Last week, I used my own changing Facebook experiences during the gruesome Israel/Gaza conflict to think about the often unattended-to subtleties of Internet echo chambers in light of family, identity, friendship and war. There’s been a great deal of interesting writing about these themes since, so I’m glad I’m part of that conversation.

But many of us have been trying to make sense of Facebook and politics for awhile now, so I wanted to point towards this great collection from the Institute of Network Culture, Unlike Us (which you can download for free and which I have relied on a lot in my own thinking), and also to this essay that I wrote that has just come out, “Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary,” for another really useful anthology surrounding issues of activism and networked expression, New Documentary Ecologies, eds. Nash, Hight and Summerhayes (Palgrave MacMillan).

In that essay, I also theorize about coming and going, staying, representing and being silent in networked environments (of machines and humans), espeically in relation to activist possibilities for representational politics in a world dominated by Facebook and other corporate-owned, user-produced media. I conclude:

While it has never been clear how to judge the effectiveness of any documentary, let alone ‘activist’ documentaries, I am noting that my (our?) barometer has changed. As Jane Gaines work on more traditional documentary forms (1999, p. 88) cautions, it was never clear that activist documentaries catalyzed ‘activism’ as much as they modeled a ‘political mimesis’: a vision of what activism looks and feels like. By both seeding realist representations and then seceding from representation, by being silent online (and even elsewhere) while at the same time speaking with our bodies, we can make the Activist Digital Documentaries that we might most need now. And this, it turns out, is the special domain of activist art, and documentaries, within the digital—to ‘body back’ as Gaines puts it—to model in documentary a new way of being in the digital/real world (what Beth Coleman, 2012, calls ‘x-reality’) in a linked and larger project of communally produced, carefully theorized, artfully communicated world-changing:

This call for a shared right to silence is thus made because it is silence that is needed to enable human voices to be heard again … One example of this kind of engagement—and one that shows how silence may be suggestive and how it may operate to produce convivial relations—are the communication tactics of some within the Occupy movement. Particularly the gestural commentaries those listening provide in supplement—rather than interrupt—those speaking. (C. Bassett, in Unlike Us)

The art of activist digital documentaries will be in the staying and using and the leaving, through the voices we have wanted and gained, and then through shared silences where things are heard and felt and said without being recorded. (Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary)

As things stay quiet for now in the Middle East, I hope we can use this period for more reflection, and continued conversation, both on and off Facebook, of course.


Ceding the Activist Digital Documentary





“At this point it is necessary to ask again why the discourse of political modernism, so clearly part of the recent history of film theory, is considered as reaching an impasse. In retrospect, the most obvious reason is the starkness of the opposition between realism and modernism, which seemed to foreclose any interest in popular cinema as irredeemably compromised by ‘dominant ideology’ in content and in form.” David Rodowick, “The Crisis of Political Modernism”

When I edited F is for Phony with Jesse Lerner, and produced both “The Watermelon Woman” and “The Owls” (Cheryl Dunye, 1996 and 2010), I rolled out fake documentary as one, powerful (and mutable) response to the very impasse of political modernism expressed by Rodowick above. The fake doc, often highly popular, plays classic realist styles against self-aware form in a fashion that can be intellectual, entertaining, and sometimes, even political. More recently, however, I seem to have made a more retro turn, or perhaps an “unfashionable” one, as I have tried to make sense of the ubiquitous, definitive use of fake documentary method on YouTube by claiming that I want more “real” docs again, or at least documentaries with stakes in (changing) the world.

I have gone as far as to suggest that “everything on YouTube is a fake documentary,” and this I still believe, and with real consequences, at least for me as a teacher, critic, and filmmaker with political (and other) goals. And therefore, my sneaky support, not so much of “political modernism,” as of media work with self-aware self-reflexive form, that is connected to political projects of world and self-changing, actual communities, and documentary claims to aims of knowing. I have understood such claims to be embarrassingly outdated—what with their calls for action in a real world, articulated goals, clear beliefs, sincerity or at least clarity, and communal practices–but have dared to wonder if our free-fall into irony occasionally needs a little nudge from the histories, theories, and practices of committed cinema and its partisan practitioners. While fiction films have all sorts of values that I adore (including many of those articulated above), I have made the recent claim that for a monumental real-life matter like Facebook, one that occurs in/about/through social network technologies, capital, and user-produced content, a more telling place to craft this particular story could be on the very social networks that the film “Social Network” uses simply as backdrop (to tell other tired macho-hubris tales). I then remind readers that Mark Zuckerberg is doing this himself, right now, and that this might be a “documentary,” albeit as far away from political modernism as one might imagine, given Facebook’s corporate imperatives and transparent forms, and yet in some chilling ways, circling back again via complex, self-aware, dialectical networked (modernist) forms and all of their competing voices, interests, and styles.

It was Chris Cagle who recently expressed in his blog that I am sneaky—only in respect to my use of political modernism, of course—and I must admit that upon the careful reflection above, I have learned that he is somewhat right. In all seriousness, it is fun to have a respected colleague respond thoughtfully to my blog, and here I return the favor.

While Catfish presents as a convincingly real fake-documentary (currently awaiting its BIG reveal), I’d suggest that it is even more interesting to think about this already interesting work as a horror film. In Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover carefully draws out the unsettling binaries that create the discomfort and unease that produce horror, and one of these is the city/country divide also then gendered male/female, respectively. This complex observation makes Catfish seem simple. The arty, Jewish city boys arrive late-night to an abandoned horse-farm in Michigan, and get pretty creeped out: all those dark pastures. At this moment, we are cued to think the movie might shift to the scary fakery of its creepy user-generated cousins, Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, but things stay more benign and less bloody, or more techy and networky, for these lucky city slickers. Facebook, and social networking more generally, are the invention and would-be provenance of urban effete geeks (see Social Network), who must eventually open the network up to the whole world, and then—scary!—uneducated, unstylish, overweight plebes (and their grotesque offspring) can join the conversation (no longer restricted to Harvard), and then, even more horrifying, they can pass for their masters by expertly making use of this self-same technology, cell phones and fake friends, and you might even enjoy sexting with one! YUCK.

What makes Catfish so convincing as a “documentary” is our disbelief that the hideously red-state Angela Wesselman-Pierce could be played by an actress (her grossly retarded sons, and nearly retarded husband serve as ethical anchor to her “real”), while it is much more obvious to the art-film viewer’s eye when Banksy or Joaquin (in their glamorous, urban, sophistication) act the part. Here the slow-witted husband’s astute commentary about the wily, provocative catfish provides the generically pleasing twist on the city/country divide, where the bumpkins prove to be more sophisticated and worthy then their movie-making masters, imminently more qualified to produce alternative personalities on-line (Tara’s alters are the metaphor we all need to understand life on the net), given the all too self-evident bankruptcy of their mundane daily lives off-line.

In my previous post on The Social Network, I suggested that Facebook’s (i.e. Mark Zuckerberg and Co.’s) pricey (minimum cost, $100-million dollars… to needy Jersey schools that is) and highly orchestrated public relations blitz now playing across the mediascape at exactly the moment of a slanderous mainstream narrative film’s opening, was a “documentary.” I’d like to revisit that now.

John Grierson defines a documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality.” Bill Nichols reminds us that every doc has a voice: reflexive, authoritative, poetic, etc. Given documentary’s roots in time based media (film and video), we have historically thought of the crafting of such an argument through artistically arranged fragments of filmed reality as a linear enterprise. But for the sake of Zuckerberg, let’s grow this to encompass a network: a “documentary” that sits multi-spatially, as well as temporally, on and about the web and within all the media that converge there. As Facebook unrolls its creatively voiced but highly authorized, ah-shucks he has a girlfriend and a foundation, interpretation of Mark’s sorry story, we see a new kind of documentary coming into being alongside the very social networks it covers, shamelessly uses, and owns: the creative and also corporate controlled, multi-platformed, expertly networked, and then user-ventriloquized treatments of reality.

I’ve written extensively here about the mis-steps of the usually celebrated terrain of convergence: the too easy, sloppy, ill-conceived contemporary media moves between documentary, fiction, and hybrid back again. To my mind, Social Network is a textbook case for why I’d rather wait for what can be best delivered by a plain old doc, and is already being delivered all over the mediascape, thanks to Facebook (or is that Zuckerburg and co?)

In fictionalizations of contemporary real-life, even with great screenwriters and directors in charge, and fine actors playing the parts, or perhaps because of them, the complexities and contradictions of the real social networks of daily living, business codes, and personality get conveniently and conventionally condensed into types (nerd, socially adept entrepreneur, playboy), themes (unsatisfied sexual desire, male bonding), and (three act) structures that gut people and activities of the confusing, amorphous messiness that defines real life—and makes it so pleasurable to watch in a good documentary (and so hard to live well). David Fincher’s highly professional, achingly familiar story of hubris and fall uses the idea of the internet’s “cool” (as opposed to mainstream media’s tepid) as a narrative short-hand that also describes the failings of normative big-media narrative in a time of digital storytelling.

Obviously, documentaries place types, themes and structure onto life as well. They are representations that follow the dictates of their own genre histories and protocols. However, given the huge power of Mark Zuckerburg and Facebook, I for one would rather watch him (or his living, articulate friends and colleagues and their various media machines) try to put a narrative spin on their unfolding lives, business practices and excesses, then watch Sorkin and Fincher turn it into their generic boomer morality tale. Luckily for me, as much as I really didn’t enjoy Social Network, I have relished in the highly produced and carefully structured Zuckerburg “documentary” being simultaneously released across the digital arena in The New Yorker, The New York Times, on the Simpsons and Oprah, too!