TEXTUAL INTERPRETATION VERSUS VISUAL DOCUMENTATION - IN FAVOUR OF OBJECTIVITY?

Judith Beyer wrote:
Photography and Ethnography
Since its invention in 1839, photography has regularly been used in anthropology
in a variety of ways and with changing intentions; but the discipline’s handling of the
medium has still not reached full maturity. Anthropology still remains first and
foremost a science of words (Mead 1975).....Pictures are simply used as aids in presentations, or in publications merely as »support« for academic texts...... anthropologists were indeed interested in the visual, but had no idea what to do with it (MacDougall 2006)....photography has remained a blind spot for anthropology (Barbara Wolbert)....anthropologists are concerned to keep the origins of their texts, their local fieldwork, and their relationships with the local population away from the public (Wolbert 1998).

This is a very important OAC-section! But, I think there is a further point: the objectivity of photographs in the scientific sense.

Example: I studied something in the domain of ethnology which conventionally had been verbally characterised in the framework of religion by missionaries worldwide over centuries: primitively made "fetishes" interpreted as "primitive religion".

Instead of exclusively asking the local people what they think about these objects, I rather used photography and technical drawings to represent the materials in my books on this topic. The result: these constructions made with flexible plant materials (or "semantic architecture", as they are called in the system of "architectural anthropology") are highly complex in their functions as territorio-legal archives of the local hegemony of the settlement founder house (they are cyclically renewed, maybe over hundreds of years!). They also can be understood as an elementary type of aesthetics which served as a model for cognition of natural forms and for the aesthetic creation of material culture. They can also be understood as the stimulus for a cyclic time consciousness, for the origins of ritual activity (renewal of demarcation). Evidently the technical 'primitivism' hints to a high age of the tradition: I consider these traditions still widespread in Japanese villages as the "creators" of sedentary life, agrarian production and traditional village culture. "Religion" then might have been produced by the cultural efficiency of the artful object and its implications regarding the spatial organisation of neolithic settlements.

My most extended study of 100 villages in central Japan (Omihachiman region, Shiga prefecture) is full of photographs (and drawings) that is: visual documentation! The visual documentation was consciously used as a contrast to the "spiritual" interpretation of the missionaries educated in Eurocentric "metaphysics". One of the important aspects of this study is to show that the incapacity of Euro/Western Humanities to create an objective science of continuity between history and prehistory created an absolutely non-scientific value system ('urban-rural dichotomy, or 1st/3rd world) which dramatically influences our ways to organise things on the global level. in this framework 'textual interpretation versus visual documentation gains great importance in regard to a potential gain of scientific objectivity.

Best Regards,

Nold Egenter

___________________
In case somebody is interested:
Nold Egenter: Semantic and Symbolic Architecture. An architectural-ethnological survey into 100 villages of central Japan. 250 p., over 1000 ill., ISBN: 3-905451-02-6 / Structura Mundi, Lausanne, 1995
(CHF 80.- / 67.-US$ s'mail incl.) [30%+mail]

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Replies to This Discussion

The documentation that Noel provides is, I would argue, of vital importance, allowing as it does subsequent generations of scholars to see the actual evidence on which generalizations are based. I recall vividly a long-ago evening when I was showing slides of photographs taken during the rituals that I had studied in Taiwan to a physicist friend with whom I had been discussing my research. "I never imagined it looked like that," he said. My attempt at a meticulous description of what I had seen had failed utterly to convey a concrete image against which my analysis could then be checked.
Dear Jokk MickCrousy

would you please do me the favour to clean your glasses? Since you are an adherent of "the word works" I can not assume that you are not able to read...!
Hello,

In response to Nold Egenter’s message Textual interpretation versus visual documentation - in favour of objectivity, I first of all want to thank him for leading me into the field of what he calls “architectural anthropology”.

As a sociocultural anthropologist with lifelong research and fieldwork on Saharan and North African children’s play and toy cultures I flirted somewhat with (social) semiotics and wrote on ‘signs, meanings and communication’ in these children’s games and toys. If interested, I shall send the chapters on these topics in my books to email addresses that will be mentioned here.

I would never have thought to call children’s toys “semantic architecture” but the following description offered by Nold applies almost completely to Moroccan children’s toys and their play activities with these toys, and with the way I am using photographs in this context: “Instead of exclusively asking the local people what they think about these objects, I rather used photography and technical drawings to represent the materials in my books on this topic. The result: these constructions made with flexible plant materials (or "semantic architecture", as they are called in the system of "architectural anthropology") are highly complex in their functions as territorio-legal archives of the local hegemony of the settlement founder house (they are cyclically renewed, maybe over hundreds of years!). They also can be understood as an elementary type of aesthetics which served as a model for cognition of natural forms and for the aesthetic creation of material culture”.

In my books, articles and PowerPoint presentations (see www.sanatoyplay.org) I try to link textual interpretation with visual documentation. Although in my view the textual interpretation as well as the building up of a visual documentation remains a subjective undertaking, I agree with Nold that ‘visual documentation gains great importance in regard to a potential gain of scientific objectivity’. Using my own and other scholars’ photographs and designs on toys and play activities of Tunisian Sahara and Moroccan children together with a textual description offers great advantages.

The historical approach to Saharan and North African children’s play and toy cultures that I integrate in my work shows that another statement of Nold concerning sociocultural manifestations as “territorio-legal archives of the local hegemony of the settlement founder house (they are cyclically renewed, maybe over hundreds of years)” also applies to children’s toys and games. The longest link I could attest runs over a period of thousands of years. About this exceptional continuity in toys representing animals I wrote in 2005: “A remarkable African example of continuity in toy design based on the spatial and temporal distribution of toy animals in clay, especially a type of toy animal modelled with the two front legs assembled in one leg, proves that next to modernity there also exist permanent features lasting for centuries or even thousands of years” (Rossie JP., 2005, Saharan and North African Play and Toy Cultures. The animal world in play, games and toys, p. 142).

I surely am interested to find out if children’s toys and their play activities can be seen as “semantic architecture” in the meaning as defined by Nold and will appreciate comments and suggestions that help me to go further with this new approach.

Best greetings,

Jean-Pierre Rossie.
Saharan - North African - Amazigh Toy and Play Cultures
http://www.sanatoyplay.org sanatoyplay@gmail.com

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