In The Writing of History, Michel de Certeau explores ethnographic writing across four centuries, beginning in the mid 1500s. He finds in ethnology a field that exiles orality from Western culture and transforms speech into an exotic object. In other words, ethnology maps the division between the West and the ethnographic subject onto the division between writing and speech. The West writes; the non-West speaks. De Certeau’s work here is startling insofar as it excavates such a deep history for the rift between ethnographic writing and speech. This division is foundational. It gives shape to ethnography’s binaristic taxonomies (here/there, us/them, etc). It makes ethnographic writing and thinking possible, while privileging the position—the one who writes—which manufactures the distinction. De Certeau argues,
“On the one hand, writing accumulates, it keeps an inventory of secrets from the West, it loses nothing. Writing is an archive. On the other hand, writing declares, it goes to the end of the world, toward those destined to receive it—and without budging an inch, without having the center of its actions moved, without any change in it through its progress.”
Writing accumulates the past and declares in advance. Here, de Certeau frames writing as an expression of force. Those who write can accumulate and control archives. And those who write determine what gets said about those who speak before they ever actually encounter them. The division between writing and speech—along with its attendant associations with civility and primitivity, culture and nature—precedes any encounter with the unfamiliar. Put another way: ethnographic writing produces the history of the expedition before any explorers ever set sail.
Although ethnography exerts tremendous force through writing, its seemingly monolithic powers are disturbed in its encounters with speech. Here, ethnography and historiography part ways. Ethnography must communicate something of the present, of living bodies and cultures, of its languages and sounds. In Jean de Léry’s Histoire d’un voyage (1578), which de Certeau explores in his research, the sounds of language and the tenor of an unfamiliar voice trouble coherent narrative time. De Certeau writes that “productive time is sewn back into the fabric, history is generated anew, after the break when ‘totally ravished’, fascinated by the other’s voice, the observer forgot himself.”
Across ethnographic writing, the sounds of song, chanting, and speech operate as signs of inexplicable otherness, condensations of exoticism, bodily pleasure, and wild primitivity. In this way, ethnographic writing incessantly gestures toward a remainder, an excess, an outside that it necessarily excludes and from which it is excluded. The sounds and speech that it cannot re-present. The voice at the center of a subject that we cannot hear. For De Certeau, these eruptions of voice overwhelm the listener with meaningless vibrations. He writes, “The act of enunciation is senseless. It partakes of orgasm. […] The voice emits a speech lacking truths, a presence that cannot be possessed.” The voice operates as a site of immaterial resistance to the imperialism of writing. Whereas the object beheld by the eye can be written, the voice heard by the ear draws our attention to what escapes. In short, the voice cannot be put into words.
Derrida offers us a precise concept for understanding the destabilizing encounter that unfolds between ethnographic writing and speech. He calls it supplementarity. In his 1966 lecture, “Structure Sign and Play,” Derrida traces the first structural rupture across the discipline of ethnology. He writes that ethnology “could have been born as a science only at the moment when European culture had been dislocated, driven from its locus, and forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference.” For Derrida, ethnology contains the seed of its own undoing. It takes clear structural differences (us and them, Europe and elsewhere) as first and essential conditions for scientific investigation and then proceeds to trouble those differences, travel between them, and blur the space that separates them. These initial, fundamental dislocations disrupts the stability of ethnography’s organizing structures.
All forms of ethnographic practice—be they written or visual—emerge out of this necessary and initial movement away from the structure, its center, what Derrida describes as the constant of presence. Text upon text, image upon image, ethnography tries to represent that which is always and already absent from its center and present somewhere else: the actual ethnographic subject, in propria persona. In these endless cycles of representation, Derrida perceives the process ofsupplementarity at work and an invigorating field of freeplay. In ethnology, one leaves the center to chase after the periphery, one supplements the living, breathing, speaking self outside with writing, photographs, cinema. In ethnography, one also loses precise disciplinary tools for a system of inadequate and imprecise substitutions. One writes what one hears. One films what cannot be seen. One takes what one can get and puts it all on screen.
The concepts of supplementarity, in general, and ethnographic voice or sound, in particular, invite us to rethink the instabilities of early ethnographic cinema. Visual ethnography has long been described as a supplement. Visual anthropologist Karl Heider most famously used the term to demote ethnographic cinema to a kind of second-order ethnographic practice. Heider writes, “No ethnographic film can stand by itself. An ethnography is a written work which may be supplemented by film.” Bringing Derrida and Heider together: early ethnographic cinema is inscribed within a two-fold process of supplementarity and free-play. It supplements the bodies and landscapes it aims to represent. It also supplements ethnographic writing. As a practice of secondary and vaguely defined utility, early ethnographic cinema welcomes the unexpected and the contingent in a way that its written complement actively tries to sew over. They contribute an order of displacement and decentering to a set of practices that are always and already operating on unstable ground. Put another way: these films do not have any obligations to coherence. As the visual supplement to the written supplement, they are the unnecessary extra, the imprecise something else. But in their shapeless imprecision, they show us the imprecision that has been there all along, lingering beneath the authority of the written word.
Early ethnographic cinema does not fill in the gaps of what remains unsaid. These films do not complete the evidentiary ethnographic whole. Rather, what we find across early ethnographic filmmaking is a field of freeplay, drawn to the noises and voices that cannot be put into words. Indeed, this silent cinema operates as a repository for the sensory excesses that disrupt written ethnographies with inarticulable and untranslatable pleasures. These films are condensations of feeling and flesh, dancing bodies and body parts. And, most importantly, in the silence that stretches across the dances and music making of the early ethnographic images, these films remind us of their own boundaries, of the voices and sounds that we still cannot hear.