Münster 2017 Vortrag A Hunter’s Sense of Landscape

Gieser, Thorsten. 2017. A Hunter’s Sense of Landscape: A Phenomenological Approach to Sensory Anthropology and Anthropological Filming. Vortrag, Institut für Ethnologie, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Januar



Einen richtigen Jäger, den muß man ‚erleben‘, mit dem muß man selbst gejagt, selbst alles gefühlt und empfunden haben, was so ein Jägerleben mit sich bringt an Mühen und Anstrengungen, vor allem aber an Freuden und Genüssen … Das kleinste, unscheinbare Ereignis gewinnt da Bedeutung durch den Zusammenhang der Dinge und haftet dir im Gedächtnis, daß es noch nach vielen Jahren vor deiner Seele steht wie gestern. (Freiherr Speck von Sternburg 1908, quoted in Theilemann 2004)

There is no other way to know a real hunter than to ‚experience‘ him. That means to go out hunting with him and to feel for yourself all that is there is to be felt and sensed, all the things that make up a hunter’s life in terms of labour and effort but most of all in terms of happiness and enjoyment … Small insignificant events then take on meaning because of the way things hang together and thus lodge in your memory, so that you remember them vividly many years after as if it only happened yesterday. (Translated from the original German by Karin Lemler)

Today, I would like to talk about the experience of hunting (in Germany) and of the challenges and possibilities for conveying this experience ethnographically. More specifically, I am interested in hunting as a sensory practice, i.e. as a way of perceiving and engaging with the landscape. In the first half of my talk I would like to focus on an often overlooked aspect of hunting, the waiting before the kill.  Hunting may or may not culminate in an act of killing but something important happens before. It is the sheer endless waiting in a state of heightened awareness and observation I call vigilance, i.e. a consistent, active and multisensory engagement with one’s surroundings, a way of being alive to the world that manifests in minute adjustments of movement, posture, gestures, weapon handling, eye ball motion, etc., always being drawn by the possibility of an animal being out there somewhere.

In this state of vigilance, hunters often feel immersed in the landscape and weatherworld around them, becoming part of their surroundings. I will argue that it is this sense of immersion that complements the sense of anticipation for the animal and that both together make up the cardinal structure of the hunter’s perception of and engagement with the landscape.

Given Freiherr Speck von Sternburg’s advice at the beginning, the question is though, how can I convey the experience of the hunter to an audience who cannot ‚go out hunting with him and feel for themselves all that is there to be felt and sensed‘? This has always been one of the key challenges of ethnography: how to represent fieldwork experiences. After the crisis of representation and the Writing Culture-debate of the 1980s, the rise of sensory anthropology in recent years has provided an alternative framing for this challenge: perhaps we cannot represent at all but should instead try to evoke fieldwork experience through ethnography. In this context, the value of ethnographic films has been re-considered as film –as an audiovisual medium- is said to be „a way of saying the unsayable“. As David MacDougall has argued,

Visual knowledge (as well as other forms of sensory knowledge) provides one of our primary means of comprehending the experience of other people. Unlike the knowledge communicated by words, what we show in images has no transparency or volition-it is a different knowledge, stubborn and opaque, but with a capacity for the finest detail.“ (MacDougall 2006:5-6)

I will therefore introduce the sensory practices of German hunters with my 10-minute documentary short called The Beauty of Hunting. The film uses atmospheric scenes without narration to draw the viewer deeper into the hunter’s perception. It aims to create an opening for viewers to join in the bodily and sensual experience of the hunter and thereby to begin to comprehend how it is like to hunt. I will thus argue that there is a correspondence between learning by having a film shown to you and learning by demonstration, observation and imitation. So when I now show my film to you, Tim Ingold’s words apply:

To show something to somebody is to cause it to be seen or otherwise experienced … by that other person. It is, as it were, to lift a veil off some aspect or component of the environment so that it can be apprehended directly. In that way, truths that are inherent in the world are, bit by bit, revealed or disclosed … (Ingold 2000:21-22)



„Look, look, and look again; at all times, in all directions, and in all circumstances.“ (Count Yebes, in Ortega y Gasset 2007:137)

In my own fieldwork on hunting practices in Germany (ongoing since the end of 2014) I have followed Freiherr Speck von Sternburg’s recommendation to go out with hunters and to experience for myself and made it foundational to the methodological considerations of my research. I started out by participating in hunts in my local area around Koblenz, Germany, until I found a mentor (quaintly termed Lehrprinz in the German specialist language of hunters) to take me on in an informal apprenticeship. During the course of one year I learned some of the practical skills involved in hunting (tracking, animal behaviour, butchering) – with the exception of shooting which is legally restricted to examined and licensed hunters. To get past that restriction and therefore to participate more ‚radically‘, I then went to a hunting school to be prepared in a three-week course on the theoretical background knowledge of hunting in Germany (animal behaviour, hunting ‚traditions‘ and techniques, dog handling, legal issues around hunting, nature conservation) plus shooting training (with gun and shotgun). With my exam passed and hence my hunting license in hand, I finally had to acquire a hunting permit in a state forest managed by my mentor (one of the local foresters) and since then are allowed to fully participate in (almost) all hunting practices.

In anthropological terms, I have employed ‚apprenticeship as method‘ (Downey et al 2014) – a special form of participant observation that involves the fieldworker in a more or less formal learning and teaching setting where he or she is accepted in a learner’s role alongside other novices from that community of practice. Apprenticeship research opens up new avenues for fieldworkers to learn cultural knowledge in terms of a practical mastery of skills, and thereby to learn about this type of knowledge and how one learns it (Downey 2005:53). More specifically, I have been engaged in what Sarah Pink calls a ’sensory apprenticeship‘: learning to hunt means learning to perceive like a hunter, to move like a hunter, to act like a hunter. Through repeated practice I have acquired the ’skilled perception‘ (see Grasseni 2004) of a hunter, i.e. my senses have been educated and trained within a hunting-specific ecology of practice. As a consequence, my own body and my own senses have become the primary methodological tool in my fieldwork.

With this background in mind, let me now turn to the hunters‘ way of perceiving the world that I call vigilance.

Vigilance as sensory regime

Every sociocultural practice has its own distinctive way of organizing, structuring, mobilizing or restricting the senses. Vigilance is one such ’sensory regime‘ (Sinnesregime, Reckwitz 2015) through which the culture of hunting in Germany becomes accessible. But what exactly is vigilance and how does it help us to understand what the hunter in the film did while waiting?

I will argue that vigilance

  • Is not an inner state of consciousness
  • And thus produces no ‚content‘ of experience
  • Is not about perceiving ‚objects‘
  • Is a sense experience, a way of sensing, i.e. an active, embodied, affective and exploratory process and action

The first hint to what the hunter in the film did lies in the word ‚attention‘, in which we find both the meaning of a focused awareness and alertness and the meaning of ‚waiting‘ (e.g. attendre in French). Waiting is thus not primarily a state of inner reflection but a bodily, sensory preparedness for something to happen. The same is true for ’sensory experience‘. As Tim Ingold argued,

for a being who is alive to its surroundings, experience does not mediate between things in the world and representations in the mind, but is intrinsic to the sensory coupling, in perception and action, of the awareness of the self to the movement of those features of the environment selected as foci of attention  (Ingold 2000: 105, my emphasis).

Put differently, experience in skilled engagements is less about ‚content‘ (neither reflecting on what one is doing at the moment nor daydreaming) than it is about an attentive way of being in the here and now as one is busy perceiving the ‚foci of attention‘ that are salient in completing one’s task and to respond to them. Naturally, there are moments within the flow of an activity which are given to more reflective modes of awareness, as in moments when things do not go as planned, something unforeseen happens, or one engages in routine automatisms that lend themselves to daydreaming. These are the contents of experience that are hard to come by for anthropologists through observation but might be retrieved (or not) by conversations or interviews. But perception as a sensory practice is accessible and visible to the anthropologist as sensory apprentice, because perception is an action of an attentive body moving in its environment.

Sense of immersion

So if the important question regarding the waiting of the hunter is not, what is she experiencing, i.e. what is she ‚thinking‘?, what is it then? Is it a matter of asking what she is perceiving? What is she looking at? What is she listening to? The answer is no, as vigilance is not about perceiving ‚objects‘. But what might perception be if it is not about perceiving objects? For the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, perception does only end in objects. In the words of phenomenological anthropologist Thomas Csordas,

„Merleau-Ponty … wants our starting point to be the experience of perceiving in all its richness and indeterminacy, because in fact we do not have any objects prior to perception. To the contrary, „Our perception ends in objects…,“ which is to say that objects are a secondary product of reflective thinking; on the level of perception we have no objects, we are simply in the world.“ (Csordas 1990:9, see MacDougall 2006:1)

For Merleau-Ponty, perception starts with a ‚field of vision‘. When we open our eyes, a still indeterminate, ambiguous field of vision opens up before us. Yet this field is not completely contingent or chaotic. It is already structured; there are

tensions which run like lines of force across the visual field and the system: own body-world, and which breathe into it a secret and magic life by exerting here and there forces of distortion,  contraction and expansion. (Merleau-Ponty 2004:56)

These tensions are the tensions of a Gestalt in its becoming, the formation and singling out of outlines, a background, a foreground and a figure in the focus of attention. Think of the famous image of the vase that transforms into two faces and back again. This transformation is enabled by

the phenomenon of the ‘shift’, from the forces which reside in this rough outline, which are trying to come to rest and which lead it to the most determinate form possible (Merleau-Ponty 2004:58)

In order for us to be able to perceive objects we have to identify the unity of the Gestalt from the field of vision. In other words, we have to feel-into the field of vision, guided by its tensions, until we perceive its inherent order:

The unity of the object is based on the foreshadowing of an imminent order which is about to spring upon us a reply to questions merely latent in the landscape. It solves a problem set only in the form of a vague feeling of uneasiness, it organizes elements which up to that moment did not belong to the same universe (Merleau-Ponty 2004:20)

In the film, we thus see the hunter scanning the landscape (i.e. the field of vision) with her eyeballs, tilting her head, adjusting her stand, moving back and forth, turning this way, turning that way – because she is part of the field of vision and every small adjustment on her side transforms the field’s tensions and thus reveal a new Gestalt. All the time, her adjustments – as a sensory coupling of the self and world – are guided by a ‚vague feeling‘ for the ‚object‘ she is after. But as long as no ‚real‘ object has formed, her experience is not separated into perceiving subject and perceived object – both are still undivided but not without ‚imminent order‘, as part of the visual world. Unsurprisingly, this attentive perception or vigilance might give rise to a sense of immersion in which „small insignificant events then take on meaning because of the way things hang together“ (in a perceptual Gestalt, we might say).

Sense of anticipation

But the sense of immersion is not all that characterizes the hunter’s vigilance. After all, hikers, climbers or other ‚outdoor users‘ might also have a sense of immersion during their practice. What they lack is the direction hunters have through the accompanying sense of anticipation:

„When one is hunting, the air has another, more exquisite feel as it glides over the skin or enters the lungs, the rocks acquire a more expressive physiognomy, and the vegetation becomes loaded with meaning. But all this is due to the fact that the hunter, while he advances or waits crouching, feels tied through the earth to the animal he pursues, whether the animal is in view, hidden, or absent.“ (Ortega y Gasset 2007:131)

This intentional thread with the animal (most often absent or hidden) is what gives the hunter’s perception direction, position, perspective, and orientation. The immersion in the sensory world is not contingent; it is always structured and organized in relation to the animal. In the absence of the animal during the wait hunters watch out for indirect presences of the animal. Through repeated practice and trained, skilled vision they have learned to perceive the Gestalt of animals before it has fully formed – by sudden transformations of the field of vision that may announce the coming of an animal.

So far I have focused solely on vigilance as a form of visual perception, a form of observation (although not a distanced one but an immersed, affective one). However, vigilance is a multisensory form of perception, with a focus on the audio-visual. The sudden transformations announcing an animal may be found in the field of vision (moving twigs or leaves), in the soundscape (remember the calls of the magpie in the film!) or, less commonly, in the ’smellscape‘ (spicy odour announcing wild boar).



Having discussed the hunters‘ vigilance as a hunting-distinctive sensory regime, I now turn to the question of how to ethnographically represent such a sensory practice.

Film as representation of sensory experience

„Ordinarily representation is bound to a specific form of repetition: the repetition of the same“ (Doel 2010:117)

It has been a long held aim of ethnography to accurately and authentically document and re-present fieldwork experience and the so-called ’native’s point of view‘. Yet the Writing Culture-debate has taught us that the ‚repetition of the same‘, as the paradigm of ethnographic realism, is an illusion: any form of representation is a construction and as such is historically situated, negotiated, contested, a rhetorical performance, a partial truth and, ultimately, fiction.

Inspired by approaches from literary criticism and semiotics, the ‚crisis of representation‘ was one of the written text first. However, as documentary film had always had a reputation for ’showing the truth‘, it did not take long to undermine the realist claim of film as well. As ethnographic films can be considered fiction as well, what may a documentary be good for?

Film as evocation of sensory experience

From within the Writing Culture debate came an alternative proposal for ethnography not as representation but as evocation. Stephen Tylor – in a rather enigmatic, post-modernist essay – argued that ethnography should be conceived as

„a cooperatively evolved text consisting of fragments of discourse intended in the minds of both reader and writer to evoke an emergent fantasy of a possible world of commonsense reality, and thus to provoke an aesthetic integration…“ (Tylor 1986:125)

Going back to Malinowski, Paul Stoller re-phrases the ethnographic aim of accurate representation: “ to write a document that gives the reader a sense of what it is like to live in the lands of others“ (Stoller 1989:8) and „to produce an ethnographic literature that gives readers a taste of ethnographic things.“ (ibid: 11). And since then, the call for sensory evocation has grown continually louder (Stoller 1989, 1997; Pink 2007; Cox et al. 2015).

During the same time, ethnographic film has – perhaps for the first time in the history of anthropology – gained value as one of the most apt means for sensory evocation.

Film as correspondence of sensory experience

The best example for this rise of the ethnographic film is perhaps the success of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and the films of its director Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass, Leviathan). The Lab operates primarily in the ‚tradition‘ of observational cinema, in particular of David MacDougall’s phenomenologically-inspired kind, with its paradigm of exploring „life as it was being lived“ (Grimshaw & Ravetz 2015:263). As Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz have put it, this kind of observational cinema is

„filmmaking as a way of moving through the world, an exploratory process in which knowledge did not exist prior to the encounter between filmmaker, subjects, and the world but was generated in and through these unfolding relationships. At the heart of the new inquiry was a mobile, embodied camera…“ (Grimshaw & Ravetz 2015:262)

Consider my documentary short The Beauty of Hunting in this regard. Filming turned out to be problematic. Not only had it been raining continually throughout the whole day I was filming. I was also limited in positions I could film from and hence perspectives I could shoot, as I had to be out of the hunter’s line of fire at all times. Accordingly, no scenes were staged or could be repeated. I had to follow the unfolding of the action as it happened. But what is more, my attention and sensuous presence in the landscape had to mediate my filming on the one hand and the demands of the hunting situation on the other hand: I had to film in a way that was unobtrusive so that my presence did not give away the presence of the hunter. This corporeal way of filming was, however, what made the atmospheric shots possible in the first place and so were a welcome challenge to the process of filming.

Note here that filming is a sensory practice in the same way as hunting is a sensory practice. For David MacDougall, for example, filming is first of all a way of looking:

„When we look, we are doing something more deliberate than seeing and yet more unguarded than thinking. We are putting ourselves in a sensory state that is at once one of vacancy and of heightened awareness. Our imitative faculties take precedence over judgment and categorization, preparing us for a different kind of knowledge. We learn to inhabit what we see.“ (MacDougall 2006:7)

We could thus say that filming and hunting each have their own distinctive sensory regime, yet the challenge of the filmmaker/cameraman is to find a correspondence between both. And here we find a key difference between ‚ordinary‘ documentaries and ethnographic ones: the filmmaker needs to grasp the skilled vision of the people he or she works with and have their own vision re-skilled in order to achieve such a correspondence. In other words, filmmakers need to know what to see and how to see:

„we interpret the embodied camera as part of a continual framing and reframing process that produces a particular kind of heightened consciousness. This mode of consciousness or attunement – the attention to something rather than everything – involves a dynamic mode of focusing which retains the relationship between what lies within and beyond the frame“ (Grimshaw & Ravetz 2015:270)

It is in this sense that filming as skilled vision can be conceived as a form of visual knowledge and documentaries can be re-considered from being a form of ‚knowing about‘ (documentation, representation) to being a form of ‚knowing with‘ (evocation, correspondence).

If we move on from the relationship between filmmaker and world to filmmaker and film, the paradigm of correspondence still holds. In the same way as the filmmaker has to attune the embodied camera to the skilled perception of his or her research participants and their engagement with the world, so must the film find a correspondence with that perception. In a recent article, Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz (2015) have suggested that observational filmmakers ‚draw‘ with the camera. Following the work of Tim Ingold and Michael Taussig, they argue that like a drawing, a film is as much an act of observation as it is an act of inscription. Like the draughtsman sketching a scene, coordinating pencil lines with hand gestures, hand gestures with eye movements, eye movements with the contours and structures of what is observed, the filmmaker feels-into frames that correspond to what is observed. The aim thereby is, we could say with Ingold,

„… the intimate coupling of the movement of the observer’s attention with currents of activity in the environment. To observe is not so much to see what is “out there” as to watch what is going on. Its aim is not to represent the observed but to participate with it in the same generative movement (Ingold 2011: 223).

In a phenomenologically-inspired film this means adopting „an aesthetic that favors long takes, synchronous speech, and a tempo faithful to the rhythms of real life, and that discourages cutting, directing, reenacting, interviewing“ (Tylor 1996:75). This aesthetic goes against the grain of what Rane Willerslev and Christian Suhr (2012) recently argued in an Current Anthropology article, namely that it is by disruption through montage that a film might educate. The authors prefer a model of learning that is built on breakdowns and mistakes that give opportunity for conscious reflection. The approach I have just described follows instead a model of learning that is based on learning by demonstration, observation and imitation (see Gieser 2008, Ingold 2000, Jackson 1989). I do not want to suggest that the former model is wrong; just that it leads to a rather different kind of knowledge: here, a reflective, conscious ‚knowing-what‘; there, an embodied, tacit ‚knowing-how‘.

When we finally move to the relation between film and audience, we have to acknowledge that watching a film is as much a ‚watching what is going on‘ as filming with an embodied camera or the vigilance of the hunter. Watching a film corporeally might be more than passive consumption, but an act of ‚knowing with‘. Needless to say that watching a film is not the same as having a first-hand experience. Most notably, there are transformations of ‚experiencing as an ongoing process of being alive‘ to ‚having an experience‘ (Erlebnis) through film. Framing, editing and watching taken together mark the film as an aesthetic experience unlike others. As media phenomenologist Vivianne Sobchack argued:

The moving picture makes itself sensuously and sensibly manifest as the expression of experience by experience. A film is an act of seeing that makes itself seen, an act of hearing that makes itself heard, an act of physical and reflective movement that makes itself reflexively felt and understood (Sobchack 1992:3-4)

So while film lacks the synaesthetic character and field of vision of first-hand experience, the reflective situation of watching a film might actually assist the learning of visual knowledge. Therefore, I would like to ask you to watch the film again and again, by yourself perhaps, and to refrain from asking questions, passing judgement or thinking about the knowledge that might be conveyed in it.  But instead to just watch what is going on, to let your attention be guided and drawn to what is shown to you and thus to give yourself the chance to learn with, i.e. to know with, the film by adjusting your normal vision in correspondence with the vigilance of the hunter.



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