Saturday, September 12, 2009


This is a guest post by Freya Schiwy, author of Indianizing Film: Decolonization, the Andes, and the Question of Technology. Here she responds to my earlier discussion of her book.

To begin, I would like to thank Jon for reading and commenting on my book Indianizing Film. His reflections offer initial, generous appreciation of Indianizing Film and then suggest some critical disagreements with the methodology and theoretical focus of my study. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.

There is a wide-spread, sometimes unquestioned assumption that research on contemporary indigenous peoples belongs to the domain of anthropology, or at least that it should be informed by its methodologies and critical concerns: extensive field research in one local site and a focus on changes and forms of identity formation. The social sciences, particularly political sciences, have also staked out a claim on studying indigenous movements, frequently in relation to the state and to global institutions. The methodology here does not require extensive fieldwork. The interest here does not lie with cultural production but the dynamics of political organization and often the relation to the state. My work is neither anthropological nor focused on the concerns in political science. I have, however, spent significant time in face-to-face contact with indigenous media activists as well as in their audiovisual archives.

Jon’s response to my study of indigenous media, decolonization, and the Andes takes issue with the lack of attention to audience reception and the effects of indigenous videos in local communities. He concludes that more field-research should have taken place in order to answer questions about indigenous identity. Unfortunately, he thus misses the key argument of my study: It is possible, even necessary to critically engage with texts (in the widest sense) produced by indigenous movements.

Reading these texts offers insight into the discourse created by indigenous movements. This discourse constructs a pan-indigenous identity, which, I hoped to make clear, is not ontological but precisely a cultural and political project constituted in the face of more than 500 years of colonialism. The texts, including the documentary and fiction videos I engage with, however also contribute ideas and perspectives on issues – such as literacy and power, the theorization of the “coloniality of power”, even recent debates about late capitalism and the possibly immanent nature of political-economic transformation. My study does not aim to document the multiple dimensions and impact of political struggle in the Andes nor the complexity of economic forms indigenous communities and individuals engage in. Rather I wish to focus on the critical potential of the indigenous discourse for enriching our scholarly discussions.

While Jon offers a fine summary of the description of the material I study, he fails to give adequate account of how I believe this material helps to problematize several key concepts in cultural theory. As I elaborate in individual chapters, indigenous media suggest, for example, rethinking the notion of the lettered city as based on a division of literacy and orality. I also argue that theorizing colonial legacies in today’s constellation of power needs to regard constructions of gender. They are central to the process of decolonization and overcoming a colonial dismissal of indigenous peoples’ capability for taking part in political, let alone critical debates. Finally, Jon fails to make reference to the way the production and circulation of indigenous media open up a border to the immanence created by late capitalism. This border is informed by the recently strengthened political memory and practice of reciprocal economic forms. The appropriation of video as a non-commercial and non-artistic yet highly political process of communication forces us, as I elaborate in Indianizing Film, to qualify the notion of immanence.

Audiovisual technology is a key element in this process – a form of representation with its own inscription into the scholarly canon, but also a social, economic form. As indigenous media indicate, technology, however, does not determine use and desire but is itself a malleable tool. The fact that its uses and aesthetics have changed from anti-imperialist revolutionary cinema attests to the new sensibility that informs indigenous struggle today. No longer does the final freeze-frame of rifles raised seek to incite viewers into violent action. After integrating the staples of Hollywood film (cause-effect narratives, continuity editing, stable cameras, improvised dolly-shots and genres such as melodrama and the horror movie) into local narrative and textile traditions, indigenous videos often end by fading out pensive protagonists who reconsider long dismissed cultural values, subjectivity, and epistemologies. This new sensibility toward social transformation as based in the decolonization of the way indigenous peoples generate knowledge, alas, offers us as scholars the opportunity to critically review our desire to perversely maintain or transcend our own, colonially constituted epistemic privilege.

This kind of critical reading of indigenous discourse builds on and goes beyond at least two exceptions to the dominant approaches in the study of indigenous peoples. Literary studies and film studies have both focused on textual production, including the critical reflection on production and circulation but without necessarily engaging in the field-research required for audience reception. Indeed, for those interested in such an approach, Gabriela Zamorano’s dissertation in process (in the field of anthropology) will offer precisely such a perspective, though limited to the Bolivian context. For those interested in a critical approach (similar to my own) that teases out indigenous media’s epistemic potential for transforming the critical tools of cultural theory, Michelle Raheja’s forthcoming book Redfacing and Visual Sovereignty opens up productive ways of engaging with North American Native visual and autobiographical discourse.

This has been a guest post from Freya Schiwy.

No comments: