File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_2001/bhaskar.0109, message 9

Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 10:27:20 +1000
Subject: BHA: The Dialectic and Documentary Theory (5 of maybe 5)

  Documentary Theory and the Dialectic: A Dialectical Critical Realist Approach

The Aesthetics of Delirium (AoD)

The notion of 'delirium' is yet another instance of the under theorised in 
contemporary documentary theory.  It emerged first in response to Bill 
Nichol's call for a more serious approach to documentary.  Michael Renov 
has labelled the latter's position as the 'discourses of sobriety' and 
called for documentary theory and practice to move to the AoD. So then we 
can initially understand the AoD through the via negativa, that is they are 
not the discourses of sobriety.
Obviously this is an unsatisfactory situation and we must hope that Renov 
clarifies the concept of AoD. In the mean time we would argue that we can 
make some contribution to the process of concept development and 
clarification by situating AoD within a line of thought, which stretches 
from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche and Heidegger.  Roughly speaking this is a 
tradition that privileges the irrational over the rational. The key text 
here is Nietzsche's  (1844-1900) The Birth of Tragedy first published in 
1872. This deals with the clash between the aesthetic and the 
rational.  Nietzsche's argument is in effect that the rationalism initiated 
by Socrates destroyed Greek tragedy.
Before addressing that argument it is important to note that Nietzsche's 
starting point is one he took from Schopenhauer.  This is an affirmation of 
the essential horror of existence. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietsche's 
outlines the motif of the wisdom of Silenus as follows:
According to the old story, King Midas had long haunted wise Silenus, 
Dionysus' companion, without catching him.  When Silenus had finally fallen 
into his clutches, the king asked him what was the best and most desirable 
thing of all for mankind.  The daemon stood, silent, stiff and motionless, 
until at last, forced by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and spoke these 
words: 'Miserable, ephemeral race, children of hazard and hardship, why do 
you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to 
hear?  The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not 
to be born, not to be, to be nothing.  But the second best thing for you - 
is to die soon (Nietzsche, 1993: 22)".

How then is one to react to the wisdom of Silenus?  We will deal with 
Nietzsche's response later but firstly let us consider the attitude of his 
mentor, the great pessimist, Arthur Schopenauer (1788-1860). For the latter 
'Work, worry, toil, and trouble are indeed the lot of almost all men their 
whole life long' (Schopenhauer, 1962: 43). His response to the horror of 
being alive was a kind of ascetic stoical acceptance. For Schopenhauer the 
problem lay with humanity's Will, in this case the will to live. Will was 
the source of all suffering in the world.  In this he was influenced 
strongly by Buddhist thought and believed that the only solution was to 
absent desire. Interestingly he also argued that the aesthetic could 
provide a space apart, a sort of zone of temporary relief from the Will 
(Schopenhauer, 1970: 156-8). This is possible because for Schopenhauer art 
and the aesthetic belong to the world of Platonic Ideas rather than that of 
the Will.
Nietzsche seems to have taken Schopenhauer notion of the Will and 
transformed it into the Will to Power. This was said to be the defining 
aspect of what it is to be human. From this there is a direct line to 
Foucault and post modern thought.  Within this schema truth becomes a 
matter of power.  One asserts one's truth over someone else's and sets up 
what Foucault called 'regimes of truth'. If one adds in here Nietzsche's 
perspectivalism, that is the view that truth is a matter of perspective and 
disagreements are really clashes over perspectives then one really has all 
the essential ingredients for the postmodernist truth-stew.
Another difference between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer was over the former's 
response to the horror of existence.  Nietzsche formed a notion called the 
Eternal Return. That which is will be again forever and ever. He then 
decided that he would say 'yes' to this fate.  This was the 
heroic  response of the philosopher-intellectual. He regarded this as a 
decisive break with Schopenhauer's pessimism.
In terms of the specificity of aesthetics, Nietzsche saw the aesthetic as a 
way of responding to the horror of existence.  The example he took here is 
ancient Greek tragedy.  This for Nietzsche had the two-fold divisions 
within the aesthetic. -  the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Dionynisus was 
the god of the collective ecstasy - the Baachanalian rite.  Here one lost 
one's individuality in the great collectivist frenzy.  From a Bhaskarian 
perspective what is interesting is the attempt to achieve subject-object 
identity and to merge with the world. We will return to this demand for the 
unmediated when we come to discuss Reality television but for the moment we 
will note that this is exactly what hippies and mystics have long attempted 
to achieve. Such attempts are doomed to only temporary moments of 
success.  As any middle aged man will tell you, it is not given for humans 
to dwell in the ecstatic for more than a transitory moment.
In any case we think of the Dionysian moment in terms of the Old Star Wars 
notion of  'the force' in that it has a dark and a light side.  In addition 
apart from Dionynisus there is Apollo the god of light and of form and 
beauty. If according to Nietzsche music was essentially Dionysian then the 
Apollonian was most represented by those arts such as sculpture that 
stressed form.
For Nietzsche the great work of art combined the Dionysian with the 
Apollonian.  He saw this in the Greek tragedy, which had its interplay 
between the chorus (Dionysian) and the action of the hero 
(Apollonian).  This was the high point of art.  However when Euripides came 
on the scene he removed the chorus and thus in Nietzsche's terms destroyed 
Greek tragedy.  Without the Dionysian, the Apollonian withered.
Euripides, again according to Nietzsche, was dominated by Socrates.  So the 
latter is the real villain for Nietzsche.  Socrates' sin was that he was a 
hyper rationalist and downplayed the irrational or the Dionysian.  Our 
argument in this instance is that both Winston and Renov in their attempts 
to renew the documentary theory and form have been searching for a figure 
on whom they can pin the mantle of Socrates.   Winston seems to have 
settled for Grierson as Socrates, while Renov has selected Nichols to fill 
that role.  Interestingly Hartley in his review of Housing Problems would 
seem to have the same target as Winston.
It is our contention or suspicion perhaps that very little of this has been 
thought out.  It may be that Winston and Renov are both instinctive rather 
than clearly thought out Nietzscheans. Clearly there is a lot more work has 
to be done, but at least we would argue that laying the problem out as 
above does enable us to advance a number of relevant questions. Primarily 
we think that it is worthwhile being a little resistant to Renov's 
rhetoric.  Before we put on our dancing shoes and join him kicking in the 
chorus and having a hot time in the old town tonight, it is worthwhile to 
recall that sometimes the oppressed need above all the truth to be told 
about their exploitation.
It is also important to question the Nietzschean reading of the Socratic. 
There is, for instance, no doubt that Hartley is sincere in his loathing of 
the 'knowledge class' (experts) who devise solutions for the working 
class.  Moreover his sceptical outrage at those who see the working class 
as a problem, is to be applauded.  Equally we share his sense of loss in 
his mourning for the passing of the working class communities.  However not 
all rationality is on the side of oppression.  Not all experts are 
exploiters. To be anti-expert per se is to don the mantle of Pol Pot.


This paper has attempted to advance documentary theory by employing the 
dialectic.  The dialectic we have adapted is the Bhaskarian one, with its 
four levels encompassing non-identity, negativity, totality and agency.  We 
have attempted to illustrate how this might be applied to a range of 
problems with documentary theory especially the moments of self-esteem, the 
aesthetics of failure, epistemic hesitation and delirium. Much work of 
course remains to be done, however it is our hope that this paper will have 
made at least in part the case for a Dialectical Critical Realist approach 
within Documentary Theory.

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_____________, Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries, London: BFI, 2000

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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