Through Navajo Eyes

Cobb is a blogger I really like reading because he constantly surprises me with his razor sharp perceptions and unusual takes. Professionally he is a programmer, a poet, a self styled yuppie, and a thoughtful dad. His bio is here, and the one line version reads: ‘Dad, architect, writer, entrepreneur’. His Normblog profile is here. This tidbit cropped up in a discussion on the interaction of TV coverage and our presidential candidates:

Which goes to the point of the drab and stilted way we have come to experience intelligent exchanges of ideas through television. But think about how quickly we recognize it when we’re channel surfing. You will know within a second or less as you are channel-surfing if you are seeing a televangelist, an informercial, a motivational speaker, a standup comic, a reporter on location, or a PBS documentary. It’s really that cliche, and the media does absolutely nothing about it.

Within a second or less…that’s true. Are we dealing with memes here? Not really. Its more than the recognizable template that content is jammed into by our media minders. Its the stylized form of particular types of show that is instantly recognizable. You don’t even need to hear the words of a soap opera character to recognize the genre – the tone of voice is enough. And the visual aspect of TV carries even more of the basic clues that we recognize so quickly.

Training media studies teachers in the seventies when portable TV gear was new, I found that 10 year olds could spontaneously do a pretty recognizable job of news presentation obviously modeled on the TV newscasts they had seen. Evidently with TV, modeling is such a powerful factor that once a way of doing a particular type of show has been established everyone accepts it and just repeats it. Some world travel or even watching a bit of multicultural TV like Australia’s SBS will quickly reveal these stylistic forms vary from culture to culture. For example, the Latin American way of announcing a GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLL in a soccer match.

The most revealing analysis I have ever encountered of how culturally determined our ways of seeing and therefore using the camera are, is from an early seventies anthropological study entitled Through Navajo Eyes The research team decided to place the tools of their research into their subjects’ hands and discovered that the way Westerners take motion picture shots was not culturally universal. The Navajo refused to take many of the ‘obvious’ shots. The Navajos using the cameras understood perfectly well what they were doing and what the end result would be, but it turned out that what was determining what could and could not be photographed was cultural. For example, the materials that were to be used in a particular ceremony or ritual were filmed with no resistance, but the moment they were used in a way deemed sacred within Navajo culture only long shots were taken. That is only a small part of what the researchers, Sol Worth and John Adair. discovered but it brings into sharp relief how many of the conventions that allow us to instantly recognize a particular genre are very much culturally determined. Here is a key passage from Through Navajo Eyes:

….it has become clear that people manipulate objects
that stand for, or refer to, things in a variety of ways: that people
manipulate symbols, and furthermore that they manipulate sym-
bols-speech and pictures, for example-in different ways, for
different purposes, at different times. There seems sufficient evi-
dence that such manipulations and uses of symbols and symbolic
forms or modes are patterned, have regularity and structures,
and in some cases have rules of use which are understood or used
widely enough within a culture to assume the theoretical level of
a theory or a grammar.

It is the ‘patterns, regularity and structure’ that we recognize. And we know instantly if a ‘rule’ has been broken or anything is out of place. For example, sexual taboos can vary subtly from culture to culture. I noticed when I moved to Australia in the mid seventies that the then American TV convention of never showing bras on a live model, did not exist in Australia. I discovered a reverse example many years later when I brought back a selection of American TV commercials to show my Australian media studies teachers. When a highly euphemistic American ad for vaginal deodorant came on I was surprised by a wall of acutely embarrassed laughter from the class. I had failed to notice that the stuff was not at the time advertised on Australian TV.

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