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
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
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.