Session 3: Extension and Specificity of Documentary Practices

  • What Should a Theory of Documentary Be?

Gregory Currie

In previous work I have offered an account of what a documentary film is, based on the idea that documentaries are causal traces of the events their narratives describe. The question arises as to  how we judge the success of such an account. Should it conform to ordinary usage? Should it have explanatory goals that go beyond that? I will argue that while the theory on offer has some intuitively unwelcome consequences these can be explained in terms of violations of pragmatic aspects of communication rather than « changing the subject » as some have suggested. I will also argue that it is important to keep apart the notions of documentary and non-fiction.  However, I don’t hold that the theory I previously offered was right in every respect, and I will review some alternative formulations. I also consider whether we ought to agree that few if any actual films are pure documentaries, and whether agreeing to this would be create problems for my theory.

Greg Currie is Head of Department at the University of York and works mainly in the area of the arts and cognition. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a Past Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. In 2014 he was a Visiting Professor at L’Ecole Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. He has published widely on film, both documentary and fiction, and is currently writing a book on the ways we do, or might, learn from fiction. His most recent book is Narratives and Narrators: A Philosophy of Stories, Oxford University Press, 2010.


  • Real Representations: Trace, Testimony, Document

Frédéric Pouillaude

I would like to address the idea of a “documentary art” from a general analysis of the notion of representation. Since the adjective “documentary” seems to forbid any fictional element within the representation, I will focus first on the relationship between representation, fiction and nonfiction. I will propose then to distinguish between two kinds of representational fictionality (and so, of nonfictionality too): the fictionality of objects and the fictionality of means. The level of the object is ruled by a simple disjunction: the object is either real, i.e. existing or having existed, or fictive. But a representation of a real object may perfectly use fictional means to represent it: this is the case of “historical reenactments”, biopics, docudramas, historical novels, etc., in brief, this is the case of any representation that seems to give access to its referent through processes of “make-believe” (a new name for Plato’s mimesis: “Do as if you were present…”). Unifying this fictionality of means through the notion of “make-believe”, I will oppose it to other kinds of means which are nonfictional and may be counted as two: trace and testimony. In a more or less stipulating way, I propose to name “Real Representation” any representation which fulfills the double criterion of nonfictional objects and nonfictional means, and is thus based either on traces, or on testimonies, or (as we will see) on a necessary combination of both. Trace and testimony are two referential structures which are semantically inversed, but pragmatically complementary. I will then examine, medium by medium, their exact combination, suggesting that both are strictly indispensable to any documentary project.

Frédéric Pouillaude is Associate Professor in philosophy of Art at Paris-Sorbonne University since 2007. He wrote a book on dance, Le Désœuvrement chorégraphique. Etude sur la notion d’œuvre en danse, Paris, Vrin, 2009, which is currently in translation process for Oxford University Press. Since 2013, he is a junior member of the Institut universitaire de France for a research project on art and documentary practices.


  • Systems of Truthfulness. Evidence, Counter-evidence, Tangibility

Jacinto Lageira

By interweaving the  fictional and semi-fictional poetics with the poetics of history, documentary-style works raise the same issues concerning truthfulness systems, although the goals are very different from the historian approach. What are we talking about exactly in these works, what or whom are we referring to, to what does this event, fact or document used refer, what domain, field or action is designated, what does this archive, speech or text really mean ? These questions, among many others that come in contact with these works, have in common a « theory of reference ». Even and especially when it is not explained, it is a theoretical and practical device by which referring to something that one assumes or solicits to resolve controversial opinions.

Jacinto Lageira is professor in aesthetic and philosophy of art at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and also and art critic. He has particularly published: L’image du monde dans le corps du texte (I, II), La Lettre volée, 2003 ; L’esthétique traversée – Psychanalyse, sémiotique et phénoménologie à l’œuvre, La Lettre volée, 2007 ; La déréalisation du monde. Fiction et réalité en conflit, éd. J. Chambon, 2010 ; Cristallisations (monographie Jean-Marc Bustamante), éditions Actes Sud, 2012 ; Regard oblique. Essais sur la perception, La Lettre volée, 2013.


  • The Document as a Target and as an Instrument: Walid Raad’s Project The Atlas Group Archive

Roberta Agnese

The Atlas Group Archive presents itself as “a project established in order to research and document” contemporary Lebanese history, through the creation of a digital mixed-media archive,made up of produced and found documents. These archives look immediately ambiguous: they do not collect historical documents; actually, they contain visual artifacts created by the Lebanese artist Walid Raad. Not intended to preserve the memory of the past anymore, these archives become indeed useful to decompose the history of the present and to restitute it in the form of an historical fiction, for want of an official historiography and a shared memory of the events, they try to sketch a possible truth. The nature of the document itself as factual object is immediately questioned: documents here – mainly photos or videos – are produced and attributed to imaginary individuals, to anonymous or to The Atlas Group itself, only by an artistic gesture. Document is therefore the central point of Raad’s work and it has herein two essential functions: it works as a target and as a instrument. As a critical target, the document is deconstructed and dissimulated. But it becomes the poietic instrument of this operation as well, inasmuch as it can be manipulated, revealed in its “constructive” nature and placed in those (fictional) archives, where it will be able to modify their status. The boundaries between fiction and reality are not wiped away but they are no more normative, they are operating. Through the analysis of parts of these “altered” archives, we will try to see how the notion of document is questioned, used, pushed beyond its limits and integrated into an aesthetic fictional practice which can show how the constructive aspects of the historical knowledge are always at work. “I always work from facts” Raad says, but “some of these facts can sometimes only be experienced in a place we call fiction”.

Roberta Agnese is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant (monitrice) in Philosophy at the Paris-Est Créteil University (UPEC), under the supervision of Frédéric Gros. She took her Licence Degree in Philosophy (Aesthetics) at the University  “La Sapienza” in Rome and her Master’s Degree at the École des Haute Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris with the historian François Hartog. She works on the aesthetic and political issues of contemporary photography, by analyzing the representation of contemporary events through the photographic medium and the relationship between historical representation and imagination. The origin of photography and the particular connection between photography and historical temporality are two other important domains of her research.



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