Monday, December 10, 2012

When in Academia

 I'm a big fan of this tumblr, which uses looped clips to complete the phrase "When..." followed by some absurd nugget gleaned from the academic life.

A reader recently suggested:
When I read sentences like this: "In a perspectival, subjective, and performative meaning, the metaphysical capacity of figures to signify reality through sound (according to the Pythagorean tradition) finds in continuo realization an empirical, visual manifestation."

Enjoy the clip of Oprah!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

What good are "relative, contingent truths"?

In a recent multi-platform and multi-year research initiative dedicated to documentary and contemporary art, Lind and Steyerl describe the central problem of their investigation this way:

“The double bind is strong: on the one hand documentary images are more powerful than ever. On the other hand, we have less and less trust in documentary representations” (Lind and Steyerl, "Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art" 2011).

This sounds oh so contemporary, but way back in 1993, Williams framed and articulated the problem in exactly the same way. It's uncanny:

"The contradictions are rich: on the one hand the postmodern deluge of images seems to suggest that there can be no a priori truth of the referent to which the image refers; on the other hand, in this same deluge, it is still the moving image that has the power to move audiences to a new appreciation of previously unknown truth." (Williams, "Mirrors without Memories" 1993, 10).

So what to do about it? Williams' solution is compromise: the "postmodern documentary approach" (her term) doesn't abandon truth; truth remains as an ideal Northern Star. But it does accept that truth is ultimately beyond our reach. The consequence: in place of truth, we get truth under construction. This involves emphasizing the hand (or eye?) of the director, the multiple conflicting perspectives, refusing to privilege any particular source with absolute authority, as well as tracing the dependence of present conditions on a past that is continuously being reinterpreted.

She praises Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line as an exemplar. Morris' presence as an auteur, for example, is demonstrated in the film's interviews because even though Morris himself does not appear, his subjects direct their attention beyond the camera, in a way that produces a "confessional" aspect. Also, Morris makes no effort to prove the innocence of his central subject, but rather works to discredit false witnesses who testified against him. Williams also criticizes Michael Moore, by contrast, for "abandoning the commitment to multiple contingent truths in favor of a unitary, paranoid view of history" (16).

The multiple, contingent truths, or the flux, negotiation, conflict, instability, re-writings, re-readings, etc. have become not just descriptions of contemporary experience but normative values. What contemporary theories of documentary film and photography need, therefore, is not an epistemology but an ethics. An ethics becomes increasingly urgent precisely where skepticism about realist epistemology exposes progressive values as dogmatic. Williams writes that postmodern documentary has “an interest in constructing truths to dispel pernicious fictions, even though these truths are only relative and contingent” (Williams 1993, 20), which makes us wonder who decides what counts as (acceptable) relative, contingent truths or (unacceptable) pernicious fictions. How do we respond when someone treats our truths as fictions? In this age of political extremism, do we accept Williams' nominations for truth because we believe in her authority as a progressive academic or reject them as fiction because she is liberal (maybe communist) threat to freedom and traditional American values? Williams begins by being a skeptic about the possibility of representing truth, but ends up being haunted by the spectre of relativism. If nothing but our personal investments shape our identification of truth or fiction, then we are all dogmatists.

The issue is further complicated by Williams' prescriptive separation of being-fiction and using-fiction.  "Documentary is not fiction and should not be conflated with it. But documentary can and should use all the strategies of fictional construction to get at truths.” Again we must wonder, what is the difference between "being" fiction and "using" all the strategies of fictional construction? Is the distinction really as viable and productive as Williams thinks?

Williams' goals for the New Documentary are sound: to explore truth-becoming rather than truth-being or, as she puts it, "an attempt to overturn this commitment to realistically record "life as it is" in favor of a deeper investigation of how it became as it is" (15). But the arguments she deploys are contradictory. Truth-becoming is a purely formal category, and so is limited in its analytical power. What it needs is specification through empirical content, that is, reference to the external world of fact. Otherwise, no "deeper investigation" can take place.

For example, Morris' film is a fascinating exploration of how the judicial system constructed the guilt of a man who was actually innocent. On this level, his film is clearly about how truth was constructed in a particular way. However, there's no way to do this without showing which truth was constructed, and how each of the agents contributed specific materials to the process. One of the more amusing and persuasive segments involves an interview with Mrs Miller, who explicitly cites crime shows as a model for her dream of becoming a detective or sexy female sidekick. Morris intercuts old clips from movies with Miller's interview in a charming demonstration of life imitating art. But in showing how her mediated identity was folded into police work and court procedures to ultimately produce a guilty verdict, we are never in doubt as to the innocence of the victim, who was falsely accused (and served time). His innocence is a sterling fact behind the story-telling of Miller and others, whose testimony is set off against each other, making them seem more contradictory and more ridiculous. Morris' film uses the same procedures as the police: interviewing witnesses, checking stories against each other, and considering material evidence. The difference is not in the procedure, but in how it is carried out. The fundamental legitimacy of material evidence is never in question.

So we are left to wonder what Williams and Lind and Steyerl and others derive from the continued anxiety about truth, actuality, facts, etc. If documentaries were just about telling people who's right and wrong, then they wouldn't amount to much (Jesus Camp would be a whole lot shorter, for starters). Investigating how people come to believe and do the things they believe and do is of course much more interesting to watch, and much more productive for scholarship. But the investigation into truth-becoming is not precluded by hanging on to certain kinds of evidence. Moreover, hanging on to that evidence would provide criteria for evaluating various kinds of truth-claims, avoiding relativism. This doesn't mean that the justice system, for example, ought not to be criticized; it just holds on to the idea that justice is something that can be served or betrayed. Indeed, an expanded, radicalized concept of justice would necessarily involve exposing the selectivity of its application as a concept consistent with particular political interests.

Friday, November 30, 2012

This May Be English

You don't want to go too hard on someone who's writing in their second or third language. Jane M. Gaines studied and worked in Stockholm, which makes me think that she is one of those multi-lingual Europeans who can communicate more than effectively (actually, idiomatically!) in day-to-day situations, but could have benefited from a tougher editor. I say this while emphasizing my deep respect for such Europeans (and Africans and Asians). Most of my Indian friends speak 3, 4, 5 languages of which English is merely one. Still, when it comes academic writing, your second, third or fourth language may begin to sound like jargon. Help me out here:

"Certainly the comparison between images and terrorism tells us that this is a question of what could be called 'image knowledge.' Moving images that confirm what we already know are not 'the image,' are not 'too much image,' however, that which we reject--pornography, entertainment and television news-- is 'too much image.' When world-shattering knowledge appears to us in moving-image form it is received as 'too much.' And the moving image is easily dismissible when it delivers what we do not want to know--things unpredictable, incomprehensible and elsewhere, but so seemingly of the same world. But above and beyond new knowledge, it is significantly the massive scale--what is shared with modern warfare--that in 'the image' is so terrifying. (For it has never been the visage image of the treasured paintings in the Louvre that has terrified the protectors of elite culture.)"

I would be thrilled if anyone can tell me what "visage image" means--I have studied some visual culture, but this doesn't ring any bell but crazy. She seems to be arguing that there are three normative categories - maybe four:
  1. the image (has "massive scale"; "terrifying"; like "modern warfare")
  2. too much image
  3. moving images that confirm what we already know
  4. images we reject
We can summarize this as:
  • 1, 2 ≠ 3 (neither "the image" nor "too much image" are moving images that confirm what we already know)
  • 2 = 4 ("too much image" are images we reject. Examples include porn, entertainment, news, and "world-shattering knowledge" also called "new knowledge")
 The problem with each of these claims is that they all take the form of exclusions or negative definitions, which is confusing. Telling us what something is not proves to be of little help. In the came of the first definition (first bullet point, above), we are left wondering what kinds of images have the effect of confirming what we know, as well as what "the image" and "too much image" are. In the case of the second definition (2 is 4, the second bullet point) we learn that a category of images called "too much image" is rejected - leaving open the question what kinds of images we might accept. The two definitions don't speak to each other because the two functions (confirming knowledge and rejecting images) are of different kinds, creating additional confusion about the relation of the two definitions to one another.

It's possible that she wishes to distinguish between two pictorial media rather than develop normative categories for different kinds of images based on viewer responses. Thus "the image" might refer to still photography and "moving images" might refer to television and film. But the massive scale that is clearly important (enough to be italicized anyway), which she clearly wants to attribute to "the image" only, is not so clearly absent from "moving images." In any case, this separation is not maintained, since the sentence about "the image" and warfare seems to be used to amplify the claim made in the previous sentence, whose subject is different, that is, "moving images."

And then comes "visage image."

Gaines claims earlier on in her paper that she's interested in the relationship between images and history, and in particular, the way this relationship has been conceptualized by documentary filmmakers with political motivations. She is critical of iconophobia, iconoclasm, or the tendency of icono-paranoiacs (my term!) like Michael Ignatieff (if we believe her reading) to identify images with terrorism and pornography. The problem with this article is that it meanders and sometimes retraces its steps, so that the argument loses momentum. In other places, her claims are truncated, as if she is relying on her (expert) reader to fill in the concluding sentence.  In a paragraph outlining 1970s historiography of film theory, she claims "the new theory was not equipped to deal with documentary as mode or form." But then concludes the paragraph admitting that it is a "mystery as to why documentary, and political documentary in particular, would become the absolute antithesis of the new theoretical project." We are supposed to read this as stating, if New Theory had been more sophisticated, it wouldn't have made documentary its antithesis. However, this reads like the "mystery" of the last paragraph has already been solved in the discussion of the ways in which New Theory was "not equipped" to understand documentary. If you're not equipped to understand something, of course that thing will be a mystery.

If Gaines' goal is to illuminate the connection between leftist politics and documentary realism, the re-reading of Godard's Letter to Jane is at least coherent as a critical move. But the other examples she cites are too briefly analyzed, too thin in their visual analysis, to really convince us. Finally, there is nowhere a definition of documentary realism that is robust enough to make this article a real revelation. In mentioning Kracauer and Bazin, she writes: "theirs was a theory for an aestehtic of affinity between cinema and something they referred to as 'the real' but by which they meant much more." Much more needs to be explained, but nothing is. Gaines moves on to tell us what the 1970s thought of this theory, and her critique of the 70s critique.

Finally, terms that she coins like "body genre" and "same world sensation" need further elaboration. She seems to have a political agenda that fuses recent interest in Bergson and embodiment with older Marxist models of social activism - but these never become completely clear.

Visage Image.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Lit Reviews You Can Use

I always appreciate the "Year's Work" lit reviews, published by Oxford. When I was going through the agony of comp exams study, they helped me avoid several texts - entire debates, actually - whose recent movements I might otherwise have felt compelled to follow. Instead, reading the reviews, I felt empowered to ignore them, which saved me time. And for those of you who've done it, you know comps prep is all about time.

So I was perplexed to find this whopper of an abstract for an article on digital media in the recent Year's Work issue.

"This chapter is divided into three sections: 1. Resonance (Sinister or Otherwise); 2. Biopolitics (Arachnophilia and Spit); 3. Blogging (and Not Being Dead). It begins with a study of listening and with a mode of exploration that invites rethinking the sonic in ecological terms—and that might lead to a medium-theoretically informed mode of sonic politics. Moving from a discussion of sense perception—and the sonic as a force operating not on individuals but on collective bodies, the next turn is to a consideration of insect media which declares itself ethologically informed, once again more interested in swarms than subjects, and once again seeking to work at the level of operations rather than representations. This leads to a consideration of the incorporation of the genomic into digitally reconfigured modes of public circulation and consumption; a swallowing up (an incorporation) that might be said to change our perceptions of the materiality of the networks in which we are enmeshed—and increasingly obviously enfleshed. It might also lead to a reconceptualization of those codes that are said to define ‘life’ and to an expanded biopolitics of public science. In the final section the focus shifts to blogging."
Years Work Critical and Cultural Theory 20 (1): 67-81. 

I won't even pretend to know what this means, but it sounds impressive. Or annoying. This is all somehow indicative of the depth of disciplinary divisions within the humanities. We don't understand each others' subfields and often, don't take them seriously. The discussion of the final section - about blogging - asks a very basic, reasonable and reasonably interesting question: what drives blogging? -- and then argues that we need the word communicational capitalism to answer it. Because I know something about Marxism and I know how common it is to conceive of various social processes as "economies" this is something I can work with. But "a mode of communicational capitalism, from (an impossible) without" is still a stunning and agonizing phrase for an abstract.

This kind of language communicates a very important message of its own: go away, we're busy. The idea is that if you're not already hip to the problems, this article won't help you. And to some degree that makes sense in the context of a year's work article: you are speaking to people who are probably already interested in these debates, so they need no introduction to the basic vocabulary.  Probably, from the persepective of those who study digital media for a living, ""a mode of communicational capitalism, from (an impossible) without" is as basic as saying "My name is Alex. I come from Canada" to an ESL student. Or, as I would say, as a German as a Second Language student: "Ich heiße Alex. Ich komme aus Kanada." At least if I come across someone with a different mother tongue while traveling through Europe, I can always mime. Have fun trying to find the new media studies equivalent of the next train to Frankfurt in this very foreign language.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Documents, documentary, documentality, documentarisms - Oh my!

There's something that irks me about writing on contemporary art: it's all the discursivity, frameworks, situatedness, contigency, flows, archives. It's the symbolization (as opposed to just symbolism), positionality (not just positions), potentiality (not potential). And the nominalization: Not reality, but THE real, not politics, but THE political. Granted, revolutionary ideas need revolutionary concepts. But all the attempts to grasp new forms of articulation, new forms of political imaginary, alternative forms of identification, etc. end up sounding just like the same old, same old. We're on the left, we're oppressed and we want our freedom. So let's start but inventing some new terms.

With a title like "The photographic Documentary Effect vs. Hyper-Real Mutations" you think: this article is going to be really hard core and theoretical. And you think, this person could have used a better editor. Given that there are EIGHT full paragraphs that constitute the introduction, which prepares you for a book-length argument in article form -

"I would like to approach..."
"I will examine the term..."
"Secondly, I will approach..."
"To grasp the political of representations of presence/absence, I will relocate it..."
"Two additional implications contribute to my decision to..."
"The second implication concerns my interest in analyzing..."
"My interest, however, is situatied..."
"In the conclusing section of this essay I will..."

- I'll just offer this one particularly delicious gem, which describes a diagram:

"We should recall that hysteria is generated by the absence of the positive first term: presence. The fourth term, AIDS, is produced by the negative of the third term, hysteria, which is already marked by negativity. 'Thus the fourth term represents a negation of negation. Because of this double negation, it is the least explicitly specified of all the four terms and therefore the most production of new complications and insights.' [footnote] It is from the double (elusive) negativity of the fourth terms that the 'new' is likely to emerge. For the fourth term carries within it the most open and critical potentiality [footnote.]"

I would be happy to read a gloss on this article on photography and AIDS.

- Marina Grzinic, "The photographic Documentary Effect vs. Hyper-Real Mutations"
 in The Need to Document (ed, Havránek et al, 2005)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Foucault: uses and abuses

Scholarship is a truly horrible occupation: if you're unlucky, you'll pass through the academic machine, unknown and unloved, and finally, uncited. If you're lucky you'll have your work misread, vulgarized and finally, reduced to a cliché. Exhibit A: Foucault.

Consider Steyerl's gloss:

" The concept of "governmentality" was developed by Foucault and defined as a specific form of exercising power, which operates through the production of truth. According to this, the essential political problem is not the untruth of social conditions, but rather their truth, i.e. the way in which certain concepts and production forms of truth generate, support or circumvent and question domination. Media productions can also assume the role of governmental structures and function as governmental "hinges" between power and subjectivation."

She goes on:

"I call this interface between governmentality and documentary truth production "documentality". Documentality describes the permeation of a specific documentary politics of truth with superordinated political, social and epistemological formations. Documentality is the pivotal point, where forms of documentary truth production turn into government – or vice versa. It describes the complicity with dominant forms of a politics of truth, just as it can describe a critical stance with regard to these forms. Here scientific, journalistic, juridical or authentistic power/knowledge formations conjoin with documentary articulations..."
Hito Steyerl, "Documentarism as Politics of Truth" in 'Ficcions' documentals, 2004

Although she claims to be glossing a "specific form" of power, this passage is not extremely specific. It's hard to imagine, from this passage, how documentary truth (whatever that is) turns into government: does it levy taxes? hold elections? administer social services? go to war? If all she's claiming is that governments use (or craft) documents in the course of their engaging in such activities, then the claim seems banal. If she's further claiming that the creation and circulation of documents shapes us as subjects, then the claim is still banal.

Obviously my birth certificate, say, hugely influences who I become and what I can do, how I understand myself, and what resources are available to me. Likewise with the information generated by government institutions such as the military, secret service, FBI, IRS, and so forth (which is what Steyerl has in mind in referring to the Weapons of Mass Destruction episode earlier in the article); even if they are not "about" me but are "about" my various Others, they still shape my subjectivity.  For example, what I am told by government actors about a class of people I identify myself against--say, "Muslims" or "hippies" or "black militants" or whatever--will be just as important, or maybe more so, than my social security card or passport.

Phrases like, the media "assume the role of governmental structures" or "documentary truth production turn into government" are not specific enough a description of how state power deploys facts and documents in controlling their subjects. For that we need something more like Manufacturing Consent. And if Steyerl wishes to distinguish her approach from Chomsky's (which one would expect she would, given the enormous differences between Chomsky's and Foucault's thought), she would have to first explain what exactly his has failed to explain, which would in turn require identifying the problem afresh, in specific terms. As it is, her initial problem-question ("Does truth determine politics or politics truth?") is less a research problem than a rhetorical cliché and does little to honour Foucault by building on his original (and extremely specific) research.

Monday, July 23, 2012

On page 2...

It's frustrating that we academics, who are not reading for leisure but as a part of our jobs, cannot put a book down if it seems boring or unconvincing two pages in.

In Theory of Film (1960) [Kracauer] would argue that the cultural contribution of photo images, still or moving, is to show new phenomena and, suspending an assumed familiarity with the world, to extend and preserve its visibility. If they are true to the medium, photo images show the pictured. Elucidating the particularity of the pictured, they metamorphose the visual 'raw material.' They do not, as does art, consume it, because as images they are not self-authorized: in her surrender to the experience of the natural-cultural world the photographer cannot suppress the presence of unseen things.
Dagmar Barnouw, Critical Realism: History, Photography, and the 
Work of Sigfried Kracauer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, ix)

Proposed translation: photography and film are culturally significant because they allow us to see our world in new ways. Paradoxically, photos and films that seem most "true" to the medium, eg that are "straight" or unmanipulated, actually transform the things they represent, giving us new insights into them.  Unlike art [and here Barnouw seems to be claiming that photography and film are something other than art], these photo-based images seem to be "authorless" and the removal of the subjective author allows us to better see the objective reality in them.

Other suggestions?