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Author: Matthew Clayfield
Title: A Certain Tendency in Videoblogging and Rethinking the Rebirth of the Author
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Winter 2007
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Source: A Certain Tendency in Videoblogging and Rethinking the Rebirth of the Author
Matthew Clayfield


vol. 5, no. 1, Winter 2007
Article Type: Essay
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.pid9999.0005.106

A Certain Tendency in Videoblogging and Rethinking the Rebirth of the Author

by Matthew Clayfield

1.

We are all authors today. We are all auteurs. We are all writers. We are all filmmakers. And we are all theorists, because what we make theorizes itself. (Rombes, 2005)

I have chosen to open with the above quote for the manner in which it so succinctly illustrates a certain problematic assumption implicit in the work of Nicholas Rombes, an assumption about the supposedly isomorphic relationship between the various aesthetic and ideological positions implied by self-theorising media objects and those expressed in the discourses of the authors who create them. Our media objects theorise themselves; ergo, we are theorists. Likewise, we are theorists; ergo, our works are illustrative of our theories. While these two, interpenetrative theses contain certain occasional elements of truth, which I hope to extract and qualify to some extent here, against Rombes's assumption, I would also like to argue that a form that thinks, to put it in Godardian terms, is just as likely to be a form that thinks for itself, throwing privileged authorial discourse into doubt and Rombes's resurrected author along with it. Drawing on both the practical and rhetorico-theoretical output of the vlogosphere, I would like to argue that, in actual fact, self-theorising media objects and their creators can be—and often are—secretly at loggerheads with one another, the form of a work and its author's expressed intentions coexisting only in uneasy tension. I would also like to suggest that this tension is such that it opens up a breach—a critical gap—in which a certain type of critic or theorist—no longer the redundant and dispossessed figure of Rombes's work—can busy herself, discoursing on the discord, enabling comprehension. In other words, by attempting to challenge Rombes's assumption and think through the ramifications of doing so, I ultimately hope to offer a tentative solution to the problem that so much of his work is concerned with—namely, the problem of the theory and its place in the contemporary mediascape.

In his still-pertinent essay, 'Self-Theorizing Media' (2004), Rombes suggests that the "dying influence" of "well-meaning professorial theorists" "depends upon [their] supposed ability to demystify popular culture," a necessary undertaking that becomes less and less the purvey of specialists as contemporary media objects and their makers become increasingly adept at speaking for themselves. Rombes argues that ours is a mediascape marked by an all-pervasive, postmodern drive towards demystification, "not only in terms of narrative content . . . but also in terms of self-revealing formats," such as DVD with its near-obligatory "behind-the-scenes, deconstructive content". However, for all the aphoristic bite of this argument, there remains a number of problems with it, starting with the notion that self-theorising media is in some way unique to our current historical moment. As we shall see, in assuming that it is, Rombes is lead to equate self-theorising media with what he terms, in his essay of the same name, 'The Rebirth of the Author' (2005), hence the inherently mystifying isomorphism of the quote which opened this essay.

While it is certainly arguable that "today . . . all cultural productions contain theories—trace or overt—of their own production," (2004) this is ultimately just as true of the cultural productions of any other historical period. In actual fact, all media objects—not just contemporary ones—are self-theorising media objects. The ability of a media object to speak for itself—to offer itself up as an artefact, bespeaking the various technological, socio-economic and aesthetico-ideological conditions of its production—is undoubtedly one of the most persistent and fundamental characteristics of all cultural productions. Perhaps a definition of terms might be useful on this point. At least insofar as I can see it, a truly self-theorising media object is not merely or only self-theorising in the restrictive sense of being a work of theory, created by a self-conscious author-theorist who either imbues the work with theory directly or explains it externally, after the fact, in interviews, essays and behind-the-scenes featurettes. A truly self-theorising media object is truly self-theorising, in the sense of it being a relatively autonomous entity that walks to beat of its own drum, allowing the traces of its material history and ideological constitution to speak for themselves, with or against authorial discourse. If Michel Gondry's dizzying music video for 'Lucas with the Lid Off' (1994), which Rombes cites, (2004) tell us "the story of its production," making us "aware of the frame of the camera itself, as it positions itself for each shot in a literal frame that anticipates the camera's arrival," this is not so much the work itself speaking as it is Gondry speaking through the work. His showing up of the apparatus he's working with is certainly not without interest (it's a great video), but much of what the clip has to say about itself remains hidden, coursing underneath.

click to enlarge image
click to enlarge image

While I do not wish to suggest that authors are always and everywhere powerless in the face of the works they create, nor that there aren't countless instances where a work's discourse and its author's are in near-perfect alignment with one another (note that I do say near-perfect), I do wish to note the inherent potential of the media object to 'speak out' against its author and by doing so highlight the discontinuities that exist between its discourse and theirs. Rombes' rebirth of the author implies more than just the death of the theorist, but a neutering of the object as well.

While not all cultural productions can be said to be objects of authorial discourse, all are in some way self-theorising. From the Sistine Chapel to Casablanca, all speak for themselves, however softly. What distinguishes our age from others, then, is not so much the self-theorising character of our media objects as it is the number of these objects that are at the same time objects of authorial discourse. Though such objects appear sporadically throughout the history of the arts—be they supposedly 'pre-postmodern' works-of-theory or external supporting materials (manifestos, notebooks, interviews, etc.)—they are unarguably more dominant and widespread now than they ever have been before. Rombes is right to have stressed the unprecedented proliferation of such media objects within the contemporary mediascape, but wrong to have identified their unique characteristics—"[their] self-consciousness, [their] parody, [their] pastiche, [their] irony"; in other words, the signs of their authoredness—as those of self-theorising media, of which they merely define a subset. In making this connection, he inadvertently shackles the notion of self-theorising media to the historical specificity of our contemporary moment, and to our popular culture's fetishisation of supposedly demystifying authorial discourse. (For what it's worth, this fetishisation is not the exactly the same in character as early auteurism, which was at the very least concerned with authored objects first and foremost, and authorial discourse second; to some extent, we find that situation reversed today.) It begins to seem that Rombes's self-theorising media is in actual fact an authored, authorised and author-theorised media.

This has a number of important consequences, the most important of which is that, in denying contemporary and non-contemporary media objects alike the ability to theorise themselves autonomously—in overlooking the inherent agency of forms to bespeak the conditions of their production—an external party becomes necessary in order to demystify the object on its behalf. On the surface of things, this doesn't actually seem like too much of a problem at all—after all, an external party is required to make sense of a work, right? (If a media object is produced in the woods and nobody's around to experience it, does it make a meaning?) For ought that I can tell, the problem, which is twofold, is not with external parties per se—be they authors, theorists or spectators (the latter group of whom this essay hasn't even thought to consider)—who are necessary and, as I shall argue, equally important, but rather, firstly, with the uncritical privileging of the discourse of one external party over that of another, and, secondly—not to mention more fundamentally—on the precise type of demystification that this privileging leads to.

While not as fetishistic as it could have been, the tone of Rombes's rebirth of the author piece implicitly gives lie to the notion that only one type of demystifying discourse is possible or necessary—or maybe even desirable—at any given time, just so long as someone somewhere is doing the demystifying. The utopian but empirically unsupportable claim that "we are all auteurs" (2005) is used to support the notion that the author's displacement of the theorist has in some ways been part of a broader, "essentially democratic movement" bound up with postmodernism, but no comment is made of how this quantitative and supposedly democratic multiplicity of authors, with its admittedly exciting and potentially progressive panoply of styles, opinions, and so on, simultaneously actualises a qualitative hegemony of a certain form of discourse, that of the self-conscious author-theorist. The piece also fails to acknowledge that the type of demystification it consequently, if implicitly, endorses—demystification as insight imposed from without—works on a number of disparate levels or strata, and that an act of such demystification on one level very often functions to mystify or conceal something else on another—primarily by failing to recognise, whether consciously or otherwise (for as self-conscious as she is, the contemporary author ain't all that), that the other level (in this case, the autonomous media object) even exists. Demystification as imposed insight is at one and the same time mystifying, and every such expression of discourse is to some extent a magic trick; for all it lays bare and makes explicit (behind-the-scenes catfights, et al.), it simultaneously diverts our attention from other operations. We can see this in particular in the case of the contemporary vlogosphere, as I shall discuss in a moment.

In short, Rombes's piece fails to acknowledge the ideological dimension of such demystification and the subsequent necessity of multiple and counter-discourses, those other, maligned positions, overshadowed by that of the author, from which we can perceive, talk about and better understand our cultural productions. It fails to acknowledge the necessity of demystification through comprehension. With the media object and the theorist alike both dispossessed by Rombes's argument, and the spectator not even considered, the author and her discourse become uncritically naturalised as the transcendental base for all claims to knowledge about the objects she creates. (At this point I should probably point out that I'm no longer really grappling with ideas that Rombes himself has explicitly expressed so much as I am with the ideas that I think his implicitly lead on to. I'd like to think that Nick would agree with me when I say that a multiplicity, not only of voices, but of forms of discourse, is desirable, and that authorial discourse is just as notable for what it doesn't say as what it does.)

This homogeneity of the form that demystifying discourse takes is certainly problematic (if not really that unusual) in that in limits how we can think and talk, and thus what we can know, about the objects we find ourselves concerned with. Earlier I wrote that the problem with an external party becoming necessary to demystify a media object was not, in fact, the external party, gladly admitting that such a party must be present to make sense of a work. But demystification through imposed insight is not necessarily the same thing as demystification through comprehension. Imposed insight is what we get when an external party speaks for a work, either because they have to (because the work has been denied its self-theorising voice) or because they have some sort of agenda (revolutionary, reactionary or otherwise). Comprehension, on the other hand, is what we get when someone listens to a work, lets it have its head, and goes from there. The former is top-down, its base transcendental; the latter is bottom-up, its base singular and experiential. To some extent, of course, this is a hazy and rather arbitrary distinction, but it is instructive enough, at least for the moment. We will come back to it a little later.

2.

Perhaps one of the best examples of everything I have written thus far is to be found in the real and perceptible (and for the most part completely ignored) gap that continues to mar the contemporary vlogosphere, a gap that exists between the authorial discourse-cum-rhetoric of the vast majority of videobloggers and the values and ideology implied by the formal qualities of their autonomous, self-theorising works. This is that critical gap I was talking about earlier, from which the wayward theorist is to be reborn.

As evidenced in countless blog posts and e-mail list discussions (the supporting materials), flirtations with the mainstream press (the interviews; see in particular Mackey, 2005) and videoblog entries themselves (the works-of-theory), the dominant authorial-rhetorical line of the vlogosphere (a line that is not without its own internal tensions, as we shall see) is one that celebrates digital democracy, citizen's media and multidirectional conversation; indeed, as far as authorial discourse is concerned, videoblogging is a highly progressive alternative to mainstream, corporate media. However, even the most cursory glance at most videoblogs reveals that while such rhetorical preoccupations may be at least partly heartfelt on a superficial (and therefore only marginally effective) level, the vast majority of podcasts and videoblogs remain inherently, if unconsciously, conservative. Needless to say, this accusation has not been taken lightly in the vlogosphere and obviously needs to be qualified. Writes Adrian Miles (2006):

While the viewpoints expressed in such content [that of podcasts and videoblogs] may provide an alternative to the views covered in the mainstream media, the forms of audio and video which are distributed and published via blogs remain resolutely conservative in their interpretation of how audio and video [function] as a material practice and object: by and large, they continue to follow those media forms and formats which have been established over the course of decades in the broadcast media.

Obviously, neither Miles nor myself are using the word conservative in a simplistic and watered-down partisan sense (as we have been wrongly chided by many liberal videobloggers for doing), but rather on another, more fundamental (structural?) level. Underneath authorial discourse, there we find the form that thinks; and coursing underneath this so-called revolution in citizen's media runs the ideological vein of big media and the marketplace. One doesn't even have to look very hard; this vein is a varicose one. Most videoblogs lift their forms and formats directly from television, and only very rarely in resistant, critical or subversive ways. Rocketboom mimics a newscast; Steve Garfield's 'The Carol & Steve Show' presents itself as a homemade sitcom. Chasing Windmills remains one of the only videoblogs to have struck a somewhat satisfactory balance between television and networked video formats, thus realising, at least to some extent, the (limited?) potential of convergence (and even then it slipped a little at the end of its first 'season,' when it was forced to bow to the demands of traditional narrative closure). Josh Leo's Vlog has its own opening and closing title cards (as do countless others) and almost all videobloggers, even those who don't employ traditional television forms and formats (myself included), 'brand' their videos with their name and URL (www.[INSERT YOUR NAME HERE].com), authorial signatures that tell the viewer where to go for more, where to leave their comments, and—perhaps most importantly of all—where to link to. Not (yet) a market economy, not (really) a gift economy, the vlogosphere is a link economy in which the capital that is popularity must be well and truly earned. It is for this reason that an emphasis on individual celebrity persists (celebrity gauged by the number of hits, comments and links one receives), as does an implicit but far-reaching emphasis on the video as a delimited, non-porous, hardcopy object to be consumed as a commodity (a fact made all the more obvious by the advent of pod- and videocasting, which, with their more or less one-way trajectory from the network to the external device, effectively drain networked video of its immanent hypertextual and softvideographic potential, and thus reconstitute the apparatus as an intravenous drip).

But of course you won't find any of this in the authorial discourse of the videobloggers themselves. Indeed, when Chuck Olsen (2006) noted in a recent blog entry that "there has always been a tension in the vlogosphere between the pursuit of the 'show' model (spearheaded by Rocketboom) and the 'personal media' model (evangelized by Michael Verdi and Ryan Hodson of freevlog.org)," he failed to note that the difference between these two models exists only on the level of expressed authorial intention, not on the level of the self-theorising videoblogs themselves, which ultimately speak, over and above their differences, in unison. Had Olsen taken as his object, not the authorial discourse of the vlogosphere, but the actual videos people are making, he would have found that for all their cosmetic and intentional differences, the deep-seated and unconscious similarities that exist between the 'show' and 'personal media' models say far more about the state of the contemporary vlogosphere than the tension he identified.

Perhaps an example is in order. When outspoken videoblogging advocate Michael Verdi made a videoblog entry entitled 'Experiment' (2006) for Videoblogging Week 2006, his goal was to demonstrate the qualitative difference between a video clip with his domain name superimposed over the top of it and the same video with the Nike swoosh and the word 'Run' superimposed over the top of it. The first, he claimed, was a videoblog entry; the second was an advertisement. Many applauded this brazenly aphoristic exercise; a few of us couldn't see the difference. The videos were still essentially the same, as was the video they appeared in: branded and commodified with a mind towards consumption. The form and function remained identical. What was telling was the selling.

click to enlarge image
click to enlarge image

And so instead of new and genuinely alternative forms (of representation, of expression, of production, of distribution) we find a virtual microcosm of the mainstream mediascape, only with lower barriers to entry (which remain important, don't get me wrong), (charmingly?) inconsistent production values, a marginally more activist political agenda, and an exponentially greater number of videos of people's cats (put it down to the latent Marker influence). Yet despite the overwhelming empirical evidence, so clearly inscribed in the vast majority of videoblogs themselves—at best residually, at worst inextricably—a great many videobloggers still fervently deny that the vlogosphere has come to resemble the same institutions it considers itself opposed to, both formally and ideologically. That this denial, almost without exception, tends to rely on recourse to the intentionalism of authorial discourse as the basis for its arguments merely goes to show, firstly, the dominance of this form of discourse as a way of thinking and speaking about media objects, and, secondly, just how mystifying (and self-deluding) all such supposedly demystifying insight can be.

3.

And yet at the same time, nobody can really deny that, despite all this aesthetico-ideological dissonance, there does remain a certain progressive potential inherent in citizen's media and the vlogosphere, a progressive potential that authorial discourse has the power to help as well as hinder. The conclusions reached by Verdi's 'Experiment', however discordant they may be with the data, do retain a certain use-value, not only, cynically, as an illustration of how off the mark authorial discourse can sometimes be, but also, optimistically and productively, as a point towards which form and format can start to evolve in an attempt to reflect the discourses they currently betray. The possibility of such evolution requires a sort of dialogical partnership between work and author, however, that at present seems unlikely to develop. Clearly, what hinders the realisation of videoblogging's potential is not authorial discourse per se, which is necessary (or at least useful), but rather its overbearing dominance over and silencing of other discourses, especially that of the media object itself, which when listened to has much to say.

By now it should be obvious that this essay is in fact not intended as a neo-Barthesian proclamation of the (re)death of the author, but rather as a call for a critical re-evaluation of her present dominance as it has been discussed and celebrated by Rombes, and for a rethinking of the type of demystification that such homogeneity of discursive form engenders. Authorial discourse, for all its faults, remains useful, instructive and important, but only insofar as it is not festishised as the transcendental be-all-and-end-all upon which all knowledge of cultural productions is founded. It is to be considered valuable for the entry points into a work it makes possible and for the way in which, when put in its place, it helps to articulate a much larger tapestry of discourses—not to mention the ruptures and gaps that riddle this tapestry—from which we might begin to gain some genuine comprehension of our media objects in all their richness.

At the same time, it should not be assumed that I am unwittingly setting up any other transcendental grounds or bases for knowledge as substitutes for that which I wish to debunk. Though it may (and probably does) seem otherwise, I am not at all arguing for a fetishisation of the theorist, nor even for that of the media object itself. As regards the former, Noel Carroll (1988) has amply shown, in his discussion of contemporary film theory, that theoretical insight, too, is more than capable of mystifying in the name of demystification. As regards the latter, not only does the notion of fetishising the media object point towards an accelerated commodification of that object (which in my mind is undesirable), but the idea of establishing the object as a transcendental base for knowledge is, particularly today, patently absurd. That media objects are never experienced the same way twice is a truism applicable to all cultural productions, regardless of epoch (much like the self-theorising media thesis), but is all the more relevant to our contemporary moment given the advent of interactive forms, soft cinema and video (see Manovich and Kratky, 2005, and Miles, 2003), and the uncanny ability of digital information to find itself actualised only ephemerally, as it flows through a whole variety of technological devices that directly contribute to the production of meaning and the mediation of affect. In other words, if it has at all seemed like I have been fetishising either the theorist or the object in the preceding paragraphs—particularly the latter—this is merely because I feel they need a little extra championing in light of the present circumstances. In my defence, I can only say that championing these entities to level the playing field is not at all the same thing as putting one of them on a pedestal above all others, an ill-advised move that would result in many of the same problems that I have discussed in relation to our culture's current fetishisation of the author. Although eventually—arguably—some artificial limitations must be established and a field of inquiry staked out to avoid the potentially meaningless relativism of a criticism that deals solely with the media object in its absolute experiential singularity, there is no reason why this field itself must have grounds to stand on, why there can't, in fact, be multiple grounds from which we can attempt to comprehend a work.

But let's return, finally, to a binary opposition, that which I have posited in the title of this essay. The gap between the various aesthetic and ideological positions implied by self-theorising media objects and those expressed in the discourses of the authors who create them, such as that which characterises the vlogosphere and is overlooked by Rombes in his two essays, is the place in which, as mentioned earlier, comprehension becomes possible, the place in which a certain type of theorist can begin to reassert herself. If the theorist (as a figure) wants to breathe life into her supposedly "dying influence," she must spurn her "supposed ability to demystify popular culture"—at least insofar as that ability is the ability to impose insight from above—and instead assert her ability to listen, learn and comprehend—to extract insight from below. She must open herself to other discourses, offering her own as but one of many, and she must expect and hope that others will show her where her own demystifying discourse mystifies. In the contemporary mediascape especially, where the author looms large (at least in the popular sphere), and where her discourse threatens to drown out all others, we need a rebirth of the theorist, not as another dominant, transcendental demystifier, but rather as someone—anyone really, be they author, spectator, career academic or otherwise—who allows for and navigates this field of discourses, recognising and revealing the gaps that litter it, and thereby making it possible (if by no means inevitable) for us to fill, traverse or bridge them. If Rombes has asserted the death of a certain type of theorist, I am arguing here for the rebirth of another, for a new conception of the theorist. For what we need in our contemporary mediascape is demystification through comprehension. What we need is openness. What we need is to listen.

Matthew Clayfield is an independent filmmaker and freelance writer currently based in Melbourne, Australia. His award-winning short films have played at numerous international festivals and his writing about film, theatre, and new media has appeared in Senses of Cinema, RealTime, Metro Magazine, Melbourne Stage Online, and BRAINTRUSTdv.

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