“The primacy of the written word went into abeyance. And that uniform layer, in which the seen and the read, the visible and the expressible, were endlessly interwoven, vanished too. Things and words were to be separated from one another. The eye was thenceforth destined to see and only to see, the ear to hear and only to hear.”
—Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)
Foucault was writing about the “being of language” and the reorganization of culture in the classical world but he could have been describing the transition from silent to talking pictures, (or further, the ongoing change from analog to digital and the impact on accessing and assimilating information). There’s no doubt the written word is alive and well—just look at the amount of writing online—though it’s dwarfed by the amount and availability of still and moving images.
With a Foucauldian transitional moment in mind, (utilizing both eyes and ears), I’ve picked a few commercially produced movies from the 1950s to today which touch on political and social issues such as the gathering and disseminating of information, the need and relevance for books, libraries, and archives, free access of information, the power of the state, (and individuals who challenge it), the needs of society versus the individual, totalitarianism and the toll on those in it, and the nature of privacy and surveillance and the costs to society.
Storm Center (1956), a bit of a pot-boiler, is nonetheless an interesting look into McCarthy era America. As one of the first movies, (albeit post-McCarthy), to examine it overtly, it’s the story of a small town librarian standing up against the banning of books in her library. Though somewhat simplistic it puts forth a powerful argument against censorship and state control of information. In the scene below the librarian argues before the city council that there are a number of books on the shelves that she doesn’t agree with, (she uses Mein Kampf as her example), and the council is almost swayed until one of them uses information, (one assumes from illegal government surveillance), that she once belonged to organizations that were found to be Communist fronts to destroy her. Though not subtle, the issues of individual rights in a democratic society, the role of libraries, the needs of access of information are all touched upon.
The Time Machine (1960), based on the novel by H. G. Wells, tells the story of a man from Victorian England who travels to the future in the device of the title. Filled with cold war allusions of what the future would bring—in one fantastic sequence showing him travelling through time as he sees his street changing culminating in a nuclear holocaust—he ends up in the distant future where mankind has developed into two races, one who live above ground and the other below. Leading up to the scene below he asks the people who live above about their books. He’s taken to an ancient library where he finds that they have been left to decay and turn to dust. He’s shown “talking rings” that these people spin for pleasure but have no understanding of what they are saying. Here we are confronted with a conundrum: What’s the point of an archive if no one is left to understand it?
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) takes a look at a dystopian society that has outlawed books in an oppressive future. Based on a novel by Ray Bradbury, the government uses an armed force known as “firemen” to set rather than put out fires in the pursuit of destroying all books. They can search anyone, anywhere, at any time in the name of eradicating books and the anti-social behavior they are thought to cause. One of these firemen begins to question his task after he starts saving and reading the books he’s supposed to burn. Used here as a metaphor for individuality, books become powerful symbols for personal liberty and the need to question accepted norms. The issues of privacy, surveillance, and perverse manipulation through the use of mass media is evident in the clip below when the fireman’s wife has a date with her television.
Which brings me to the new film The Fifth Estate (2013). Covering the conflicting needs of established and new media, this is the story of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange through the eyes of a former associate. From the opening credits (a two-minute montage covering the history of information gathering), the film brings up some fascinating points about the evolving nature of journalism. Is publishing and posting online with no editing or oversight justified? And is there’s any responsibility that goes along with that? It also touches on the issues of privacy, surveillance, the need, (if any), for authoritative sources, and the nature of information organization on the Internet. Below is a clip showing the sniping between traditional journalists from The Guardian and the new media equation embodied by Wikileaks. As a commercial movie with an eye toward reaching a wide audience it poses these questions with no definitive answers. At this transitional moment even the awareness of these issues takes on enormous importance.