Questions of Scope: The Reel and the Réel

The new time sense of typographic man is cinematic and sequential and pictorial.

Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962: 241)


These virtual depths of time give each moment its openness, its potential to sustain creative transformation.

Anand Pandian, Reel World (2015: 139)


Pandian’s richly detailed, exquisite set of ethnographic vignettes of Tamil filmmakers, linked together by a chain of experiential concepts such as time, space, hope, and dream, set out a number of claims about the nature of experience and creation. In approaching these claims, we, as his audience, must be attentive to questions of scope—the field of our vision as we attempt to draw out which people, on what basis, and with what degree of certainty we are to take them. These are epistemological issues surrounding a book that never explicitly discusses epistemology, inevitably running the risk that we will splice together perspectives that were never meant to be brought together by the author. Yet, because it is also a book about the nature of anthropological experience and writing, Reel World may unsettle its audiences who come from outside what he calls the “tradition of quasi-literary realist prose called ethnography” (14). But here I suspect that ‘realist’ has a very different sense than I intend it. Among social scientists, then, how should the realist understand Reel World?

At times in reading the text, we are confronted by claims of almost unimaginable vastness, a telescopic view of the cinematic cosmos that takes for granted a universal scope of human experience, as when drawing from Henri Bergson’s thoughts on time in the quotation above (138-9). Pandian asks us to take these arguments ex hypothesi, from which we might then draw deductive inferences from the Tamil case. These European and essentially pre-cinematic axioms deserve our critical attention, when their scope is drawn so broadly. Gell’s (1992) more broadly anthropological perspective outlining non-human, social, and personal time, equally experiential and hardly less universal, would have the advantage of comparative breadth. On what basis ought we to prefer Bergson’s axioms over any other? In places the lens is vast, very far indeed from Pandian’s stated intention “to write from someplace closer to things” (279).

Or, rather, are we meant to take Reel World chiefly as a particularistic and inductive account, a microscopic vision of a narrowly defined (yet fluid) set of agents in a complex and rapidly transforming socio-technical setting, from which patterns and explanations emerge? Here, too, questions emerge. In the deeply hierarchical, deeply gendered context of Tamil cinematic creation, where “belligerent masculinity” is a trope of “nakedly commercial films” (97), it is hardly a surprise that among the audience for these films, men outnumber women by a greater than two-to-one ratio (43). Faced with these stark realities, we must ask whether the local world of creation Pandian describes can possibly support the generalizing, almost nomothetic claims brought forth about the agency of concepts in their creators’ work. Alternately, from these patterns we might draw a very different conclusion, one where exclusion and hierarchy construct an industry of experience far-removed from its potential audience, where the filmmaker’s sensation is wrongly taken as “proxies for the likely reactions of their eventual audiences” (7). Does The Reel World do the same to some of its potential audiences?

Yet a third possibility is that we are meant to take the scope of the claims as something in between these extremes, as a set of assertions about the particular ways in which living in a cinematized world of mediated experience shapes the human creative process. This would be McLuhan’s view, in the quotation above, or in anthropology, Edmund Carpenter’s (1974). Without seeking to make a specious technological deterministic argument, this mediated perspective of intermediate scope links reality, technology, and individual perception. While it is not the tradition from which Pandian draws his insights, the text invites questions along these lines. To what degree, and in what ways, does the technology of film transform perception and cognition, not only in the Tamil-speaking world, but among the contemporary filmmaking community of practice? In what ways do changing media and the attitudes about film interplay? And how might we show this to be the case in a way that convinces the reader that this is not a mirage? One sees the potential for an argument that filmmaking constitutes an activity system integrating individuals, activities, and technology. How might Edwin Hutchins (1995) regard the complex ways in which the filmmakers of Reel World think through things, live, and perceive time and space through situated, extended, and distributed cognition, parallel to the action of navigation teams? How might we draw inferences from this abundantly chaotic ethnographic material? To those of us who find realist perspectives grounding, Reel World is unsettling—but the choice to ignore it seems deeply unsatisfactory.

All of these are ultimately epistemologically-grounded issues concerning how we plausibly, convincingly, verifiably, or refutably use evidence to draw conclusions. Too often, realist and non-realist traditions in anthropology are not in conversation with one another about how we do what we do, and why. Pandian is rightly aware (6-7) of the importance of Reel World as one of the first anthropological engagements with filmmaking since Powdermaker (1950). This importance makes it all the more urgent that we take seriously the question of whether we are evaluating philosophical premises using ethnographic evidence, using evidence to draw generalizations, or something else entirely. If we as an audience are dissatisfied at the end of the creation, let it not be because either party was unaware or uncaring about the underpinnings of our perceptual and cognitive experience.



Carpenter, E.  1974. Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me! New York: Bantam Books.

Gell, A.  1992. The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford: Berg.

Hutchins, E.  1995. Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McLuhan, M.  1963. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Powdermaker, H.  1950. Hollywood, the Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-Makers. Boston: Little, Brown.


Stephen Chrisomalis is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University.  He is the author of Numerical Notation: A Comparative History (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-editor of Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger (Toronto, 2013).  He blogs on anthropology and linguistics at Glossographia.

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