perverts

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.

kewel

This somehow seems to encapsulate everything wrong not just with educational technology, but also with the university today.

Let’s take a closer look. Starting with the following map:


What is this? It’s a map of the UK, from Google maps, with an apparently random number of cities and town marked (Bolton and Slough, but not Manchester and Newcastle). On the left hand side, under the legend “uk city pop test,” the city and town names are provided in alphabetical order, with “population” and a figure. Beside each name is a checked box.

What earthly use is this map? None, as far as I can see. The population information is correlated with geography, but not in such a way that it might be useful. A series of population figures have been recontextualized, to give the appearance of added value, but in fact provide no clear benefit to man, bird, or beast. What is the principle of selection of these particular towns and cities? How does the geographical correlation add to our understanding of UK demographics? What in fact does this map and its accompanying table tell us about geography, population, or the UK? Nothing.

And yet, this map is presented to us as “kewel” (whatever exactly that means), and a host of apparently otherwise rational people are celebrating the fact that this is supposedly “good shit,” “awesome,” “amazingly cool,” “a fine thing indeed,” “awesomely nifty,” and so on ad nauseam. One commenter even reported “I think my head just exploded”. He (or she) is not the only one.

So why the plaudits? Well, it has to do with the process by which the map was produced which, in short, involved taking some data from a Wikipedia article and subjecting it to various repackaging and transformations, using technical devices such as RSS feeds. The presentation of this process is interspersed with comments such as “lurvely” before the final “kewel” conclusion. My friend Brian Lamb then tells us that this is an instance of “data literacy”.

But not only is the final product bafflingly useless. And not only has, along the way, much of the data (on cities such as Manchester and Newcastle) apparently been lost. It is also clear by looking at the original Wikipedia article–and only by looking at the original Wikipedia article–that the data requires commentary and explanation for it to be effectively understood.

For you might be surprised to learn, if you actually read the data on the map above rather than staring agog while your head exploded, that London is apparently eight times larger than any other city in the UK. The UK, in this rendering, comes to appear more like a country such as Chile, in which Santiago is practically the only city of any note, than the collection of regions with which anyone who has actually visited the place is familiar. How has this strange distortion come about?

Well, by reading the Wikipedia article, in which virtually each and every figure comes with some kind of note, and in which the entire list has a seven-paragraph explanatory introduction, it soon becomes clear how the very definition of a city and city population is a tricky construct. The Wikipedia text explains the difference between city councils, local authorities, conurbations, and so on. It notes, for instance, the difference between the population of Manchester (at 394,269, well below that of Bristol’s 420,556) and Greater Manchester (at 2,244,931 well above that of Greater Bristol’s 551,066). The Wikipedia article also has footnotes and references, as well as a thriving discussion page, all of which are essentially for any “data literacy” worthy of the name. That is, a data literacy that does not dispense with literacy per se, replacing explanatory text with “kewel” ejaculations and exploding heads.

Yet the very first step in the process led to the map above was to strip the figures of their accompanying text.

It seems that neither Tony Hirst, the person who set this operation into motion, nor any of those who are blithely praising his work, bothered to think about the data itself or what it meant. That, indeed, as Hirst himself has repeatedly stated in response to my comments, “wasn’t the point.” But if someone can advocate, and others can gasp at, such mangling of data without even thinking about what happens to that data in the process, believing it to be somehow beside the point… well, that’s a textbook case of data illiteracy as far as I’m concerned.

The final product is a swish little graphic that turns out to be totally meaningless, much like the visual data points for which USA Today has become notorious. Moreover, this re-presentation of the data in fact distorts of UK geography: in so far as it does in fact hold minimal meaning, it elides all the subtleties of the original source so as to end up as a vapid misrepresentation.

I’m reminded of nothing so much as the various swish repackagings and representations of debt, by which dodgy high-interest loans made out to poor people in heartland USA became class AA securities traded in decontextualized form by people who thought of themselves as the smartest people in the room. In the world of high finance and complex derivatives, too, what mattered only was the “kewel” ways in which figures could be abstracted from people and contexts, mashed up and resold in dashing and “awesomely nifty” ways.

The chickens have come home to roost for this fundamental corruption in the banking and finance sectors. Of course, a little educational technology mashup “goodness” can’t be as important or as harmful, right? It’s only knowledge and education that’s at stake here as the university parodies the neoliberal landscape that it sets out to imitate, rather than critique. This is the university of excellence once more, but now in the sense of Bill and Ted‘s “excellent” adventure: a couple of goofy guys saying “kewel” as the lights go out on the institution’s real mission.