Johannes Bennke: The Documentary Real

The Films of the Sensory Ethnographic Lab and the conversion of Media Philosophy


During ten minutes two young women ride in a cable car from the top of a Nepalese Temple to the valley. No cut interrupts the travel downhill. No words, only dramatic facial expressions, gestures and the rattle of the cable car followed by the rhythmic buzz of the 16mm camera. Only from the second half they start to speak.

What interests me in this observational cinema-scene in »Manakamana« (Stephanie Spray, USA, 2013) is the medial practice and its aesthetic production of a "documentary real" which is resolutely distinct and singular to the reality of the ethnographic object. A continuous change of perception towards the other does not allow for a constant real of reality. This is just one example of how the Sensory Ethnographic Lab (SEL) at Harvard University uses media to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world. Thus my objective here is first to focus on some of the films produced by the SEL. Then I would like to introduce the term "documentary real" as a signature for the operative effect of the filmic image and an epistemology of the aesthetics (Dieter Mersch). Secondly, I intend to show the implications of the documentary real for media philosophy. My hypothesis is that the documentary real demands a conversion of crucial concepts of phenomenology and media philosophy, where intentionality and performativity turn respectively into "désintéressement" (Levinas) and "afformativity" (Hamacher).