Can the Imperial Logic of Documentary be Repaired?

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An elderly man being expelled from his home. Drawing by A.A. Azoulay, from a photograph.

This essay is from the Verso roundtable, "Unlearning Imperialism: Responses to Ariella Aïsha Azoulay's Potential History."

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I have long wondered about the relationship of documentary cinema to governmental projects and racial capitalism. Despite orthodoxies of documentary’s progressive bent, in my first book, Projecting Canada (2007), I investigated the relationship between mainstream documentary epistemologies and social scientific methodologies, themselves closely connected to the management and study of differential citizenship. This approach to documentary cinema as an operational feature of modern liberal social and political organization is bolstered by the growing interest in the category of useful or utility cinema in media studies, a paradigm that has been essential to the expansion of the object of cinema studies to the non-theatrical realm. But the racial politics so prominent in twentieth-century social science and public communication are rarely acknowledged to be at the very centre of the concept of useful cinema.[1]

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s weighty tome Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (2019) draws the connection directly and in so doing situates itself as one of the most exciting and important contributions to documentary studies to emerge in a long while. Although the concept of documentary is not highlighted in the book as such, Azoulay’s arguments about the complicity of visual technologies such as photography and state institutions such as museums and archives with imperial violence are germane to the genre. One genealogical link is with the documentation movement, the early twentieth-century basis of modern library and archival science, whose approach to the organization of large quantities of data laid the basis for the digital automation of oppressive algorithmic logics. Although the documentation movement is not commonly linked to the establishment of documentary cinema, arguably both were instrumental in embedding an imperial perspective into the infrastructure and organization of information in the waning days of empire after the First World War.

Although often paired with democracy, the genre of documentary pioneered by John Grierson and the British Documentary Film Movement emerged because liberal political theorists such as John Dewey and Walter Lippmann were already – at the very moment of its instantiation in the 1920s – declaring the fragility of the liberal democratic ideal. Documentary is arguably a genre predicated not only on the attempt to manage structural democratic deficit, then, but also on the pursuit of neo-imperial global hegemonies and standardized ideas of historical time.[2] It is therefore no coincidence that educational films of this sort were given a prominent role in the League of Nations mandate and even more so in the establishment of UNESCO by the UN after the Second World War, something that is typically left out of conventional media histories of international organizations. During the Second World War, the period of documentary’s most exponential growth, the form was operationalized by the American military, a development that would go on to have important effects on the establishment of the field of communication studies.[3] Far from holding onto the promises of liberalism, Azoulay highlights the complicity of the very idea of the liberal citizen with imperial regimes and the violent erasures they enact.

One of Azoulay’s most profound discussions relates to the concept of universal human rights, another category with which documentary has often been coupled. In place of this alibi for imperialism, she presents the concept of rights as a “protocols for a shared world,” and for worldly relation among people rather than sovereigns. Instead of the abstract subject of rights she insists upon the situated subject of imperial relations, structured either as citizen-perpetrator or as dispossessed, someone from whom the “human condition” is withheld. In her analysis, the discourse of universal rights – forged to dissociate the Allies from their imperial crimes – destroys access to rights as practiced before liberal imperialism declared them atavistic and reactionary. The role of the researcher, in her view, is to collaborate with companions found in the archive in order to recount stories not generally encouraged by its categories and to reject the emphasis on new and improved world orders.

The emergence of the field of documentary studies in the 1980s and 1990s, at the same time as the ascendance of “French theory” in the North American academy, in many ways missed an opportunity to investigate its historical connection to empire. With an alluring lexicon of post-humanist terminology that emphasized the systemic and even mechanized elements of communication, French theory was taken up in the North American academy as a means of studying subjectivity and signification rather than imperial politics. Largely ignored was the fact of French theory’s own formation in relation to the postcolonial struggles of French colonies, such as Algeria, Lebanon, Martinique and Cameroon, as well as by the discursive power of UNESCO, housed in Paris, an organization with which a number of the key thinkers were associated. French scholars such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson seeking refuge in the US during and after the war were exposed to the concept of cybernetics and translated it for a European academy which was able, at its most radical, to discern in the merging and interchangeability of human and machine the grain of a philosophy that might be taken to radically post-humanist ends. While mainstream cybernetic theory was easily articulated to a militarized imperial program, radical poststructuralist philosophy aimed to address the failures of humanism that were apparent in European imperialism and its wars.[4] The focus on abstraction in structuralism, information science, and human rights alike, which was connected to their mutual focus on communicative universalism, suppressed racial politics and was rarely seen as an imperial form of erasure. In highlighting the grounds for the universal communicative citizen-subject in imperial violence, Azoulay demonstrates the connection of documentary media to imperial “visual literacy” and the framework of racial capitalism in a way that calls out to be addressed by the field.

Azoulay leaves open the question about whether there is potential for documentary to engage in dialogic practices with its imperial history, although her own interventions into archival imagery throughout the book suggests that it has.[5] Experimental filmmakers highlighting the always-already signified aspect of reality provoke questions about our fantasy of the proximity of representation to reality. In particular, focusing on racialized and gendered subjects they may emphasize a dialogic form of filmmaking that foregrounds voices that are submerged – or even absent – within the documentary artifact. Vincent Monnikendam’s Mother Dao, the Turtlelike (1995) interrupts documents from the Indonesian colonial archive by highlighting Dutch colonial exploitation and counterposing Indigenous spirituality on the soundtrack. Marlon Fuentes’ Bontoc Eulogy (1995) intersperses archival footage of American imperial violence in the Philippines with reenactments and fictionalization in ways more complex and disorienting still. Laleen Jayamanne refuses to show archival footage at all in A Song of Ceylon (1985), while nevertheless referencing Basil Wright’s 1934 imperial film in her title. Perhaps these experimental archival documentaries amount to attempts to undo “the ontology of the document” and reject the “regime of the archive” that constitute part of Azoulay’s injunction to unlearn imperial histories. She compels scholars and artists to work in a conditional tense, exploring not just what has happened but what might have happened in lieu of on-going imperial violence – in short, to uncover history’s potentiality. Emphasizing the need for scholars/filmmakers to see themselves as collaborators, partners with the oppressed, she encourages us to reject the categories of the imperialists that filter into the historical source material itself, warning that “the invitation to enter the imperial archive is a trap.” Films that reject this trap are poised to be compelling responses to the imperial ideologies of progressive, universal, democratic citizenship and free speech that underpin the documentary project. But what about documentary studies itself? By investigating its own disciplinary investments in progressive, communicative universalism, documentary studies, too, is well positioned to become a space for unlearning imperial violence and even producing historical reparations. “Our joint efforts, across time, should be the sign that the imperial condition is reversible.”

Zoë Druick is a professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. She is currently leading a national project on the entanglement of postwar educational media with theories of cybernetics.

[1] For more on useful cinema see Charles Acland & Haidee Wasson (Eds.) Useful Cinema. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011; Vinzenz Hediger & Patrick Vonderau (Eds.), Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009; Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron & Dan Streible (Eds.), Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[2] For analysis of cinema and imperialism see Lee Grieveson & Colin MacCabe (Eds.), Empire and Film. Palgrave Macmillan/BFI, 2011; and Tim Rice, Films for the Colonies: Cinema and the Preservation of the British Empire. University of California Press, 2019.

[3] See Nick Dyer-Witheford & Svitlana Matviyenko, Cyberwar and Revolution. University of Minnesota Press, 2019; Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945–1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994; Haidee Wasson & Lee Grieveson (Eds.), Cinema’s Military Industrial Complex. University of California Press, 2018.

[4] Amin Alhassan, "The canonic economy of communication and culture: The centrality of the postcolonial margins." Canadian Journal of Communication 32(1) (2007), 103–118; Jean-François Lyotard, Political Writings. UCL Press, 1993; G. Kutukdjian, Lévi-Strauss Remembers …. UNESCO Courier 5 (2008), 49-50; Bernard Geoghegan, "From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus." Critical Inquiry, 38(1) (2011), 96-126.

[5] In this regard, Azoulay’s investigation is consonant with scholarship on the radical potential of archival documentary. See Jaimie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History. Routledge, 2014; and Catherine Russell, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices. Duke University Press, 2019.