9: The Adventures of Mark and Olly: The Pleasures and Horrors of Anthropology on TV
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157 9 The Adventures of Mark and Olly The Pleasures and Horrors of Anthropology on TV James B. Hoesterey If images lie, why are they so palpable of the life between us? I want to look, sometimes sidelong, at the spaces between the filmmaker and the subject: of imagery and language, of memory and feeling. These are spaces charged with ambiguity, but are they not also the spaces in which consciousness is created? David MacDougall (1998, 25) Taking a cue from MacDougall’s questions about the spaces between filmmakers and subjects, in this chapter I reflect on my experiences as anthropological advisor for several documentary programs broadcast internationally on Discovery Channel, National Geographic International, Travel Channel, and the BBC.1 In my roles as translator, cultural broker, and “fact-checker,” I learned about how television executives conceive, produce, and market primitivist media in the digital age. This chapter draws from these experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—but I direct most of my analytical gaze toward Travel Channel’s reality TV series Living with the Mek: The Adventures of DOI: 10.5876/9781607321705.c09 158 James B. Hoesterey Mark and Olly.2 The production company Cicada Films cast Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds as two swashbuckling British adventurers who meticulously evoke the essential features of classic Malinowskian participant observation. Ex-military officer and survivalist Mark yearns to learn the ancient lore of noble savages who live, supposedly, in ecological equilibrium. Olly, an investigative reporter and “explorer-adventurer,” is intent on capturing the final glimpse of disappearing worlds. The “voice-of-God” narration from the series teaser sets the tone of exploration: British explorers Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds are extreme travelers with a difference. They’re on a unique expedition in one of the most remote places on earth [shots of Olly and Mark in a London flat, looking at map of their destination, which reads, “Relief Data Incomplete”]. Their goal, to live with the mysterious Mek tribe [shots of Mek wielding axes, firing arrows], whose ancient way of life has barely changed for thousands of years . . . and they can only be found deep in the tropical highlands of West Papua. The Mek are hunters and farmers who speak their own language and have a tradition of tribal warfare, ancient rituals, and superstition. In the village of Merengmen, the tribe had never met a Westerner until Mark and Olly’s expedition arrived. But can these two adventurers survive Mek life? [shots of Mark firing arrows]. Mark’s a former soldier who travels the world, learning ancient survival techniques. Olly’s a different kind of explorer. He’s a journalist driven to record the traditions of the world’s most remote tribes before they disappear forever [shots of Mark and Olly wearing penis gourds, carrying bows and arrows]. Now for Mark and Olly it’s total immersion in a totally different world [shots of natives screaming, crying, fighting, and dying]. In this chapter I examine Mark and Olly as character-subjects whose own desires and fantasies are produced in the editing room and tailored for a television audience. This fantasy of swashbuckling British men who leave the comforts of civilization and travel to distant and foreboding lands has a long history in colonial travelogues and Victorian literature. On Travel Channel’s website, the show’s fans can read Mark and Olly’s journals, ask questions, and swap theories about the program’s shocking cliffhangers. Some viewers fantasize online about the sexual allure of these rugged adventurers. With this focus on Mark and Olly as fantasy characters, I join my colleagues in this volume who would like to push the study of subjectivity beyond a Western humanist notion of the embodied anthropos. I also turn the ethnographic lens inward, on both myself and our discipline, to reflect on how anthropologists look at Others looking at Others. By examining anthropologists’ responses to the celebrated film Cannibal Tours, I explore Nicholas Thomas reference to “forms of contemporary colonialism which left-liberal culture in the West is not dissociated from, but deeply implicated in” (1994, 170). I conclude by suggesting that some of our anthropological critiques (and the belief in anthropological 159 The Adventures of Mark and Olly exceptionalism on which they rest) display the very colonial proclivities of the primitivist media and pop ethnographers against which we argue. The Gaze of Humanism: Visions of Anthropology, Versions of Cultural Critique There is no shortage of critiques—from anthropology, art history, cultural studies, and...



Subject Headings

  • Anthropology -- Philosophy.
  • Cybernetics -- Philosophy.
  • Online social networks.
  • Computers and civilization.
  • Virtual reality.
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