Negative Capability: Documentary and Political Withdrawal
This thesis thinks with, alongside, and against several theories of political withdrawal that have emerged during the past three decades as they have been taken up by artists working with documentary video. Political withdrawal here refers to a set of tactics that position themselves in opposition to existing models of belonging, civic engagement, and contestation. The context in which this study takes place is one in which qualifying for citizenship in the liberal western state increasingly requires one remain transparent, docile, and willing to acquiesce to whatever demands for information the state may make. In response to these conditions, the theories and artworks examined in this thesis all propose arguments in favour of anonymity, opacity, and indeterminacy. Situating itself, sometimes uncomfortably, within the archives of feminist, queer, and anarchist thought, this thesis engages with selected video works by Martha Rosler, Bernadette Corporation, Hito Steyerl, and Zach Blas in order to understand the ways in which withdrawal may constitute a generative framework for enabling meaningful social change. These video works are here described as documentary, but not in the conventional sense that they are objective or transparent attempts to capture or record actual fact. Rather the term is understood as a historically pedagogical genre — notably deployed in the service of both oppressive regimes and oppositional movements — that provides a means through which to engage with, and creatively reimagine, political languages. The artists in this study take a critical approach to troubling times. Suspending the truth claims historically associated with documentary, they offer a range of ways to think through how complaint might be articulated and commitment sustained.