… Discourses are (whatever else they may be) eminently pragmatic affairs: practical, instrumental, ends-oriented, “useful,” “down-to-earth,” governed by participants’ perceptions and expectations, driven by participants’ aims and desires.
This is from ‘Against the Ivory Tower: An Apologia for “Popular” Historical Documentaries’ by Dirk Eitzen (1995) found in the collection New Challenges for Documentary: Second Edition edited by Alan Rosenthal and John Corner (2005):
… It is clear from the public reception of historical documentaries like Claude Lanzmann’s documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah, and Ken Burns’ acclaimed series for American public television, The Civil War, that popular audiences of historical documentaries are not particularly interested either in the complexity of the past or in explaining it. What they want more than anything (and what they generally find, if a historical documentary is at all “successful”) is a powerful emotional “experience.” This can be a vicarious experience or an aesthetic experience or an experience of belonging to a special group. In many cases, it is all of these. These considerations, in turn, appear to be rather remote from the concerns of academic historians. In other words, it appears that what academic historians “get out of” their studies of the past and what popular audiences mainly “get out of” historical documentaries are two completely different things, judged according to completely different standards.
… Historical documentaries, by and large, are supposed to be popular. This supposition entails a different set of standards — a set of standards that historians tend to dismiss because, as scholars in the academy, they are primarily engaged in a very different kind of discourse. What are we to make of these popular standards? Are they at all good? Or do they deserve to be dismissed?
On questions of good and bad or right and wrong we are all forced, in the end, to base our answers upon opinions. My opinion is that to simply dismiss popular standards, as historians tend to do, is both too pat and too simple. If people say, as many have, that watching Shoah helped them grow, or brought them closer to other people, or did something else that they regard to be beneficial to themselves, who am I — who is anyone — to discount or disparage their claims?
Critic Loudon Wainwright wondered why people bothered to attend Shoah at all, since the movie is so long, so painful, and dwells on so terrible a topic. When he asked, he found that the reasons people gave are varied and complex. Some were simply curious. Others felt somewhat guilty at having escaped the experience by accidents of birth or geography. Others had actually lived through the experience. But the one reason that people gave most often, Wainwright found, is that the film “keeps the memory alive.” The viewers he questioned all seemed to regard this to be a powerful good of the film.
To the extent that people regard such things as good, I think we need to simply accept them as good. That does not mean that is all we need to do. Historians can teach another way of looking at Shoah that is not completely compatible with the way popular audiences tend to look at the film and one that accomplishes different sorts of objective. But they can do this in a way that holds out the possibility of alternative “readings” and enhances the total experience of the movie, without disparaging or diminishing popular readings.
… How should we treat the responses of “ordinary” viewers of historical documentaries, which tend to be predicated upon the notion that documentaries can somehow put us in touch with reality? For example, what are we to respond to the claims of people who feel that Shoah somehow truly reflects the “reality” of the Holocaust and truly keeps it “alive” in memory? Are these viewers being deceived? Are they wrong? In a strict sense, yes, they are deceived and wrong, since both the text and the memories it supposedly keeps alive are merely compelling constructs — creations, representations, “fictions.” Still, it is my opinion that this answer is, again, both too pat and too simple.
… William James articulated the potential value of the kind of “knowing” that documentaries can provide — a value that historians and film scholars alike, in their eagerness to point out the legitimate dangers of documentaries, have tended to either ignore or dismiss:
The towering importance for human life of this kind of knowing lies in the fact that an experience that knows another can figure as its representative, not in any quasi-miraculous “epistemological” sense, but in the definite practical sense of being its substitute in various operations, sometimes physical and sometimes mental, which lead us to its associates and results. By experimenting on our ideas of reality, we may save ourselves the trouble of experimenting on the real experience which they severally mean.
Where we have no direct access to the real experience, as in seeking to comprehend the past, this kind of knowing is not only useful, it is indispensable. My conclusion, then, is that we would all do well to devote more attention to what viewers perceive popular historical documentaries to do (like “bringing the past to life”) even if this means paying somewhat less attention to what historical documentaries do not do (like affording a scholarly view of the past) or that viewers do not perceive them to do (like advancing ideologies). It is in what people perceive in historical documentaries that one finds the most immediate and consequential possibilities of harm.
Discourses are (whatever else they may be) eminently pragmatic affairs: practical, instrumental, ends-oriented, “useful,” “down-to-earth,” governed by participants’ perceptions and expectations, driven by participants’ aims and desires. If we wish to understand historical documentaries as actual forms of discourse, we need not only to acknowledge this, we need to study the ways it is so.
… I must agree with [historian Michael] Frisch, in the end, that, to the extent that historical documentaries even appear to put us in touch with a real “living” past, they are “seizing an opportunity not nearly so accessible to conventional academic historical scholarship, whatever its virtues: the opportunity to help liberate for that active remembering all the intelligence [in the way Frisch defines the word] of a people long kept separated from the sense of their own past.” That opportunity can no doubt be exploited for good or for ill, but it is an opportunity nonetheless.
I don’t agree with Eitzen’s argument. I find it interesting for making me think about why I don’t agree with it.