Writing 305: The Politics of Visual Rhetoric

Michael Renov: Towards a Poetics of Documentary


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Source: www.liveforfilm.com

This piece is concerned with what Renov considers the “four fundamental tendencies of documentary;” these are the tendencies to: record, reveal or preserve; persuade or promote; analyze or interrogate; and express.

The first element revolves around visual appeals and representation. As such, it replicates the real and creates “a second-order reality cut to the measure of our desire – to cheat death, stop time, restore loss” (p. 25). The visual is the most obvious part of documentary, though this consequently raises the question of representation. As Renov writes, “the non-fiction artist [is led] to supplement behavior or event-in-history with its imagined counterpart” […] (p. 25). Clearly, the visual is the most vulnerable one to ahistorical misrepresentations. Exposed to such dangers, the artist must pay attention to the appropriateness of the visual as a whole, especially in regards to marginalized communities. This is essential because the visual is prone to producing new, specific realities.

The second element is the persuasive element of non-fictive production, which also “must be understood as an effect of history within precise discursive conditions” (p. 29). In this sense, special attention must be paid to ethos, pathos and logos. However, Renov stresses that the important point is simply that these are intrinsic qualities of documentary production. Third, Renov examines interrogation, which he argues is never complete and often takes on a fairly subtle form. Nonetheless, it has intrinsic qualities that usually enrich a non-fiction piece in that it sparks inquiry and an active response. Finally, Renov discusses the aesthetic. Manifesting in various forms – ranging from language to architectural motifs – this element is, unfortunately, often underestimated in relation to non-fictive production.

Throughout the piece, Renov emphasizes the “paradoxical mutuality” which defines the four concepts’ coexistence. However, this should not be seen as a limitation; rather, it opens up new avenues for documentary production and its manifestations. Central to Renov’s chapter is the emphasis on representation and the molding of the “historical real.” For marginalized communities, what is important is recognition and a channel through which subalterns can “speak.” As such, Renov deserves merit for recognizing “the markers of documentary authenticity are historically variable,” though one could also argue that they vary in space (p. 23). To demonstrate this, one can consider the non-fiction production now increasingly common among Latin American indigenous groups. Using largely insufficient resources, these groups cannot hold up to the standards of authenticity enforced elsewhere.

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