More Insecurities

My regular and committed correspondent Jeni Thornley, left me this comment the other day (in relation to a post on documentary insecurity):

Interesting…but fiction is also insecure. I really like this essay by Vivian Sobchack (1999) ‘Toward a Phenomenology of Non-Fictional Film Experience’ because she suggests that there aren’t fixed boundaries between fiction and documentary – that it’s about spectatorship- and depends on the viewer’s experience of a film , how we might view, feel, interpret changing moments in any given film. Thus her famous quote: “One viewer’s fiction may be an­ other’s film-souvenir; one viewer’s documentary, another’s fiction”.

Nevertheless, your post has got me thinking – last night I watched “The Outlaw Michael Howe” on ABC TV; it is a tele-movie, a historical period drama about a convict in Tasmania. I have a range of issues with this film which I am grappling with how to address…then today I read it was (part?) funded under Screen Australia’s National Documentary Program’s Making History Initiative. Well, it may be based on a true story but this does not make it a documentary! and why it received government funding as a documentary concerns me. So obviously I do think there are significant differences in the fiction-non fiction modes of address.

Sobchak’s essay is in Collecting Visible Evidence (1999), ed. Michael Renov and Jane Gaines, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, 241-254.


The insecurity I have begun to think about (in two different ways, one is about centres of indetermination, the other the one that Jeni’s responding to) is a way to think about the sorts of willingness of documentary, historically, to play with form and technology. While fiction has done this, documentary seems to be a richer site of technical experimentation, as well as more complicated modes of address. Fiction, in film, might play with story and plot, it might ‘break’ the fourth wall (Godard of course springs readily to mind), but not that many play with modes of address that, say, Marker did way back in Letter from Siberia (direct address, irony, animation, literal repetition of footage).

Translating this to online, and I think the evidence is showing the documentary is doing much richer things in regards to networked practice than fiction. There is more variety of approaches and work, certainly more experimentation in relation to content, style, form, platform, and so on, than I think has happened in fiction film making. So I was wondering why. Why would nonfiction be more willing than fiction, which after all is celebrated as the place of ‘creative’ practice, be more conservative in relation to these things.

So my tentative answer comes out of possible worlds theory and those elegant definitions that I Iike (for their pragmatic exactness) where fiction are works about a world, while nonfiction are works about the world. In the former the world has to be internally consistent, and true. So it is true that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, and that Jedi Knights have light sabres. Just as it is true that Ethan Edwards is a returned soldier from the American Civil War who undertakes a quest to, perhaps, kill his kidnapped niece. These are truth claims, and verifiable as truth claims, but they are truth claims that can be verified because they come from fictional universes with internally coherent rules. Nonfiction, on the other hand, makes claims about our world. They can be contested, but the evidence doesn’t come from the fictional world, it comes from outside the text, from the world.

Hence fiction is very secure in itself. Once I set the rules I can do what I like. Unreliable narrator, in a universe where people sprout limbs as required, photosynthesise, and reproduce like fungi. Where if you fall in love you die. It really isn’t a problem. So narrative is sovereign, in that solar, regal, absolute way that the idea of sovereign demands. It lets you do whatever you wish, just keep it internally consistent. Nonfiction on the other hand can’t do this. The world is always there, bearing witness. I can make all sorts of truth claims, sure, but here narrative is not fiction, narrative is telling and claiming about a world that is external to itself. Here, in spite of how arrogant any nonfiction work wants to be in its claims for certainty and concrete absolute factness, it’s test is not internal coherence but the outside. Which is unbounded. This is the reverse of fiction, for fiction always has clear edges – there is no scientific breakthrough that will suddenly render the universe of Star Wars wrong – and so nonfiction can’t invest in narrative as sovereign. The world is sovereign here and so narrative becomes unsure of itself. AKA, insecure. As the world is sovereign, and outside, and unbounded, in relation to any nonfiction work, then what I say, and how I say it, can never have the security of fiction, and this insecurity opens up the form to, well, wonderment and experimentation.

So, nonfiction is much more willing to break things, play with things, question. It finds itself having to, because it can never pretend to say enough to create the sort of hermetic universe that is fiction’s right.

One thought on “More Insecurities”

  1. Now that’s a responsibility to live up to – being your “regular and committed correspondent”! So a first response for now – as there’s a lot in what you have written here. Your notion that in non-fiction, ‘The world is always there, bearing witness’ resonates. To me this links to Renov’s (2008) discussion of the 5th tendency of documentary: that the ethical impulse is an “underlying and consistent theme that crosses the history of documentary…What do we have in the documentary tradition that differentiates us if we go pushing on the expressive form? What we have to fall back on this is that the best of the documentary tradition has always valued that relationship between the self and another, that that connection of the encounter, what happens between me on my side of the camera and my subject, – and of course the ethical encounter with the audience… So there’s always that circulating ethical question about how are we treating one another. . . That’s really what documentary has to share to the world, and we can’t, no matter how interested we are in the formal, [ your narrative as sovereign"? ] we can’t ever give up that connection to the ethical register”.

    M. Renov (2008) ‘What’s at stake for the documentary enterprise’, Interview with Renov by André Bonotto and Gabriel de Barcelos Sotomaior, http://ebookily.org/pdf/whats-at-stake-for-the-documentary-enterprise-24627002.html

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