JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

What Jones rightly identifies as performative speech on Fox News takes an even more radical form in Citizens United films due to the expressive similarity between words and images, talking points and stock footage. The stock videos exist in a paradigmatic state similar to the paradigm of signifiers available to the speaker of a given language. Indeed, considering their ready accessibility in online databases, the stock video clips share more in common with linguistic modes of expression than with archival or found footage typically found in compilation documentaries (an issue I discuss more below). In Battle for America, in addition to the stock animated chart used to illustrate Obama’s alleged destruction of the economy, a variety of other stock video clips appear throughout the film to correlate with a predictably negative assessment of the White House and Congressional Democrats in the first two years of the Obama administration. Other stock video clips reiterate generic claims about the Democratic Party’s ineptitude, including a heavyset, shirtless man who fails in his attempt to dunk a basketball; a white collar worker (the same actor and set pictured in Fire from the Heartland) who knocks down a house of cards just as he attempts to place the final card on top; and, most spectacularly, a computer-generated animated sequence depicting the Earth from space as it explodes.

Each of these video clips, selected from a larger database of available images, offer a similar affective product; each setting or scenario is recognizable as something negative, displeasing, or undesirable. Though lacking the bigotry of more conventional stereotypes, these examples of stock footage, paired as they are with political speech, nevertheless demonstrate a similar mode of paradigmatic generalization, a “cognitive template of prejudice” applied to the process of political reasoning.

Stock-video of a white collar worker failing to complete a house of cards in Battle for America.

Stock-video of a white collar worker failing to complete a house of cards in Battle for America

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Stock-video of Earth ... ... exploding as a consequence of President Obama’s policies in Battle for America.

As Roland Barthes discusses in Elements of Semiology, speech normally operates according to a syntagmatic ordering of words selected from a broader set of available signifiers. The individual placement of any particular signifier within a sentence functions paradigmatically, such that one signifier could be replaced by many other alternatives. For example, the incomplete sentence, “My favorite thing to eat for dessert is ____”, could be completed by the insertion of such signifiers as chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, or cherry pie; each of these sweet treats, and many others like them, are “members” of the paradigm dessert, of signifiers signifying foods regularly consumed at the end of a meal. Certain statements or combinations of words, however, may be repeated so often in a given historical moment that longer strings of signifiers come to exist paradigmatically—in such cases, an entire phrase becomes available for selection in a manner usually reserved for individual words. Citing Ferdinand de Saussure, Barthes writes,

“there is . . . a whole series of sentences which belong to language, and which the individual no longer has to combine himself.”[14][open endnotes in new window]

For instance, if a speaker encounters an idiosyncratic American cultural practice, she may describe the practice as being as American as cherry pie. To utter the phrase as American as cherry pie does not require the speaker to contemplate the ontology of American experience or even to understand the historical significance of cherry pie in regional American cooking. Instead, the referential value of the paradigmatic phrase derives from its repetition. A speaker learns that as American as cherry pie may be used to describe a phenomenon deemed to be uniquely American and applies the paradigmatic statement without any necessary consideration of what the statement actually means. Barthes terms this kind of linguistic phenomenon a stereotype. From this semiotic perspective, a stereotype can be more than a biased assumption about a group of people; it can also function as a debased form of speech that privileges efficiency over careful thought, the generic over the contextual. A stereotype outsources critical thought and relieves a speaker from the work of speech; it replaces the active selection of words with a passive reiteration and repetition of the self-similar. Once it exists, a stereotype “belongs to language” in general rather than to specific, contextual, contingent speech acts.

To return to just one of the examples of stock-video in Battle for America, we could say that the clip showing a shirtless man who fails to dunk a basketball “belongs to language” in that there are countless ways in which the clip could be applied. In another context, the clip might be used to reiterate the racial stereotype, “white men can’t jump”; it could be used as a dig against the athletic limitations of individuals who are mildly overweight; or more philosophically the stock-video could illustrate the existential limitations of mortal beings. In the context of Battle for America, the video clip is meant to illustrate ineptitude, specifically Obama’s incapacity to respond effectively to an economic crisis. Such an application of the stock-video may be one of the more generic significations implicit in the clip, but this is precisely my point. The generic nature of the clips’ meaning, like the ahistorical arguments leveled against Obama, do not achieve anything more than a general repetition of negative signifiers.

In the examples drawn from Citizens United, stock images provide evocative images for any conceivable topic or talking point. Moreover, the accompanying images provide visual variety to films otherwise composed entirely of talking-heads. Stock video thereby provides the primary visual content by which the films mimic the appearance of documentary form. With all of the typical features of compilation documentary present in the films—interviews, montages of “archival” footage, occasional narration—Citizens United marshals the formal structure of nonfiction film without any of the attendant ethical imperatives normally associated with the genre. Again, in the case of Fox News,Jones finds comparable examples of generic mimicry:

“Fox’s performances of ideology cannot be separated from their occurrence as news. … It is the genre of news that offers important and necessary ‘cover’ for the network, helping to thwart charges of propaganda or partisanship.”[15]

Similarly, the visual strategies employed by Citizens United might be less troubling if they did not take the explicit form of documentary. In other words, Citizens United films simulate the appearance of documentary form just as stereotypes mimic the form of thoughtful speech.

Documentary and paradigmatic arguments

Documentary films present arguments about the historical world—this is one of the genre’s most distinguishing features. Whereas fiction films offer imaginative scenarios whose references to the real world are only metaphorical, Bill Nichols argues, documentaries present arguments about the world as it was, is, or could be. Due to their often indexical relationship to historical events,

“documentaries partake of the same order of reality as that to which they refer.”[16]

Carl Plantinga also appeals to documentary’s argumentative status against “postmodern skeptics” who would claim that nonfiction films have inherent biases that render them untrustworthy as historical documents. Plantinga writes,

“Nonfiction film makes no claim to reproduce the real, but rather makes claims about the ‘real,’ just as any nonfiction communication does.”[17]

Drawing from Plantinga, Paul Ward also describes a documentary’s appeal to historical truth as limited by the intersubjective boundaries of any speech act:

“The only unchanging thing about documentary is that it is a form that makes assertions or truth claims about the real world or real people in that world.”[18]

Undoubtedly, Citizens United films use stock footage to illustrate arguable positions about the world. However, these arguable positions do not necessarily take the form of argumentative expression because the stock images deploy paradigmatic generalities unrestrained by the limitations of historical reference. By this I do not intend to argue with the definitions of documentary offered by Nichols, Plantinga, or Ward, among others. Instead my interest is to demonstrate how Citizens United invokes the generic trademarks of documentary form even while avoiding explicit argumentation in favor of paradigmatic performance.

In an essay that also considers paradigmatic images and their implicit resistance to definitions of documentary form, Dirk Eitzen expresses dissatisfaction with accounts of documentary that emphasize the argumentative features of nonfiction film over other modes of address. Eitzen develops his critique with reference to a sequence from the first episode of Ken Burn’s The Civil War (1991), one that epitomizes Burn’s documentary aesthetic.[19] The scene in question, the final one from the episode, begins with a long quote from a letter a soldier wrote to his wife prior to dying in battle, narrated in voice-over; archival images of soldiers and their wives appear on-screen, followed finally by present-day images of Civil War canons.

For Eitzen, the combination of historical material with other illustrative representations, both archival and staged, has a melodramatic appeal to audiences rather than an argumentative one. Eitzen explains Burns’ non-argumentative aesthetic by invoking a semiotic vocabulary in a fashion similar to my discussion thus far of Citizens United:

“One might say that instead of stressing the syntagmatic connections between elements—the horizontal links: sequence, logic, cause and effect, and so forth—this scene emphasizes the paradigmatic dimension, piling meaning upon meaning to create a kind of emotional depth.”[20]

For Eitzen, the sequence in The Civil War offers no explicit argument, at least not as documentary scholars define the term. The intersection of interrelated texts, sounds, and images suggests the depiction of something truthful—say, about the impact of war on familial relationships—but the sequence is melodramatically evocative rather than argumentative. Archival images of soldiers and their wives offer generic illustration for the more specific events referenced in the narrated letter, thereby providing viewers with some small insight into both an individual story (a single soldier writing to his wife) and a broader category of experience (the impact of war on families). Since the sequence draws no explicit distinctions between the specific historical references and the more general, or generic, illustrations, Burns thereby maximizes the affective intersection of the general with the particular.

The paradigmatic, stock images that appear in the examples cited from Citizens United likewise avoid the explicit appearance of argumentation. In contrast to the melodramatic purposes of a filmmaker like Burns, however, the quasi-arguments of Citizens United serve a more cynical purpose. Political speakers like Bachmann, Gingrich, and Morris, offer debatable accounts of health care legislation, energy policy, and economic history, but the speakers’ performative utterances assume what they might otherwise be compelled to demonstrate through evidence, explanation, or argument. The stock images, rather than offering confirmation for their statements function as visual synonyms for the performative talking points. If the sequences attempt to offer convincing accounts of their subject matter, then their effectiveness derives from the seamlessness by which the visual world accords with the verbal, or to borrow and revise Nichols’s definitions of documentary, the talking points and stock-video partake of the same order of generic reality as that to which they refer.

The effectiveness of conservative political rhetoric is often attributed to what Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella term the “echo chamber.”[21] Conservative websites, talk-radio, and cable-news work together to create a cross-media system where even the most specious ideas gain traction, not by virtue of their logic, evidence, or historical accuracy, but simply because the same ideas repeat across seemingly independent outlets. In the echo chamber, circulation and repetition give talking-points the semblance of reliability. Moreover, the echo chamber proves profitable for corporations who derive advertising revenue from the niche marketing targeted at self-selecting political audiences. In the case of Citizens United, we encounter a more immediate, self-enclosed feedback loop, a case of circulation and repetition that occurs at the level of style. Stock images combine with political talking points, creating an audio-visual union specifically tailored to a given topic but still generic enough to avoid the possibility of counterfactual rebuttal. Additionally, the political ideology of neo-liberalism, enamored as it is with the free-market, finds an aesthetic correlative in the films’ reliance on databases of stock footage to generate the majority of its visual content, that is, on visual commodities produced to maximize their potential exchange value by blurring the boundary between the general and the particular. The examples drawn from Fire from the Heartland, We Have the Power, and Battle for America undoubtedly represent some of the more egregious examples of stock footage use in the Citizens United library of films. In other cases, Citizens United films do offer explicit arguments and rely on historical newsreels or archival footage. However, even in these examples, the films produce similar cognitive shortcuts by refusing to make distinctions between historical newsreels and stock footage, as if all images, regardless of their origin or manner of production, entailed the same evidentiary status.

Compilation and found footage

There is nothing especially suspicious or even unusual about the appropriation of archival, found, or stock footage in documentary film. As Jay Leyda recounts in Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film, early filmmakers frequently employed compilation strategies for the purposes of both fiction and non-fiction alike. Among numerous examples, Leyda reminds us that Edwin Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1903) appropriated stock footage of fire brigades from the nascent Edison archive, to which Porter added a fictional depiction of a mother and child in danger from a domestic fire, thereby producing a coherent narrative structure.[22]

As newsreel archives ballooned in size following the First World War, filmmakers gained greater access to stock footage that could be refashioned to illustrate contemporary events, and it was typical for editors to appropriate images without clarifying their historical origins for audiences. For Leyda, such compilations were made possible by the dual nature of newsreel footage. Newsreels are composed both of indexical representations of historical events and formal visual features whose qualities may afford alternative uses. He writes,

“Beyond its [historical] information, each piece of newsreel has a formal content, unremarked though visible.”

These formal elements include

“areas of black, white, and greys that make up the shapes of people and places, the distribution of these areas into compositions (accidental or otherwise), the movement of the people and objects shown, the direction of this movement, and the rhythm of movement, an element possibly quite distinct from the graphic rhythm of the composition.”[23]

A particular newsreel may contain historical content—reference to specific times, places, and events—wholly different from the purposes of the newsreel’s later use. Indeed, the formal elements of color or shade, scale or size, movement or composition, make the same found footage eminently useful for alternative purposes.[24]

Apart from the relatively uncontroversial cases of archival substitution considered by Leyda, filmmakers may also appropriate archival footage for more politically didactic ends. In such cases, the reappearance of archival materials in different contexts may provide an effective means for an audience’s historical enlightenment. As Jamie Baron writes in The Archive Effect,  

“The recontextualization of the found document, creates the opportunity for multiple readings of that document.”[25]

The possibility for multiple readings may arise directly from a director’s purposeful intervention, Baron notes, as in the case of Michael Moore’s appropriation of found footage for satirical effect, particularly in his early films Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002). Baron also cites the temporal difference between a film’s original context and later reappearances as key feature of its revelatory power. In The Atomic Café (Pierce Rafferty, Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, 1982), for instance, Cold War propaganda films provoke an epistemological self-consciousness on the part of audiences when viewed in a context different from their original distribution. The “famous ‘duck and cover’ educational films that taught children how to duck down and cover their heads with their hands in case of an atomic blast” will appear to contemporary audiences, “with our own extratextual knowledge of radiation, blatantly absurd.”[26]

Catherine Russell makes a similar point in her own discussion of The Atomic Café—the “historical gap” between the government propaganda films at the moment of their production, in contrast to the presumably more enlightened present, creates a temporal rift by which audiences may discover a “fantasy America” during the Cold War in which propaganda “produced a simulated version of [the United States] to offset the fear of death.”[27] Whether in the poorly-acted propaganda films that appear throughout The Atomic Café or the megalomaniacal ramblings of Senator Joseph McCarthy displayed in the Emile de Antonio compilation film Point of Order (1964), found footage may function as an antidote to ideological bias, highlighting previously normative prejudices that from our historical vantage point now appear contingent and constructed.

These accounts of found footage affirm that the image has a certain independence. The particular shapes or colors, events or ideas originally captured or intended in what are later rediscovered and termed archival materials do not circumscribe the potential future uses that a given image may eventually serve. A simple but significant distinction exists between the stock video as used in Citizens United and more traditional uses of found footage in compilation documentaries: stock footage is produced with the explicit intention that the images will be used for a variety of different purposes. A stock image economizes on the inherent polysemy of signification and interpretation, and stock photographers take this polysemy into account to inform the production process. As Paul Frosh notes in his book-length study of the stock photo industry, The Image Factory, a stock image or video sequence must be general enough in its connotations that it may express ideas or emotions applicable to multiple contexts but not so general that it loses its affective force. [28] A stock photo, Frosh writes,

“offers up an ensemble of possible references to pre-formed systems of cultural meaning, yet since . . . it is produced with no final purpose or addressee in mind . . . it proposes no definite destination but only multiple trajectories.”[29]

Any archival image remains susceptible to appropriation, of course, but stock footage embraces appropriation in advance of its production, aspiring to acquire a paradigmatic status for as many prospective users as are willing to pay a licensing fee. The economic imperative welcomes reduplication as the necessary ground for its profit motive. Stock footage cannot be taken out of context precisely because stock images are produced to fit flexibly into whatever context in which they variously appear.

In the fields of advertising or publishing, the licensing of a stock photo or video may be entirely innocuous: if the situation is such that a generic image will suffice, then economics may dictate that the cost of licensing an image is preferable to producing one from scratch. The same economic imperative holds for the production of the stock photos themselves, such as when the same model or actor appears in a variety of different costumes to exemplify a variety of paradigmatic vocations. This very phenomenon of “re-using” a single actor (or setting) to illustrate a variety of different paradigmatic meanings can be found in Fire from the Heartland. As I already mentioned, a stock-video sequence in Fire From the Heartland depicts a young man celebrating New Year’s Eve by himself, an image here meant to align with Michele Bachman’s claim that Obama’s plans for universal health care will produce a generation of immature individuals. Moments later in Fire From the Heartland, another stock-video sequence appears (licensed from the same stock-video production company), revealing the same set and male actor, with the addition of a woman (presumably in the role of girlfriend) and a birthday cake. The set remains similarly decorated as in the scene of a lonely New Year's Eve, but the additions—a woman and a cake—transform the scene’s meaning to indicate a birthday celebration. With minor changes, the stock-video scene is economized to produce a wide variety of potential meanings and thereby the widest potential for licensing opportunities—one set, at least two possible stock representations, and an almost innumerable number of possible applications. In the case of political rhetoric as we find it in Citizens United, however, the same economizing of the image demonstrates a more troubling effect. Radical statements and claims, which would seem to demand rigorous evidence, instead appear in confluence with images conveniently licensed for their connotative effects.

Jodi Dean reminds us of (what should be) a key difference between consumer marketing and political campaigns. Advertising appeals to individual, idiosyncratic preferences and desires; and audiences are unlikely to judge a marketing campaign according to how accurately it reflects the world. Politics, by contrast, concerns the “terrain upon which claims to universality are raised and defended” and should stretch citizens

“to think beyond themselves as specific individuals with preferences and interests and consider what is best for anyone.”[30]

The advertising logic employed by Citizens United, then, displays a perverse irony: images produced to suggest “an ensemble of possible references” with “no final purpose . . . but only multiple trajectories” nevertheless serve as visual accompaniments to moralistic pronouncements of supposed truth. The flexibility of stock, in other words, gives generic ground the inflexible mantra of conservative discourse.

The examples of stock video in Fire From the Heartland, We Have the Power, and Battle for America constitute admittedly egregious cases in the Citizens United collection. Stock images provide visual feedback for rhetorical talking points but offer no substantiating evidence or historical context for the political claims found there. On the occasions when Citizens United films offer substantive arguments grounded in historical research, they tend to apply the same stock logic to any image regardless of its origin or the manner of its production. Newsreels, found footage, and archival images are used interchangeably with stock film and video to develop broad historical narratives conducive to partisan arguments. The images drawn from paradigmatic archives and rendered in the manner of stock footage serve as illustrations for equally generic moralistic assumptions.

In the examples discussed thus far, I have generally treated as irrelevant the truth-value of any ideas expressed in Citizens United films. The relative merits of the Affordable Health Care Act, the costs and benefits of offshore drilling, the impact of governmental policy on economic recovery, and the systemic causes of global financial collapse—these are serious topics deserving of serious consideration. As far as Citizens United films are concerned, however, any political issue, no matter how complex, boils down to a simple choice: either redemption will be found in the neo-conservative affirmation of “traditional values” and a neo-liberal embrace of the “free market,” or we will face the apocalyptic demise of U.S. exceptionalism at the hands of racial and sexual minorities and as a result of the federal government’s overreach. If such ideological biases produce moralistic simplification of complex issues, then the aesthetic rendering of these biases in the visual form of stock footage (or historical newsreels treated as no different from stock footage) suggests a different problem concerning political misrepresentation. The ideological biases operative in the films, more than simply framing “evidence” to the benefit of a predetermined ideological perspective, treat political representation as a purely formal endeavor. Rather than correlating arguments with evidence, Citizens United films construct only an affective exchange between word and image, talking points and stock footage. Apart from the biased ends these visual sequences serve to promote, the films appropriate the very styles and structures of documentary in service of evocative paradigmatic sequences, mimicking the formal appearance of documentary arguments. Citizens United films accordingly display a perverse pedagogy. As a collection, the films model for their viewers debased forms of critical thinking, journalistic research, scientific expertise, historiography, and, most important for our purpose, documentary form.