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FIRST ENCOUNTER: “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” May 22, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Ryan Trecartin - I-Be Area, 2007

Today, a reading of a classic essay by art history titan Rosalind Krauss: “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” Full of sharp insights still relevant to video art today, I found it especially relevant — though ultimately insufficient — for understanding the phenomenon of YouTube and mumblecore (a paper I’m working on).

The central idea is simple: the medium of video is narcissism, or, in less Freudian terms, an obsession with the self.

“In that image of self-regard is configured a narcissism so endemic to works of video that I find myself wanting to generalize it as the condition of the entire genre.” She asks: is “the medium of video is narcissism”?

Krauss gets to her point when she brings in Lacan. She uses Lacan’s theorizing of the mirror stage to suggest that video is like the silence in a therapy session. A person realizes he is a construction or object of himself. He, in my words, becomes a stranger unto himself. The difference between a mirror (Lacan’s metaphoric image) and video is that video collapses time, subject and object. The performer is able to see himself as an object. Subject becomes object. This phenomenon is pretty erotic (Krauss cites Benglis’ Now) and leads to obsession: hence, narcissism.

This self-obsession doesn’t say much, Krauss implies. It’s self-satisfying and provides no criticism or evaluation of subjectivity or objecthood.

I agreed with most of her point, and I relished finding an essay from 1976 that talks about the camera as a tool for self-broadcasting. It’s hard to find predecessors to YouTube beyond the 90s-00s webcam movement. Most of video/films prior to that were cinema and homemade videos, neither of which completely suffice.

New media has, however, transformed the camera. It has allowed users — or performers — to work through issues of self-alienation and despair. The most recent example being the 16 year-old girl who cried in despair at the loss of her legal prosecution of her alleged rapist. These “working through” moments, in my opinion, is less about disassociation — being alienated from oneself — than narrativization — writing one’s own story. Through narrative, people feel whole. It’s a stunning process to watch and it’s productive not only for the performers themselves, but for the viewers as well, who watch in occasional cynicism but more often in wonder.

Krauss says video cuts the self (object) away from external objects. It’s more than lonely, it’s solipsistic, she implies. But in new media, the self is networked with others as well. This makes it possible to have a open, human, intimate spaces, as opposed to a myopic, objectified spaces (the spaces of Foucault, Lacan and Barthes if you’ll allow me to get carried away). It suggests the postmodernist, psychoanalytic framework might not be enough to describe how video operates in the 21st century.

It’s telling that the videos Krauss describes are not overtly emotional — some video art was — or when it was emotional, it was “put on.” I think YouTube, as a potential space for emotional honesty, is a foil to this. Some vloggers — most? — are denser and deeper than objects and different kinds of subjects.

FIRST ENCOUNTER: Bakhtin and the Carnivalesque April 25, 2008

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So last night after an exhausting day — 4 hours of class, a presentation, preparing to teach today, starting a paper on realism — I came home in the mood for reading. I selected a random essay in the Cultural Theory and Popular Culture reader, and I’m so glad I did! Here is my take on my first reading of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Carnival and the Carnivalesque:”

My favorite quote comes early, it’s what woke me up last night:

“Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectactors. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. Carnival is not contemplated, and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is, they live a carnivalesque life.”

Bakhtin goes on to discuss how the carnival — primarily a Renaissance phenomenon — opened up a space where social distinctions become blurred, hierarchies suspended, free contact between people became possible, and parody allowed for open critique, “an entire system of crooked mirrors elongating, diminishing, distorting in various directions and to various degrees.”

There’s a lot more there, but I want to focus on these concepts. I know there is tendency to take Bakhtin and run with him in all sorts of direction, but I cannot help but think of parallels to the current new media environment — and perhaps a large part of contemporary youth subculture.

Let me break it down.

There’s been this fantasy in new media studies that the Internet collapses boundaries and distinctions. We can think of the now infamous 1997 MCI commercial made famous by Lisa Nakamura: “there is no race.” “there is no gender” “there are no disabilities” online. It seems foolish now, but perhaps we can salvage the thrust behind the campaign.

I’m studying the performance of camp on YouTube right now, and, despite the prevalence of homophobia, one of the interesting things I notice is the amount of “normalcy” the performers confer to their vlogging. On YouTube, they just “are.” (“I’m just being me,” I hear often.) There is a sense of marginality, but it’s usually discussed as if it’s something that only gives the performers more agency, not less.

There are so many “weird” people on YouTube that hierarchical distinctions from the “real world” matter a bit less. It isn’t MCI’s utopia (or Cisco’s “Human Network” or the Washington Post’s “OnBeing”) but it’s this sense of finding a place for oneself in democracy’s individualist, neoliberal framework, in ways that begin to transform the definitions — individual, citizen, male, female — themselves.

Bakhtin, a favorite of postmodernists, talked a bit of “disruption” in the carnival. But perhaps we can see the new media carnival not as “disruptive” per se, but progressive and inclusive instead. A colleague of mine, C. Riley Snorton, talks about the “radical politics of hope” (before Obama, mind you), and while he’s never explained this to me in detail, I suspect this is somehow related. In other words, rather than lament the system, decry “power,” people online are finding ways of articulating their own kind of power, in ways that seek to remake the “system” from within, in ways that blur the lines between performers (agents) and spectators (subjects). (Think: can there be anything more neoliberal than YouTube?)

Perhaps I’ll write more on this later. This was just my stream-of-consciousness thoughts on my first reading of Bakhtin.

FIRST ENCOUNTER: Michele White, The Body and the Screen April 20, 2008

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The first First Encounter! This is a small reading, Michele White’s chapter on webcams, “Too Close to See, Too Intimate a Screen,” from her book. For a review of the whole book by people more attentive than I see RCCS. (the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies is a brilliant resource regardless).

White’s chapter will be invaluable to all the papers I’m writing now — two on YouTube, and one on mumblecore. What works best in her argument is her suggestion that traditional critical scholarship doesn’t really work online. The deconstruction/psychoanalytic paradigms of the 60s–>80s often cannot take into account the complexity of online spaces and the power the individual (yes, the individual) has over his/her own representation. Moreover critical scholars fail to realize that theories about media arose during the mass media model, which we’re still under today, but which is being challenged as we speak. It was once assumed that no one deconstructed or thought critically about the media, academics had to do it for them. With websites like Obama Messiah, I think a lot of people — not all but a lot — have the agency to break down representations themselves (PS – I heart Obama).

This is exactly what my YouTube art project is about. What happens to critical theory when a person, long thought to be powerless, can deconstruct, construct and reconstruct their own self-image? Michele White says we need new theories. I think she’s right, though some good theories are out there (including classics like Michel de Certeau).


– White calls webcam broadcasters “operators,” to imply that they have some control. She then goes on to show how women empower themselves, by revealing themselves in ways they think are appropriate, by refusing to be identified in the audience’s terms, and even by insulting the audience, “resisting” representation — or construction by others. [This is, in fact, subject of a talk I’m giving this summer in the Hague: see paper here (on top, “Agency…”)]

-Operators often “don’t really care what anyone else thinks,” the kind of positive solipsism explained well, in my opinion, by Geert Lovink (chapter 1).

-Webcam operators talk about their own and other webcams in terms of them being “real,” “live,” etc., dismissing the mediated nature of it al;: “Webcam sites rely on our willingness to connect digital images with photographs and to believe that we are receiving unmediate traces of the real or a virtual body that is still made of flesh.” (74). I don’t see any problem here, and it’s not specific to webcams! In studying anonymous blogs that were only text, there were still efforts to “embody” the text. But our physical reality can be just as fake, so we should stop mourning the real. Everything is open to interpretation, so we can be free! Let it be, I say.

-Viewers can be seen as props of the person broadcasting him/herself (79). So “to be looked at” is not the same as “to be disempowered.” An important point. In my own study, bloggers really treated the audience ambivalently, using them when necessary to make points but disregarding them when they disagreed.

– Visual media do not need to be part of an objectifying process. The binary can sometimes break down.


“The privileging of a distant male subject position, which is figured in such media as traditional Hollywood film, is becoming less viable as computers and close viewing experiences are increasingly incorporated into varied situations.” (58.)

“The webcam spectator is situated in a place where voyeurism is constantly promised and yet theoretically unattainable because there is no distanced position.” (84) In other words, you’re too close to the object of your viewing to objectify them. Profound!

I glossed over a lot of things, so I apologize. But I liked White’s chapter. It proves that theories often don’t reflect lived experience (Hello Geertz!), that ethnography can have redemptive power and the Internet is complex thing.

My only minor problem is her — only sometimes! — insistence that this is a distinctly gendered experience. I think, in fact, this is how it is for almost every Internet producer* (except you, Kathy Sierra). White nods at this occasionally, but I would’ve preferred it be part of her larger point.

*PS – obviously we can critique whether or not online producers (or users, or prosumers, or produsers) are a biased sample, that diswwww.empowered people — disempowered for whatever reason — simply don’t produce online. I think that’s a fruitful question.