Beyond the written word

Philosophical essay

Understanding human behaviour through
an assemblage of different media.

Table of Contents

Humans are sensual, emotional, speaking and material beings (Sniadecki 2014). How then come, that if the human is such a sensory being, that we try to translate its behavior into language, thus, the written word? How come, that the social sciences seek to understand and explain human actions and behavior and their consequences through the written word? Rosenberg (2016, 122-124) argues that human action is explained and understood by interpreting it and give it meaning and significance. This meaning and significance is given, so he argues, by rules and norms. And to do so, he presents language as the central idea of understanding and making sense of human action.

Contesting the idea of language

Anthropologist J.P. Sniadecki and artist Joshua Bonnetta contest the idea of the language as the central medium of understanding and translating meaning with their experimental documentary El Mar La Mar (Imdb 2019). The film is an immersive experience showing and exploring the Sonoran Desert on the US-Mexico border. The Sonoran Desert is one of the most dangerous border-crossing sites on earth. In the last 20 years more than 7’000 migrants have died of heatstroke, dehydration and hyperthermia during the attempt to cross this liminal landscape (Turner 2018). It tells the stories of migrants crossing the harsh environment of the desert through a vivid sound, audio and image montage. It addresses a highly contested political and social issue with a poetic exploration of the environment through a juxtaposition of human horror and the natural splendor. The film assembles the lifeworlds from both sides of the border in order to explore the predicament of the migrants. Their desperation to start the walk into the forbidden desert is represented through various sound and audio scapes. “It’s the use of sound, rather than image, that gives the film an extra dimension” (Ide 2018). This is namely because sometimes “the interviews run against a black screen with zero information about who’s talking” (Clarke 2018). However, rather than creating a distance to the speakers, mostly undocumented migrants, Turner (2018) argues that “this disembodiment of voice empowers the subjects and serves to mythologize their narratives”.

El Mar La Mar can be seen as an example of sensual and open-ended ethnography, a new way of seeing and especially representing the complexity of reality. It can be seen as a counter to the narrow-mindedness and habitual way of experiencing and representing the world through the linguistic framework of the written word (Sniadecki 2014). Schiebelbein (2015) argues that “Sniadecki avoids linguistic interpretive frames that pin down any singular meaning, liberating the perception of the spectator. He relies on the revelatory power of the image, not to reveal some sort of inherent message, but to bare fully the excess and ambiguity of cultural meaning that warrants multiple angles of interpretation”. Drawing from this notion, I would argue that Sniadecki’s approach to explaining human action is an extension of Rosenberg’s (2016, 168) definition of the the interpretive social science. By not holding on to the written word, and opening up to various other forms of representation, Sniadecki contests Quine’s claim of the indeterminacy of translation (Rosenberg 2016, 168). MacDougall (1998, 79) even goes one step further and argues that “new concepts of anthropological knowledge are being broached in which meaning is not merely the outcome of reflection upon experience but necessarily includes the experience. In part, then, the experience is the knowledge”.

To substantiate the argument of thinking beyond the medium of the written word in order to translate meaning and create knowledge about human behavior, I will first elaborate on the linguistic framework of the written word. This will highlight the restrictions and limitations of the medium of the written word in the social sciences. After that I will explore alternative translation options and argue that a collaboration of art and anthropology can create the basis of thinking outside the “academic” box and open up new routes of knowledge. In the conclusion I will briefly wrap up the essay and state my final argument.

Alternative translation options

Where the written word isolates cultures from the sensible word, Sniadecki (2014) offers another way to relate the sensory to the intelligible, namely through media anthropology. Media anthropology to him, “proceeds neither through the reductionism of abstract language nor the subordination of image and sound to argument, but instead through the expansive potential of aesthetic experience and experiential knowledge” (Sniadecki 2014, 26). In other words, it is expanding the field of knowledge production by an open-ended, wide-ranging and experiential approach to ethnography, including various mediums beyond the written word. Setting up a balance of the verbal and the nonverbal. Furthermore, it is not trying to set up a dichotomy between meaning and being, but instead sees them as interconnected and intertwined. This means that other mediums are used to not only tell, which the written word does, but also show the meaning individuals ascribe to things. In this sense “new concepts of anthropological knowledge are being broached in which meaning is not merely the outcome of reflection upon experience but necessarily includes the experience. In part, then, the experience is the knowledge” (MacDougall 1998, 79). The reflection on the experiences in the field hereby lies not only by the researcher, but the spectator is part of the sensorial experience of being there. With this, this alternative framework of translation, acknowledges that there is a sensory dimension which goes lost when translating meanings into the written word.

Even though ethnography has been an observation-based method of studying cultures, there has always been an underuse of visual images in it. However, there is an increasing awareness that mediums other than the written word are an important too (O’Reilly 2012). “Multimedia ethnography, as a conceptual and creative descendant of literary and visual ethnography, clearly demonstrates the boundary crossing that increasingly characterizes academic practice” (Underberg and Zorn 2013, 17). Other than visual anthropology, multimedia anthropology uses a diverse set of media to communicate multisensory experience and knowledge. It furthermore acknowledges that culture is more than being and thinking, but that meanings can also arise from feelings, desires, beliefs and other sensory engagement in the world. It actively investigates in the integration of technology into cultural representation, in order to get new insights into cultures. This approach opens up an nonlinear narrativity, which goes beyond the possibilities of the the written word, in order to translate meaning (Underberg and Zorn 2013). This means that different mediums offer valuable, yet different, ways of representing knowledge. The potential therefore lies in the new ways of interlinking these various forms of knowledge with each other (Underberg and Zorn 2013, 4).

In order to interlink the various mediums and create an added value compared to the simple text-based realist paradigm that still dominates anthropological representation, Schneider and Wright (in Strohm, 2012) argue that one needs to bring contemporary art into the debate. A collaboration between art and anthropology offers the chance for anthropology to “new ways of seeing” and “new ways of working with visual materials” (Strohm 2012, 109). Hereby, art is interpreted as an experimental, open-ended and non-linear approach to a variety of visual and audio mediums (Schneider 2008, 171) in order to appropriate and represent the Other. This is where art and anthropology already come together, since they share a common object of representation (Strohm 2012). This collaboration of the two disciplines creates the basis to think outside the “academic” box, since it goes beyond visual anthropology, which in its origin, still is a text-based discipline, following a linear narrative (Schneider 2008). However, bringing in art opens up the possibilities to the free play of text and image, and to let go “tendency in anthropology to produce texts that frequently enclose forcible completion” (Strohm 2012, 112). In other words, combining anthropology with contemporary art, opens up the possibility for anthropology to embrace an open-ended and ongoing representation of changing cultures, away from categorizations and essentialism.


This essay has elaborated on the limitations and restrictions of the translation of meaning through the written word. This argument has been built up by drawing from Quine’s concept of “the indeterminacy of  translation”, through which he claims that it is impossible to ever adequately translate meaning from one language to another. Here, I only partially agree with Quine. Yes, it is hard to translate meaning. However, so I argue, we should let go language and the written words, and embrace other ways of translating and representing cultures and their meanings. This argument is mainly focussed on anthropology, since its biggest aim is to see the world through the researched culture. Ultimately, this would mean, not to translate meaning into the fixed linguistic framework of the english academic language, but embrace the methods and mediums from other disciplines, such as art, to think beyond this “academic” box.

This is where Sniadecki’s and Bonnetta’s experimental documentary El Mar La Mar comes in, combining the disciplines of art and anthropology. It is an sensual and open-ended approach to ethnography, not only using words, but also sound, image and time to translate the meaning migrants ascribe to the Sonoran Desert on the US-Mexico border. The open-endedness of the documentary carries ethical value, “since it does not attempt to conflate cultural complexity into a simple, “educational” argument from the ethnographic outsider” (Schiebelbein 2015). Therefore it opposes the reductionism of the educational argumentative written framework. Furthermore, the immersive act of the documentary opens up experiential forms of representing and presenting knowledge. It does not only tell, but let the spectator into the act of seeing. “He [Sniadecki] prioritizes reflection, contingency, and ambiguity, thus respecting the complexity of his cultural subjects. Knowledge lies in the full experience of the image – seeing it, feeling it, pursuing its multiple avenues of meaning – an encounter far more enlightening than a film invested in the act of telling” (Schiebelbein 2015).

I am very well aware of the fact that the approach of Sniadecki and Bonnetta with El Mar La Mar is also just another way of framing and translating meaning. I would not argue that it succeeds in adequately translate meaning, however, I do argue that this approach opens up new field of knowledge and new routes to knowledge. It makes us think and look beyond the conventional educational argumentative written framework of the academe.

Last but not least, I want to point out one last reflective note on the process of writing this essay. It feels odd to us the medium of the written word in order to highlight its limitations and restrictions. I am certainly aware of that paradoxical aspect. However, I did not aim to argue against the medium of the written word, I much more wanted to argue that we have to go beyond it and embrace other media too. Ultimately, I argue that the written word is certainly powerful in the translation of meaning, nevertheless, it must be supplemented with other media. Each medium has its own limitations and restrictions, although put together they can form a strong mode of translation. The power lies in the combination, the assemblage of different media.


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