Ken Burns

I have been following this thread with a good deal of interest - because it touches upon aesthetics and politics. Architecture seems to bring these together in a very brutal way. But this is not what I wanted to comment on. I would like to say very briefly something about Burns' documentary method.

I have seen three of his series - the Civil War, Jefferson, and Lewis & Clark.

Now I think it is wrong for starters to say that Burns does not have a politics. If only in the sense that the absence of politics is of course a kind of politics because politics is about how we make meanings in this world and that cannot not be done. We are a meaning making species. Besides the tales I do not tell make meanings as much as the ones I do.

Of the three series I mentioned only the Civil War one interested me very much, and that was because it brought into very sharp focus the strengths and weaknesses of Burns' methodology. When the series was shown in Australia the television station got Australian author Thomas Kenneally to introduce each program. In a sense the match between Burns and Kenneally was absolutely perfect. Kenneally is a very good story teller, but he has real shit for brains. He represents a remarkable paradox - how can someone who writes so well be so stupid? Even worse he is continually called upon to comment on politics and he is quite simply not up to it, which of course is why he is asked so often.

But Burns' and Kenneally's forte is the micro -detail. This can be quite ennobling if the focus is on the common person - those whom Walter Benjamin's Angel of History would like to reach back to and heal, but cannot because of the wind that is blowing from Paradise. It is here that one can appreciate Adorno's point about how art can bring to us the reality of suffering in a way that Philosophy cannot.

But when the micro focus in on people like Jefferson, I get bored frankly. Men of power are just dull. Mostly they are very limited as human beings. What they do on the macro scale is of course important and we need to know that, but things such as what Jefferson said about Quincy Adams as they both lay dying mean bugger all to me.

But as I said the Civil War series concentrates on the thoughts and feelings of the countless nameless ones of history and that does hold my interest. But nevertheless this concentration on the detail, still amounts to a kind of "trahaison des artistes" (treason by the artists)- the mirror opposite of the more familiar trahaison des clercs - (the treachery of the intellectuals). Why so? Well we need to know the whys of war just as much as the whats and the whos. It is here where Burns will never tread. To do so would involve him in some very tricky political questions and force him to take sides and thus reduce his market.

In a way his role is almost equivalent to that of the clergy. They continually wring their hands in sympathy over the victims of the market. But they will fight desperately any initiative which would bring the market under control and thus end much of the suffering. So Burns will give us the detail of how people suffer but he will never canvass the options for eliminating such misery.

The great Left wing film maker would seek to combine an explanatory level with a recognition that these explanations are about real people. One has only to read Capital and see how Marx both shows and explains how the process of primitive accumulation takes place in history.


Gary McCLennan

During my brief stint in community college, I got a chance to meet some of the people who worked behind the scenes on the Civil War series. In addition, a good friend of mine is a Civil War historian. Many of his thoughts on the series were echoed in Gary's post. But there is more.

Burns originally wanted to cover some of the social and political backdrop to the Civil War in the first episode. But he was limited by the PBS sponsors (e.g., GM). That is why he left the analysis of the meaning and causes of the Civil War to historians like Shelby Foote -- a good historian, but a political reactionary.

Martin Schreader