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a multitude of narratives

jrf's picture

it's a boy!

"When you find movement in your life again, I suggest rollerskating in your underwear!"

     Early this semester, we discussed the massive potential of the blogosphere as an arena for public intellectual conversation, open to all and constantly moving forward under pressure from ideas from anyone who was interested. Blogging, it seemed, had the ability to be “interactive, instantaneous, a text with multiple voices,” a “new artform…well suited to social action.” We’ve explored ways in which this has played out in practice—blogs seem to function as “public diaries,” inspiring plenty of exhibitionism/voyeurism but little back-and-forth, at least as often as they become catalysts for conversation.  The blog had enormous potential, but it seemed to lie in the small number of blogs that specifically addressed “social action,” rather than the millions of personal blogs that inspired no discussion.

     The video log (vlog) is, in most instances of the genre, intended to be a public diary. The visual presence of the vlog’s creator removes a great deal of the anonymity that we deemed necessary for the level of self-exposure that often occurs in personal blogs, and yet many or most vlogs function as serial monologues describing the vlogger’s life and thoughts, with a level of self-exposure (or exhibitionism) very similar to that found in the personal blogosphere. Just as oddly, many vlogs, personal and otherwise, are specifically crafted to create community and discussion.

"We need to act because Haiti is a nation of heroes, and we need to repay them for what they've given us."

     Ill Doctrine is a hip-hop culture video log created by Jay Smooth, who also runs a radio show and a blog on the same subject. IllDoc videos tend to be just a few minutes long, heavily edited, and contain Smooth’s musings on recent developments in hip-hop culture. Smooth occasionally responds to comments posted on his videos on YouTube, which tend to contain little to medium amounts of conversation or communal development of ideas, and to those on his site, which tend to be much more conversational and to explore the ideas he puts forward. Smooth’s videos occasionally also get featured on other social-issue blogs, where they may or may not inspire further online conversation.

     Ill Doctrine is formatted much like a blog post or a miniature television show, with a consistent style, a prepared script and (short) intro theme music. Smooth attempts to “maintain continuity” over the course of his videos in order to give them a unified, polished feel , meaning that if, as in the video below, he shaves his face between takes while recording a video, it is perceived as a possibly embarrassing slip.

(NOTE: Before you even comment on it, yes. Yes, I know. I was trying [to] maintain continuity and not shave until I was done but my face got too itchy.)

     Ill Doctrine, by bringing the genre established by other social-commentary blogs to the vlog form, engages with and challenges established cultural norms from a platform that is easily accessible and, in some forums, discussible. There exists a different genre of vlog-based communication, however, to which video blogs seem uniquely suited: a combination of discussion and public diary-keeping that works to create an online community, in the manner we had imagined in class that personal blogs potentially could, while also intellectually discussing ideas and identities.

“I see other guys’ videos, and a lot of them are worried about transitioning at work…”

     YouTube is home to, among many other things, a significant of transgender vloggers. Hundreds of people—a mass of ordinary transfolk, rather than public personalities—post videos documenting their experiences with gender, including regular updates on individuals’ transition progress, musings on various aspects of gender and transition, and how-to videos explaining various methods of bodybuilding, binding, hormone injection, et cetera. The mass sharing of these experiences by people in a very often marginalized and isolated minority creates a community that is both technically useful and, often, a support network in difficult times.

     In many ways, the identity-based benefits of the trans blogging community mirror those which we explored in relation to blogs at the beginning of the semester, as outlined by Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepherd in their "Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog." “’Taking care of the self’ in and through writing” is a parallel process, it seems, to taking care of the self in and through monologue. Both processes allow an individual to construct their own narrative of self, through what Miller and Shepherd call the “intensification of self” that self-definition through exhibitionism provides.

     However, video logs lend themselves to a kind of self-construction that goes beyond the writing of one’s own narrative, a self-construction that challenges the narratives already established to define the individual. At the same time that vlogging, like blogging, allows a coherent narrative to be constructed, it also allows for attention to be drawn to the framedness of that narrative and the ways in which it is constructed. In an online space like the trans vlogging community, which is intentionally based around the deconstructing of traditional narratives about gender, the form of the vlog is a particularly obvious frame that can serve as a parallel to the socially constructed frames with which the vloggers struggle.

“I have been placed in YouTube detention for two weeks…”

     The YouTube video blog form’s limitations are clear and acknowledged. A YouTube-hosted video can be no longer than 10 minutes; YouTube disallows various kinds of “bad stuff,” including “pornography or sexually explicit content,” in the videos it hosts, and a video judged to be inappropriate may be removed and its poster suspended. Video makers are also limited (and enabled) by their available recording and editing technology.

     In vlogs that are consciously trying to challenge established boundaries between genres of people, and to call attention to the constructedness of self and of society’s definitions of individuals, the clear limitations of the form—and the attention that must necessarily be called to them—serve to highlight the struggle that trans vloggers are undergoing and promoting. freshlycharles, the creator of the video above, posted it with the comment, "While I may scoff the binary, I sure do grapple with defining myself within the confines of its associated language!" When he comments on “YouTube censorship” in his video, he ties the form of his communication to the issues he explores within it.

     The mixture of forms that some vloggers employ also pushes the boundaries of the genres that diary-style vlogs inhabit. For example, the above installment from Ill Doctrine takes the form of a spoken-word poem. freshlycharles’s videos usually include the customary personal monologue, but combine it with musical interludes, panels of text, performances and occasional dance breaks. By pushing and breaking the borders of their literary/communicative genre, vloggers like Jay Smooth and freshlycharles challenge the validity of the socially constructed boundaries that they wish to combat.

     The effort to deny existing narratives while simultaneously constructing one's own occurs in many forms, and has been presented to great effect in genre-defying works. Films like Jules Rosskam's Against a Trans Narrative, which combines documentary footage, interviews, fictional skits, spoken word performances, and text to strenuously deny the possibility of a single, coherent, accurate story of transness, accomplish the dismantling of traditional narratives in a manner that is likely more efficient and more deliberate than that demonstrated among YouTube's trans community. However, it seems to me that it is remarkable to see this sort of willful deconstruction arising from and creating community.