Sensational Movies: Book Review

Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

By John Durham Peters and Gavin Feller (University of Iowa)

One of the most exciting things about the anthropology of Christianity is the way it uses the minutiae of practices in out of the way cultures to cast light on ancient and deep philosophical and religious questions. To think about will and personhood, one can turn equally to St. Augustine and to Joel Robbins’ Urapmin. To think about translation and denominational schism, one can turn equally to Martin Luther and to Courtney Handman’s Guhu-Samane Christians. (Like the Urapmin, they live in New Guinea.) The anthropology of Christianity likes to coax theologizing from its armchair and show it at work in the wild, in the field, in vernacular forms.

Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies is a worthy contribution in this project. Amassing and integrating over two decades of her research, the book shows, as we will see, how richly the film culture of south Ghana treats the theological problem of necessary but productive evil and the theoretical problem of the ontology of the photographic or cinematic image. The producers, actors, and audiences she has worked with over the years may not be trained religious thinkers or media theorists, but their constant meditations about the occult, about the nature of acting, the power of the image, and the willing suspension of disbelief show them to have rich ideas about how media can form entities in this world and the world beyond. The resulting book is a major contribution to the interdisciplinary sweet spot where religion, media, and cultural anthropology converge.

Sensational Movies can be read as a summation of Meyer’s scholarly work more generally. The book is wide-reaching and comprehensive. It showcases the cultural anthropologist at her best: deftly stitching thick ethnographic description to rich theoretical reflection. Some of the chapters were previously published but the book has been fashioned into a single cloth, with the dense first chapter offering a broad theoretical vision of her particular approach. Her familiarity with scholarly sources in English, Dutch, French, and German brings added richness and depth to the argument. The book is a career’s achievement between covers. It offers a salutary scrambling of received prejudices: movies are not the foe of revelation, but may even be its medium. Meyer’s most fundamental contribution might be the claim that media are not antagonistic to religious experience but are rather the very things that enable it.

Her subject is English-language video films created by self-trained Ghanaian producers between 1985 and 2010 and, more generally, the social, political, economic, and religious dimensions of cultural representation in Ghana’s commercialized public sphere. As in much of her previous work, the video film industry acts as an entry point for the study of Ghanaian Pentecostalism and popular culture. Her detailed analysis of the industry provides the social and political context for contemporary Ghanaian government policy and personal biographies of major film producers and directors–many of whom Meyer got to know personally during her research–thicken her already concentrated ethnographic description.

The core argument is that videos–which she compares variously to seismographs, sounding boards, and relay points–mediate popular imaginaries both for local Ghanaians and for Meyer as ethnographer. These social hieroglyphs are pinioned between discourses about nationalist development, postcolonial exoticism, Christian purity, and avant-garde aesthetics. They are cultural forms embedded in the larger “sensory fabric” of everyday life, and thus count as collective experience made durable.

A key theoretical move is to offer an account of popular imaginaries (plural) with attention to the contingent but consequential details of practice. Meyer constructs a working and refreshing theory of imaginaries, which she importantly distinguishes from Benedict Anderson, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Charles Taylor along three lines. First, there isn’t one imaginary, but multiple imaginaries, due to the unbounded nature of social worlds. Second, imaginaries are grounded in material cultural forms. Third, images are important and yet overlooked mediating forces of imaginaries. “Imaginaries are interlaced sets of collective representations around particular issues—such as the nation, ethnicity, the city, the family, sickness and well-being, the divine, the occult, and so on—that underpin the moral and intellectual schemes and sensory modes that govern people’s ways of being in the world and that thereby ‘make’ this world” (p. 14). The movies are “sensational forms”—collective experience made into communal properties. Meyer is very interested in the materialities of communication, though not so much in the technical details of hardware; in the public sphere though not so much in parliaments or political deliberation. She works in the culturally rich Goldilocks zone among these various interests.

The venerable media scholar Elihu Katz, now in his 91st year, once quipped: “God gave film to the humanities and television to the social sciences.” Meyer makes a nice bridge between the two bits of academic turf with her notion of “video films,” the core product of the Ghanaian film industry. (One of her contributions is to show its distinctness and similarities from the more well-known “Nollywood” industry of Nigeria.) She studies the production, distribution, and consumption of this massive popular genre through an ethnographic-historical-phenomenological lens. She does not do deep readings of the movies, and makes no claims for their worthiness as high-cultural objects, though she does defend them against nationalist elites who find them undignified; she is interested rather in how they circulate and what they reveal about the cultural context. Ghanaian video films are mirrors of popular culture, a point backed up with multiple accounts of prominent filmmakers remarking on the imperative to stay attuned to audiences’ interests and viewing experiences. The films necessarily speak to popular structures of feeling or they risk failing. She notes herself how different the films look and feel when she watches them alone; they are made for and brought to life by audience interaction. The films are audience-enhanced open texts, whose poor audio quality requires participation. (McLuhan would call them “cool media.”) As she summarizes, “film ingeniously converts the mediated experience of others into audiences’ own experiences” (p. 122).

Her coinage “video film” might seem oxymoronic, but it fits a cultural genre that is made with video equipment but is often projected onto public screens and viewed collectively, and she is attentive to the important material differences between the two media. Video is small-scale and its key feature is copyability. Video’s potential for proliferation makes it impossible for the state to regulate. Cinema, in contrast, is expensive and bulky and lends itself to state support and nationalist prestige. Thus, the difference between film and video also tells the story of the commercialization of the Ghanaian public sphere after 1980s in which state support for national cinema dried up and popular video took hold.

For media scholars, Sensational Movies offers several treasures. One is a look at nondiasporic African culture. Many media scholars have noted the transnational play of African-American culture; as our Iowa colleague Tim Havens says, it is arguably the lingua franca of global culture. Sensational Movies, in contrast, shows us how global ideas and formats, especially European ones, operate in an African setting. Exoticizing representations Meyer shows are not simply colonial impositions but are actively elaborated and in circulation within Ghana. (From Fanon, Memmi, Said, and others we should know that colonialism is internal as well.) The term “witchcraft,” for instance, was used by colonial authorities to disparage traditional religious practices but it also has a robust emic life in worries about the place of traditional rites in the films and elsewhere. Meyer shows the local creative adaptation of European imaginaries about African life. Witchcraft is a term to describe those great liquid mysteries of love, power, money, and trust–“steering media” as Parsons and Luhmann called them–that turn out to baffle urban Ghanaians just as much as they do the rest of us! Meyer fulfills the anthropological mission of enabling a conversation between the metropolis and the periphery.

Second, this is a study of media privatization since the 1980s, a topic of great interest for scholars who have studied the decline of public service broadcasting in a neoliberal era. Ghana was swept both by neoliberal economic reforms and Pentecostal religious fervor since the 1980s, and both of these are essential background to the video films Meyer studies. Ghana provides a nice comparison and contrast to the more thoroughly studied media systems of the US, UK, or European nations.

Third, she describes a culture industry well beyond the highly rationalized and machined orbit of Hollywood; Ghanaian video film is more a result of bricolage than corporate planning. Nonetheless, many themes in Ghanaian film history resonate with the history of world cinema; we find the early mockery of rubes, the high-minded worry about the corruption of morals, the tension between nationalist fortification and international influence, and the duel between entertainment and education as cinema’s proper mission. Maybe God gave video to cultural anthropologists . . .

Media scholars interested in industries and audiences can learn much from Meyer’s book. Indeed, this is a book every student of media and religion should read. It offers something rare in studies of media and religion–analytical depth grounded in long-term fieldwork and theoretical reflection. It’s also is an excellent model for the type of ethnographic analysis that the subfield of media anthropology calls for.

But the payoffs go well beyond that. Sensational Movies opens up many great questions, new and old, about the religious life of technical objects. Meyer offers the original coinage of “trans-figuration,” consciously borrowing the theological term, to describe how inner visions are given shape in outer video. Videographers occupy the spot once held by seers, who see things otherwise invisible and invite others to share the vision. Indeed, the convergences between video films and popular Christianity are many. Both film and religion are switch-points between the physical and the spiritual and serve as revelatory vehicles. Their spaces are sometimes shared, as Ghanaian churches can turn into cinema theaters and vice versa. Films can serve as sermons and listeners often use similar strategies of “self-anaesthetizing” in receiving both kinds of “revelation” (which is also a genre of Ghanaian film). Revelation, after all, can also mean uncovering, unveiling, stripping bare, and can thus imply a kind of voyeurism, a beholding of the forbidden. Film, like the biblical ark of the covenant, participates in a dangerous channeling of divine force. The dangers of media in some ways are the dangers of religion itself, as both are vehicles of the divine. Meyer takes us to a classic discovery of the anthropology of religion, well-known by Émile Durkheim and Mary Douglas but often forgotten since: the sacred is itself potentially toxic.

Sensational Movies is a meditation on how to contain the medium, how to keep it from taking over the whole shebang. You have to conjure the demons to defeat them. This is a real problem for pious Christian directors and actors in Ghanaian video films. To what degree can an actor participate in what Kierkegaard called “the teleological suspension of the ethical”? To make the movie morally gripping and religiously moving, evil must be portrayed, and convincingly. As one actress told Meyer, “somebody has to play Judas and the devil” (230). Evil must be represented. But when does trans-figuration of the occult turn into sympathy with it? Where is the line between portraying evil and conjuring it?

Meyer’s urban Ghanaians are almost Bazinians in their account of cinema: the image participates in the real and is not just a parallel to it. The screen is not only a representation, it is a reality that leaks into the rest of life. Devout actors inoculate themselves against the roles they play by prayer and other means. Audiences look away at strategic moments. Imitation is never safely insulated from the contagious force of the thing imitated. In a fascinating chapter on the production of the films, Meyer opens up the old cliché of the magic of cinema, and shows how the malfunction of equipment–always a reality in African media productions and thus a regular part of its aesthetic–can be read as motivated by supernatural entities. But on the other hand, cinematic special effects are not necessarily different in kind from what she calls–in a term calculated to upbraid a certain kind of sensitivity–“technoreligious” practices of prayer and miracle. (Miracles, she points out, have always had a technical aspect.) The ontological operations of viewers and actors are just as elaborate as any other kinds of technical practices. They know it is a movie, but they also know that real powers are being unleashed. Meyer’s interlocutors in Ghana have a lot to tell us about how to live in a world that is governed by mysterious technical entities.

The concept of media gives her a way to avoid the reduction of belief to false consciousness or deception. The belief in ghosts is despised as superstition by state authorities and Pentecostal leaders (in part because they defy the Pentecostal dualism of God and Satan). But ghosts live on screen, in the drama, in the imagination, and on the camera. Their eerie residency has a conjectural ontology that is crucial for understanding both religion and media

The only criticism we would make of the book is chapter 7, which as a technical footnote on the anthropology of chieftaincy and a conscientious coda reminding us of the epic genre and that Pentecostals are not in the only actors in the field of Ghanaian video film, is anti-climactic. It is certainly solid, but doesn’t sparkle in the way that the other chapters do.

Sensational Movies raises fundamental questions in Christian art and thought. Christianity teaches that some kinds of evil are necessary and that even the corpse can be worthy of adoration. Paul of Tarsus’s letters gave heretical opinions voice, asking whether it was good to sin or if God was wicked. Such willingness to tarry with the negative is tied to a productive view of means and ends, that means may serve the right ends. The theology of the incarnation suggests a vehicular sensibility, a willingness of the divine to take flesh, even a certain taste for irony in Kierkegaard’s sense, as the clash of appearance and reality. As many thinkers have observed, the word made flesh is the founding principle of Christian media theory.

John Milton was probably the one who faced the problem of the Christian representation of evil most vigorously. He had to make Satan real and compelling, famously giving him the best lines in Paradise Lost, but many of his later readers suspected Milton of secretly belonging to the Devil’s party. How to make drama that is morally compelling or at least attractive without ceding to the forces you want to control or supersede? Meyer rightly notes the “perverse logic” of representing what you oppose, perhaps with more interest than you are willing to admit. In opposing the occult, this effort risks “reproduc[ing] in ever more sensational ways, what it rejects” (291). The films, she notes elsewhere, “both purvey and assault morality” (149).

Milton justified this mingled good and evil in Christian art in Areopagitica (1644), his plea for unlicensed printing. The parable of the wheat and tares, growing together, explained his aesthetic strategy. You can’t uproot them prematurely, since you can’t tell them apart, and you risk uprooting the good as well. They have to coexist in the meanwhile, the meantime, the ultimate mediation. Our test is to choose rightly amid the open field.

In staging a dramatic contest of good and evil Christian theology and Ghanaian video film have a common structure. Meyer hit the anthropologist’s jackpot, a culture already doing the work done in the armchair imaginations of theologians. Christianity’s interest in abjection, its bold embrace of the corpse, leprosy and death as morally edifying exercises in compassion means that the teaching of morality is always dangerous, always at risk of sucking the viewer into being won over by the foe. Even the most pious movies risk unleashing the forces they are meant to defeat. The popular aesthetic of Ghanaian video film takes us into the heart of venerable Christian problems: “the greater the importance of a moral message that shows the triumph of good over evil, the greater the need to depict transgressions, to bring to life what is despised and feared” (152). In this way, Birgit Meyer refreshes the anthropology of Christianity by showing how the most ancient and resonant religious themes are born again in radically new social and technical conditions.

 

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