19 February 2015

From the Repository

Yes, the "Decades blogs" to which I was a contributor went into stasis a good while back. But there has been the scattered infrequent post from a few contributors over the past couple of years, albeit mostly very short and offhanded. But contributor William popped up in recent days at the' 90s blog to offer a longer piece -- a defense of Adam Curtis’s latest doco, Bitter Lake.

I’ve yet to watch Bitter Lake. In fact, I haven’t been (as you might’ve noticed) on the internets quite as much recently, and only found out about the film a few days ago, immediately queued it, and plan to get around to it by week’s end. But nevermind, William’s piece doesn’t have much to do with Bitter Lake specifically, or with its content; but rather a response to critics’ gripes about Curtis’s methods as a filmmaker -- about Curtis’s heavy-to-exclusive reliance on readymade archival film footage, his vault-raiding recontextualizations of presentations of things past, etc..

William offers some interesting comments in the early paragraphs, broader observations that fall well outside the sphere of my own critical misgivings about Curtis. One example:
“The internet was hailed as great breakthrough in multimedia, which it is of course. But it has also produced a revenge of the written word, and of those who believe writing is the senior service of media. Platforms like tumblr or pinterest have ended up devaluing images by reducing them to a churn; twitter actively defaces them, using pictures and video as fodder for jokes, constant fact-checking or abuse. Live-tweeting programs seems like a way of refusing to surrender to the pull of video and sound.” 
Of course, with Curtis we’re talking about footage culled from news and entertainment media -- that domain where glamour and atrocity, the sacred and the profane, the significant and the trivial meet on the same plane. Where truth and falsehood often cancel each other out, simply by dent of their coexistence within the same realm. Where signal to noise are deeply intertwined in a way that is deeply symbiotic, and sometimes even a little bit synergistic, as well. At his best, Adam Curtis is all too aware of these contradictions, and very often plays with them, employing them extensively in productions like It Felt Like A Kiss.*

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With that latter idea mind, the latter stretch of William’s piece had me thinking of Michel Foucault’s comments on the archive in The Archeology of Knowledge. Specifically about the archive and its relation to what Foucault labels an “historical a priori":

“...All these various figures and individuals do not communicate solely by the logical succession of propositions that they advance, nor by the recurrence oft hemes, nor by the obstinacy of a meaning transmitted, forgotten, and rediscovered; they communicate by the form of positivity of their discourse, or more exactly, this form of positivity (and the conditions of operation of the enunciative function) defines a field in which formal identities, thematic continuities, translations of concepts, and polemical interchanges may be deployed. Thus positivity plays the role of what might be called a historical a priori.”

[...] This a priori does not elude historicity : it does not constitute, above events, and in an unmoving heaven, an atemporal structure; it is defined as the group of rules that characterize a discursive practice: but these rules are not imposed from the outside on the elements that they relate together; they are caught up in the very things that they connect; and if they are not modified with the least of them, they modify them, and are transformed with them into certain decisive thresholds. The priori of positivities is not only the system of a temporal dispersion; it is itself a transformable group.”

[...] “It cannot take account (by some kind of psychological or cultural genesis) of the formal priori but it enables us to understand how the formal prioris may have in history points of contact, places of insertion, irruption, or emergence, domains or occasions of operation, and to understand how this history may be not an absolutely extrinsic contingence, not a necessity of form deploying its own dialectic, but a specific regularity.”

In this context -- that being the present cultural context -- we could perhaps consider the film archive as the bedrock of a mediated empiricism.

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dismissal that I haven’t heard before, heard many times. Yes, there were a number of McLuhan’s of metaphors and analyses which we can recognize as wrong-footed or mistaken in hindsight. Nowhere is this more obvious than what he had to say about television.**  There were no “media studies” types to correct McLuhan at the time, because McLuhan was too busy inventing what would eventually be called Media Studies. And, in doing so, committed what some -- by the institutional standards of the time -- ventured haplessly down the trail of intellectual and academic irresponsibility. Because McLuhan had gone to Oxford, where gravitated toward a Classically-grounded study of Rhetoric, and would soon enough apply the discipline’s critical toolkit to what many then considered trivial and beneath serious consideration -- like trying to deconstruct the persuasive pitch of advertising, or the massive perspectival shifts that electronic media were introducing into modern society. Things that today might seem like very simple exercises in connecting-the-dots, but were in many ways quite heretical at the time.

And of course McLuhan wasn’t likely to hit every nail on the head. In retrospect, he seems to have missed a good many of them. No big surprise, since he was going out on a limb and had few precedents to work from. As far McLuhan’s analogies and metaphors and theorizing are concerned, McKenzie Wark recently offered an unusual take on the matter. Wark pointed out that McLuhan was a late convert to Catholicism, and quite devout one at that. Given McLuhan’s faith, Wark conjectured, it’s safe to assume that he was inclined to have a moral opinion on much of what addressing, aiming to analyze, etc.. So if McLuhan’s metaphors seemed wildly eccentric at the time (and wonky in retrospect), it was because he was struggling to impose -- for the sake of scholarly integrity -- his own value-neutral critical distance from the subject at hand; one in which moral concerns were shoved to the margins. That discussion, one assumes, could/would always come later.***

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*  In that respect, Curtis's work often reminds me of artist Johan Grimonprez’s 1997 video project Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

**  But then again, pretty much anything that any academe or blow-holing social critic during the 1950s-1970s had to say about about television seems ridiculous in retrospect.

***  You can usually see this at work in interviews with McLuhan, especially when presented with a question or notion that was too baldly-stated or too simplistic. This was always the case whenever the question was loaded with something akin to a value judgement. McLuhan would often talk circles around the question in a manner that seemed evasively tangential.In that regard he makes me think of Bob Dylan. Because it's been said that Dylan was always one of the worst interview subject ever. Interviews with McLuhan are often amusing to watch because there's a very Dylanesque aspect to how he frustrates the interview process, often to the befuddlement of the person posing the questions.


William said...

Ah, I thought someone might bring up Foucault (or maybe Derrida of Archive Fever).

I haven't seen Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y but Bitter Lake did remind me did remind me of the audiodoc The Fire This Time about the First Gulf War, released in 2002. It was made by a Grant Wakefield and was supposed to be a video doc but he couldn't clear the footage. It uses similar music to Curtis as well.

Greyhoos said...

Hi William,

There are times lately that I've various misgivings about Curtis, but I very much agree with you on the "non-criticism" note.

And I'd be surprised if there weren't a full upload of "Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y" to be found easily. I gather the thing met with belated success/cult status about a decade after it first appeared.

Phil Knight said...

Having delved into a few archives myself recently, my view is increasingly that archives are not objective, rational places, but are intensely magical, in that what they yield depends deeply on who is doing the searching. They are more akin to quantum wave functions than stores of old bureaucratic data.

I strongly suspect that when hitherto unprecedented discoveries of information are made in archives, they are not truly re-discoveries of documents created in the past, but are generated there and then (or at least shortly beforehand) by the searcher's intentionality.

This means that the past is not an objective place that we can truly understand by research, but an undefined zone capable of endless re-interpretation depending on the politics and philosophy of who is doing the searching. One thing that we should have learnt over the last 20-30 years of archive trawling is that the past is every bit as creative as the present.

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