Multimodal Anthropologies

By Roxanne Varzi (University of California, Irvine)

What I love most in Samuel Gerald Collins, Matthew Durington, and Harjant Gill’s (2017) important call to arms in their manifesto “Multimodality: An Invitation” is their emphasis on process rather than outcome. A multimodal anthropologist, like an artist, is called to work in a particular medium that may not always be text. Like artists, at the heart of what we do is engage in a process with a material form—in our case, the materials we find in our research. Whatever form that ethnographic data wants and needs to take to be understood fully is the form we are called to work in. The multimodal anthropologist knows this inherently and will listen and respond to that call.

When I think back on the decisions I made that veered me away from “traditional” ethnography, I see that it was always because the material demanded a certain kind of engagement and a particular process and formation. The material demands its own form theoretically, philosophically, and politically in order to be truly effective. Because our material isn’t physical in the sense of an architect’s or a sculptor’s, we come late to the realization that artists come to early on, which is that the material gets in the way of carrying out one’s will. This is a good thing, and may even protect the material from becoming too subjective (a problem first addressed in the eighties with the publication of Writing Culture [Clifford and Marcus 1986]), even in a form that seems on the surface to be more subjective. Think of a woodcarver who encounters a knot in the wood. They do not cut the knot out; they work with it and it becomes part of what they create. The material or the space demands its own form. Architecture, like anthropology, is a defining of meetings between people, materials, and environments where the architect, or anthropologist, provides the joints and connections that bring and keep these entities together.

One thing that happened for me early on was a deep respect I had for the direction the ethnographic material was taking me in. I learned to trust the process. My experimentation with form began as early as my first book, Warring Souls: Media, Martyrdom and Youth in Post Revolution Iran (Varzi 2006), when it occurred to me that theory and critical writing were getting in the way of the important narratives of the men who went to be martyred at the Iran-Iraq war front. If I was going to be honest, I had to admit that I wasn’t in the right shoes as an American-educated woman to relay fully what their experiences as young Iranian male draftees really felt like. I turned to fiction to mark my inability and refusal to create some sort of empirical truth about life at the Iran-Iraq war front, to protect my subjects, and to give me the freedom to write what I did know, to capture an atmosphere, a tone, a feel, which couldn’t be described any other way. And it worked because over and over the feedback from the veterans of that war who read the book said that I “got it.” My most recent book, Last Scene Underground: An Ethnographic Novel of Iran (Varzi 2016), became an all-out ethnographic novel, but unlike the first book, where the fiction saved the ethnographic material, this time a more expository and implicitly theoretical and critical voice through the convention of director’s notes brought the ethnographic theory back into the fictional space.

Writing about a group of brave Iranian students who do their art in the face of grave repercussions forced me to confront my own fears about using art in ethnography and to move more toward multimodal anthropology. Fiction allows an anthropologist to make her mark and to truly author the ethnography. In that sense, it points again and again within the work itself to the absolute inability to keep out an author’s own subjectivity, whether it is in the framing of the question, the aesthetic, political and intellectual choices she makes while sifting through the materials, or the choice of modalities and genres she makes even within writing, or the way she frames the work. The biggest block to working through the material for new anthropologists is a fear of forming and shaping it in the “wrong way.” Few dissertation writers sit down completely true to themselves and what they saw, felt, heard, and sensed; they just write. We listen neither to our own voice nor to the material beyond the obvious intellectual “data.” What is the material telling us about itself? Some materials demand particular modalities. I believe this deeply.

When Malinowski’s “real” diaries were uncovered in 1967, we were shocked into seeing and admitting that even the scientific text is a construction, an act of making and not just of recording. While this may have been a blotch on the clean surface of empirical realism, it brought us to an honest admittance and acceptance that anthropology is about more than just representing and critiquing; it is also about making. Making art, creating an outcome, creating a newer sense of something that’s different from and hopefully better than the world we live in. In this sense, it is closer to neorealism than realism. This is a truth that’s been hard to swallow still in anthropology circles and is perhaps why “nontraditional,” visual, and multimodal forms of scholarship continue to be questioned and denied legitimacy.

Even after experimenting with placing fiction in the midst of my first ethnography, I knew something important was lacking. My book on the making of a visual propaganda state was missing the obvious: visuals. The Islamic Republic relied on an intricate and powerful visual culture to both justify and encourage the martyrdom of thousands of young men. An academic book with the allowance of eight plates for photos could in no way tell the story of a visual dictatorship. For that, I had to move to film, and documentary in particular.

In many ways, multimodal anthropology begins with visual anthropology and the anxiety of recording and canning history, preserving the primitive in an everlasting petri dish that we can revisit and hold onto forever. Anthropologists at the forefront of our field like Margaret Mead argued that artists like Maya Deren were dancing with the camera too much (Neiman 1980). The tripod was there for a reason: to make sure that the artist didn’t meddle with the scene, move the camera too much, make it a part of her own body (Deren 1947). As this particular ethnographic modality shifted from text to film, and as much as we wanted to believe that this would solve the subjectivity issue and just record some sort of scene that could be interpreted in any way the viewer/student/anthropologist who wasn’t there wanted to, the medium of film was already being called out as erroneous by the people at the forefront of making film and using it for propaganda. The Soviet social realists, who predated Mead, especially Vertov, were quick to point out that not only can visual data be manipulated but that the camera has its own kind of personality and subjectivity. The camera changes the way people behave and how they “perform” the minute it is placed in their midst.

Image of propaganda in Iran. (Courtesy of author)

Eisenstein (1977) taught us that when we edit film by taking two different scenes and placing them together in a montage, we create a third, new meaning: a lesson that is as apropos of film as it is of text. My favorite editing story comes from the French ethnologist and documentary filmmaker Jean Rouch about editing a hippo-hunting scene in Battle on the Big River. Rouch developed a beautiful system of “shared anthropology,” which came from a tradition that Robert Flaherty began in the 1930s when he shot and then projected his footage for his Inuit “subjects” (Ruby 2000). Flaherty didn’t necessarily do this for input, but Rouch did, which is why he called it shared anthropology. In the hippo-hunting scene, Rouch had added a musical soundtrack to elucidate the drama that he experienced in the seminal moment of the hunt. Rouch was allowing his senses and perception to take over. The hunters protested, not because they disagreed with his perceptual experience, but because the music would have scared off the hippos.

When I went to edit my first film, this conundrum of recording an “empirical truth” devoid of my own subjectivity was especially problematic for me as my camera and I literally appeared like an apparition in every casement I filmed in the Tehran martyrdom museum. I was too present to edit out and so I left that knot in the wood, so to speak, and experimented with a first-person poetic, which resulted in my first documentary, Plastic Flowers Never Die (2009).

My film, what the manifesto points out might be called a “side project” in traditional anthropological knowledge hierarchies, took almost a decade and fits beautifully into the manifesto’s description of “materials that did not end up in the final account of our research were relegated to a dusty bookshelf or a forgotten cardboard box somewhere in our offices” (Collins, Durington, and Gill 2017, 143). And yet, this visual archive I amassed and relegated to a dusty box for so long while I wrote the dissertation and then the first book, this archive that became a film, has done as much work and made as important an impact as my ethnography. Here I strongly agree with Collins, Durington, and Gill that “in an age of accelerated media proliferation, these networked forms of media are rendered more visible and, paradoxically, at a time when they might seem ephemeral, even more permanent” (143).

The Whole World Blind. (Courtesy of author)

Sometimes, even visual research needs a medium other than film. As I continued to research war, I found myself influenced by Virginia Woolf, who influenced Susan Sontag who decided that to show the violent images she was writing about was to reinscribe their violence. At this point, my research on war images was a question as much as a data-producing project: Does showing the images reinscribe the violence? Can describing the images be even more powerful? To this end, the resulting project, The Whole World Blind, could not remain the academic text that I had set out to write; it had to be a sound project, and not just any sound, but binaural and the auditor had to be blindfolded. The piece, and experiencing it, needed to disrupt the power relation between viewer and viewed.

Sound was completely new to me, but felt intuitively what the project – the research material – demanded. As a result of that project, I was asked to make another sound project for a gallery and sound collective in Berlin. I am interested and concerned about the environment and global warming and the drought, so I chose to work on the Salton Sea in Southern California. When I went to make the sound installation, I found I couldn’t edit without the images. Then the images started to take over, so I left it as a video installation: Salton Sublime. The juxtaposition of the beauty and the denigration demanded video because the place is so stunning that it’s hard to understand by just listening to the waves and the birds and the train or describing the degradation and the dying of a sea just how beautiful it is and what is really at stake.

Salton Sea. (Courtesy of author)

Multimodal anthropology suffered its own near extinction, its own drought for decades, and a lot has been at stake as a result. When I think back to Jean Rouch and Margaret Mead, or Zora Neal Hurston (who was an early practitioner of multimodal anthropology alongside her advisor Franz Boas at Columbia University in the 1920s), I wonder when and why our field lost touch with these kinds of innovations. Why is it only now that we are coming out of the woodwork, and with such trepidation and justification? Collins, Durington, and Gill aptly describe how multimodal anthropologists pursued multimodal work “on the side” of their “academic productions,” fearing that their multimodal works and interests might jeopardize their academic legitimacy and standing (144). I know intimately that anthropologist huddled in her office hiding away the work she really cares about, working at it slowly and silently when no one else is looking.

Multimodal anthropology does not pigeonhole nontraditional ethnographies into “creative side projects” but rather allows an anthropologist herself to have a broadly defined role of what she does. I am not just a visual anthropologist, or a humanistic anthropologist, or an urban, religious, or Iranist anthropologist; I revel in and “engage in varying processes of knowledge production that often lead to multiple outcomes” (143).

As we mentor a new generation of anthropologists, it is important that we allow them the space and the time and the opportunities to go to the field without a heavy structure in place. Often, I receive lengthy fieldwork proposals where all the questions have already been answered or conclusions have been assumed. There is no space for process, there is no opportunity to be surprised, and there is a pedagogy that demands a constant struggle with pushing material into a form it may not want or can take. In short, we need to provide the time and the permission to play, to move material in and out of various forms until it finds its home, and this takes time, patience, and support. And if all else fails, we need to lead by example by continuing to do our own work, whether its supported by colleagues or not, as a reminder that this is what we are here for, in the service of something bigger than the sum total of a portfolio.

Multimodality gives anthropology the space to safely ask the difficult questions that were being asked early in the history of our field before we somehow and somewhere in recent time decided that we had it all answered and defined. It is not about whether anthropology is a becoming or a mediating; what is important is that it’s a process and that the end product, ethnography, may become something wholly unexpected even to its own author.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Deren, Maya. 1980. “From the Notebook of Maya Deren, 1947 October.” Vol. 14 (Autumn 1980): 21–46.

Collins, Samuel Gerard, Matthew Durington, and Harjant Gill. 2017. “Multimodality: An Invitation.” American Anthropologist 119 (1): 142-46.

Eisenstein, Sergei M., and Jay Leyda. 1977. Film Form. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1967. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. London: Routledge & K. Paul.

Neiman, Catrina. 1980. “An Introduction to the Notebook of Maya Deren, 1947 October.” Vol. 14 (Autumn 1980): 3–15.

Rouch, Jean, 1952. “Bataille sur le Grand Fleuve” [Battle on the Big River].

Ruby, Jay. 2000. Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film and Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stoller, Paul. 1992. The Cinematic Griot: Ethnography of Jean Rouch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Varzi, Roxanne. 2009. Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Varzi, Roxanne. 2015. Plastic Flowers Never Die. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Recourses.

Varzi, Roxanne. 2016. Last Scene Underground: An Ethnographic Novel of Iran. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Varzi, Roxanne. 2018. “The Knot in the Wood: The Call to Multimodal Anthropology.” American Anthropologist website, June 5.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *