we approached Sio, the village leader stood alone on the bank, confronting
us the way Axel Heyst confronted the mysterious trio approaching his remote
island in Conrad's Victory: their appearance, Heyst felt, was "like
those myths current in Polynesia, of amazing strangers, who arrive at
an island, gods or demons, bringing good or evil to the innocence of the
inhabitants - gifts of unknown things, words never heard before."
established some sort of rapport by distributing gifts. Then we did nothing.
After a few days, women came out of hiding & village life resumed
villages have had contact with the West since before World War I. Highland
villages were drawn abruptly into the world economy during World War II.
But those in between remained remarkably untouched. It cost the government
money each time it extended its authority & it had no money to waste.
A few patrol officers, missionaries, hunters, prospectors, & timber
buyers - count them on two hands - moved through these hills, but lightly,
leaving little imprint. Some villages escaped even these visits.
Westerners who enter this country make hand-drawn maps of rivers &
villages, sharing this information when they meet, for no better maps
changes occurred came more from awareness of the existence of a world
outside, than from direct contact with that world. Tribal hostilities
ceased & villages shifted from inland sanctuaries to river sites.
At Sio, this relocation was so recent that the old village still stood,
its haus tambaran sheltering ancient treasures, as well as elders
who chose not to move.
visit Sio frequently; a local teacher has a handful of students; itinerant
traders leave behind steel axes. Yet Sio remains far removed from Western
centers. Stone axes were still in use when we arrived; cameras & recorders
were absolutely unknown.
gave each person a Polaroid shot of himself. At first there was no understanding.
The photographs were black & white, flat, static, odorless - far removed
from any reality they knew. They had to be taught to "read"
them. I pointed to a nose in a picture, then touched the real nose, etc.
Often one or more boys would intrude into the scene, peering intently
from picture to subject, then shout, "It's you!"
gradually came into the subject's face. And fear. Suddenly he covered
his mouth, ducked his head & turned his body away. After this first
startled response, often repeated several times, he either stood transfixed,
staring at his image, only his stomach muscles betraying tension, or he
retreated from the group, pressing his photograph against his chest, showing
it to no one, slipping away to study it in solitude.
recorded this over & over on film, including men retreating to private
places, sitting apart, without moving, sometimes for up to twenty minutes,
their eyes rarely leaving their portraits.
we projected movies of their neighbors, there was pandemonium. They recognized
the moving images of film much faster than the still images of photographs.
themselves on film was quite a different thing. It required a minor
logistic feat to send our negative out, get it processed, then returned,
but it was worth the effort.
was absolute silence as they watched themselves, a silence broken only
by whispered identification of faces on the screen.
recorded these reactions, using infrared light & film.
tape recorder startled them. When I first turned it on, playing back their
own voices, they leaped away. They understood what was being said, but
didn't recognize their own voices & shouted back, puzzled & frightened.
in an astonishingly short time, these villagers, including children &
even a few women, were making movies themselves, taking Polaroid shots
of each other, and endlessly playing with tape recorders. No longer fearful
of their own portraits, men wore them openly on their foreheads.
we returned to Sio, months later, I thought at first we had made a wrong
turn in the river network. I didn't recognize the place. Several houses
had been rebuilt in a new style. Men wore European clothing. They carried
themselves differently. They acted differently. Some had disappeared down
river toward a government settlement, "wandering between two worlds/One
dead, the other powerless to be born."
one brutal movement they had been torn out of a tribal existence &
transformed into detached individuals, lonely, frustrated, no longer at
home - anywhere.
fear our visit precipitated this crisis. Not our presence, but the presence
of new media. A more isolated people might have been affected far less,
perhaps scarcely at all. But the people of Sio were vulnerable. For a
decade they had been moving imperceptibly toward Western culture. Our
demonstration of media tipped the scales. Hidden changes suddenly coalesced
effect was instant alienation. Their wits & sensibilities, released
from tribal restraints, created a new identity: the private individual.
For the first time, each man saw himself & his environment clearly
and he saw them as separable.
Kahler, in The Tower and the Abyss, speaks of the end result on
German soldiers in World War II of a century of such conditioning to alienation;
even during combat, they exhibited no sign of emotion, not even fear or
hate: "these faces which had petrified into death masks."
It will immediately be asked if anyone has the right to do this to another human being, no matter what the reason. If this question is painful to answer when the situation is seen in microcosm, how is it answered when seen in terms of radio transmitters reaching hundreds of thousands of people daily, the whole process unexamined, undertaken blindly?
Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! by Edmund Carpenter
Holt, Rinehart and Winston - New York, Chicago, San Francisco
Copyright 1972, 1973 by Edmund Carpenter
Translated to hypermedia and edited by Michael Wesch 2002