September 12, 2014
Granted, it took me awhile to watch Frederick Wiseman‘s 2013 At Berkeley, but @4hrs I’m sure you’ll understand the special nature of this commitment. While I love early Wiseman (Titticut Follies, High School), I had come to grow a bit weary of his feint of detachment barely disguising a sometimes snickering, often disdainful, if always ideologically-correct view of contemporary institutions. His website explains: “The institutions that Wiseman examined early in his career – a hospital, a high school, army basic training, a welfare center, a police precinct – have ‘problems’ that the filmmaker uncovers.” Furthermore, given that 90 minute features now feel awfully long (I’ll be blogging on this soon), to ask of us 2.5 times this much feels like we better get a great revelation or two …
And I did. The first is about duration (something I find I blog about quite a bit when I search the term) so not a revelation so much as a much appreciated reminder of all we miss in the escalation of the short form: hearing people speak in the often meandering yet ordinary and original ways that they do (i.e. not in sound bites), letting meaning of a place (and film) accrue through events that are not causally linked in a mad compressed dynamic of fulfillment, being with yourself and a film quietly as if a form of meditation or surrender so that new possibilities of attention open as other forms of stimulation close down.
Over At Berkeley‘s 4 hours, we see magnificently articulate, dedicated, ambitious and humble, diverse people (faculty, staff and students) both embodying in their intelligence, devotion, and talent and sometimes, in the face of devastating funding cuts and linked corporatization of the University, overtly testifying for institutional ideals that no one (even Wiseman) could see as “a problem”: public education at the highest level, the public good, publicly “owned” research, the production of original ideas and art, open access to higher education with a commitment to diversity, academic freedom. The film was a feel-good expose of my daily life in higher education (I, too, see scores of people at work who legitimately, authentically, and daily do things in the name of knowledge, diversity, access, freedom of expression, and community).
It turns out that Wiseman pulls a surprising twist on his sometimes snarky project of “revealing the problems of institutions” by instead slowly celebrating the beauty of this institution (its grounds, buildings, theater performances, athletes, impassioned protesters, devoted staff and even administrators, and impressively articulate professors and students) thereby revealing the “problem” perhaps of not one institution but what Nick Mirzoeff calls, instead, “the complex of visuality,” by which he means the array of power held by corporations, nations, individuals and the technologies they deploy “that seek to naturalize and aestheticize its perspective in the classification and organization of the social order,” according to Sara Blaylock in the online journal Invisible Culture. This complex is often hard to see as it overtly guts the good in the name of profit, so Wiseman shows us, instead, all that it wishes to destroy.
But in the process, other realities @Academia 2014 go missing. We see no bored students, or incompetent professors or neo-liberal administrators. We see no grandstanding or endless and pompous faculty meetings. We do not see binge drinking, date rape, or micro aggressions. We do not listen in on the most-qualified graduate students in the world who probably aren’t getting jobs after their amazing training @Berkeley, nor the experiences of eminently qualified faculty who may not be getting tenure as the administration amps its standards @Academia that is more competitive then it has ever been. These institutional “problems” are left on the cutting room floor in service of a different argument, one I have no complaints that Wiseman has made in his celebration of the goodness of public education, academic freedom, and freedom of speech.
And yet, we need to look no further than @University of Illinois, another great American public institution of higher education, to see how vigilant we must be to make seen the many facets of “the complex of visuality” as it currently operates in American higher education. In the case of Dr. Steven Salaita, who demands reinstatement at the University of Illinois after his on-Twitter visibility led to his abrupt termination-before-the-fact, wealthy Zionists and other funders, the Board of Trustees, and the administration morph into a powerful counter-institution in their own right undoing in quick measure the kinds of goodness that Wiseman has allowed us to in daily practices of American institutions of public higher education.
We can only see the complex of visuality that defines @Academia 2014 by adding our representations to Wiseman’s serene and celebrity statement. Let’s begin here:
“Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of UC Berkeley, on Friday, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which he says “made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus.”