File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_2001/bhaskar.0109, message 10

Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 10:31:17 +1000
Subject: BHA: The Dialectic and Documentary Theory (2 of maybe 5)

  Documentary Theory and the Dialectic: A Dialectical Critical Realist Approach

Applying the Bhaskarian Dialectic: reflexivity and the documentary
The levels of the Bhaskarian dialectic do not represent separate moments. 
The co-mingle in reality. Thus  a consideration of both 3L and 4D gives us 
the basis for a critical account of the concept of reflexivity, from which 
the aesthetics of failure have developed.
Bhaskar begins his discussion of reflexivity with an account of Hegel's 
notion of 'the pre-reflective reasonableness of ordinary life'. This 
tolerates contradictions and finds nothing problematic in them. It is this 
pre-reflective thought which Brecht sought to disrupt with the estrangement 
effect. The crucial aspect of Brecht's 'epic theatre' was that the 
spectator was not provided simply with sensations. He was instead expected 
to make decisions, that is, to reflect. He was required to stand outside 
and not to be involved with the action. There was a range of technical 
devices designed to produce this non-cathartic result. They included short 
discrete scenes, 'jumps' and montage (Brecht, 1979: 360- 1).
Reflexivity is defined as we have seen as 'the inwardised form of totality' 
(Bhaskar, 1993: 9). It is necessary for 'accountability and the monitoring 
of intentional causal agency' (Bhaskar, 1993: 403). The argument here is a 
transcendental one.  We act in this world and that would not be possible if 
we had not interiorised the reality principle, that is, the realisation 
that there is a world out there for us to act upon. Above this level is the 
ability to totalise our life situation and to meta-reflect on it. Thus we 
can think not only about what we are doing but we can think on how we got 
to be where we are.  We can also at times do "two things at once".  Because 
we are stratified human beings we retain during any task a range of 
capacities to do other things.
It is a truism, of course that our interactions with reality are inexorably 
linguistic. At the level of each of our personal life cycles we will always 
be in what the structuralists were fond of calling "the prison-house of 
language".  What the structuralists were apt to do, however, was to forget 
the duality of language. It is metaphorical. It is expressive. But it also 
refers to reality both conversationally and practically. We can moreover 
perform the task of referential detachment when we recognise and 
acknowledge the otherness of reality.  For Bhaskar the being-expressiveness 
of language is contained within an overarching objectivity which is 'the 
condition of the possibility of everything we call "human"' (1993: 150).
In the case of documentary film the demand for reflexivity has become the 
demand for a particular reflexive style. There is a deep confusion at work 
here.  It is possible for a film, such as Trinh T. Minh-ha's Surname Viet: 
Given Name Nam (1989), to be extremely reflexive about how it is made. Yet 
at the same time to be distinctly short on the notion of offering us a 
meta-reflexive self-totalisation of both the subject matter and the film 
maker.  The problem here exists at 3L of the dialectic.  Stylistic 
flourishes are not in themselves a guarantee that the filmmaker has 
acknowledged the totalities within which she and her film subjects live and 
For instance in her film, Trinh points out how the Vietnamese revolution 
has not led to an improvement in the lives of Vietnamese women.  What she 
does not do, however, is to situate herself, and her critique and the 
struggles of the Vietnamese people.  The latter successfully repelled the 
American invasion in 1975. They were subsequently subjected to economic 
sanctions that determined to a large extent the fate of the revolution. 
Trinh as a member of the Vietnamese diaspora and a feminist is concerned 
about the fate of Vietnamese women, and rightly so.  However one wonders to 
what extent a pro-feminist attack on the treatment of women in Vietnam is a 
cover for a critique of the Vietnamese revolution. This question can only 
be answered by inserting Trinh within a partial totality (the Vietnamese 
diaspora) at 3L. One must also consider her at 4D as an agent who has made 
a range of choices that have both artistic and political implications 
determined in this instance by the limits of the reflexivity within her film.
By contrast it is possible, for a film such as Cecil Holmes' The Islanders 
(1968) to transcend its non-reflexive style. In the final scene of this 
film portraying the departure of the migrant workers Holmes cheats by first 
picturing the men getting into the boat and then placing a camera in the 
boat so we end the film looking at the grieving relatives on shore. This is 
non-reflexive film making at its very best and the scene is extraordinarily 
moving.  Equally importantly, however, in allowing three of the islanders 
to talk about their lives throughout the film, Holmes comes as close as he 
dare in the context of an official film to a meta-reflexive totalising 
(3L&4D) of the lives of the islanders.
A Paper prepared for the IACR-Conference "Debating Realisms" Roskilde 
University Denmark, 17-19 August 2001

Gary MacLennan
John Hookham
Queensland University of Technology

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