Bodily Traces in Digital Encounters: Materializing Virtualities for the Political Documentary

By Tay, Sharon Lin | Afterimage, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Bodily Traces in Digital Encounters: Materializing Virtualities for the Political Documentary


Tay, Sharon Lin, Afterimage


With the emergence of digital technologies in visual culture, much concern has been expressed about its potential for manipulation at the expense of the conventional premise that art in some way represents reality. The digital turn elicits in film theory a fear of the loss of the index, a loss that renders the image's relation with the Real even more tenuous. Scan Cubitt, for instance, considers the digital sublime to offer "no guarantee of escape from ideology but rather a refusal of the social, the only possible ground of ideological work, conflict, interpretation, dialectic and history." (1) Such a statement, however, is the result of a slippage between two different discourses. The degree to which digital technologies allow for the manipulation of images, and as it were, the creation of images that do not exist in real life, taps into a conversation about the potentials and limitations of representation. Cubitt's concerns arise within the realm of such a discussion, although the implications of digital technologies for the ontological status of the index taps into a rather different discourse. Theorists such as SaskiaSassen, Philip Rosen, and Thomas Elsaesser in different ways articulate more complex views that subvert Cubitt's conception of the digital sublime and shows how the digital turn might present opportunities for materializing the political potentials of the digitized and the virtual.

Employing these theoretical premises about the political potentials of the digital, this article identifies the resurgence of the political in two rather different digital media practices, and examines their potential for theorizing the political documentary. Some time ago, Jane Gaines mused about the "strange association of apolitical films with social change and radical politics," and wondered about "the significance, if any, of the reception of political documentaries in the absence of a struggle." (2) As this article hopes to show, the various and effective uses of digital technologies to galvanize the body into political action have implications for the ways in which we define, and conceive of, the documentary.

Contrary to the fear that the digital displaces the significance of the physical, enfleshed, and the social, there are convincing arguments that conclude that the loss of the index might not lead to such dire consequences. Sassen cites the example of the global financial markets and insists that these electronic financial instruments require large varieties and quantities of conventional structures and that "much, although not all, of what we think of cyberspace would lack any meaning or referents if we were to exclude the world outside of cyberspace." (3) Acknowledging the transpository nature of digital objects. Sassen refers to the interface between the human and computer "layers" and the material conditions necessary for such interface. And indeed, the current global financial meltdown reminds us that abstract capital can result in very material consequences for the real economy. Using the example of satellite surveillance, Rosen similarly argues that "the 'purity' of 'pure data' cannot mean the obliteration of referential origins, for without referential entities or events pre-existing the data itself, the data would have no informational value as surveillance." (4) Moreover, Rosen notes, "digital imaging as such does not absolutely rule out a profilmic origin, for the digital has means of incorporating the indexical." (5)

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Despite the clear interrelation of the digital with the material, however, the fantasy (or horror, depending on one's perspective) of the loss of the index toward an attainment of the "digital sublime" persists. As Elsaesser insists, it is somewhat unfair to blame the digital signal "for the death of our notion of what is real or true." (6) Elsaesser furthers this assertion by using the issue of the trustworthiness of network news as an example, arguing that television news' fidelity to real events depends more on the political context and network-viewer contract than the loss of the indexical sign to the digital.

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