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Beyond Rhetoric (and Scepticism): A Critical Realist Perspective on Carl R. Plantinga


Review of Carl R. Plantinga, Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

1. Introduction

This review begins with an outline of Plantinga's proposed definition of the nonfiction film and then gives a critical account of his formal analyses of the "voices" of the nonfiction film. In the second section of my review I draw upon Roy Bhaskar's Critical Realism in an attempt to address what I argue is a serious weakness in Plantinga's text namely the absence of an adequate model of the truth and a clear notion of ontological depth.

This is followed by a polemic against Plantinga's politics. I try not to get too spiteful here, but the school of thought that Plantinga at present belongs to, namely the American Formalists or Cognitive Theorists, is extremely important in the field of Film Studies. They are generally thought of as being apolitical, but of course in the end that becomes a particular kind of politics.

Having thrown the kitchen sink and about everything else at Plantinga I attempt to redress the balance in a conclusion. It is after all a very valuable book though it did prove something of an irritant at times.

2. Definitions and Voices

Plantinga begins with an attempt to define the nonfiction film. This is a brave move and it does have the benefit for the reader/reviewer that Plantinga has run up the flag and taken a definite stance. We can all then take a pot-shot, hopefully with the acknowledgment that Plantinga has done us a service by attempting to produce a rigorous definition of that most slippery of concepts the nonfiction film.

His first step is to reject John Grierson's definition of documentary as the "creative treatment of actuality" as too broad. After all fiction films do much the same thing with actuality. Predictably having characterised Grierson as "too broad" he digs around for a definition which is too narrow. He finds this in Raymond Spottiswoode's definition of documentary as "a dramatised presentation of man's relation to his institutional life" (13).

This is obviously over prescriptive and would exclude a number of documentaries such as Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1966). On the way to dismissing Spottiswoode, Plantinga has a sideswipe at Bill Nichols' definition of documentary as a "film that makes an argument rather than entertains or diverts" (13).

Plantinga's solution to the definitional problem is to accept that he is producing an "open" definition, where membership of a particular concept depends on a network of family resemblances. This results in "fuzzy sets" but nevertheless sets up criteria, which enable us to say how far a particular film departs from the central concept.

Plantinga's own definition draws upon Nicholas Wolterstorff's speech act theory of "projected worlds." Briefly this links the worlds projected by speech to a variety of stances. In the case of the documentary film a world is projected and the stance declares that the state of affairs presented in the film occurred in the actual world (18).

I intend to take up this definition with regard to its claims about the truth status of documentary film but I first wish to point out that in my opinion Plantinga complicates matters by trying to wed Wolterstorff's projected worlds to Noel Carroll's theory of "indexing." The latter notion states that a nonfiction film is a film which writers, distributors, exhibitors publicly identify as nonfiction (16). This if it has any currency must surely be closely to the consensual model of truth where what is true is defined as what people say is true. The simple but effective refutation of consensual models is provided by the saying that "Yes, 10,000 French men can be wrong." So just as consensus cannot guarantee the truth neither can it guarantee the correct indexing of a particular film.

More importantly for my purposes however is that this foray into consensus distracts Plantinga from a proper investigation of the truth claims of nonfiction films. Thus he says

Plantinga's most original contribution in this book is to propose a heuristic device for analysing nonfiction films. He sets up a duality around the amount of "narrational authority" that the film assumes. The film can employ a formal or an open voice. There is a third alternative in that its concerns can be primarily aesthetic and in this case the voice is described as "poetic."

By contrast the open voice is "epistemically hesitant" in that it "observes or explores rather than explains" (108).

The third alternative, the poetic voice, is concerned not so much with explanation or observation as with the nonfiction films as "art and/or as a means of exploring representations itself" (109). There is a remark here about "epistemic aestheticism" but this is little more than a throwaway line. Plantinga does not take up the question of the truth status of the poetic voice. To do so would have entailed examining the Adornoian notion of "truth content" and generally Plantinga, apart from a reference to Habermas, seems enviably unaware of the world of Critical Theory.

This then is Plantinga's original schema:

Plantinga's preference would seem to be for the open voice with its epistemic hesitancy marked by "humility" and the tendency to allow the spectator to come to "her own conclusions."

3. Objections and Alternatives

At the heart of my objections to Plantinga's way of proceeding is a strong belief that the problem of the truth status of nonfiction films cannot simply be solved by a rhetorical definition. The definition of a nonfiction film as a film that takes the assertive stance of saying that the state of affairs it projects occurred in the actual world, surely asks us to say something about the film's truth claims.

Similarly Plantinga has a good deal to say on the equally vexed question of objectivity. But again this must be regarded as one of the less successful aspects of his argument. The reason for this is that we cannot ground a notion of objectivity if we do not make the fundamental distinction between epistemology and ontology or in Bhaskarian terms between the transitive and intransitive dimensions.

To solve these problems I maintain we need urgently a model of the truth, which will not only recognise the centrality of the truth claims of documentary films but also enable us to situate these truth claims. Equally important, in my opinion, to any theoretical clarity about the status of nonfiction films especially around the concept of objectivity is a philosophy based on a depth ontology.

I should acknowledge here that at times Plantinga comes close to recognising the need for ontological depth. Thus he distinguishes between "various levels of states of affairs, the 'first-level' (or low-level) and the 'second-level' (or high level)" (111). Within this schema "explanation" becomes the assertion of second-level propositions about the world. But this is simply insufficiently deep.

The whole process of explanation itself has to be analysed. Because reality is stratified as soon as we achieve a successful explanation then this particular explanation becomes in its own turn that which must be explained. A further approach to a depth ontology occurs when Plantinga confesses his hesitancy over whether the structures that the film creates are conventional or whether the world is naturally structured in this way too. Plantinga only suspects the latter (125).

Jay Raskin in his interesting and thought provoking review of Plantinga's book sets it, in the context of the struggle between "postmodernist and cognitive (or 'post-theory') movie theory", on the side of the "Aristotelian modernist/rationalist camp" (Raskin). Hardly a surprising stance given that the book was originally Plantinga's PhD thesis and the supervisor was David Bordwell--a key figure in the Cognitive Theory movement.

Raskin however notes a slippage between the two camps and concludes that "as one often finds, there is much that postmodernist and cognitivist theory actually agree upon."

The absence of depth ontology inevitable leads to an illicit secretion of some ontology. In the case of Plantinga this is never made explicit. He does though as we have seen quote Lukes with regards to levels but this is as close as the gets to the notion of ontological depth. He is still trapped within the problematic of regarding Reality in the Humean sense as consisting of the constant conjunction of events.

What is most important to understand is that the postmodernists secrete illicitly in their case the same ontology as that of the New Realists. It is this sharing of a common ontology that is the source of the convergence between the postmodernists and the cognitivists that Raskin correctly identifies.

If the absence of a depth ontology is the key to understanding the impasse between the cognitivists and the postmodernists then the absence of an adequate theory of truth is equally debilitating. Roy Bhaskar has provided such a model in his development of Dialectical Critical Realism. He argues that there are four components to truth

a. "Truth as normative-fiduciary, truth in the 'trust me -- act on it sense'..."

Truth here has a communicative dimension. This aspect of truth is analogous to Plantinga's use of the concept "stance," where nonfiction films assert that the "state of affairs they present occur in the real world" (18). However we should note that the vagueness inherent in the phrase "state of affairs" does not guide Plantinga or us in the direction of ontological depth.

Nevertheless a partial definition of the documentary film would be a film that explicitly achieves level one of Bhaskar's model. I would stress explicitly here because fiction films also make truth claims but implicitly.

b. "Truth as adequating, as 'warrantedly assertable', as epistemological, as relative in the transitive dimension."

The transitive dimension refers to the domain of knowledge as opposed to that of reality or ontology.

c. "Truth as referential-expressive, as a bipolar ontic-epistemic dual, and in this sense as absolute."

Truth here is still tied to language use but it does refer to reality. It identifies that which is real and not simply epistemic.

d. "Truth as alethic, as the truth of or reason for things and phenomena, not propositions, as genuinely ontological, and in this sense as objective in the intransitive dimension" (Bhaskar,The Possibility of Naturalism 217).

The intransitive dimension is the realm of the "real things and structures, mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world and for the most part they are quite independent of us" (Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science 22).

Crucial to the concept of alethia or alethic truth is the argument that when we have established why something is true then it is grounded. This demand for the grounding of truth and the recognition of the possibility of such a grounding distinguishes Bhaskar's model of truth. It also does away with the need for the fetishization of what Plantinga terms "epistemic hesitation." Science has established truths. We do know something of reality, even if we do not know how much we know.

I would argue here that we should use the position of a nonfiction film with regard to Alethic truth as both a means of defining and as a critical standard. Does the film attempt to unearth the reason for things? How does it do so?

In advocating alethia as the goal for nonfiction films I may seem to be endorsing those films which adopt what Plantinga terms the formal voice. However I feel that this is a case where the distinction that Plantinga is making between formal and open is not very helpful. I say this because the attempt to achieve alethia is not at all a feature of most of the films that Plantinga labels as using the formal voice. These films are marked I would argue by the avoidance of explanation and the refusal to seek the truth.

It is the absence of a critical-realist philosophy of science that handicaps Plantinga in his attempt to refute the cognitive triumphalism of what he terms the formal voice. Likewise his attack on the postmodernist scepticism which lies behind the open voice is weakened because he does not have a theory which will locate the proper place for epistemic relativism or what he terms "epistemic hesitation."

It is this that is behind his mistaken contrast between explanation and exploration. Plantinga does not see that if we recognise that the world is stratified then all explanation is like exploration. Epistemic relativism is not an optional extra. It is guaranteed by the fact that "all beliefs are socially produced, so that all knowledge is transient, and neither truth-values nor criteria for rationality exist outside historical time" (Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science 73). Epistemic relativism then is the very essence of our epistemological endeavours.

It is however most important to understand that epistemic relativism does not preclude ontological realism. Reality exists and is stratified. Neither should we abandon the notion of judgmental rationality. We do have good reasons for preferring one explanation to another.

I would like to say a further word about "epistemic hesitation." I think we should link this up with Paul Arthur's notion of the "aesthetics of failure" and see it primarily as a psychological and sociological phenomenon (Arthur 16-34). At one level it is true that this hesitation, doubt or uncertainty about the epistemological project is caused by the collapse of the certainties of positivism.

There is though a social/political moment as well. I locate this in the failure of the Left of 1966-72 to bring about substantial social change. This failure has seen in turn the continued triumph of the dominant elites. Now it seems we are at a stage where the only alternative source of opposition is to fetishize indeterminacy and so undermine the categories that underpin the status quo. In other words the function of "epistemic hesitation" is to negate all epistemic certainty.

However this is at best a holding operation and it is interesting to note that as Plantinga points out there is a revival of documentaries, which have a "formal voice" in that they attempt to explain reality.

It is my contention that we should reject epistemic hesitation as an end in itself firstly on the grounds that it confuses the notion of epistemic relativism and also denies the possibility of achieving alethia or the reason for things. Genuine scientific and philosophical inquiry assumes that the stratification of the world is in principle unbounded. Thus it is always necessary for the scientist/philosopher to assume that there may be reasons located at a deeper level for the phenomena, which he has identified (Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science 170-1).

My second reason for rejecting "epistemic hesitation" is that explanation is essential to emancipation. We must understand the world before we can change it. Moreover, indeterminacy does not suffice to advance freedom. For that something must be negated.

4. The Politics of Liberalism

As Jay Raskin points out the weakest parts of Plantinga concerns his political analysis of objectivity. This comes in his otherwise very useful discussion of Stuart Hall's BIOP(i)C model of how the media enforces the hegemony of the ruling elites. Plantinga shows in an analysis of the American television show The 20th Century that the notions of balance, impartiality, objectivity, professionalism and consensus do indeed operate as Hall suggests. Then in what seems like a fit of nerves at the radical world that has opened up before him, Plantinga goes to water and dreams up a counter example. This turns out to be Ed Murrow's famous broadcast in 1954 attacking Senator Joe McCarthy. This it would seem was the moment of triumph of American Liberals. They girded up their loins, went into battle and slew the dragon.

Plantinga waves this counter example and asks: "How can Hall's model account for breakdowns in the media/power relationships predicted by his theory?"

There are a host of confusions here. Because of the openness of social systems the function of theory in the social sciences is to explain and not predict. Nor do counter examples refute a theory. This can only be accomplished by an alternative theory, which covers the instances explained in the original theory and a significant number of the counter examples.

But even more importantly for my purposes, Plantinga's counter example is in all probability not a counter example at all. Thus he has bought into the whole myth making surrounding the anti-McCarthy broadcast. He talks of the "great personal risk" that Murrow took. He quotes Fred Friendly the show's co-producer as saying that the feeling was "Good show, sorry you did it" (210). However if we return to the historical moment of the broadcast a very different interpretation is possible.

The Murrow program has to be understood in the context of McCarthy's attack on the American military--an institution to which, as Plantinga points out, Murrow's show had intimate links. McCarthy took on the army at the beginning of 1954. On the 24th of February 1954 the Secretary of the Army, Robert Stevens was summoned to testify before McCarthy's committee. Stevens was expected to read out a defence of the Army but he capitulated. The reaction though within the White House and the Army was very different. They began to prepare their counter attack.

By a coincidence (?) Murrow's show attacking McCarthy went to air on the 6th of February. On April 22nd the Army versus McCarthy hearings began and the fate of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin was sealed. Was Murrow very brave or did he sense that the wind was blowing from a different direction? Probably the latter. Certainly it is hard otherwise to explain the sudden onset of "courage." After all although he and his co-producer, Fred Friendly, had been collecting material on McCarthy for some time, possibly since 1951 even (O'Connor), he had kept silent throughout the worst excesses of McCarthyism and the general anti-communist witch-hunt that President Truman had launched.

Nor does the previous occasion on which Murrow had tackled McCarthy add significantly to Plantinga's case. In October 1953 Murrow had put to air a program critical of McCarthy's treatment of a young air force lieutenant Milo Radulovich. This program by another coincidence (?) follows McCarthy's attacks on the Military which O'Connor dates as beginning in September 1953. Murrow was threatened following the Radulovich broadcast and did not return to tackle McCarthy until the 'Report on Senator McCarthy' of March 9th, 1954 (O'Connor).

In both instances where Murrow criticised McCarthy the military had been involved prior to Murrow taking action. Perhaps this was indeed a coincidence, but it scarcely takes that much courage to speak out when you know that you have the backing of the Pentagon. In any case the sum total of Murrow's intervention was to remove from the scene an unpredictable maverick that had forgotten his role in the scheme of things. After Murrow's onslaught on McCarthy the hegemony of the American establishment was if anything strengthened. Their liberal credentials had been restored. Surely this is Hall's fundamental point. The media works to establish and maintain the hegemony of the elite.

I have dwelt on this story at length as it epitomises for me that political naivete that is the hallmark of the Carroll-Bordwell camp. Formal analysis is fine and they and Plantinga have made valuable contributions in this direction. However as always the point is not merely to interpret the world. If we look in any direction, surely we cannot but see that there is an abiding imperative to change it.

Plantinga, though, continually attempts to take refuge in a demand for "relative objectivity" and "relative reflexivity" whatever that means. Moreover he misreads Hall's model as meaning an attack on the notion of objectivity. Hall has exposed as false the media's claim to objectivity. The correct response to this, as Raskin points out, is to demand proper objectivity, balance, etc., from the media. But Plantinga can only imagine a world divided between Emile de Antonio on the Left and Rush Limbaugh on the Right. Faced with this imaginary prospect he opts in a rather abject conclusion for the status quo. In the process he conveniently forgets of course that there are very very few leftists like Emile de Antonio in the media world, while the American airways teem with Rush Limbaugh clones.

Moreover Plantinga's characterisation of McCarthyism as "irresponsible red-baiting" (210) should not be allowed to go unchallenged. The "red baiting" consisted in the terrorising and intimidation of thousands, the wrecking of lives and the vicious persecution of progressive minded people, and the destruction of decent trade unionists.

I am reminded here of Isaiah Berlin's famous comparison between the following sentences about Nazi rule in Germany.

All of these sentences are true but only (d) is acceptable as it alone pays some tribute to the dead. The victims of Auschwitz deserve better than "depopulated." Similarly those who suffered at the hands of Joseph McCarthy (and President Truman) deserve better than "irresponsible."

5. Conclusions

Plantinga's book is very well written. Raskin is correct when he describes it as "thought-provoking and fun reading." It performs in addition an extremely valuable task in attempting to define what a nonfiction film is and in setting up parameters for analysis. However as an attempt to solve the truth problem associated with nonfiction films this text is in my opinion less successful. The central absences here are those of a depth ontology and a truth model which will allow one to go beyond the shadow boxing between the cognitivists and the postmodernists.

I have also made some very harsh remarks about Plantinga's politics. In part this is motivated by my exasperation at the American Cognitivists' continued refusal to address what are ever more pressing problems. There is as well in Plantinga's book an absence of ethical concerns, which may not be surprising in a text that is about rhetoric and which is also so resolutely apolitical. Nevertheless no consideration of the truth question is complete without at least considering the ethics of making and viewing the nonfiction film.

Queensland University of Technology
Brisbane, Australia
March 1998

Works Cited

Arthur, P. "Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments)." Theorising Documentary. Ed. Michael Renov. London: Routledge, 1993. 108-34.

Bhaskar, Roy. Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom. London: Verso, 1994.

-----. The Possibility of Naturalism. London: Harvester Press, 1979.

-----. A Realist Theory of Science. 2nd Edition. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1978.

O'Connor, J. E. "The Moving Image As Historical Document: Analysing Edward R. Murrow's Report On Senator McCarthy." History on/and/in/ Film. Ed. T. O'Regan and B. Shoesmith. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 5-16.

Raskin, Jay. "The Friction Over the Fiction of Nonfiction Movies." Film-Philosophy: Electronic Salon, 17 September 1997.

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Michael Hoover for supplying me with the time-line associated with the Ed Murrow broadcast on McCarthy. Carrol Cox also pointed out that McCarthy was but a small part of a wider onslaught, which had been initiated by President Truman. Shane Mage questioned Murrow's courage and Lou Proyect pointed me in the direction of the O'Connor article. Michael, Carroll, Lou and Shane are all to be encountered on the Marxism-International email list run by Spoons.

Copyright © 1998 Gary MacLennan

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