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Lecture Library

Documentary Epistemology
by Steve Anderson

This lecture considers questions of epistemology in relation to documentary media, using the construction/reconstruction of historical events as a case-study

Documentary and Epistemology Epistemology = the study of knowledge -how do we know what we know? -how do we perceive the world + how do we judge what is true? Liberal Arts education: -we don't teach you what to think, we teach you how to think -progressive, enlightened -we teach rational systems of thought -deductive reasoning; scientific method; rational argumentation; Socratic method -rooted in Enlightenment rationality -based on the idea that knowledge is possible -that meaningful information about the world is available to us through our senses -positivism: basis for all scientific inquiry; touchstone of the University system; foundation of Western rational thought! The Documentary Contract -How do we know what is real? -Case study on history and historiography -Ask questions about the intersection of history, memory and media -Turn from thinking of history in terms of representation in favor of construction -Suggest that the idea of history is changeable, depending on the needs of the moment in which it is constructed (i.e., changing modes of historiography -Medieval chronicles, -ancient historians like Herodotus and Thucydides -history as a form of patriotism -apologism for the actions of the state Carlo Ginzberg tells us to look for history where we least expect it - where it gives itself away in clues, myths and slips of the tongue -and he likens the process of historiography to detective work, like a Sherlock Holmes narrative where meaning emerges only through a process of deductive reasoning, rather than empirical accumulation of facts History and cultural memory -memory has been the thing that historians talk about the least -usually figured as a bad-object; inaccurate, transient, personal, subjective - all the things historians regard with suspicion Marita Sturken Our most vivid memories may also be the most inaccurate ones Re-narrativizing is essential to memory Memory and history are entangled, conflictual and co-constitutive Fantasies are potentially as important as the truth of what happened Images withhold and cloud the truth, ultimately telling us nothing -Zapruder It's also important to remember that moving images are always enframed in various ways and embedded in a context - whether semiotic, historical, cultural, etc.

Olympia opening by Leni Riefenstahl (1938) The opening sequence of athletes warming up in Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia
Salesman opening by Maysles Brothers (1968) The introductory sequence to the Maysles brothers' documentary Salesman
Titicut Follies cross-cutting by Frederick Wiseman (1967) A scene revealing the power of editing even within a radically observational mode of documentary
Intro to Michael Moore's The Big One by Michael Moore (1998) The introductory sequence of Michael Moore's The Big One telegraphs the film's mode of interactive documentary
Ken Burns on Colbert Report by Stephen Colbert (2005) Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns appears on the Colbert Report
JFK courtroom scene by Oliver Stone (1991) The climactic scene of Oliver Stone's JFK