Archival Philosophy through Film

Suzanna Barnard Promotional Image
Suzanne Barnard is a professor and filmmaker.

Professor Suzanne Barnard of Duquesne University presented at a lecture sponsored by the Philosophy Department on how documentary filmmaker John Akomfrah uses the philosophical ideas of Deleuze to radically change the documentary form.

PROVO, Utah (March 23, 2016)—“The whole world is on film all the time,” Professor Suzanne Barnard from Duquesne University quoted writer Don DeLillo. She applied this idea to modern documentaries as the starting point in a lecture sponsored by the philosophy department titled “Cinema, Immanence, Archive: Deleuze and Akomfrah on Immemorial Time and Diaspora.”

Barnard began by discussing how historically, documentaries have been in a “naïve reality.” The decision of filmmakers on what to document and how to create those films has often neglected to tell the stories of minority populations in an accurate way. A new awareness of this has resulted in broader access and increased cultural awareness of the perspective of the camera. However, Barnard explained that the confines of the traditional narrative structure of the documentary for “minoritarian histories” – the first of many ideas taken from philosopher Deleuze – still results in a narrow camera perspective. In contrast to this traditional narrative structure, Bernard presented on how John Akomfrah’s documentary The Nine Muses uses Deleuzian principles to create a different kind of “minoritarian history” of African and Caribbean immigrants to Britain in the 1960s.

To Akomfrah, changes in documentaries have simply been more “variations on a theme than anything new,“ Barnard explained. She went on to discuss the idea that documentary, with its narrative structure, props up old myths that are established as history and designed to create a compelling narrative of a progressive future. Consequently, a documentary’s potential to disrupt is short-circuited by not including the forgotten in cultural memory. Instead, Akomfrah set out to “remember via a camera consciousness those that history would forget.”

Akomfrah’s documentary takes its images and sounds from the archives of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In addition, he used footage from an assignment to the Alaskan wilderness, which had been subjected to ruin through imperial interests while incorporating selections from Western canonical literature and music drawing on liturgical tradition, black American spirituals, Indian dhrupad and drone music.

But, as Barnard explained, though Akomfrah was drawing from an archive that contained both the subject of his creation and the agent of representation, he was not interested in telling the actual stories of the images he used. Instead, Akomfrah adopted an idea from Deleuze of “the past’s virtuality.” Faced with just a series of images when they are disassociated from their qualification and classifying marks, Akomfrah could use the possibilities of the cinematic realization to tell a different kind of story of immigrants with Deleuzian notions of immanence, time and impersonality.

Barnard explained that The Nine Muses, therefore, treats identity as a process of becoming that occurs without time. Akomfrah uses the archive as a repository of fallen or ruined facts. Barnard said, “Akomfrah set sail in the archive in order to discern what a new set of ruins might look like,” thinking among and with the crumbling outside images and sounds. Barnard explained that this allows Akomfrah to use the images and sounds not for what they captured at the time, but for what they mean on their own. “For me, the film’s radical power is that Akomfrah does not submit the image to some kind of traditional storytelling or traditional narrative structure, but that he lets the image unfold in a way that only the image or only sound as an audio rather than the narration of an epic journey, as only what these things can offer us,” she said. “What the archive offers up are not facts, but what Akomfrah calls the ruins of facts.”

Barnard continued, “The use of the archive is not primarily about some kind of archeological unearthing, an endless tracking of its index, but more about a future ordinated process”; instead, it is primarily about “itself and its potential unfolding . . . its suppressed and its realized future. . . . It becomes memorable because it is elusive.”

Through Akomfrah’s work, then, the archive comes to occupy “a unique space, somewhere between history and myth,” and as Barnard concluded, this gives the art of film new meaning. According to Barnard, analyzing Akomfrah’s documentary through philosophy offers us new ways of folding image and sound into the self.

—Alison Siggard (B.A. English Education ’17)

Alison covers the department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.