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  1. Objects and Philosophy: Anthropology Comes Home

    July 20, 2012 by Fan

    Objects and Philosophy: Anthropology Comes Home

    Fan Zhang


    Objects: photographs, kelewangs, bikayat, “ethnographic art” (a contradictory phrase? either ethnography or art?) and public rental bikes in Paris.

    Bodies: Derrida’s naked body (giving off the scent of best Parisian parfum), Siegel’ sweaty body on bike, Javanese aristocrats’ living bodies with all the ceremonial ornaments in Kassian Céphas’ photos, Atjehness dead bodies under the feet of Dutch conquerors.

    Gazes: from Derrida’s pussycat – and from Derrida when he looked back, from Dutch governor of Java who commissioned his “National Geographic” photographs, from Gauguin who saw them, from the battlefield photographer Nieuwenhuis who was not disturbed by the carnage in front of him, from enraged Amsterdam public who refused to appreciate Nieuwenhuis’ cruel pictures, from Parisian museum-goers (some of them came for art, some them were merely curious); the indifference of resistant fighters who were going to be executed, the smile of an old man who was about to blow himself up “with friend and foe”; the missing glances between the Dutch conquerors and native population; and Mr. Siegel on a bike who might or might not been seen by the traffic.

    Words: bikayat poetry “standing against everyday speeches”, Derrida’s 200-pages’ philosophical rant after seeing his lady cat looking at his naked body one morning in his bathroom, Jacques Chirac’s often paired spoken words (“peoples and civilizations”, “arts and civilizations”, but please no “peoples and arts”), the heated debates between ethnographer and art critics, Aztec god Quetzalcoatl who re-incarnated in French comics, Siegel’s very own (highly digressive) essays refreshingly free of jargons and inline citations. For once, essay really means essai, not thesis.

    The two Siegel essays we read this week present four fundamental tensions in anthropology and in human life in general: that between self and other, that between objects and symbols, that between art and science (or aesthetics and context), and that between history and structure (or practice and ideology). They crisscross each other and form a complex, expansive and elusive whole. What Siegel does, true to anthropology and true to his subject, is to grasp particular objects and locate them in particular discourses without losing a sense of genealogy and history. The excitement of his writing comes at the moments when different worlds meet. It also comes at the moments when the looked are looking back – or when they are not looking back. “Things” scatter across pages, but it is often absence that provokes curiosity. The result is Siegel’s’ multi-layers’ writing full of meanings and openings.

    The key absence in The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901 is a lack of native Atjeh photographers in the late 19th-century, despite the availability of the technology. This absence can be only noticed when it is compared to other parts of the Indies. Siegel examined in detail the history of photography in the 19th-century Java. He discovers that photography is not only uncontradictory to local tastes, it actually satisfies them to a greater extent than their traditional means of visual representation: photography’s very mechanical function of memorization satisfies Javanese need of social memorization  (Siegel 2011:78).

    The Javanese case is full of nuances. There is Dutch colonial authority’s ambition to do archaeological inventory of Javanese landscape and landmarks and its desire to show off the place in an aesthetically pleasing way: this is an opposition between science and art. The project itself makes contrast to the Javanese elite’s use of photography in which “dignity” is shown and social memory is preserved. The different opinions of Western and Javanese critics with regard to the artistic values of those pictures demonstrate cultural relativity: it is at the same time an opposition between self and other and an opposition between aesthetics and context.

    Many of Javanese photos were taken by native photographer Kassian Cephas. The only photographers in Atjeh around the same period, however, are the Dutch. Refuting a technological explanation, Siegel looks into the pictures taken by Dutch battlefield photographer Nieuwenhuis. What is lacking in those pictures and accompanying descriptions are exchange of glances between outsiders and locals often seen in other pictures taken in similar conditions (Siegel 2011:80). What is abundant is resistant fighters’ lack of fear in front of death.

    From here, Siegel traces the ideological reasons of the local indifference to photography. Again, he intertwine the aesthetics with context, self with other, “looking at” with “being looked at”. But he begins with the curious change of tone in the photographer’s description of battle scene: before victory, Nieuwenhuis kept calm and syntopical despite the carnage and looming danger. But after victory when the danger was gone, his writing suddenly becomes excited with a great sense of elevation (Siegel 2011:84). Why? Siegel utilizes Kant’s concept of the sublime: this aesthetic feeling often appears after a narrow escape of life.

    But this is a particularly Western sensibility. From here, a comparison of self and other indicates that the Atjehenese don’t feel the say way when facing the same situation. In their context and ideology, death in a Holy War means something else – it means living in paradise. In turn, escaping from death is not something to feel good about – it is almost a shame: who wants to take a shameful photo of himself?

    The puzzle is solved, but Siegel is not satisfied. In a tour-de-force move, he brings in klewang and bikayat, enriching the visual analysis with bodily experience, practice, and sound of poetry. This last point, epic poetry, demonstrates the tension between history and structure. The recitation of epic eliminates history. “When the bikayats ever to have been decisive, permanently effective, Atjehnese society would have disappeared. I argue that, in effect, this was what happened” (Siegel 2011:91). The aethetic analysis is crucial in understanding the social context: the very fact that bikayat stands against everyday speech indicates its strength in rejecting flowing social life. It’s a pity that Siegel doesn’t go further to bring in music: in Levi-Strauss’ analysis, music and epic poetry are both the reincarnation of “primitive” mythology in cultural history (Levi-Strauss 1981:656-660). In art, the tension between structure and history dissolves into sight, sound and words.

    Siegel carries his extremely “thick” approach to objects to “Tout autre est tout autre”. The tension between aesthetics and context, or that between art world and anthropologists, opens the essay. But there is a very strange contradiction here: art world is ready to appreciate the universal beauty while anthropologists love the exotic and the strange, but it’s anthropologists who in their contextualization give the universal meanings to art works while art world sometimes depend on art works’ exoticism to attract specters and buyers (Siegel 2011:125-126). The necessary dynamic between contextualization and decontexualization can also been seen in the fate of Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

    Siegel is not satisfied with the remote (Indonesia) or the sublime (art in a Parisian Museum): it is important to have those mundane (but sometimes strange) moments too. So he turns to Derrida and his very long and very difficult-to-follow Animals that Therefore I am. Sometimes it’s better to look at photos of a landmark than going to the landmark as a tourist – reading Siegel is certainly more of an enjoyment than that particular text by Derrida.

    But it’s still not enough. Siegel leaves aside Derrida and his cat’s bodies, rides bike in Paris, looks around, experiences his own body and contemplates it. At this very moment, anthropology returns from the other side of the world, back to its home: philosophy.





    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1981 [1971]. The Naked Man. John and Doren Weightman, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 76-96.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “‘Tout Autre est Tout Autre’,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 116-153.