People now want to know who made it and what the ingredients are before they will buy anything-aspirin, cars, television news, or education. We no longer trust the producers to be people of good will. Ralph Nader, the consumer protection movement, financial disclosures by political figures, and the truth in lending and truth in advertising laws are all part of this felt need. The naive empiricism which pervaded our society and dominated nineteenth-century social science is being eroded. We seem to be moving away from the positivist notion that meaning resides in the world and that human beings should strive to discover the inherent, immutable, and objectively true reality (Stent 1975). We are beginning to assume that human beings construct and impose meaning on the world. We create order. We don't discover it. Reflexivity is becoming an almost taken-for-granted concept.

ReflexivityAnyone who recognizes that self-reflection, as mediated linguistically, is integral to the characterization of human social conduct, must acknowledge that such holds also for his own activities as a social 'analyst', 'researcher', etc. (Giddens 1976:8)

Before it is possible to discuss potential relationships between reflexivity and anthropology and cinema, it is essential that my usage of the term be precisely stated, particularly since the term is used in a variety of contexts to mean different things. To begin, let us use terms borrowed from Fabian's article, 'Language, anthropology and history'(1971)-producer, process, and product. By producer I simply mean the sender of a message: the creator of the sign. By process, I mean the means, methods, channel, etc., whereby the message is shaped, encoded, and sent. The product is, of

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course, the text-what the receiver gains. I am deliberately using general terms because it serves as a reminder that the issues raised are not confined to the cinema or social sciences, even though the paper may be.

To be reflexive is to conceive of the production of communicative statements thusly:

Producer ProcessProduct

(Author's 1997 comment - What is missing in this diagram and in the entire article is a concern with the audience. While I cannot rewrite the entire article, I can point out the rather embarrassing oversight.)and to suggest that knowledge of all three components is essential for a critical and sophisticated understanding.

It is further necessary to distinguish between reflexivity and several other terms which are sometimes used as synonyms-autobiography, self-reference, and self-consciousness.

In an autobiographical work, while the producer-the self-is the center of the work, he can be unselfconscious in the presentation of the autobiography. The author clearly has had to be self-conscious in the process of making the product (i.e., the autobiography), but it is possible for him to keep that knowledge private and simply follow the established conventions of that genre. To be reflexive is not only to be self-conscious, but to be aufficiently self-conscious to know what aspects of self it is necessary to reveal to an audience so that they are able to understand the process employed, as well as the resultant product, and to know that the revelation itself is purposive, intentional, and not merely narcissistic or accidentally revealing.

Self-reference, on the other hand, is not autobiographical or reflexive. It is the allegorical or metaphorical use of self. For example, let us think of Francois Truffaut's films, 400 Blows and Day for Night, or Janis Ian's song, Stars. The maker's life in these works becomes symbolic of some sort of collective-all filmmakers, all pop stars, and sometimes- everyman. It is popularly assumed that self-reference occurs in virtually all art for