2017 Visual Anthropology Essay

How might visual anthropology contribute to a growing public anthropology?

When addressing a question like this, poor speculation about sociology and art require some sort of reflexive framework to ensure theoretic process is kept grounded. The path that provides the least amount of conjecture, is having a strong understanding of visual anthropological and historical knowledge of technology. Hindsight becomes a problem when technological breakthroughs are understood through the consumption and creation of publicly accessible equipment that are looked at and analysed mostly for their application and role as a corporate product. It is difficult to separate notions of taste, financial investment, and personal usage from technology as a whole, which means it is therefore difficult to understand broader sociological forms applied to these technologies. But these personal biases also allow us to critically analyse current technological effects on anthropology, and allow us to know how public use functions. In this essay, I will examine case studies, and investigate how public anthropology is influenced by visual anthropology.

First, exploring well documented technological impact on anthropology will provide a starting point of experience. The essay The Social Dynamics of Video Media in an Indigenous Society: The Cultural Meaning and the Personal Politics of Video–making in Kayapo Communities explores the impacts of providing video equipment to the Kayapo community in Brazil. The impacts explored range from the direct social impacts like how the indigenous population both consumed and created media, how the role of power structures within the communities themselves were impacted, and subsequently impacted Kayapo anthropology. Terence Turner discusses how Kayapo appropriated the visual medium, and used it to profit off their own exoticisation by the West, and used the technology to publicise Western exploitation of their local environment by loggers, miners, and most famously the Belo Monte Dam. Turner discusses how the use of video equipment became privileged to those at the top of power structures within Kayapo communities, and the exclusivity led to the decrease in consumption, as well as cultural capital being earned.

This instance considers the public anthropology of an indigenous community reacted to colonisation and participating in their own visual anthropology. The act of taking the camera from the Western anthropologist, and turning it on themselves is analyzed in this essay as the “process of cultural self-definition and mobilization as embodied in the concrete medium of video recording” (Turner, Terencer 1991:70) but it allows us to also see a development of visual anthropology, and the impacts on public anthropology in a significantly documented process. This description of the process shows us people documenting themselves not for the same reasons Western anthropologists pursue, but for political reasons, and for the enjoyment it. The medium of visual anthropology had been indigenised. Unfortunately as this piece of academia was written in 1991, there is no due analysis by Turner of the contributions of visual anthropology within Kayapo communities in the last 30 years. The interpretive approach would be valuable to understanding the contributions the essay questions is asking about.

This case of visual anthropology has little impact from Western habitus and cultural knowledge of visual media in terms of both technology and media culture in general. Looking at more recent cases of self-observation and media produced from understandings of visual media could provide us with an opposite result and insight into understandings of anthropological contributions. Another case worth looking is the 2005 British sitcom Nathan Barley. The television show was created by cultural critic and satirist Chris Morris. The titular character is a satirical exaggeration of a wealthy East London urbanite, and in this case a DJ, webmaster, scriptwriter, and filmmaker. Or as the man himself puts it, a “self-facilitating media node” (Nathan Barley, 2005). He is the embodiment of the Shoreditch Twat (Twiki-wiki-piki, 2005:Urban Dictionary) stereotype, and originates from show Charlie Brooker’s media parody website TVGoHome (Brooker, 2003). The show is revolves around around Barley’s media pursuits through his website http://www.trashbat.co.ck/ (pronounced ‘trashbat dot cock’) and his interactions with the protagonist of the show, Dan Ashcroft, who acts as the quasi-nemesis, but rational character. Ashcroft is a social critic, and works for a Vice-esque infotainment website commenting on pop culture, and the of media on society. Or in other words, visual anthropology and its contributions. Ashcroft is the author of what he believes to be a scathing denunciation of the emerging self-absorbed idiotic pop culture landscape” (Metzger, Richard 2015). The show starts off with a spoken reading of Ashcroft’s fictional essay/pop culture diatribe called “The Rise Of The Idiots” (Nathan Barley, 2005) set to the visuals of Nathan Barley and his antics, perfectly in sync with Ashcroft’s observations. Nathan Barley, and many other characters Dan Ashcroft sets out to criticise in his essay, are the very ones who are consuming and enjoying it. Frustratingly validating his point.

“The idiots are self-regarding consumer slaves, oblivious to the paradox of their uniform individuality. They sculpt their hair to casual perfection. They wear their waistbands below their balls. They babble into handheld twit machines about that cool email of the woman being bummed by a wolf. Their cool friend made it. He’s an idiot too. Welcome to the age of stupidity. Hail The Rise of the Idiots.” (Nathan Barley, 2005)

Throughout the series and endeavours into media culture critique, Dan Ashford gets increasingly upset at the people he is attacking, and comes to the sudden realization that in all his efforts to understand, and dissect the anthropology of the idiots, he has become an idiot himself. This sitcom is valuable to the discussion and speculation about visual anthropology’s direction not only because of the critiques it offers in its own content, but in the hindsight and contextual aging of the television show itself, we can see visual anthropological changes and social engagement with media culture in a very specific way. The journal PEACE AND FUCKING. BELIEVE: ‘NATHAN BARLEY’ AND THE RISE OF THE IDIOTS by Richard Metzger points out that Nathan Barley aired 4 before the launch of YouTube, which sets the tone perfectly, by inadvertently contextualising YouTube content to a que. Barley’s prank videos hosted on http://www.trashbat.co.ck/ perfectly mirror mean-spirited YouTube prank videos by OckTV (MoeAndET, 2014:YouTube), whose logos graphic earned them the channel the alias Cock TV. This coincidence embodies the social critique offered by Nathan Barley’s visual anthropology, and the hindsight offers us an understanding that could be easily accessible by public anthropology.

Going into this research, I thought that exploring Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human would be an interesting way to examine the impact of visual anthropology on public anthropology. The problem with the case studied in this book is that as much as it is a great representation of visual anthropology, it is a self-confined case study, much like the Terence Turner paper on the Kayapo community and their appropriation of video media. The game discussed in the essay Second Life is not a great representation of the wider community of online video game players that it seems to be about, as the user base is diminishing and the core concept of the game being a virtual world, rather than a game. Much like the Kayapo case study, this is not exactly solipsistic, as the impact of the visual media studied is international, but it still does not provide direct evidence to the contributions on public anthropology.

Besides the case studied, interesting perspectives about visual anthropology are provided by Tom Boellstorff. The discourse surrounding virtual worlds and their impact on society is explored in the book, with research into the history of virtual worlds and video game communities. This academia verges on the anthropology of place or architecture, as Tom Boellstorff makes the point that virtual worlds are a separate place, and part of the ‘real world’ as the medium does not invalidate the experience. Ethical issues surrounding copyright law and nation are brought to the forefront of innovative anthropological thought. One anecdote explains that Second Life avatar haircut designs are being stolen, and causing people to lose money raising questions about intellectual property and the legal responsibility of the game designers. All issues relevant to public anthropology. In one instance, the developers of Second Life decided to obey a German Age of Consent-related photography law, that does not exist in many other countries of which Second Life users come from. Tom Boellstorff makes the point that there are players from countries where it is illegal to be homosexual, and following them in a similar way to the German laws would be due process with the same logic. Agency is another aspect of public anthropology talked about in regards to virtual worlds as the factor of anonymity means that multiple people could be controlling one avatar, or one person could be controlling multiple avatar. Romantic relationships are formed inside a virtual world that have interesting anthropological connotations similar to love-letters, where in which people can form romantic relationships without ever seeing one-anothers face. These are all issues that surround visual anthropology, and give us ideas of what contributions could shape public anthropology.

In the process of this investigation, I really wanted to include research into mimetics and internet meme culture, but for some reason, finding academic papers about meme culture from the last few years has proven difficult. I found a book by anthropologist Michael Taussig called Mimesis and Alterity  (Taussig, 1993) which is about cultural transmission, and the way in which multiple cultures adapt and assimilate from one another. These notions address ethnographic accounts as representations of cultural transmission, and I think this would serve as a great starting point for further research into internet meme culture. Perhaps an academic lens from 1993 defeats the purpose of understanding meme culture, and observations based on personal bias and experience as discussed in this essay’s introduction can allow for a better investigation. For example, looking at the corporatization of the musical genre vaporwave could allow us insight into post-irony so prevalent in public anthropology and cultural observations, or looking at the most highly publicised event relating with visual anthropology and political response might be helpful for this investigation.

Looking at the involvement of memes in the 2016 United States presidential election offers insight into the commodification and appropriation of memes as a tool by neoliberal and alt-right political movements. Our understanding of visual ethnography can contribute to seeing how political discourse functions this way. The understanding and prior knowledge seems as though it is required contextual evidence, and that makes it harder to debate public anthropological contribution, but nethertheless, I think it would still be accurate to say that the main visual anthropological aspects are widely known by the public. We can speculate the public anthropological thought was greatly affected by the piece of visual anthropology despite general understandings or agreement. From personal bias and understanding, Pepe the Frog was an innocuous ‘dead meme’ long before Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast released an article calling the meme a symbol of White Supremacy (Nuzzi, May 26 2016). Soon after Hillary Clinton’s campaign took notice of this, and turned it into a weaponised utility to manipulate the Overton Window, and the alt-right responded by actually appropriating the image undeservedly prescribed to them. After many CNN videos and liberal media responses contributed to turning the meme into a hate-symbol, the sources for Olivia Nuzzi’s article stated “Basically, I interspersed various nuggets of truth and exaggerated a lot of things, and sometimes outright lied — in the interest of making a journalist believe that online Trump supporters are largely a group of meme-jihadis who use a cartoon frog to push Nazi propaganda. Because this was funny to me.” (Bennet, September 15 2016) The part of this that fascinates me the most, is that even though there was proof that it the original reporting was wrong, and the years of the meme existing beforehand without its White Supremist connection, it was transformed into a hate symbol by a combined effort of Hillary Clinton’s campaign weaponizing liberal conjecture and alt-right appropriation of something handed to them.

This case involves a facet of visual anthropology being manipulated by power structures, and resulting in social change. The Overton Window being weaponized by visual anthropology is an interesting topic, and if I were to do this essay again, I would have explored more into it. Looking at meme culture in a more broad sense would have been a great way to understand the contributions of visual anthropology on public anthropology as well, as it is broad in outreach and context.

Visual anthropology is a study of how culture and art can perform phenomenological processes, and these processes manipulate and change our understanding of anthropology. The study is fluid and changing like the rest of anthropological thought, and hopefully looking at it in a broader, more abstract way can reveal many different facets to how people act. Researching these case-studies has shown me that the varied contributions to public anthropology are changing.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jonah. “Here’s How Two Twitter Pranksters Convinced The World That Pepe The Frog Meme Is Just A Front For White Nationalism.” The Daily Caller. September 15, 2016. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://dailycaller.com/2016/09/14/heres-how-two-twitter-pranksters-convinced-the-world-that-pepe-the-frog-meme-is-just-a-front-for-white-nationalism/.

Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of age in Second Life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Brooker, Charlie. “TV Go Home.” TV Go Home. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://www.tvgohome.com/.

Metzger, Richard . “Peace and fucking. Believe: ‘Nathan Barley’ and the rise of the idiots.” Dangerous Minds. May 05, 2015. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://dangerousminds.net/comments/peace_and_fucking._believe_nathan_barley_and_the_rise_of_the_idiots.

MoeAndET. Directed by Mohammed Bradberry and Etayyim Bradberry. YouTube. March 1, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/user/TheOckShow.

Morris, Chris, and Charlie Brooker, writers. Nathan Barley. Channel 4. February 11, 2005.

Nuzzi, Olivia. “How Pepe the Frog Became a Nazi Trump Supporter and Alt-Right Symbol.” The Daily Beast. May 26, 2016. Accessed October 19, 2017. https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-pepe-the-frog-became-a-nazi-trump-supporter-and-alt-right-symbol.

Taussig, Michael T. Mimesis and alterity: a particular history of the senses. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2017.

Triple Zed. “OckTV / MoeAndET.” Know Your Meme. September 29, 2017. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/people/ocktv-moeandet.

Turner, Terence. “The Social Dynamics of Video Media in an Indigenous Society: The Cultural Meaning and the Personal Politics of Video–making in Kayapo Communities.” Visual Anthropology Review 7, no. 2 (September 1991): 68-76. doi:10.1525/var.1991.7.2.68.

Twiki-wiki-piki. “Shoreditch twat.” Urban Dictionary. March 15, 2005. Accessed October 19, 2017. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Shoreditch twat.