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The National Body

The Rights and Obligations of Citizenship

Documentary and the Public Sphere

The Nation Speaks



The Nation Speaks

The modern national public sphere must demonstrate that the state's administration of its resources, through its local and national councils and QUANGOS, is benefiting the state's subjects.  In the 1938 documentaries this is explicitly bound up with the rhetoric of citizenship.  Given the political economy of Films of Scotland as an institution at arms length from the state, it is not surprising that the state's sovereignty is generally seen to be unproblematic.  But this is complicated by the third communicative function of the public sphere, to provide a public space for interest groups other than the state and its agencies.  One of the ways in which the documentary attempts to fill this role is by filming older, non-mediated examples of the public sphere in action, such as public town hall meetings:

John Grierson
John Grierson, whose vision of the civic function of documentary informed much of the work of the first Committee

(Packed public town hall meeting)

Voice Over: In every community that emerges from Scotland's reconstruction, a new spirit is making itself heard.  [Cheers]

Speaker on Stage: Do you folks realise, that in the last five years this district has grown to such an extent, the population is approximately now thirty thousand, and they haven't even a playing field for the kiddies.

Audience Member 1: Why not write to the town council about it and see about that community centre they promised us some time ago?

Audience Member 2: It's no use writing to the town council, let us appoint a deputation now to go to the town council and pester the life out of them, until we see the playing fields and the community centre they promised us being built. [Cheers]

Holding the Middle Ground

This example is interesting both because it suggests that the State has in fact reneged on its sovereign responsibility, and because it suggests that the written public sphere is not an effective means of public communication.  To answer these suggestions, the documentary follows the town hall sequence with a 'private' sequence at the town council.  The civil servants, having 'got rid of them' agree they will 'have to satisfy them', and discuss how they will meet the cost.  Their rather ambiguous dialogue demonstrates two things.  Firstly, we need to be wary of drawing too simple or direct a relation between the State and this group of documentaries.  While clearly not independent of it, Wealth of a Nation in particular is not uncritical of the record of the economic and administrative apparatus behind its formation.  Secondly, despite the rhetorical claims of citizenship, there is still an explicit divide between 'them' and 'us', between the state's administrators and its public.  It is partly the role of the modern public sphere to provide not only an arena for mediation between these two groups, but also to articulate between them, to serve as a go between, to hold the middle ground (Kumar, 1977).  In Wealth of a Nation this role is occupied by the voice-over narrator, who claims to speak to, for, and about a Scottish nation and a Scottish people.

The group of 1938 films are interesting precisely because they occur at this particular historical juncture, and indeed they can only be understood in terms of these shifting historical circumstances.  Institutionally, they are located within two key developments: state intervention in public culture, and the structural transformation of the public sphere into a mass mediated public sphere.  What is particularly striking is the extent to which these documentaries, despite their differences of subject, operate at a specifically national level.  Central to an understanding of these documentaries has been the institutional operations, the 'technologies of government' (Foucault, 1979), of the modern nation itself.  In other words, rather than simply representing the nation, the documentaries play a more formative role whereby, as part of the public sphere, they are among the many indirect mechanisms that actually make the nation's existence, and the governance of its subjects, possible (cf. Miller & Rose, 1990). 

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Author: Richard Butt Images are drawn from the SCRAN database.