Documentary as Affective Mapping: General Orders No. 9

Curator's Note

Robert Persons' haunting film, General Orders No. 9, is a visual poem that traces the changing landscape of the Deep South. In his negative review of the film, Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times sums up the point of General Orders with the brief statement, "people bad, nature good." This summation assumes that documentary film is a fundamentally rhetorical form that can be reduced to a simple argument. Admittedly, General Orders' use of repetitive and stark visual contrasts between the congested city and empty wilderness lends itself to such an intepretation on the surface. Yet I wonder if the film is doing more than simply offering a Thoreau-esque treatise to return to an idealized state of living in nature. I can't help but feel Genzlinger's summary reduction of the film is incomplete, unsatisfying, and almost insulting.

The film, I suggest, demands a different way of thinking about how documentaries operate. General Orders, first of all, challenges conventional notions of what can and should be classified as documentary. While documentary has always had a close relationship with experimental film, General Orders further complicates the already blurred boundaries between these two cinematic forms. Conventional documentaries take a linear, chronological approach to historical representation, using recognized cause-and-effect structures that situate the past as something lost, long gone, and accessible only by the dead traces it leaves behind. I suggest that General Orders offers a different kind of historical representation, a kind of "affective mapping" of the past (in the words of Jonathan Flatley) that sees history as layered rather than linear, painfullly persistent rather than comfortably distant. I suggest that the film's melancholic architecture resists conventional logic and instead asks viewers to simply 'wallow' in affective longing for (and aversion to) a vexed past that casts a long dark shadow on the present. The film does not necessarily make an argument about the social world, so much as amplify the affective and palympsestic structure of the social world--one that is policed by artificial boundaries and haunted by the absent bodies and lost histories on which the modern wealthy city was built.


Laurel, I love the framework of affective mapping as a productive way to think about the orientation of this film to history and level of reflection it engages. Mapping evokes the historical (and in this film's case geographical) specificity of the subject, but prioritises the circulation of feelings and affective resonances that often carve lines that aren't linear and narrativised in the same sense as more straightforwardly expositional or interactive documentaries. And it acknowledges that the film still packs a punch. Your description made me think of other films that utilise similar techniques but, for me at least, lack the same affective resonance - Baraka, Samsara, Koyaanisquatsi (and the other "quatsi" films). While these films work affectively as spectactle (they are undoubtedly beautiful and moving in their beauty) they also lack the historical specificity of General Orders - their "mapping" is less clear and to my mind that makes them less engaging. Your post also got me thinking again about Shoah, which while being an obviously very different film, also constructs itself around resisting conventional logic of understanding the past, and suggests that the past is meaningful in the present through how it is still lived and felt. A long bow to draw linking these two films on any deeper level, but I wonder if Lanzmann's film didn't throw open the doors for films as diverse as this one!

Trent, I agree that Flatley's idea of 'affective mapping,' which he applies to modernist literature, can be a useful tool for thinking about all kinds of documentaries, especially since the documentary mode is intricately bound up with 20th century modernism. While General Orders has a quite explicit visual mapping motif that lends itself particularly well to this concept, there are many documentaries that treat history as layered and persistent, as lived and embodied..

Really interesting post, Laurel! Contemporary (feminist) scholars of rhetoric expand the definition of rhetoric beyond persuasion, defining rhetoric more broadly as how individuals use symbols to create/enact/make sense of their worlds (cf. Foss, Foss, and Griffin). Your post makes me think about how the affect you describe actually precludes the "sense-making" of this definition. That is, you suggest that affect is arhetorical in this film not only because it doesn't persuade viewers to DO something, but also because it provokes the viewer to "wallow" in dissonance, in the "absent bodies and lost history," thereby preventing the viewer from resolving and making use of this dissonance to make sense of the present. I wonder though if there's no rhetorical use for this dissonance? Does the "affective longing for (and aversion to) a vexed past" not drive us to attempt to recover (however unsuccessfully) the lost and vexed past? I think of queer studies scholars like Ann Cvetkovich, Scott Bravmann, and Heather Love who each argue in different ways that it is this very affective longing for a dissonant, injurious past that drives present queer world making.

I had not known about the concept of affective mapping, and I think it will be useful in my research on intersections of the documentary and the gothic. I am not sure about the claim that the film asks viewers to "simply 'wallow'" in melancholia, since it seems to be doing much more productive critical work than this. I also wonder if there isn't a bit of odd distancing going on in the film, as well, on the level of style and aesthetic. It guides viewers into an affective relationship of melancholic longing, but it also has a sharp, almost satirical edge in its dreamy visual presentation, repetitive script and imagery, and associative editing. I guess in this sense, I am thinking along the lines of the previous commenter, who suggest that the film opens up spectators critically rather than sort of trapping them in a vortex of longing. I appreciate your opening up this discussion. I discuss documentary films and experimental films in an article I wrote (and in my dissertation) that rely on approaching a sense of the historical through affect. I also teach the subject and suspect that this discussion will be helpful for my American Gothic students, so I will share it with them. Thank you for this post!

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