File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_2001/bhaskar.0109, message 6

Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 09:11:34 +1000
Subject: BHA: The Dialectic and Dcoumentary Theory (1 of maybe 5)

  Documentary Theory and the Dialectic: A Dialectical Critical Realist Approach

Documentary Theory & the Return of the Dialectic
The essential and defining feature of the documentary film is the claim 
that there is a pre-filmic reality with which the film establishes a 
relationship. Such a defining statement might sound fairly uncontroversial 
if not trite in Critical Realist circles but within the Humanities, realism 
has had until lately a very tenuous existence. Accordingly there has always 
been something almost scandalous about the documentary film as theory has 
shuttled between na´ve realism, where the film was deemed to offer an 
unmediated relationship with reality, and irrealism, where the emphasis on 
the mediating properties of the film was such that reality itself was 
called into question.
It is our contention that the impasse between na´ve realism and irrealism 
can be transcended by recognizing that the relationship between the film 
and the pre-filmic reality is a dialectical one. To say this is of course 
to invite a good share of opprobrium in most circles, for the dialectic is 
a most controversial concept. It is in this context that we welcome Stella 
Bruzi's recent book where the dialectic is at last given a place within 
documentary theory (Bruzzi, 2000).
However her dialectic would appear to be Ionian rather than Eleatic in 
origin with the documentary film marking an inevitable descent or a fall 
from an original unity.  Yet unlike traditional versions of the Ionian 
dialectic there is, for Bruzzi, no return ascent to the lost unity.  Within 
her version the filmmaker is seen as embarking on the quest to recover the 
lost unity, but for her this a doomed and hopeless adventure.  The 
documentary is seemingly fated never to 'recapture that first fine careless 
Though Bruzzi's attempt to revive the dialectic and indicate what role it 
should play in documentary theory, is to be welcomed, there are 
difficulties with the particular dialectic that she has unfolded. At one 
level the problem with such a deterministic dialectic is that it brackets 
out in advance that which needs to be analysed, for instance whether some 
documentaries get us closer to an understanding of reality than other 
documentaries. At a deeper level however we would argue that Bruzzi offers 
us an inverted version of identity thinking, where for here an unmediated 
reality is the Holy Grail that can never be found; hence the despair.
The Bhaskarian Dialectic
As an alternative approach we employ the Bhaskarian dialectic with its four 
levels.  - 1M or first moment, 2E or second edge, 3L or third level and 4D 
or fourth dimension (Bhaskar, 1993: 8-14). 1M gives us, the gap between 
subject and object and in filmic terms the moment of mediation. Documentary 
films are constructed.  They do not offer us unmediated access to the 
pre-filmic reality. Such access is in any case impossible and so it is not 
a criticism of a documentary film to say that it mediates reality.  This is 
the starting point for analysis and assessment not despair and condemnation.
The Second Edge or 2E constitutes the moment of negation.  Everything the 
filmmaker does negates or transforms or absents some existing state of 
affairs.  This is the level that encodes the passage of time from the 
geo-historical to the personal, including of course the autobiographical 
film. The Third Level or 3L is concerned with totality, and its inwardized 
or internalised form reflexivity, of which more later. The filmmaker and 
her film are both parts of a totality, one that is, however, partial and 
open. The necessary distinction here is with the closed or expressive 
totality of vulgar Marxism, where the economic base determines the 
ideological superstructure. Other important motifs at 3L include 
subjectivity and objectivity, and concrete universality.
The Fourth Dimension 4D involves the agency, both of the filmmaker herself 
and the people she may make the film about. It is worth stressing here the 
openness of the Bhaskarian totality and the consequent importance of agency 
within this.
If 1M and 2E give us a refutation of both na´ve realism and 
poststructuralist scepticism, it is 3L that supplies us with the 
possibility of a context sensitive reading of the film's production and 
reception. It is indeed 3L that empowers the process of radical critique. 
Moreover a consideration of the 4D level of the dialectic, with its 
emphasis on the filmmaker as agent, enables us to situate and account for, 
as we shall see, the avant garde tendency within contemporary documentary 
theory known as the 'aesthetics of failure'.

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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