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Michaels, Eric Philip (1948–1988)

by Stuart Cunningham

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Eric Philip Michaels (1948-1988), anthropologist, was born on 11 February 1948 at Philadelphia, United States of America, one of three children of Jewish parents Abraham Michaels, engineer, and his wife Enid Hope, née Olenick. Describing himself at the end of his life as a ‘gifted child’ and a ‘troubled’ adolescent of affluent parents, in the 1960s Eric lived on a hippie commune near Taos, New Mexico. He also spent time in New York. After majoring in English at Temple University, Philadelphia (BA, 1973), he attended the University of Texas at Austin (MA, 1979; Ph.D., 1982), where he studied anthropology. For his doctoral thesis he examined Christian fundamentalist media protest groups in Texas. Early in the 1980s he collaborated with the Chilean video artist, Juan Downey, in a study of the Yanomami people of Brazil. Immersed in the American traditions of visual and cultural anthropology, and advocating ‘handing over the camera’, he stressed the potential for radical inversion of the usual subject-object relations in anthropology.

In November 1982 Michaels began a three-year fellowship at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, conducting research on the impact of the introduction of satellite television on remote Aboriginal communities. Focusing on the Yuendumu community, Northern Territory, he encouraged the Warlpiri people to produce videos themselves, in conjunction with the Warlpiri Media Association. His approach was aimed at empowering Aborigines through the appropriation of new technology, and was at variance with Eric Willmot’s Out of the Silent Land (1984), a report of a government task force on Aboriginal and Islander broadcasting and communications that lamented the potential cultural harm of those media.

A prolific and eloquent writer, with a withering intellect, Michaels wrote numerous journal articles and papers that brought together his ethnographic insights and his theories on culture and media policy. In 1986 he published The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia 1982-1986, which offered a major contemporary anthropological voice on the postmodern condition of supposedly pre-modern peoples; in For a Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu (1987), he promoted Aboriginal leadership in media, cultural theory and media policy. His essays, ‘Western Desert Sandpainting and Post-Modernism’ (Warlukurlangu Artists: Kuruwarri, 1987), and ‘Bad Aboriginal Art’ (Text & Art, March-May 1988), analysed the flourishing international market for Aboriginal ‘dot’ painting. In a review in Mankind (April 1987) of Fred Myers’s book Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self (1986), he controversially disputed a number of Myers’s interpretations of his data.

Appointed in 1987 a lecturer in media studies at Griffith University, Brisbane, Michaels worked through increasing bouts of illness and hospitalisation. He died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome on 24 August 1988 in Brisbane and was cremated. His theories on the visual arts, media and broadcasting helped to form policies around satellite services and television licensing in Central Australia. Unbecoming: An AIDS Diary, his chronicle of the months preceding his death edited by Paul Foss (1990), and Bad Aboriginal Art, a collection of his published essays, conference papers and field reports (1994), were published after his death.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Annual Report, 1982-86
  • Australian Aboriginal Studies, no 2, 1988, p 117
  • Filmnews, vol 18, no 10, 1988, p 5
  • Continuum (Perth), vol 3, no 2, 1990 (whole issue)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Stuart Cunningham, 'Michaels, Eric Philip (1948–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/michaels-eric-philip-14957/text26146, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 November 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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