Notes on Atavism

Darrell William DAVIS

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In this this essay, I will argue argue for the analytic usefulness of the idea of atavism, unpacking its connotations, considering some historical usage and testing it with a famous silent film, the quasi quasi-ethnographic Nanook of the North (1922). This classic, made by Robert Flaherty, will serve to illustrate the "dangerousness"of atavism - a quality I take to be positive- as an instance of Flaherty's prescience, rather than the naivete with which he is usually saddled. In addition to its descriptive fertility, atavism is a concept with hermeneutic potential, particularly when thinking about literary/linguistic notions of the "unwritten". This is because the concept has a recursive historical dimension built into it, like a a rear-view mirror (from the Latin at, "beyond", with avus, "grandfather", to mean a resemblance or reversion to remotely ancestral characteristics). One factor encouraging my pursuit of this concept is the growing awareness in film studies, and media criticism, generally, that contemporary image regimes seem to to be "circling back" to premodern forms of organisation and circulation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Silent Word: The Role of the Unwritten in the Production of Meaning
EditorsRobert J.C. Young, Ban Kah Choon, Robbie B. H. Goh
Place of PublicationSingapore
PublisherSingapore University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9971692112
Publication statusPublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes


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