The Third Eye

Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle

The Third Eye

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 50 b&w photographs Published: September 1996

Media Studies > Film, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

Charting the intersection of technology and ideology, cultural production and social science, Fatimah Tobing Rony explores early-twentieth-century representations of non-Western indigenous peoples in films ranging from the documentary to the spectacular to the scientific. Turning the gaze of the ethnographic camera back onto itself, bringing the perspective of a third eye to bear on the invention of the primitive other, Rony reveals the collaboration of anthropology and popular culture in Western constructions of race, gender, nation, and empire. Her work demonstrates the significance of these constructions—and, more generally, of ethnographic cinema—for understanding issues of identity.
In films as seemingly dissimilar as Nanook of the North, King Kong, and research footage of West Africans from an 1895 Paris ethnographic exposition, Rony exposes a shared fascination with—and anxiety over—race. She shows how photographic “realism” contributed to popular and scientific notions of evolution, race, and civilization, and how, in turn, anthropology understood and critiqued its own use of photographic technology. Looking beyond negative Western images of the Other, Rony considers performance strategies that disrupt these images—for example, the use of open resistance, recontextualization, and parody in the films of Katherine Dunham and Zora Neale Hurston, or the performances of Josephine Baker. She also draws on the work of contemporary artists such as Lorna Simpson and Victor Masayesva Jr., and writers such as Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin, who unveil the language of racialization in ethnographic cinema.
Elegantly written and richly illustrated, innovative in theory and original in method, The Third Eye is a remarkable interdisciplinary contribution to critical thought in film studies, anthropology, cultural studies, art history, postcolonial studies, and women’s studies.


“[A] stunning, sophisticated study of the overlapping discourses of anthropology and film and the ways they meet at the body of the indigenous subject.” — Traise Yamamoto, Signs

“Rony develops a critique of Western ethnography, anthropology, and film in the early twentieth century, describing and exploding the myth of white colonial supremacy propagated since the birth of these disciplines. . . . Rony’s analysis is both thorough and entertaining, alternately putting us in the shoes of the first ethnographers who used film to record their ‘primitive’ subjects, and then into the minds of the subjects themselves, people of color from Alaska to Africa who found themselves both amused and antagonized by these pitiful white men who tried to get them to fit into a stereotype.” — Melissa Lin, Pacific Reader

The Third Eye is an extraordinary contribution to both film history and the theorization of the ethnographic gaze. Informed by Rony’s close involvement with contemporary art practice and documentary film production, this fascinating book breaks with familiar genres of academic writing to provide an exciting new take on practices of ethnographic looking, the cultural history of the body, and the racial and sexual politics of visual culture in colonial science.” — Lisa Cartwright, University of Rochester


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Fatimah Tobing Rony is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. The Third Eye 3

I. Inscription

1. Seeing Anthropology: Felix-Louis Regnault, the Narrative of race, and the Performers at the Ethnographic Exposition 21

2. The Writing of Race in Film: Felix-Louis Regnault and the Ideology of the Ethnographic Film Archive 45

II. Taxidermy

3. Gestures of Self-Protection: The Picturesque and the Travelogue 77

4. Taxidermy and Romantic Ethnography: Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North 99

III. Teratology

5. Time and Redemption in the "Racial Film" of the 1920s and 1930s 129

6. King Kong and the Monster in Ethnographic Cinema 157

Conclusion. Passion of Remembrance: Facing the Camera/Grabbing the Camera 193

Notes 219

Bibliography 265

Index 289
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Co-Winner, 1998 Katherine Singer Kovacs Award, Society for Cinema Studies

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1840-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1834-7
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