In most cultures that have grown from the Enlightenment, there used to be agreement that reality is something solid and weighty, even if it is often obscured or disguised. Indeed the Enlightenment has this idea in its very name: there’s something out there, something like actuality or truth, but it tends to rest in darkness unless the clarifying practices of inquiry, remembrance, analysis and knowledge-synthesis shine light on it. The enlightened person had to reveal the states of existence, to show what really mattered.
Note these words: ‘matter’ and ‘state’. They carry with them the idea that the real world is dependably static at its true core. The real world is not flighty or airy. It is solid. Therefore any activity, such as documentary, which pledges allegiance to the real world, must treat this solid actuality as creatively as possible, so that the truths subtending the real world can be revealed afresh.
But is reality actually solid like this nowadays? Does the old nominalism still hold? What happens when reality is understood as negotiated and ever-altering, when CHANGE is the main quality of most peoples’ real experience? What does it mean when one of the most popular and influential books on realism from recent years — David Shields’ Reality Hunger — is all bites and flighty contentions, all skitter and cross-reference, unconcerned with deep fundaments, more concerned with associative sparks and shimmers of momentary insight? What if reality no longer has status, depth, solidity but rather has quickness and dynamics? What then, is documentary practice, when changefulness defines the world over time?
Professor Ross Gibson