Guiding Lines

The author guidelines for Postmodern Culture, by its own account one of the first scholarly journals to be published on the Internet, includes the following note with respect to the publication of images, sound, animations, and full-motion video, alongside text: “Bear in mind that your document still needs to be intelligible without the multimedia elements, because many readers will not be able to see these elements.”

This statement is phrased almost like a reminder (an obvious, empirical reality that any potential contributor should know) rather than as a guideline or suggestion (something to consider or take into account, a perspective that might be a novel way of looking at a problem). Yet it does more than remind us of the continued existence of a digital divide in terms of access and infrastructure among scholarly journal readers, even while this is a critical point. The statement also prompts a basic questioning of the fundamental purpose(s) of using, including, and producing multimedia elements in/as our publications.

How, we might ask, do these elements make our scholarship (more) intelligible? Why include sound or animations or video or even images alongside text? Conversely, why include text at all? What do each of these elements do for/with/to the other and, if one element is not available, will the whole structure fall, Jenga-like?

I pose these questions because, as anthropological writers and researchers, these are exciting times for thinking alongside text in our publications. Today, multiple media forms can quite easily be integrated with one another: video displayed next to text, sound files embedded near images, images lingering next to animations, text everywhere or, indeed, nowhere. In this commentary, what I refer to as multimedia scholarship usually does include text as one of the elements that, together with visual or audio elements, make a scholarly argument. The recent launches of the Sound + Vision section in Cultural Anthropology, Writing with Light (as a collaboration between Visual Anthropology Review and Cultural Anthropology), the new Multimodal Anthropologies section of American Anthropologist, and the image-centered, design-focused spreads featured in Visual Anthropology Review are neither mere coincidence nor cookie-cutter models of one another. Rather, they are variations on a theme, similar and yet divergent efforts not only to rethink publication formats but also to reimagine anthropological knowledge production.

New and Shiny and Moving

When the Cultural Anthropology editorial team presented the first set of Sound + Vision articles during a journal editors meeting in Minneapolis last November, I was impressed. I think it is fair to say that pretty much everyone at the meeting was. Beyond the thrill of the new, shiny (and moving!) objects projected before us, I saw that the initiative reflects a deeper investment in creative, critical scholarship: a desire to create and sustain anthropological publishing and thinking that employs and advances the multiple, diverse, and sometimes difficult forms of scholarly communication and production that many of us utilize, but then feel forced to funnel into the more familiar form of text, perhaps accompanied by a few still images, that remains standard in the discipline.

The commitment to peer review and the investment in a (more) stable infrastructure for digital preservation at the core of Sound + Vision are vitally important steps toward being able to support mediated forms as analysis and argument in contemporary anthropology. The Writing with Light photo-essay project has embraced a similar commitment to transparent and productive peer review, and its curatorial collective has labored over the question of how to review submissions in a way that engages with the possibilities of images and visual juxtaposition while also insisting upon analytical and critical rigor.

Yet peer review and digital preservation alone do not necessarily, inspire, motivate, or prompt—let alone produce—anthropological multimedia work. To be sure, attention to these processes can go a long way in helping to address the perennial question of “will it count?” This question justifiably keeps makers of nontraditional scholarship up at night; the anxieties and concerns about how this work will be received by various gatekeepers are real, and they are refracted in ongoing efforts to convene conference sessions on the topic and to revise and reissue evaluation guidelines (such as the statement on the evaluation of ethnographic visual media by the Society for Visual Anthropology).

But Postmodern Culture’s statement about the intelligibility of multimedia work reminds us of another set of questions that are too often overshadowed, or washed over, by all of the counting. This is where I see an important gap in our conversations and celebrations of our multiply mediated futures. Rather than focusing on the end product, the published multimedia piece, I contend that the discussion not happening enough in journals, at conferences, and in classrooms is a dialogue around the question: is this work intelligible, and how?

Testing Media(ted) Arguments

I do not mean to suggest that every multimedia publication must be able to stand alone if stripped down to its individual components: just text, just images, just sound, just video. But I do mean to propose that we need to pay greater attention to these components and their relationships to one another in the prepublication phases of a piece’s life: the researching, analyzing, writing, editing, re-editing, rewriting, presenting, re-presenting, writing again, editing again, resizing, and exporting phases that come before submission for publication. And by “pay greater attention,” I mean that anthropologists making multimedia arguments ought to spend just as much effort on questions of process—refining arguments, breaking apart elements and putting them back together again, facing questions and challenges—as they do in seminars, workshops, and other well-established forums for putting their written arguments to the test.

In other words, when it comes to textual production, it is understood that an author will practice ideas in public. The spaces for this kind of practice are known and recognized as such; directly or not, they contribute to the final evaluation of the work (and the author). It is less conventional, however, to recognize and craft spaces for the practice of nontextual or multimedia works in anthropology—spaces that, in a fine arts or architecture graduate program, might be called critique or studio. To be clear, there have been efforts to give space and time to multimedia works-in-progress in shared academic contexts: the Visual Research Conference organized annually by the Society for Visual Anthropology for over thirty years, the Screening Scholarship Media Festival at the University of Pennsylvania, and the biennial Politics and Poetics Documentary Research Symposium, among others. Degree programs and special topics classes can construct such spaces for students and teachers; the popularity of the model/metaphor of the laboratory as an idealized space in the social sciences attests to a desire for more institutionalized room to work together. But within anthropology, events and conversations about critical media production as scholarly methodology (distinct from media methods for fieldwork or data collection) still seem like exceptions and, as such, exceptional.

What is Lost and What is Gained

Here, then, are some questions for the editors of Cultural Anthropology as they continue to develop the Sound + Vision initiative: How might the journal offer a few guiding lines for anthropologists trying to feel their way through the maze of media practice? And how might such guidelines incorporate the sort of prepublication multimedia practice that I have described? As co-editor of Visual Anthropology Review, I am very invested in ways to encourage more production of and more engagement with the multiple media through which anthropologists can and do make work. One way of doing this, as I have suggested, is to remind ourselves that not all readers can access all of the elements of multimedia work—whether because of infrastructural limitations, time constraints, or a lack of familiarity with a particular genre or form—and then to ask ourselves what might be lost or gained in removing or adding one element or another. This might mean taking out an image, adding a new video, streamlining text, or any number of other combinations.

It is in working with and working through that ideas become intelligible. As anthropologists, we know this to be true of the lived experiences we study. Perhaps, as makers and writers, we can learn to apply the same principle to the multiple media at hand as we practice and produce new, creatively critical work.