Communication and Culture | Media Criticism (Topic: Seminar in Documentary Studies)
C606 | 26083 | Malitsky, J.

Tu, 9:30 AM-12:00 PM, 800 E. 3rd St. – room 272

Open to Graduates Only!

Instructor: Joshua Malitsky
Office: 800 E. 3rd St. – room 217
Phone: 856-0405

As the first book-length theoretical analysis of documentary film
and video, Bill Nichols’ 1991 book Representing Reality spurred
considerable interest in documentary as a field of critical
inquiry.  Expanding on a tradition of scholarship centered on the
historical, the concrete, and with a decidedly liberal political
bent, Nichols and other scholars such as Michael Renov and Brian
Winston redirected the focus of the field by addressing questions of
postmodernity.  They asked what happens to a practice that (most
often) aims to objectively represent the real during an era in which
the image has apparently lost its referent.  Moreover, they asked
how the emergence of the digital further troubles what Nichols’ has
described as documentary’s “double whammy” – the combination of its
indexical status as a cinematic sign and its existence in lived
reality.  At the same time, scholars have recognized an apparent
contradiction in the relationship between audience response to
representations of the real and theoretical assertions about the
decay of referentiality.  It seems likely that even as digital
images proliferate, representations of the real hold more power than
ever to shape attitudes, values, and beliefs.  The explosion of
documentary images and situations in film, television, on the
internet, in journals, in museums, in galleries, and on billboards
requires a range of theoretical and methodological approaches
necessary to deal with diverse objects such as film, video,
photography, radio, digital arts, and even non-digital animation.

This seminar will explore the genealogy and present state of the
interdisciplinary field of documentary studies.  As is the case in
any discipline, scholars and practitioners have debated the nature
of documentary and its possible uses.  Some have argued that it is
essentially an ethnographic practice, an historiographic practice, a
pornographic practice, or some mixture thereof.  Others have
emphasized its unique applicability to anthropology or to political
activism.  Still others have insisted on the inherent subjectivity
of its discourse in response to those claiming documentary’s
privileged relation to the real.  We will examine the stories these
scholars tell, the arguments they make, and the suppositions on
which they rely.  Throughout, we will maintain a dual focus on
ontological questions (what documentary is or what it is uniquely
suited for) and questions of praxis - an issue that has concerned
scholars and filmmakers since the birth of documentary.  By
exploring a wide range of approaches and objects and by navigating
the geographically diverse terrain of the field, we will endeavor to
find principles for coming up with new and better documentary