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Franz Boas and Anthropology in the Age of Technical Media

Ute Holl


Pages 517 - 540



For Franz Boas, the art of describing cultures exceeds the mere surveillance of people’s behavior as visual phenomena. Instead, all anthropological research requires a constant reflection of possible rules inherent not only in the cultures observed but also in the observers’ cultural techniques. Technical media, which Boas took into the field from his first excursions onward— photography, wax cylinder phonography, and cinematography—not only record or transmit information, but have to be considered as a fundamental reorganization of perception and a redistribution of the senses. These processes of transformation concern the culturally formed bodies of researchers and informants, as well as mutual transformations between cultures. Boas’s approach, which fundamentally criticizes classification and universalism in anthropology, is thus based on that kind of critical reflection that aesthetics conceives of as culturally formed perception. Boas’s use of media, my essay argues, discovers a third space of mutual transference between media techniques and ritualistic forms. The article takes its cue from Boas performing for a diorama series, personifying a figure that, in a critical moment, escapes the cannibalistic spirit Baxbaxalanuxsiwae. In following this figure through a series of media transformations, anthropology is, according to Boas, conceived of as a permanent negotiation of values and power relations. The specific virtue of technical media is to integrate bodies and the senses as archives of singular historical and cultural experiences.

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