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Presentation on theme: "DOCUMENTARY, BIAS, AND TRUTH"— Presentation transcript:

Fall 2002, UWEC, English 381/581: Topics in Film, Video, and Moving-Image Culture: Cinematic Representations of Ireland and the Irish

2 1. Contrary to common perception, the most significant and influential instances of documentary film making never seek to provide a neutral, disinterested representation of a subject. Instead, they aim to argue, especially passionately, for a position, often by means of a critique of preexisting, otherwise influential, and especially socially and political dominant positions.

3 2. In fact, this is why documentary film making originated and how its founding practitioners pursued this work. American and British anthropologists; Soviet, British, and American social realists; and German, American, and British propagandists initiated the documentary film making tradition in the 1930s.

4 3. These film makers all, from socialist left to liberal center to fascist right, created films that documented “non-fictional reality” because they maintained strong interest not only in their particular subjects but also in how these subjects are understood, as well as what kinds of effects in action and practice, these understandings support.

5 4. It is unfortunate, therefore, and even more than unfortunate, quite insidious, that since this time we see many people maintaining the belief that documentary film-making-as an instance of “proper journalism”–should approach its subject from something called an “unbiased” position.

6 5. The main problem here is this. The only way in which anyone can approach a subject about which it is in any way conceivably possible to interpret, evaluate, and put to use in different ways–and in different directions–from an “unbiased” position is to approach it from both a completely ignorant position as well as from one that moreover has no interest whatsoever at stake in the subject and therefore cannot ever be in any way affected by this subject.

7 6. Obviously, therefore, such an approach toward a subject, as well as such a perspective on it offers us just about the least interesting and useful information, analysis, and reflection upon this subject that is in any way conceivably possible.

8 7. In general, therefore it means extremely little, if in fact virtually nothing at all, to point out that a position is “biased.” Bias refers to where one comes from in relation to a subject, what interests one maintains in the subject, and what one aims to support and achieve in relation to one’s engagement with this subject.

9 8. Bias in and of itself is, in short, not at all a “bad” thing. Instead, unacknowledged bias, and bias that is not accounted for, creates real problems. In other words, to pretend that one is, or could be, unbiased when one is not, and cannot be, is deceptive (of self and others), and is likely, when exercised by people in positions of power, to be dangerously manipulative.

10 9. Dominant–conservative–forms of ideology–most often work by attempting to deny, conceal, or disguise bias, to represent “the way things presently are” not only as the “the way things naturally, eternally, and inevitably must always be,” but also as equally serving the interests of everyone living within the society and not just those maintaining dominant positions of wealth, rank, status, and power.

11 10. Social institutions, including the news and entertainment media, frequently serve as instruments of ideology, most often in fact as instruments of dominant, conservative ideology.

12 11. Mainstream, so-called professional codes, standards, and approaches to journalism frequently fit this categorization.

13 12. To illustrate what I mean, consider this: virtually every article in every newspaper is “biased,” including so-called merely “factual stories.”

14 13. In these cases the reporter, and her editors, decide that this story as opposed to myriad possible others is worth pursuing.

15 14. Next, the reporter (and her editors) must decide what aspects of the story to cover, and what not, as well as from what angle.

16 15. Continuing, the reporter must decide where the story (or the most interesting part about it) begins, and where it ends, as well as who should be considered sufficiently involved to focus on, as well as to offer commentary about the situation, or event, the reporter is covering.

17 16. The reporter also decides how much of a particular story to cover, and what to leave out as of no or lesser importance.

18 17. The reporter and her editors must also decide what words, and combinations of words, to use to convey what she is reporting. Seemingly “innocent” word choices rarely are. In fact, metaphors and other figures of speech, all involving comparisons and judgments, permeate all so-called “literal” language, regardless of whether or not these words, and combinations have words, have come to seem so commonplace, and self-evident, that many of us no longer recognize this figurative language at work.

19 18. In short, virtually every news account of a situation or event could quite easily, and most often quite compellingly, be recounted in strikingly different ways than what we read in a mainstream newspaper story, listen to on a mainstream radio news account, or see and listen to on a mainstream television news account.

20 19. Most mainstream news accounts fail to acknowledge, or account for, the biases that shape the ways in which reporters and editors approach, make sense of, and articulate the stories they do investigate. They pretend to write, or speak, from unbiased positions. In many cases, they do not bother to reflect at all on their biases, imagining they don’t have any, and thereby largely tending to represent the dominant biases of the society, and the culture, in which they live–the biases that chiefly represent, and serve, the interests of dominant classes and other dominant groups.

21 20. Again, it is through this means that mainstream journalism often functions as agent of dominant ideology, pretending that only the “editorial” sections of their paper or program represent biases, whereas everything else does not.

22 21. To return to documentary film, I advise therefore that we approach films that pretend to represent something like an “unbiased” perspective–or to do something equally impossible, and virtually absurd to contemplate, “to represent all sides as equally right and true”–with particular skepticism.

23 22. Documentary films worthy of respect in contrast make clear to us that they maintain an interest in their subject, that they take a stand in relation to what they represent, that they do argue for a position and critique other positions–and they, therefore, openly acknowledge, and account for, the fact that they support an “agenda.”

24 23. Ask these questions of all documentary films: 1. From what vantage point (perspective, bias) do the film makers proceed? 2. Toward what ends-and in the service of what interests (biases)-do they proceed? 3. How clearly do they acknowledge, and account for their biases?

25 24. What I am proposing here does not mean that there “is no such thing as (objective) truth.” Not at all. But this requires us to think about truth in slightly more sophisticated ways than is often commonplace.

26 25. What is TRUTH?

27 26. Let us conduct a short review of matters of “epistemology”: i.e., that branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge and truth.

28 27. BREAK

29 28. In epistemology, we have three major kinds of approaches: idealism, empiricism, and realism.

30 29. Epistemological idealisms all in one way or another suggest that all knowledge is knowledge only ultimately of knowledge itself: i.e. the forms of human consciousness refer only to each other and not to any objective reality, any reality that exists outside of and independent of these forms of consciousness.

31 30. Epistemological empiricisms suggest that knowledge is merely the passive reflection of what is generated outside of consciousness and passed on to consciousness through sensation: consciousness is a merely passive response to external stimuli and it merely copies, in a photographic sense, what exists outside of consciousness.

32 31. In contrast to epistemological idealism and epistemological empiricism the epistemological position I support is realism. Let me explain why.

33 32. From a realist perspective, the chief problem with empiricism is that empiricism fails to account for the full complexity of both knowledge and reality.

34 33. To begin, reality is more than mere superficial appearances, more that is than what is directly perceivable by means of our senses: reality includes much which is not so readily apparent. Think of, for instance, class structures, modes of social production, and ideological systems. These all do in fact exist, even if we can not literally see, hear, touch, taste, or smell any of them – even as we can of course perceive plenty of evidence of the fact that they do really exist.

35 34. Moreover, since what we perceive by means of our senses is only what appears to us, knowledge gained by means of sense perception alone is inadequate; it reflects the limitations of our human perceptual capacities. However, we can make use of technology-including the technology of film-to discover, learn, and know much more than we could without these means.

36 35. In addition, knowledge always involves more than sense perception: it involves the use of reason: it makes use of principles and categories that do not simply emanate directly from the tangible objects of our perception, but rather involve reflection upon what precedes and exceeds appearances.

37 36. At the same time, because what we perceive through our senses is always mediated by the intervening influence of social and cultural factors, sense perception is not the natural, neutral, and independent process which many empiricisms maintain.

38 37. Empiricism, moreover, is also at fault, from a realist vantage point, in its common tendency to depict the knower as a mere passive receptacle for, or a mere passive register of, knowledge produced entirely outside of this knower. If we consider the limitations in conceiving of the knowledge of an object as merely like a photograph of it and the knower of this knowledge as merely like the camera which takes the picture, we can thereby, I think, recognize this kind of problem a realist finds with empiricism. In short, are we merely passive recording devices? I think not.

39 38. Some empiricisms do explain complex ideas and modes of cognitive processing that seem not to be traceable merely to sensory perceptions of real appearances. These empiricisms suggest complex ideas and modes of cognitive processing reflect complex kinds of appearances and complex modes of sensory perception that we will, eventually, with further scientific progress, be able–literally–in all cases directly to see, hear, touch, taste, and/or smell.

40 39. At the same time, some empiricisms also recognize that reason and understanding operate in ways that at least seem to be independent of what is manifest to us through our senses by producing ideas for which no empirical correspondent is immediately at hand. Still, however, these empiricisms claim that the true test of whether we actually know what we think we know is always whether or not we are able to find a literal correspondent in the empirical reality that we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell to confirm the truth of what we have imagined, hypothesized, or conjectured.

41 40. Epistemological idealisms take various forms. Rationalism is one prominent form. Rationalism recognizes the knower as active in the process of knowing, and knowledge as exceeding the limits of sense perception, but characteristically rationalism merely results in the opposite kind of problem that empiricism causes.

42 41. Rationalisms may suggest that it is not necessary to attend to empirical reality at all, as reality can be made what we want it to be entirely according to how we exercise our capacity for reason. Or they may contend that empirical appearances are a mere dross which conceal what is actually real.

43 42. Rationalism tends to treat the object of knowledge as a construct of our process of seeking to know it. The problem with rationalism, therefore, is it tends to neglect the importance of paying attention to appearances as a source of knowledge; rationalism imagines objects can be known without observation and investigation, that a purely deductive approach to knowledge will suffice, and that induction is unnecessary.

44 43. From a realist perspective, reality is the unity of essence and appearance: essences are in fact nothing without their appearances, without the means in other words by which they manifest themselves, by which they make themselves known to us and thereby provoke us to inquire into the possibility that they might in fact actually exist.

45 44. Appearances are not mere dross; they do not merely conceal a real content that exists beneath these surfaces. A vital part of any real entity is, from a realist vantage point, the forms in which its essential contents appear.

46 45. For example, freedom is not itself an empirical entity and as such is not equivalent with any one particular–or even with any single series–of particular manifestations of various instances of freedom. And yet, on the other hand, it would not make any sense to talk about freedom if it did not manifest itself in various instances where we can see freedom at work, where we can see in other words the ways in which freedom appears. The same thing can be said for other general categories such as class and classism, race and racism, gender and sexism, exploitation, alienation, and social and political oppression.

47 46. These categories all actually do maintain an objective existence, outside and independent of as well as preceding and exceeding their mere representation in language or thought, yet we do not see any of these categories in the world around us, simply in and of and all by themselves: what we see are manifestations of these categories which provide us evidence that they do in fact exist.

48 47. Moreover, once we understand manifestations of, for instance, racism for what they are, when we see these manifestations of racism we do in fact then see racism because our senses have been transformed–these senses have been extended and refined by means of education and training to recognize more than what otherwise would be the case.

49 48. Another very popular form of epistemological idealism is relativism. According to this approach, our knowledge is always completely bound by the conventions proper to the various conceptual paradigms or linguistic constructs within which we work. Reality is nothing but signs, and what these signs are understood to mean differs as they are organized differently within different "discourses” (different domains of language use), and within different "texts" (different sites at which discourses meet and intersect and within which signs are thus "written" and "read").

50 49. What a sign or series of signs is understood to mean depends entirely upon the ways in which these signs are made sense of within a particular discourse, and this in turn depends entirely upon what rules, or conventions, a discourse prescribes for interpreting what this sign or series of signs means.

51 50. Knowledge is thus relative to the linguistic discourses within which we work and the conventions that prevail for making sense of the meaning of signs within these discourses. Knowledge is in fact arbitrary–entirely relative and purely conventional.

52 51. From such a relativist position, how we make sense of signs depends upon what conventions we follow in making sense of where to stop the potentially infinite motion of signs, to temporarily halt the "free play" of signs, by establishing an arbitrary ground upon which to act as if we could say that sign A means X, is worth Y, and refers to Z when in fact it only does all of this because we choose to indicate it does. Sign A could in other words just as easily mean Q, be worth R, and refer to S.

53 52. For example, from such a relativist perspective, a "rabbit" is a word which merely, in and of itself, refers to other words; we find it useful, as a matter of convention, to imagine it stands in for and refers to a particular kind of animal, yet it does not actually do so and need not be understood to do so–it can mean many other things depending upon the discourse (the particular area of language use) with which we are working.

54 53. It could also, for example, refer to the nickname of a player on a team involved in some kind of competitive sport; it could refer to a particular kind of car; it could refer to a particular kind of sex act or a pet name used in addressing a lover during sex; and the list goes on and on.

55 54. The key here is that we know nothing, from a relativist perspective, of anything about any of these rabbits other than what the particular discourse within which we are working prescribes that we know. “There is no rabbit”: there is only “talk of rabbits.”

56 55. Knowledge is entirely a matter of mastering the conventions of the discourses within which we are situated as language users. These discourses are language games and we are merely players in these games. We win and lose according to how well we are able to master the rules of the game, rules which refer to nothing outside of the game–to nothing about any other game– but only to what holds while playing the particular game in question.

57 56. From this perspective, life is full of many different situations which are all, first and last, games, all involving various positions, rules, playing fields, obstacles, helpers of aides, and, of course, objectives or goals.

58 Realism agrees in part with idealist critiques of empiricism.
57. Realism agrees in part with idealist critiques of empiricism.

59 58. Realism accepts that reason and language always mediate between sense and understanding.

60 59. Realism accepts that what we perceive through our senses from the appearances of objects is not strictly equivalent with all that exists or all that is true.

61 60. Realism also accepts that knowledge is socially and historically produced, and, therefore, socially and historically relative.

62 61. Realism further accepts that developments within history and society lead to changes in knowledge.

63 62. At the same time, however, realism agrees with empiricism that reality includes a world that exists outside of and independent of consciousness and that this "external" reality is in fact knowable by means of what is "internal" to consciousness.

64 63. Epistemological realisms therefore do not simply equate being with consciousness or reality with knowledge, or all of being that is intelligible with what exists within the forms of consciousness and all of reality that is knowable with the mere forms of knowledge in and of itself.

65 64. What we think is, according to a realist epistemology, always ultimately a product of–and, as such, a reflection of–objective conditions, conditions which exist outside of and independent of consciousness alone, yet this is no mere passive and mechanical reflection because thought always also involves active alteration and transformation of what is originally received and perceived through sensation.

66 65. In other words, what we think corresponds to an objective set of conditions that gives rise to what we think, yet thinking further involves acting upon what these conditions make available to us so that we can understand these conditions in their essence as well as in their appearance, and so that we can act to intervene within and transform these conditions.

67 66. In sum, according to a realist epistemology, knowledge is the result of reflection of objective reality in human consciousness in the form of ideal images yet this reflection is neither passive nor mechanical: it is creative and constructive, and it more or less adequately and accurately corresponds to the true nature of its objects as they exist in themselves.

68 67. To illustrate some of the differences between realist and idealist epistemological positions, let us consider that the experience of exploitation can be made sense of in a number of different ways other than as exploitation. Living and working in conditions where one is exploited does effect one's consciousness, but other factors are key as well in determining how it will effect consciousness. These other factors mediate between the experience of exploitation and how an exploited man or woman makes sense of his or her experience: they provide means of making sense of this experience that in turn direct action or inaction in relation to it.

69 68. For instance, people who are exploited and abused may well be taught not to recognize this exploitation and abuse for what it is: not even to recognize that it exists at all, or to think it is all for the best, or to think they deserve it, or to imagine there is no way out or any realizable alternative that will be any better, or to perceive others besides those who are really responsible to be at fault.

70 69. From a realist vantage point, TRUTH therefore not only is a useful conceptual category but also actually does exist. Insofar as knowledge corresponds more or less adequately and accurately to what really exists, knowledge can be evaluated as more or less true.

71 70. Realism further contends that what is “false” in fact also is “real”: it corresponds to something else in reality other than what it claims to represent and this (mis)representation in fact exists for a real–a necessary– reason. As an illustration of this kind of realist understanding of what a realist might argue is “false” yet at the same time very much “real,” allow me to cite Karl Marx's critique of prior atheistic critiques of religious belief in the famous passage from his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right where he proclaims religion to be “the opiate of the masses.”

72 71. The main point of Marx’s argument here is not, in fact, directed against religious belief but rather against the inadequacy of prior atheist critiques of religious belief. As Marx argues, it is insufficient for an atheist to propose religion is illogical and irrational because there is no (empirical or rational) proof that God exists or that there exists any afterlife in an entirely different and much better world.

73 72. What Marx proposes atheist arguments must do is explain why something that they judge to be illogical and irrational–religious belief–is nonetheless so pervasively accepted as "true," exercising as much (enormous) power and influence as it does. Marx concludes that religious belief makes useful sense in dealing with living in an illogical and irrational world, effectively compensating for the inadequacies and limitations–especially the pain and hardship–of such an existence.

74 73. Until the social and historical conditions, therefore, which necessitate religious belief are completely transformed and superseded, moreover, Marx argues religious belief will continue to respond to real needs in vital and quite powerfully effective ways.

75 74. By "the truth," in sum, realism understands knowledge about reality that corresponds accurately to what actually is the case. Yet, realism recognizes the "accuracy" of this correspondence is always only relatively absolute, at best, because truth claims about any aspect of reality are always partial and limited, for five principal reasons:

76 75. 1. Reality is in motion, constantly changing, and therefore truth claims must constantly change as well to register these changes in the objects about which they claim to provide the truth.

77 76. 2. Knowledge of reality is inevitably limited by the level of development of the (technical/scientific) means and methods used to investigate and discern what actually is true, and this is the case in all areas of knowledge about natural and social reality.

78 77. 3. Any claim to true knowledge of reality always, at best, only reflects a. a particular spatial extension and/or temporal duration of what is always ultimately a much vaster and more complex totality, b. what is recognizable at a single level or across a single series of levels of abstraction from the empirically concrete world of sensorily perceptible appearances, and c. what is recognizable from a single perspective or vantage point (or from a slightly larger number of nevertheless still quite finite and limited vantage points).

79 78. 4. Any claim to true knowledge of reality, even in the physical sciences, is always at least partially effected and influenced–and potentially distorted, as well as made possible–by the contest of social and political interests within a given, historically concrete society.

80 79. 5. Once knowledge about any object is ascertained, this knowledge is very often put to practical use in ways which will, intentionally or not, effect significant changes in the very same object.

81 80. The key, then, given these qualifications, in assessing competing truth claims, must be to assess these relative to each other in terms of how more versus less accurately they are able to explain what they purport to explain–and to do so without significant gaps, incoherences, and inconsistencies–as well as, and this is perhaps most important, relative to what kinds of ends and interests these competing truth claims respectively enable.

82 81. Returning, finally, to documentary film, I want to conclude this lecture by enumerating and briefly commenting on some key questions to ask in reading a documentary film as a serious, critical student of film. Remember, first, however, that documentary films never simply record "the truth" in a purely neutral, objectively disinterested manner; they argue for positions and critique others, often in the interest of deliberately providing stimulus for cultural redirection and inspiration for social change. 

83 82. I will note here that Bob Quinn’s Atlantean works toward both of these ends, or, more precisely, toward inspiring social change by stimulating cultural redirection. What’s more, Atlantean quite clearly and openly challenges, as well as critiques, orthodox accounts (such as that largely reproduced in Sean Duffy’s The Illustrated History of Ireland) of Irish “Celtic” history, culture, and racial-ethnic identity, explicitly arguing for his position, while making clear that this is a frankly innovative, unorthodox, and controversial position, albeit one that Quinn conveys often in quite wry, subtle, humorous, and even self-deprecating ways.

84 83. Here, however, are the questions I mentioned I recommend thinking about and reflecting upon in interpreting and evaluating documentary films:

85 84. 1.    What is the principal subject of this documentary? What is its principal purpose? For what position does it argue (even implicitly)? Does it critique another position or array of positions (even implicitly)? What kind of impact does it seek to achieve with-and upon-its intended audience?

86 85. 2.    Does this documentary film make specific choices about what material is to be recorded in relation to the direct observation by the camera operator/director? If so, what kinds of choices, of what should be included and what not, and what kinds of images should be emphasized and what de-emphasized? What, in short, does the documentary film maker look at, and encourage us to look at-and to see-as most important about the principal subject of his or her film?

87 86. 3.    Does this documentary film make use of material (e.g., live action, scene location, and/or interview) recorded as spontaneously as possible subject only to the effect introduced by the immediacy of observation from the camera operator/director?

88 87. 4. Does the documentary film maker stage or compose the scene she or he records? How so? Why-to what end and for what (intended) effect?

89 88. 5.    Does this documentary film combine recorded material with voice-over commentary in which the material directly illustrates what the commentary indicates? If so, how so and to what effect does the film make use of this kind of combination?

90 89. 6.    Does this documentary film use recorded footage of actual places, people, or events for deliberately symbolic or metaphorical purposes? If so, how, and to what particular kind of (intended) effect?

91 90. 6.    Does this documentary film include directly solicited observation, information, reflection, or commentary by witnesses, experts, and other participants in relation to the documentary subject? What kinds of witnesses, experts, and/or other participants does the film maker find most useful, how does she or he use them to get the film's chief points across, and what kind of response does the film maker seek to evoke by using these subjects as she or he does?

92 91. 7.    Does the documentary film maker use any other kinds of illustrative or suggestive material (such as animated or still photographic images, and dramatic reconstructions or reenactments) to get her points across? If so, what, and to what effect?

93 92. 8.    Does this documentary film include voiceover or direct-to-camera address by a figure who is directing the viewer in the reception of information or argument? If so, how, and to what particular kind of (intended) effect? Does the documentary film maker self-reflexively identify and account for her stance versus the subject of her film? How so, and to what effect?

94 93. 9.    Does the documentary film maker edit live footage, archival footage, direct interviews, retrospective interviews, and other illustrative or suggestive scenes and images to take a stance and argue for a position? What is the organizing principle that the film maker follows in deciding what shots to place where and in what sequence? What principal overall aims appear to guide the choices the film maker makes in editing the film as she or he does?

95 94. 10.    Does the documentary film maker accompany the image with sound that does not have its ostensible source in anything that we see within the frame (such as music)? How does he or she use this sound-to what effect?

96 95. 11.    Does the documentary film maker position the camera, and shift this position, to express a particular point of view on the subject of her film? Does she make any changes in the camera lens (within or between shots) to the same end? Does the camera move vis-à-vis recorded image in ways that express a particular take on the subject? Does the documentary film maker manipulate degrees and variations of focus, exposure, sharpness, brightness, contrast, color and/or hue, to express her interpretation and evaluation of her subject? How does she use lighting (artificial and natural) as well as filters and reflectors to comment on her subject? What kinds of effects does she aim to achieve by these cinematographic means?


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