University of the West of England
Leeds Trinity University
One result of lockdown, or indeed of moving towards the ‘new normal’, has been the increased cognitive load involved in negotiating our way through evolving terms of engagement with friends, family, colleagues and the wider environment. In the UK at least, there seem to be no hard and fast rules, it being down to us to use our ‘common sense’ to navigate the ins and outs of regulations which appear to be designed to place responsibility on individuals and institutions as opposed to the government.
This level of autonomy that we have been given can so easily lead to misunderstanding and conflict. It has brought into sharp relief our understanding as researchers of the need for tools and techniques which can help to develop skills in multi-perspectival thinking. In a documentary context, we believe that such skills are necessary to help us to engage constructively with the complexities of reality, which is ever more necessary in a time of turbulence and change. We position this need within a desire to help protect democratic values of diversity, openness and fair exchange.
As media practitioners and scholars working in the field of documentary and new media, we have been researching the potential and impact of multi-perspectival thinking and understanding for a number of years. We have theorised this around ideas about documentary and polyphony, publishing a special issue on the Poetics and Politics of Polyphony in the Alphaville Journal of Film and Screen Media in 2018. The edited articles came out of us developing our thinking on this subject through the i-Docs Research Group, formed by Aston and colleagues in 2011.
Documentary scholar and i-Docs colleague Patricia Zimmerman has noted: “Polyphony emerges from music history and theory. It describes the layering of different melodies and voices to create new resonances, a combinatory art depending on both vertical and horizontal vocal movements” (2020, online). She goes on to explain how “polyphony is a common organizing structure in Renaissance and Baroque music, as well as in other types of music such as Indonesian gamelan, West African drumming, and Estonian and Ukrainian polychoral folk music” (ibid). She also makes the important point that historiographers have “criticized linear causal history as reductive of historical complexity, and have advocated for the explanatory power of polyvocal forms so that other voices and experiences can dislodge power relations” (ibid).
Our own work with polyphony is very much aligned with this approach to historiography and with Zimmerman’s proposition that, when applied to the documentary form, “polyphonic structures can generate heterotopias through assemblages of difference, diversity, and interdisciplinarity” (ibid). Heterotopia is a term that was first mentioned by Foucault in a series of talks between 1966-67 to reference worlds within worlds that emphasise difference. His first textual reference to it was in 1966 (Preface to French edition of The Order of Things) but this offered a more limited view of the term and hence our preference is to reference one of his more expansive talks (1967).
The term heterotopia comes from medicine, where it refers to the displacement of an organ or part of the body from its normal position. In essence, it references worlds within worlds that actually exist, spaces of apparent difference which have more relationships and meanings to other places than might immediately meet the eye. Heterotopias can function in different ways, and their use can change over time, but they are always spaces where incompatible or contradictory kinds of space converge. These spaces, mirror yet also upset what is outside. They are wide ranging and can include cinemas, festivals, asylums and prisons. They are dependent on history, geography and society, offering spaces through which to reflect on our contemporaneity. Foucault calls for a society which recognises the existence of many heterotopias and which thinks through what sort of heterotopias we wish to create. He sees this as a means through which to escape from authoritarianism and repression, this being a key motivation behind our own work on multi-perspectival thinking and polyphony.
In our special issue on the Poetics and Politics of Polyphony (Aston and Odorico, 2018), we reference Bakhtin, who applied the idea of polyphony to the novel. He defined polyphony as “a plurality of unmerged voices and consciousnesses” (Bakhtin 1984; 6), a creative approach and method based on the concept of plurality and on a multitude of perspectives. We go on to discuss Bakhtin’s aspiration for these voices is to be in equal dialogue with the author/s and with each other, so that every voice is (and feels) included. We position polyphony as a cognitive and creative engagement of a plurality of voices that converge together towards a common objective led by a dialogical process. This is a process that we position here as having synergy with Foucault’s work on heterotopias and as fitting well with democratic principles.
Expanding these ideas further, we propose that there is value in interrogating Bakhtin’s ideas to examine their relevance to contemporary documentary practice, with particular reference to digital new media and to non-linear interactive forms. How do his ideas about polyphony as a single authored construct fit with current debates about co-creation which work in opposition to this construct? Is polyphony a way to break free from the binary between single authorship and co-creation? In what contexts might this be helpful? How do Bakhtin’s ideas about carnival relate to Foucault’s work on heterotopia? Can digital, non-linear interactive forms be developed as a place for using documentary to help work out new modes of inter-relationship which are fit for navigating the challenges of the 21st century?
These are questions that we will be exploring in the coming year in order to further develop our concept of ‘polyphonic documentary’. We will be positioning this in relation to current debates about authorship, co-creation and collaboration in order to conduct the first rigorous interrogation of the relevance of Bakhtin’s work on polyphony to contemporary documentary practice. Our intention is that a systematic study of polyphony in documentary could help to stimulate dialogue and multi-perspectival understanding around conflicting ideologies and key issues of the day, including global crises such as COVID-19. As a way of being in the world, that we believe to be ever more necessary for our survival in the 21st century, we wish to do our bit towards enabling multi-perspectival thinking within an interdisciplinary context. We want our research to go beyond the theoretical by looking at how it can be applied into the actual creation of polyphonic documentary content.
Aston, Judith and Stefano Odorico (2018). “The Poetics and Politics of Polyphony: Towards a Research Method for Interactive Documentary.” In Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, no. 15, Summer 2018, pp. 63–93. www.alphavillejournal.com/Issue15/ArticleAstonOdorico.pdf
Bakhtin, Michail (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Translated by Caryl Emerson. University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, Michel (1966). The Order of Things: an archaeology of the human sciences. Éditions Gallimard.
— (1967). Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias. Talk given to a group of architects: https://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en/
Zimmerman, Patricia (2020). “Polyphony and the Emerging Collaborative Ecologies of Documentary Media Exhibition”. In Auguiste, Reece, Helen De Michiel et al. 2020. Co-creation in Documentary: Toward Multiscalar Granular Interventions Beyond Extraction. Afterimage 47 (1): 34–35.