Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Mass Observation

Last night, my advisor ran into me, all the other British grad students, and a documentarian friend at the PFA screening of How Little We Know of Our Neighbors (Rebecca Baron 2005).

The film handles the first hand-held cameras of the 1870s, the anthropological and voyeuristic use to which hidden cameras were soon put by late Victorians; the Mass Observation movement’s use of cameras for surrealist or phenomenological documentation of every-day Britain; the co-opting of Mass Observation by British wartime propaganda; the transformation of Mass Observation into a marketing research firm; the coming of CCTV and the state’s use of the hidden camera in the 1980s; all interspliced with Baron’s own experiments with filming (often uncomfortable or irreverent) strangers in public places with an undisguised camera.

James Vernon, interpreting the film, drew attention to an underlying tension between phenomenological observation from the individual – assumed to be liberatory – and the state’s harnessing of technology for disciplinary reasons.

Things it made me want to write about:

* The history of Western privacy. We often treat a privacy revolution as occurring between 1870 and 1830, the period of the film, because of the advent of replicable images and the law to deal with them.

Instead, recent British research (including my own) indicates a privacy revolution in architecture, space, and the law of city streets, occurring between 1790 and 1830. how do the two privacy revolutions put each other in perspective?

A spatial privacy revolution at the end of the eighteenth century; a revolution in the privacy of body and face per se at the end of the nineteenth century; a revolution in the privacy of information at the end of the twentieth…

* The hat pin. Frankly, the voyeuristic 1890s photos of sleeping household maids and schoolgirls struck me as not so erotic. Even in the 1930s, Mass Observation photos captured hatpins and hatless women – not so titillating at all, and suprising against Mass Observation’s self explained purpose of unveiling the deep, repressed essence of the Victorian psyche.

Hatpins in Henry James can be deeply symbolic. Early photographers following literary clues might have done no better than to follow Henry James.

And yet the modern equivalents of these voyeuristic photos – from the people Rebecca filmed on public British streets to the humans on the hit show Big Brother – have no hatpins as clues; they model themselves in deeply sexualized, Freudian body language.

Did we need Freud to interpret what to look at once the reign of photography had started?

Or were Freudian, Lacanian, Reichian, and Jungian analyses of the body merely a response to the startling realization that we didn’t know where to look?

* The history of social history. We are still fiddling with identities in my field: when does a racial other become a person, when and how do women get a voice?

Social history is often documented specifically as a tension of the sort James Vernon remarked – as in the Patrick Joyce histories where a rough and interesting tension defines worker identity for most of the later nineteenth century. In part this reaction flees from the old-fashioned English Social History of Macolmson and Trevelyan, all the way down to the 1980s. But is tension enough?

I found myself so unsatisfied with marking merely the tension between private observation and public control in these films.

I wanted to know what that tension did. I wanted social and cultural history becoming political history in the style of Halévy, where Methodist enthusiasms combine long-standing English volunteerism with Welsh exhortatory enthusiasm and produce a new kind of mass culture capable of appealing to and harnessing the energies of the previously unheard working classes.

I wanted to know what the effect of being looked at was, beyond the embarrassment and wariness remarked by this film and Lynn Nead’s writing on the same subject.

After the rise of detective cameras, did people actually begin to hold themselves differently? Or did they decide that posing was futile; did cameras kill the Victorian etiquette manual? Did they give up? Was that the root of so much violent anomie in the 1930s? Is that the root of so much adolescent distress today?

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Blogger Citadin said...

I think there were other ongoing very deep social and economic changes in the periods you've identified (end of the XVIIIth, 1930s) that drove changes in etiquette and behaviours. The cameras were just there to record these changes as opposed to help create them.

Gosh, I wish I were in Berkeley lately, there is such a good ongoing program at the PFA (SFIFF.) Just today, director Jean-Claude Carrière was there in person to present one of his classics, Belle de Jour. The lineup is incredible, from May (the "Theater near you " series, with "Baby Face" and Belmondo's "Classe Tous Risques" and a Bresson for good measure) through June (Isabelle Huppert series.) All of you 510 types should be loitering on Bancroft this spring.

5:12 PM  

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