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RADICAL MEDIA PRACTICE IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Remarks by Larry Daressa, graduate seminar on “Politics and Post-Modern Form,” Prof. Jeffrey Skoller, University of California, Berkeley, March 31, 2010
Facing a class of students sitting where I sat forty or more years ago, cannot help but summon up a few harmless valetudinarian reflections. It is always difficult to resist a chance to offer sage counsel to the young, because, as La Rochefoucault cruelly observed, “Old men give good advice because they are no longer in a position to set bad examples.” I recognize that the political landscape you face must appear very different from when I entered graduate school in 1968 – no doubt, less propitious and certainly less fun. In this respect at least, age does not envy youth. Soberer times may, one hopes, at least make your quest less quixotic than Newsreel’s.
In Histoires du Cinema, Godard suggests the 20th Century, the century of cinema’s youth, thought of politics as a grand cinematic narrative. Maturity (and all of you are older than I in the sense that you are citizens of the 21st Century) has taught us that film is not “truth 24 fps” but an ironic record of its maker’s illusions, the projection of an unrequited desire. One of the many surprises of aging is that the older you get the less you realize you understand. This is the liberation of senescence from the dogmatism of youth, however fickle. The good news is that one can survive in a state of Socratic aporia: knowing that to know yourself is to know how little you know.
So, from this position of self-professed ignorance, what conclusions might I draw – under erasure, as you would say - from Newsreel’s unique 42 years of continuous and continuously confused political media practice? Many, of course, but they all amount to the same thing. We were never radical enough – especially, when we thought ourselves most radical. I am using radical here in its etymological rather than historical sense and I want to delineate three types of radicalism.
What is Radical?
First, Newsreel was out of touch with our roots, that is, the grassroots – who used our films, how they used them and what films they might have found more useful. Gramsci used a similar botanical metaphor when he spoke of “organic intellectuals” cultivating a distinct working class culture in opposition to the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie. Shifting registers to the present, Newsreel simply didn’t do its market research, we developed our products in a vacuum. This lack of accountability might seem as intrinsic to a non-profit, dissident media practice as it is endemic, the price of independence, an only serendipitous relevance. Later, I will describe a current Newsreel project specifically designed not to be an independent production.
Second, our social critique rarely extirpated the roots of the problem. We deplored imperialist wars and racial violence from Johannesburg to Oakland, celebrated seriatim Cuba, Viet Nam, China, North Korea and at the end, Albania. (How many of you know that the Albanian flag featured a hammer and sickle and a dump truck?) In the parlance of the time, “we ripped the grinning mask off the beast” film after film, showing the suppurating symptoms of capitalism without diagnosing the disease, let alone prescribing a cure. Suffering, poverty, mayhem were all more “filmic,” dramatic and “eye-ball grabbing” than nuanced economic analysis. Jil Godmillow has aptly labeled this type of political film, “political pornography” and “political tourism.”
Third, we failed to realize how deeply rooted capitalism was in our own and our audiences’ discursive practices. Living in the “belly of the beast,” we didn’t notice we were a dyspeptic part of it. We lacked your reflex to deconstruct or untangle the discursive net we reticulated around ourselves; perhaps this was a precondition for our voluminous output of unabashedly outspoken films. We conveniently ignored that the cinematic apparatus reinforced rather than transgressed the larger societal apparatus in which it was a cog. I will shortly describe a Newsreel “thought experiment” which is trying to understand and address these formal issues, using new media to radicalize our experience of everyday life.
Grassrooted: A User-Centered Production Paradigm
I now want to return to the first sense of rootedness I mentioned, the relationship between the radical filmmaker and his or her audience. Godard famously said “The point is not to make political films but to make films politically.” This was the Godard of "Ici y Ailleurs", "Une Film Comme Les Autres" and "Vent d’Est", the reflexive film practice associated with the Dziga Vertov group. Since he was heavily into his MLMTT (Marxism Leninism Mao Tse-tung Thought) period, we might look for guidance to Mao’s remarks at the 1942 Yenan Forum On Art and Literature. These were later to become a canonical text of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, with which both Godard and Newsreel identified. At its height, Madame Mao, Chang Ching, a failed actress and later member of the reviled Gang of Four, deemed only two films politically correct to screen in China, "Red Detachment of Women" and "The White Haired Girl" – both of which Newsreel dutifully distributed, the prints now safely archived at the PFA. Mao’s oft-cited maxim was simple but gnomic as any Sibylline utterance must be. “All cultural work,” he proclaimed, “must move from the people to the people.“ The crucial unspoken middle term was, of course, the cultural worker under the democratic centralist discipline of the party. This idea, not surprisingly, has its roots in Hegelian dialectics. Being is sublated by Spirit into World History, matter and spirit are concretized in the aesthetic. In politics this translated as: objective conditions (thesis) negated by revolutionary theory (antithesis) actualized in radical praxis (synthesis.) Thus the class-in-itself through the intervention of its vanguard armed with the “science of dialectical materialism” is transformed into a class-for itself. In film, this same dialectic takes the form: image, or more precisely, the pro-filmic event, contextualized in a cinematic text is returned to its audience infused with revolutionary consciousness.
One may detect unintended echoes of Mao’s apothegm is two analogous contemporary Cults of Authenticity. The first, which we might call apophantic, tendency is the ethnographer’s epistemologically naïve, ultimately Sisyphean attempt to “channel” alterity, to gain an unmediated glimpse of the Other, (as if the other had an essence or reality waiting to be unveiled.) This is , after all, the foundational myth of documentary from Flaherty’s docufictions to the cinema veritè of Wiseman, Warhol and reality television. It also lurks in the do-it-yourself visual anthropology of Stahan and Cavaldini’s "Two Laws", the ascetic reflexivity of Trinh-Minh-Ha’s "The Fourth Dimension", the narcissistic reflexivity of Chantal Ackerman’s "La Bas", the radical self-abnegation of David Gatten’s "What the Water Said", down to something as literal as miking sheep in “Sweetgrass.” Since every film, however self-effacing, must in the end be perceived , we are condemned to “see through a glass darkly” never face to face. This suggests a conceptual art piece, shooting a film, burying it and never projecting it.
The second more populist tendency champions “user generated content” as the vox populi. We might describe this as “from the people to who knows,” for many are posted but few are clicked. Newsreel at least realized that reliance on spontaneity in the absence of political organizing would quickly dissipate into the ether or now the internet. Radical media without a radical movement is what Chris Marker aptly labeled “a grin without a cat.” I have lived through too many self-proclaimed telecommunications revolutions – radio, television, video, cable, home DVD – to place much faith in a digital apocalypse. New media technologies have reflected rather than reformed the societies of which they were the creatures. One of the most disappointing aspects of that dismal film, “RIP: A Remix Manifesto,” was the impoverishment of its visual vocabulary, besotted with the images and tropes of mass consumer culture, more mimetic than transformative. I recall one Fair Use maximalist in the film vilifying Disney for “stealing our culture.”
I seem to have digressed, we were speaking of “making film’s politically.” Newsreel is currently embarked on a project focused on early childhood development which is entirely consistent with Mao’s ruinous aesthetic theories. The idea is to link recent research on the science of the developing brain to best practices in childcare and the public policy implications thereof. We have taken the unprecedented step, at least for social change filmmakers, of asking our intended audience what they can and will use – before shooting a frame. We are, counter-intuitively, reversing the conventional production paradigm: production > distribution > exhibition. Instead, we are first surveying users’ needs, next determining the appropriate distribution platform for those needs and only then deciding what media content might meet those needs. We like to think of this as user-centered rather than film-centered production, privileging the context over the content, reverse-engineering films as tools for education and organizing.
Let me give you a simple example of what I mean by film-centric production, where a film is a substitute rather than supplement for organizing. I along with a dozen others worthies were invited to Chicago by the MacArthur Foundation to discuss how screenings of Jennifer Fox’s nine hour public television series, “An American Love Story,” which the foundation had funded generously, if not profligately, could be used in inter-racial community dialogues. Newsreel e-mailed its regrets on the ground that if any community was willing to spend nine-hours in inter-racial dialogue, they shouldn’t spend it looking at television. We suggested facetiously editing the 540 minute series down to a 15 minute “discussion starter.”
One preliminary but striking result of our needs assessment of early childhood development stakeholders is their distinct preference for coherent conceptual units of under five minutes. Accordingly, rather than a traditional long-form documentary, we are preparing a series of 30 “learning modules” which with appropriate print and interactive materials, will constitute a searchable, hyper-linked, on-line documentary database. Users (no longer viewers) will have an ap allowing them to combine, sequence and edit the multi-media material in the database in any permutation of their choice, customized to its context. The goal is to make the site’s interface so transparent that its content can be invisibly integrated into organizations’ pre-existing sites. Our research reveals that academics are also willy nilly chopping up our 60 and 90 minute titles into You Tube size “learning objects” for embedding in course management software. Why, then, go to the immense effort and expense of constructing a dramatic arc or complex argument? This , suggests that the notion of long-form documentary as the pre-eminent vehicle for social change filmmaking may be in need of revision.
Getting to the Root of the Problem: Analysis versus Catharsis
The second root problem facing radical media is that its politics aren’t very radical. This can perhaps be forgiven since, as noted above, political filmmakers (and distributors) aren’t political theorists or activists. Hence, they have too often been uncritical, not to say credulous, dupes, of charismatic demagogues, more attracted to dramatic, Manichean political narratives than systemic economic analyses. This political naivetè is especially acute during the present theoretical caesura, when one radical political analysis is exhausted and another has yet to emerge. I don’t credit current cant about entering a post-ideological era so long as there is a dominant ideology; the challenge of 1848 remains unanswered, the answer has only become less clear. I’ll remind you of a quote from Lenin: “Without a revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary practice.” Of course, Lenin didn’t have the right theory.
That said, I do not envy you the task of developing a critique appropriate for a century which, it now seems clear, is witnessing the irreversible decline of America as an imperial power. The American Dream, I fear, will not go “gently into the night” where dreams belong. One of Marx’s notoriously unreliable predictions in Kapital may, nonetheless, shed some light on the economic situation you confront: “Economic collapse becomes inevitable once the mode of production becomes a fetter on the development of the forces of production.” In other words, credit default swaps, securitized sub-prime mortgages and runaway healthcare costs aren’t the best way to maintain economic power. This said, the limitation of past political economy, pace Aristotle and Marx, may be that man is neither a political or economic animal but a dreaming, that is to say, discursive one.
Radicalizing the Everyday: From Actual to Virtual
Finally, I want to turn to the always problematic relationship between radical content, radical form and its not so radical audience. This issue was, of course, at the center of cultural polemics during the decade following the October Revolution. I’ve always been fond of Dziga Vertov’s taunt of Eisenstein. “Film drama is the opiate of the masses.” But with Lunacharsky’s dismissal, Stalin’s denunciation of Shostakovitch’s “Lady MacBeth” and Zhadnov’s elevation to Commissar of Enlightenment, “bourgeois Formalism” (and most of its advocates) were liquidated in favor of Socialist Realism, as the house-style of the Third International. Writing in the wake of Hitler and Stalin, Adorno could again point out the cognitive dissonance between radical content and conventional form. In his “Aesthetic Theory,” he argued, contra Lukacs, that social critique could only be made if elevated from the level of content to that of form. Political content, however radical, once reified into bourgeois forms (specifically representational realism) would be immediately assimilated into commodity circulation and its discursive superstructures. More significantly, representation alienated the audience from its own situatedness and agency - or lack thereof - through its abstraction as meaning. One ideology of domination merely vied with another, laying the groundwork for the next ontotheology, the next God that would fail. On these grounds, Adorno provocatively claimed Beckett was a more political author than either Brecht or Sartre, precisely because he abjured radical content in favor of radical form, denying his audiences the always premature catharsis of syntactic or narrative closure.
On its own rather more pragmatic level, Newsreel had felt a similar queasiness from having watched too many screenings where our militant films degenerated into outrage and righteousness rather than concrete action or critical thought. Newsreel had always found it expedient to ignore the elephant in the projection booth, the cinematic apparatus itself, in both its literal and larger social senses. We had bracketed out the all too evident fact that the cinematic dispositif eclipses the here and now with the there and then and paralyzes a site of potential action into one of drooling reception. Last year I spoke at a learned conference in London which listed among its themes, without apparent irony, “revolutionary spectatorship.” Newsreel has finally gotten around to addressing this oxymoron at the heart of any activist film practice.
The challenge, as we conceive it, is how to undercut the system at its roots, that is, at the point where it is naturalized through the perception of everyday life. This demands not representing an alternative view of “reality” but problematizing the idea of reality, not showing a “world” but reframing how we look at it. This has led, inevitably, to our interest in political topology or radical geography, as sketched in the paper you were asked to read. For those who became discouraged hacking through its Hegelian undergrowth, the idea is, as usual, simple, even simple-minded: space or rather spaces are phenomenological, subjective, constructed and, hence conventional, historically contingent. Space or place is unavoidably projected through the lenses of intention, teleology and desire; the present is permeated by the past and future. Space is not just visual but haptic, or to use Giuliana Bruno’s more accurate coinage, “architextural,” not just spectatorial and voyeuristic but also experiential and voyagistic. In other words, we do not simply look at sites/sights, we dwell in them and travel through them. As a result, space, including film’s diegetic spaces, can be claustrophobic or expansive, charged with expectations of agency or obstruction. Godard famously said “language is the house we live in;” the same could be said with less metaleptic strain of space; it forms the imbricating roof blocking out the sky of political possibility.
Newsreel is asking: can we intervene in the construction of space, can we re-contextualize the everyday where and when it is being lived, making the ordinary extraordinary and the quotidian uncanny? First, we are thinking about extending the “site of reception” into contested, extra-cinematic terrains through mobile and distributed delivery devices: desktops, laptops, cell phones, i-Pods, webcams and whatever other locative technologies they dream up. Second, we are designing perceptual aids which can de-center, re-orient and augment the experience of circumambient space. It isn’t good enough to appropriate perception for an hour through the cinematic apparatus, interpellating viewers as the passive readers of an audiovisual text. Rather, we are asking could we develop software applications which allow quondam viewers actively and self-consciously to project hybrid hyperspaces, over-laid with sub-alterned political dimensions. Armed with these perceptual prostheses, these cyber-Borghesians (sorry about that) might add to Heidegger’s ready-at-hand and present-to-hand a third being-towards-the world: the not-yet-at-hand, a proleptic or anticipatory space. In so doing, they could render the always specious dichotomy between actual and virtual anachronistic.
How, you might well ask, could such theoretical lucubrations be translated into a politically relevant practice? It would not be entirely evasive if I claimed that the truly innovative political uses of new technology will have to come from you “digital natives,” rather than from immigrants like me who have barely learned the language. Nonetheless, cognizant that there is nothing so ludicrous as an old man trying to be young, I’ll offer some examples, using technology already ready-at-hand, some of which even exist. Let me re-emphasize my earlier point, it would be an utter waste of time and vanity to develop any such tools without the intimate collaboration of their intended users.
1. Mobile video messaging aimed at public transportation riders suggesting political perspectives for viewing the diurnal world outside the bus windows. Twitter feeds, sponsored by local rider networks, to share information on delays, over-crowding and incidents.
I’ll stop because this has become a perfect example of what the video librarian here at Berkeley justly derides as “cyber-whoppee.” I am only suggesting that now that digital technology has opened the possibility for performative moving image practices, political media makers may need to think beyond closed-formed narrative to more open-form practices. Among these, I’d include the non-linearity of “database documentaries” and the structured image-sourcing of Perry Bard’s “Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake.” The latter, by the way, provides a cautionary tale of confusing technological with political change. Vertov’s film was not a heterogeneous collage but a constructivist simulacrum of the construction of socialism at a particular historical juncture. The sort of directed improvisation I’m suggesting has obvious precedents in that other time-based medium, music, for example, jazz and the aleatoric works of composers like of Stockhausen and Lutoslawski.
To sum up, if Newsreel were starting its political media practice today, and thank God we’re not, I doubt if we would describe ourselves as film makers and distributors or, in the current argot, content producers and aggregators. Rather, we would probably see our role as content orchestrators, impresarios and conductors, to stretch the musical analogy. Insofar as we would produce content, it would be shorter, cheaper, more frequent and more ephemeral - strategic interventions rather than grandiose, prescriptive narratives. We would not organize ourselves as an independent collective but become media-makers-in-residence at a broad social movement or mass organization. There we could observe their communication networks and needs over time and work with them to design and implement coordinated cross-media strategy for reframing and redirecting a particular social discourse. This is certainly not the vanguardist role we envisioned for ourselves in 1968 but, as I have tried to show, it might well be a more radical one.
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