Justin Hodgson, University of Texas
Enculturation 8 (2010): http://enculturation.net/reculturalizations
"If we are to make this culture our own, render it legible, and make it into a new platform for our needs and conversations today, we must find a way to cut, paste, and remix present culture" (200).
- Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks
"Future generations won't have a 'dependence' on technology. They will have technology as a core aspect of their existence" (16).
- Paul Miller, Rhythm Science
No longer exclusive to industry, now residing at the fingertips of the masses, our media and media production landscapes are changing. We are moving out of the longstanding, industrial-based consumerist culture and into a culture that is increasingly one of digital consumer-producers, or what we might view as an emerging culture industry by the masses for the masses.1 And as we both consume and produce in this new landscape, and do so at rates and degrees never before seen, we find ourselves in the midst of a radical reculturalization: we are moving away from the blinding/binding spectacle of the "big screen" (Virilio),2 and moving toward more participatory logics and rhetorics of the "small screen," the computer screen, a new breed of interactive spectacle.
These emerging "small screen" cultures demand new sets of rhetorical abilities and new sets of compositional skills as they do not fit neatly into any of our previous modus operandi (cf., Jenkins 23). As such, for us to understand what these "new" skills and abilities might entail, and/or how we might teach them, we need a better sense of the implications of this "small screen" shift.
To start, we need to recognize that despite what the digital revolutionaries may want us to believe, what is occurring is not part of any economy of eradication, nor is it simply a game of replacement. Rather, it is a matter of convergence, where old and new media industries, practices, and ideologies come into contact in mutually transformative ways. Henry Jenkins has labeled this as "convergence culture," and its major scene is the "small screen." Or, in more explicit terms, convergence culture's very happening occurs in, on, and through the "small screen."
In this "small screen" shift, we have stopped being passive consumers and instead have come to demand participation (cf., Jenkins 24). "Small screen" culture has come to expect customization, on-demand access, social connectivity, and the ability (even if only illusory) to shape and/or influence content. These expectations being the result of (1) consumers possessing the very means of production, and (2) our producing electronic discourse and electronic artifacts at an unprecedented rate (cf., Shirky). What is needed, then, as we try to come to understand our current cultural transformation is not simply to continue lines of reductive or restrictive placement of ideas and ideologies (i.e., the revolutionary discourses commonly connected to digital technologies), but rather, as Jenkins has argued, "to find ways to negotiate the changes taking place" (23)—changes affecting culture, industry, institutions, epistemology, ideology, and the like.
One place we might start to negotiate these changes is in the realm of pedagogy, particularly rhetoric and composition pedagogy, as what seems to be at stake in this matter is tightly connected to the productive and consumptive arts, to creating and consuming electronic discourse, to inventing and interpreting expressive and/or rhetorical creations, and to participating in communities (via pseudo-civic discourse) that develop around these arts. Thus, my focus in the following pages will be pedagogical in nature; it will participate in a growing tradition seeking to prepare students to actively engage (and even subvert) the affordances of new media (cf., Arroyo; Brooke; Hayles; Miller; Rice; Ulmer; Warnick—to name a few). Particularly, it will be a rhetorical approach to a (relatively) new mode of delivery becoming common in the rhetoric and composition classroom: "writing" with video. And it will attempt to situate these matters in relation to one of the current biggest outlets for amateur video writing and remix: YouTube. But before we can get fully into the pedagogical pursuits of this work, there is a need to continue to situate this "small screen" culture and its implications so that the pedagogical aspects carry greater weight.
Jenkins' convergence theory seem ideally positioned for understanding the implications of the "small screen" turn as his core claim is that "convergence culture represents a shift in the ways we think about our relations to media" (22). We can also find similar arguments between media (users and practices) and culture in Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's work on remediation.3 There, they tell us that remediation is "the representation of one medium in another" (45), and they situate this practice, which we might view as the repurposing of content across media, as "the defining characteristic of new digital media" (45).
Whether we call it "new digital media" or more generally just "new media," we need to take into account the relationships between the technologies making these new media possible and the culture that situates, engages, produces, and consumes them. For this, we might turn to Lev Manovich's Language of New Media. There, Manovich argues that new media can be viewed as having a computer layer and a cultural layer, with each influencing the other (46). What is occurring, in Manovich's sense, is a matter of reciprocal transformation: computer and culture being composited together, where the ways in which each gets developed, structured, or (re)envisioned is transformed by the other. Of course, the "small screen" is not only the site of this computer/culture exchange, but may also be seen as the very "cultural reconceptualization" (47) that emerges out of their interactions.
But we must work somewhat cautiously with Manovich as he situates new media between the cinematic arts and computer programming. While not necessarily problematic for the purposes of his work, it does tend to put his cultural layer somewhat in direct connection with cinema, and thus perhaps the culture industry. For our purposes, it is important to remember that cinema (and its aesthetic) are just one set among the many possible influences at play in "small screen" culture.
Thus, remediation as a new media practice or component of "small screen" culture might be seen as having touchstones in a variety of aesthetic practices associated both with computers and cultures—ranging, perhaps, from programming to print, speech to art, rhetoric to photography, interface to cinema, and so on. It is up to us, the producer-consumers, to bring these aesthetics to bear on our creations, to bear on the practices of our creating. Thus, beyond the adoption of a deterministic type McLuhanism—"the 'content' of a medium is always another medium" (8)—which echoes in the circular logic of Bolter and Grusin's remediation (Fagerjord 305), what matters is that we recognize (1) that all media can be remediated and (2) that they can be remediated by you, by me, by anyone with access and knowledge.
What is at stake here, however, is not a matter of access in the strictest sense. It is, rather, as Jenkins has argued, that what we are dealing with and/or should be dealing with is a matter of access-to-participation. Jenkins tells us that if we shift focus away from access-to-technologies and toward access-to-participation—that is, toward addressing the issue of having access to cultural conversations rather than simply the equipment—then "the emphasis shifts to cultural protocols and practices" (23). Once it is about participation, about cultural protocols and practices, about contributory politics even, the matter becomes of central importance to one's cultural power . . . to one's rhetorical potential.
The irony is that even in this view the cost issue remains, but rather than being an issue of how much money it costs to purchase equipment, the focus is on the personal and cultural costs of not preparing a future to participate in developing electronic spaces and forms of deliberative rhetoric. In this view, new questions begin to take center stage: What are the costs of individuals, families, communities, even generations being digitally illiterate or multimedially challenged? What are the costs of them being unable to participate in or contribute to electronic culture?
Thus, what is at stake here in "small screen" culture is a matter of personal, civic, and cultural access to the gamut of new media practices, procedures, and possibilities. Included, primarily so, within this realm of new media is video "writing" and related participatory video cultures. But more than just being a change in technology or medium focus (e.g., text to video), what we are dealing with is a transformation in what we privilege, in the processes we engage, in the methods we subscribe to, and in our very approaches to participating in the world. And all of this is asking us to reconsider varying pedagogical strategies, cultural conceptualities, and composing practices.
In addition to helping students gain access to the practices associated with participating in and contributing to "small screen" cultures, it is also important, pedagogically speaking, that we realize we need to prepare students to be more than just gifted hermeneuts. That is, we need to prepare them to do more than just sit in front of the spectacle, lest we simply recreate the passive, consumptive models of yore. To put it another way, "small screen" culture demands more than just consuming and interpreting the "spectacular" artifacts. Its essence, if not its very existence, is dependent on producer-consumers, on those who make, on contributions by the (individualized) masses for the (individualized) masses. This is one of the current transformations in how we understand and approach media, and this is why nearly every aspect of our lives is being reculturalized within this "small screen" frame—and increasingly within even "smaller screen" frames, given the technological turn toward cell-phones-as-Internet-portals.4
Continuing with this line of thought, and building off the work of Collin Gifford Brooke, in his Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media, we should see it as our task to prepare students to do more than just examine or interpret "the choices that have already been made" by other digital creators (15, original emphasis). Instead, as Brooke argues, we should prepare students to make their own choices (15), to create their own digital artifacts. For developing a digital essence in today's "small screen" culture demands that students contribute, produce, make.
What is happening, then, as we move more and more toward "small screen" culture is that we are asked to not only come-to-understand what this new culture is, what it might look like, or how we might invent or interpret its artifacts, but also to critically reconsider the ideologies that have come to guide our previous practices, mediums, technologies, pedagogies, epistemologies, and the like. Meaning that as teachers of the rhetorical and communicative arts, we need to critically reconsider our roles, responsibilities, and goals (in and out of the classroom) as what we and our students compose, how we/they compose, and how we/they come to understand that composing is radically changing in relation to "small screen" culture, which is altering the expectations of what is and what is not acceptable within composing practices (ethically, legally, morally, culturally, and so on).
For starters, many of the longstanding "not acceptable" traditions of print-media that have shaped Western culture for so long no longer hold, or hold less. But what we are dealing with here is more than simply matters of copyright or plagiarism, among other common print-culture concerns. Rather, at stake are subjectivity, process, situation, expectation, and even materiality. In a text-only or text-dominant world, writing is interminably linked to the single-author grand narrative. And what we are after here is not only more in keeping with Lyotard's petite recit, but also an authorship that isn't necessarily singular, nor one that begins with the words (or even ideas) of the author.
In "small screen" culture, to "write" in video, for example, commonly takes shape not exclusively from our own generative practices, but rather begins as an act of discovery—invention, in the most Aristotelian sense—where we "hunt and gather" the works of others not for idea generation but rather to form the very composing material from which we might work. That is, we compose with "found materials" or "found works" (cf., Miller 25-29; Rice 47-72), and in locating and using these found items, we compose not just with cultural artifacts, but with cultural memories (cf., Hilderbrand 50).
We could extend this further by thinking specifically of these practices in terms of YouTube, where we might consider finding materials as an act of what James Trier calls "cool hunting"—a combination of McLuhan's "cool" media with the YouTube video search. "Cool hunting" is an active and inventive practice for Trier and it includes both the functionality of the search box as well the paths we blaze via "related videos" that show up in our searches and/or video views—an "ergodic" sort of practice, to borrow from Espen Aarseth. But finding these materials is only the beginning.
We take these found materials and mix and remix them with other digital bits. We work them over and over again, juxtapose them with others, layer them together, recolor, repurpose, and reconstitute them until they begin to take shape and convey the idea or essence or even felt-experience we want to convey. That is to say, we work these found materials not until the expression comes out in our own authorial words, but rather until the mish-mash of electronic cultural artifacts comes-to-be our very idea of expression itself.
And here it is important to emphasize that what we and our students are working with are cultural artifacts. This cannot be stressed enough as it is central to the transformations taking place. We are perpetually working in and/or with cultural memories and captured moments, iconic expressions, timeless images, sounds, gestures, and so on, and all of these things contribute to the collection of materials that can be found in, on, through "small screen" culture—more specifically, found in the archive of YouTube, which might be seen, as Lucas Hilderbrand has argued, as the site of the fluid intersections of "personal experience, popular culture, and historical narratives" (50; cf., Ulmer's mystory and popcycle in Internet Invention).
The reality is that in our media-saturated world nearly all media are digitized and now exist as part of the "small screen" archives. Given this, even the somewhat-outlandish laws and guides governing the use of copyrighted video and audio materials are holding less and less because every digitized artifact can be sampled, remixed, and remade.5 We are at a point were the giant padlock on the mega-archive of cultural spectacle is being undone, cut, broken, hacked, released—and we now compose not only with individual memory, but with cultural memory (cf. Hilderbrand; Ulmer, Electronic).
And what's more is that students want to do this kind of recomposing. They want to create with the works of others. To remix their childhood memories. To mashup scenes of Disney's Mickey Mouse with Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. To re-envision and recreate the all-powerful Wizard of Oz as an 80th level mage from Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft. Simply put, students, and the larger "small screen" culture, have a desire, if not need, to fracture and refashion their cultural moments, cultural memories, cultural identities. And the basic reality is that they are doing most of this outside of the academy.
The Developing "Public"
Beyond the potential implications of our students being "digital natives," as Mark Prensky has argued, we need to understand that perhaps what is more important in the current transformation for students is not their birth date but rather that the very base-condition of their culture is changing. They are part of a culture that is becoming a "writing public" (Yancey, "Made").
In her 2004 CCCC Chair's address, Kathleen Blake Yancey drew parallels between the development of the "reading public" of the 19th century and the emerging "writing public" of the 21st century ("Made" 300).6 She argued that like the "reading public," members of the emerging "writing public" have not only developed communities of all kinds, but have also learned "to write, to think together, to organize, and to act within these forums," and they have largely done so "without instruction, and more to the point here, largely without our instruction" (301). Yancey says, what they have is "a rhetorical situation, a purpose, a potentially worldwide audience, a choice of technology and medium—and they write" (302, emphasis added).
It is important to note that Yancey's use of "writing" (as well as the "writing public's" practices of writing) is not limited to print or alphabetic text, but includes writing in multiple media (even multimedia). Or, to put it in more expansive terms: composing for this "writing public"—a public which we academics are also a part of—is, as Anne Friedberg has told us, a practice in which "we rely on new tools of access and creation for new forms of scholarship: composing with moving images, with sounds, with hyperlinks, and with online connectivity" (152). It is, as she says, composing that is "born digital," which is to say that "its digital form [is] not a supplement or a translation but part and parcel from inception" (152). Thus, what is at stake here in the reading-to-writing shift is not only a transition from interpretation to invention (or discourse consumption to discourse production, more generally), but also a shift in the means (and preferred mediums) of the "writing public's" discourse.
Thus, we might readily see how the shift Yancey introduces echoes the tenets of "small screen" culture explored so far: the move from consumers to producer-consumers, the privileging of making (invention, production) over interpretation, the change in emphasis from passive to active engagements, and so on. But the interesting question lying under this shift toward a multimedia "writing public" is that if this "public" is doing these things (and learning to do these things) on their own—that is, learning from each other and from corporate/industry productions, as Jenkins indicates (18)—then what role do I play as a teacher in the academy?
On the surface, it would seem to be no more significant than the simple matter that I too am part of this "writing public" and therefore I too contribute to this learning. But, as Yancey's address (and subsequent article) was delivered 6+ years ago, it might be argued that much of this learning and "writing" development outside the academy has actually moved back into the academy—and is the direct result of the efforts of rhetoric and composition scholars who have brought these practices into the field's mainstream considerations, not to mention brought these practices directly into rhetoric and composition courses.
For example, in that same year of Yancey's address, Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc published Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition, which asked about, critically engaged, and offered ways into teaching students to compose multimodally (bringing together textual, visual, and aural literacies—among other considerations). Similarly in 2004, Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid) published Rhythm Science, which not only brought remix and theory together, but which asked us to start considering the implications of these remix practices on thought, on invention, and on culture. We can see similar echoes of this remix focus and its importance in numerous other works, both in and out of rhetoric and composition studies (e.g., Brooks et. al.; DeVoss & Webb; Digirhet; Johnson-Eilola & Selber; Lessig; Reid; Rice, Rhetoric; Ulmer, Internet and Electronic—to name a few). Collectively, these help fold multimedia composing practices and multimedia culture into the considerations of the academy.
Additionally, there are a multitude of related works that offer different critical explorations for digital composition and remix, as well as explorations and performances of multiple types of literacies, like Stuart Selber's Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, N. Katherine Hayles' Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, and the corpus of Gregory L. Ulmer's work (beginning with Teletheory, which dates before Yancey's address, and continuing through Electronic Monuments). However, these too only begin to scratch the surface of print and digital scholarship that calls for students and scholars to create remixes or multimodal compositions.7 But one concern that emerges for me, and it is a concern to which this work is a response, is that many of the scholars working in these areas have placed their emphases on the reception or interpretation of multimedia practices and culture, and not specifically on rhetorical production. Thus, following the likes of Ulmer and Jeff Rice, among others, what this work is hoping to offer, then, is a turn toward production as a primary emphasis.
And while much of the "writing public" may, in fact, be picking up production skills and knowledge outside of the academy, it is important for us to realize that the particular rhetorical and composing skills, abilities, and considerations we contribute from within the academy not only make an impact for this "writing public," but are also carving out a need for us to continue to incorporate varying types of new media "writing" into our courses. As such, if our students are to be a part of this "writing public," the issue is not a matter of how they might be learning to "write" outside of our rhetoric and composition classrooms but rather what they might be able to do, say, express, create, change, shape, and impact with some expert guidance in developing more sophisticated, rhetorical new media skills.
It is from this position that this work takes its cue. While it does not attempt to offer any comprehensive pedagogical exploration, it will offer some specific rhetorical avenues into video "writing." The point here is that we need not completely abandon practices of old, nor do we need to start completely anew simply because we are "writing" in new media. Rather, as Jenkins indicates, we need to negotiate the changes taking place in this convergence, and rhetoric, which is not medium specific (see the shift from oral rhetorics to textual rhetorics, as one example), is ideally suited for helping us find points of connection within these changes as concepts and constructs translate and transform within the characteristics, styles, and practices of new media.
A YouTube Influence
Because this work is narrowing its pedagogical focus to video "writing," it is important that we take into consideration a major player in this area and what it contributes to this process. First, we have to recognize that YouTube provides an outlet for the mainstream and the mundane, the awe-inspiring and the abject.8 It gives credence to viewership, not sponsorship; it opens culture to the positive potentials of the viral. And in the mix of mainstreams and substreams there is a multitude of rhetorical productions that engage a different set of aesthetics and a different set of rhetorical practices than what we might find in YouTube's textual and televisional brethren. What's more is that "the videos themselves are not the most interesting thing about the space" as Tara McPherson has argued, but rather that "[t]he practices facilitated via YouTube instigate a shift in how consumers understand their relationship to media products and also encourage a networked, public mode of visual expression" (123). While the previous discussion on "small screen" culture has hopefully helped to establish these considerations, it is important that we keep in mind that video "writing" is meant to be made public (cf., Arroyo 250).
Even if the video creations our students make are not created for display on YouTube, it seems the exception rather than the rule to find a student who doesn't want to show his or her video to at least one other person. Unlike traditional, written texts, where students are hesitant to even read their work themselves, it has been my experience that students not only watch their video creations numerous times (revising and tweaking here and there), but they also go out of their way to get others to view their work. And because of this public dimension, students seem to place an emphasis on wanting to learn techniques, skills, or approaches for making effective or impactful videos.
With YouTube's cultural presence, with the "writing public's" desire to become adept in video composing practices, and with the development of communities around these practices, concepts like montage, collage, mashup, cut, mix, and remix (among others) have all moved into the requisite vocabulary of the "digitally literate." And even previous "writing" terms (e.g., transitions) are experiencing transformations, making them more applicable to a visual (moving image) culture.
Additionally, as hinted at above, other important issues like copyright, ownership, and authorship are moving into the muck. And YouTube is right in the mix of these considerations as it facilitates and even shapes these conversations: letting us take plagiarism practices and related considerations to a whole new level of complexity and impossibility as we collectively wrestle with questions like who owns a cultural moment? A cultural memory?
Thus, if it is our task to prepare students for participating in emerging "small screen" cultures—cultures that situate spaces like YouTube as major influences in their own makeup—then not only are the modes and mediums of our rhetorical practices changing, but also the ways in which we teach these things are changing. The nuances within these changes open much for our (re)considerations.
Becoming Available Means
In "YouTube Yo'Self: Let's Chart a Course and Then Ignore it," Virginia Kuhn writes, "It has become de rigueur these days to cite one's first 'YouTube moment'—the moment at which one was reeled in by the massively popular video-sharing platform" (8). Bucking convention a bit, I thought I would stick with Kuhn's first moment rather than my own as hers lends itself more readily to this exploration.
Kuhn's YouTube hook was "They're Taking the Hobbits to Isengard,"9 an entertaining example of repurposing as the video remixes scenes from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers film along a techno music baseline (or beat line). The video demonstrates several emerging10 compositional and rhetorical techniques—jump cut, digital anaphora, juxtaposition, and so on (techniques to which I will return),11 but what is most interesting to me is the way the creator(s) borrowed stylistically from one media realm (that of music—more specifically from dance, techno, or club audio performance) and turned the film into just another element to be mixed, scratched, spun.
This movement of film into just another compositional element is crucial for "small screen" cultural practices—particularly for creating rhetorical discourse in digital video platforms. The reason is that once a film becomes part of the realm of the Internet (snippets, if not the entirety, made available online) or once it becomes available for private consumption (i.e., sold on DVD), it ceases to merely be "big screen" spectacle (created, owned, and/or controlled by the culture industry), and instead becomes part of the "available means" for participating in "small screen" cultural conversations (cf. Lanham, The Economics 13). It becomes available for sampling, for appropriation, for repurposing, for reimagining, for digital rhetoric. And this small, but important move for composing with (instead of about) film/video has expanded the "available means" exponentially, opening the larger realm of digital rhetoric to the cinematic archives.
But it is important to note that this condition of being or becoming part of the "available means," of being in a position to be borrowed, sampled, mixed, repurposed, excised and/or plagiarized, cited and/or "paracited," is not exclusive to Hollywood productions. It has been the condition of and academic practice associated with alphabetic texts for quite some time (cf., Ulmer "The Object"; Derrida). And it is also the very condition of the video creations our students produce and make available to "small screen" culture, and students should be made aware of this fact early on. Anything made available online, especially on YouTube, can (and probably will) be appropriated, leveraged, repurposed, satirized, parodied, destroyed, and so on. Despite our best intentions to the contrary, despite ongoing discussions about use, ownership, licensing and whatnot, despite a desire to believe in the general good of humanity, if students do it "right," their creations may experience all of these things—especially if their creations go viral, which increases the likelihood of them being reused, remade, mocked, modeled, martyred.
This condition of becoming part of the "available means" is one of the great positives of participatory video cultures like YouTube. For to be part of the "available means" here is not to be archived in any traditional sense (i.e., locked in a secure room on a college campus), but to be part of a living, fluctuating entity—contributions that help expound and expand the wealth of materials available for knowledge production.
What is at heart here and what seems to proliferate YouTube specifically is not only that video has become just another compositional element, just another rhetorical element, but also that sampling/appropriating these entities seems integral to any considerations of emerging participatory video cultures.12 This is not to say that all YouTube products engage in this kind of sampling/appropriating, as many are point-and-shoot productions, vlogs, cartoons, skits/shorts, and so on, but any discussion about YouTube, or any discussion about making/composing videos for a social media apparatus, needs to consider sampling/appropriating because it occurs at so many levels: from composition to rights discussions to rhetorical strategies and on up and down the line.
It should be acknowledged, again, that this kind of sampling/appropriating is not a new enterprise; we have been doing this for centuries (if not millennia)—sampling and repurposing the recorded utterances and inscriptions of others. And it is not new to video either, as cinematic styles and editing techniques have been borrowed for decades. But the kind of repurposing done by the "Isengard" video, a type of comedic parasitical remix, opens a variety of considerations, not the least of which includes how these creations affect/effect what we might view as shared cultural memories: i.e., How many people know the story created by Tolkein? How many read the book(s)? How many saw the film(s)? How do these YouTube creations (and other related digital videos) change these "memories?"
Remixes of this sort raise important issues that should be pursued further, but many of those pursuits fall beyond the scope of this particular investigation. Rather, I want to stay focused on composing possibilities that seem endemic to the video "writing" displayed on YouTube—particularly with YouTube memes.
My approach, then, will be much like that of Rice in his The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media, where the "point is not to emphasize a given application or approach [in any singularity] but rather to consider rhetorical gestures relevant to new media practices" (7). Thus, we might view the considerations I raise in the following sections as rhetorical gestures relevant to video "writing." And among those gestures, I will explore two levels of consideration: elemental and stylistic, with each meant to open a conversation about video composition and not as a prescriptive or finite set.
We can approach pedagogical and/or rhetorical considerations for video cultures and/or video "writing" by focusing on the elements involved within any given production.13 Many of these elemental considerations can be or are associated with editing techniques, and, as a result, have touchstones across the board as the editing of elements and/or their compositing (Manovich14) can also impact stylistic level considerations. Additionally, there are an immense number of elements that could be considered here (i.e., characters/actors, appropriated footage/sounds, scripts, titling, coloring, etc.) and any number of possibilities that are production/software specific (i.e., extrapolations of native audio, playing clips/segments in reverse, varying visual effects, playing multiple feeds at same time in a single production, etc.), but I simply do not have the space remaining to cover them all (if such a thing were even possible in a single, printed work). Rather, as a sample or demonstration of working at the elemental level, I would like to focus on transitions, which can be used to introduce specific rhetorical considerations to students—and sometimes the skills students develop in regards to working with video/visual transitions translates back into their alphabetic writing endeavors, which isn’t necessarily the goal, but which creates additional points of connection for some students: offering a sort of reverse-engineering pedagogical strategy.
It should be noted that the available elements and their editing options have been covered, and covered well, for decades in film studies and film production courses, and so I do not wish to rehash the depth of coverage on how certain elements relate to or are treated in filmic writing.15 Rather, I hope to take a slightly different focus, and while there is sure to be some noticeable overlap, I intend to couch this discussion, in limited capacity, in rhetorical or compositional, rather than filmic, terms. That is to say, I hope to bring some rhetorical terms, concepts, and structures into the realm of video "writing" not by direct transposition but by articulating how these terms may be transforming (or may need to be transformed) given the possibilities of a video medium for a "small screen writing public." And to do this, I will focus here on transitions.
Transitions in video "writing" primarily occur between two (still or moving) visual segments.16 Granted, sometimes they occur across visual segments, like the dissolve transition, but for the most part they are a "between" element. Which means they are a communicative addition situated between two juxtaposed visual elements. They bind (or unbind) two visual moments. And it should be noted that one of the most prolific transitions is no transition at all: two visual moments simply juxtaposed across (replayable) time—a visual change that functions similar to a jump cut, but is not necessarily the same thing.17
The juxtaposition of visual segments without transitions (as well as the jump cut) is an editing technique students need to be familiarized with (perhaps couched in a discussion of a paratactic video composing style, like Hemingway-meets-video "writing"). But students should also be made aware that merely avoiding transitions is not always the best rhetorical move; sometimes videos need a fade to black, sometimes they need a circle open. Thus, it serves students well to start thinking of transitions as a conscious choice: Should I use a transition here? What kind? What am I trying to say? Would this be better without a transition?
What is important here, and this is something I find students more readily see in working with video than in traditional, print writing, is that every element, every moment, every frame in a digital video composition gets viewed as a choice. Even unintentionally not choosing is a choice, or at least that is how it will be understood by viewers, and students need to pay heed to this fact. Interestingly, once students start to grasp the level of awareness needed for composing video—an awareness of the impact of choice and the wide array of elements they need to be conscious of—it has been my experience that students often extrapolate this level of awareness to their print writing endeavors. This, of course, makes sense, as what they are developing here are compositional and rhetorical skills, and as such are not medium specific. Thus, after working with video and the magnitude of elements at play in those compositional practices, students seem to be more aware of a variety of elements and issues at work in traditional print-writing practices (i.e., design, style, flow, and the like) as they may start to realize that every print element, like every digital video element, can be viewed in terms of choice (from font to layout to quality of paper and so on).
Thus, regardless of the "writing" medium, making students more cognizant of the elements at their disposal, and how those elements relate to one another and contribute to the overall rhetorical effect and affect, can be a significant step in improving students rhetorical skills; again, it is a matter of expanding the set of what they see or understand as the "available means." In this regard, I use the elemental frame generally and transitions specifically as a way into discussing rhetorical possibilities: What effect will a transition have on the target audience, in this situation, in this moment? What about not using a transition? Can transitions create ethos? pathos? What is it that transitions do, and how can we understand and utilize that complexity?
Simply put, transitions help us move from one point or idea to the next and each conveys something different—often having multiple connotations depending on the surrounding elements and even other transition choices. Thus, the potential rhetorical implications of transitions are constructions both at a singular level (the individual transition itself) and in terms of the larger set of transitions, and their uses, in a given production. Additionally, if we use a transition over and over in a particular way in a given production, how people "read" it may also be different than its singular level implications; thus, a digital video production can change and/or reconstruct the meanings of its elements—a sort of ecological model, with each transition being part of an ecology of elements, including other transitions, and with each being interrelated as their meanings are constructed independently and interpendently. But for purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the singular level, the sort of denotative meanings, and use the dissolve and fade transitions as examples.
The dissolve transition, also known as a cross dissolve, video dissolve, film dissolve, and linear light blend, is designed as a fluid shift, a flowing through, a seamless movement from one visual element to another. In digital applications, the dissolve is often created by mimicking a controlled double exposure, with the first visual segment (VS1) gradually fading out while a second (VS2) gradually fades in, or it can also be created by the RGB values of the pixels in VS1 gradually being replaced by the RGB values of VS2, with either technique creating the appearance of one image dissolving into another.
As we move from VS1 to VS2, there is a bleeding through, a moment when they are visually intertwined, and this implies a level of intimacy between the elements. Each visual segment enters the other, their pixels penetrate one another or we might say that each opens itself to the other; they share a singular visual space across a series of moments (i.e., frames per second). This movement can be read in a number of ways depending on the visual elements the dissolve resides between (or across), but at its most basic level it indicates a continuity, a continuance of thought: VS2 is integrally related to VS1.
Much like the dissolve, the fade transition is designed to help combat the discontinuity that occurs from cutting/editing a film. They both get used to retain a bit of the smoothness we find "natural" to narrative (the naturalness, of which, is debatable). Retaining this "naturalness" is designed to help viewers move seamlessly through cinematic productions and create a logical coherence between visual segments. But there is more to fade than just creating logical coherence or continuity, for a fade (to black, to white) provides a momentary break in the visual. While we can make much from the use of black or white screens, as their shades are also fodder for rhetorical considerations, to which I will return shortly, their inclusion interrupts the video (even if unobtrusively).
Thus, any considerations of fade need to begin from the point of interruption. But these interruptions are not necessarily Freudian—they are not necessarily the suppressed or repressed (or abjected) rearing its ugly head, but rather are part of the suppression itself, using absence ("blank screen") to interrupt, to break, to slip into the (narrative) continuity. This particular type of interruption calls attention to that which it suppresses without ever allowing the suppressed, the discontinuity caused by the cut, the marring/marking of the filmstrip organism, to return.
And so it is important that students understand that the use of fade (to black, to white) is an interruption that breaks into and/or cuts off the flow. These breaks are jumps in the flow of the structure, but jumps that are not jarring. In textual practices, we often provide a road map or foreshadow these types of moves to help control the discontinuity, but the effect is nonetheless similar as we expect (in both compositional mediums) viewers or readers to be able to flow through the discourse we are presenting—a discourse which has been edited and presented as a continuous creation.
But the fade is more than simply an interruption, and more than just a continuity ploy. Whereas the dissolve is a move from one image to the next, the fade is a shift to a solid color screen, and those colors mean different things.
The fade to black is often used at the end of a production, signaling a break in the flow, with the ending marker coming when text appears on the black background. The same can be true for the white, but productions typically end with fade to black. And those that don't fade out at all seem jarring to viewers, which can be a rhetorical choice. The fade to black between VS1 and VS2 seems to indicate a moment of closure, a minor ending of sorts. If used in the middle of productions, it is often followed by a fade in from black, with similar subjects/objects appearing in the two visual segments; in this case, it tends to indicate a passage of time—a video "writing" ellipses of sorts.
The fade to white and in from white can also be used to end or begin a production, respectively, and used together to signify a passage of time. But whereas the fade to black feels like a moment of closure before moving on, the fade to white feels like a passage of time within the same moment, the same thought. It indicates that we are moving conceptually, but staying within the given frame of thought.
Unfortunately, transitions, fade and dissolve included, are commonly used in such a manner that is not consistent with the rhetorical intent of the message or, in fact, work to confuse the intention of the shift between the two visual components. But this kind of mishap can be a very useful learning method as it is often the easiest way for students to grasp the implications of how certain transitions do or do now work. Regardless of whether we take a positive or negative approach to introducing using transitions, what matters is finding a way into discussing their rhetorical, communicational, discursive possibilities and how they contribute to an overall creation. For if students start to grasp how transitions bind (or unbind) and what role that (un)binding plays in the message being created, they will be all the more equipped for creating effective rhetorical discourse, video or otherwise.
Style is a more difficult thing to pin down in video composition. It can be the result of certain video/visual effects (like the Ken Burns effect18) or by using certain footage capture techniques (like Hitchcock's vertigo effect19) or by creating a specific mood with a combination of elements (a vignette visual effect accompanied by Johannes Brahms "Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major Op. 83"20) We, of course, can take any number of approaches to help students grasp the implications of style—including a classical rhetoric approach focusing on the plain, middle, or high styles, or working with figures of speech (loosely connecting us, via metaphor, to practices of sampling/appropriating), or even by considering styles of dress (personal and cultural visual rhetorics), among others. But I find returning to rhetorical, if not grammatical, terms or constructs a fairly helpful approach; this allows for a discussion of style in structural terms as well as in terms of impact and effect.
For example, we might discuss palindromes as a stylistic choice. Richard Lanham defines palindromes as "[w]ords, phrases, or sentences which make sense read backwards as well as forwards" (A Handlist 106). Following his description, which we might view as focusing on elements within some larger composition, we might see rolling footage forward and then reversing it back to some previous moment as an example of visually performing a palindrome (with it occurring here across cinematic time, within a digital video composition).
This happens, of course, in many productions, where a clip, shot, or scene rolls forward and then backward (see "Communism" by L. Rusty Fausak as containing palindromic elements within the production.21) But what if we think of the palindrome as a style for an entire creation? What if we use this rhetorical construct as the guiding structure? What is the effect? The purpose?
To answer these questions, I have students look at the video "Lost Generation"22 by Jonathan Reed (posted on metroamv's YouTube channel) or the video whose style it appropriated, the political advertisement "Truth" by RECREAR,23 as both use palindrome to create their rhetorical message. What never fails to emerge in the discussions of these videos is the "aha" moment, the moment when students realize the reversal and what it is doing. This can be discussed in terms of troping (in Hayden White's sense), with the forward and backward movements being seen as simultaneous deviations toward and away from some central moment. It can be discussed in terms of the eternal return or in terms of the abject backing up into everything and undoing/unfolding the argument or moment laid out before. It can be discussed in terms of kairos, creating its own opportune moment, its own détournement. It can be approached in terms of argumentation, using a form of delayed thesis or even perhaps Rogerian argument. The palindrome, as a structure, as a style, offers us many possibilities—the full explorations of which can take on any number of looks—but what is important for the discussion here is that we see how a stylistic concern can also have implications at an elemental level.
Many of these stylistic constructs (rhetorical, grammatical, literary or otherwise) find application in video composition, and the palindrome is not the only rhetorical term we can use. Another example for consideration is anaphora, and/or its transformation in video "writing" that I am labeling as digital anaphora (which I will return to shortly).
In written/spoken discourse, anaphora refers to the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences, or clauses, or verses: "Today, we hold our ground. Today, we stand together, defend out country, our neighbors, our fellow man. Today, we make our mark on the history of the world." A simple enough example, one in which students seem to readily grasp the effect. And beyond my own illustration above, there are numerous historical and cultural examples to draw from—whether turning to William Shakespeare or Martin Luther King, Jr., which might have more impact on or connection with students. But what is important here is that students see or get a feel for the style of anaphora and what that style is attempting to do.
In my experience, students tend to start with the audio/oral components to put the anaphoric style into their digital video productions. This makes sense as much of what makes anaphora affective and effective is the pacing involved, the verbal emphasis and timing needed to make it impactful, and to translate that into the visual is a difficult thing. But as the elements start to take shape, the students, with varying degrees of success, bring the visual components into the same style. If we look at the "Communism" video I mentioned earlier, we can hear the anaphora in the opening lines with the repetition of the phrase "Here, in Russia," which happens three times across successive clauses, but we don't see the anaphora, we don't get the visual anaphora, until the side profile of Stalin appears at ~00:00:27, which also happens three times across successive visual clauses.24 These are two anaphoric moments, one aural, one visual, and they are not in sync with one another. And when working in or with multiple elements, this "in sync" quality, of course, is not a necessity. If they were to line up, it would change how and what the production communicates.
It is this quality of multiple layers of anaphoric possibilities being complimentarily or contradictorily co-present that is at the heart of my concept digital anaphora. The term is not just a reference to anaphora being experienced in digital media, but rather a reference to its expression in multiplicities. And once no longer confined to a single mode of expression, anaphora opens itself to a different kind of communicative and rhetorical potential—one made exemplary in digital media practices. And these digital anaphora considerations can be extrapolated beyond just an elemental level to include entire productions, much like we saw with the palindrome.
One last example I will provide here at the stylistic level is the use of aposiopesis, which seems to be used with more regularity in video compositions than it is in alphabetic writing, though perhaps not as much as in spoken discourse. Aposiopesis, which translates to "becoming silent," often is understood as stopping suddenly in midcourse, sometimes for effect. In conversation, this occurs quite a bit, whether people get lost in thoughts (or lose their thought) or merely stop to draw attention to a point, a statement, a moment. And it happens a lot in student video productions, though at first this is often unintentional.
What makes aposiopesis so effective in written and spoken discourse is that it leaves the missing elements, the absence it creates, to be filled in by the imagination of the audience. Or it can give the impression of the author/speaker being unable to carry on. Or it can give the impression of confusion, of the author/speaker searching for a thought, searching for words, that just won't come. And all of these can be done for rhetorical purposes. Often for pathetic purposes.
In video, aposiopesis can do these things as well, but it also seems more closely aligned with its translation of "becoming silent." For it is most recognizable as a stylistic choice when we are engulfed in silence (see the "Ain't We Got Fun?" video by Victoria Elliott,25 where near the end she uses an audio aposiopesis, in ellipsis fashion, to create the necessary effect, which is then punctuated by the concluding spoken words, "Then, you're on your own").
Of course, in video "writing" there are varying modes available for aposiopesis as the silence can also be applied to the visual as well, to an absence of imagery. Granted, a solid colored screen is still a telling visual element (as discussed with the fade transition), but in a series of dynamic imagery the solid-color visual creates a moment of visual aposiopesis. In this sense, we could consider the fade (to black, to white) a form of aposiopesis, but I like to extend the considerations of aposiopesis a bit further with students and talk about the effect an absence, pause, unfinished thought has on the audience.
The first issue I like to raise is that it doesn't have to be intentional to have an effect. As discussed in the transition section, intentional or not, all elements contribute to the overall creation, and having the audio or video just stop in the middle or at the end can leave viewers with a jarring, incomplete, unfinished, perhaps reproachful experience. This does not mean that all videos should be perfectly continuous, visually and aurally, from start to finish, but rather it means that if a video "writer" is not going to follow the "standard" approach, if he or she wants an abrupt stop, it should be done with rhetorical intent. Here I find myself revisiting discussions on the importance of choice, of being aware of all the elements and what they are or are not doing, all the way through the last frame.
The second thing with aposiopesis is that I ask students to consider the construct in terms of absence. This lets us talk about using the absence of elements rhetorically—creating particular moments in compositions, or generating particular affects on audience, and not just couch this aposiopesis discussion in terms of silence (the absence of sound). By taking this approach, students start to see how each element has its own life, its own communicative potential, and can be manipulated to create a desired impact, both in terms of itself as an element and in terms of its relationship to the other elements (and the larger guiding framework/presence of the video).
This is perhaps the biggest realization for students as it seems easy for them to understand how the simultaneous aposiopesis of all elements creates a break, an interruption of absence, a disturbance in a production. And it allows them to start considering how that interruption/absence might be read—with each student offering his/her own view, which is typically what happens with a general audience who brings a wide array of interpretations and imaginations to these interruptive moments of absence.
Additionally, one of the more crucial rhetorical potentials that emerge with this approach of aposiopesis is when students start to grasp how an absence of one element draws attention to others, how it forces viewers/readers to focus in particular ways, in particular areas. Here, students are gaining a new set of rhetorical abilities, one which is readily transferred to their visual rhetoric creations, web page designs, and textual practices, among others.
Improving, enhancing, and adding to students "available means," rhetorically speaking, is one potential benefit of introducing video "writing" and/or discussions of YouTube into a class, into a course, into the curriculum even. It can be a positive contribution that helps us better prepare students for a future that will include varying forms of electronic discourse; and digital videos and participatory video cultures may very well be a predominant mode of rhetoric, of deliberative and civic engagement, in that future. The more equipped students are at producing and reading or interpreting these kind of discourses, the better (electrate) citizens they may be(come), or the better prepared they may be to contribute to and subvert "small screen" cultures.
Additionally, as culture continues to be sampled, condensed, and reduced to fragments (and fragmentary moments of expression), and as these fragmentary expressions continue to be created by individuals, by producer-consumers, YouTube's importance will hold steady as it will remain a massive archive of fictional, factional, fashionable, fantastic, and fantasied micronarratives. And if we want to contribute to students being prepared for this "small screen" culture—for the fragmentary, dispersed, and individualized apparatuses that move into the mainstream—then we need to introduce them to some of the basics associated with "small screen" discourse, and that explicitly includes, among other discursive mediums, composing in video.
1 For a more detailed development of this idea of a culture industry by the masses for the masses, see my "Digital Spectacle and the Development of the Cultureal," in PRE/TEXT, specifically pp. 179-80.
2 See Paul Virilio, "The Third Window," an interview; Lost Dimension 25; and "the third interval" in Open Sky 9-21.
3 In their work, Bolter and Grusin indicate the synonymous qualities of convergence and remediation telling us that "[c]onvergence is remediation under another name" (224).
4 In support of this "smaller screen" turn, it should be noted that the iPhone comes standard with the YouTube application. We are moving video culture quite readily into the hand-held, mobile, communicative device. Also, it is important to note that much of the "small screen" viewing actually takes place within even smaller windows within that screen. So, perhaps we should be talking about "small window" culture, which would undoubtedly have grounds in Alberti's window and open a host of other issues involving identity, subjectivity, perspectivism, and the like. Not to mention the potential implications of the "visual remainder" that is co-present outside (surrounding, even) our views and engagements inside these "windows." But those pursuits, much like the mobile implications of "small screen" culture, fall just a bit beyond the scope of this work and so I can do no more than mention them here as potential twists, turns, and extensions that this work may be opening.
5 The Library of Congress and the Register of Copyrights recently changed its stance on the Digital Millenium Copyright Act to allow for various exceptions to "unlocking" DVDs, music, software and the like. They have articulated six exceptions to the current laws that prevent this kind of activity, making fair use exceptions for educational purposes, critical commentary, and the like. Granted, this rule change is only in place for three years, as they review these issues every three years, but it is yet another change leading to legally unlocking the cinematic archives for "small screen" culture. For more on this, see Nate Anderson's July 2010 article "Apple Loses Big in DRM Ruling: Jailbreaks are 'Fair Use'" in ars technical (found at: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/07/apple-loses-big-in-drm-ruling-jailbreaks-are-fair-use.ars)
6 This discussion of "reading public" versus "writing public" was part of Yancey's CCCC 2004 Chair's address. She later published a written version of the address as an article in the December 2004 issue of College Composition and Communication. The page numbers used here reference that article.
7 As an additional small sample, we could look at the edited collections by Carter & Clayton; Cope & Kalantzis; LiestØl, Morrison, & Rasmussen; Selfe; and Yancey. Also, we could consider the works of Anderson; Arroyo; Braun, McCorkle, & Amie; Brooke, Comstock & Hocks; DeVoss & Webb; Digirhet; Diogenes & Lunsford; Johnson-Eilola & Selber; Journet; Reid; Rice; WIDE.
8 It is important to note that the abject here is not without limits. While YouTube includes myriad videos of the utterly abjectional, they do not allow for pornographic content—thus there is at least one category they exclude. But it is also important to note that this exclusion of the pornographic likely is not simply a matter of following the moral majority but has much to do with the potential paralysis the site would face with the tsunami-type wave of input should they allow this type of content—as the porn industry has made masterful use of the Internet.
10 I refer to them as "emerging" not to indicate their newness—for many have been fairly mainstream since the avant-garde artists swept through and over high/popular culture—but rather to indicate their emerging presence in today's composition courses (or any course that may tap into new media or digital media "composing").
11 In addition to performing these "new" rhetorical techniques, this video spawns its own genre or style or motif as a series of performative responses and repurposings are made and posted in relation to this initial video. This stylistic-spawning is fairly endemic to our digitally-viral culture, with perhaps its best demonstrations found in sites like You're the Man Now Dog (http://www.ytmnd.com) and eBaum's World (http://www.ebaumsworld.com/).
12 We might talk of this in terms of how the "small screen" user helps create (or configure) the media/discourse and how that process or exchange is experienced itself as appropriated (cf. Warnick 30) or we might turn to the Do it Yourself (DIY) attitude that Alexandra Juhasz references in her experiences teaching via YouTube, which includes practices like mashup, remix, and the like. And while the DIY may be related to practices commonly found in Punk and other subcultural movements, and thus not be new to participartory cultures by any means, it does not necessarily carry the same kind of political or subversive attitudes as those previous moments (though, this does not exclude these practices and communities from doing so). Additionally, we can see echoes of this sampling/appropriating as part of participatory communities as having connections to the works of Rice, Miller, Lessig, and Jenkins, among others.
13 The elemental level I am referring to here is constrained to single works—i.e., any elements that can be included in a given digital video production and the various potential manipulations of those included elements.
14 Digital compositing "refers to the process of combining a number of moving image sequences, and possibly stills, into a single sequence with the help of special software" (136-7). I would refine this definition to be the combining of a number of elements, visual and auditory, and not just something exclusive to the visual/video.
15 The work in film is wide and varied and has a long history in terms not only of developing these techniques but critically situating them in terms of film theory and practice. Readers can turn to works ranging from Sergei Eisenstein to Siegfried Kracauer, from Woody Allan to John Waters, from Gilles Deleuze to Slavoj Zizek. Or, if looking for specific trade-type explorations of techniques and styles, a couple among the many are Digital Filmmaking 101 by Dale Newton and John Gaspard, The Invisible Cut by Bobbie O'Steen, Film Editing by Gael Chandler.
16 It should be noted that 1) transitions can also be applied to audio elements in a digital video production, 2) the use of audio to aid or enhance a transition is very common, and 3) the use of audio to retain continuity while making significant visual jumps is a very effective strategy. But given that the most common video editors available to masses typically only have visual transition effects, and given that it is these technologies that we commonly teach in classes if we are using digital video writing, I am limiting my transition focus here to the visual aspects.
17 The jump cut is a particular kind of visual moment where the subject/object appears to jump (move, in a discontinuous manner) from one moment to the next, often indicating movement when no such movement has visually occurred for viewers.
18 The Ken Burns effect, also known as the pan and scan effect, is where a zoom (in/out) and/or visual movement (over/across) is added to a still image (usually coupled with a fade transition). The effect, which predates Ken Burns' work, became synonymous with the documentary film maker not only as a result of his particular (if not prolific) use of the pan and scan but also because of Apple naming the pan and scan effect the Ken Burns effect in their 2003 release of iMovie.
19 Hitchcock's vertigo effect, also known as the Hitchcock effect or dolly zoom, made famous in Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo, is where the camera lens zooms in while the camera itself dollies out (or vice versa), creating a disjunction or unsettling visual effect for the viewer who perceptually tries to reconcile the contradictory movements.
24 (http://www.youtube.com/user/TheJUMPchannel#p/a/u/2/pA3jUMKOdxk). It is easier to notice the visual anaphora if the sound is muted.
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