Saturday, April 22, 2006

rhetoric, propaganda, and the archive

An archive, like a history, is an abstraction: a product of selective omission. Through a process of critical decisions, certain pieces of information are selected for inclusion. Those pieces of information that are included (or excluded, as the case may be) present to posterity the attitudes and values that informed the decision making process.

The general problem presented by the archive is neither the collection nor the collation of information, but rather, the retrieval of information: an archive requires an interface, or a set of conventions, whereby the user is able to determine what information is important, and how to access that information.

Using Mumia Abu Jamal, a journalist, as a symbol for the primacy of the word, the Voyager CDROM Live from Death Row archives a man’s extensive critique of political authority in order to critique that same authority.

Live from Death Row exploits the conventions of various media formats to establish the perception of authority for its rhetoric. Framed within a window on the computer screen, the graphic composition of the archive resembles the familiar cinematic technique of mise en scene. As is particularly well evidenced in the “Background” portion of the disc, the synchronic features of the mise en scene consistently segregate interface elements that control how the user navigates the disc’s hierarchy (on the left in “Background”), and those that control what audio/visual information the user can access on a given level of the hierarchy (on the right). The diachronic features of the mise en scene (with one notable exception I’ll later discuss) provide visual feedback (context clues such as rollover effects or background changes) as the user navigates through the archive. This clarity of visual order authoritatively establishes the capability of the archive to effectively convey information, yielding the impression that the disc is a type of reference material, and underscoring the position that information itself is of value. Furthermore, the selective use of full motion video, as in the “Death Penalty” portion of the disc, invokes the authority of the documentary format in television and cinema; and the strong narrative thread running throughout the “Background” section of the disc invokes the power and authority of the storytelling tradition, abundant in the motion picture arts (as elsewhere). Another important use of full motion video on the disc is Mumia’s 1989 interview in prison, which includes footage of the cameraman adjusting framing and focus, to invoke the value as authority of unedited footage as record.

Beyond the use of cinematic devices to ground the archive’s rhetoric, the disc presents people involved in Mumia’s case as authorities on the subject, and makes extensive use of text and sound to emphasize the primacy of the word (since Mumia is, after all, a journalist, symbolizing the power and authority of the word). The sheer volume of Mumia’s writings amassed on the disc demonstrate that his positions are not arbitrary, but well-reasoned. The sheer volume of words spoken in impassioned tones points towards the power and authority of the voice, which predates the written word, and is near (if not at) the root of all artistic (and archival) traditions that followed. And – this notable exception to the consistent implementation of the interface’s idiom – when we are presented with the archive of Mumia’s writings, the visual formatting conventions of the disc change. In the “Live from Death Row” portion of the disc, it is as though the authority of the word has undermined the cinematic interface conventions that are employed in the “Background” portion of the disc: the graphic design of the disc here resembles a magazine layout, and when the user chooses to hear Mumia read these words, every last interface metaphor has been supplanted by the spoken word, and the “pages” of this “magazine” turn for us as Mumia reads.

Using the movie camera as a symbol for the primacy of the image, Man with a Movie Camera archives images from disparate times and locations to explore how cinema can reveal human truths. It is possible for a person to mean to say one thing and have those words understood differently; Vertov grounds the authority of his rhetoric in the unequivocal formal properties of the image, thereby critiquing words as a suitable medium for the conveyance of human truth. The advantage of the image over the word is that it is unequivocal: the eye is democratic, and everybody sees the same pictures on the screen, whereas a word like “tree” will call to mind a different image depending on who reads that word. Vertov concluded from this premise that a grammar of imagery would lead the way to a more absolute truth than the word can supply.

Although Man with a Movie Camera lacks many elements common to cinema, such as staging, characters, and dialog, it makes extensive use of various formal devices to demonstrate the authority of the image. Like most cinema, Man with the Movie Camera is carefully organized to excite certain impulses in the audience at various times: there is a glory in the way Vertov photographs machinery in motion, and a humor in the mannerisms of couples getting married and divorced. And despite Vertov’s rejection of any literary influence on cinema, Man with a Movie Camera has a clear beginning, middle, and end: a narrative orientation of sorts, constructed of a series of distinct vignettes. His use of mise en scene is used to compare movement through space to movement through time is a manner that expresses the dynamism of the industrial age. Vertov’s selective use of these cinematic devices allows the audience to orient themselves within the film, and his consistent use of montage focuses the audience’s attention of the specific juxtapositions of images as the primary source of meaning in the film.

Regarding Man with a Movie Camera as an archive that represents the values of Dziga Vertov is advantageous to the time-specific meaning of the film (as part of a larger movement in art and cinema), but problematic to the intentions of the filmmaker. Although the images Vertov combines are formally unequivocal, divorced of its social and historical context, the meaning of Man with a Movie Camera becomes muddled. The juxtapositions of changing traffic lights against a couple getting a divorce can be read (from the present historical context) as a statement about how the technology exerts a controlling influence on us, and is breaking down traditional forms of social order (rather than as a wry statement about what remains undeniably human amidst rapid technological advances). The mise en scene sequence of a worker packing cigarettes can be read as a statement about how the division of labor is like a cancer, reducing humans to mindless machines (rather than as a rhetoric extolling the beauty of human movement, or the desire for a more perfect man in the machine). Aside from the formal enthusiasm for movement, the meaning of Man with a Movie Camera ultimately requires reference to Vertov’s critical writing, which would undermine the authority of the image Vertov attempts to establish. It is possible that this changing of meaning in Man with a Movie Camera could be seen as a dynamism similar to that which Vertov sought to encapsulate in his film, but in such a case, the meaning of the images is not unequivocal, and no more privy to truth than the word.

The use of authority for rhetorical purposes is a large part of propaganda. Both Live from Death Row and Man with a Movie Camera exploit authority not only to make a point, but also to motivate audiences to accept that point. Both seek, by propagandizing, not only to motivate future actions that audiences might make, but also each seeks to contradict the past, informing the present thereby. Live from Death Row seeks to influence future attitudes towards incarceration and political authority by critiquing a legal case that took place in the past; this dialectic of past and future comments on the current state of political affairs. Man with a Movie Camera seeks to influence the attitudes of future filmmakers and audiences by critiquing the state of film at the time, thereby affirming the objectives of the film (towards establishing conventions for a new cinematic tradition). The public library is an example of an archive that does not serve a propagandizing function: the Dewey Decimal System (as an interface for the library) is not a rhetoric that seeks to mobilize the information the library houses in order to incite the user to accept Mr. Dewey’s values as authoritative.

Even the archive itself is a sort of authority: it imposes a type of logical necessity upon a set of objects (as in, what it logically means for an object to be a member of a particular archive), establishing a relationship between those objects which, in the absence of the archive, would cease to apply. In the case of Live from Death Row, there is a definite narrative that comes through the way images, sounds, and text are grouped together, and how the hierarchy of the disc suggests a linear direction for the navigation of the material; where it not for the disc, that particular narrative implementation would not exist. For Man with a Movie Camera, its nature as archive requires that certain images be sequenced in a certain way: if the frames of the movie were organized differently, the frames would constitute the same film. The inherent authority of the archive furthers its value as propaganda by providing a tautological justification for a specific rhetoric.

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