The technoscientific gaze: a critique
There is a perceived tension between the detached, objective pursuit of knowledge about the world in ‘quality’ science programmes and the popular appeal of emotion, drama and storytelling. Yet this dichotomy is not as clear-cut as it might at first appear to be. I will be arguing here that science is not as ‘disinterested’ or ‘objective’ as it is often believed to be, and that this is especially the case with science documentaries. In the shift towards more popular forms the use of rhetorical techniques has merely become more immediately transparent as the spectacular and emotional appeal of the genre has been intensified.
The mode of address traditionally associated with science documentaries has been characterized by Bill Nicholls (1994) as a ‘discourse of sobriety’; that is, serious in tone with an emphasis on the cerebral and the rational rather than the sensual and the emotional. Authoritative (male) voice-overs or respected presenters whose credibility is assured by age and experience embody this elite, institutionalized mode of address – men such as David Attenborough, whose long career presenting wildlife films has made him emblematic of the genre, or Professor Robert Winston, whose reputation as a fertility consultant was pre-eminent even before he became the presenter for The Human Body. When they speak to the audience they offer not personal opinion but scientifically proven fact. Knowledge is produced through observation and reasoning, knowledge that is presented as quite independent of the subjective bias of the film-maker. This is guaranteed either by the use of interviews with academic experts in the field of enquiry, or by generic strategies that work to deny the embodied, situated production of knowledge in favour of a disembodied, objective form of ‘knowing’ embedded in the scientific method. The only legitimate role for emotion is in the passionate curiosity that drives the enquiring mind. Through these means the genre promises to capture on film ‘nature as it really is’ for the education of the television audience. It is an ideal that depends, in Nicholl’s view, on a naive photographic realism and a disavowal of the degree to which images are open to subjective interpretation.
To meet the professional criteria of ‘quality’ expected of the genre, blockbuster science documentaries enjoy generous budgets for global travel and state of the art technology that can provide images of the nature that otherwise would be hidden in faraway places or be invisible to the naked eye. This helps to guarantee the scientific discourse of ‘discovery’, a discourse that works to deny the degree of mediation of nature involved in this process of visualization and that foregrounds the use of technology to see what had been previously hidden. These are the qualities that are valued by their fellow professionals; for example, The Human Body (BBC 1999) received three BAFTA awards in 1999 for Best Factual Series, Best Graphic Design and Originality for its display of the inner workings of the body. In an accompanying documentary on the making of The Human Body the emphasis is almost exclusively on the imaging technologies used and the way they were used to bring ‘entirely new ways’ of seeing the body to the television screen. These included an electron microscope, an endoscope, magnetic scanning machines, motion capture techniques linked to computer modelling, underwater cameras, time lapse and time slice photography. Similar technical ingenuity is used in wildlife documentaries, relying on studio shots, chromakey overlays and digital enhancement to edit with the raw footage gathered in the wilds of Africa or Antarctica or deep in the ocean. These techniques appeal to the desire to know, but they also provide a sumptuous visual spectacle that appeals to the senses as well as to the intellect. Imaging technologies therefore also draw on the techniques developed in entertainment film, television and computer games to create excitement and visual pleasure, and to create the illusion of ‘being there’.
As a consequence, these genres reproduce the ways of looking instituted in a number of film traditions as well as those developed in medical and scientific imaging. A substantial body of work has developed which argues that these cohere to produce sexist and racist relations of looking that have been used as an instrument of domination over the bodies of women, people of colour and animals. In Nicholls’s (1994) view, the potential for the body and its sensuous desires to disrupt the detached and cerebral mode of address of ‘science’ is largely repressed or disavowed by the rhetorical techniques of the documentary form. This disavowal depends on the creation of
embodied ‘others’ who are the objects of science’s disembodied gaze. It has its roots in the ethnographic film and its racist structures of looking at ‘primitive’ peoples in their exotic, natural habitats. It is also structured by the dichotomy of a male scientist or film-maker extracting the ‘secrets’ of a ‘female’ nature (Crowther 1995; Lindahl – Elliot 2001: 297). This conceptualization has been traced back to the very beginning of the emergence of science in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century (Merchant 1989).
The repressed body disavowed by scientific rationality returns in science documentaries in their focus on the physical behaviours that constitute the boundaries of taste and decency on television. Getting good close-up shots of the three Fs (‘feeding, fighting and fucking’) is regarded as a basic requirement of the wildlife genre, a challenge that has to be met through great ingenuity on the part of the film-makers (according to four female TV producers, whom I interviewed at the BBC Natural History Unit in 1996). Indeed, science documentaries are one of the few genres where embodied sex is acceptable for family viewing. This is confirmed by audience research undertaken by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which used a clip from The Human Body to test people’s reactions to depictions of sex and nudity. In approving its suitability as ‘family television’, respondents referred both to the fact that the programme ‘looked good’ and the fact that it was associated with the respectable educational output of the BBC. Even though it showed ejaculation (for the first time on British television according to the pre-publicity for the programme), it was done ‘tastefully’ in their view and wouldn’t cause embarrassment to those watching it with children (Millwood Hargreave 1999: 58-62). Although it was broadcast at 10.00 p. m. all of the respondents thought it suitable for pre-watershed scheduling.
© I TELEVISION AND SEXUALITY