Reviewed by: Society for Visual Anthropology
Primary Theme: The Visual, Truth and reconciliation
Secondary Theme: Technology
What can scholars of the senses and those engaging in anthropology’s multimodal turn learn from and teach one another? Can we think productively through the tensions between relativistic approaches to sensory practice and forms of research and dissemination that engage the audio-visual affordances of contemporary media? How do we creatively approach the limits to cross-cultural and inter-subjective communication of embodied and sensory experience?
Emerging from visual anthropology and the anthropology of media, multimodal anthropology seeks to investigate and convey aesthetic and sensory aspects of everyday existence beyond the traditional written ethnography. It challenges the ocularcentrism of Western visual culture in order to understand and invoke other ways of sensing and knowing. Moreover, it promises to increase the accessibility and appeal of our work for diverse publics.
However, the logic of universal and discrete “modes” of sensation and communication that informs multimodal anthropology cannot fully contain or convey the actual diversity of sensory practice around the world. In disparate contexts, the senses are identified, counted, separated and combined according to diverse cultural logics. The notion of distinct modes also fails to accommodate for the imbricated, synaesthetic and integrated qualities of human perception.
Intent, like multimodal anthropology, on capturing sensual aspects of life, anthropology of the senses attends to the cultural, historical, and technological contingency of sensation and perception. Anthropologists of the senses point out that even vision, which we often describe as if it were hegemonic among the senses and universal in its operation, is experienced and interpreted in heterogeneous ways not only in very different cultural contexts but also among various communities of practice and in relation to diverse technologies and artifacts—even in the West (see Grasseni 2009). Both disciplines profit from considering physical and neural diversity and disability in order to provincialize universalizing statements about how human sensation and communication operate. Anthropology of media, drawing from theorization of material culture and of religious mediation, offers unique insight on the diversity of philosophies of mediation broadly conceived—that is, not only in the context of technological or audio-visual mediation—that can expand the discussion.
Bringing together scholars engaging in the multimodal turn and those working in the anthropology of the senses, as well as those attempting to integrate these approaches robustly in their current research and representation, this roundtable seeks to questions such as:
How can we, as anthropologists of media, visual anthropologists, and others who participate in and support the multimodal turn better attend to sensory relativism and diversity?
To what extent can the audio-visual media that we tend to employ in multimodal research and representation convey sensory experience beyond vision and hearing and communicate across divides of sensory difference?
What sorts of creative experiments in ethnographic writing and non-textual representation emerge when attending to and attempting to convey the various ways in which the senses are practiced and interpreted?