Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Documenting the Documentarian

I’d been thinking over whether to become a consultant on a film project, a documentary film about a folk music collector. It struck me as interesting that a film should be made to document someone whose work was documenting others’ music. Documenting the documentarian! One can imagine the production film made of the making of this film as well: three tiers for documentation!

Of course, documenting and then archiving in a private collection, public archives or museum has proved one of the time-honored ways of sustaining music sound, even though the goal was not preservation for sustainability but rather comphrension through classification, analysis, and comparison with other specimens. The re-patriation of sound documents from the 19th century is one of the cultural partnership success stories of the last couple of decades.

Serendipitously, Monday's morning radio news brought with it two more instances of document, which got me thinking about what a document may mean today. The first was an appreciative review of Bach’s cello sonatas, the story line featuring Pablo Casals’ discovery of the score in Barcelona in 1898. “Without the discovery of this document, Casals would never have been able to practice the music for twelve years and then bring Bach’s masterpiece to the world's attention,” the radio host said, while Casals’ 1939 recordings played in the background.

The second instance: the president of Iran, Mamoud Ahmadinejad, was confronted by ABC news interviewer Diane Sawyer with a document allegedly showing that his nation’s scientists were building a “trigger” for a nuclear weapon. Ahmadinejad refused to look at Sawyer's copy of the document, waving it away. "No, I don't want to see this kind of document," he said. "These are some fabricated papers issued by the American government."  [See http://abcnews.go.com/WN/diane-sawyers-exclusive-interview-mahmoud-ahmadinejad/story?id=9383487].

This was a special “moment of truth”: there was a document, presumably proving something, and the political official refused to acknowledge it—refused even to look at it, as if the act of examining it would have lent it a certain credibility. What strange powers a document is granted! Document, forgery, "see for yourself"—our Western culture habitually imbues a document with truth-power. In the postmodern age, the document is a special case of truth-claim. What is it?