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Curatorial Practices
Curatorial Designs in the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography Today: Part 1
by Tarek Elhaik and George E. Marcus

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Marcus cont'd:

Having given this background, I would ask you to develop a similar account of your travel through post 1980s anthropology, ending up with an explanation of your development of curatorial practice, which I presume is a form of research and representation combined that expresses your passing through training in fieldwork/ethnography and its mixture with your film and media scholarship. It is just such mixtures that best express, perform, and further this condition of producing anthropological knowledge after Writing Culture.


To me the Writing Culture debates invoke a very specific register: that of a formative moment full of promising directions, conceptual and methodological. In this sense, the path had already been paved for those of us who arrived to anthropology through the privileged theoretical hindsight afforded by the unfolding of more than 20 years, the usual conceptual delays across disciplines and the detours of previous anthropologists in multiple modernities. Some of the questions raised during the discussions of the 1980s in anthropology have been fully addressed and worked through, others are still open to revisions, modifications, and reformulations, while some concerns ought simply to be discarded and laid to rest. In other words, the after-life of Writing Culture ought to be approached as an expansion of roads taken and not taken after the 1980s, and that have led us to formulate anthropology as the art of posing good questions while strategically and creatively designing fieldwork mise-en- scenes. These questions ought to have a chance for a viable and generous future while retaining a concern for the singularity of the anthropological project and its mode of production of knowledge in this expanded field. One of the fascinating aspects of the debates surrounding the Writing Culture upheaval was to not convert this concern for anthropology’s singularity for a disciplinary border patrolling. So my debt to Writing Culture takes the form of a care for preserving this ethos. This sense of continuity should not be in conflict with our passionate search for new models of conducting and conceptualizing research.

I should add I began my formal training as a cultural anthropologist in the late 1990s, that is to say, at the very moment when the Writing Culture paradigm had already acquired an uneasy Janus-like situation. By then, the initial revolt had been both institutionalized and relegated to the background in the face of pressing, global political issues that would intensify in the post 9/11 era. So, for some of us at least, the point of entry into anthropology—the post-Writing Culture moment—was not so much a question of modernity vs. post-modernity or the production of experimental ethnographies and research projects only aiming at de-centering and de-colonizing the categories of Euro-American Modernity. What mattered instead was the careful handling of a tense balancing act between the political-epistemological and the formal/experimental/ontological. This productive zone of friction between the epistemological-political and the ontological-experimental, in passing also a legacy of the various historical avant-gardes, need not be couched neither in the idiom of cultural authenticity nor as a blind post-cultural turn towards neuro-aesthetics or science studies. What is required, in my view, is a return to and refashioning of the geopolitical economy of departures and arrivals of cosmopolitan modernism(s) and the discrepancies it introduces between the humanities, the sciences and art. And so far this is proving to be the most difficult task at hand, a task eloquently addressed—in relation to the emergence of new fields of inquiry in the 1990s such as new media, finance capital, biotechnology—in your recent collaborative dialogue with Paul Rabinow(3). For instance, the amount of controversy triggered by the shift in focus from subaltern subjects to elites and experts—or the shift from ‘other’ to ‘counterpart’ as you recently put it—can be seen as a symptom of the tension at the heart of this balancing act. My fieldwork on/with avant-garde film and contemporary art curators in Mexico City as well as my own film curatorial practice certainly requires walking on eggshells through this minefield.

I became aware of these concerns after reading—first, as an independent film curator and years prior to pursuing a Ph.D.— both Writing Culture: the Poetics & Politics of Ethnography and the collections of essays Visualizing Theory(4). Both became instant reference books and manuels d’instruction. The latter was heavily informed by the critiques of representation initiated by the former, in particular the interrogation of the Ethnographer’s voice of authority characteristic of classic ethnographic cinema but also of the limits of the mixture of strategies of self- representation and collaborative work so celebrated in post-1990s indigenous media. Conversely, Writing Culture had drawn much from film and media studies, had radicalized the rather conservative subfields of visual anthropology and the anthropology of art (slowly blurring them in the process and shifting attention away from the so-called radical alterity of non-western art and cultural forms), and inaugurated a shift towards a search for alternative forms of composition beyond the monograph and the classic ethnographic film. The radical constructivism of experimental ethnographic texts and films of the 1980s and 90s spoke directly to my unrepentant inclination toward the constructivist aesthetics and montage strategies of experimental and avant-garde cinemas and media arts from the 1920s onward, and the experimental documentaries and the Brechtian, political Cinemas of the 1970s. In this sense, this specific link between modernist visual arts and the modernism of anthropology—a profoundly political connection—was re-refashioned, almost overnight, by Writing Culture. I am thinking here of your Montage essay to which we could return. But this remains a marginal gesture in the discipline. One could indeed write the history of the multiple mis-encounters between avant-garde cinema and media, theories of montage and Writing Culture. Had it been done around the discussions during the 1980s, anthropology would have not only de-territorialized its own historical legacy but it could have ‘shown’ how it could itself be a de-territorializing force tout court.

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