Documentary methods – Perec


Perec’s approach to documentation of the everyday draws out several interesting methods. Initially there is the importance of observing the ‘infraordinary’ that which has not already been written about. ‘Capturing the rest, that which is not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance…’ (P3)

Despite initially documenting what he can see, he quickly acknowledges the limitations of his method. These include his field of vision. It is not possible for him to observe everything and he is not aware of what he has missed only that he is missing detail. The translator Marc Lowenthal observes ‘ Our perception of the world is formulated through categories, genres and classifications (p53) Perec categorises his observations into trajectories – busroutes, letters, text and signs, colours, animals, what people are holding and how the weather impacts activity, vehicles, the behaviour of the weather and birds. There are some observations of sound/dynamics – ‘ A child slides a toy car along the windowpane of the café’ (slight noise). In his writing style the majority of the material is empirical, factual. Perec however, cannot resist the transmutation of his observations into the poetic through his inclusion of interruptions to the listing of factual observations.

‘ A man wants to enter the café: but he tries pulling the door instead of pushing it


A full 70 goes by’ (p24)

Lowenthal observes that there is a potency in the minute observation of the everyday. Perec himself feels fatigue from the activity, rests or takes sustenance from a sausage sandwich or brandy. His observation is not obsessive at all, as he is interrupted by meeting familiar individuals and on occasion breaking for a chat and coffee. Lowenthal states’ Focused empirical attention on what we take for granted can have disquieting effects’ (p52) These effects creep in only occasionally in Perec’s work where a mournful haunting, a ‘ghostliness’ comes over Perec as if he acknowledges the painful loss of time and the inability of his obsessive activity to preserve it.  It may also be that his documentary method reveals few patterns or underlying connections. He longs to see ‘…not just the rips, but the fabric. But how to see the fabric, if it is only the rips that make it visible’ (p34) All Perec can observe between the everyday chaos and routines are ‘moments of emptiness’ (p42)

The ‘disquieting effects’ of empirical observation are perhaps caused by the forcing of an artist to reject the poetic. To truly consider a place there may be an argument for not hiding behind poetics or at least constructed poetics. This is where surrealism offers a possibility, as poetic or surreal juxtapositions exist even in empirical observations. The complexity of activity in an urban space and the juxtaposition of objects from different time periods allows for poetic/surreal juxtapositions to occur.

A camera could act like Perec’s eye, rather than capture selective or subjective moments, it could look to categorise and capture as much as possible. Perec’s obsessive writing was a need to write everything. He not only documented time and place through his writing, but converted fleeting lived moments into eternal ones. Can a form of transmutation take place in the empirical observation and documentation of a place if the observations are presented in a particular way?

Perec’s methods of presenting his text, moving between lists, longer descriptions and poetic interruptions suggests an example.

Lowenthal ends his reflection on the work, by observing his own position of writing the afterword.

‘The sun is just barely beginning to rise, just beginning to cover this particular part of the Earth like a prolonged and sleepy flash: a sun that I imagine to be storing all of our images, all of this city’s multifaceted images, in the archives of outer space.

Perec, George (2010) An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press