When technology and ethnographic curiosity meet, the result often is a huge body of data – mostly consisting of recordings and data stored in all varieties of the current technical standards. In five chapters, each one quite enthralling, Brian Hochman elaborates on various researchers, field studies and vanishing cultures, with subjects as Plains Indian sign talk, early music and folklore recording, the vernacular sounds of Afro-Creole communities, Robert and Frances Flaherty’s films, Samoan social life, and rare and invaluable National Geographic Magazine’s autochrome (full color) photography from the 1920s.
Equally important are his references to the technology that was used and improved by and by. Hochman basically covers the brief, but highly productive period roughly from 1875 – 1925, that was famous for its innumerable technological advancements. It is worth mentioning that he gives emphasis to the rather unknown researchers, so the celebrated individuals of field recording and early ethnographic photography – whose work is already documented in detail – are not part of the volume.
Documenting the primitive life and the simple civilizations was suddenly possible with the use of modern media, using film, phonographs and photography. There was little confidence that those primitive civilizations would endure; a mistake, as we know today. (Fortunately, Hochman quotes numerous texts and speeches by ethnographers and anthropologists with their original vocabulary, so the expressions “primitive,” “barbarous,” “savage,” and all other terms nowadays considered racist or not PC are still present. The original texts give a good impression of how both the common and educated man reasoned, and science operated back then, employing all racist stereotypes, myths and prejudice.)
New improvements in media usage at that time were both fostered and required with the aim to conserve, preserve and store the data found. This, in turn, helped to make ethnography a popular science in the US, since the discipline could easily provide evidence of its research by playing phonographs and cylinder recordings, or presenting films and pictures. This “cultural preservation,” apart from establishing theories of communication, social behavior and other things relevant to documentation, also had a high entertainment value that was gratefully received by audiences. Not only was technology now able to capture some remnants of vanishing cultures but the discipline and its authorities felt it their duty to start salvaging immediately since the equipment to do so was now available and the longer ethnographers waited, the more civilization would have disappeared forever, as this was the popular idea that certain civilizations were simply unable to progress beyond their primitive states. As early as the 19th century there was a seemingly logical connection that linked technology and the thinking about race(s).
The lack of written documents or the inability of many cultures to conserve even their own history in writing seemed proof enough that these civilizations simply had to vanish. It was the common belief of historians and ethnographers that the primitive and barbarous races were doomed to disappear since historical forces only left the civilized races to persevere.
But documenting primitive societies was not simply a project for the benefit of those tribes. Simultaneously, the idea persisted that the study of languages (of native American Indians) seemed to offer a unique chance to reveal the secrets of human communication and even the origins of humanity itself. Since English and other European languages had long ago reached a superior stage, they were not suitable for that kind of research anymore.
Many accidental occurrences formed the arsenal of technology we operate with today and it all could have turned out much differently for at various times whole armies of technicians, ethnographers, writers and artist were looking to improve their own equipment and foster the reputation of their individual disciplines.
On another level, there clearly is a strong connection between the ideologies of race and difference. As Hochman elaborates, ethnographic encounters with “disappearing cultures played a key role in the development of audiovisual media during he late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so much so that race and media began to share something or a reciprocal logic in this period: just a much as the presence of audiovisual media structured prevailing beliefs about about race, the mythology of race structured prevailing beliefs about audiovisual media.”
But what would qualify as a documentary effort, what would be documentary evidence and what could be called ethnographic survey? What is left of early documentary footage if we consider it merely a statement of how fast recording technology advanced at the times?
Hochman states that “… the project of cultural preservation catalyzed debates that would shape the contours of media culture in twentieth-century America … In short, the origins of modern media in the United States are distinctly ethnographic.”
He gives a very detailed account of how (early) media even altered and in a way manipulated our experience of otherness when being presented with it in audio or film. For technology can always be used to emphasize certain aspects or a theme, just like any film director wants a scene to transport particular emotions, impressions or even complex ideas and ideologies. “Race produced media, in other words, even as media produced race.”
So what we find here, is the entangled and parallel history of two branches of science, that of ethnography and technology. Thereby Hochman sheds light on strong ties that existed between ethnographers, filmmakers, writers of fiction and photographers. By using the means and strategies of “media archeology,” in Savage Preservation we witness many progressions of technology and inventions, that all originally had different aims, but that for one reason or another today make out a history of media and its technological heirs.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2016
Brian Hochman. Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology. University of Minnesota Press, 2014, 312 p.