A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
With a fascinating lineage spanning from the Treaty of Waitangi to the inception of the first ever state-funded Indigenous television station, New Zealand has proven itself a veritable incubator of the growing intersection between Indigeneity and media. It is therefore appropriate that editors Brendan Hokowhitu and Vijay Devadas take note of this in The Fourth Eye: Māori Media in Aotearoa New Zealand, out now from University of Minnesota Press. Consisting of twelve informative and judicious chapters, this book adroitly combines the political registers of Indigenous Studies with the socio-cultural keenness of Media Studies as a touchstone for probing the legitimacy and future of an “Indigenous Media Studies.” Indeed, this clarion call for such an interdiscipline is a convincing one, especially today where political agency is increasingly bound up in the details of the mediated image.
The works in this impressive volume (part of an equally impressive series called “Indigenous Americans,” edited by Robert Warrior) take the form of incisive analyses of mediated texts, coupled with historical and sociological inquiry of various issues confronting Māori. After a helpful introductory chapter that limns relevant theoretical concepts and political events, as well as tells readers more about Māori’s relationship with media in twenty-six pages than any other book I’ve encountered hitherto, Hokowhitu and Devadas partition their collection into three sections, each with their own theme, namely: (1) Mediated Indigeneity, (2) Indigenous Media, and (3) Maori Television. This structure works well to facilitate a project of this sort. It evinces a symmetry with Hegel’s well-known triadic distinction between thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. As such, this structure mirrors the ways in which the Māori people have increasingly taken up Western media technologies to insert an Indigenous vocality into today’s mediascape.
The first section examines how non-Indigenous media situates the Maori Other within the interpretive grid of the majority Pākehā culture, or white New Zealanders. Its contributors, six in all, devote much space to specifying the various discursive strategies at works in such thetical media. These range from biopolitical manipulation and the visualization of terrorism, as Vijay Devas’s in “Governing Indigenous Sovereignty,” to cultural appropriation, which Jay Scherer explores in his excellent chapter on how the New Zealand All Black’s use of the “Ka Mate,” a traditional Māori dance, naturalizes it as a “dominant cultural symbol of the national imaginary that mythically unites Māori and Pākehā” (47).
Not all of these chapters are as grim, however. In Kevin Fisher and Brendan Hokowhitu’s “Viewing Against the Grain,” they elucidate how some producers of such hegemonic media—here, Pākehā filmmaker Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children (2008)—attempt a sincere ethical “approach to treating Indigenous subjectivities,” even though it ultimately cannot divest itself of its Western cinematic spectacles, as it were. In turn, this reveals the unbridgeable chasm between self and Other (61-62). We therefore find a certain victory in the filmic text: that the Māori Other can never be fully shoehorned into a Pākehā epistemic system, leaving a fecund, opportunistic space for indigenized mediated expression.
Accordingly, Māori have increasingly taken to this new battleground in an effort to produce an antithetical media. The second section explores the emancipatory potential of this Indigenous media, or “Fourth Media,” and gives generous attention to the ways in which Māori filmmakers have mobilized the Western technology of cinema to forge an indigenized mode of discourse. The main pleasure of this section, especially for those interested in film studies, is the attention it gives to concretizing a notion of Fourth Cinema, first propounded by the late Barry Barclay, a political activist, filmmaker, and inveterate theoretician of Indigenous media. Building off Gentino and Solanas’s tripartitioning of the cinematic landscape in “Towards a Third Cinema”—First Cinema being Hollywood, Second Cinema European art films, and Third Cinema guerrilla-like films from (though not necessarily) the Third World—Barclay posited the existence of a Fourth Cinema, a slim body of films which bespeak a bona fide Indigenous sensibility. While the term has critical utility, it “remains little talked about in the university and film-journal world” and thus lends itself to imprecise usage (163). In answer to both these issues, April Strickland’s “Barry Barclay’s Te Rua,” Stephen Turner’s “Reflections on Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema,” and Brendan Hokowhitu’s “Theorizing Indigenous Media” set out to formalize a notion of the term without reducing its tenants to analogues found in Western film practice (“talking in/out,” “megaphone diplomacy,” and “the camera ashore” are just a few examples). For those interested in Indigenous film studies (itself a growing field), this section certainly warrants attention—one only wishes it was longer, perhaps.
In the final (and shortest) section, contributors look at one of the most important occurrences in the Indigenous world: the advent of Māori Televisions Service (MTS), the “first ever state-funded Indigenous television network to go free to air in all households ‘nationally’” in 2004 (xvi). This attainment of a specialized broadcast space, however, shores up a slew of troubling questions. For instance, what’s to be gained from operating within a medium that is by and large an instrument that inculcates ruling class ideology, and moreover, is notoriously subservient to the market logic of use and exchange? Is it, then, in Hegelian terms, just another way to synthesize Māori worldviews into a Western epistemic system? Appropriately, it is these very questions which occupy the three finally chapters.
Chris Pretice’s extremely dense chapter goes the furthest in confronting these issues, and tries to lay bare the attendant contradictions of MTS and offer ways to surmount them. In it, she queries how televisual visibility entails a reification of Indigenous culture, claiming that a “television channel committed to cultural revitalization risks reducing culture to signification through its reification and fixity as signs or images of identities, meanings, events, and processes” (195). Lots of fancy theoretical phraseology there. Put simply, to signify Māori cultural practices is to assign a signifier to these referents, in consequence of which it becomes a concrete, consumable object instead of an abstraction. It becomes synthesized, in “Hegelese.” Rather than conclude her argument with such a lugubrious prognosis, Pretice assures readers there’s some hope. Televisual signification, in Jean Bauldrillard’s sense, possesses a degree of simulation, and by engaging it as such, MTS may “reopen the space between audiovisual culture and the symbolic quality of singularity—unrepresentability—that would sustain tea ao Māori [the Māori language and culture] beyond its equivalence to…the national and global political economy of culture” (196). It’s a fascinating argument—one heavy on ghastly semiological jargon, to be sure, and hence might presuppose more familiarity with semiotics and its vocal practitioners than the ordinary reader possesses—and suggests that while a degree of synthesis is a corollary of working in television, the site of resistance resides in its ability to complicate the medium’s significatory protocols.
These chapters, in aggregate, constitute an excellent introduction to the issues surrounding Indigenous media. In fact, it’s the best text on the subject I’ve seen since Houston Wood’s lucid study Native Features: Indigenous Films Around the World; I can’t say enough great things about it, honestly. Even when you sense it’s about to slip into a pitfall common to texts of its kind, it proves your presumptions mistaken. For instance, many contributors call on various concepts derived from postcolonial and poststructuralist theory—those of Spivak, Fanon, Said, Foucault, Bauldrillard, and the ever-cryptic Bhabha, most notably—to buttress their arguments regarding the Fourth World. (As an aside, it is surprising that the none of the authors mention Jacques Derrida, usually de rigueur for postcolonial criticism, whose idea that every sign has the ability to break from its context and resignify itself without a discernible referent or signified is at least important to many of their arguments as, say, de Certeau’s notion of “cultural appropriation.”) Importantly, however, many of these concepts are imports from the Western academe, an issue noted by thinkers such diverse as Terry Eagleton and Noam Chomsky, who claim that Third World intellectuals often exchange genuine praxis for espousing this brand of esoteric terminology, postmodern cynicism, and glorified name-dropping. This dilemma, thankfully, hasn’t escaped contributors’ attention. In co-editor Brendan Hokowhitu’s above-mentioned chapter, he notes that the binary dualisms often invoked by postcolonial theorists impose false dichotomies that aren’t conducive to the demands of the Fourth World. In turn, he argues that this indicates the need of a “Third Space,” a frustration of this colonizer/colonized binary, in Fourth Media (113-114). In this sense, these contributors intend to situate the Fourth World’s relationship with media in its own semi-distinct academic category, and it’s an effort (an arduous one, no doubt) that’s both commendable and necessary.
Ultimately, what The Fourth Eye offers is an array of insights into the contemporary commissure where Indigeneity and mediated forms fuse in New Zealand, and its presence proves that the pulse of the bourgeoning field of Indigenous Media Studies is strong and promising. There’s much work to be done, however. Indeed, if Hokowhitu and Devadas’s text teaches its readers anything, it is that there exists a more or less new and intricate battle frontier for first peoples, one not located in courtrooms or clearly demarcated sites of protest but rather in the very images that populate our day-to-day experience. It prompts us, I think, to also consider where we configure into all this, and in turn lead us to treat its lessons as a sort of rallying cry. We, as enlightened readers of this text, and especially those of us in colonial-settler states (Taiwan, Australia, United States, Canada), should therefore submit these mediated images to thoroughgoing revaluation, because it will enable us to both more widely challenge master discourses and assist Indigenous Media Studies in becoming the decisive voice in contemporary scholarship that it no doubt deserves to be.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.