Against Official Historiography and Liberal Documentary

As briefly discussed in the earlier parts of this essay, what is at stake is uncovering the links between the untold experiences and our analyses of the socio-political conditions that engendered those experiences. Perhaps the greatest challenge for the collective is continuing to form our cultural identity as we figure out how to negotiate or consolidate the different political stances, regardless of how similar they will tend to be. Some of the members have revealed their political intentions or agenda with more conviction than others, however, there is a general sense that we cannot separate the political issues from the collected stories nor should we try to depoliticize them. In other words, how do we recognize that the representations of repressed memories are not isolated from, for example, the politics of war, neocolonialism, and epistemic violence?

Another way of approaching such a question is to decipher and distinguish the different types of existing practices of historiography, oral historical representations, or even documentary. We are trying to demystify the whole process of historiography, from documentation or documentary practices, to archival, to the narrativization and public mediation. Part of the purpose of pursuing this project is to think beyond the kinds of documentary and historiographical practices, which assume truth value without revealing or eliciting complex political discourses embedded in the representations they produce. So, what are the practices of engaging with or handling historical accounts of social issues that we aim to avoid? This section of the essay will focus on critically evaluating the limitations or problematic functions of “official” historiography and a kind of social documentary called by Martha Rosler as “liberal documentary.” As a side note, although we cannot ignore the importance of medium specificity, for the purposes of this discussion, we will broaden the scope of “documentary” to include not only photography but also other forms of audio and visual media.

Teshome Gabriel suggests that cultural practices of sharing, what he refers to as, “popular memory” challenges the purpose of “official history,” which tends to “privilege the written word of the text… It claims a ‘center’ which continuously marginalizes others” (Gabriel 53).  Official history devalues all memories and recollections not included in the “center.” On the other hand, popular memory seeks to collect all the pieces of the past from different perspectives. It does not consider one trajectory of temporal flow. Within the dynamics of popular memory, the past becomes consciousness of the struggle for the present and future. That consciousness, or the recognized perception and experience of the struggle, is constantly subject to change, depending on which memories and recalling of the past are uncovered. However, change is to be self-determined or brought about through conscious negotiations made by those who choose to be a part of the struggles against colonial violence.

Why do we choose the oral history approach to re-building collective consciousness and Asian activist community? The process of writing the official historical narrative is exclusively reserved for elite or expert “historians” who have privileged access to not only the archived documents but also the tools necessary for producing the narratives and representations, which preserve the authority of institutionalized knowledge and in many cases, the legitimacy or public reliance on state power and control. We strive to resist the notion of establishing standards for expertise. We aspire to empower those who hold the painful and traumatic memories to tell their own stories. Oral history does not require participants to “write” their own stories or have specialized skills to express or represent their experiences.

In her critical analysis of “liberal documentary,” Martha Rosler discusses the violence of certain modes of visual representational practices intended to make humanitarian interventions or bring some light to the physical properties of the conditions of poverty and oppression. However, according Rosler, these types of images often detach themselves from the political complexities or historical formations of oppression based on impositions of power. As she articulates so eloquently, “In the liberal documentary, poverty and oppression are almost invariably equated with misfortunes caused by natural disasters: Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome” (Rosler 179).

Such modes of documentary have become a platform for the more privileged classes of society through on which to exercise their catharsis and experience a sense of moral fulfillment by invoking emotional responses of sentimentality and pathos. In some cases, as Rosler notes, engaging with the images bears a resemblance to watching horror movies. The fear or threat of poverty, although channeled through the affective responses of the privileged social groups that have access to images depicting such realities, is more of an aesthetic or a distant “fantasy” to be enjoyed rather than palpably real conditions to be confronted on a daily basis.

Liberal documentary serves another function. It serves to remind its viewers of their comfort or stability, which comes with being positioned in the upper echelons of the socio-economic class hierarchy. While the images of this kind of documentary practices works to elicit emotional responses often leading to sympathy or pity, they also drive viewers deeper into passivity, as the realities of poverty and oppression othered and distanced by the representations do not pose an immediate threat to their lives. The very tendencies of documentary images to be looked upon as fantastic or sensationalized imagery help the most privileged people of society to be more at ease with their wealth. Poverty and oppression just are not palpable experiences to them.

Finally, for those who are actually involved in the production of such representations, documentary tends to reflect more on the skills and confidence that the documentary producers have in capturing deteriorating social life and surviving the devastating conditions to assume the stories of the oppressed. As Rosler suggests in a sarcastic tone, “Documentary testifies… to the bravery or… the manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these and saved us the trouble” (Rosler 180).

Why is it relevant for us to be critically pointing out the violence of liberal documentary? Actually, the official history of South Korean nation formation, its “liberation” from both Japanese colonialism and the communist North Korea, is based significantly on the images and narratives of the so-called “humanitarian interventions” made by U.S. military forces. As a collective, we strive to resist continuing the legacy of the colonialist historical accounts intended to justify the humanitarianism associated with the U.S. military. We cannot separate the politics deeply rooted into any action or movement of the U.S. military and the general paternalistic leadership exercised by the American empire over much of the world.

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Works Consulted:

Gabriel, Teshome H. “Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetic.” Questions of Third Cinema, London: British Film Institute, 1989. 53-64.

Rosler, Martha. Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT in Association with International Center of Photography, New York, 2004.


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