Abstract for my paper at this year’s Visible Evidence conference.
Interactive documentary finds itself caught, theoretically, by the narratological assumptions that underwrites much cinema and documentary studies. These theories rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the presence of a story that audiences are required to interpret or understand in some way. Theoretically we have sophisticated ways to account for the actions of audiences on documentaries, documentaries on audiences, and the relation of documentaries to the world, yet in most instances we do this through the gestalt of story. However, stories as a theoretical model by which to understand interactive documentary are problematic in two ways.
The first is that documentaries are, while obviously complex and sophisticated language machines, resolutely linear, sequential and reliant on linear cause and effect. This is not surprising given that film and video is an insistent time based and sequential medium, yet in spite of our celebration of ambiguity and complexity in stories they struggle to account for, describe, or perform the simple complexity of, well, anything, because of their inherent necessity to be linear, sequential and ordered.
This is not how the world is, for now we find ourselves wondering whether we are in the new geological age of the anthropocene, face unprecedented environmental change, population migration, and sociopolitical transformation from north to south and east to west. Combined with a twenty first century media ecology that has long left the command and control model of industrial media manufacture and distribution, we can ask whether stories, in the pragmatic way we use the concept are adequate.
The second is that new media, as a technical form, is not, like film and video, linear and sequential. This suggests that as a form it is ill suited to storytelling (whether fiction or nonfiction), and while as a species we find it easy to tell stories about anything (an epistemological practice) this is a very different claim to then thinking that everything is a story (an ontological claim).
By beginning from the narratological assumptions that underwrite much cinema and documentary discourse interactive documentary theory risks misreading what interactive documentary is, and can do, by looking past the specificity of the computer and network through its colonisation by narrative.
In this paper I explore this proposition relying on case studies of digital nonfiction works using recent materialist media theory. I revisit interactive documentary to describe what digital media is, and does, and on that basis argue that narrative is not a key trope or method to investigate or understand interactive documentary. Narrative is at best a handmaid to interactive documentary, and so begs the question of what interactive documentary is for, if not story.
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