International Conference
16.01.2020 – 18.01.2020

›Firsthand Time‹. Documentary Aesthetics in the Long 1960s

Ort: ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage, Trajekte-Tagungsraum
Organisiert von Clemens Günther (Freie Universität Berlin), Matthias Schwartz (ZfL)
Kontakt: Clemens Günther (cguenther@zedat.fu-berlin.de) and Matthias Schwartz (schwartz@zfl-berlin.org)

Referring to documents in ›postfactual‹ times seems anachronistic. Those who seek to expose the evidence of a fact with recourse to documents are today confronted with allegations of forgery or counter-documentation that undermine the supposed plausibility of historical, testimonial or statistical documentation. In order to understand what is currently at stake, our conference turns to the period in which the documentary emerged as an aesthetic, epistemological, affective, and political benchmark. The period to which we refer is the European post-war period in general and the ›documentary fashion‹ (Nikolaus Miller) of the long 1960s in particular. It was during this time that engaged writers, filmmakers, and artists, inspired by a reassessment of the documentary boom of the interwar period, hoped, by the authority of their personal voice, by the immediacy of oral histories, and the forcefulness of authentic source materials to obtain a better understanding of everyday life in past and present. Documentary forms promised to achieve first-hand access to a more sincere understanding of social and political reality. Up until the 1970s, documentarism derived its momentum from the tension between this desire for first-hand accounts and the constant reflection about the (im)possibility of this claim.

While Western manifestations of this documentary heyday (Peter Weiss, Alexander Kluge, and others) have been relatively well researched, the Eastern European trajectory of this boom remains underresearched. Regarding the current state of scholarship, there are individual studies on nonconformist and dissident voices (e.g. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Moscow conceptualism) or on documentarism as a testimonial strategy dealing with Gulag, war and the Holocaust. However, as an aesthetic phenomenon that addresses the diversity of factographic modes of expression, the exploration of documentary remains a research desideratum. Our proposal for the temporalization of the ›long 1960s‹ evades the still prevailing distinction between ›thaw‹ and ›stagnation‹ and instead emphasizes the shared experience of a crisis of representation to which the debates on documentary art forms at the time sought to find an answer.

Starting from the specific case of late socialist cultural history, our conference aims to make a systematic contribution to the interdisciplinary exploration of documentary forms in a diachronic and comparative perspective. The focus here will be on the poetics of the documentary, complementing already existing political and ethical contextualizations and historiographies. Contributions to so far barely canonized voices as well as to influences and encounters crossing state borders and power blocs are welcome for opening up new comparative perspectives beyond national literary contexts.

The following research questions are of particular interest to the conference:

  • Understandings of truth and reality: Here we are interested in discursive frameworks, such as the pathos of ›sincerity‹, and their work-biographical manifestation as well as in questions of documentary episteme between testimonial forms and polyphonic relativism.
  • Reconstructions of the political: Here, the focus is on practices of documenting and their political implications, expanding the hitherto dominant perspective on totalitarianism with regard to other socio-political aspects of evidence production (particularly documentations of the everyday with special consideration of ›personal‹ perspectives, literary journalism, travelogues, foreign reports, constructions of Socialist globality through documentarism, etc.).
  • Media change: The emphasis here will be on media change processes (such as the triumph of television, mobile film cameras, new technical possibilities of data collection, material processing and work presentation, etc.) and the shifting media awareness of cultural, literary and art practices.
  • Documentary aesthetics: Here, the specific aesthetic devices in various art forms are of interest, e.g. literary forms of story organization, affect poetics of the documentary or intermedial and intertextual aspects.
  • New horizons for comparison: The conference aims to open new perspectives on spatial and temporal comparison. On the one hand, contacts within the Socialist world and between Western and Eastern actors are of interest. On the other hand, documentary tendencies of the long 1960s need to be reflected in a diachronic perspective, which includes both the recourse to factographic precursors, especially of the 1920s, as well as to aftereffects in the post-socialist ›secondhand time‹ (Svetlana Alexievich), e.g. in the context of ›New Realism‹.