CREATIVE JOURNAL—Lab—Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. and Debord

The Lab session today extended our discussions about postmodernism with a showing of Dial H.I.S.T.O.R.Y. (2004) by Johan Grimonprez and Réfutation de tous les jugements, tant élogieux qu’hostiles, qui ont été jusqu’ici portés sur le film « La Société du spectacle » (1975) by Guy Debord.

Both films have a somewhat similar formal quality – they present a collection of seemingly disparate film clips with a voice-over. The Debord film (of which we only saw 5 minutes) uses commercials and sequences of a military character, overlaid with Debord himself (I believe) speaking about the critical reception of his earlier film La Société du spectacle (1973). His voice seems to be coming over a bad telephone connection, it’s very harsh and distorted. Grimonprez’ film also uses footage and voice-over, but there is a connecting narrative to the whole of a record of a number of airplane hijackings.

In my mind, both films present a number of critiques. To summarise two such critiques, you could take them as indictments of the media’s manipulation of events and their audiences, or as comments on the viewers blasé reactions to such events (or both at the same time, of course).

Looking at it from the point of view of the texts we’ve just been reading regarding allegory and postmodernity’s love of the layered text, I can see how these each take their collections of film clips to create a whole (the overall film) which sets up a negotiation with the viewer resulting in a set of possible readings. The films in themselves are more or less opaque to this process, creating their own readings at the same time as creating an alternative space for the viewers’. There is always a context which dictates certain of the possibilities of the reception, but this is just one of a potentially infinite number of readings, each one dependent on a particular viewer and conditions in which they come to the film.

Trying to pick out some relevant quotes from our recent texts about postmodernism. Andreas Huyssen in Mapping the Postmodern says:

The point is not to eliminate the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art. The point is to heighten that tension, even to rediscover it and to bring it back into focus in the arts as well as in criticism. (Huyssen, p. 337)

Thinking about allegory, from the Craig Owens’ text, adds many dimensions to the two films. I don’t really know how Debord would view such a reading, but I doubt if he would have been happy.

Or perhaps that was one of his points – any statement is always already usurped into some other order, the order of the system or the audiences self-created orders of reception. By saying ‘always already’ I am of course implying that any reading is always implicit in any statement, which would be a very Derridean point of view?

  • Huyssen, A. (1984). Mapping the Postmodern. In Preziosi, D. ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. 329–337.

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