Watching The Pain of Others is a videographic diary that narrates my intellectual, affective, and bodily experiences as I researched The Pain of Others, a found footage documentary directed by Penny Lane in 2018. Researching the specific spectatorial experience that this film offers, my video produces two kinds of insights. On the one hand, it tells the story of a research journey, from the first encounter with the film, up to the formulation of certain findings that can be extracted from the video and, if necessary, contradicted. On the other hand, the video also stands as a performative experiment where viewers are invited to reflect critically upon their own intimate responses to online audiovisual media. This research statement attempts to account for both aspects of the video.
Entirely composed of online videos, The Pain of Others depicts how a mysterious skin disease called "Morgellons" (the existence of which has never been recognized by institutional medicine) has spread via the circulation of YouTube videos in which patients exhibit their self-diagnosed symptoms. As the manifestations of the so-called disease can be as mundane as itching sensations or unexplained rashes, almost anybody can recognize herself in this crowd-sourced symptomatology, and hence be effectively contaminated by the belief that she also suffers from Morgellons. Engaging in a complex dynamic of subversion of, and dependency on, YouTube's algorithmic flow, Penny Lane's montage demonstrates how the platform feeds from its users' anxieties and eagerness to connect.
In the context of my ongoing doctoral research about "netnographic" cinema (Kozinets 2009), I became interested in examining how the spectatorial experience offered by Penny Lane's film compares to the experience of watching the same "Morgies" videos directly on YouTube. To what extent does the film replicate, reinvent or comment upon the way these videos are watched in their original context of distribution ?
Getting inspiration from certain methods developed by autoethnographers Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner, I started my investigation by observing my own affective responses to the film and to the YouTube channels from where it originated. I tried to "produce [an] aesthetic and evocative thick description of [my] personal and interpersonal experience" of these media (Ellis, Adams & Bochner 2011), later to use this reflexive, experimental text as a foundation to address my research questions on a more theoretical level. Eventually this led me to formulate the following conclusion: by extracting the videos from their original context, Penny Lane allows her viewers to gain original, experiential knowledge about the affective workings of online virality. In ripping the videos from their metadata, she indeed enables those of us would have been repelled by their pro-conspiracy wrapping to engage directly with their most human component. Encouraging us to dedicate more time and attention to these YouTubers than we spontaneously would have, and inviting us to temporarily inhabit the gaze of one of their subscribers, the film thus allows us to gain an intimate understanding of the wide range of emotional responses that their videos can trigger, and that may account for their popularity: empathy, disbelief, fascination, confusion, voyeurism, disgust, fear... It is no coincidence that the expression "experiential knowledge" is most often used to describe what patients know of their ailments (see for instance Caron-Flinterman, Broerse & Bunders 2005): at both a thematic and a formal level, Lane's film defends the idea that sensitive, subjective experiences constitute valuable sources of knowledge.
At this point of my research, I had formulated an answer to my question. But what I had experienced during the research process had as much heuristic value as the conclusions I had reached. I decided that the best way to do justice to the way the film explores the meanders of experiential knowledge was to publish my own research in the form of a personal videographic diary – a decision the implications of which I didn't totally comprehend at that time, but I can now articulate as follows:
First, disclosing my process in the form of a diary allows the recipients of my research to identify the idiosyncrasies that have informed my conclusions. Incidentally, this concern for transparency also explains why I adopted a "desktop documentary" approach (Lee 2016; Diestelmayer 2018): narrating my encounters with the studied media on the screen of my computer is a way to acknowledge how I actually experienced them, and to show the way to whomever would be interested in replicating my experiences.
Then, the fact that this diary is produced in a video form allows my research story to also stand as a performative spectatorial experiment. This idea is informed by Catherine Grant's conception of the video essay as a tool for conducting "performative research". Referring to Bradley C. Haseman's liminal manifesto (Haseman 2006), Grant uses the term to designate "research performed in the same medium or mode as the subject of the research" (Grant 2016). Why not then research spectatorial experiences performatively through the production of new, critically informed spectatorial experiences? In editing together the studied media and a narrative account for how they affected me, I grant viewers a first-hand access to these media while producing the conditions for them to gain a critical understanding of their own spectatorial mechanisms.
Finally, that my research should be published as an online video allows viewers not only to follow my lead and reflect upon their own responses to the studied media, but also question how they relate to my video itself as yet another piece of online media. This is why I appear onscreen as an embodied, gendered, hence vulnerable researcher, and adopt at times the "vlog" format, which is the mode of expression of the films' characters: as the film itself investigates how new forms of knowledge are produced via online social interactions, my video invites viewers to perceive me as another knowledge producer whose authority can be questioned. This opens questions that are left for each viewer to answer: do you believe a person more or less if she explicitly claims to speak from a position of vulnerability and asserted subjectivity? And what role do the different interfaces within which her discourse is embedded play in your assessment of her reliability?
Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture (2nd Edition), Polity Press, Cambridge, 2015.
Francisca Caron-Flinterman, Jacqueline E.W. Broerse and Joske F.G. Bunders, "The experiential knowledge of patients: a new resource for biomedical research?" in Social Science & Medicine, vol. 60, Issue 11, 2005, pp. 2575-2584.
Jan Distelmeyer, "Desktop-Filme: Hilfe, da gibt's keinen Button!", epd Film, vol. 35, n°7, 2018.
Catherine Grant, "The Audiovisual Essay as Performative Research", NECSUS. European Journal of Media Studies, Autumn 2016.
Bradley C. Haseman, "A Manifesto for Performative Research", Media International Australia, vol. 118, 2006.
Robert Kozinets, Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online, SAGE Publications Ltd, New York, 2009.
Kevin B. Lee, "De-coding or Re-Encoding?", in Malte Hagener, Vinzenz Hediger and Alena Strohmaier (eds) The State of Post-Cinema. Tracing the Moving Image in the Age of Digital Dissemination, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016.