Jeff Allred


On his book American Modernism and Depression Documentary

Cover Interview of March 09, 2010

The wide angle

A central argument of my book is that the modernist element within Depression documentary was not merely aesthetic but intimately related to the turbulent politics of the Depression era.  Perhaps the greatest legacy of the New Deal era is its intense focus on, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous phrase, the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”  This focus accompanied a robust effort to integrate those imagined as “left behind” by a technologically advanced and materially abundant modernity.

But New Deal discourse also depended upon a polarity, in which the “forgotten” are the passive, silent objects of social planning conceived and administered by a technocratic elite.  The modernist strain of Depression documentary, while sharing the broad commitment to ameliorating poverty and oppression, radicalized the focus on the margins of society and thereby challenged the dominant New Deal rhetoric regarding “the people.”

The outlines of this challenge come into clear view through a comparison between two quotations from the period that both use the metaphor of vision, but in radically opposed ways.  The first comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inaugural address in January 1937, in which he reflects on the unfinished business of the New Deal amid the ongoing depression:

I see a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources. . . .

I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago. . . .

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

The chain of parallelisms positions Roosevelt as the possessor of a continental gaze, and his vision is implicitly linked to a technocratic ideology in which a passive and disempowered “one-third” awaits the intervention of experts to meet its needs.  Through his act of witness, the president’s audience also “sees” not only the problem, but its solution in the form of various administrative measures.

Compare Roosevelt’s magisterial vision to the very different perspective conveyed by the opening passage of Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941):

Each day when you see us black folk upon the dusty land of the farms or upon the hard pavement of the city streets, you usually take us for granted and think you know us, but our history is far stranger than you suspect, and we are not what we seem.

Our outward guise still carries the old familiar aspect which three hundred years of oppression in America have given us, but beneath [this] garb . . . lies an uneasily tied knot of pain and hope whose snarled strands converge from many points of time and space.

In this passage, Roosevelt’s I has given way to Wright’s you.  No longer does seeing issue from a transparent eyeball, a site of unquestioned power and knowledge.  Instead, it is lodged in a spectator whose vision is partial in both senses of the word.  More unsettlingly, the object of vision is no longer in the third person, a “one-third of a nation” that both speaker and audience examine from a distance.  Instead, Wright situates the narrator as the object of vision, as an obscure object that is only dimly visible from across a racial divide.

There is much more to say about the contrasting logics of these verbal-visual performances.  But for the moment I simply want to evoke some of the ways in which modernist documentaries short-circuit habitual modes of perception and thereby raise crucial political questions.  Throughout my book, I emphasize the ambiguous role of documentarians as they move between modern metropolises and hinterlands seemingly left behind by modernity.  On the one hand, their cultural work can be likened to that of the engineers and laborers who built new infrastructure in the 1930s—dams, parks, and power lines.  In fact, the metaphor of the intellectual as an “engineer” of culture was ubiquitous in the period on both sides of the Atlantic. 

On the other hand, documentary books often emphasize the potential violence of modernization projects and especially their ignoring or silencing of the voices and desires of precisely those subjects they presume to help.  Thus, for example, You Have Seen Their Faces pairs a generally progressive and reformist narrative with grotesque images of faces, bodies, and landscapes damaged by historical forces that manifestly overwhelm the sunny optimism of New Deal rhetoric.  Furthermore, at several crucial points, the text ventriloquizes the most illiberal, paranoid, and racist voices in the cultural landscape by way of demonstrating the clash between local people’s perceptions of social problems and remedies and those of government officials and credentialed experts.

The result, in this text and in other examples of the genre, is a subtle psychogeography of an unevenly modernizing territory, in which things look remarkably different depending on one’s cultural location and the relation between those observing, participating, and being observed is constantly shifting.  For this reason, Depression documentary is an important legacy for us today as we think through how collectivities are formed and maintained amid all manner of social antagonisms and what kind of cultural work is involved in articulating a “people” with political agency.