Silvy Chakkalakal   Reichel
Dr. Silvy Chakkalakal
Cultural Anthropology, Univ. Basel
  A. Elisabeth Reichel, MA
Literary Studies, Univ. Basel

Subproject I: Anthropology of the Senses. Ethnography as an Aesthetic and Collaborative Practice in the Works of Margaret Mead

Ethnography as an anthropological method is concerned with the detailed description of living cultures. Hence, the ethnographic endeavor is characterized by relations of exchange, by surprises and ambiguity. Together, these are at the very basis of any ethnographic text, image or object. Dealing with different atmospheres, spaces and media, ethnography really can be seen as an aesthetic practice. The works of Margaret Mead bear testimony to this insight. Next to anthropological texts, Mead produced ethnographic films, composed photographic studies, curated exhibitions and, what is less known, wrote and published poems. It is in her experimental combination of text, image, film, artifact, and poem that she grasped the sensuality of the ethnographic situation. This project therefore wants to regard the kind of anthropology practiced by the so-called cultural relativists from the 1920s onwards not merely as a professional discipline, but also, and more importantly, as an aesthetic practice. I aim at laying bare the importance, which Mead attached to the senses and their role in helping us understand the ways in which people interact with others and their surroundings (Mead 1935, 1953). I want to investigate into the particular practices, which highlight ethnography as an aesthetic and sensual operation. On this basis, this project is further interested in the visual practices as cultural practices.

In Mead’s Balinese fieldwork alone, she and her husband Gregory Bateson produced 25,000 still photographs and 22,000 feet of film footage. Most of this visual material, over 500 reels of film, and more than 1,000 pieces of audio recordings stored in the Archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. remain unanalyzed. To date, Mead’s photographs and films have not been subject of an extensive study, which illuminates the significant role of Mead’s sensual methodology not only in the development of Visual Anthropology but within the history of 20th-century’s Cultural Anthropology in general. This project wants to explore a possible framework for a critical Anthropology of the Senses by focusing on the aesthetic and sensual dimensions of ethnographic knowledge production. Firstly, Mead’s unique and detailed visual ethnographic material; secondly, her aisthetic methods of collecting, arranging and processing ethnographic data; and, thirdly, her experiments with different kinds of media and distinct narrative styles offer an important field of research to understand the iconic, medial and aisthetic dimensions of culture as well as of the ethnographic endeavour itself.


Subproject II: Sounding Primitives, Writing Anthropologists: The Poetry and Scholarship of Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict

This project explores the poetry and scholarship of three pioneering U.S. cultural anthropologists: Edward Sapir (1884-1939), Margaret Mead (1901-1978), and Ruth Benedict (1887-1948). More specifically, the project analyzes their treatment of sound and music, the medium of alphabetic writing, and the genre of poetry as part of an investigation into the political and epistemological ramifications of their representation of cultural alterity. While the three anthropologists are widely renowned for their contributions to Franz Boas’s paradigm of cultural relativism, what is far less known is their shared interest in probing the representational potential of different media and forms of writing. This as yet underexamined dimension of their work is particularly manifest in Sapir’s critical writing on music and literature and Mead’s groundbreaking work with photography and cine film. Most important for my project, Sapir, Mead, and Benedict together also wrote 912 poems, which in turn negotiate their own medial status and rivalry with other forms of representation. It is this largely unexplored corpus of poetry and relevant selections of Sapir’s, Mead’s, and Benedict’s scholarship that I set out to chart.

My literary and textual analysis of Sapir’s and Mead’s work comprises two levels: It firstly focuses on inter- and plurimedial portrayals of the alterity that cultural anthropologists study. Secondly, it engages with the texts’ treatment of media other than and including written words. A key objective, then, is to trace the relations between these two levels, that is, between inter- and plurimedial representations of cultural alterity and conceptions of medial and semiotic alterity, and to interrogate the use of different media in Sapir’s and Mead’s poetry and scholarship for both the cultural and the media, semiotic, and sensory conceptions that inform it. The analysis of the poetry and scholarship of Sapir and Mead’s colleague and close friend Benedict completes the project, by placing particular emphasis on the relationship between poetic and anthropological, cultural relativist writing. In contrast to Sapir’s and Mead’s poetry, Benedict’s poetry offers an access to the subjects of cultural anthropology that departs from a relativist and pluralist conception of cultural alterity. By layering diverse mythologies in palimpsestic configurations, it short-circuits the differentialist and essentializing tendencies inherent in cultural relativism and unsettles the position of the observer’s I-here-now in a culturally inflected binarism against They-there-then.

Sounding Primitives, Writing Anthropologists presents the first sustained study of the published and unpublished poetry of Sapir, Mead, and Benedict. Further, my critical approach to the poetry and scholarship of Sapir and Mead pushes against dominant practices in Central European intermediality studies, which tend to ignore the complicated and politically charged history of media relations and rivalries. Finally, the politically engaged and historically grounded analysis that I put forward also applies a critical view to the medium of alphabetic writing, which mostly remains a blind spot in literature-trained scholarship.