"Are Words More Powerful Than Pictures?"
Yes, it's loosely a romantic story between an artist and a poet. Yes, I had been shamelessly looking on Prime for a new romcom earlier this afternoon. But no, this movie is not a romcom. It has a brilliant screenplay by Gerald DiPego, and a wonderful, poignant message on the importance of creativity, passion, and teaching.
One such word at the center of Jack and Dina's friendly feud is hyperemotionality. As the storyline advanced, I took this word to relate to the exceptional emotional response inspired by evocative artwork, prose, and poetry. While watching the movie, I had to press pause so I could reflect. Already, my mind was recalling the wonder, surprise, laughter, and gloom I've experienced in reading ethnographic encounters.
From Geertz' thick description of the Balinese cock fight, to Ochs and Schieffelin's account of communication among mothers and their children in Samoa. In ethnography, there's not so much a rivalry between words and pictures, as a combining of these into imagery that recreates lived experience for those of us who were never there. Just like the painted canvas or stanza are crafted to draw audiences into the artist's own worldview.
These days, I'm more and more fascinated by ethnographic writing and creation, because I'm pulling together my very own first book, Zombies Speak Swahili. So now I want to share developing reflections on experimental ethnography as an artistic and cinematic exploration in creation.
Art is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known.
The Process & Experience of Creation
Dina had been telling her student, "It's the work. It's about the process." And all I could think was that she was right. Though I'm not much of a painter or sculptor, I create through ethnographic writing and video. Even so, I believe it's the process of creating that lends so much introspection and growth. Through these outlets I attempt to assemble words and pictures into a vivid and compelling invitation into the lives of others. In fact, when we write ethnographically, we are crafting deliberate images that are both stylistic and analytic.
Anthropologists, including Malinowski, have likened ethnography to cinematic creation, where fieldwork--our longitudinal self-transformations and those of people we meet--provides the stuff of our human-centered stories. Back in March, I attended a workshop on experimental ethnography at Princeton with folks from anthropology, religion, and other fields. The evening featured an intimate discussion with three people endeavoring to transmit new ontologies to the page, 35 mm, or mp3.
- Jen Heuson and Kevin T. Allen, of the filmmaking collective Small Gauge Ltd.
- Anand Pandian, author of Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation.
I live-tweeted the workshop because I was feeling so inspired by the discussion. There were three memorable takeaways about challenges in the creation of experimental ethnography:
- "Fidelity to experience": That as ethnographers we constantly struggle with recapitulating our observations and lived experiences into transformative writing and film for audiences.
- "Broken tools": How sometimes we can learn from moments in the field we deem as imperfect. When audio and video recorders fail to work or interviews don't go so well, this could present an opportunity to decouple and de-sync our expected understandings in search of a new ontology and path to non-linearity.
- "Intrinsic weirdness": There's an intrinsic weirdness to this discipline, in that we are constantly trying to reproduce for others the experiences we find transformative and enlightening.
Bottom-line, words, pictures, and the process of creation are what connect art and ethnography. As creators, we have to be attuned to the pragmatics of our audiences. We also have to be deft users of language and imagery so that we can tell stories in ways that invite the most impact and foster hyperemotionality. We must ask ourselves, are we willing to go further?
So now I leave you with this final question: