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Estates & Agency: Daniel Worden's Neoliberal Nonfictions
Nicholas Burman , November 29th, 2020 09:35

Daniel Worden charts the rise of the "documentary aesthetic" via Joan Didion and Kendrick Lamar

Documentary is the core concern of Daniel Worden’s Neoliberal Nonfictions. Not solely documentary film, but documentary as a mode or genre which has been embraced by artists working in different mediums over the past sixty years. Worded states that the post 1960s documentary aesthetic is marked by the “entanglement of subjective experiences with history”, the weaving of the long term and the structural with the immediate and the personal. The past sixty years, he argues, can be defined by neoliberalism, the term which “has become a common descriptor of the increasing financialization and privatization of late capitalism”.

Nonfictions is a book which analyses various strains and products of popular culture from the USA from over the past six decades. Worden sees the rise of the “documentary aesthetic” (as he defines it) as being both demonstrative and critical of the (economic) world that has come into being. As he says, the documentary aesthetic has acted as “a rejoinder and accompaniment to the ways in which finance capitalism and its intensifications of exploitation, dispossession, and state-sanctioned violence have made the world seem vertiginous and precarious.” Worden writes that the documentary aesthetic “mobilizes subjects by making evident the personal costs of exploitative structures.” This definition rings true to a certain extent, and Worden skillfully picks examples which work as strong evidence for his case.

The book describes how the documentary aesthetic arose through Joan Didion and the New Journalism movement. This aesthetic is also found in the likes of Jay Z’s autobiography Decoded, which (with support from Decoded’s paratextual elements) is positioned here as a sort of formal love child of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and gonzo journalism. What Worden most persuasively explains is the rise of the individualisation of politics and also of aesthetics. Inspired by Jay Z, Worden sees the (documentary) artist as these days acting (or being) the hustler; a trope, or rather, a key persona, of neoliberalism.

The hustler both recognises and acts up to their position in a society which is experienced as being primarily dictated by self preservation and self promotion. The documentary aesthetic doesn’t (necessarily) celebrate this hustler, however. The chapter focusing on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city effectively recognises the Compton rapper’s on-disc persona as a reflective and melancholy recognition of many of the negative aspects (excessive drinking, violence) that the listener presumes to be part of Lamar’s “real life”. Through the prism of Frederic Jameson’s description of postmodernism, Worden portrays Lamar as being hip hop’s equivalent to David Harvey, an MC who vocalises the way in which the macro and the micro are intimately related.

Nonfictions talks about how neoliberalism is depicted by the documentary aesthetic, but also about how neoliberalism itself shapes the work. This leads to an inherent scepticism about people reaching beyond the singular. Worden writes that “in a privatized, neoliberal culture, [personal style becomes] both hegemonic and the only available tool of critique”. The implication is that a documentary mode which relies on the experience of the individual, and casts the individual as the site of resistance, plays along with the rules of the system which the documentary mode is trying to explain and, to some extent, push back against. There is no escape.

The book sticks mostly to close reading various objects (lyrics, photographs, films). What this misses out is that the way in which documentary work is produced, and has been since the 1960s, has had an impact on the genre itself. Nina Mickwitz’s article on the aesthetics of documentary comics can help us here.

Mickwitz details how American documentary comics in the 1940s and 50s were intimately related to the American state. Institutions such as the FBI were ensuring that national mythologies of American superiority and male strength were propagated by comics with titles such as War on Crime. Although this isn’t her focus, in Mickwitz’s article one can trace the change from government sponsored documentary making, which promoted group mythologies, to NGO and privately funded documentary making which happened to coincide with the rise of interest in/of the individual.

It is perhaps no surprise that, under the pressure to act as salespeople for their own wares, the documentarians - like many types of artist - increasingly put themselves into their films, and see the individual as the root of success, and of truth. Mickwitz writes: “As an aesthetic device, the creator/character thus corresponds to a contemporary valorization of lived experience as a guarantor of knowledge.” As the artist became an entrepreneur, so too did the activist, the protagonist, the subject… (The trite, authorless quote “the way you see yourself is the way you see the world” seems relevant here.) In its centering of the individual, the documentary aesthetic presents no real threat to the cultural hegemony it often pitches itself as being against or antagonistic to.

What would be the alternative - a revised documentary aesthetic which can centre the group or the ensemble as the site of politics?

I’m taken to thinking about Darren Emerson‘s VR documentary Common Ground, which is available to view via the BFI’s LFF website. In this film, Emerson utilises the spatial aspect of VR to “recreate” the space of London’s Aylesbury Estate. In this virtual world, the Estate is transformed into a space in which the topic of gentrification and urban space is discussed. This remediation of the Estate highlights the temporal and emotional aspects to this piece of infrastructure.

Common Ground ties together the historical and political factors that have led to the Estate being demolished alongside monologues from the few residents who remain. They share their memories of living as part of this once optimistic community (an optimism partially generated by a narrative provided by the postwar political consensus, by Politics). Common Ground doesn’t provide a guide to how such dispossession (to borrow Worden’s terminology) could be halted, but it does highlight the way in which the divide and conquer tactic leaves individuals politically weak, no matter how mobilized they feel. Emerson’s documentary doesn’t celebrate the hustler or reify the individual; it makes one realise the limitations of the individual in a world where actual political power makes itself known through bulldozers and cranes.

What both Mickwitz and Worden do, in different ways, is present us with a history of “history’s first draft”. Nonfictions provides a good starting point for thinking about how exactly we come to recognise and understand the present day in the media we consume, and how those representations both critique and produce the world - our world - in which the individual is sovereign.

Neoliberal Nonfictions by Daniel Worden is published by the University of Virginia Press