Monday, April 7, 2008

A blogger amongst scholars (SCMS Part II)

As I said in the first account of my experiences at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies annual conference, my day at the meeting was was so overwhelming that it was almost too much to process all at once. I wish I had been there for a couple of days, if only to digest all the lectures, workshops and encounters. But I had just one day. And at the end of that day (4:00 PM), I was to present first in a workshop called The Presence of Pleasure: The Work of Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction. I was asked on to the panel by co-chairs Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb, who were seeking the input of a "prominent, academic blogger," even though I may boldly disagree that I am academic or prominent. Nevertheless, I was more than honored to receive the invitation, if a bit nervous. Panel members included myself, Jason and Scott, as well as Catherine Russell and Robert Burgoyne, both respected figures in film scholarship.

As both a student and as a blogger, I felt out of my league. But my presence alone at this workshop may be a reflection of some of the issues I've decided to talk about. Unlike most other presentations on the workshop, each of whom took on the notion of cinephilia in a uniquely focused manner, I elected to speak more broadly about the institutional frameworks that influence the variety of outlets for film criticism. Connecting this discussion with distinct proposal for a kind of digital criticism, i.e. blogging, I tried to examine specific film criticism both as a practice and as a concept, specifically addressing the question of what defines film criticism at all. What interested me most in this discussion was the odd prominence of binary structures in influencing forms of content and expression of film criticism. Working from the idea that film criticism splits into two kinds --academic and journalistic-- I examined the rhetorical and critical styles of both, as well as their respective interfaces and formats.

Given that this was a workshop, presentations were expected to be shorter and so I spoke for about 15 minutes roughly on these topics. While I tried to cover as much as possible in outlining the odd place within which blogging is situated as a medium for communication and a possible model for film criticism, ultimately, I could only introduce a lot of these concepts. My development of them will probably take place over time, perhaps in my thesis preparation and proposal next semester. But for the moment, at least, I had to keep it broad and simple. Which was extremely difficult to do because I was appealing to a particular audience with my presentation. I didn't adopt a distinctly academic or journalistic rhetorical style, and many of my observations I was able to make because of my unique involvement in many facets of film journalism and criticism, as both a reader and performer. I was more interested in the inter-relations among the variety of film criticism modalities, which is not a discussion in which many film enthusiasts seem interested. Depending on our training and expertise, many of us can address conflicts and issues within a particular body of criticism, which is useful and important, but to understand the larger social policies of film criticism, one must extend that discussion to external factors.

As it turns out, varying levels of professional criticism are not just at war with themselves --i.e.. journalistic criticism becoming ever-cutthroat, and academic criticism factioned off into so many theoretical viewpoints-- but also with each other. Academic critics rip into journalistic critics routinely, critiquing their critical values and structures. The same is true vice versa. So what we have are a number of "pockets" of film criticism, each with its own language and rhetoric, engaging views that are designed to fit that scheme (positively or negatively). These are concepts I mentioned in a blog post last October, in which I made many sweeping, mostly unfounded claims, but may have found the beginnings of a larger, more signicant argument:

"[T]he end result is a spectrum of sectioned off critics, scholars, and writers, all subscribing to different norms and practices within that larger spectrum, engaged in masturbatory dialogue wherein those who subscribe to the same theories, views, and opinions love the sound of their own voice, and those who disagree simply do not associate. And never once is the makeup of that larger spectrum that keeps them so divided ever challenged."

These systems have been in interaction for quite some time, as each has evolved over many decades and developed their own styles and sub-styles of critical commentary and theorizing. So how does blogging situate in this discussion? Rather intriguingly, it seems. The following paragraphs strike more to the core of my argument, or at least my articulation of the problem:

"These pockets of film writing culture rarely breach other, but they have nearly unanimously made certain to frame the debate over web discourse and critical validity as if it must "earn" some respect via the same means that enables published writers to lay come claim to validity or qualitification. The blogging debate is continually engaged on the level of asking the question as to digital democracy, which is indicative of publishing trends that too many writers and readers have bought into. Proponents of digital media and blogging are forced to enter the dialogue by defending this supposed wasteland that is the internet. In doing so, they are immediately handicapping themselves to the dominant underlying assumptions as set forth by published writing. The only way of seemingly entering this dialogue is to accept the pre-established position of skepticism regarding digital media and web interaction.

That's not to say that blogging is a "whole new realm", since this too is a rhetorical device emerging as the fierce alternative to the "internet is inherently bad" mindset that permeates the debate. Those who blindly sing the praises of the internet, hailing it as a bold new medium of communication, are essentially playing right into a dominant deology to which they are positioning themselves in direct contrast, thus sustaining a binary level of discourse that is required to preserve that ideology."

I expanded on this notion, in particular, observing that blogging as a form of criticism subject to many of the same problems and conflicts of the existing models of criticism, plus a whole other series of questions with regards to its status as a discursive medium. Speaking more to the connection of blogging and professional criticism, I noted that the model of journalistic/academic has undeniable set the course of criticism, and that won’t change. Digital criticism doesn’t displace other forms of criticism. It should, however, changes how they function and facilitates growth via reflexivity and re-calibrates our modes of vision and analysis for the ever-changing medium of cinema.

For instance, it is possible that the blog embodies a more immediate, flawed, and urgent criticism, one that is arguably more in-demand given the shear amount of cinema that is now available to critics and consumers. Of course, we need to take care not to resort to the "brand new frontier" approach and claim the blog as the site where true critical democracy lives. This is dangerous rhetoric, because, after all, the majority of blogs offer no insights or perspectives than that of mainstream journalistic criticism. Some do, definitely, but the majority of them do not. Furthermore, as Matt Zoller Seitz recently pointed out in a discussion over at the House Next Door about the fragile state of journalistic criticism, the only blogs with high readership and prominence are ones that are commercialized, displaying the same homogenized styles of the media to which they should be an alternative. On my best day here on this blog, I may get 300 hits, most of which come from image searches.

But getting back to this notion of the immediate, flawed, and urgent criticism I mentioned at the beginning of the last paragraph, there seems to be something developing on the non-commercial blogging front that's particularly interesting. For bloggers with or without professional experience, the blog in many ways represents the sort of bare bones criticism that is sorely needed. It's criticism without the gloss and glean of the finished product. it's more about the process of engaging ideas and challenging concepts, wherein we all the flaws of the perspectives are on display. But if we don't engage perspectives at this stage, we would become too attached with the conventional theories and styles of criticism that have become so internalized amongst professional critics of all types; which may partly account for the degree of fierce division I mentioned earlier. With the blog, we are seeing an erasure of line of professionalism between so-called "critics" and "cinephiles." With digital criticism, the meaning of those terms is not all that far off, and depending on your position as a critic and/or cinephile, your comfort with this notion will vary.


These were a few of my talking points during my presentation. In retrospect, I wish I had provided a more focused argument about the state of film criticism, because it felt like I was rushing through a lot of it. But when you're dealing with a subject matter such as this, there's no easy way to streamline it. Regarding the discussion afterwards, I should first note that it was a pleasure meeting some fellow bloggers: Jason and Scott, obviously, but I also met Zach Campbell and Chuck Tyron, with whom I talked further about blogging and criticism. I was also struck with the amount of attendees who were almost completely oblivious to the goings on of the film blogging community, let alone journalistic crticism. The disparity of reactions --from those who have not read a blog to those who do so adamantly-- is fascinating, as some of perspectives from those who have "dabbled" on blogs seemed to embody that academic elitisim of which I was so critical. The responses from people who do not associate with journalistic criticism, or the internet for that matter were equally interesting as firsthand evidence of a popular critique of blogs as a self-enclosed community lacking relevance to the overall discussion of film criticism. Although I did discuss the question of relevance earlier in my talk, I wish I was able to articulate my concerns about it; because it's a question not only facing bloggers, but film writers of all kinds.

Despite my own shortcomings and feeling like we only scractched the surface, I was pleased with the presentation and discussions. As I said, the goal was to illuminate central questions and concerns facing critics and cinephiles of all professional backgrounds as we move into the digital age of cinema and criticism. I've tried to explain why it’s become essential that we evaluate different modes of criticism and cinema, as well as the implications for the ever-changing relationship of cinema and criticism. Catherine Russell's comment regarding who specifically is writing for blogs is one we will always have to deal with, but as myself and others pointed out, the more serious (i.e. smaller) circles of film critic blogs are not as male-, white- dominated as one would think. Again, though, these are concerns for all of criticism, not just blogs. The willingness to raise skeptical questions about blogging demonstrates, in my mind, the "otherization" of new forms of discourse, wherein blogs and other new media must rise to the standards of established modes of communication. These concerns are absolutely essential to any discussion of the blog's validity as criticism.

One of central concepts in Gilles Deleuze's writing that informed his increasingly relevant and indispensible logic of cinema is the notion that people should become foriegners to their own language, as well as multilingual with their use of language. Deleuze routinely spoke of making language "stutter," of forming new relations within our systems of signification. That includes not just language, but all media. In doing so, we may thus understand movement in the more nuanced way it demands. This idea applies to cinema, but also to discourse and criticism. We shouldn't be looking outside the binary of academic / journlistic model of criticism, but within it. We need to find the "lines in between," as Deleuze might say. For that is the essence of digital cinema, criticism, and culture.

Moving ahead and advancing these Deleuzian notions of digital criticism will not be easy, since that would requires a fair amount of reflexivity about what we do as film spectators and critics. But if we expect to enact a digital criticism that transcends discursive formats and technological capacities of media, that reflexivity is necessary.

I’ve always thought of criticism as a discovery of thought and ideas, not a vehicle for conveying them. Good criticism, like good art, is always in the process of constructing itself. Like the cinematic image, criticism should be in the perpetual state of becoming. Sometimes all that separates critics and cinephiles is the rhetoric associated with them. And as digital culture and media become more constitutive of our critical, analytical, and professional capacities, we must constantly challenge ourselves to widen our perspective and understanding of the media with which we actively construct these models of criticism.

We are all students of cinema, and our own perspectives will grow only when we are open not just to new perspectives in criticism, but also new modes of it.


Jonathan Lapper said...

300 hits is pretty damn good in this line. I've checked out site meters when they're available, at first to see where I stood, later to reassure myself that I wasn't doing anything wrong. I've noticed blogs I go to that cover general personal topics, social events, literature, what they did yesterday and basic news updates get several thousand hits a day on average. Social and News blogging seem to be the places to go if you want a lot of hits.

But movie blogs I've found range from around 100 to 600 hits a day unless they're The House Next Door, Scanners or Cinematical. Cinematical is the biggest, and is also the weakest. It's a digital version of Entertainment Weekly or the now defunct Movieline. But The House Next Door and Scanners take advantage of their name brand appeal that comes from Matt and Jim and use it to engage film enthusiasts in conversations about film that go far beyond "reporting the news." I wish they drew even more readers but I realize we cinephiles are a small group compared to the general movie going public, a public that doesn't much care about discussing the whys and hows of film and doesn't know much about its history.

But even then we cinephiles are a segmented bunch. Some prefer to engage in academic talk such as Girish offers. I enjoy that too at times but it often feels a little too much like film school and lacking in passion for film itself (academic sites in general, not Girish). Some prefer genre talk and gravitate to the genre blogs like Arbogast or Final Girl. Some prefer classic movie discussions and find their way to blogs like my place while others find it limited and boring. Sometimes I myself find it limited and boring. Some prefer discussions of new film and find their way to Scanners or The House or SLIFR. And some of us, like me, try to go to every last movie blog out there because I can't get enough.

Your blog is slightly different in that it concerns itself with the subject of movie blogging itself more than most others I've seen. As such, I think you were the perfect choice to chair that panel. Reading some of your posts have helped me understand what I'm doing more clearly and I thank you for that.

jason sperb said...

Hi Ted,
Again, it was good to meet you in Philly.
I think your email caught me at the right time, as I just finished proofing the intro to the collection again, so a lot of this is still on the brain today.
Yes, 300 is something. I'm literally lucky to hit 30--even when I was referenced on the Chronicle of Higher Ed's website, I only had about 40-50 visitors for a couple days. So, your readership is something to be proud of.
I think this attempt of yours to bridge three very different "pockets" as you call them is ambitious, but worthwhile. On my blog, I mostly just try to write ephemeral ideas, which little attention to academic styles (which I reserve for the published stuff) or journalistic/evaulative writing, which I don't do much of.

But, I suppose that's a tangent--what I like about your project in relation to the collection is that we have been designing 'Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction' to speak to a multiplicity of those pockets, ie, respecting that different people write differently (for different audiences), and while avenues like the internet might bring disparate audiences together, people still write as they write. And 'Cinephilia' makes no effort to force different modes of discourse to directly speak to other modes. What is celebrated, in theory, is discursive diversity--although with still an admittedly academic bent, since that's what most of us are.

But, it is important as you attempt to do to also acknowledge at times both the gaps and the potential points of connection--especially online, since it is a collection about cinephilia in relation to digital culture.

Its impossible and problematic to propose an "ideal" mode of film criticism, of course, but that shouldn't preclude hybrids--or Deleuzian singularities. Your project ideally works as a book project, given its scope, but there's nothing wrong with starting with an article on how blogging can mediate academic and journalistic modes of discourse, while also articulating an entirely new rhizome of criticism. Stick with it.