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Reviewed by:
  • Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community
  • Sabra Thorner
Jennifer Deger , Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 256 pp.

In Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community, anthropologist Jennifer Deger draws from fieldwork conducted March 1995-October 1997 in the Yolngu community of Gapuwiyak, in Australia's remote far north, to explore how media technologies strengthen indigenous culture. This monograph is a significant contribution to the now-robust subfield of anthropology, indigenous media, and adds important insights to an increasingly interdisciplinary conversation about how traditional modes of producing subjectivity are both incorporated and reconfigured by new visual media forms. Deger relies on a phenomenological approach to simultaneously emphasize embodied, experiential knowledge as constitutive of aboriginal meaning making and to interrogate the relationship of seeing and knowing in all our lives, especially in the complex navigation across sameness and difference that is a perennial challenge of anthropological inquiry. [End Page 357]

The Prologue, Introduction, and Chapter 1 provide an intensively self-reflexive account of Deger's path to knowledge, detailing her methods of fieldwork, analysis, and ethnography-writing. The Prologue begins with a 1997 studio photograph of Bangana Wunungmurra, Deger's main informant, his family, and their adopted anthropologist (Deger herself). Through a close reading of this image, Deger seeks to subvert early anthropological traditions of image-taking and image-making; and assert that there is much that this photograph does not show: a long history of cross-cultural engagement mediated by multiple visual technologies; claims to culture, tradition, or modernity the subjects might be making; and the power of the photograph-object to evoke memory, imagination, relatedness. Deger expands her self-positioning in the Introduction, constructing herself as a deeply involved, critical participant in the media-making about which she writes, interested in the complex nexus of new technologies, imagination, and cultural production occurring in a particular historical moment. She seeks to understand how and why Yolngu use various media (including photography, video, and radio) to extend traditional ontologies and produce community cohesiveness, yet also allow space in the anthropological endeavor for dissonant and incomplete knowledge. Chapter 1 traces how Deger came to work in this northeast Arnhem Land community, develop a unique relationship with cultural broker Wunungmurra, and subsequently foreground their collaboration as her primary source of ethnographic data.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 provide intellectual scaffolding for the ethnographic examples of still and moving-image production, circulation, and reception which Deger presents in the second half of the book. Chapter 2 is a literature review of Deger's predecessors in indigenous media: Eric Michaels' work with Walpiri in Australia's Central Desert was the first to situate media texts within broader social relations; working with Kayapo in the Brazilian Amazon, Terence Turner asserted that video could be imbued with local indigenous values; and finally, through multi-sited research in Australia, Faye Ginsburg has been instrumental in forging indigenous media as a global form of cultural activism, expressing and producing contemporary indigenous subjectivities. From these foundational scholars, Deger then considers the work of visual anthropologist David MacDougall and film theorist Laura Marks, both of whom emphasize the phenomenological dimensions of making films about culture. Finally, in this chapter, Deger adapts philosopher Martin Heidegger's position that the relationship between media technologies and the production of knowledge is co-constitutive. [End Page 358]

In Chapter 3, Deger applies these thematic constructs to a specifically Yolngu context. Seeking to transcend the dualistic models of traditional anthropologists' imaginations, she argues that new technologies do not inherently damage or inhibit indigenous sensory perceptions, but rather, can and do mediate the Ancestral as constitutive of contemporary Yolngu life. It is in this chapter that Deger coins the "Ancestral Always" as a substitute for the "Dreaming" or "Dreamtime," preferring the former for its resonance with a Yolngu cultural logic in which the past inheres in the present (see Deger 2006:81, 233n17); all three terms are English-language approximations of indigenous systems of cosmology, law, and interrelatedness between persons, places, and things. In Chapter 4, Deger elucidates the work of Walter Benjamin and Michael Taussig on mimesis, and then departs from...


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