Canon and Catalyst in Video Essays
The video essay is, inevitably, political. It is difficult to argue otherwise. Once we acknowledge that meaning making is always about construction of the worlds we live in, then the video essay is part of the culturally embedded processes that simultaneously and perpetually construct, demolish, reimagine, and reconstruct our worlds and our places in those worlds. Is it more political than other academic practices? No. Nevertheless, there is something particular about how the video essay constitutes the object of study – moving images and sound – that requires special attention when considering its political impact. Additionally, we who are engaged in one of academia’s newer-critical, creative, investigative practices, have a very welcome opportunity to examine the political work of the video essay. Thinking about canons might not be the obvious place to begin a meditation on video essays and politics. However, in what follows I submit that there is value in thinking creatively about video essays and canons. After briefly examining a couple of the standard debates on canons, I suggest a way of thinking about canons that is less focused on sanctioned lists of cultural artifacts and more closely linked to finding good, productive, and inspired ways to answer the question, why do video essayists create video essays?
Thinking of Canons
Canons sit at the head of citational practices both inside and outside of academia. From film and book recommendations made to friends and top ten lists online, to films and books that appear again and again on university syllabi or in the references sections of academic writing, making, and citing formal and formal canons is important. It often provides a framework for discussion. Canons serve as a type of cultural touchstone. ‹We› can reference these great US American works or those great French works; ‹we› can share in the process of thinking how these particular novels replicate or reimagine ideas from those particular novels. In fact, being part of a ‹we› often requires that we can properly cite canonical cultural artifacts. Thus, canons are culturally important, and they are often contested. The humanities have given their fair share of attention to conflicts over canons and canon formation. In the US we seem to be perpetually embedded in one culture war or another and in earlier culture conflicts canons were vigorously fought over.
It has been suggested1 that film studies has been less interested in canons than, say scholars in literature and education. Rosenbaum2 , for example, argues that because film studies focuses on a newer, popularly consumed medium, the impulse to place films in hierarchies has not been as pressing as it has been in literature. Of course, in making this contention, Rosenbaum is actually engaged in the task of arguing for film canon. He is specifically interested in wresting the practices of film canon formation from the dominance of popular press and other non-academic sources. His work has been productive, and related writing3 has posed the question of what should be included in the film studies canon, so that the argument that canons are not important to film studies is not necessarily sustainable. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that video essaying is not very interested in stuffy one-dimensional canonical lists of films. Certainly, there are many creative video essays focusing on works that are likely to appear on one sanctified list or another, however, at the same time, video essayists display passionate enthusiasms for a rich variety of moving images and sound. Why, then, am I bringing up the question of canons if they do not seem centrally important to what video essayists do? Because I believe that there is a type of canonical thinking that takes place in many quarters of video essaying that shapes a relationship between the video essay and the political and that is the way that the ‹essay› in ‹video essay› is set into motion.
Traditional approaches to canons view them as identifying those cultural artifacts that are deemed great in some way (aesthetically, economically etc.) and thus worthy of study. In this way of thinking the canon becomes something of a museum of great works, or a syllabus of texts deemed worthy. However, there is another way to think about canon. Rather than the cultural exemplars that should be studied, canon can be taken to mean those texts that provide the impetus or give purpose to why one is undertaking the creative-scholarly forms of video making in the first place. I believe that, even while acknowledging that video essayists draw on many intellectual histories, it is still possible to identify a canon of texts that catalyze the video essay and set it in motion and answer the question, ‹Why the video essayists do what they do?›
Canons and the ‹Essay› in Video Essay
Although it would be impossible for me to trace all the intellectual routes that traverse the community of video essaying scholarship, two touchstones that seem to emerge are Theodor Adorno4 and Michel de Montaigne5 . Video essayists as diverse in interests and approach as Catherine Grant6 , Tracy Cox-Stanton7 , and Alan O’Leary8 have all touched lightly on Theodor Adorno’s The Essay as Form. At the 2022 symposium Interrogating the Modes of Videographic Criticism, Alison de Fren’s roundtable remarks traced linkages between de Montaigne’s Essays and video essaying.9 Even when the references to Adorno and de Montaigne are not explicit, there appears to be something of Adorno and de Montaigne’s conceptions of the essay that finds its way into a broad array of video essay practice. Video essayists have taken up the emphasis on intellectual freedom mapped out by Adorno. This can surface as the mundane, but important, issue of the recognition of video essays as scholarship in promotion cases. However, it often focuses on de Montaigne’s and Adorno’s sense of the essay as a location for open experimentation. Thus, the focus is on a type of thinking that refuses to foreclose possibilities. Video essayists follow the essayists scholarly satisfaction in meditating and making manifest their own processes of thinking. They also follow, or perhaps even heighten, the essayists pleasures in the text; it is in these experiences of textual pleasure that video essaying meets cinephilia. The dialog between Christian Keathley’s scholarship10 and Catherine Grant’s scholarship11 illuminates how being attentive to fragments and moments leads to/emerges from rituals of watching and flashes of noticing. These moments can animate video essays and other forms of scholarship that celebrate the subjective enjoyment of film. Thus, I would add these literatures of cinephilia to this catalyzing canon that I am attempting to map out here. Although some of you reading might not see Adorno and de Montaigne as especially important to your video essays, I suspect you will recognize the significance of these ideas – open experimentation, intellectual freedom, subjective loving experiences of moving images – to many of the video essays you have made or encountered. These ways of thinking drawn from the catalyzing canon might answer the question, ‹why do the video essayists do what they do?› with the response, ‹to find out what I am thinking, to pursue an idea or an affective response.›
These catalyzing canons can lead to the creation of truly remarkable video essays. However, at times they seem to lead to video essays that privilege subjective pleasure so thoroughly, and intellectual freedom so narrowly, that experimentation takes little heed to the fact that both the source materials and the videos essays perform political work in the world. Another way to put this is that open experimentation and investigation must be pursued, but it cannot be pursued under some notion that the ground upon which this work is being done is absent of human consequences. I once heard someone say about their video essay practice that they «like to let the images speak for themselves. » But of course, images do not speak for themselves. They are always embedded within cultural contexts and a set of complex reading practices that must be taken into consideration by the scholarly critic.
Rather than identifying specific videos where I have seen this happen, I think it would be more useful to identify a set of moves that occur to greater and lesser extent in essay videos. The first one is to rely on the prior knowledge the audience might have of the film (which might, actually be derived from the film’s place in a film canon). One of the major strengths of the video essay is that it uses, the presence of footage where other forms of visual scholarship must rely on the abstraction of the visual into text. Some video essays, however, rely heavily on the original film and its connection to the audience to create a short cut to the message they wish to convey. All languages do this of course. We do not have to invent a new language every time we wish to communicate something. However, when the original film is deeply embedded in racist, heterosexist, classist, nationalist structures of power video essays must work especially hard against these dehumanizing ideologies. Such ideologies probably stowed away into the original films and potentially remain, wraithlike, in the connection between the clipped footage in the video essay and the audience’s knowledge. Related to the problem of relying on the prior knowledge of the audience, is relying on the beauty of the film or its stirring quality. I suspect that this is likely to occur in cinephiliac situations quite a bit, but it cannot be reduced to cinephiliac responses. Sometimes what draws us to a video essay project is the excellence of the filmmakers’ craft or, to build on Keathley’s description of cinephilia, the moment when the swirl of the dust is captured in a way that arrests our attention. But what happens when we make, what I call, beautiful terrible things? That is videos that are beautiful and capture the beauty from the source material but do nothing to intervene into the horror of racist, heterosexist, classist, nationalist structures of power haunting the film and/or its production. Relying on the beauty is related to the problem of relying on the archive. The Middlebury pedagogy invites workshop participants to think of source films as archives of images and sound. This is smart pedagogical advice for providing students with a new approach to thinking about films that we first encounter as seemingly complete products. However, the metaphor of an archive should also invite us to proceed with caution. Archives have been notoriously important to colonial projects and other projects that construct the Self and its monstrous Other,12 not only in what is present in the archive, but also in what is absent. Hollywood films are notorious for example, for creating stories in which the Othered subject has no interior life.
It is difficult to make an argument that appears to challenge open experimentation and intellectual freedom and not sound like an anti-intellectual who demands that all questions resolve in neatly political answers. But I am not making an argument that challenges open experimentation and intellectual freedom, nor the pleasures of the text. I fully agree with what I read as Christian Keathley’s skepticism of ideological analysis of film (and other cultural artifacts) that are rote. Such readings guarantee answers before the questions are even formulated. They also simplify what constitutes ‘the political’ to a guaranteed set of moves, a predetermined group of allies, and a limited number of outcomes. But care and attention to the questions of injustice do not have to be impoverishing of creative intellectual experimentation. In fact, quite the opposite. I come from Black traditions in which people have continuously had to imagine freedom in the face of brutalizing and overwhelming unfreedom in order to create political, spiritual, artistic and intellectual ways to get free. Experimentation with open ended imaginings have been fundamental to the political and creative thought of global Black communities. I would propose, therefore, adding Black diasporic essaying to the catalyzing canons of video essays.
Cheryl Wall has provided an excellent introduction to the African American branch of this tradition in On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The Art of the African American Essay.13 Wall contends that in the African American essay tradition Black essaying shifts the pursuit of intellectual freedom, to the pursuit of freedom. She states, «Black writers shaped the essay to advance the struggle for freedom above all.»14 Adding the Black diasporic essay and literary tradition to what I have identified as the catalyzing canon might invite a reexamination of the projects of freedom imagined to be relevant to video essaying. Intellectual freedom is vitally important, but within bigger concept of freedom. These are interdependent. Black essayists and other Black intellectuals have pursued the project of intellectual freedom within and as a way to bring about the broader project of freedom. And of course, the broader project of freedom enables the pursuit of intellectual freedom. The more expansive idea of freedom is already present in Adorno. For example, he is careful to describe the person who interprets instead of accepting what is given and classifying it as being «marked with the yellow star.…»15 However, the interpretation of freedom that seems to pop up at times in video essaying avoids this expansive idea of freedom substituting it for a «possessive individualist freedom.»16 Engaging with the Black essay tradition surfaces the practices of internal reflection (often denied in Western media) in service of and supported by community. Finally, engaging with the Black essay which Wall describes as «declarations of artistic independence» offers tools for beginning to intellectually confront the ‹film as archive of sound and moving images› in ways that address the «provisionality of the archive as well as the interests that shape it.…»17
In some ways I have taken a roundabout route to discuss politics and the video essay. In focusing on canons, I admitted that a traditional version of a canon is not something that seems to interest most video essayists. Nevertheless, I have argued that canons are important in video essaying, and I am suggesting that canons are important if video essays are to participate or in the meaning making that increases rather than retards justice. Although video essayists are not interested in staid lists of films, I identified a few texts that seem to guide how a number of video essay scholars imagine the work of the video essay. I have called these texts a catalyzing canon. When the video essay catalyzed by these texts is good, it is very, very good. And when it is bad it is…if not horrid, narrow. It retreats into an enervating individualism, and this can occur at the expense of Othered others. It is not always easy to see when this individualism occurs. Any given video essay does not necessarily articulate everything that a video essayist might want to explore on a topic. Some of the most interesting video essays I have seen comprises series of videos, both loosely connected or tightly knit. These allow the essayist to take creative leaps and turns and explore small portions of their experimentations without over stuffing any single video essay. Nevertheless, the video essay must wrestle with the impulse to be hyper focused on individual reflection that the context goes out of focus. It must be remembered that scholarship is a public act. In fact, video essayists are likely to be more public in their work than many other scholars because distribution of videos on the internet are often much more attractive and much more accessible than traditional academic papers. The fact is that the video essay will be political, regardless of whether it wrestles with the ideas of freedom and politics or not. What I am suggesting is not that the video essay be taken up in a crusade of a neat, guaranteed politics. Rather, I am suggesting, that video essays are an important site at which we might wrestle with the visual politics of freedom and unfreedom.
- 1Jonathan Lupo: Loaded Canons: Contemporary Film Canons, Film Studies, and Film Discourse, in: Journal of American Culture, No. 34 (3), 219–233, doi.org/10.1111/j.1542-734X.2011.00776.x.; Janet Staiger: The Politics of Film Canons, in: Cinema Journal, No. 24 (3), 4–23.
- 2Jonathan Rosenbaum: Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, Baltimore, 2004.
- 3Jonathan Lupo: Loaded Canons
- 4Theodor Adorno: The Essay as Form, in Nora M. Alter, Timothy Corrigan (eds.), Essays on the Essay Film. New York 2017 , 60–82.
- 5Michel de Montaigne: The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. London, 1991.
- 6Catherine Grant: How Long is a Piece of String? On the Practice, Scope and Value of Videographic Film Studies and Criticism. The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies. 2013. https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/frankfurt-papers/catherine-grant/#mobile-header-left-nav
- 7Tracy Cox-Stanton: Gesture in A Woman Under the Influence A Charting of Relations. NECSUS. December 21, 2019. https://necsus-ejms.org/gesture-in-a-woman-under-the-influence-a-charting-of-relations/
- 8Alan O’Leary: Nebular Epistemics. Nebular Epistemics: A Glossary (Scholarship Like a Spider or Spit). In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Videography, 12. Juni 2023, https://zfmedienwissenschaft.de/en/online/videography-blog/nebular-epistemics
- 9Alison de Fren: Roundtable. Symposium: Interrogating the Modes of Videographic Criticism. February 25, 2022. https://cc.au.dk/en/poetics-of-videographic-criticism/symposium-interrogating-the-modes-of-videographic-criticism
- 10Christian Keathley: Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, Indiana, 2006.
- 11Catherine Grant: The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking, in: Aniki (Coimbra), No.1(1), 49–62. doi.org/10.14591/aniki.v1n1.59.
- 12Michel-Rolph Trouillot Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston 1995; Saidya Hartman: Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. New York 1997; Gayatri Chakrovarty Spivak The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives in History and Theory No. 24(3) October 1985 263. Ann Laura Stoler: Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. New Jersey 2010.
- 13Cheryl A. Wall: On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The Art of the African American Essay, Chapel Hill 2019.
- 14Wall: On Freedom and the Will to Adorn, 5.
- 15Adorno: The Essay as Form, 61.
- 16Stephanie Smallwood: Freedom in Bruce Burgett, Hendler Glenn (eds.) Keywords for American Cultural Studies, Third Edition. New York 2020.114-118.
- 17Hartman: Scenes of Subjection, 10.
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