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What’s the Deal with the ‹Academic› in Videographic Criticism?


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Undoubtedly, it can be difficult to define what videographic criticism is or what it can be, but have you ever thought about what constitutes an academically valid form of videographic criticism? I did try, in fact several times, to outline the so-called ‹scholarly sound video,› including a brief curator’s statement describing the ‹audiovisual research essay,›1 a co-authored multimedia e-book marking out the ‹academic research video,›2 and two issues of NECSUS that invited videographers to produce «explanatorily argumentative audiovisual essays.»3 My best, or perhaps most elaborately naive, attempt was published in The Cine-Files, where I tested the journal’s prompt – «how to legitimize videographic criticism as a scholarly valid expression» – in the practical setting of my «Arts in Practice: Videographic Criticism» class at the University of Groningen.4

What is the Fuss about Academic Validation?

Why does the label ‹academic› even matter? What does it have to offer? What is the value of it? On the one hand, ‹academic› might signify a specialized but flexible discourse practiced by experts of distinct disciplines – similar to how academic journals, platforms, and their videographic criticism sections use the term in their ‹about› sections (see Figure 1, for instance)? Could it possibly be a standard of quality? A promise of unambiguous intelligibility through clear, well-structured, concise and focused expression, enabling the creation of new knowledge and objective assessment, where objectivity refers thus not to the video’s content but rather to its delivery’s accessibility and assessability? Or, on the other hand, assigning the ‹academic› label could be seen and experienced as an unproductive restriction that leads to an overly formal, impersonal, and, if personal, authoritative format? Something that constrains imagination and creativity? An old-fashioned limitation that could potentially be attacked by an ‹ontologically new scholarly form?›5 David Lynch’s quote, «We think we understand the rules when we become adults but what we really experience is a narrowing of the imagination,» seems to be appropriate to this ‹anti-academic› viewpoint of resourcefulness.6

Figure 1: [in]Transition righteously prouds itself to be the «first peer-reviewed academic journal of videographic film and moving image studies» (my emphasis on the screenshot).

What is the fuss about the ‹academic› in academic writing, assuming such a niche (still and unquestionably) exists at all? What insights may be salvaged from the term ‹academic› used to describe scholarly writing? Are there any differences between the values (not forms) of ‹academic writing› and ‹academic video essay› or ‹scholarly sound video,› and if so, which ones? Although many videographers believe that there is a fundamental distinction, the description of this difference is still not much reflected on and is therefore still ambiguous, certainly in practice. It seems to me that the question concerns a much larger issue of ‹academically valid› scholarly utterance in the history of textual study of film and media, which the recent surge of audiovisual criticism makes only but quite literally ‹visible.› «Fortunately,» as I have stated before, «there is not a single set of criteria that guides academic writing about film and other audiovisual media. The diversity of videographic works and the recurring discussion concerning their scholarly legitimacy in fact only mirrors the diversity in our academic community concerning valid and valuable academic expressions.»7 But does this lenience imply that eventually anything goes? If we’re unable or unwilling to give at least a broad definition of academic soundness, should we then consider, for example, a written poem as an academic output? Would including that in your tenure dossier be acceptable (for your supervisors and line managers)? Or should only poems be considered academic outputs that draw on – build upon or reflect on – original works of art, potentially sparking a discourse among scholars of art? So, what about poetic and experimental videos that draw inspiration from and reflect on original audiovisual works, and have the (potential) capacity to prompt a scholarly deliberation – in the form of inviting the projection of unsystematic thoughts and associations – instead of engaging in criticism or unambiguously arguing for some knowledge? Should an artistic facilitation of (just hypothetically emerging and potentially diverse if not divergent) thoughts be regarded as academic output? Can posing inspiring questions be a scholarly alternative to delivering answers as a scholarly end product? And if that’s the case, what if such intention (not the one of the video essay, but rather the idea of such lenient ambition) eludes the viewer? What, then, is the difference between textual poems and audiovisual poems in an academic context? Should scholarship manifest in art? Not by its practice (as in artistic research producing original art as part of the method), but rather in its end product through which it communicates? Should inspiration, provocation, questioning, and ambiguation replace or at least to be added to clarification, illumination, and unambiguous argumentation as valid forms of academic communication and education? Can and should scholarship be both «research-driven art»8 and «art-driven research»9?

Negotiating the relation between textual and audiovisual utterances within videographic criticism is another crucial aspect regarding the ‹academic› discourse. Previously,10 I defined the autonomous criterion to video essays – by which they’re functioning (present, prove, and argue) independently, standalone and self-contained, without any written supplement – as one option through which one can call these ‹truly audiovisual audiovisual works.› Not that I wished to impose the single right way of some scholarly sound video essaying. I was only wondering about and in fact tried to justify others’ claims according to which videography is a novel, if not entirely and ontologically new, form of scholarly communication. I, perhaps too impulsively, thought that one of the key distinctions between written essays and video essays lies in a medial turn: «outsourcing argumentation to accompanying writing,» I concluded, «often seems to indicate a lack of trust in the videographic format. In these cases, written accompaniments do not con-textualise but often rather re-textualise the audiovisual works, rendering their status back to that of an augmented version of a traditional text-illustration.»11 What I already believed to be true in theory and what I had found to be effective in my pedagogy, is further verified by Katie Bird and her practice of actual viewing of videos. I copy her tweet here (Figure 2), not necessarily to substantiate my claims, but mainly because she, specifically in her second post, extends my point about retextualization to the hereby relevant aspect of scholarly validation (that is, to the recurring need for and eager attempt at ‹scholarifying› videos): «This here IS scholarship, see!!»12

Figure 2: Katie Bird on Twitter against accompanying texts’ ‹scholarifying› aspirations to videos.


What is Wrong with the Academic Label?

For some not only the answers are unsatisfactory, but even the original question – ‹what makes videographic criticism academically valid?› – is fundamentally wrong. These video essay makers and/or theorists, who are mainly working in academic institutions, see such defining attempts as a limitation to their imagination and creativity. They describe and practice videography precisely as a means to liberate themselves from arbitrary and therefore detrimental restraints, often explicitly reflecting on and then designing their videographic tinkering as a deliberate act of opposing ‹traditional academic values.› Indeed, they challenge or simply neglect established methodologies and override critical intent, and, driven by a prospect to arrive at some unexpected if not fully out-of-the-(academic)-box revelations and results, embrace the subjective, ambiguous and experimental in knowledge production. Some purposely delay, while others completely give up on making meaning or any sense, valuing merely the unleashed creativity and defamiliarization effect that their unregulated and sometimes even uncontrolled tinkering release and trigger. These scholars contend that deformative and screwmeneutic work is more than just a piece of video art or a record of their experimental methodology. Rather, they see it as a ‹provocation› that ‹opens up› the work at hand, asserting newly discovered benefits for both the creator (deformation for deformation’s sake, with little regard for learning something new about the original deformed art, à la Mark Sample13) and the viewer (assisting in the deautomatization, that is the unlearning of habitual viewings, of the original art, as revealed in Ariel Avissar’s 2023 video collecting viewers’ comments on Catherine Grant’s 2018 deformative work). It is videography without an explicit and clear critical intention, where the labor of producing the latter is thus outsourced to the viewer (who are mainly scholars, just like in this particular case of Avissar’s meta-video). Does thus an ‹academic conduct› require both unambiguous and substantiated meaning-making, as well as explicit and clear critical intention? As evidenced by this and other examples, it’s not necessarily the case anymore: for example, Ian Garwood’s study14 on how video essayists frame their work through supplemental writing in [in]Transition’s peer-reviewed academic journal finds that ambiguity is becoming an increasingly positive value in videographic scholarship. The aim of ambiguity in poetic and experimental efforts is not only to open up the videos to interpretation, but to keep them open for a variety of potential meanings. Such ‹openness› is often contrasted with ‹closeness› of the explanatory type in a manner that may be erroneous because it attributes a degree of ‹definitiveness› to the latter. Closeness of explanations does not claim exhaustiveness; only it refers to arguments that are explicit, unambiguous and well-rounded, which don’t aspire to be the ‹last word,› only a ‹clear word› on a topic at hand. But, as I promised earlier, this paper is not concerned with determining the contents and forms of the ‹academic,› and anyhow, «[i]t is difficult to make an argument that appears to challenge open experimentation and intellectual freedom and not sound like an anti-intellectual.»15

Instead, it is preferable to rephrase the question as, ‹What is wrong with the «academic» marker, especially within academia?› Why resist the ‹academic› label at all and why often so adamantly? Is it because, for whatever zeitgeisty reason, we typically resist traditional thinking about academia and its conventional values as they appear to us now? Because academia is perceived to be turning more and more hostile and toxic as a result of top-down management, bloated administration, and recurrent budget cuts and reorganizations? If this is the case, then resisting the ‹academic› through videographic criticism feels less like a deliberate strategy and more like a coincidence that aligns with some of such current shifts in the general sentiment. Or could it be that it is precisely videographic criticism that supports, perhaps even triggers, at least by its limited influence within its niche field of film and media studies, the protest against conservative views on academia? It might sound only remotely related, but I think this argument has roots in some subtle claims, for example, in the assertion that emphasizes the audiovisual medium’s inherently higher performativity than its written counterpart. As more performative and creative voices are encouraged, our beliefs and standards of academic conduct may shift as a result of the acceptance of such medium-specific differences. Or resisting the ‹academic mode› is only part of the effort of distinguishing between textual and videographic modes of scholarship? As numerous examples demonstrate, it appears that while in our academic writing we do care about and uphold well-established scholarly principles, when undertaking videographic criticism we are willing to discard those values. I see many reputable academic writers, who while engaging with videographic criticism happily give up their well-established and, in their writing, well-practiced scholarly standards. As if, finally, being able to speak about an audiovisual art audiovisually would offer more than simply bridging the medial gap between an audiovisual art and its textual scholarship; as if videographic criticism would present itself as an unruly flagbearer against ‹normal science,›16 i.e., a technology- and medium-driven opportunity for prompting a fundamental change – a ‹paradigm shift›17 – in and about academia.


What is at Stake with the ‹Academic›?

Rephrasing Abraham Flexner’s18 famous anti-utilitarianistic utilitarianism – ‹the usefulness of useless knowledge› – the scholarly promise of deformative and screwmeneutic activities lies in the usefulness of useless tinkering. This not so latent paradox seems to be indicative of the overtly voiced struggle of scholars fighting against their own scholarly routines. This struggle, in my opinion – and this may sound harsh or even too obvious – is symptomatic of a larger need for pursuing ‹novelty,› which is a typically triggered urge of neoliberal academia and its social media-fueled self-positioning. Novelty brings the hope of standing out in the cacophony of abundantly produced and loudly promoted videographic scholarship (it is remarkable how quickly videographic criticism moved on from its early years of guaranteed visibility, «standing out from the sea of … textual knowledge production,»19 to its current abundance triggering newer and newer forms of novelty- and attention-seeking). While Kevin B. Lee talks about «overproduction fatigue,»20 Johannes Binotto affirms that «the problematics of academia and the job market almost force you to be experimental and to try something new.»21 It’s as if disavowing traditional academic practices and norms holds out the promise to succeeding in academia, which, speaking of stakes, is certainly many ambitious scholars’ primary objective. Is it true that chasing novelty by resisting some imposed scholarly tradition puts someone in a ‹vulnerable› position within the academic context, as thoughtfully pondered upon by Evelyn Kreutzer and Johannes Binotto?22 Or is the vulnerability that results from having this attitude actually a ‹privilege› – the privilege of being able to experiment, free from any constraints and scholarly liability? It is an angle that Kreutzer and Binotto are also aware of: «To what extent is our courage to be vulnerable perhaps also an escape from academic accountability?» and «I can afford to show myself vulnerable because I’m under no existential threat.»23 Even if there is vulnerability, which manifests through one’s self-exposure of the intimacies of their subjectivity, shouldn’t we consider that as a consequence of someone’s free if not strategic choice in their hope to succeed, well, indeed in academia? In this regard, I highly sympathize with Alan O’Leary’s uprightness, who acknowledges such vulnerability’s elitism: «Let me be clear: I am talking here about an elitist practice. (…) Elitist also in the sense that I am describing a practice proper to those with the institutional security to test by transgression the received modes of scholarly enquiry.»24

It may be a matter of daring vulnerability or elitist privilege (or both), while I can only sympathize with any endeavor that ventures in challenging solidified intellectual positions and dehabitualizing scholarly routines, such effort should strive for concluding in a comprehensible output. Dehabitualization for the sake of dehabitualization is not yet a program because it could lead to incomprehensible and meaningless non-sense. Lately, I’ve noticed that academic values and their end products, such as ‹sense› and ‹meaning,› especially in their explicitly and clearly uttered ‹explanatory› forms, are coming under suspicion as some shady remnant of ‹normal science’s› cringe-worthy (authoritarian and instructional) ‹man-› or, in this case, ‹videosplaining.› ‹Didacticism› is now frowned upon or, as Susan Harewood notices, treated with suspicion.25 This sentiment manifests as a critique not only against non-academic videographers’ allegedly uncritical takes, but it also targets scholars following their critical intention. Remarkably, both of these concerns are voiced by scholars. Regarding the former, I’m reminded of a recent lashing out on the Discord channel of videographer scholars against The Nerdwriter, one of the most popular non-academic YouTube stars. As for the latter, the amount of criticism directed at my fondness for ‹explanatorily argumentative› videographic projects and their insistence on ‹lucidity› is telling. As if non-scholars are not scholarly enough, while scholars are too scholarly for some scholars. Either way, I, together with Harewood, «wonder, sometimes, if the self-conscious inclusion of ‹scholarship› in the designation of the videographic essay is because media and film scholars worry that they see a lot of themselves in the fan and geek deconstructive reading practices of the YouTube essayist.»26

Be assured, I’m all for ambiguity and uncertainty in art. I even wrote and edited books about ‹puzzling films› that revolve precisely around such concepts. Moreover, I strongly support letting go of lucidity and academic rigor in the methodologies I employ both in my textual or audiovisual scholarship. However, when it comes to communicating the results of such research, whether it be on ambiguous art or when conducted through unorthodox research tinkering, I can only expect reason and clarity. For example, what I precisely like in the desktop documentary genre is how seamlessly it allows for, although doesn’t guarantee, a clear and transparent representation of any carried-out methodology in the result piece – regardless of whether such result is the confirmation of a predetermined hypothesis or the outcome of an unexpected revelation. This fundamental desire for reason and clarity is regardless of the scholarly or non-scholarly situation. It’s a general expectation, my absolute bottom-line, of any information transaction I engage in, let alone in an educational context (to be clear, however, I do not consider ‹art experiences› to be ‹information transactions›, perhaps this is why I find it difficult to view poetic video essays as sources of knowledge). Engaging in «inutilious scholarship» that «elicits and participates in an untranslatable form of absurdist knowledge»27 sounds like fun, but it also seems like an ultimate elitist privilege that I’m not sure many people in academia – teachers or students – can or want to afford.

Finally, without getting too carried away, let’s face it: either our original – ‹what makes videographic criticism academically valid?› – or its hereby addressed milder spinoff – ‹what is the deal with the «academic» in videographic criticism?› – are questions that are raised only by scholars employed in academia (including myself, guilty as charged). They are not important to our students (trust me, I asked them), and they surely don’t matter to a YouTuber or TikToker, whose motivation for creating videos is driven by entirely different – either cinephilic or most frequently direct monetary – interests. Academic validation, however, may also be indirectly linked to desired financial rewards, through grant acquisition or employment, and thus leading to existential advantages within the academic institution. Indeed, resisting traditional academic practices, values, and the academic institution itself is only relevant for academics within an academic setting. Practicing resistance is a fundamentally academic activity that, in the end, defines the (relevance of the) ‹academic› label.

  • 1Miklós Kiss: The Audiovisual Research Essay as an Alternative to Text-Based Scholarship, in: [in]Transition Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, vol. 1, issue 3, 2014, mediacommons.org/intransition/2014/08/22/kiss (8.12.2023).
  • 2Thomas Van Den Berg, Miklós Kiss: Film Studies in Motion – From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video. Scalar, 2016, scalar.usc.edu/works/film-studies-in-motion/ (8.12.2023).
  • 3Miklós Kiss: Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 1, in: NECSUS Spring #Resolution, 2018, necsus-ejms.org/videographic-scene-analyses-part-1/ (8.12.2023). Miklós Kiss: Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 2, in: NECSUS Autumn #Mapping, 2018, necsus-ejms.org/videographic-scene-analyses-part-2/ (8.12.2023).
  • 4Miklós Kiss: Videographic Criticism in the Classroom: Research Method and Communication Mode in Scholarly Practice, in: The Cine-Files. A Scholarly Journal of Cinema Studies. Special issue (15) on the scholarly video essay, 2020, www.thecine-files.com/videographic-criticism-in-the-classroom/ (8.12.2023).
  • 5Catherine Grant: The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking, in: Aniki – Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image, vol. 1, issue 1 2012, 49–62, sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/47473/1/59-204-1-PB.pdf (8.12.2023).
  • 6I am unable to locate the original source of this quotation attributed to David Lynch.
  • 7 Kiss, Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 2.
  • 8Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin: Introduction to the audiovisual essay: A child of two mothers, NECSUS Autumn #War, 2014, https://necsus-ejms.org/introduction-audiovisual-essay-child-two-mothers/ (8.12.2023).
  • 9Ibid.
  • 10Van Den Berg, Kiss, Film Studies in Motion. Kiss Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 1. Kiss Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 2. 
  • 11Kiss, Videographic Scene Analyses, Part 2.
  • 12 Katie Bird auf Twitter, Sept. 7, 2022, https://twitter.com/ArtHouseDirectr/status/1567602079501279233 and https://twitter.com/ArtHouseDirectr/status/1567602086660947968 (8.12.2023).
  • 13Mark Sample: Notes Towards a Deformed Humanities, in: @samplereality blog, May 2, 2012, samplereality.com/2012/05/02/notes-towards-a-deformed-humanities/ (8.12.2023).
  • 14Ian Garwood: Writing about the Scholarly Video Essay: Lessons from [in]Transition’s Creator Statements, in: The Cine-Files. A Scholarly Journal of Cinema Studies. Special issue (15) on the scholarly video essay, 2020, www.thecine-files.com/writing-about-the-scholarly-video-essay-lessons-from-intransitions-creator-statements/ (8.12.2023).
  • 15Susan Harewood: Canon and Catalyst in Video Essays, in: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Videography, June 12, 2023, zfmedienwissenschaft.de/en/online/videography-blog/canon-and-catalyst-video-essays (8.12.2023).
  • 16 Alan O’Leary: Workshop of Potential Scholarship, in: NECSUS Spring #Solidarity, 2021, https://necsus-ejms.org/workshop-of-potential-scholarship-manifesto-for-a-parametric-videographic-criticism/ (8.12.2023).
  • 17Ibid.
  • 18Abraham Flexner: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, in: Harpers, 179, June/November 1939, www.ias.edu/sites/default/files/library/UsefulnessHarpers.pdf (8.12.2023).
  • 19Miklós Kiss: Desktop Documentary: From Artefact to Artist(ic) Emotions, in: NECSUS Spring #Solidarity, 2021, necsus-ejms.org/desktop-documentary-from-artefact-to-artistic-emotions/ (8.12.2023).
  • 20Kevin B. Lee: The Video Essay: Lost Potentials and Cinematic Futures, 2018, vimeo.com/298734232 (8.12.2023).
  • 21Evelyn Kreutzer, Johannes Binotto: A Manifesto for Videographic Vulnerability, in: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Videography, June 12, 2023, zfmedienwissenschaft.de/en/online/videography-blog/manifesto-videographic-vulnerability (8.12.2023).
  • 22Ibid.
  • 23Ibid.
  • 24O’Leary, Workshop of Potential Scholarship.
  • 25Susan Harewood: Seeking a Cure for Cinephilia, in: The Cine-Files. A Scholarly Journal of Cinema Studies. Special issue (15) on the scholarly video essay, 2020, www.thecine-files.com/seeking-a-cure-for-cinephilia/ (8.12.2023).
  • 26Ibid.
  • 27O'Leary, Workshop of Potential Scholarship.

Bevorzugte Zitationsweise

Kiss, Miklós: Was hat es mit dem ‹Akademischen› in der videografischen Forschung auf sich? . In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Videography, , https://zfmedienwissenschaft.de/online/was-hat-es-mit-dem-akademischen-der-videografischen-forschung-auf-sich.

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