Close encounters of the open kind

Curator's Note

Like many academics, I use blogging to reach out beyond my professional constituency to a broader community interested in moving image history and culture. My personal website offers open access to publications and video essays to anyone who arrives there, either by looking for book and article titles or by using a general search term. I use Twitter to alert my followers (a diverse group) to new material and these tweets are sometimes circulated to others outside my immediate cohort. I imagined that the viewers/readers who interact with my online presence are other scholars and researchers, and miscellaneous cinephiles. However, my experience with my video essay Mildred's Kiss (2013) caused me to think again, and changed my understanding of the methods and vocabulary of moving image research.

It was made in the context of an article I published in the scholarly journal Screen about Todd Haynes's television version of James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce, and was intended to support my argument about the faithfulness of his adaptation. It was addressed to academics and to those aware of the critical discussion surrounding the miniseries. I posted the video essay on my website to make it more accessible (the article in Screen is only available online through subscription); since then it has attracted many more views than my other video essays. Some of the interest derives from its appearance on other academic sites, but a significant amount comes via search terms such as 'Kate Winslet Evan Rachel Wood kiss', from fans who presumably engage with the erotic content rather than with my ideas.

I intended to highlight the sexual nature of the kiss between Mildred and her daughter Veda by superimposing words from Cain's novel over Haynes's images, creating friction between the two. I did not anticipate that one result would be to double the erotic impact of the scene, or that my own fan obsession and fetishism would be mirrored in the response. This brought home my connection with unidentifiable people who may have little interest in my scholarly intentions but are nonetheless cinephiles, outside the academic recognition of the term. Mildred's Kiss was made for study purposes, but what exactly is being studied? Open source publishing lured me into the unknown, de-centring my knowledge and expertise, and exposing the limits of my control over how my work is perceived and used.  


Pam: This is a fascinating essay with several layers on the “unintended consequences” (to borrow Catherine Grant’s phrase) of “open source academia.” It is interesting that the expansion of audience outside the scholarly context provided another lens within which to see your own process and interest in Haynes’s Mildred Pierce. The “lack of control” provided an opportunity, an unexpected self-reflective turn, to revisit your own investment in the film under analysis. What has been great about the posts this week in IMR is the way the move of scholarly projects into the public arena encourages us to ask ourselves key questions about our own work. There seems to be a process of de-familiarization that breaks the routine and bubble of the academic sphere. The objects of study, why we chose a study, and who is the intended audience for the work are all vital questions we don’t always ask ourselves as we build academic portfolios around established genres and discourses.

Thanks for this Vicki - I'm totally committed to open source academia, partly because (as you and others contributing here point out) it encourages us to think about established ways of thinking about and carrying out theory and practice - and the relationship between the two. This is a challenging process, in the best possible way. However, we are also confronted with imponderables that require new ways of approaching our field - the creativity to which Dayna and Catherine refer. The engagement with those who are often the subjects of our research is one way - for an article I wrote about fan websites, I interviewed website owner/authors. Most, but not all, of them were happy to contribute, and their reflections on their activities were so illuminating. This exchange made me think about my own position as an academic, my status as an expert and the nature of my connection with those outside my 'bubble'. This is one of the exciting consequences of reaching out to the public sphere, but I'm aware that we don't yet have the protocols to carry forward the open source project. The fabulous discussion here is a great start!

This post adds a great twist to this week's IMR topic. What happens when open source academia becomes truly open? I imagine this experience is very similar to that felt by film directors and artists whose work means something concrete and perhaps profound to them but is misconstrued by others. I wonder, Pam, if this provoked you to respond (as directors and artists often do in popular media and biographies) or simply come to accept the panoply of interpretations your work is bound to encounter? I think your use of the term "de-centering," and Vicki's "defamiliarization," are very useful in this context because they illustrate the dizzying power of the Internet as it runs on the segmentation, subjectification, and redistribution of content. And this can have its own revealing potential, just as your video essay does.

Hi Jacob - thanks for your great response - for me, the de-centering and de-familiarization process is welcome, and I wouldn't wish to reclaim my work from anyone who wants to use it in their own interests (whatever those may be). In my opinion there are no fixed meanings and in a way, my intentions are irrelevant, or at least just part of a wider process of rewriting/rereading. That is a daunting thought, and your question "What happens when open source academia becomes truly open?" is absolutely vital - at the moment, we are debating these issues between ourselves - how do we move beyond that to include others who are unknown?

Pam, very interesting post. And Vicki, yes - the points you raised about self-reflection are a thematic element I did not anticipate ahead of this week. Following Dayna's post yesterday, there is a certain vulnerability for ourselves and our work when it is released into the public sphere. When a video is posted on YouTube or Vimeo, it becomes intermixed with everything else - another media object, regardless of its intentions. In a journal, it remains separated - academically sealed. It is spared the "unintended consequences," but also has little chance of reaching beyond the walls of academia. While the defamiliarization is sometimes a shock, and sometimes a scary prospect, I imagine (and hope) that the breaking of routines and bursting of bubbles is also somewhat liberating.

Thanks Michael - the issues you raise are really important. For me, the contact with others outside our field means that we can learn from them, rather than simply assume that we will teach them. This two-way process will surely change academia for the better, but as you say, we have to be prepared for shocks and surprises ... not least the revelation that we are not the centre of the universe.

Pam, it's fascinating to hear you talk about your approach to the piece (even more so because I went through a James M. Cain phase, and I think your reading is spot on), and how search terms revealed both unintended audiences and readings. I've had this experience as well, getting a bit of perverse pleasure knowing that "slave leia car wash" brings people to a post on my blog about the marginalization and objectification of women in fan convention spaces. Coupling Jacob's point on the (occasionally overwhelming) power of the internet and Vicki's note on how this might productively produce "de-familiarization that breaks the routine and bubble of the academic sphere," we perhaps should also be talking this week about infrastructural tools or support to help us better understand how our work is understood As my own post touches on tomorrow, total control over how our "open" work is accessed, perceived, or critiqued is not a realistic expectation, but we can certainly take a scholarly approach to consider how "open source" academia is searched, sorted, and shared to make sense of some of the chaos that comes with the decision to make our work open. How productive this would ultimately be, I'm not sure, but I do think there's definitely something to be said (or potentially analyzed) about how open academic works are "stumbled across" via search terms.

Hi Suzanne - great to talk to a fellow James M. Cain fan! And yes, the infrastructural tools are so important to this process. At the moment, it seems difficult to find ways to understand searching/sharing mechanisms and their consequences - but what an exciting prospect/project. Looking forward very much to your post today.

Hi Cook, how profound your post is! I am impressed by your question "what exactly is being studied? " I think this is a question that warrants every researcher's attention. Sometimes we consider bureaucracy as a tool of maximizing the firms' efficiency. But, a deeper question is "why should the efficiency be maximized? Who benefits?" If we cannot answer these questions, it seems pointless to maximize the so called "efficiency", which might enhance employers' exploitation over the employees.

Hi Wen - thanks for your interesting response. One of the exciting and challenging aspects of open source academia is the complexity of the questions raised. It enables us to revisit, reassess and reformulate some of our cherished methods, assumptions and values.

Great video essay, Pam- particularly the juxtaposition of the words and moving image that brings out your idea. Your post makes me rethink that it’s the quality in which the audience engage deeply in a conversation along with your idea that matters. The control over the “connection with unidentifiable people who may have little interest in [your] scholarly intentions” may seem limited, as you commented on Suzanne’s post today, “if we embrace open source we can’t expect to control the outcomes”. Referring to Vicki’s comment, the IMR posts this week on Open Source Academia are great start to searching answers for “how do we move beyond that to include others who are unknown”, to get your ideas across. Great post on de-centering of knowledge. The lack of control over public perceptions and interpretations of digital argument is definitely worth discussing.

Thanks for your great comment Stephanie - it may be that we can start by acknowledging the limits of our control as researchers/scholars, and then move on to opening up dialogue with those unidentifiable user/reader/participants. However, this isn't without risks - first because it could be considered an imperialist enterprise if the dialogue is not clearly equal on both sides, and second because dialogue may not be an option, for a number of reasons. Are there limits to inclusivity in the open source project?

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