Documentary, Collective Memory, and the Inauguration

There seems to be little debate that the inauguration of Barack Obama will attract the largest audience of any presidential inauguration in U.S. history.  Some estimates have the crowd exceeding two million people while tens of millions of others watch at home on TV, or at work on their computers.  At the same time, there also seems to be a widespread acceptance of the idea that Obama’s inauguration will also be one of the most documented events in recent memory, with thousands of digital cameras poised to record various aspects of the ceremony while others microblog the event on Twitter or Facebook.

But there is something about the documentary-mania that has been leaving me feeling a little skeptical, and I haven’t quite been able to place it precisely.  I’ve written and deleted at least two bog entries on this topic in the last couple of days, and I’m still not convinced that I have anything coherent to say about what might be described as a massively collaborative documentary project.  I am excited to see such collective activities as a Flickr group dedicated to collecting photographs of the inauguration, and the P.O.V. blog also lists a number of resources where people will be documenting the inauguration online, including a Flickr stream set up by the Presidential Inauguration Committee designed to document various aspects of the day, including a set devoted to inaugural balls and another devoted to parade rehearsals, among others.   They also have a Twitter feed.  In addition, The Washington Post also has an Inauguration Watch page devoted to following a documenting all of the action at the inauguration, including a webcam and a blog designed to keep readers apprised of the day’s events.

And, in one of the more ambitious documentary projects, CNN plans to use the new Photosynth technology to document, or perhaps create, The Moment, which will combine user submitted 2D photographs to create a 3D simulation of the inauguration moment.  Users are asked to submit photos taken precisely as Obama raises his hand to take the oath of office, and the Photosynth technology will map similarities within each photo to create a 3D image.  This latter documentary project is doubly fascinating in that it offers the (illusory?) pleasure of collective authorship while also offering the (equally illusory?) fantasy of presentness at the making of history, at the historical event itself.

To be sure, there is a long history of seeking to document these key historical transitions.  Thomas Edison famously used the then-nascent medium of motion pictures to record William McKinley’s inauguration and, later, to re-enact the execution of his assassin, Leon Czolgosz (I wrote about these films many years ago).  So it’s no surprise to see CNN and other organizations use the newest technologies to preserve these latest historical transitions for future audiences.

But, as Liz Losh points out, with the inauguration fast approaching, it is probably worth reflecting on how this material will be archived for future audiences.  The survival of the Edison footage is a useful reminder that significantly less than half of the movies filmed before 1950 have survived in a viewable format. For example, she cites Dan Cohen’s concern about posting images to social networking sites that are “not in the forever business,” as well as concerns that pictures posted to Facebok may be restricted only to friends and acquaintances, making them inaccessible for future historians and researchers.  One solution that Liz offers is to submit material to government and non-profit sites such as and the Internet Archive, which will also have volunteers in the crowd documenting the day’s events, in order to make sure that this material is preserved and stored in away that will make it available to all, hopefully in a navigable fashion.

I realize this entry has ranged all over the place, but I think that comes from my own fascination with how these events have been documented and concern with how those texts will be used (or not used) to provide us with a full tapestry of such an important historical moment.


  1. G Said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

    Hey Chuck,

    This is an interesting post; I’m glad you’re writing about the relationship between the inauguration and the media. It seems to me that the inauguration is a brilliant illustration of Baudrillard’s ideas as conveyed in Simulacra and Simulation.

    So many people are going to the National Mall to see Obama on a large screen, the way everyone else will be seeing him. This is the ultimate postmodern event in that it is not an event; it “really” happens on TV, and attending it means not attending it because you’re still watching it on TV. It’s kind of funny because people are so excited to go, and I think that from an existential point of view there is nothing to go to, nothing to “be” at.

    I’ve been in the DC area for the past few weeks and I have seen people wearing some great Obama paraphernalia and have talked to them about their enthusiasm for the inauguration. Many of them say that they want to say that they’ve been there. So the event is not to be there, because there is no there because it is in the every place no place of the virual, but to say you’ve been there after the fact, to say “I will have been” “I have been” “I had been” and these replace “I am.” It’s fantastic to witness this.

    This isn’t to diminish the importance of the non-event event. I am an Obama supporter and I’m delighted at how he is bringing hope to our nation, and I’m so pleased to have someone eloquent represent me. I can understand the significance it would have for people to be on the Mall and I don’t want to diminish their feelings of excitement. Nonetheless, it’s as if it’s as if this “event” is following Baudrillard’s set of characteristics of the postmodern world, as if he gets to laugh and nod knowingly in his still warm grave. I think all of that makes observing the inauguration phenomenon a lot more fun.

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

    Yeah, I think Baudrillard would have been fascinated by Obama. I like your reading of the verb tenses that Obama supporters are using in their descriptions of why they are attending the inauguration.

    In my case, both the inauguration hype and the coverage of the Hudson River crash landing have made me feel as if I am living in a Don DeLillo novel. There’s that famous scene in White Noise where the narrator describes the “most photographed barn” and points out that people don’t really see the barn; they see the photographers. There seems to be something similar going on here and it’s fascinating to watch.

    Of course, from my perspective, as well, it’s also a relief to have reached what appears, potentially, to be a transformative moment, and to see someone representing the country who has the potential to transform the adjective “professorial” from a pejorative into a form of praise.

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