Of Cultural, Poetic, and Medial Alterity: The Scholarship, Poetry, Photographs, and Films of Edward Sapir, Ruth Fulton Benedict, and Margaret Mead
Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and co-directed by Philipp Schweighauser, Walter Leimgruber, and Gabriele Rippl, this three-year research project (2014-2017) brings together literary scholars and cultural anthropologists to explore convergences between three types of alterity: cultural alterity (the otherness of the cultures anthropologists study), poetic alterity (the use of poetry in anthropological investigation), and medial alterity (the use of then non-conventional media such as photographs and films in anthropological investigation) in the work of three preeminent cultural anthropologists: Sapir, Benedict, and Mead, who conceptualized 'culture' and 'cultural relativism,' two of the most influential concepts in the twentieth-century social sciences.
Out of the three, it is Mead who has become famous for experimenting with media other than the standard ethnographic text already in the 1930s, particularly photography and film. What is less known is that, together, our three anthropologists wrote over 500 poems, dedicated poems to one another, and published a good number of them in renowned literary magazines such as The Dial and Poetry. This prolific, collaborative poetic output, much of which engages with the objects of the writers' anthropological investigations, makes them a unique group in the history of 20th-century Cultural Anthropology: they were the only anthropologists of the era that left a sizeable (yet sorely understudied) body of poetry. Along with their ethnographic writings and relevant selections from Mead's ethnographic films and photographs, these texts and (audio)visual media form the corpus of our research project.
To date, neither our anthropologists' poems nor Mead's photographs and films have been the subjects of a sustained study: previous literary scholarship has analyzed but a fraction of the poems, largely from biographical perspectives that are in danger of reducing the poems to their authors' personal lives, and most of Mead's photographs and films still linger unexamined in the Library of Congress. The current project proposes to close this gap by asking what difference it makes whether one evokes the cultural Other in standard expository ethnographic prose, in poetic language, or in (what used to be) non-conventional media of ethnographic representation such as celluloid and photographic prints. In tackling this question, we aim at presenting the first sustained study of Sapir's, Benedict's, and Mead's poetic oeuvres; strive for a canon-revising intervention in the history of US modernism as well as the twentieth-century history of anthropology; and propose a reassessment of Mead's role in the development of visual anthropology that takes into account the aesthetic/aisthetic nature of her work.