From Methodological Asceticism to Methodological Ecstasis - The Participatory Cinema of David and Judith MacDougall

By Prof. Dr. Andreas Ackermann - Keynote speaker

My paper discusses the MacDougalls’ approach to ethnographic documentary within the conceptual framework of methodological asceticism and ecstasis. It is going to show that their exploration of the visual has made an important contribution not only to visual anthropology in particular, but to an adequate anthropological understanding of culture in general. In an article from 1975, David MacDougall called for a “participatory cinema” that would go Beyond Observational Cinema. His main point of critique regarding the then prevailing observational approach was its “methodological asceticism”, limiting itself to that which supposedly occurs naturally and spontaneously in front of the camera. For MacDougall, this positivistic approach leads not only to the exclusion of the filmmaker from the world of his subjects, but also excludes the subjects from the world of the film. As a result, observational cinema becomes a form, in which the observer and the observed exist in separate worlds, producing films that are monologues. MacDougall instead opts for a documentary form that is able to produce dialogues or address conflicting views of reality, dealing with the situation of a representative of one culture holding a camera encountering another. Although MacDougall has since moved from a participatory to an intertextual cinema, his films more than ever bear witness to the event of the film, reveal the role of the filmmaker and bring the viewer into the social experience of his subjects. Thus, film can be more than just an aesthetic or scientific performance: it can become the arena of an inquiry.

Johannes Fabian has made a similar critique with regard to anthropological writing. With “Time and the other” (1983) he argued that anthropology has been constructing its object by negating its coeval existence, while in “Out of our minds” (2000) he criticized the institutionalized elimination of the ethnographer’s bodily presence – a move that he terms an “ascetic withdrawal” from the world of sensory experience. Fabian contrasts this with the “ecstatic” or ecstasis, referring to an approach that transcends the rationalized frames of positivistic science and is interested in sensory dimensions of human experience – for example music, dance, art, material culture – that mediate encounters and make it possible for the participants to transcend their psychological and social boundaries.
From this perspective it is interesting to note that with his latest filming and writing David MacDougall similarly tries to revaluate the status of experience by focusing on the “aesthetics of the social”. His concept of social aesthetics refers to the sensory and aesthetic environment – the tempo of life, the dominant patterns of color, texture, movement, and behavior – characteristics that make the world familiar or strange. Social aesthetics is therefore less concerned with artistic expression and the exercise of taste than with the more mundane and pervasive forms of sensory patterning to be found in society, and the ways in which human beings experience and respond to them. The MacDougall’s visual inquiry into the aesthetic of the social thus leads to new forms of participation – and thus understanding – for the filmmaker, his or her subjects, and the audience.


Andreas Ackermann is Professor for Cultural Anthropology at the University of Koblenz-Landau. His research focuses on identity and migration, particularly diaspora and multiculturalism, as well as visual anthropology. His main regions of research are Germany, the Kurdish areas of the Middle East and Singapore. Currently he is preparing a project on social aesthetics, studying the physical manifestation of actions and objects of largely internalized social orders. His publications in English include:
„Cultural Hybridity – between Metaphor and Empiricism“. In: Stockhammer, Philipp (ed.), 2011: Conceptualizing Cultural Hybridization: A Transdisciplinary Approach. (Transcultural Research. Heidelberg Studies on Asia and Europe in a Global Context) Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer, 5-25.
„Travelling Cultures? On the Concept of Diaspora in Cultural Studies, Illustrated on the Example of the Yezidis“. In: Karentzos, Alexandra / Kittner, Alma-Elisa / Reuter, Julia (Hg.), 2010: Topologies of Travel. Trier: Universitätsbibliothek, 218-228.
„Diaspora, Cyberspace and Yezidism: The Use of the Internet Among Yezidis in Germany”. In: Journal of Kurdish Studies 6, 2008: 54-83. ”The Social Engineering of Culture and Religion in Singapore.” In: Diskus, the On-line Journal of International Religious Studies, Vol. 5, 1999: Special Issue ”Multiculturalism and the Recognition of Religion”.
Ethnic Identity by Design or by Default? A Comparative Study of Multiculturalism in Singapore and Frankfurt am Main. Frankfurt am Main: IKO Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, 1997.

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