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.” Continue reading


Danses de Dogons (1910s, Ministère des Colonies, France)  

A first step.  This is a short film from the American Museum of Natural History’s visual archives.  The film presents a series of dances from the Dogon tribe in the central plateau region of Mali, Africa. The film engages the body, its physicality and force, the minutiae of its movements, and the surface of its skin.  The film reads as raw, unedited footage.  A haphazard assortment of shots, united only in their representation of unfamiliar Malinese in motion.  It is, by any measure, a frenetic and unstructured series of moving bodies and body parts, perhaps most keenly exemplified by the representation of a cartwheeling dancer over and over again.  He cycles through his routine three times before the camera inexplicably retreats. Concentrated as it is on the Dionysian energy of dance, this film communicates a kind of no-place-and-time.  The film goes nowhere, means nothing on its own.  The concluding title, “fin,” is laughably unexpected.  Nothing has finished or really even begun.  The film seems a mistake, a failure, a supplement to some other, more meaningful ethnographic practice.

I have been thinking and writing about this short film for a couple of weeks now.  It is at once an excellent example of early ethnographic cinema and a film that presents the very problem of ethnographic examples.  No part can stand in for the whole. Ethnographic films are joined in radical difference, contingency, disorder, failure.

The AMNH library catalogue includes a brief description of the film:

“The dances of the Dogon in Mali are the focus of this film. Three distinctive dances are highlighted. First, a simple dance is performed by women clothed in bandanas, long shirts and skirts. The next dance is an energetic circular cartwheel dance performed by a group dressed in skirts of leather strips. The last performance is a fast parade of dancers wearing kanaga masks. The film ends with a beggar impersonating a sorcerer.  It is unfortunate that the image is blurred in this print of the film.”

Buoyed by the anonymity and authority of the library catalogue, this description imposes a kind of narrative order.  Save perhaps its inclusion of the curious beggar/sorcerer figure, this brief text creates a coherence that the actual film simply lacks.  Yet the text concludes with an unexpected editorial remark that betrays the aims of an archive.  It describes the blurred quality of the image as unfortunate, inviting a number of questions: What would we have gained by clarifying the focus of the image?  What gets lost in the poor transfer that was not already ambiguous from the start?  The catalogue description gestures toward historical origins and model images.  It insists that this film could be useful or valuable, if only we could see more or better.   But the blur seems only to buttress the form and content of the image, the rendundancies and mysteries that stream across its three minutes’ time, or perhaps the time code haphazardly stamped on the digital transfer.