Annelies van Noortwijk und Vincent Ros: The Meta-Modern Turn

A Cognitive Approach to Subjectivity in Contemporary Documentary Practice


Documentary is for our contemporary culture what the novel was for the 19th century: the preferred form of realism. Its history may be described a continual re-evaluation of films potential to transmit factual information about the real world. In contemporary documentary practice, we witness a shift in focus from a modernist pre-occupation with factual, objective reality towards the embracement of more diverse, subjective perspectives on reality. Central to this development, we will argue, is a re-evaluation of the documentary subject and the blurring of boundaries between subject and filmmaker. This convergence of viewpoints has led to the emergence of the first person documentary; a category that, as will be understood, refers not only the autobiographical documentary and the filmic self-portrait, but includes all forms of documentary in which the roles of filmmaker and subject coincide.

By muddling traditional fiction and nonfiction distinctions, first person documentaries challenge definitions of documentary that depend on its function to document reality. The fact that a satisfactory solution to the theoretical problem of defining and categorizing first person documentary has yet to be found serves as a testament to the limitations of both text-oriented and context-orientated approaches as well as reception-oriented models of explanation. To overcome these limitations, a perspective is needed that reconciles both textual and contextual factors and their effects on the physical (both bodily and mental) activity of the viewer. A model of embodied cognitive poetics offers such a perspective, and in extension provides a solution to the current crisis in documentary definition and categorization, by accounting for the dynamic interplay between textual characteristics, social and contextual factors and the bodily and mental processes of a hypothetical viewer.

Within this framework documentary is best understood as a cognitive frame, a set of expectations that enables signification and influences evaluation. As these expectations are continually adjusted, evolving side-by-side with conventions, subjectivity, once an element to be avoided in documentary, can become part of a new documentary realism. Drawing on examples from Tarnation (2005), and Stories We Tell (2013), we will illustrate how in recent documentaries, the open acknowledgement of subjectivity is not only part of, but fundamental to the viewers sense of realism.

This paper places these ongoing developments in the broader perspective of the semiotic evolution of human culture and the arts as a specific instance of human cognition (Merlin Donald, Antonio Damasio, Barend van Heusden). From this perspective, we argue that the re-evaluation of the subject reassessed as an embodied, empowered and emotional beings in documentary is emblematic of a paradigm shift in contemporary culture that combines and harmonises modern and postmodern extremes – a shift we refer to as the metamodern turn.