Hot off the new documentary list.
Jeni Thornley on September 24 wrote:
“Sure the digital turn beckons in the era of the active co-creator-maker of the text, as Gaudenzi’s four interactive modes indicates, but a sentence like this seems quite a sweeping statement: “….to move documentary studies from its obsession with representation to a wider focus on documentary systems. From questions of what does documentary mean to questions of what does documentary do?” (Aston, Dovey & Gaudenzi 2013: 124)
I don’t think that documentary studies is ‘obsessed’ with representation; and also plenty of documentarists and scholars have investigated deeply ‘what documentary does’. I am thinking of Thomas Elsaesser’s application of being ‘stung into action’ by one’s own intense and empathic engagement and response to a film – in his terrific essay: ‘Subject positions, speaking positions: from Holocaust, Our Hitler, and Heimat, to Shoah and Schindler’s List’, in The Persistence of History, Routledge, 1996.”
Again I think Jeni’s picked a really important part of this essay. The shift from representation to ‘doing’ is picked up in lots of recent theoretical work, part of the stuff being critiqued via ‘new materialism’ and the ‘media archeology’ sort of stuff. This work argues that media (and we’ll stick doco studies in there for now) has been fascinated with representation, with what things mean, what people do with them, and what institutions do with or around them (the audiences, texts, institutions which defines media, communication and much cinema studies). The criticism of the recent work is that this research looks straight ‘past’ what the media is, to what we think it does in relation to whatever social system we want to investigate it through, but in that moment we don’t see or can’t see what the thing is in itself. I think Jeni’s point from Elsaesser is a good one, though still within the regime of ‘documentary doing’ that is representational or at least as a call outside of itself towards something else. (This could well be an elegant definition of documentary in relation to fiction.)
On the other hand I don’t think Aston and Gaudenzi quite get to where they could. Documentary systems is where the research needs to go. Partly to pick up and intersect with all the work being done in software studies, platform studies, new media and so on. I’m currently writing about how Korsakow, We Feel Fine, and Cowbird could all be thought of as documentaries, but as systems they are qualitatively different and this is a difference that makes a difference. (Bettina F. also used Cowbird as an example at Visible Evidence last year in Canberra.) The shift we are now defining is post digital to the extent that it is computational (procedural and processual) and networked. Yes it relies on the digital but the first wave digital was really only about access and ease. Just because I shot and edited digital I could still make the same sorts of things in much the same sorts of ways. But once we think of them as systems, then representation falls to some extent by the wayside, certainly to begin with because system dynamics (different systems produce different representational epistemes and experiences), and it is the relations afforded by the systems (between content and its parts, people, other systems, as well as procedural and computational processes) that matter.
Why don’t I think it quite gets there? Because the focus on what ‘documentary does’ risks becoming another way to representation, of what it means. Which is fine. But there is a lot to be learnt and understood by first thinking and answering what documentary systems there are, where system is closer to systems theory (let’s not forget Burnham’s system aesthetics either) and Actor Network Theory than socio-political conceptions of system. Different systems, different documentary possibilities, at all points/moments/facets of these systems.