“Participant observation” serves as shorthand for a continuous tacking between the “inside ” and the “outside” of events: on the one hand grasping the sense of specific occurrences and gestures empathetically, on the other stepping back to situate these meanings in wider contexts. Particular events thus acquire deeper or more general significance, structural rules, and so forth. Understood literally, participant observation is a paradoxical, misleading formula, but it may be taken seriously if reformulated in hermeneutic terms as a dialectic of experience and interpretation.
The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford, 1988
In the 1980s and 90s, texts such as Clifford’s were formative for me as an artist and continue to resonate, to illuminate my art practice and everyday perceptions. In the ’80s, such writings dove-tailed with post-modern analyses of the authoritative voice as found in all cultural mediums and genres –literary, visual, aural, and discursive. And without them it would be impossible to disentangle the complex knots of American foundational myths and neo-liberal capitalism, or to parse the behavior and effects of the increasingly larger category of shadow politicians, those private individuals or philanthropic families – revered for their mega-wealth – who step into the vacuums created by the widening breaches of democracy. These days it takes political acumen backed by intellectual inquiry to analyze the authoritative voice of boundary-less mediums and commerce.
Locating the ideological knots of authority in globalized politics and culture is basically a survival test.
privileged informants, trained observers, participant observers, reliable informants— these are some of the terms questioned by ethnographic critical inquiry, and these are the terms that came to mind after recent screenings of Chris Marker’s films at BAM, specifically The Last Bolshevik (1993/1998) and Level Five (1996/2014).
Understanding how an authoritative voice is constructed in, for example, documentary (or a narrative film or even a newspaper), will always come up against the degree of a spectator’s identification with the voice – literal and figurative – in the work. When viewing a documentary on a subject about which one has limited knowledge, even a critical spectator will be caught between overtly interpreting the form of the work, and identifying with the filmmaker as an informant considered reliable. For me, even though I should know better, Marker falls into the category of reliable informant, transferential figure. Even as I follow the slippages of voice in Level Five (Marker speaking through a female interlocutor, through a male narrator, in the first or third person, in the plural; through a montage of found footage, digital screens, interviews, and studio mise en scene, etc.), I am willing to let him guide me through foreign territory – in this case, Level Five‘s exploration, through the language of video games and our digital counterparts, of what can be called the genocide resulting from The Battle of Okinawa during WWII.
I watch critically, but more often than not I am also absorbing, unquestioningly identifying with the speaker. I have the same reaction to watching The Last Bolshevik, his film about Alexander Medvedkin, the Soviet filmmaker, and his navigations of the utopian and dystopian periods of Soviet politics. A film about the reasonable and not so reasonable judgments one can make about left-committed filmmaking.
It’s not that Marker doesn’t raise his own questions about events and individuals. But his lilting scripts (usually spoken by someone else) have always made a fairly obedient student out of me. Oh, I’m deconstructing the montage even as I follow it, but often my regard for his “voice” – his intelligent observational mind, his poetically aphoristic rendering of political events, his combination of resignation and resistance – overwhelms my critical discernment, at least in the theater.
I got a glimpse into just how compliant a Marker viewer I might be when I viewed his 1977/1993 film about mostly French and Latin American left politics in the 1960s and 70s, A Grin Without a Cat, in 2001.
I found the film very convincing until it reached the section covering his assessment of American resistance to the Vietnam War. It’s excessive to call it an assessment; it’s really just a brief dismissal that takes a couple of minutes in a three-hour film. My identification with the authority of the film was punctured. Now, one can’t fault an essayistic filmmaker for getting the facts wrong in the same way one can a historian. Marker might have intended to give short shrift to that period of American politics for a reason. But had I not known that period very well through readings and personal engagement, I might have found legitimate and not worthy of question — in part due to a classic viewer’s transference — his dismissive and elliptical way of rendering it. I’ve always been grateful to A Grin Without a Cat for making me see through my own identification with Marker’s voice, because it has made me a more active viewer of Marker in general.
Writing this has also made me understand more clearly some of the points that Sébastien Pluot makes about translation in my interview with him for this blog. Because “translation” is the ethical interface between spectator and cultural interlocutor. And one could think of transference as an ethical interface…