Sunday, September 13, 2009


In the same spirit as my love for ballboy, I'm now rather keen on getting hold of this record.

Meanwhile, I'm reading David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero, and despite my previous praise for his work, my feeling is that he's becoming too close to a novelty act for comfort. I very seldom abandon a book midway, but here I'm sorely tempted to do so.

Peace's style, and particularly his insistent use of repetition, is becoming downright irritating. James Meek wrote a very good review of this novel's sequel (Occupied City) in a recent London Review of Books. The title he chose for his review, "Polly the Bleeding Parrot," is both a quotation from a character in one of Peace's books, and also (as Meek observes) a rather good indication of the gore and the excessive doubling that characterize them.

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.

Monday, September 07, 2009


There is almost always something reticent about a ruin: a ruin is a retreat, a fading away. What was once foreground starts to melt into the background as the built environment cedes to the natural environment. Nature takes the place of culture as weeds start to push through cracked stones, wood rots away, or solid rock sinks into the sand. There may come a point at which it is hard to discern the ruin from the jungle or the desert. At some point the ruin may disappear altogether as it becomes one with its surroundings.

The disconcerting thing about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO-designated site in southern Alberta, is that from the outset it was already fully part of its surroundings. Figure was already ground. For the ruin is simply a cliff (and a relatively slight one to boot) that briefly interrupts the long descent from the Rockies to the Great Plains. It was here that, for several millennia, native Americans enticed buffalo to their death, again precisely by blurring or dissimulating the distinction between human activity and natural environment.

Indeed, it is hard to locate the site of the Buffalo Jump itself. You have to be told or shown. Head-Smashed-In depends upon the pedagogical work of demonstration, explanation, and interpretation without which it would hardly even come to light. Or more precisely, Head-Smashed-In highlights the role of imagination in the construction of the ruin: it's no accident that archaeologist Jack Brink's book about the site is entitled Imagining Head-Smashed-In. As he puts it, "capturing people and events that disappeared from our world centuries ago requires a judicious helping of imagination." But never is this more true than with those "many ancient cultures that [. . .] managed to survive in demanding environments for extraordinary lengths of time without leaving towering monuments to themselves." Brink's task is "to show how simple lines of rocks stretching across the prairies are every bit as inspirational as rocks piled up in the shape of a pyramid" (xii). He has to sell us the idea that this is a ruin.

Hence at Head-Smashed-In it is the interpretive center that is the focus of the visit experience. Many ruins have some kind of signage or attached museum, but usually they can be appreciated well enough without resort to such ancillary explanation. Here, however, the interpretation overwhelms the ruin itself. The museum is built into the cliff alongside the Jump, and it is impossible to see the archaeological site from within its galleries. Though you can access a gallery from which to view the cliff-face at the top of the building, the majority of a visitor's time is necessarily spent in the enclosed space of the museum through which you have to pass twice, both on the way up and on the way down. And this interpretive center, while dedicated to explaining what is just outside, in fact looks in on itself and the multiple reconstructions of the site that it contains. For all intents and purposes, this museum could be any place whatever.

The reconstructions of the site within the museum include scale models, images, and video. Three full-size replica of buffalo at the top of a fiberglass cliff dominate much of the interior space. Staff direct you to a fifteen-minute filmed reconstruction of the indigenous buffalo hunt (made by a company called "Myth Merchant Films") in which computer-generated imagery aids a spectacle that aims at considerable realism. In helping us imagine the buffalo jump, the interpretive center leaves little to the imagination.

But whose imagination is at work here? The museum's problem is that it has to negotiate between multiple modes of interpretation: deductions based on archaeological evidence, readings of historical texts left by European travelers, and memories passed down through oral history among the First Nations. Often there is a tension between these different narrative strategies, and the museum tries to maintain a counterpoint between some fairly standard displays and, for instance, the text of indigenous legends that is projected upon those displays.

So in some ways the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is peculiarly detached from its ostensible object, both because it reproduces that object within a space that is literally to one side, and because the multiple interpretations that the object generates are allowed more or less free reign. The visit experience becomes all about the creative vagaries of imagination. And yet the notion that this is a physical site is also clearly of vital importance, in that it is to anchor these otherwise drifting narratives, to help us re-read the natural environment as shaped by cultural and historical processes. In the end both the scientific and the mythic narratives come together in the indigenist claim that native Americans have a particular relationship to the landscape, and indeed to the land itself.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Freya Schiwy's Indianizing Film is an important and ambitious book. Its subject is indigenous media, by which Schiwy means specifically the video and DVD programming made (mostly) by and (mostly) for indigenous groups, above all in Bolivia and Ecuador, but also to some extent Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

This programming is sometimes broadcast on television, but more often is screened directly in villages and other indigenous communities, usually in the presence of a facilitator from the organization that has produced the material. If necessary, the facilitator will bring the TV or projector and screen, and even a generator so that the presentation can be staged even in the most remote areas. The show may well be accompanied by commentary, translation, or interpretation, and be designed to foster debate and discussion at the end of the screening. What is shown is usually (at least in the Bolivian case) a package that may include short documentaries or docudramas, news briefs, video letters or memories, and dramas. The shorter pieces tend to be no more than ten minutes long; the dramas may run for half an hour or more.

Though her focus is on the Andes and the Amazon, or rather more particularly on the Bolivian case that straddles high and lowland, Schiwy is clearly thoroughly familiar with indigenous media production from across Latin America, and also with the comparable material from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. This book takes its place alongside Eric Michaels's Bad Aboriginal Art as an indispensable reference point for any consideration of indigenous media.

The topic is important because it revises our understanding of what it means to make politically committed or radical art. Schiwy compares at some length the new indigenous media with the Marxist experimental film of the 1960s and 70s (again, above all in Bolivia). She notes that though the new media is less formally adventurous, it has perhaps greater impact than the rather highbrow cinematic efforts it effectively replaces. At the same time, there are important continuities between the two movements, and it's significant that one of the leading lights on the Bolivian scene is the son of renowned sixties director, Jorge Sanjinés.

Perhaps more importantly still, Schiwy's examination of indigenous media cautions us against seeing the indigenous as simply the relics of the past, or even as some kind of romantic essence that persists beyond and despite time and history. It reminds us that there is no necessary contradiction between indigeneity and modernity or technology. Indeed, ironically some of the most persistent and romantic images of Native Americans are in fact the result of indigenous people's interaction and adaptation of European technologies: the Plains Indians' mastery of horsemanship, for instance, could only come about once the horse had first been introduced to North America. Moreover, Schiwy suggests that indigenous media reveal the possibility of alternative modernities that would enable what she variously describes as "decolonizing the soul" (28) and (more often) a decolonization of knowledge.

Here, however, I start to take issue with Schiwy's approach. Her stress on what towards the end of the book she terms the "politics of knowledge" (212) or "knowledge politics" (213), which she throughout signals in terms of "epistemic privilege" (139ff) and "epistemological hierarchies" (13), is unhelpful. For a start, it is a strange reduction of indigenous politics--and indeed, politics as such--to issues of epistemology. Yet, as the UN Report Schiwy cites in her Afterword reveals, "the major points of contention" in recent indigenous mobilization have been "sovereignty (and the implications this may have for the coherence of nation-states) and, perhaps most important, the control over natural resources on indigenous lands" (217-18). Trying to force such struggles into the framework of knowledge politics, or for instance to talk of "epistemological and economic border[s]" as though they were one and the same (210), is strangely depoliticizing.

Further, what is meant by "knowledge" in these instances is quite undertheorized and too often (despite Schiwy's occasional protestations) devolves into mere representation. So in practice the video programming is treated as a conduit of pre-existing native knowledges which are otherwise in danger of disappearance. Indeed, it seems that very often this is also the explicit theme of the programming itself, which is dedicated either to preserving and disseminating the memory of traditional beliefs and practices, or (in the dramatic pieces) to warning of the dangers of letting them be forgotten. Schiwy's analysis loses sight of the productive aspects of the technology, the ways in which it produces new forms and modes of subjectivity and indigeneity rather than merely preserving the old. She invokes the networks that such technology traces yet subsumes them under the strange notion, simultaneously totalizing and essentializing, of a "pan-indigenous social ethos" (84).

The problem is the theoretical tools with which Schiwy is working, which are not up to the task she sets them. The reduction of politics to an undertheorized version of epistemology, and the romantic conception of subaltern otherness, is the hallmark of Schiwy's reliance on the work of Walter Mignolo. Indianizing Film tries, often heroically, to put some of Mignolo's slogans to good use. We read of the "coloniality of power," the "colonial difference" and "border gnosis," but they remain as unenlightening here as they are in their original context. I will give a prize to anyone who can even parse the phrase "coloniality of power," let alone explain what it is intended to mean. What, for instance, is intended by the claim that "the coloniality of power constructs the idea of modernity as a projection of European economy and epistemology" (40)? Schiwy tries to do justice to such concepts, but in the end they fail her.

In short, Schiwy's material is much more interesting that the theoretical slogans that have been imposed upon it. I would have liked to have heard, by contrast, more about the reception of this programming, the ways in which local facilitators interact both with the programming and with audiences in the debates that follow. For a project that is, we are repeatedly told, collective and communal, we hear overwhelmingly from the film-makers and activists, who travel to and fro between one film festival or another, and far less from the communities themselves. Schiwy consistently questions, often with good reason, traditional anthropological approaches to indigeneity, but a little anthropology here might have gone a long way. It would have meant she could have dispensed with the North American champions of indigeneity such as Mignolo, as well perhaps as their Latin American spokespeople.

Indigenous media are clearly a fascinating and important interface between indigeneity and technology, in which both elements are transformed by the encounter. Unfortunately, the guiding metaphor of Schiwy's book suggests that only technology is affected as the video-makers "integrat[e] what is foreign into traditional cultural and economic forms" (13). This notion of indianization as simple integration or appropriation is but the reverse of the traditional notion of assimilation, the idea that one culture can be unproblematically folded into another.

Yet as Schiwy's own analyses indicate, everything about both the technological processes at work here (the creation of new networks, the filmic montage that allows new connections and so new conceptions of indigeneity) and even the content of the videos themselves goes against this idea. One film, Angels of the Earth, for instance, is described as "a story of shifting ethnic identification" (43) that is also surely an intervention into the "unsteady category" that is indigenous identity (44). If this is indianization, the technology is not the passive object of indigenous uses and desires, but an active agent that is to redesign and retool those desires. The notion that film is more about teaching us how to desire than about informing us what to think is familiar from film theory and is, for instance, the entire thesis of Slavoj Zizek's A Pervert's Guide to the Cinema. In this sense, the indigenous are perverts, too, and there is no harm saying so.

Freya kindly agreed to respond to this review of her book, here.