The Audiovisual Research Essay as an Alternative to Text-Based Scholarship
If there is something more desperate than the recent flood of articles about the so-called ‘crisis’ and ‘decline’ of the humanities, then it is the humanities subjects’ defensive response to such a challenge, (further) theorising this situation rather than offering substantial alternatives to their own changing context and conditions. The crisis, if there is one, is not directly related to contemporary art and culture, but it may be one confronting the possibilities for expressive form within our academic disciplines. The humanities, today, are struggling to communicate their otherwise intact values in a changing environment in which there is a much greater worth placed on knowledge distribution. Excessive theoretical treatments and their text-bound accompaniments lose merit in an era of greater cultural productivity and more efficient communications, one in which students and scholars are increasingly becoming creative entrepreneurs, building their reputations through new and more publicly visible forms and platforms. The emergence of affordable information technologies, with their capacity for online self-expression and dissemination, allow for, indeed, actively encourage this new creativity, potentially resulting in more progressive and enduring forms of knowledge production and articulation.
Among many of the emerging possibilities, the creative exploration of videographic practice not only supports the self-expression and visibility of humanities students, but, through the inevitable reliance of this practice on the ‘multimedia principle’ (according to Richard Mayer’s insight, “people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone” ) and a ‘learning by doing’ approach (Schank et al 1999), such an exploration might also be capable of deepening theoretical reflections on representation, medium-specificity and contemporary art and culture more generally. In smoothing out the divide between vertical and horizontal knowledge-dissemination, that is, by removing the hierarchy between educators and learners, videographic practice transforms the customary learning curve from knowledge-reproduction to active production. Through its multimedia affordances, audiovisual work could evolve to become a novel scholarly technique that might complement the longstanding tradition of the written paper.
However, videographic work has the opportunity to become a highly effective and powerful form of scholarly output only if it maintains and safeguards the established principles and criteria of value of text-based academic work. These are clearly defined in many standard guides to academic writing (for example, Kirszner and Mandell 2008), as well as in ones specifically about writing about cinema (see, among others, Bordwell 2004, Corrigan 2004, Gocsik, Barsam and Monahan 2013). A challenging (and inspiring) task, both for the producer and for the teacher of videographic works, is to transfer these well-defined but text-focused criteria to the new, audiovisual scholarly medium. This perplexing challenge of discrepancies between media has a long history, at least in Film Studies. Raymond Bellour’s 1975 article, ‘The Unattainable Text’, marks a pivotal moment within the theory of film analysis by reflecting on the then irresolvable medium divide. “[T]he text of the film is unattainable because it is an unquotable text” – Bellour (20) famously concludes, struggling with the gap between the audiovisual medium studied and his textual means of analysis. What once was unattainable, today becomes a feasible practice: in his 2012 contemplation of the video essay’s potential to contribute to ‘the future of academic film and television criticism’ Erlend Lavik states that “[f]or the first time, there is material equivalence between film and film criticism, as both exist – or can be made to exist – simply as media files.” What once was a theoretical speculation has now become a much simpler, practical and technical question.
I see the audiovisual essay by Thomas van den Berg, that I have curated as part of my contribution to [in]Transition, as a worthy attempt not only at transferring text-based academic qualities to an audiovisual container, but also at addressing Bellour's frustration, and supporting Lavik’s ideal. During Spring term 2013 Thomas, a research masters student at the University of Groningen, produced this work as a final assignment for my course ‘Arts and Cultural Change’. The fairly extensive, more than half an hour long, essay consists of two main parts: after a brief introduction, the video offers a rapid walkthrough of the differences between ‘essay(istic) films’, ‘video essays’, and ‘essay videos’ [01’10” – 3’54”]; this is then followed by a thorough audiovisual research essay about the various techniques of unreliability present in Michael Walker’s puzzling film Chasing Sleep (2000) [3’55” – 35’53”].
While reflecting on the format, Thomas has a rather categorical, if not strict, take on the academic function of an essay video approach, which, according to him, “seeks to combine the referential character of the academic tradition, and exploit the traits of the audiovisual mode of presentation; employing text and image beyond the case study at hand” [3’38” – 3’49”]. In short, he seems to agree with Drew Morton in the view that “most published [visual essays] suffer from a perceived lack of academic integrity.” At this point, instead of trying to define the new format’s relationship to ‘academic integrity’, it is better to note that the present video, as an autonomous argumentative research essay, is only one among the possible demonstrations of the videographic form that can be of value to Film Studies. Let me remind you of the words of Catherine Grant who points out that “digital video is usefully seen not only as a promising communicative tool with different affordances than those of written text, but also as an important emergent cultural and phenomenological field for the creative practice of our work as film scholars.” What this also implies is that it is not evident whether producers of videos should be “aiming to ‘translate’ the (often unspoken) norms and traditions of written film studies into audiovisual versions, or (…) embrace from the outset the idea [of] creating ontologically new scholarly forms.” If one agrees with this reasonably inclusive approach, then setting any general evaluation and review criteria to videographic work becomes rather difficult. At least without prior effort on distinguishing sub-genres, communication purposes and addressed audiences within both poetic and argumentative works, it is impossible, and altogether useless, to peer-review videos (whose vast range includes annotated excerpts, mashups and supercuts, fan tributes, video lectures, thesis videos, research essays, etc.).
From this abundant diversity of audiovisual works, an autonomous argumentative research essay, the type that Thomas made as a course assignment, lends itself more easily to some pre-existing academic standards – recognised in traditional textual scholarship – and hence eases the task of evaluation. It is autonomous as it provides, just like a traditional academic paper, a self-contained standalone experience, and argumentative as it offers thesis-driven explicit reasoning (further examples of argumentative research essays, created for Janet Bergstrom’s UCLA seminar, are listed in the appendix of Matthias Stork’s interview with Bergstrom). David Bordwell’s concise but helpful writing manual recommends a simple rule, which could be applicable both to the production and to the assessment of this type of visual essay: “You can sum up the structure of an argumentative essay in the acronym TREE: Thesis supported by Reasons that rest upon Evidence and Examples” (19). While Bordwell follows his own scholarly method (and high standards) in terms of delivering immense knowledge through sound argumentation, his video essays – produced by Erik Gunneson – work more as video lectures presenting voice-overed film stills (Constructive Editing in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket ) or PowerPoint slides on auto-play (How Motion Pictures Became the Movies ; CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See without Glasses! ). In terms of organisation, research videos, as much as written texts, need to present an apt and original thesis, employ propositions, premises, verification, and conclusion. The Wadsworth Handbook, Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell’s go-to guide to academic writing, might also be helpful in planning, shaping, drafting, writing up, and referencing a sound research argument – see especially their ‘storyboarding’ method for the visually oriented (49-50). Reverse engineering these criteria to the argumentative kind of video essay at hand might offer useful guidance, and what is more validation, to the reviewing process. On the other hand, this one-to-one correspondence between textual and audiovisual works does not readily apply to questions regarding assessing aesthetic and technical choices. While the aesthetic qualities of a video essay are subordinated to and controlled by the success – clarity and soundness – of communicating a lucid argument, technical merits, determined by the videographic worker’s audiovisual literacy, remain subjective and therefore difficult to evaluate rationally.
Before inviting you to press play on Thomas' video, I would like to make a final remark. I do not think that videographic works will take the place of traditional textual forms of representing results in Film Studies, but I do see reasons why, and evidence for how, their implementation could provide a valuable contribution to research and educational practices, and, ultimately, offer a viable alternative to addressing the humanities’ crisis of expression and visibility.
Bellour, Raymond. “The Unattainable Text,” Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1975): 19-27.
Berg, Thomas van den. (Un)reliable (Un)reliability: or, Perceptual Subversions of the Continuity Editing System. (2013). Online at: https://vimeo.com/73310641.
Bordwell, David.The McGraw-Hill Film Viewer’s Guide. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004).
Corrigan, Timothy J. A Short Guide to Writing About Film. Fifth edition (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005).
Gocsik, Karen, Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan 2013. Writing About Movies. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company.
Grant, Catherine. “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking,” Aniki Vol. 1, No. 1 (2014): 49-62. Online at: http://aim.org.pt/ojs/index.php/revista/article/view/59/html.
Kirszner, Laurie G. and Stephen R. Mandell. The Wadsworth Handbook. Eighth edition (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008).
Lavik, Erlend. “The Video Essay: The Future of Academic Film and Television Criticism?” Frames Cinema Journal #1.(2012). Online at: http://framescinemajournal.com/article/the-video-essay-the-future/.
Mayer, Richard E. “Introduction to Multimedia Learning.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, ed. Richard E. Mayer, 1-18. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Morton, Drew. “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing” MediaCommons (2013). Online at: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/what-are-new-insights-digital-publishing/response/visual-essay-digital-publishing.
Schank, Roger C., Tamara R. Berman, and Kimberli A. Macperson. “Learning by Doing” In Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory (Vol. II), ed. Charles M. Reigeluth, 161-181. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999).
Stork, Matthias, and Janet Bergstrom. “Film Studies with High Production Values: An Interview with Janet Bergstrom on Making and Teaching Audiovisual Essays.” Frames Cinema Journal #1.(2012). Online at: http://framescinemajournal.com/article/film-studies-with-high-production-values/2/.