Can I get a witness?

Gitelman’s discussions of the “cooked” nature of data allowed me to start drawing connections between the types of discussions surrounding objectivity in news sources with the idea of “raw” data, both of which are caught up in “processes that work to obscure – or as if to obscure – ambiguity, conflict, and contradictions” (172). In just a few brief sentences, Gitelman connects the “imaginative” and “interpretive” nature of historiographical practices with data construction and visualization practices through the idea of the event, stating that “like events imagined and enunciated against the continuity of time, data are imagined and enunciated against the seamlessness of phenomena” (168). These conversations come up time and time again in discussions of mediated history and construction of the event within broadcast news sources. The connections here become further elucidated when Gitelman enlightens us with her discussion of how innocent observation, here conflated with objectivity, “ever came to be associated with epistemological privilege” (169) through the introduction of mechanical objectivity and the photograph as tools of objectivity. According to Gitelman, the photograph becomes the stepping stone by which mechanical evidence becomes the preferred source of objective information, resulting in today’s obsession with data.

However, caught up in these ideas of photographic evidence is also a necessary discussion of the politics of witnessing, a term that implies human agency but subsumes these ideas of detached objectivity. As we’ve continued to see in not only the world of journalism, but also in the age of social media, images continue to be tied to this idea of bearing witness, of being there, that gives authority and power to a voice. At first glance, this seems to validate Gitelman’s analogy between data and events, thereby solidifying her argument that data have become socially embedded into a hierarchy of epistemological practices through this history of reliance on the technological and mechanical to provide the objectivity that supposedly human renderings of reality cannot. However, the strong ties (at least in the US sense) to these ideas of bearing witness hint that a stronger connection to human agency in the creation of information is at play – that objectivity hasn’t been entirely delegated to the world of mechanical and technological innovation. After all, photos and data alike need to be situated and explained to other humans by those deemed closest to the source by politics of power and authority.

However, here maybe there are just simply disciplinary differences of what constitutes “data,” as “data needs to imagined as data to exist” (168). Manovich points out this difference in the subdivisions of data collection depending on discipline, a discussion somewhat missing from Gitelman’s piece. Here, I think Gitelman has a type of number-driven data in mind, the type that informs “governmental and non-governmental authorities” among a smattering of fields that seems to transcend disciplinary boundaries. However, numbers aren’t the only data that inform these decisions. Photographs and human witnesses still act as data in different epistemes, thereby negating the technologically deterministic sense of data presented within “Raw Data.” While addressing the “cooked” origins of data is a vital discussion to negating the myths surrounding objective data, I guess what I find unsettling is the underlying assumption that number-driven data are the be-all-end-all of portraying truth and objectivity while clearly other forms of evidence and information continue to drive informational practices.

In an undergraduate class, we watched some of the US television news coverage of the Romanian Revolution in 1989. Penetrating the media blackout that overcame the state in the throes of revolution became the sole resolution of US cable network news covering the event. It wasn’t good enough to simply tell the good people of the USA how Communism was being overthrown by the Romanian people; they needed to show them as well. They needed to see the horrors of the Ceausescu regime and they needed to see the rejoicing and celebration of the Velvet Revolution in order to reaffirm capitalist ideologies regarding the world behind the Iron Curtain through the act of witnessing (the result of which penetrated perversely into the operating rooms of live abortions and disturbing images of babies dying of AIDS). These images seem to act as data to provide the “objective” and authorial act of witnessing that pervades newcasts and portrayals of history particularly in the US. However, the “cooked” nature of these events becomes revealed in the similitude in the types of images associated with the narrativization of certain events (as Laila hinted towards in her collages that often depict images of child suffering). This is where I’m starting to think about my own project for this class. I’m envisioning a sort of archive of images of “The Children of War” that seem to proliferate newcasts, tweets, and other sources of imagery that perpetuate what I would call the “narratives of intervention” involved in motivating US foreign policy decisions for military intervention.

Women recovering from abortions  at the Filanthropia clinic. Bucharest, Romania. Feb 1990
Women recovering from abortions at the Filanthropia clinic. Bucharest, Romania. Feb 1990

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Can I get a witness?