Introduction: The Aesthetics of Online Videos
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When I first proposed this special issue, it was out of exasperation. I did not know exactly what I wanted, but I did feel like something was missing. Much of the scholarship on online culture—including hacking, networking, gaming, dating, and online videos—too often treats the products of online culture as side effects of technological, social, and cultural upheavals. This is the clear opposite of how novels, poems, and films are treated in the academy. Even though scholars have dispensed with idealist concepts such as genius and authorial intent, and no one denies that these cultural forms have had their own social, cultural and technological upheavals and changes, they are allowed the status of discrete aesthetic objects, worthy of analysis in their own right.
Part of this bifurcation in approaches to older versus digital forms has to do with the historical coincidence of online culture and particular tendencies in academic scholarship—the “cultural turn” in the social sciences, “reader-response” criticism in literary studies, and new film history in film studies, not to mention the reemergence of the “popular” in British Cultural Studies—all of which constitute a turn away from “autonomous” art objects, emphasizing instead the social, economic, and cultural forces around works; they also remind scholars of the importance of the amateur, “everyday life,” even the banal. Even still, residues of high/low cultural hierarchies coat academic film and media criticism. That (theatrically released) films are granted in-depth attention to detail, skill, and artistry, while videos which populate the digital displays in our homes, offices, and hands are treated as illustrations of larger socioeconomic trends is, in no small part, due to judgments of taste and the accrual of cultural capital.
This special issue of Film Criticism cannot solve this disparity. To do so would mean upsetting and reversing decades of entrenched values, tastes, and intellectual activity. Even The YouTube Reader, a collection of essays on the video-sharing site published not long after Google acquired the platform, dedicates only a small section to formal analysis and the aesthetics of online videos. As one of the earliest publications on YouTube, it rightly dedicates much space to identifying what, precisely, YouTube is, where online videos exist in the pantheon of media objects, locating YouTube’s audiences, and in a much more limited way, its production practices. But this sort of approach—part media theory, part sociology—is not the only avenue to understanding online videos. The approach taken in this special issue is one of aesthetic engagement, formal analysis, and attention to style, genre, artistic conventions, imagery, tone, and voice. The aim is to take a step away from the self-enforced duality of treatment between those (theatrically-released) films worthy of aesthetic criticism and those (domestic) videos whose aesthetics are simply unaddressed. It is certainly impossible now to write about any artwork as if it was separate from the world, but we can concentrate on the sensation and perception of online videos. We can analyze their techniques, styles, formulae, and textual characteristics.
The Amateur Aesthetic
Paul Kristeller has reminded us that Alexander Gottleib Baumgarten, often credited with introducing the term “aesthetics” in the mid-18th Century, meant aesthetics to be “the theory of sensuous knowledge, as a counterpart to logic as a theory of intellectual knowledge” rather than denoting a hierarchical system or judgment of taste. A return to what Kristeller has called the “modern” sense of aesthetics might help us redeem online videos as a credible and even crucial area of inquiry, not to mention a fertile ground for the production of knowledge (both sensuous and intellectual). Rather than comparing online videos to theatrical films, or debating the media specificity of digital shorts, or arguing over the essence of television vis-à-vis Hulu or YouTube, we can theorize and analyze how these forms constitute ways of sensing and perceiving, what properties they exhibit and/or contain that attract audiences, and what appeals to sensuous knowledge they make.
Kristeller’s history of aesthetics provides another way of thinking through online videos. In asking how it came to be that music, poetry, and the visual arts were all grouped together as “fine arts” during the 18th Century (and this is a decisively different grouping than in the Medieval or Renaissance eras), Kristeller points to the important influence of the position of amateur. The amateur more readily sees “affinities” between “various fine arts” than the “artist...who is concerned with...peculiar aims and techniques.” Kristeller goes so far as to attribute modern aesthetics to the “rise of an amateur public;" explaining that “amateur criticism”—that is, critique from the point of view of someone who is not an artist—constitutes the origin of modern aesthetics. In essence, the modern sense of aesthetics (as sensuous rather than intellectual knowledge) and a system of the arts which links disparate practices together and poses them against scientific knowledge have arisen due to amateurism. Therefore, film criticism (and indeed all cultural criticism), owes its existence to the same. While it has become fashionable to emphasize new roles of the amateur through the use of Alvin Toffler’s term “prosumer,” especially in scholarship regarding YouTube users and other online digital forms, it is not entirely clear that the historical record supports this account of a radical change in the relationship between the amateur and the arts coinciding with digital culture.
We would also do well to remember the connection of amateur to “lover” or “lover of,” so that the term was not always connected to the dabbler or less-than-proficient. It might be useful to compare this sense of the term against “fannish” terms such as cinephile, which often denotes the classifier, the watcher, the connoisseur, rather than the one who "loves" cinema so much they attempt to practice it. This sense of amateurism (as “a lover of”) might help us to think more clearly about online videos, which are marked by a significant number of users who are so "in love" with the form they themselves feel compelled to practice it. The amateur is therefore an experimenter, someone aware of, but not bound by, professional conventions and protocols; this freedom to ignore conventions results in formal and technical experimentation as well as the production of new genres and types that other amateurs emulate.
We can see in online video culture the confluence of these factors—the mixing of artistic modes and media, the explicit and implicit addressing of an amateur public, and even, in some cases, investigations of sensual knowledge. That online videos are invested in making us feel, or in producing particular sensations, or in instructing others in how to produce artworks which also produce feeling and sensation suggests the formation of online aesthetic communities and new aesthetic forms. YouTube and other video-sharing sites have produced new aesthetic protocols, new modes of appreciation that may overlap with, but exist alongside, those of cinematic production. The networked and online nature of video-sharing sites is precisely what gives rise to many of these communities, whose members would not have come into contact in any other way.
Approaches to Online Video Aesthetics
The articles in this special issue describe online communities of practitioners that come together around aesthetic objects (Legos), stylistic practices (bokeh), sensations (ASMR), and fashion. Shannon Brownlee’s article on Lego “brick films” samples over a hundred different online Lego stop-motion films in order to ascertain the Lego aesthetic. Instead of succumbing to the professional versus amateur dichotomy that pervades much of the scholarship on YouTube, Brownlee locates various techniques, contents, and styles of Lego stop-motion videos on a spectrum of production practices, as “brick film” practitioners selectively adopt professional aesthetics of cinematography, mise-en-scene, and narrative intelligibility. Michele White’s article puts “how-to bokeh” videos in a long tradition of producing, organizing, and circulating artistic knowledge that simultaneously participates in an equally long tradition of objectifying women and using the female body as the standard against which to judge beauty. As White shows, “how-to” or “DIY” videos have more than just practical value, they also constitute aesthetic debates. The judgment of what constitutes quality, the good, and beauty are up for debate in these video guides on how to create still images. By putting the aesthetics of these online how-to guides under scrutiny, however, White uncovers the politics of an online aesthetic movement.
This scholarship shows how the networked nature of online videos works to produce artistic communities with their own guidelines and rules about proper aesthetics, techniques, and conventions of form and genre. These standards of aesthetic beauty may not always reflect or aspire to the professional aesthetics of the film industry but can contain their own ideas of how aesthetics and sensation work. The phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), which proponents claim is a kind of involuntary synaesthesia, may serve as the example par excellence of a digital video form “born online.” Robert Gallagher’s essay on the ASMR phenomenon argues that the “aestheticization of noise” common to ASMR videos can help us understand the relationship between digital code and the body. ASMR is heavily invested in producing bodily effects, such that the videos which fall into its category may not share any formal or textual characteristics—what binds these digital videos together is their corporeal effects in the body, a digitalized evocation of sensation.
Many of these new Internet forms point toward the important influence of amateurist “dilettantism:” the mixing of forms, techniques and styles coupled with the freedom of non-adherence to professional protocols. Many online videos can appear to be cheap, short “knock-offs” of feature films or television shows, but alongside them are forms with limited pre-internet antecedents, as in the case of Lego brick-films and even supercuts (avant “found-footage” work by Bruce Connor and Morgan Fischer comes to mind). Some forms are essentially “born digital,” such as GIFs, while cat videos could be called digital natives: they have grown up and created their own ecosystem on the Internet. Other online genres, such as posted surveillance footage or stunt videos have their origins in minor forms of television, and thus could be thought of as digital migrants.
Such taxonomy can help us understand the context of online video forms and their content, but it does not necessarily explain their appeals. Leah Shafer links cute cat videos to the concept of “superflat” introduced by Takashi Murakami, which describes the flattening of distinct layers that also converge “affect and materiality in virtual space.” Shafer goes on to connect cat videos to the “cinema of attractions,” arguing that cat videos “retain and revise” silent cinema through the superflat, functioning in the online digital economy as “affective lures.” The merging aspects of silent cinema and postmodern visual culture in cat videos could be seen as the result of the kind of amateurism I have written about, in which professional protocols and conventions as well as the discrete and separated categories of artistic expression are ignored or even overcome.
The “animal-perspective videos” that Natasha Seegert examines in her article for this issue take amateurism in a new direction. Writing on a specific video, “Run Walter, RUN!!” in which a GoPro digital camera is fastened to the back of a golden retriever who proceeds to run down a hillside and jump into the ocean, Seegert argues that because of the animal-mounted digital camera, the perspective the video takes is explicitly and necessarily non-human. She suggests that our relationship with animals has been transformed through the proliferation of these videos, which challenges our human-centered norms and provides a glimpse into a “radically different symbolic world.” Similar to ASMR videos, these animal-perspective videos are invested in producing sensations for the viewer, often sensations of movement and physicality to which we might not otherwise have access. These videos shot by non-human camera operators also offer a different way of thinking about amateurism, for while the person(s) who strap cameras to animals and then post the videos to the internet may well fall into categories such as “produser” or “prosumer,” the animals themselves exemplify a relationship to amateurism that these portmanteaus do not even begin to address. Indeed, the “cyborg” golden retriever, Walter, may be a “lover of” the ocean, while his camera work seems blissfully unaware of professional conventions (even as it can be said to adhere to a few).
Other online video genres, such as haul videos, fashion-tip videos, how-to videos, and even the citizen journalism videos which counter dominant narratives of events (or bring suppressed stories to light) have also migrated from other formats: magazines, flyers, pamphlets, newsletters, and public access television. The articles by Lauren Cramer (on the video aggregation website WorldStarHipHop), Kristin Peterson (on fashion vlogs), Richard Cante (on HIV/AIDS testimonials), and Benedict Stork (on amateur footage of policing), all examine online videos that, in many ways, are aligned with these earlier residual forms.
Borrowing from architectural theory, Lauren Cramer argues that the modernist interface of WorldStarHipHop, which is invested in transparency and immediacy, is itself racialized, revealing a discourse of race that “renders shareable blackness.” Cramer’s analysis moves back and forth between analyzing the aesthetics of this video aggregation site and the specific textualities of the videos posted there in order to examine blackness as “an aestheticized social continuity.” In doing so, her method of architectural criticism sheds new light on how the digital manages and produces space and race online and offline.
The role of authenticity as a form of truth is a key feature of Kristin Peterson’s article on fashion-tip videos made by Muslim women in Great Britain. Faced with the pressures of European secular consumerist culture to appear fashionable alongside pressures from the Muslim community to appear modest, these women have utilized YouTube to provide others with advice about negotiating this precarity. Peterson finds within these videos modes of resistance that explicitly rely on the aesthetic modes of amateurism and intimacy common to the online video. This resistance is often political in the sense of the everyday personal politics of identity and self-presentation, but can also take the form of explicitly intervening in current events and debates over consumer culture and the role of religion. While these videos may seem similar to advice columns in women’s magazines, they have internalized and display a whole set of aesthetic characteristics endemic to digital culture.
Rich Cante's article on AIDS videos/testimonials has much in common with Peterson’s examination of advice and self-presentation in online videos. But Cante’s article begins its exploration of the new aesthetics of information online by connecting abundance to uncertainty. As he puts it, after Wikipedia the information within online videos "gives the false appearance that it isn't something" when of course it is something. That something, Cante posits further, is the realization of our desire for knowledge. In this sense the new aesthetics of information online can be seen as a mirror, but not a mirror held up to nature in the old sense of mimesis but a mirror held up to your own suspicions, so that inevitably you find a video school confirms what you already knew (but didn't know that you knew) about a specific matter. This new mimetics of information found in YouTube testimonials, Cante argues, require a new set of "counter-skills" of perception and judgment. In some ways this is also the entry point for Ben Stork's article examining online postings of videos of police violence. For Stork, these videos “prove” police brutality and illegal actions in the context of the internet, but in the official institutions of the juridical display something else entirely. Through an engagement with Jacques Ranciere, Stork goes further, showing how these amateur-authored videos of police are in fact another form of policing, complicating the relationships between aesthetics, politics, and the polis.
Why Film Criticism?
By not subjecting online videos to formal analysis and close reading, the discipline of film studies has effectively ceded these works to the domains of mass communication studies and cultural studies. There is nothing inherent in the form itself that precludes such critical encounters. Still, to argue that we should engage the aesthetics of online videos is not to say that modes of production, distribution, exhibition, and reception accompanying the online video should be ignored; neither should they be collapsed into understandings of other modes, such as cinema or television. What I am encouraging here is a new point of emphasis in film-studies scholarship on online culture, not necessarily to reduce online videos to meanings and messages nor to dismiss them as merely iterative examples of “sharing culture,” “the loss of privacy,” the “tyranny of intimacy,” or the new age of the image. Rather we can think about online video aesthetics in terms of community, taste, conventions, sensation, feeling, affect, politics, representation, and knowledge.
Film Criticism has a long history as an international journal specializing in the exactly these kinds of scholarly engagement of moving images. Because the journal has a reputation for gathering work on objects deemed worthy of serious discussion and analysis, it provides the perfect venue for the sort of interventions I have in mind. It is true that Film Criticism has published articles on television in the past, but, by and large, the work published under its aegis has focused critical analysis on films generally regarded as falling under the categories of “serious,” “influential, “artistic,” or “exceptional;” be they films released theatrically, in museums, or featured in festivals. As a result, its readership recognizes the kinds of questions that the articles in this issue raise as legitimate questions, even if the objects of inquiry themselves are not normally ones featured in the journal.
This special issue is therefore fully in keeping with the recent “reboot” of Film Criticism, and follows many of the short pieces in the journal’s inaugural online issue ruminating on the role of film criticism in an era of new modes of production, distribution, exhibition, and reception. Many of those pieces sought to keep film criticism grounded in its traditional tasks, such as close reading, the judgment of taste, and ideology critique, while at the same time looking ahead to new modes of criticism and engagement with all sorts of digital forms. The new online format of Film Criticism allows authors to embed videos under examination, thus making them “objects-in-common” with readers. In this sense, the journal can act as more than a venue for criticism and inquiry, expanding its mission to one of display and curation. The hyperlinked nature of webpages and websites, which has extended to scholarly journals, has made bibliographic references and further reading almost immediately available. But the immediacy of embedded videos constitutes a new form of online display culture and sharing to include, to borrow a term from the sciences, one’s dataset. Indeed this is one of the aspects of this special issue which helps differentiate its scholarship from previous work on YouTube. By paying attention to videos as discrete aesthetic objects, even if they are unauthorized, amateur, and part of a much larger network (or even series) of videos, the online format of film criticism encourages exactly the kind of aesthetic encounters I am interested in. I hope you share that interest too.
Stephen Groening is an Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies in the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington. He is the author of Cinema Beyond Territory: Inflight Entertainment and Atmospheres of Globalization (BFI, 2014) and has published on media and mobility in Visual Studies, New Media and Society, History and Technology, and Keywords.
The ubiquity and popularity of cat videos is in part due to the fact that cat-owners rarely encounter each other as cat-owners, as opposed to dog-owners who find each other through the ritual of the walk, the space of the dog park, and even in restaurants and stores.
See Joseph Tompkins, “Film Criticism — The Reboot” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/fc/13761232.0040.100?view=text;rgn=main (Accessed February 2 2016).
See, respectively, John Belton, “A Case for Close Analysis”; Cecilia Sayad, “A Matter of (Informed) Taste”; Andrew Klevan, “What is Evaluative Criticism?”; Keya Ganguly, “On Not Running in Place”; Matthew Flisfeder, “Ideology Critique and Film Criticism in the New Media Ecology”; Timothy Corrigan, “The Glare of Images, and Questions of Value”; and Constantine Verevis, “The Cinematic Return”; all found in Film Criticism volume 40, no. 1. http://www.filmcriticismjournal.org/.