on Ken Burns's appeal was Re: Ken Burns documentary on jazz

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at SPAMqut.edu.au
Tue Jan 9 15:53:58 MST 2001

>G.S. i had never heard this story either. this kind of story telling draws
>attention away from the social production of art and isolates the Great
>Individual. this time the great man goes mad. how romantic? the story of
>jazz is the history of a popular music. will Burns transform it into the
>story of elite creaters?

We won't see this program for a year or more, but I would instinctively say
'yes' to the above. George's earlier post characterises Burns' work well.
It is of course ideological but what exactly is its appeal?

I would argue that Burns work is popular because above all it has what Duns
Scotus termed 'Haeccitas' or thisness.  He gives us the uniqueness of his
subjects. Gerard Manley Hopkins took Scotus' concept and translated it as
"inscape" focusing primarily on the natural rather than the human
world.  Burns's material is however essentially human.

For me watching his Civil War films is as if I get to play God, but a
caring God.  Watching that series I really feel I know Elijah Hunt Rhodes
(?).  It is as if the hairs of his head are numbered. I feel his agony and
suffer the terrors of the war with him.

Now I think that this is a fulfillment of what Walter Benjamin termed the
'weak Messianic impulse'.  As Benjamin puts it 'our coming was expected'
and we are fulfilling our debt to the dead by remembering them. So I get a
sort of warm ethically driven glow when I watch the series.  I become one
of  the good guys.

But what if the same technique is applied to someone like Thomas
Jefferson?  I sit and listen through his letters and comments and he too
for me becomes very real and unique.  I forget about the slaves and the
black family he sired.

So there is a basic problem with the "thisness" or micro-history approach.
It is very powerful at getting us to feel and identify with a
subject.  However it can get us to involve ourselves with some poor grunt
or some person or power.  It is one thing to know what Elijah had for
breakfast.  It is quite another to know what Jefferson tucked into.

The other problem with micro-history is that it lacks an overview.  It does
not provide the conceptual structure which would enable us to understand
complex social phenomena such as the American Civil war. This of course as
George has pointed out is an ideological move in itself.

But I want to emphasis that always there is a trap for the leftist when she
comes to talk about art.  It is all too easy to stress the correct line and
to forget that art has to work as art.  Hence a lot of left criticism is
merely clever Philistinism.  Burns may make ideological films but his
series on the Civil War is deeply loved because it speaks to people on a
level that the Marxist cadre all too often despises.

Very few Left wing inspired artists have managed to match Burn's feel for
'haecceitas' with a complex intellectual structure.  Peter Watkins'
Culloden (1966) springs to mind here as a great exception, though even he
was criticised for not providing the key concepts which would enable the
view to draw the links between the massacre of the Highlanders and what was
taking place in the Vietnam War.

BTW if you want to see what a film without haecceitas might look
like.  Take out Mallick's Thin Red Line.  There the film maker/philosopher
is so consumed with Emerson's notion of the "oversoul" from whence we have
all come that his characters lack individuality or haecceitas.



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