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Documentarism

as Politics of Truth
Hito Steyerl
Translated by Aileen Derieg

There is a famous scene in the Marx politics carried out in the Security Council
Brothers film Duck Soup. Groucho Marx of the United Nations with regard to the
plays the corrupt president of the banana question of the existence of weapons of
republic Freedonia, which is dependent mass destruction in Iraq in 2002 and 2003.
on US aid. The spy Chico Marx disguises In this controversy there were two ap-
himself as Groucho and tries to steal his proaches; that of the Bush administration
plans for war. When his masquerade is not and that of the UN agency Unmovic. The
entirely believable, he finally yelps with Bush administration worked on backing up
irritation: “Who are you going to believe their assertions – exemplified by Secretary
– me or your own eyes?” of State Colin Powell’s infamous presen-
tation before the Security Council – with
This paradoxical statement leads us directly visualizations of testimonies such as draw-
into the heart of the problem: whom should ings or by subtitling acoustic documents
we believe? The president or our own eyes? such as telephone conversations. A further
Does truth determine politics or politics component of their visual arguments were
truth? It is a question of how the production labeled satellite photos and aerial surveil-
of truth has always been influenced and lance pictures, in which the main statement
standardized by social power relations – was made by inserting interpretive written
in Chico’s picture by the president himself. elements. Every indexical sign reference,
Michel Foucault called this process the which is traditionally regarded as a charac-
“politics of truth”. He describes it as a set teristic of documentary authenticity, was
of rules that determine the production of quite paltry in the pictures and charts and
truth, distinguishing true statements from was mainly supported by “secret” sources.
false ones, and fixing procedures of the Nevertheless, this politics of truth prevailed
production of truth. Truth is thus always also over that of the weapons inspectors, who
politically regulated. had developed considerably more complex
and codified procedures for determining
I would like to discuss the concept of the truth – such as comparing hypotheses
politics of truth using the example of docu- prepared from photo material and witness
mentary forms. Here too, procedures are accounts with measurements and informa-
developed for separating true statements tion attained on site.
from false ones, just as there are preferred  
procedures for staging and producing
true statements. Here too, politics is not Government through Truth: Documentality
made from truth, but truth from politics.
As we clearly see in this example, docu-
An example of this kind of documentary mentary forms can take effect as a kind of
politics of truth is, for instance, the image government through the production of truth.

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The concept of “governmentality” was Their goal was to revolutionize practices
developed by Foucault and defined as of reception and production through the
a specific form of exercising power, which mechanization of the eye and the planned
operates through the production of truth.1 organization of production, and through
According to this, the essential political the displacement of the dominant feature
problem is not the untruth of social condi- film with the documentary “film of facts”.
tions, but rather their truth, i.e. the way The organization of film and the organiza-
in which certain concepts and production tion of society consequently followed
forms of truth generate, support or circum- the same materialist, scientific and simulta-
vent and question domination. Media neously constructivist-revolutionary
productions can also assume the role principles.
of governmental structures and function
as governmental “hinges” between power In both cases, the function of the documen-
and subjectivation.2 tary corresponds to that of governmental
techniques as a “form of power that struc-
I call this interface between governmen- tures the field of possible actions of
tality and documentary truth production subjects through the production of truth.”4
“documentality”. Documentality describes Analogously, in the area of the documentary
the permeation of a specific documentary it is also a matter of structuring the field
politics of truth with superordinated politi- of possible actions, i.e. suggesting, propos-
cal, social and epistemological formations. ing, evoking, preventing or reshaping
Documentality is the pivotal point, where actions (or attitudes) – as in the case of
forms of documentary truth production turn Powell’s presentation before the Security
into government – or vice versa. It describes Council. According to this reading, docu-
the complicity with dominant forms of a pol- mentary forms do not depict reality as
itics of truth, just as it can describe a critical much as first producing it. The document
stance with regard to these forms. Here functions here more as a heuristic instru-
scientific, journalistic, juridical or authen- ment that does not adhere to a status
tistic power/knowledge formations conjoin quo, but rather seeks to induce a target
with documentary articulations – as we saw state.
it exemplified in Powell’s speech.
Documents thus often assume the character
The truth politics of the US administration of catalysts for actions; they are supposed
is a perfect example of the documental in- to first create the reality that is documented
terplay between power, knowledge and the in them. From this, however, it cannot
organization of documents. Contrary be derived – and this is the problem of
to this, however, documentality can also Foucault’s concept of truth politics – that
mean an attempt to thwart and to prob- every concept of truth is contingent and
lematize not only dominant forms of truth relative. On the one hand, the articulation,
production, but also of government, for in- production and reception of a document
stance as in the attempt by the group kinoki is profoundly marked by power relations and
to create a Soviet Red Cinematography.3 based on social conventions. On the other
hand, though, the power of the document
is based on the fact that it is also intended
1 Lemke 1997, p. 32.
2 On these concepts, cf. Lemke 1997, p. 31.
3 Vertov 1998a, p. 88. 4 Lemke 1997, p. 348

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to be able to prove what is unpredictable is blasted out of the homogeneous empty
within these power relations – it should be time and the power relationships constitut-
able to express what is unimaginable, ing it. The abrupt, revolutionary bursting
unspoken, unknown, redeeming or even open of dominant time in the
monstrous – and thus create a possibility dialectical image, the moment of danger,
for change. and the other form of temporality that
  flashes in this interval, allows a gate to
emerge, which Benjamin interprets as
Ambivalent “Redemption” the possibility of the appearance of the
Messiah and thus of redemption.9
In reference to the possibility of depicting
the real, Walter Benjamin formulated Not only the difference between object and
this paradox of truth when he completed subject collapses in this image, but also
his concept of the “dialectical image” the opposition between truth “in-itself” and
in the theses On the Concept of History5. “being-for-self” is dialectically suspended,
This concept proposes a materialistic con- and thus perhaps also “redeemed”, in the
cept of truth in the representation that ambivalent sense of the dialectical sus-
conveys the constructedness of every pension that simultaneously negates the
depiction together with the impossibility opposition, raises it to a higher level and
of relativizing truth that continues to per- preserves it. This possibility is emphatically
sist despite this. This dialectical image is affirmed by Siegfried Kracauer, for instance,
documentarist to the extent that it shows who hopes for the “redemption of external
a particular, namely historical materialist reality” through the medium of film, but
likeness of history. At the same time, for founds this with technological terms in an
Benjamin its truth, which can only be fixed “affinity” of this medium to reality.10 And
under clearly delineated conditions, is not Jean-Luc Godard has a similar view: “even
relative and contingent: terminally scratched, a small rectangle of
35 mm is capable of redeeming the honor
“When history is brought to a standstill of the whole of reality.”11
in the flash of an image, this image is not
a subjective manifestation, but rather the In the face of the only four surviving photo-
pictorial expression of a real place. Subject graphs of the process of mass extermina-
and object coincide in the dialectical tion, which were made by inmates at
image.”6 Auschwitz at the risk of their lives, George
Didi-Huberman also writes about “pictures
This image is a radical anti-realistic con- despite everything”12, pitting themselves
struction, in which “the real place” is against a monstrous procedure of obliterat-
nevertheless depicted, or as Adorno writes: ing reality and memory. Two of the four
the “objective crystallization of historical pictures were taken from the “shelter”
movement”.7 According to Benjamin, of the dark gas chamber and show those
it is “identical with the historical object”.8 murdered being burned in giant pits.
It takes place in an in-between space, which
9 Benjamin 1978, p. 94.
5 Benjamin 1978, p. 93. 10 Kracauer 1964, p. 11.
6 Anderson 2000, p. 147-185, p. 181 11 Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Paris 1998,
7 Adorno 1970, p. 24. p. 86, quoted from Didi-Huberman 2003.
8 Benjamin 1982, p. 595. 12 Didi-Huberman 2003, p. 17f.

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Another photo shows the procedure of moments arise unexpectedly, like oases
stripping a group of women outside. The in the desert. (...)”14
last photo shows a blurred view of the sky
and several branches and was obviously The moments of truth are scattered
taken without looking through the view- throughout the accounts and pictures of
finder. The production of these photos was the procedures of the crime, just like mes-
carried out according to a complicated sianic time in Benjamin’s conception of
schedule that had to be precisely adapted the presence of the now. Didi-Huberman
to the presence/absence of the German accordingly points out that the four pho-
guards. It is almost unnecessary to say tos made by prisoners at Auschwitz under
that the prisoners risked their lives to take incredible exertion also represented
these pictures. “moments of truth”. However, this formu-
lation has a twofold meaning: on the one
Auschwitz was a territory that had its own hand, like Benjamin’s dialectical images,
photo workshop, but it was not to be photo- they undoubtedly participate in truth.
graphed by unauthorized persons under On the other hand, it would be inadmissible
any circumstances. Thus thousands of to demand “the whole truth” from these
“official” photographs of Auschwitz were pictures. They are:
made, in which nothing, absolutely nothing
of the mass murders carried out there is “tiny samples taken from a highly complex
to be seen. For this reason, members of the reality, brief moments of a continuum that
Polish resistance decided to have photos lasted less than five years. Yet for us – for
made of the monstrous crimes by members our gaze today – they are the truth itself,
of the special commando assigned there. which means its relic, its meager remnant:
After four of the photos were exposed, the visible that is left from Auschwitz.”15
they were smuggled out of Auschwitz with
great difficulty in a toothpaste tube. The The pictures thus show truth – but precisely
purpose of this image production was to not the “whole” truth. They prove to be
prepare proof of the mass extermination.13 a Janus-like construct, in which “moments
Didi-Huberman explicitly compares these of truth” can be articulated.
photos, the only ones made by prisoners  
in a concentration camp and still preserved,
with Benjamin’s conception of the dialec- Moments of Truth
tical image and points out that Hannah
Arendt also used similar descriptions of Didi-Huberman also articulates the paradox
unexpectedly and suddenly articulated truth, here that this concept of pictoriality
when she wrote in light of the Auschwitz is conceived as simultaneously mediated
trial: and immediate, constructed and partici-
pating in reality. The picture shows truth
“Instead of the whole truth, however, the and “darkness” at the same time, in other
reader will find moments of truth, and only words blurs and other parameters that allow
by means of these moments can this chaos
of horror and evil be articulated. These 14 Quoted from Didi-Huberman, p. 18. Original quotation
from: Hannah Arendt, “Der Auschwitzprozess”. In: Nach
Auschwitz. Essays und Kommentare I. Ed. Eike Geisel and K.
Bittermann. Berlin, edition Tiamat, p. 99-136, p. 102.
13 Didi-Huberman 2003. 15 Didi-Huberman 2003, p. 23.

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the picture to glide into unintelligibility.16 through media (society, politics), which
Nevertheless, this incomplete, partially is therefore manipulable and opaque.
darkened and often unbearable truth is
the only one at our disposal. The difficulty The four photos that Didi-Huberman dis-
for historians in dealing with these pictures cusses can be understood as moments of
is that too much and too little is required truth, which break through the almost
of these pictures at the same time: if one closed ceiling of National-Socialist docu-
demands too much of them – the “whole mentalities within a brief interval created
truth” – then disappointment results; under incredible exertions, in which it was
suddenly the pictures are just torn shreds, nevertheless possible to show what was
pieces of film, thus inadequate. If one supposed to remain invisible and pictureless
demands too little of them and relegates in the fascist system at all costs. At the
them to the realm of the simulacrum, they time, however, it was not seen, and even
are thus excluded from the historical field. today, as Didi-Huberman recounts with
For historicists then conclude from the disgust, historian do not flinch from manipu-
simulacrum character of the pictures that lating the pictures in sometimes repulsive
the universe of the concentration camp ways, in order to make them “plausible”
is not representable at all, because “there as historical documents. What is cut out
is no truth of the picture at all, not of the of the frame in this way – the slantedness
photographic nor of the filmic image, of the segment, the dark outline of the gas
nor of the painted or formed image.”17 chamber, from which two of these photos
At both poles of this placement in relation were taken, the blurs and smudges – are
to truth, the pictures fail. The picture is precisely the aspects clearly imprinted with
not capable of truth, which simultaneously the Benjaminian moment of danger, the
means that it is subsequently subject to moment of an endangered production of
the abyss of extinction that it sought with a tiny interval of time, which strikes through
tremendous exertion to escape. the National-Socialist control of all image
production in a precisely delimited place.
What if these pictures insist, though? If they
represent “despite everything” and specifi- However, the “whole” truth first results
cally represent not just anything, but rather from a precise contextualization or “label-
truth? Here Didi-Huberman again names ing” of these kinds of pictures, as can
the poles, between which the paradox be read from the example of the contro-
of truth is played out: on the one side the versy surrounding the way the Wehrmacht
ethically absolutely necessary insisting Exhibition dealt with some of its photos
on/of a historical truth, which would still documenting crimes. After other historians
remain true, even if every evidence of it questioned whether the exhibited photos
were obliterated; on the other side the actually showed real crimes committed by
insight that the perception of it can only the Wehrmacht or those of the Soviet secret
happen within a construction conveyed service, an exact reconstruction of the
progression of events was needed, which
could not at all be directly concluded from
16 Didi-Huberman 2003, p. 19.
17 Quoted from Didi-Huberman 2003, p.20. Original what was to be seen, and which required
quotation from Laurent Gerverau: “Représenter l´univers from the historians the same task of me-
concentrationnaire”. In: BÉDARIDA François, GERVEREAU
Laurent, La Déportation et le Système concentrationnaire
ticulous reading and labeling that Benjamin
nazi, musée d’Histoire contemporaine, BDIC, 1995, p. 244. predicted to his photographer: uncovering

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“guilt” in the pictures and “naming the a humanitarian politics of truth focusing
guilty ones”. The reconstruction did not lead on “victims”. The misery-voyeuristic picture
to newly labeling the questionable pictures forms developed by this “redemption”
then, but rather to a more precise reflec- idea are among the most potent documen-
tion on the status of photographs as docu- talities of the present and legitimize both
ments.18 military and economic invasions.

On the basis of this discussion, however, The problem that arises here is both an
it is clear how urgently the question of a ethical and a political one. The concept
politics of truth insists, which can not at all of “redemption” proves to be ambivalent,
be rejected because of purely relativist ob- in keeping with the politics of truth into
jections. The relativist objection against the which it inscribes itself: On the one hand,
picture as pure construction plays into the it refers, as in Didi-Huberman’s example,
hands of the revisionist objection against to the Benjaminian “tradition of the
investigating the perpetrators here. The oppressed”,19 which requires of us an
result would be a continued extinguishing understanding of history that rejects the
of moments of truth. The “urgency” massive obliterations of fascist representa-
of the documentary is grounded in the ethi- tions and shows proper respect for the few
cal dilemma of having to give testimony counter-images that could be created under
to an event that cannot be conveyed as unspeakable exertions. In this case we must
such, but instead contains necessary ele- insist on reading and rescuing the “mo-
ments of truth as well as of “darkness”. ments of truth” preserved in the photos,
On the other hand, this necessity of a otherwise it no longer makes sense to speak
“redemption” can turn into an appellative of truth at all. On the other hand, the con-
moment that can be appropriated by cept of “redemption” is deeply enmeshed
humanitarian and charitable motives and in vitalistic conceptions of an authenticity
transferred into a liberal-humanitarian that is all too often to be secured with
documentality mode. The imperative of a voyeuristic and instrumentalizing refer-
“redemption” is reinterpreted here as an ence to “naked life”, according to Giorgio
interventionist appeal and thus directed into Agamben the zero mark of human exis-
new forms of governmentality and tence.20 The concept of “redemption” may
succeed, as in Didi-Huberman’s example,
18 See also Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung 2002, in challenging a dominant, in this case
especially p. 108-120: “The photograph is regarded as the fascist politics of truth. At the same time,
medium that purely and truthfully depicts reality. Yet the
however, this politics of truth appealing
picture is always only a segment of that which took place in
front of the lens, it shows a small moment from a progres- to naked life is first constituted through
sion of time. Like every written document, photography the figure of “redemption”, for example
also requires dealing critically with the sources. Unlike the
abstract text, the figurative picture suggests to the viewer
in the humanitarian politics of truth at
that he or she is a witness to events. Photography is still too the turn of the millennium.
little used as a source. The problems of verifying authenticity
and truthfulness seem too diverse. At the same time, miss-
ing or contradictory information in the archives reinforces
the existing insecurity in dealing with pictorial sources.
Methodological tools for appropriately interpreting photos 19 Benjamin 1978, p. 84.
have hardly been developed yet.” p. 106. 20 Agamben 2002, e.g. p. 17-21.

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It is this paradox that was summarized Godard, Jean-Luc. Einführung in eine wahre Geschichte des
Kinos, Frankfurt/Main, 1984.
by Chico Marx in his irresistible flash
of thought: “Who are you going to believe Hamburger Institut Für Sozialforschung. Verbrechen der
– me or your own eyes?” There is hardly Wehrmacht. Dimensionen des Vernichtungskrieges 1941-
1944. Ausstellungskatalog. Hamburg, Hamburger Edition,
a visibility that is not steeped in power rela- 2002
tions – so that we can almost say that what
Handelman, Susan. Fragments of Redemption.
we see has always been provided by power
Bloomington/Indianapolis, University of Indiana Press, 1991.
relations. On the other hand, the doubt
in these visibilities insists with a vehemence Hattendorf, Manfred. Dokumentarfilm und Authentizität.
Ästhetik und Pragmatik einer Gattung. Konstanz, UVK
that is capable of constituting its own form Medien, 1999.
of power. Chico’s question is therefore
principally unanswerable. We have to leave Kracauer, Siegfried. Theorie des Films. Frankfurt/Main:
Suhrkamp, 1964.
it open – and hope that this confusing gap
will open up the path to other visibilities. Lemke, Thomas. Eine Kritik der politischen Vernunft.
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Pasquino Pasquale, Fontana Allessandro. “Wahrheit und


Macht” Gespräch mit Michel Foucault vom Juni 1976.
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Adorno, Theodor W. Über Walter Benjamin. Vertov, Dziga. Vorläufige Instruktion an die Zirkel des
Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1970. Kinoglaz. Bilder des Wirklichen. Texte zur Theorie des
Dokumentarfilms. Eva Hohenberger. Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk,
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. 1998. p 87-93.
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Anderson, Dag T. Destruktion/Konstruktion. Benjamins


Begriffe. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2000.

Arendt, Hannah. Wahrheit und Politik. Wahrheit


und Lüge in der Politik. München: Piper, 1967. p.44 - 92.
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