Friday, September 30, 2011

Media, technology, and anthropology: An Interview with Adam Fish

Earlier this month I had the chance to do a short interview with Adam Fish.  Adam is an anthropologist and filmmaker based in Southern California.  He runs the site Media Cultures, and also writes for Savage Minds.  Since the goal of this site is to explore some of the different ways in which people think about and practice anthropology, I took this opportunity to ask Adam not only about his research, but also his views of some of the strengths--and weaknesses--of the discipline as  whole.  I chose Adam specifically because of the kind of research he does (media and power), as well as some of the methods that he uses (film and video).  In an issue that focuses on the purpose of anthropology and its future potential, Adam provides a unique perspective about the present state of the field, as well as where it may head in the future.

Ryan Anderson: Why anthropology? What brought you to this field in the first place? What are the strengths of anthropology in your opinion?

Adam Fish: Well, what is your definition of a life well-lived? If you think life is on some level about self-knowledge to fuel acts of social justice, (I concede, decidedly Western notion) then anthropology is an ideal way-of-life. Anthropology can answer questions deeply personal and widely human. (Usually by proposing another set of questions.) That is why I am in this "serious game," as my friend and advisor Sherry Ortner might call it.

I was a third generation son of farmers who grew up in southern Idaho, in the northern Great Basin, a really dry area. But it had this giant river, the Snake River, running through it. I came of age exploring the Snake River canyon and dreaming about how the Northern Shoshone and Fremont people could survive in such a xerophytic land. And I encountered their symbolic traditions in the forms of pictographs and figurines in these desert caves (which I guess was the beginning of my interest in visual anthropology). I needed to understand how people evolved to live in this difficult desert my family lived on. It was this naive subjective yet ecological consciousness that drove me to archaeology and my MA thesis on the Fremont clay figurines. But I couldn't think about Native Americans prehistorically without developing an empathy for their present political existence or a sense of loss from the erosion of archaeological heritage. So I focused on becoming a tribal archaeologist, someone who could help tribes
mobilize federal law in acts of cultural revival.

Also it was the only applied social science you could get paid to do. So salaries, activism, the answering of subjective questions, and a field science--a pretty fantastic way to spend one's 20s. I was a federal, state, and tribal archaeologist for over a decade and it got me outside a lot, working to protect archaeological sites, working with Native people, making a living, and doing something of meaning. I was into federal and tribal archaeology because everyday I physically hid an archaeological site so pot-hunters couldn't dig it up, I was clear that it meant something to the nation's heritage or to my tribe's sense of identity. I take that same sense of urgency into my present work with media corporations.

RA: What about the drawbacks?  If you could change anything about anthropology, what would it be?

AF: Anthropology's primary location in academia, while not making it beyond the reproach of the budget cutters, has made it increasingly irrelevant as a discipline that can help foment transformations in policy, politics, business, social movements.

I have an antipathy towards grand theory, not as some post-modernist tantrum, but I can't bear misapplying some theory from a different time and context in interpreting this heretofore un-described cultural phenomenon. I want to be inductive, pragmatic, an expert ethnographer, and a historical particularist for a digital age.  Anthropological methods could be of service to understanding the seats of power---cultures of technology, media, medicine, government, industry. But the first wave of these anthropologists need to first concern themselves with gaining access and secondly with thick description. This access acquiescence might be dangerously complicit but will also result in positioning the anthropologist outside the academia and its predispositions in interesting ways. The next move for an anthropologist who laterally collaborates with these institutions might not be back into academia but away from the privileges of professional theory production. I think that is a good thing.

RA: Why do you focus on visual methods and media in your research?  What about good old-fashioned text-laden ethnography?

AF: I don't. I study power, media power, technology power, corporate power. It just so happens that a locus of power is centralized on media companies, news television networks, Silicon Valley, and their consolidation, convergence, and monopolies. I use whatever artifact I can find to understand the interface between power, technology, and culture. I begin with media co-production, augment that with ethnographic field encounters, and follow that with interviews.

Textual analysis of "visual" media is only a quaternary component of my work. The 16 television documentaries I produced were mere excuses to get closer to the media industrialists I wanted to write about. I heard horror stories about impossible access for years from such television ethnographers as John Caldwell and film ethnographers as Sherry Ortner that I designed my research around years of television production previous to advanced PhD work.

"Visual anthropology" is a bankrupt sub-discipline. It missed the internet, computers, social media for reasons that are easy to understand. But in so doing they missed bringing forms of digital culture more centrally into anthropology. In doing this they formally made "visual anthropology" a non-starter. I prefer to work within cultural anthropology proper, while interfacing with STS, information studies, and media studies all of which are having a productive romance with ethnography. This is much preferred to rehabilitating "visual anthropology" which for too long insularly debated such issues as "reflexivity," "authenticity," and what constituted a "real" anthropological film. My friend Jay Ruby would be the first to admit that "visual anthropology" has been eclipsed by other fields less prone to eclectic debates.

I have produced several feature length documentary films that adopt modes of representation from ethnographic, observational, reflexive, and expositional genres. Some of this work was done for hire (The Saga of a Viking Age 
Longhouse), some as an outgrowth of my television production.

The Saga of a Viking Age Longhouse by Adam Fish

Before I had struggled to edit these 16 shorts and several features, circa 2006, I originally thought film production could replace textual ethnographies. But I was wrong. You simply can't say as much in a film as you can in a 300 page book. You can evoke feelings better perhaps, like Lucien Taylor and David Macdougall have said, and that is great if you are a phenomenologist, but as an applied pragmatist I discovered that film isn't all that great as an essay form or teaching tool. I will continue to make films as an activist’s tool (Achulay: The Hunger Strike for the Himalaya) but I no longer think video and film should be more centrally located within the ethnographic project. It should augment a wickedly detailed book.

Achulay: The Hunger Strike for the Himalaya by Adam Fish 

RA: You make a strong argument in favor of the power of books.  If you could choose a few recent ethnographic texts that illustrate the potential of anthropology in the 21st century, what would they be?

AF: I am not enamored with books. As knowledge transmission forms, both books and films offer less than desirable affordances. The only reason I am convinced that anthropologists are better writers than they are filmmakers is simply because of the complexity of the social structures we are self-tasked to describe and theorize. It simply requires 300 pages to ornately articulate the rich and messy complexity of cultural activity. If it takes 20 hours to read a short book and we could make films of that length then perhaps they could be comparably rich forms of knowledge transfer. But nobody makes films of that length and I wonder why. I am watching a fantastic four-hour BBC film right now, The Power of Nightmares, a historical look at the convergent origins of neoliberalism and jihadi fundamentalism. (You can watch it free here). And I think the issue could probably go for another 10 hours and be a better document. The problem is that the entrenched culture of consumption of film has predisposed us to short bursts of escapism as opposed to longer detailed encounters with philosophy and culture, which we've grown to think is the realm of the book. Tablets and hyper-textual architecture will certainly provide some new developments in this field of representation but I haven't been impressed yet.

Sociologist David Stark's book The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life shows how to get the ethnographic job done. In it he reveals his fieldwork in a Hungarian factory, a financial trading company after 9/11, and also monitored a New York City new media firm, NetKnowHow. These long vignettes are squared by deeply theoretical chapters about his notion of the “heterarchy,” the lateral structuring of creativity in the new economy.

RA: So your current research focuses heavily on issues of power--media,
 corporate, and technology.  Where do you want to take this research?  What's next?

AF: The materiality of new media is an obvious next step for the media anthropology I am proposing. I think the work that media scholars Toby Miller and Lisa Parks are doing, focusing on the ecological impacts of Silicon Valley and of satellites, is a necessary frontier ripe for a new type of archaeologist. Anthropologist Chris Kelty is looking into cloud computing as a material, legal, and cultural expression. Information scholar Ramesh Srinivasan, just got back from Cairo where he honed in to the physicality of Arab Spring "networks" and is tracing how they are globally translated and reproduced by social media, intellectuals, journalists, and television networks. Anthropologist Biella Coleman's work on anonymous, the hacker activist public, is on the cutting edge of the application of anthropology to the study of social justice organizing. Each shows how the uses and abuses of new media are expressions of power dynamics that can best be discovered through ethnographic fieldwork. These scholars spend time in chat rooms, the internet archive, on television sets, and server farms. This doesn't look like old school fieldwork for sure and the anthropological academia is having a hard time making sense if how scholars such as ourselves should be addressed. But if anthropology is going to move it must do so into these multi-sited new domains of elite techno-cultural practice.

1 comment:

Daniel Lende said...

I really enjoyed this interview, Adam and Ryan. In particular, its arguments for inductive, pragmatic ethnography and that video and film should augment detailed writing - good stuff. Plus just finding out more about an area that fascinates me.