Erik Barnouw

Another essay from The Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, Routledge, 2005.  This one is about a great man, a great writer, a great book, and a few other things besides.

Erik Barnouw (1908-2001) was a Netherlands born, American raised media scholar and historian.  He was also a creator of media, working in many capacities and over a long period of time in the production of both commercial and educational material.  With his broad and varied backgrounds, Barnouw was able to consistently combine and reconcile the sometimes or seeming poles of production and research, activity and reflection, private and public.  As a program founder at Columbia University, Barnouw was instrumental in establishing media studies as an academic discipline.  He was also central in disseminating the insights of the academy beyond its boundaries, both through his own extensive, popularly accessible publication, as well as by establishing and serving as the first head of the U.S. Library of Congress’s media division.

Barnouw’s life and work touch the documentary film at a number of important and instructive points.  His most obvious contribution is the book Documentary, (1974, revised 1983 and 1993), a seminal history of the form which continues to serve as its ideal introduction. The book was undertaken in part as a response to two prevailing perspectives, essential to a proper rendering of the documentary landscape, but tending to obscure the full view because of their very predominance.  These were Western bias (as in Rotha), and an anecdotal or editorial approach to both events and their implication (Jacobs, Rosenthal).  In preparing his work Barnouw’s approach was to situate the subjective, the practitioners’ accounts and the perspectives of power, within a broader context, applying historical methodology and theoretical awareness to the telling of the tale.

Documentary remains exemplary for its combination of clarity and complexity, for the accessible way it sets forth the multifarious and often contradictory events and issues relating to the non-fiction film.  It also manages a more difficult and more affecting reconciliation, which is that it balances scholarly rigour with real generosity.  For Barnouw the documentary idea, at a basic conceptual and historical level, seeks not only social justice but also, to use the term in a particular sense, charity.   With this conviction, Barnouw tempered clear and vigourous criticism with a sympathy that takes into account both inadequacy and accomplishment, good desires along with disappointments.

Barnouw’s sympathetic attitude is partly rooted in his experience as a practitioner, and the fact that his production activities (advertising, radio scripts, instructional and educational material, government propaganda, documentary films) far predated his work as a media scholar and historian.  A career broadcaster responsible for the definitive history of American broadcasting, the first president of the International Film (Flaherty) Seminars who became the champion of his documentary associates, Barnouw demonstrated how direct connection with and descent from the subjects of study need not compromise that study.

That Barnouw could meld intimacy with effective scholarship had much to do with his disposition, and also with the circumstances in which it operated.  Many of film history’s most notable artist/scholars (Eisenstein, Vertov/Delluc, Dulac/Grierson) worked in revolutionary or critically precocious, film-industrially unstable contexts, where the avant garde had (at least briefly) official approval, or where experimentation could be fostered.  This ground was conducive to the cultivation of firebrands, of temporarily autonomous auteurs with ideas that they wished to urge over other alternatives, and the means to carry out those ideas.  Here was the kind of partisanship, occasionally even the self-absorption and distortion that historians are supposed to temper or even counter.

Although Barnouw’s most celebrated and significant documentary production is the magisterial Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945 (1970), made in collaboration with Akira Iwasaki, the majority of his production work, at least in the first decades of his career, did not reach or even attempt such heights.  At first, and for a long time, Barnouw worked as a foot soldier in hierarchical, infrastructural and/or entrepreneurial settings that did not value or even allow revolutionary innovation.  As a cog in the wheels Barnouw developed, perforce, patience and perspective.  Not incidentally, these are historians’ virtues.  Knowing what it was not only to act, but also to be acted upon, Barnouw managed something that has proved to be very difficult for artist/scholars.  He observed and participated in history, developing from the experience an insider’s authority while still maintaining the long view.  This is at least partly that contingency and uncertainty and ambiguity are central to the evolution of and the nature of things.  This is also that though flaws and errors complicate, they do not necessarily invalidate, still a salutary notion in the frequently fractious atmosphere of modern non-fiction discourse.  With all of these convictions, Barnouw easily avoided the temptations of theoretical advocacy or vicious giant killing.  Instead he pursued a course both more objective and more kindly, laying out theoretical alternatives, and the historical factors that gave rise to, that limited, and that justified them.

Erik Barnouw’s critical openness leads to a final point, which is that he made a great contribution to documentary culture by exceeding, or more accurately by extending the boundaries often imposed upon it.  As a survey of the publications reveals, his historical and critical work ranged very widely.  He spoke authoritatively about social activity and a number of the arts, as well as of the various media through which their effects were disseminated.  In this he accomplished a kind of scholarly horizontal integration, to which he added an unusual, essential vertical element.

Barnouw was interested in and illuminated the ancestry of current forms and conditions.  With his interdisciplinary and chronological range, his synchronic and diachronic reach, he could expose key, clarifying connections between diverse times and places.  (Some of this must be ascribed to the beneficent influence of Barnouw’s father, Adriaan, a distinguished linguist, translator, anthologist, scholar and teacher, whose work concentrating primarily on his native Netherlands.  Through him Erik early understood, among other things, how the documentary idea could be manifest in the didacticism of a medieval morality play, in Dutch and Flemish genre painting, or in the development of vernacular poetry.)  The result was real, unstrained coherence, notwithstanding apparent great gulfs in time and discipline and geography.

As a communications scholar Erik Barnouw laboured extensively in a most public and popular field, and in its diversity he consistently came back to consider the non-fiction film and the documentary idea.  He believed in documentary’s leavening powers, and in the poles he mediated, the binaries that he reconciled, he showed that documentary research and production can not be separated from educational impulse, from citizenly activity and activism.  For Barnouw the documentary idea was not simply an object of study or an abstraction.  Rather, it was a call to citizenship, encouraging and enabling journalists and filmmakers and broadcasters, academics and teachers and students to extend personal lines into public discourse, private interest into positive public action.

Further reading:

Barnouw, Adriaan, Coming After: an Anthology of Poetry from the Low Countries, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1948

Barnouw, Adriaan, Monthly Letters: On the Culture and History of the Netherlands, Assen: Van Gorcum, 1969

Barnouw, Erik and Krishnaswamy, Subrahmanyam, Indian Film, New York: Oxford University Press, 1963 (revised, 1980)

Barnouw, Erik, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966-70

Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: a History of the Non-Fiction Film, New York: Oxford University Press, 1974 (revised, 1983, 1993)

Barnouw, Erik, Tube of Plenty: the Evolution of American Television, New York: Oxford University Press, 1975 (revised 1982, 1990)

Barnouw, Erik, ed., International Encyclopedia of Communications, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1989

Barnouw, Erik, Media Marathon: a Twentieth Century Memoir, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996

Barnouw, Erik, Media Lost and Found, New York: Fordham University Press, 2001

Jacobs, Lewis, The Documentary Tradition: From Nanook to Woodstock, New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1971

Rosenthal, Alan, The New Documentary in Action: a Casebook in Filmmaking, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971

Rotha, Paul, Documentary Film, London: Faber and Faber, 1952 (revised 1963, 1968

Zimmerman, Patricia R., and Bradley, Ruth, A Festschrift in Honor of Erik Barnouw, Wide Angle, volume 20, number 2, University of Ohio, April, 1998


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