Volkswagen Fellowship Symposia

Mining Imagination: Ethnographic Approaches Beyond Knowledge Production

A workshop organized by Michaela Schäuble, 5-6 April 2013, Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University

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“Today, we cannot comprehend the terror that gripped the 1895 audience facing the Lumière brothers’ arriving train.” This line from an exhibition brochure at the Kunsthaus Zürich, published one hundred years after the aforementioned screening in Paris, is one of countless examples of the construction of the founding myth of cinema’s birth that draws on the (unconfirmed) assumption that spectators at the time mistook the cinematographic images on the screen for reality. The repeatedly reiterated anecdote that people were leaping from their chairs or running away in panic seems to confirm the manipulative power of the cinema and its overriding physiological effect on the viewer as the quintessence of the medium.

The sensuality of the film experience – the kinetic, tactile force of images and sounds – has been ambivalently dealt with in film theory, and the question of perception has often been reduced to a question of knowledge, while sensation has been equated with the reflective and objectifying consciousness of sensation (Shaviro 1993). Yet, inverting this raw capacity to transcend “ordinary” human perception, the medium has also from its inception been used to explore the invisible and imagined dimensions of human life “as if real”. In anthropology, the discussion about whether film, or for that matter, audio-visual and sensory media, can evoke and depict otherwise unrepresentable aspects of reality is ongoing, and the question of whether ethnographic approaches could or should operate outside an essentially realist and mimetic paradigm remains controversial.

In this workshop, we seek to extend the “inbuilt sense of artificiality to the whole anthropological exercise” (Strathern 1988) by discussing various forms of medial manipulations as means of tracing, evoking, and (re-)presenting embodied experiences and invisible, imaginary realms. Are there ethnographic approaches that are particularly suited to elicit and communicate hidden and unarticulated truths? And can they convey an understanding beyond facts and scientific knowledge? Or mediate between subjective feeling and objective knowledge, the senses and their sense?

“Mining Imagination” aims at comparing and critically discussing various artistic and scientific strategies of accessing the realms of imagination, reveries, memories, recollection, fantasies, and other states, including religious experiences, that commonly evade ethnographic representation.

Contributors draw on a wide range of media and artistic methodologies, including experimental film, photography, sound, drawing/animation, literary prose/fictional elements, as well as performances.

  • Click here to download a program for this event.