ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 33, August 1999



Gary MacLennan

The Necessity of Critical Realism





Richard Kilborn and John Izod

_An Introduction to Television Documentary: Confronting Reality_

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997

ISBN: 0719048923(hbk) 0719048931 (pbk)

258 pp.


1. Introduction: Of strengths and weaknesses


Richard Kilborn and John Izod's book, _An Introduction to Television Documentary_, is to be welcomed as yet another addition to documentary studies, and especially so because it has a particular focus on television which is the major sustainer of contemporary documentary production. However, I have to say that there are aspects of this text which I believe are more valuable than others. Accordingly I will have some quite hard things to say about Kilborn and Izod's theoretical base, but I am anxious that this not detract from the fact that I am fully aware that this is a very valuable book written by distinguished scholars.


So let me start on a positive note. It is, given the current state of academic discourse, remarkably well written. Kilborn and Izod may lack the sparkle and wit of Brian Winston, but nevertheless this is an extremely readable book. I have to say, moreover, that it was with something close to joy that I read through a contemporary text without discovering a reference to the 'body'.


As well, this is also a text brimming with ideas. Kilborn and Izod touch upon much neglected areas and they also point us in the direction of future research possibilities. Their understanding of the role of television in the development of hybrid genres seems to me to be unrivalled in the field of documentary studies. There is also a very worthwhile section on the institutional imperatives confronting the documentary film maker, especially with regard to the push towards infotainment and away from the analytical documentary. However, important as these sections of their book are, I suspect that it is their survey of the research into documentary audiences which will prove seminal. Thus they begin with the simple but nevertheless brilliant move of asking their students what documentary is, and what their opinions on documentary are. The text then takes up the themes expressed in the student responses.


As I have indicated, it is my opinion that the least satisfactory aspect of the book has to do with their theory section. As with other leading theorists in this area they have to address the principal philosophical problems in the field. These have to do with the notions of objectivity, realism, and truth (which Kilborn and Izod ignore however), because it is its special relationship with these three notions that defines the documentary.


Kilborn and Izod's work has to be situated within a veritable renaissance in documentary studies of late. However this renaissance is marked by what I frankly feel is an astonishing theoretical absence. Not one of the outstanding intellectuals in the field, such as Carroll (1996), Corner (1986 and 1996), Plantinga (1997), Rabinowitz (1994), Renov (1993), Rothman (1997), Trinh T. Minh-ha (1992), Winston (1995), and now Kilborn and Izod, refers to the work of Roy Bhaskar. This is an especially damaging absence because many of the confusions and aporiai that have plagued documentary studies, particularly with reference to truth, objectivity, and realism, have either been solved or at least substantially clarified within the paradigm of 'critical realism'.


Admittedly Bhaskar's work can be difficult. However a start was made by Terry Lovell (1980) in her use of his _Realist Theory of Science_. Unfortunately this very promising beginning was not followed up. However, David Beech and John Roberts have recently been attempting to apply Bhaskarian notions within the field of cultural studies (Beech and Roberts, 1996, 1998). Moreover some reviews from a critical realist perspective have been undertaken in the Australian journal _Metro_, in the Critical Realist Association's newsletter, _Alethia_ (MacLennan, 1998), as well as here at _Film-Philosophy_.


Needless to say much, much more needs to be done. Nevertheless, I would suggest that we are at the stage when we can advance documentary theory beyond the sort of impasses that still dominate the field. I should perhaps add here that I believe that theoretical clarity is of crucial importance because theory can underlabour for a new practice in both the production and reception of documentary film.


2. Some problems -- perspectivalism versus a non-anthropic depth ontology


Before discussing the problems with Kilborn and Izod's account it is necessary to try and outline what their actual theoretical position is. This would appear to be that of subjective idealism, where each one of us infers, as they put it, a different world. Thus they argue:


'even when we stand shoulder to shoulder on the same spot, the world I perceive around me is likely, on the basis of experience and expectations to differ from yours. In other words, there is no single, primary world upon which we all agree and to which we give various kinds of representation. Rather there are multiple worlds -- and we give them various representations' (53).


By contrast with the critical realist depth ontology, within Kilborn and Izod's schema a rather trivial fact about perception has become wedded to something like Nietzschean perspectivalism. Such a position cannot of course sustain a notion of shared perspectives, or even what differing or rival perspectives might actually be clashing over.


Part of the difficulty lies in the semantic ambiguity attached to the word 'world'. Thus it can mean reality, as in the 'real world', or it can mean domain, as in the 'world of politics, sport' etc. I would argue that a better way to proceed is to retain the word 'reality', and to define it in the critical realist manner as consisting,


'of partially interconnected hierarchies of levels, in which any element e at a level L is in principle subject to the possibilities of causal determination by and of higher-order, lower-order and extra-order (extraneous) effects, besides those defining it as an element of L (including those individuating it as an e)'. [1]


I believe there are two principal sources for Kilborn and Izod's confusion. Firstly they are attempting to take account of the reality of epistemic relativism -- our knowledge is limited, fallible, and will always be liable to be surpassed. But they lack an ontology other than that of subjective idealism, and so they cannot motivate judgmental rationality, that is they are unable to explain why we should prefer one account over another, or why, in other words, one documentary would be more truthful than another.


The second source of confusion is that their work is situated within what Bhaskar has called 'anthropocentrism'. This rephrases questions about reality as questions about the nature and behaviour of humanity. Anthropocentrism begins with the assumption that ontological questions can always be re-read as epistemological ones. The eventual outcome of this tendency is the loss of an understanding of reality as a multi-dimensional structure independent of humanity and in the case of post-Nietzscheanism, the elision of the ontological altogether. [2]


To repeat, the solution to Kilborn and Izod's dilemma is to adopt a non-anthropic ontology, and to recognise that epistemic relativism is not incompatible with judgmental rationality.


3. The issue of reflexive documentaries


Let me take the specific example where I would argue that the Bhaskarian notion of alethia (truth as the reason for things not propositions) can contribute to dissolving a long-standing theoretical impasse. Kilborn and Izod discuss how narrative functions in documentary film. They deal with the case of hybrid forms, especially the reflexive documentary. This is not terribly well defined but it generally means an acknowledgment that the film maker aims to let us know that he knows that we know that he knows that we are watching him making a film.


What is urgently needed is a fuller definition of reflexivity which is not confined to stylistic features where the filmmaker monitors and accounts for her activity. We need to go beyond this basic level to take into account the Bhaskarian notion of a meta-reflexive self-totalisation in which the filmmaker, because she is a stratified agent, can not only let us know she is making a film but can also insert her filmic practice critically within a totality. [3] But that is a story for another day.


The problem that Kilborn and Izod come across emerges when they are discussing Bill Nichols's account of reflexive films, such as Peter Watkins's _Culloden_ and Errol Morris's _The Thin Blue Line_. These films use fictional techniques to make comments about the real world. Nichols tries to solve this by saying that these are 'conditional tense documentaries' that create an imaginary world extrapolating from the present world. Like fiction these present *a* world rather than *the* world.


Kilborn and Izod reject this, because for them, as good perspectivalists, all accounts are of *a* world. They say that what reflexive documentaries offer us is a 'conditional view of the world' (133). Nor can they articulate a theory of truth which would explain how it is that Peter Watkins, using fictional devices, is able to get close to the reason for the Culloden disaster, i.e. the alethic truth of the massacre of the Highland Clans (including the MacLennans, by the way).


Viewing Watkins's film we can see that it was the underlying relationality of feudal hierarchy and domination that had the Highland peasants stood out on the moor that fatal day. We can also see that it was the imperative of nascent capitalism that 'there can be only one' which caused Butcher Cumberland to order their slaughter.


By way of contrast with the clarity of Watkins's great film, Kilborn and Izod give us a couple of chapters on documentary theory and do not mention truth at all. Perhaps this is because, within the perspectivalist paradigm, truth is simply, as Nietzsche put it, a 'mobile army of metaphors' at once impossible and necessary. [4]


Nichols does have an ontology, but his is not that of depth realism and so he too stumbles over the difference between the epistemological (transitive) moment which can have its flashes of imagination, and the intransitive dimension, i.e. the ontological. This can be seen most clearly in his discussion of objectivity, where, because he lacks a depth ontology, he cannot sustain an account of objectivity other than as a stylistic device, i.e. as an exercise in epistemology. [5]


4. The issue of ideology


Interestingly Kilborn and Izod wish to retain the notion of ideology. Understandably perhaps, they never define what they mean by this most slippery of terms. However, extrapolating from their usage,in their case ideology seems to mean something like the 'perspective from which the filmmakers looked at their subject' (43). But the logic of perspectivalism is that everything we do is necessarily ideological because it reflects our viewpoint.


So it would seem that for Kilborn and Izod we remain trapped within the iron cage of ideology. But not to worry. When they come to discuss what audiences do, their perspectivalism makes them allege that the viewers necessarily infer 'multiple and various worlds'. Kilborn and Izod term this the 'irony of the realist enterprise' (54). The filmmaker may be as ideological as she likes, but she does, it seems, labour in vain. The best laid schemes of mice and documentarists gang aft agley. The viewer will have it her own way. If this is so, why not, like many postmodern theorists, just simply drop the term ideology?


What I am saying here is that the concept 'ideology' only has theoretical purchase if we are working with a depth ontology which is based on a separation of the domains of the ontological (intransitive dimension) and the epistemological (transitive dimension). By contrast with Kilborn and Izod's perspectivalist approach, I would urge the Bhaskarian analysis of ideology which sees it as being an account of reality which is both false and necessary to a particular social formation. [6]


5. Conclusions: Parting bouquets and brickbats


I have indicted Kilborn and Izod of subjective idealism of a post-Nietzschean kind. But Kilborn and Izod do not follow the logic of perspectivalism. They do not rush over the slope into the postmodernist hyper-irrationalist abyss. I suspect that is due to an instinctive moderateness. In political matters this same moderateness has them ascribing to the ridiculously naive notion that the jury in the Rodney King case were motivated not by racism but by the anchoring supplied to the video by the defence counsel (59-60).


This very same political moderation has them sheltering behind coy expressions like 'some commentators argue' as when discussing the documentary _Death on the Rock_, which dealt with the assassination of IRA freedom fighters. They say:


'Some commentators have seen a connection between the Government's displeasure at the program being screened and the non-renewal of Thames Television's licence in the 1991 franchising round' (244).


But in theoretical matters it is their moderateness that saves them from the excesses of perspectivalism. This is why Kilborn and Izod, as first class practitioners, give a sensible account of documentary practice, an account which is necessarily at odds with their philosophical orientation. Thus they talk of the need for research and they mourn the loss of the analytical documentary. They cannot see that these criticisms presuppose a reality which the documentarist explores.


Moreover, in their critique of social realist documentaries they contrast the stereotypical representation of the poor with 'an analysis which might investigate the origins of, and suggest remedies for, these often glaring inequities (47). It is in places like this throughout their text that we get glimpses through a glass darkly of an alternative paradigm. One which sees the documentarist engaged in the attempt to explain aspects of reality with a view to underlabouring for human emancipation, in other words a documentarist influenced by critical realism especially in its dialectical mode. [7]


Queen's University of Technology

Brisbane, Australia





1. Bhaskar, _Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation_, p. 106


2. Bhaskar, _A Realist Theory of Science_, pp. 44-5.


3. Bhaskar, _Dialectic_, pp. 148-150.


4. Nietzsche, _The Portable Nietzsche_, pp. 45-6.


5. Nichols, _Representing Reality_, pp. 197-8.


6. Bhaskar, _The Possibility of Naturalism_, pp. 83-91.


7. Bhaskar, _Dialectic_.





Beech, D., and Roberts, J., 'Spectres of the Aesthetic', _NLR_, 218 (July/August 1996), pp. 102-127.

--- 'Tolerating Impurities: An Ontology, Genealogy and Defence of Philistinism', _NLR_, 227 (1998).


Bhaskar, R., _A Realist Theory of Science_, 2nd edn (Harvester Press: Brighton, 1978).

--- _The Possibility of Naturalism_ (Harvester Press: Brighton, 1979).

--- _Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation_ (Verso: London, 1986).

--- _Dialectic: The Pulse Of Freedom_ (Verso: London, 1993).


Carroll, N., 'Nonfiction Film and Postmodernist Scepticism', in Bordwell, D. and Carroll, N., eds, _Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies_ (University of Wisconsin Press: Wisconsin, 1996), pp. 283-306.


Corner, J., ed., _Documentary and The Mass Media_ (Edward Arnold: London, 1986).

--- _The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction to Documentary_ (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1996).


Kaufmann, W., _The Portable Nietzsche_ (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1978).


Lovell, T., _Pictures of Reality_ (London: British Film Institute, 1980).


MacLennan, G., 'William Rothman's Documentary Film Classics: A Review', _Metro_, 113/4 (1998), pp. 121-5.

--- 'Chris Berry et al's The Film-Maker and the Prostitute: A Review', _Metro_, 117 (1998), pp. 59-62.

--- 'Towards An Ontological Aesthetics', _Alethia_, vol. 1 no 1 (April 1998), pp. 8-11.

--- 'Aesthetics and the Dialectic of the Desire to Freedom', _Alethia_, vol. 1 no. 2 (September 1998), pp. 19-22.


Mann, H., _The Living Thoughts of Nietzsche_ (Cassell: London, 1946)


Nichols, B., _Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary_ (Bloomington: Indianapolis, 1991).


Plantinga, C. R., _Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_ (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1997).


Rabinowitz, P., _They Must Be Represented: The Politics Of Documentary_ (Verso: London, 1994).


Renov, M., ed., _Theorizing Documentary_ (Routledge: New York, 1993).


Rothman, W., _Documentary Film Classics_ (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1997).


Trinh T. Minh-Ha, _Framer Framed_ (Routledge: New York, 1992).


Winston, B., _Claiming The Real: The Griersonian Documentary and Its Legitimations_ (London: British Film Institute, 1995).



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Gary MacLennan, 'The Necessity of Critical Realism',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 33, August 1999 <>.




Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage