There is a famous
scene in the Marx Brothers film "Duck Soup".
Groucho Marx plays the corrupt president of the banana
republic Freedonia, which is dependent on US aid. The
spy Chico Marx disguises himself as Groucho and tries to
steal his plans for war. When his masquerade is not
entirely believable, he finally yelps with irritation:
"Who are you going to believe – me or your own
statement leads us directly into the heart of the problem:
whom should we believe? The president or our own eyes?
Does truth determine politics or politics truth? It
is a question of how the production of truth has always
been influenced and standardized by social power relations
– in Chico's picture by the president himself. Michel
Foucault called this process the "politics of truth".
He describes it as a set of rules that determine the
production of truth, distinguishing true statements
from false ones, and fixing procedures of the production
of truth. Truth is thus always also politically regulated.
I would like to
discuss the concept of the politics of truth using the
example of documentary forms. Here too, procedures are
developed for separating true statements from false ones,
just as there are preferred procedures for staging and
producing true statements. Here too, politics is not
made from truth, but truth from politics.
An example of this
kind of documentary politics of truth is, for instance,
the image politics carried out in the Security Council
of the United Nations with regard to the question of
the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq
in 2002 and 2003. In this controversy there were two
approaches; that of the Bush administration and that
of the UN agency Unmovic.
The Bush administration worked on backing up their assertions
– exemplified by Secretary of State Powell's infamous
presentation before the Security Council – with visualizations
of testimonies such as drawings or by subtitling acoustic
documents such as telephone conversations. A further
component of their visual arguments were labeled satellite
photos and aerial surveillance pictures, in which the
main statement was made by inserting interpretive written
elements. Every indexical sign reference, which is traditionally
regarded as a characteristic of documentary authenticity,
was quite paltry in the pictures and charts and was
mainly supported by "secret" sources. Nevertheless,
this politics of truth prevailed over that of the weapons
inspectors, who had developed considerably more complex
and codified procedures for determining truth – such
as comparing hypotheses prepared from photo material
and witness accounts with measurements and information
attained on site.
As we clearly see
in this example, documentary forms can take effect as
a kind of government through the production of truth.
The concept of "governmentality" was developed
by Foucault and defined as a specific form of exercising
power, which operates through the production of truth.
According to this, the essential political problem is
not the untruth of social conditions, but rather their
truth, i.e. the way in which certain concepts and production
forms of truth generate, support or circumvent and question
domination. Media productions can also assume the role
of governmental structures and function as governmental
"hinges" between power and subjectivation.
I call this interface
between governmentality and documentary truth production
"documentality". Documentality describes the
permeation of a specific documentary politics of truth
with superordinated political, social and epistemological
formations. Documentality is the pivotal point, where
forms of documentary truth production turn into government
– or vice versa. It describes the complicity with dominant
forms of a politics of truth, just as it can describe
a critical stance with regard to these forms. Here scientific,
journalistic, juridical or authentistic power/knowledge
formations conjoin with documentary articulations –
as we saw it exemplified in Powell's speech.
The truth politics
of the US administration is a perfect example of the
documental interplay between power, knowledge and the
organization of documents. Contrary to this, however,
documentality can also mean an attempt to thwart and to
problematize not only dominant forms of truth production,
but also of government, for instance as in the attempt
by the group kinoki
to create a Soviet Red Cinematography.
Their goal was to revolutionize practices of
reception and production through the mechanization of
the eye and the planned organization of production, and
through the displacement of the dominant feature film
with the documentary "film of facts". The
organization of film and the organization of society
consequently followed the same materialist, scientific
and simultaneously constructivist-revolutionary
In both cases, the
function of the documentary corresponds to that of governmental
techniques as a "form of power that structures
the field of possible actions of subjects through the
production of truth." Analogously, in the area
of the documentary it is also a matter of structuring
the field of possible actions, i.e. suggesting, proposing,
evoking, preventing or reshaping actions (or attitudes)
– as in the case of Powell's presentation before the
Security Council. According to this reading, documentary
forms do not depict reality as much as first producing
it. The document functions here more as a heuristic
instrument that does not adhere to a status quo, but
rather seeks to induce a target state.
Documents thus often
assume the character of catalysts for actions; they
are supposed to first create the reality that is documented
in them. From this, however, it cannot be derived –
and this is the problem of Foucault's concept of truth
politics – that every concept of truth is contingent
and relative. On the one hand, the articulation, production
and reception of a document is profoundly marked by
power relations and based on social conventions. On
the other hand, though, the power of the document is
based on the fact that it is also intended to be able
to prove what is unpredictable within these power relations
– it should be able to express what is unimaginable,
unspoken, unknown, redeeming or even monstrous – and
thus create a possibility for change.
In reference to the
possibility of depicting the real, Walter Benjamin formulated
this paradox of truth when he completed his concept
of the "dialectical image" in the theses "On
the Concept of History".
This concept proposes a materialistic concept of truth
in the representation that conveys the constructedness
of every depiction together with the impossibility of
relativizing truth that continues to persist despite
this. This dialectical image is documentarist to the
extent that it shows a particular, namely historical
materialist likeness of history. At the same time, for
Benjamin its truth, which can only be fixed under clearly
delineated conditions, is not relative and contingent:
"When history is
brought to a standstill in the flash of an image, this
image is not a subjective manifestation, but rather the
pictorial expression of a real place. Subject and object
coincide in the dialectical image."
This image is a radical
anti-realistic construction, in which "the real
place" is nevertheless depicted, or as Adorno writes:
the "objective crystallization of historical movement". According to Benjamin,
it is "identical with the historical object".
It takes place in an in-between space, which is blasted
out of the homogeneous empty time and the power relationships
constituting it. The abrupt, revolutionary bursting
open of dominant time in the dialectical image, the
moment of danger, and the other form of temporality
that flashes in this interval, allows a gate to emerge,
which Benjamin interprets as the possibility of the
appearance of the Messiah and thus of redemption.
Not only the difference
between object and subject collapses in this image,
but also the opposition between truth "in-itself"
and "being-for-self" is dialectically suspended,
and thus perhaps also "redeemed", in the ambivalent
sense of the dialectical suspension that simultaneously
negates the opposition, raises it to a higher level
and preserves it. This possibility is emphatically affirmed
by Siegfried Kracauer, for instance, who hopes for the
"redemption of external reality" through the
medium of film, but founds this with technological terms
in an "affinity" of this medium to reality. And Jean-Luc Godard has
a similar view: "even terminally scratched, a small
rectangle of 35 mm is capable of redeeming the honor
of the whole of reality."
In the face of the
only four surviving photographs of the process of mass
extermination, which were made by inmates at Auschwitz
at the risk of their lives, George Didi-Hubermann also
writes about "pictures despite everything",
pitting themselves against a monstrous procedure of
obliterating reality and memory. Two of the four
pictures were taken from the "shelter" of the
dark gas chamber and show those murdered being burned in
giant pits. Another photo shows the procedure of
stripping a group of women outside. The last photo shows
a blurred view of the sky and several branches and was
obviously taken without looking through the viewfinder.
The production of these photos was carried out according
to a complicated schedule that had to be precisely
adapted to the presence/absence of the German guards. It
is almost unnecessary to say that the prisoners risked
their lives to take these pictures.
Auschwitz was a territory
that had its own photo workshop, but it was not to be
photographed by unauthorized persons under any circumstances.
Thus thousands of "official" photographs of
Auschwitz were made, in which nothing, absolutely nothing
of the mass murders carried out there is to be seen.
For this reason, members of the Polish resistance decided
to have photos made of the monstrous crimes by members
of the special commando assigned there. After four of
the photos were exposed, they were smuggled out of Auschwitz
with great difficulty in a toothpaste tube. The purpose
of this image production was to prepare proof of the
Didi-Huberman explicitly compares these photos,
the only ones made by prisoners in a concentration camp
and still preserved, with Benjamin's conception of the
dialectical image and points out that Hannah Arendt
also used similar descriptions of unexpectedly and suddenly
articulated truth, when she wrote in light of the Auschwitz
"Instead of the
whole truth, however, the reader will find moments of
truth, and only by means of these moments can this chaos
of horror and evil be articulated. These moments arise
unexpectedly, like oases in the desert. (...)"
moments of truth are scattered throughout the accounts
and pictures of the procedures of the crime, just like
messianic time in Benjamin's conception of the presence
of the now. Didi-Huberman accordingly points out that
the four photos made by prisoners at Auschwitz under
incredible exertion also represented "moments of
truth". However, this formulation has a twofold
meaning: on the one hand, like Benjamin's dialectical
images, they undoubtedly participate in truth. On the
other hand, it would be inadmissible to
demand "the whole truth" from these pictures.
taken from a highly complex reality, brief moments of a
continuum that lasted less than five years. Yet for us
– for our gaze today – they are the truth itself,
which means its relic, its meager remnant: the visible
that is left from Auschwitz."
The pictures thus
show truth – but precisely not the "whole"
truth. They prove to be a Janus-like construct, in which
"moments of truth" can be articulated.
Moments of Truth
articulates the paradox here that this concept of pictoriality
is conceived as simultaneously mediated and immediate,
constructed and participating in reality. The picture
shows truth and "darkness" at the same time,
in other words blurs and other parameters that allow
the picture to glide into unintelligibility.
Nevertheless, this incomplete, partially darkened and
often unbearable truth is the only one at our disposal.
The difficulty for historians in dealing with these
pictures is that too much and too little is required
of these pictures at the same time: if one demands too
much of them – the "whole truth" – then disappointment
results; suddenly the pictures are just torn shreds,
pieces of film, thus inadequate. If one demands too
little of them and relegates them to the realm of the
simulacrum, they are thus excluded from the historical
field. For historicists then conclude from the simulacrum
character of the pictures that the universe of the concentration
camp is not representable at all, because "there
is no truth of the picture at all, not of the photographic
nor of the filmic image, nor of the painted or formed
At both poles of this placement in relation to truth,
the pictures fail. The picture is not capable of truth,
which simultaneously means that it is subsequently subject
to the abyss of extinction that it sought with tremendous
exertion to escape.
What if these pictures
insist, though? If they represent "despite everything"
and specifically represent not just anything, but rather
truth? Here Didi-Huberman again names the poles, between
which the paradox of truth is played out: on the one
side the ethically absolutely necessary insisting on/of
a historical truth, which would still remain true, even
if every evidence of it were obliterated; on the other
side the insight that the perception of it can only
happen within a construction conveyed through media
(society, politics), which is therefore manipulable
The four photos that
Didi-Huberman discusses can be understood as moments
of truth, which break through the almost closed ceiling
of National-Socialist documentalities within a brief
interval created under incredible exertions, in which
it was nevertheless possible to show what was supposed
to remain invisible and pictureless in the fascist system
at all costs. At the time, however, it was not seen,
and even today, as Didi-Huberman recounts with disgust,
historian do not flinch from manipulating the pictures
in sometimes repulsive ways, in order to make them "plausible"
as historical documents. What is cut out of the frame
in this way – the slantedness of the segment, the dark
outline of the gas chamber, from which two of these
photos were taken, the blurs and smudges – are precisely
the aspects clearly imprinted with the Benjaminian moment
of danger, the moment of an endangered production of
a tiny interval of time, which strikes through the National-Socialist
control of all image production in a precisely delimited
However, the "whole"
truth first results from a precise contextualization
or "labeling" of these kinds of pictures,
as can be read from the example of the controversy surrounding
the way the Wehrmacht Exhibition dealt with some of
its photos documenting crimes. After other historians
questioned whether the exhibited photos actually showed
real crimes committed by the Wehrmacht or those of the
Soviet secret service, an exact reconstruction of the
progression of events was needed, which could not at
all be directly concluded from what was to be seen,
and which required from the historians the same task
of meticulous reading and labeling that Benjamin predicted
to his photographer: uncovering "guilt" in
the pictures and "naming the guilty ones".
The reconstruction did not lead to newly labeling the
questionable pictures then, but rather to a more precise
reflection on the status of photographs as documents.
On the basis of this
discussion, however, it is clear how urgently the question
of a politics of truth insists, which can not at all
be rejected because of purely relativist objections.
The relativist objection against the picture as pure
construction plays into the hands of the revisionist
objection against investigating the perpetrators here.
The result would be a continued extinguishing of moments
of truth. The "urgency" of the documentary
is grounded in the ethical dilemma of having to give
testimony to an event that cannot be conveyed as such,
but instead contains necessary elements of truth as
well as of "darkness". On the other hand,
this necessity of a "redemption" can turn
into an appellative moment that can be appropriated
by humanitarian and charitable motives and transferred
into a liberal-humanitarian documentality mode. The
imperative of "redemption" is reinterpreted
here as an interventionist appeal and thus directed
into new forms of governmentality and a humanitarian
politics of truth focusing on "victims". The
misery-voyeuristic picture forms developed by this "redemption"
idea are among the most potent documentalities of the
present and legitimize both military and economic invasions.
The problem that
arises here is both an ethical and a political one.
The concept of "redemption" proves to be ambivalent,
in keeping with the politics of truth into which it
inscribes itself: On the one hand, it refers, as in
Didi-Huberman's example, to the Benjaminian "tradition
of the oppressed",
which requires of us an understanding of history that
rejects the massive obliterations of fascist representations
and shows proper respect for the few counter-images
that could be created under unspeakable exertions. In
this case we must insist on reading and rescuing the
"moments of truth" preserved in the photos,
otherwise it no longer makes sense to speak of truth
at all. On the other hand, the concept of "redemption"
is deeply enmeshed in vitalistic conceptions of an authenticity
that is all too often to be secured with a voyeuristic
and instrumentalizing reference to "naked life",
according to Giorgio Agamben the zero mark of human
The concept of "redemption" may succeed, as
in Didi-Huberman's example, in challenging a dominant,
in this case fascist politics of truth. At the same
time, however, this politics of truth appealing to naked
life is first constituted through the figure of "redemption",
for example in the humanitarian politics of truth at
the turn of the millennium.
It is this paradox
that was summarized by Chico Marx in his irresistible
flash of thought: "Who are you going to believe
– me or your own eyes?" There is hardly a visibility
that is not steeped in power relations – so that we
can almost say that what we see has always been provided
by power relations. On the other hand, the doubt in
these visibilities insists with a vehemence that is
capable of constituting its own form of power. Chico's
question is therefore principally unanswerable. We have
to leave it open – and hope that this confusing gap
will open up the path to other visibilities.
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from Didi-Huberman 2003, p.20.
Original quotation from Laurent Gerverau: "Représenter
l´univers concentrationnaire". In: BÉDARIDA
François, GERVEREAU Laurent, La Déportation et le
Système concentrationnaire nazi, musée d'Histoire
contemporaine, BDIC, 1995, p.244.