A Minoritarian Digital Poetics of YouTube

[Martin Arnold, excerpt from Alone]


Does the short digital video shared over the Internet constitute a form or genre of its own? Do such digital movies have a particular sensibility? The film theorist Vivian Sobchack once argued that this was so. In her essay “Nostalgia for a digital object”, Sobchack points out that online moving images obey neither the putative logic of digital culture nor the putative logic of conventional cinema (1999, unpaginated).[1]  Instead, she argues, they constitute a unique form of their own. Whereas the governing metaphor of computer operating systems is that of the orderly office (with everything rationally and hierarchically slotted away into files and folders), downloadable videos tend to be, in contrast, ragged and fragmented, dishevelled, disorderly. This is partly for technical reasons — because of the simple and pragmatic fact that the artists and amateurs who make such digital videos are aware of the technical constraints and so make their works accordingly.[2] In the tiny size of the image, in the jerkiness resulting from bandwidth bottlenecks, and in the fuzziness arising from the necessary lossy compression, these short videos refuse any sense of totalizing sleekness or predictable structure. Unlike the expansive, outward-looking mode of address of “big-screen, live action movies,” Quicktime videos, according to Sobchack “draw us down and into their own discrete, enclosed and nested poetic worlds: worlds re-collected and re-membered; worlds more miniature, intensive, layered, and vertically deep than those constructed through the extensive, horizontal scope and horizontal vision of cinema.” The ethos here is that of psychological interiority rather than public address, contingency rather than determinacy, associative reverie rather than hierarchical logic, distilled intensity rather than expansiveness. Sobchack also compares such videos to precious artefacts of material culture that, similarly, call for responses having to do with pensive contemplation or nostalgic longing: miniatures, reliquaries, cabinets of curiosities, Joseph Cornell boxes.

Sobchack’s prime example is Lev Manovich’s pioneering online Quicktime artwork, Little Movies (1994-1997) but I also think of another series of online works, from the same era, by the artist Shirin Kouladjie as paradigmatic — even if these latter works are not, technically, videos at all. Kouladjie’s movies are animated GIFs, short found footage clips that appear in small pop-up windows, often overlaid with scrolling text and radio buttons and set to music.[3]  Mickey Mouse dances to a jaunty Eastern European pop song. The silent movie star Louise Brooks arches her neck and laughs. A swimming baby does a stately underwater waltz. And so on. In their salvaging of ignoble and neglected fragments: forgotten films, home movies, old music and family photographs; in their predilection for the twee and the kitsch; in their associational collagism and sense of collector’s mania; and in their dusty archival impulses, hinting at what Sobchack calls “a sea of memories shifting below the surface […] an effluvial database”, Kouladjie’s animations echo with the “bits and traces of an individual yet collective past: personal memories, narratives, histories that were, from the first, commodified and mass-mediated”.  The experience of passing time appears as the act of selecting fragments, “flotsam and jetsam”, out of the turbulent “database” of personal and collective history. Memories emerge from the effluvial murk of the past in the form of a Proustian or Bachelardian reverie — or as cute little pop-up windows.[4] There is, as with Sobchack’s analogy between Quicktime movies and baroque Wunderkammern, a sense of filmic fragments containing and unfurling a whole world, each short movie evoking a kind of interior, psychological continent which may have sunk beneath the waves but which occasionally re-surfaces in the form of these droll traces.


Sobchack’s article was written in 1999. By the fast-paced standards of contemporary technological time, that is a long age ago. Now that we are firmly in the era of YouTube and video podcasts and social networks and Web 2.0, her argument seems somewhat quaint and outdated, not least because she uses the proprietary brand name Quicktime to denote the short digital video, as if this was the only format available for setting images into motion over the web. In fact, Sobchack is quite conscious of impending obsolescence. For the article takes the form of a kind of lament or elegy for a soon-to-be archaic form, whose defining characteristics are too often perceived as technical shortcomings. In the rush of technological progress, puny screen sizes, twitchy playback, and indecipherable images will be swept away, to be replaced by high resolution and widescreen. For Sobchack in 1999, the Quicktime movie was already an endangered species; she believed that it would “eventually and seamlessly ‘stream’ into ‘live-action’”. Hence her regrets about the “quickening of Quicktime.”

This essay sets itself the task of extrapolating Sobchack’s argument into the present day — a task that is ostensibly self-defeating owing to the apparent datedness of her claims. In fact, Sobchack’s essay may now be said to be doubly obsolete: already self-professedly obsolete in 1999, it must be even more so in 2011. The appearance of YouTube as the go-to website for online video sharing — more than half a decade after the publication of Sobchack’s piece — is the most obvious evidence of how much things have changed. In many ways YouTube demonstrates that the “quickening of Quicktime” has already happened. We can now watch world events and political campaigns unfold on tiny YouTube screens; YouTube is now the preferred platform (in most of the Western world at least) for drumming up excitement for the latest Harry Potter movie or Lady Gaga album via noisy trailers or music videos. It is not unheard of for YouTube videos to exceed a hundred million hits and create celebrities in the process a la Susan Boyle. All this is evidence that the memory-box tendencies of streaming or downloadable videos has already long passed into history.

However, I take it as a given that affects and aesthetic dispositions are not subject to any simple logic of technological obsolescence, but, rather, may be dialectically activated at any point in history in relation to particular forms of culture or technology. In other words, it would be simplistic to deem outmoded those tendencies that Sobchack discerned in Quicktime movies. For there is nothing ostensibly obsolete which can be said to disappear completely in the wake of historical progress. New affects and possibilities don’t simply displace the old ones. Rather, the ostensibly obsolete cannot help but be preserved in the contemporary, and only requires remobilization by a historical subject (such as myself) for it to become pertinent again.[5] The aim of this essay is thus to remobilize, for our post-YouTube age, all those peculiar and eccentric tendencies described by Sobchack — and to build up an extended account of these tendencies by reference to a range of other like-minded scholarly works (by Laura Mulvey, Paola Voci, Michael Benedikt, and Eve Sedgwick).


Consider, to begin with, the continued survival of an unpolished eccentricity on YouTube and other video-sharing websites (such as Vimeo or Tudou). Home movies jostle for space with videos of cats and babies, with their minor dramas of intimate domestic life. A toddler champs down on the fingers of his slightly older brother and gets, at time of writing, an astounding 355 million views. These videos rival for popularity more slickly made mainstream productions such as trailers and music clips. Unstaged events, peculiar and hilarious, end up getting recorded and posted online. An old lady crossing a road swings her handbag at the driver of a vehicle who had just honked at her for her leisurely pace; a little boy in zombie face-paint at a fairground refuses to play cute for a local newspaperwoman seeking a sound-bite and gives her instead the surrealist non-sequitur, “I like turtles”. Videos appear that strike a single note, that of the twee and the precious; excessive sentimentality and cloying cuteness reign. A teenage boy, amid sobs of frustration, calls for the paparazzi to “Leave Britney [Spears] alone!”; a heavyset man goes into raptures when he sees a double rainbow; a clip of two otters holding hands receives 16 million views, and counting.

The ease with which such miniature incidents and sentiments can be recorded and posted online — with cellphones, laptops, and digital cameras — suggests that Quicktime’s qualities of interiority and preciousness, identified by Sobchack, are now built into the point of production itself. The emergence of readily available digital recording devices is often interpreted in totalizing ways — as the potential surveillant recording of everything all the time or as the infiltration of media spectacle into all aspects of everyday life — but amateur videos on YouTube suggest that it may be possible to think of these technologies in less sweeping terms. It may be true that just about everything is now being recorded, but these examples suggest that some of it is being recorded in a fuzzy and fragmented form, on memory cards with limited space, often with compellingly weird results. Therefore shared videos on YouTube demonstrate that an exclusive focus on the totalizing aspects of the technology is itself totalizing. Alternative characteristics are secreted, as it were, within increasingly dominant and totalizing forms of technology. These characteristics co-exist with and are dialectically made possibly by the dominant technologies. Sometimes they may indeed be converted into glossy high resolution and subsequently commodified or absorbed into the shrieking cacophony of tabloid culture — but other times they may not be. Other times they may remain peculiar and unassimilable.


Eccentricity, peculiarity, interiority and preciousness: these qualities may be found within artists’ and amateur videos on YouTube. As the examples above show, these qualities arise from home-video-style recordings. Other examples of amateurist production draw not from the taping of everyday life but from the film and television histories that have been lived through. Thus we could point to the ubiquity, on online video-sharing websites, of reworkings and re-edits of material grabbed off TV or DVD: so-called mashups or remixes. For example, pseudo-trailers: footage from movies that are cut up so that Kubrick’s The Shining, say, is rendered as a trailer for a romantic comedy. Material may not even be reworked: clips abound on YouTube that simply select short, fleeting moments that would otherwise have been preserved only in memory, or else completely missed in the flow of a television broadcast or in the progress of a film.

These sorts of clips suggest that digital technologies make possible a new kind of cinephilia. YouTube is now a site where the cinephiliac gaze or the “cinephiliac moment” is extended, prolonged and made available to a mass audience. That is to say, the extraordinary power of classic cinema to inspire a kind of inexplicable attachment to and affection for the most contingent incidents or details — for example, the colour of Cary Grant’s socks in North by Northwest (1959), or the way that Bogart crosses a street and looks up at a sign in The Big Sleep (1946), or “Lauren Bacall’s hand clutching and unclutching at the back of the chair … in Key Largo [1948]” — this capacity to inspire affection for contingent details, which Christian Keathley calls “cinephiliac moments”, finds a new outlet on YouTube (Keathley, 2006).[6]  Such cinephiliac moments, which for my generation and younger are just as likely to be from television as from classic Hollywood cinema, can now be lovingly extracted from the relevant DVD or the carefully preserved VHS tape, can be posted online, and (if they manage to pass muster under fair-use copyright laws) can remain there for the enjoyment of others.

It is important to note here that the terms production, distribution, and spectatorship are not easily distinguishable when it comes to these cinephiliac practices. Sobchack’s article suggests that the constraints inherent in the production and distribution (in this case, transmission) of digital video creates particular phenomenological qualities, but, as I shall elaborate shortly, such an argument easily becomes an issue of spectatorship. Owing to the ubiquity of digital cameras that facilitate the capturing, in brief and fragmented form, of the weird or the contingent or the everyday, or owing to the fact that YouTube imposes a fifteen minute maximum length on all uploaded videos, thus instituting brevity and fragmentation and anecdotalism as the rule, the alternative qualities that appear at the point of production and distribution encourage a particular kind of spectator, one who is perhaps more open to these qualities and affects.

What cinephiliac mashups and remixes tell us is that the reverse is also true: digital spectatorship is also an issue of production and distribution. To make something digitally may be to encourage a certain kind of viewing, but, conversely, to view something digitally is often, quite literally, to become involved in a certain kind of making. Viewers get their hands on what they are viewing, and reshape or manipulate it. This is an example of the much-discussed blurring, by digital technologies, of the roles of producer, distributor, and spectator.[7]  And the consequent muddling, for the film or media scholar, of previously clear-cut areas of study: it becomes difficult for the scholar to claim to be focussing on, say, just the spectatorship, or just the distribution, or just the production of YouTube videos, since digital technologies cause these three classic divisions of media studies to interweave in complex, though not necessarily unprecedented, ways (not unprecedented because, as I mention below, the Surrealists, for example, found ways to turn spectatorship into a creative or productive act).

In the case of mashups and remixes, production and distribution are no longer clear-cut stages in the life cycle of a media artefact, but rather become aspects of spectatorship. Production and distribution are not, in this case, top-down processes, but are, rather, tools for expressing spectatorship, as when clips from beloved media artefacts are extracted and shared, whether in the form of remixes, or in the form of short unadulterated clips (that copyright holders let pass). Something new, or freshly affecting may be created when such clips and mashups are made or manipulated and then shared, which I feel must count as a form of production and distribution — but, here, count also as extensions of spectatorial response. And this turning of production and distribution processes towards the ends and pleasures of spectatorship creates a kind of complex of cinephiliac activity in an eccentric or vertically intense register.

In such a complex of cinephiliac activity, the terms producer and distributor may not even necessarily refer to the online video geek who performs the actual extraction and re-editing of clips and the posting of them online. So profoundly intertwined are the three terms, that we find that what we mean by spectatorship or spectatorial expression rebound on to what we mean by production and distribution, so that (I would argue) even activities such as pausing and rewinding and rewatching what someone else has already posted on YouTube may suddenly be understood as forms of production and distribution — that is, as forms of the creation and the sharing of the new (or at least the newly engaging).

Consider some of the remarkable practices which have arisen on YouTube to contribute to the indulging of cinephiliac pleasures and the formation of cinephiliac attachments. These are often enabled by the fact that YouTube allows interactive comments to be posted under videos. Comments from viewers sometimes recommend, to other viewers, additional tricks to be performed while viewing.  For example, viewers will often post a comment consisting of nothing but a timecode — “1:37”, say — urging other viewers to pause or re-watch that exact moment to see some small detail that would have been missed at first viewing. (Sometimes we are urged to pause at a particular moment in order to cause an unattractive grimace to freeze on an actor’s face mid-performance, which would seem to indicate unkindness rather than cinephiliac love — but unkindness on the part of one viewer is certainly not mutually exclusive with affection on the part of another viewer). Is this not already the transformative creation of new affects and attachments in the world (a type of production), as well as the sharing of the same (a type of distribution)?

Just as an examination of artists’ and amateur shared videos reveal an amplification of Sobchack’s qualities of fragmentation, eccentricity, and preciousness, so an examination of re-found footage or cinephiliac moments challenges scholars to update the language we use to describe the creative process. One begins to think that the division between production, distribution, and spectatorship (or reception) is a much more historically and institutionally specific one than we had previously believed — such a division is a categorizing convenience that is only intermittently useful in relation to new media. The slippage between production and spectatorship is not without historical precedents. Let me quickly point to that innovative spectatorial strategy, employed by several of the figures associated with the Surrealist movement in the 1920s, of slipping in and out of different movie theatres showing different films. Their intention was to watch only a few minutes of each movie at a time, in order to create a kind of makeshift mashup that existed not in reality but only as a kind of disorienting sensory experience — dream-like, fragmentary, associationalist. This is an early example of a spectatorial practice with expressive, that is, productive powers.

The expressive powers of spectatorship are particularly evident in yet other inventive tricks which YouTube viewers recommend to others using the commenting feature. Occasionally we find posted comments suggesting that fellow viewers should “hit the number 9 repeatedly while watching the video”. This is because repeatedly hitting a particular number while watching a YouTube video causes a particular moment to replay over and over again like a skipping record. (It seems that every YouTube video is divided into sections, so that hitting “9” repeatedly will cause section number nine to begin again and again and again).  On YouTube, this effect is used to initially generate (to produce, to share) nothing more than a simple, evanescent, chuckling private pleasure.[8]  But the sense of an uncanny symptomaticity wrested from the remaindered detritus of mass culture is certainly there as well.

This sense of uncanniness perhaps constitutes the flip side or dark side of those qualities of preciousness and interiority identified by Sobchack. For Laura Mulvey, another evocative commentator on the poetics of moving images in the age of the digital, the kinds of practices of digital spectatorship described above — pausing, replaying, slowing down, skipping, re-editing — contain elements of fetishism, sadism, necrophilia, and the repetition compulsion. Fetishism: the otherwise wholesome affection that one might bear for a particular cinephiliac moment in one’s favourite film — an affection which digital technologies allow us to indulge in, to a greater degree than ever before — is perhaps not too far off from fetishism and fixation (the objective scholar of film and the obsessive fanboy are closer kin than we normally like to admit, notes Mulvey [2006, 11-12, 144-45]). Sadism: when we freeze and replay and manipulate moving images in the way that digital and video technologies allow us to do, this is perhaps to inflict a form of violence on the body of the film text, to inflict an effrontery on the actors whose faces we force into unattractive grimaces when we hit the pause button.[9] Indeed, Mulvey argues that the very act of extracting segments from the flow of a film narrative — in order to post them on YouTube, for example, so that they can be watched over and over again — is itself a violent intervention, a “wounding” (2006, 179). Finally, necrophilia and the repetition compulsion: the very obsession with old video clips — the urge to replay them and pause them and slow them down — is of course an obsession with the moribund and the obsolete; it has to do with a desire to exhume and revivify and thus tame the ghosts of the past, to return again and again to an historical object that once struck deeply and achingly into one’s psyche (2006, 192).

Mulvey’s book was written before the explosion in popularity of YouTube and other video-sharing websites; its main concern is actually with the use of the DVD controller and digital home-theatre technologies. Yet her account of the psychic registers implicit in the kind of spectatorship that allows the viewer to pause and rewind and rewatch is obviously very pertinent to any study of YouTube video, which permits those same manipulations. Mulvey thus adds another necessary facet to our thinking on this subject. For the overarching ethos of the above constellation of psychic registers is one of a “possessive spectatorship”, according to Mulvey (2006, 161 ff.). The new technologies that make it so easy to manipulate moving images are also conducive to a certain will to mastery and possession. In other words, the lapidary preciousness that Sobchack identifies in streaming or downloadable moving images perhaps goes hand in hand with the urge to keep and to hold, to cathect with one’s longings and desires, to fixate and fetishize, and consequently to dominate and manipulate and make one’s own. These are urges both promoted and indulged by our new ability to exert control over the temporal progress of the digitized film or video by freeze-framing, replaying, slowing down, extracting, re-editing.

Possessive spectatorship, however, is only half the story. Mulvey also notes — and this is where her arguments show their dialectical richness — that those aspects of the digital that promote a possessive or imperialist spectator are the same ones that create another spectatorial register, a “pensive” or thoughtful spectatorship, a spectator who engages in reflection or reverie.[10]  Pausing and delaying and replaying and re-editing may contain within them violent and possessive impulses, but the basic act here is that of engaging deeply with the richness of a cherished image. And deepness, or depth, is the crucial keyword. For when interacting with and manipulating films in this new way, a vertical depth appears in the image that was previously occluded by the horizontal onrush of fictional narrative. Freed from the forward movement of narrative, a new intensity of regard is possible. The clip which we extract and watch over and over again, which we pause and slow down for the purposes of examination, has a greater richness and irrationality and metaphysical potency to it than when we watched it the first time in a cinema as part of a whole film that rolled unstoppably on and that obeyed the rational cause-and-effect linearity of a conventional narrative. On our desktops and video screens, we have “the space and time for associative thought, [for] reflection on resonance and connotation, [for] the identification of visual clues, the interpretation of cinematic form and style, and, ultimately, personal reverie” (2006, 146-47). A particular kind of poetics, a particular set of characteristics “accentuated by the new horizons formed by new technologies”, begins to surface within movie clips watched in this way. As Mulvey puts it, “a new kind of ontology may emerge”, one of “ambivalence, impurity and uncertainty” (2003, 119).

Where Sobchack is interested in the form of digital video, Mulvey is interested in the sort of spectatorship enabled by digital technologies. Where Sobchack is interested in what digital video is or was — its ontology at a particular historical moment —  Mulvey is interested in how one watches and what is produced by interrupting the flow of the film. Where Sobchack’s frame of reference for thinking digital video’s ontology is generally phenomenological in character, Mulvey’s frame of reference for thinking digital video spectatorship is, broadly speaking, psychological. Where Sobchack writes about technical constraints, Mulvey is concerned with technical empowerment — the empowerment inherent in the way in which new technologies allow us to pause and replay and manipulate our cherished media artefacts. Both theorists, nonetheless, converge on broadly similar ground.

For although the technical empowerment that Mulvey describes may be in a distinctly major key and may result in a “possessive spectator”, it also dialectically produces qualities and affects that are in a markedly minor key, similar to those in Sobchack’s account: pensive reverie, vertical depth, intensity, melancholy, meditativeness, “ambivalence, impurity and uncertainty”, and even a sense of what we might call the vertiginousness of mortal time. These are qualities that, for Mulvey, were always already present in even the most sparky and speedy of classical Hollywood films, but that are unexpectedly accentuated by new technologies — technologies which, though putatively just as sparky, also bring into being, paradoxically or dialectically, a poetics of dreamy interiority or vertical intensity, an aesthetics of eccentric fragmentation, uncanniness, indeterminacy, associative reverie. In this sense Mulvey’s arguments complement Sobchack’s, since both provide an alternative view, an account of quieter or more shadowy qualities embedded within dominant technologies.


Is it retrograde of me to consider YouTube through the lens of theories — Mulvey’s and Sobchack’s — that antecede it? I would unashamedly answer, yes, since, like Sobchack, I want to build into my analytical method my own awareness of the impending obsolescence of my claims about YouTube and online video. For the scholar of contemporary culture, this always impending obsolescence is unavoidable. Whenever one tries to define an up-to-the-minute contemporary phenomenon, to analyse what it is by reference to concrete and up-to-date examples, one always discovers oneself talking about what it was. The contemporary is an ever-receding horizon, whose ungraspability and elusiveness is called history.

This methodological problem is of course exacerbated when one’s object of study is digital technology, owing to the pace of change. Those concrete examples that one uses to point to the contemporaneity of a particular digital phenomenon are never contemporary enough, never of the exact moment, but, rather, always already receding into the past, always becoming historical. So too with those references and theories with which one tries to analyze the digital phenomenon, and one’s own observations and conclusions themselves — these will always turn out to be behind the times, will always be on the verge of being unforgivably retardataire.

This predicament gives rise, of course, to the neurosis of the scholar who wants her conclusions to be up to date, and sees failure in her research when it isn’t. (Scholars in disciplines that are beholden to the empirical or evidentiary imperative end up suffering especially from this neurosis). As I see it, one possible solution to this methodological problem is to simply refuse to join in this game of capture the flag (the flag being the contemporary, the up-to-date), a game which is always going to be an asymptotic exercise. Instead, one might admit that all research on the contemporary is conducted only after the owl of Minerva has flown — in which case, such research might choose to find for itself an aim other than that of capturing its object of study in as up-to-date a way as possible.

What other aims might there be? Here’s one: to give an account of the contemporary that is dialectically active, as opposed to synchronically accurate. Which is to say that, in this essay, I am not at all concerned about whether my account of YouTube video maps accurately on to what YouTube video really is at this precise moment in time. I am not at all concerned about this because — like all things that are in the midst of historical process, all things that are, in a word, contemporary — what YouTube video really is actually depends in large part on what we choose to see in it, what we can dialectically mobilize in it. With the help of Sobchack and Mulvey, I choose to see in YouTube video all those alternative qualities and affects that I have already invoked at length: pensiveness, nostalgia, longing, eccentricity, imperfection, dreaminess, intensity, uncanniness, associational subjectivity, and so on. Whether or not these qualities are really there, or whether I am describing a form of culture that is already obsolete, is, for me, totally moot. For if an object of study, especially one that is of the contemporary moment, is dialectically created as one writes about it, then one’s aim might be to actively bring into being — rather than to describe — an object of study that operates towards positive ends. And I would like to create an object of study, a future for online video, which retains, at least to some degree, all those qualities identified by Sobchack and Mulvey which (I will shortly argue) are valuable because they are aesthetically aslant to normative culture.

YouTube video seemed to me to be a reasonable term to use for the sorts of videos that are the subject of this essay. I am using the term YouTube generically here, as one might use the term Xerox to generically refer to all photocopies, for I also have in mind videos hosted by other websites, say, Vimeo or Tudou or Dailymotion. Note as well that I am using the term YouTube video in the same idiosyncratic way that Sobchack uses the term Quicktime.  As with Sobchack’s Quicktime, my YouTube isn’t the same as actually existing YouTube. This does not matter, however, for I would argue that every available clip — even the most tightly controlled or conventional one — is potentially a YouTube video in the sense in which I have used that term, that is, a video with “pensive” or “memory-box” qualities, since all such qualities are not intrinsic to any particular video or to any particular technology but rather can always potentially be put into play by unforeseeable acts of depaysement.

My position in this essay builds on the foundations laid down by, firstly, Lev Manovich’s The language of new media, which, like Sobchack’s essay, might be said to be an avant la lettre pioneer on this subject. Manovich’s book is important because, in the course of making the argument that the cinema is the primary ancestor of digital media, it mentions in passing a now long gone website called New Venue, a precursor to YouTube which was “devoted to showcasing short digital films. In 1998 it accepted only QuickTime files under five Mb” (2001, 287-88).[11] (How quaint those sentences now sound!)  More recently, Jean Burgess and Joshua Green (2009) published the first ever monographic scholarly study on YouTube, YouTube: online video and participatory culture, and this was swiftly followed by Michael Strangelove’s equally useful Watching YouTube: extraordinary videos by ordinary people (2010). Two further anthologies provide a wide range of views on the subject: Video vortex: responses to YouTube (Lovink and Niederer, eds., 2008) and The YouTube reader (Snickars and Vonderau, eds., 2009).[12] For those scholars interested in the phenomenon of YouTube such books as these are very helpful. However, as should be clear by now, my account of YouTube and YouTube video proceeds along rather different lines. Whereas most extant scholarly work on YouTube of a non-empiricist or non-positivist nature has taken a sociological or cultural studies approach, my interest in trying to draw out, to dialectically activate, those quieter or more eccentric qualities of YouTube video, has led me to use film theory and art criticism as the lenses through which to conceptualize it — film theory and art criticism being more illuminating, arguably, of questions of aesthetics and affects. Sobchack and Mulvey are illuminating for me not because their work is directly concerned with YouTube, but because they give rich accounts of those aesthetic and affective qualities in which I am interested.

Another scholarly work that is not directly about YouTube or YouTube video as such, but which, like Sobchack’s and Mulvey’s texts, offers a wonderful account of a particular aesthetic-formal or affective quality to be found in digital moving images more generally, is Paola Voci’s China on video: smaller-screen realities. The aesthetic quality in question is what Voci calls “lightness”. Voci perceives this quality of lightness in certain small-screen video works from China, which are her main subjects of analysis. Such works may be said to be lithe and light on account of their form, on account of formal strategies such as “brevity, playfulness, and open-ended and fragmented formats” (Voci, 2010, xx). They are also light in the sense that they make a virtue out of being culturally peripheral or non-normative. It is in this that they may be said to have value: because non-normative, they fulfil “the need for unsanctioned, unregulated, and intensely private realities both within and without the borders of legitimate cultures” (Voci, xxi). But lightness is also a quality that hints at a broader metaphysics: Voci derives and adapts the concept of lightness from Milan Kundera. For Kundera, the insignificant and contingent moments of life — the light, weightless moments that fill all lives — are, paradoxically, the most weighty determining factors in the predicament of lived human existence. Voci strips the existential dourness from this concept of lightness, noting mainly that attention needs to be drawn to the fact that the contingently trivial or insignificant — the prosaic, the banal, the commonplace, the nondescript — can often be, paradoxically enough, very meaningful and valuable qualities that deserve analysis, not least in the study of moving images (2010, 16). This is an argument with which I am in full agreement, and I want to enlist Voci’s “lightness” as another ally in my advocacy of all those quieter and more shadowy qualities that I see in YouTube video.


Let me now take a cue from Voci to further expand my discussion of YouTube video into more existential, which is to say, ontological, terrain (the existential and the ontological being, for me, closely related). The point, of course, is not to claim that YouTube videos have unique and exclusive ontological properties of their own; I do not intend to drive home a static theory of medium-specificity. Rather it is that the particular limitations and constraints of having to transmit over the Internet, or the particular enabling features of digital playback, are conducive to an already extant ontological and existential disposition, a disposition that may be visible or invisible depending on the particular historical configuration of a particular cultural form.[13]  Mulvey is clear, for example, about the fact that pensive spectatorship is both a return to and an inflection of the way we view photographs.[14] I would add that the qualities and effects of YouTube video are not even exclusively visual or mediatic. In fact, one analogue here might be with Michael Benedikt’s attempt to distinguish in architectural practice a minor “interiorist” sensibility from a dominant “exteriorist” one. The former is Benedikt’s term for what we might elsewhere call immanentism — a sense of embedded continuity with the world, of mutual interrelation, the belief that life or existence can only be that which materially inheres within the present world rather than anything apart from it. Exteriorism, on the other hand, is the competing idealistic worldview that things are divided and autonomous, with some elements always transcendentally standing outside others.  The difference, Benedikt says, in a wonderfully quirky image of the exteriorist-interiorist distinction, is “how one feels about [an] onion”:

What is an onion, formally? A tiny seed embedded in a series of cupping shells, or a series of near-spheres each covering the one inside? It makes no logical difference whether one starts from the inside and moves out, or starts from the outside and moves in, but it makes a great deal of difference to how one feels about the onion — or rather, how it would feel to make or be an onion. The exteriorist wants to paint each Russian doll on the outside; the interiorist wants to line each enclosing doll’s inner, concave surface (2002, 3).

How one feels about an onion is not merely a trivial distinction, Benedikt goes on to point out, for these two orientations can take on political value. It becomes an issue of whether one wants to take up the exteriorist, transcendent “view from everywhere and nowhere”, which is also the view of imperialist mastery, coded masculine, in which one observes, from above and from the outside, a world consisting of mutually autonomous beings whom one can dominate (or be dominated by) — or whether one wants to take seriously the fact that one’s view is always corporeal, materially coded, embedded in mutually-constituted relationships with other beings and objects (that is, immanent in concrete practices of life), and hence always partial and necessarily limited. Benedikt name checks the architect Rem Koolhaas but also Plato, Newton, and Bohr as members of the dominant exteriorist party, versus Aristotle, Leibniz, and Einstein as constituting the minor interiorist sensibility.

I also see another analogy for this minor, interiorist disposition in Eve Sedgwick’s account of what she calls “reparative practices” — ways of responding to the world’s oppressions that don’t involve paranoia or cynicism or knee-jerk suspiciousness, but that rather choose to defuse the world’s hostility by taking its initially inimical, fragmented resources and refashioning these into new wholes (2003, 150). Reparative practices are minor, local acts of art and thought that suggest that effective critique may be possible without a sense of paranoid and antagonistic — or if you like, exterioristic — negativity. Reparative practices are temporary and local rather than totalizing or encompassing; they are enfolding and assimilative rather than merely antagonistic; they are responsive rather than reactionary (keeping in mind — and without exempting myself — that the left can be as reactionary as the right).

Sedgwick’s primary example of a reparative practice is the camp aesthetic. As she points out, campy objects aren’t simply subversive (which is the way that they are usually interpreted via the tools of negative critique) — they are also the products of an intensity of affect and feeling, even love, directed towards neglected or hostile materials which are therein reconfigured and refurbished. In a sense, camp has become a misnomer given that the word has taken on connotations of ironic humour without sincerity, whereas these objects are anything but ironic or insincere or cynical. Sedgwick’s concept of the “reparative impulse” has, I think, a great deal of explanatory force for the kinds of digital moving images in which I am interested here. It even explains the almost-kitschy, almost-campy elements of my examples above of YouTube video. Indeed, her description of reparative practices might well serve as a kind of checklist of the characteristics that this essay is attempting to discern or dialectically mobilize in online moving images. These practices, she says, involve:

startling, juicy displays of excess erudition … passionate, often hilarious antiquarianism, the prodigal production of alternative historiographies; … ‘over’-attachment to fragmentary, marginal, waste or leftover products; … rich, highly interruptive affective variety; … irrepressible fascination with ventriloquistic experimentation; … disorienting juxtapositions of present with past, and popular with high culture … surplus beauty, surplus stylistic investment, unexplained upwellings of threat, contempt, and longing …(2002, 150).

As with Benedikt’s interiorist sensibility, Sedgwick’s reparative impulse is immanent, embedded — this is a sensibility which, in its most concrete forms of practice, doesn’t want to survey the world from a lofty or transcendent perch, but rather wants to enfold into itself the impure but nonetheless worthy resources of the everyday in order to create new lenses through which that same world may then be re-perceived, however locally and temporarily.

Thus, in contrast to the wide variety of dominant cinemas of transcendentalizing values, we could instead — by enlisting the concepts found in the texts by Sobchack and Mulvey and Voci, and now Benedikt and Sedgwick — posit or promote another kind of mediatic disposition, one that conveys a “sense of immanence, immersion [in the world], and embeddedness in a form of life,” a sense of “corporeal intimacy” and affective imbrication (Turvey, 1998, 49, 35). Against André Bazin’s “myth of total cinema” (the idealistic desire for an all-encompassing cinematic image that reproduces reality completely — think IMAX), there is to be discerned another potential future for the moving image, in which the fragmentary and the diminutive are acceptable because they gesture outwards — rather than solipsistically inwards in the manner of the autonomous art object — at the material practices and scenes of everyday life beyond which, they imply, there is nothing.

The frequent (re)found-footage impulses of such moving images also suggest that major and minor or exteriorist and interiorist tendencies need not be mutually exclusive, but that moments of immanence may be discovered within even the most boisterous Hollywood film, via reparative techniques of fragmentation, collage, decontextualization, re-projection and re-scoring, or, as in the case of the YouTube video, digitization and re-transmission over the Internet. In this latter case, digital technology, rather than being coldly abstractive or reifying (as we usually think of it), is an effective agent of dehierarchization and destratification. The technology may, in one sense, cripple the moving image by making it jerky and small and snowy and truncated, or it may, in another sense, permit a kind of instrumentalizing imperialism to be acted out upon the image — but it also thereby produces another kind of cinema, a cinema that accrues “phenomenological and aesthetic value as an effect of these necessities and constraints”, a cinema that intensifies “moments of beauty and meaning” that lead to “other kinds of pleasure, fascination and reflection” (Sobchack, 1999, unpaginated; Mulvey, 2006, 28, 191).

This potential for destratification — for dominant forms and dominant realities to be picked apart and reconfigured into alternative, less ebullient or more shadowy pleasures and dispositions — is what I want to call a “minor poetics of YouTube”. Deleuze and Guattari famously used the term “minor” to describe works of literature and art that deterritorialize their materials of expression (1986, 16-17). Along similar lines, I see in YouTube, and in other video-sharing platforms, a mode of expression which, although it has begun to participate in rapidly ossifying “majoritarian” structures (ossification being a necessary evil), may also be said to be constantly in the process of deterritorializing those ossified materials, turning over these materials so that they become other sorts of pleasures, other sorts of affects.


It may seem that I am trying to valorize YouTube, that I am mounting a defense of the aesthetic value of such videos. That is not quite the case. Ambivalence and dialecticism would be closer to the mark. On the one hand, it has to be noted that the last thing that our culture needs is an amplification of private affects and sentimental attachments. On YouTube, what we often already get are mawkish emotions and cloying sentiments being laid out, embarrassingly, on a public stage. This sort of sentimentality and self-absorption are traits that are amplified by and in the service of a culture that values private consumption and confessionalism more than it does public engagement. And nostalgia, as Walter Benjamin long ago warned us, is a conservative emotion. So why valorize interiority or pensiveness or obsessive nostalgia any more than we already do?

On the other hand, a glossily confident public culture that is entirely outward-facing, entirely future-oriented, that is able to do without “ambivalence, impurity and uncertainty”, that isn’t conscious of the velvety underside of human experience, is just as undesirable. Public culture is enriched, I think, if its normativizing impulses also happen to be tempered by a stylistics of indeterminacy or eccentricity. The time and space of the public sphere is more democratic if it also harbours within it the potential for other sorts of temporalities and spatialities, for example, the slowed-down time and inward-focussing space of reverie and reflection. It is this kind of time and space, this kind of stylistics that I, with the help of Sobchack, Mulvey, Voci, Benedikt, and Sedgwick, want to discern in what I see in YouTube video.  In short, there is, I want to argue, a certain political value in that minoritarian digital poetics which I have been trying to identify and collate and describe in this essay, a poetics of pensive reverie, hypermnesic longing, interiorism, embeddedness, fragmentation, reparative patchworking, in-built obsolescence, and frayed imperfection. This political value can only come from the very same energies of a public culture which, when inflected a different way and directed towards different ends, becomes reactionary and solipsistic.

I would add, finally, that the model I have in mind for a politically dialectical approach to thinking through YouTube video, is Siegfried Kracauer’s analysis of the cult of distraction. Distraction is of course very pertinent to any discussion of the internet given that the usual charge is that the internet is nothing more than an instrument of distraction.[15]  Since reverie and the intense aesthetic engagement of the sort which I am claiming is associated with YouTube spectatorship seems to be distraction’s antitheses, it would seem that I am trying to refute this view of the internet as pure distraction. I think, however, that our dialecticism and ambivalence need to be extended to the distraction thesis. It is not simply that the internet is a place of intense aesthetic engagement, as opposed to distraction. It is also that the internet contains intense engagement as well as distraction. If my own YouTube viewing habits and viewing states are anything to go by, I would say that internet spectatorship is an extraordinary combination of engagement and distraction (just as, in Mulvey’s account, digital spectatorship is an extraordinary combination of thoughtful reflection and obsessive fixation). What I get when I surf YouTube is a series of short quick bursts of intense contemplation, all of which, paradoxically enough, add up to a profound state of distraction, since this succession of focussed hits requires me to briskly shift my attention from one moment of intensity to another (each moment nonetheless having the capacity, individually, to draw my attention deep into them). However, the stance to take with regard to this insight (if that’s what it is) is neither one of celebration nor one of moralizing condemnation. Rather, I think it would be worthwhile to model our response on Kracauer’s famous move in his “Cult of distraction” essay, namely, to point out that the path to historical change must lead through distraction, not away from it, nor in pitted battle against it. Remarkably, within the supposed passivity of the distracted and distrait masses, Kracauer was able to discover the possibilities of revolutionary energies, since distraction is “precisely what would enable [the masses] to evoke and maintain the tension that must precede the inevitable and radical change”. For distraction, unlike the values of high art and high culture, at least indexes the fragmented condition of modern life; it “is meaningful … as improvisation, as a reflection of the uncontrolled anarchy of our world”. As in the logic of a hangover cure, the only thing that can break the masses out of their alienated condition is another kind of alienation, namely, distraction: “motley sequence[s] of externalities” (all quotes from Kracauer, 1995, 327). Only thus could a double consciousness be developed in the masses, a double consciousness in which the masses are able to discern and react to the very condition in which they are ensnared — and this was because distraction is a state of a fundamental, surface-level externality (rather like a lucid dream perhaps). I am agnostic about the degree to which the details of Kracauer’s analysis still continue to apply to the state of things in the present day. (Certainly the way in which he describes the characteristics of distraction in 1925 Berlin, in terms of fragmentation, disorder, improvisation, uncontrollable anarchy, motley sequences of externalities, seems very close to the characteristics that critics like Sobchack, Mulvey, Voci, etc., see in digital video.) But Kracauer’s overarching approach still rings true, namely the idea that the energies for historical change must come out of the very same coiled-up energies that result from the distractions provided by mass media — the distractions provided, nowadays, by YouTube video. Historical process now passes through YouTube. And I, as a historical subject, would like to see a future for YouTube, and for other similarly distracting forms of online video, in which qualities of the eccentric, the introspective, the dream-like, the playfully light, the imperfect, the fragmentary, the reparative, the non-normative, the immanently embedded — the minor — continue to be mobilized.


A shorter and significantly different version of this essay, which can be read in conjunction with this one, was previously published as “A Minor Cinema: Moving Images on the Internet” in The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader, edited by Stella Brennan and Su Ballard (Auckland: Aotearoa Digital Arts Trust and Clouds Publishing, 2008).

Thanks to Catherine Fowler, Paola Voci, and the two anonymous peer reviewers for their comments and suggestions which have much improved this essay (I remain answerable, of course, for all the deficiencies and partialities of the piece). Thanks also to Stella Brennan and Su Ballard for commissioning and working with me on the earlier, abbreviated version of this essay; Mary Louise Browne for inviting me to curate the exhibition at the University of Auckland, “Little Things Take Time”, out of which the germ of the idea for this essay grew; and Marcus Williams and other members of the departmental research committee of the Department of Design and Visual Arts at the Unitec Institute of Technology, for granting a period of teaching relief during which some of the work on this essay was consolidated.

This earlier version of the essay is now available online at http://www.ada.net.nz/projects/the-aotearoa-digital-arts-reader/


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Bellour, R., 1987. The Pensive Spectator. Translated from French by Lynne Kirby, Wide Angle 9 (1), pp. 6-10.

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[1] Sobchack’s article is unpaginated, therefore no page references will be given in the text.

[2] I use the term “amateur” in this essay in its least pejorative sense, taking my cue from Lawrence Lessig’s observation that “amateur” need not mean “amateurish”, in which case the rise of an “amateur” culture may be something to be (carefully) celebrated rather than deplored. See Lessig (2010, p. 29) and also Lessig (2008).

[3] Shirin Kouladjie, Photomontage.com (USA, undated). [Online] Available at: http://www.photomontage.com

[4] Sobchack alludes to Bachelard (1964).

[5] I have in mind here Walter Benjamin’s dialectical approach to history and to history’s relationship to the contemporary, as exemplified in his Arcades project (1999). See the latter part of this essay for further discussion of this dialectical approach.

[6] The examples cited of cinephiliac moments are from James Naremore, Manny Farber, and Roger Cardinal, respectively, all of whom are quoted by Keathley 2006, pp. 30-31.

[7] See for example, Jenkins (2006).

[8] Call this the Martin Arnold effect, after the Austrian experimental filmmaker who transforms split-second moments from long-forgotten films of the 1930s and 1940s into the equivalent of skipping records—with Judy Garland or Mickey Rooney trapped in an eternity of coquettish blinks and facial tics and vocal stutters, repeated over and over again until what used to be innocuous moments from innocuous films turn into psychosexual symptoms.

[9] This kind of spectatorship constitutes “an act of violence against the cohesion of a story, the aesthetic integrity that holds it together, and the vision of its creator” (Mulvey 2006, p. 171).

[10] Mulvey is developing and updating an argument first adumbrated by Bellour (1987).

[11] I’ll also point the reader to Manovich’s brief account of the history of Quicktime on p. 311 of The Language of New Media, which describes, as in Sobchack’s essay, the appearance of a particular form of streaming or downloadable video governed by the technical constraints of the time: short, jerky, small, compressed, degraded picture quality.

[12] Note here that the Burgess and Green book very clearly and astutely adumbrates, at its outset, that methodological problem faced by the scholar of the contemporary or the faddish (which I’ve described in the previous paragraphs). Owing to its contemporaneity, YouTube is “a particularly unstable object of study”, say Burgess and Green. This poses a problem for scholars: “each scholarly approach…in effect [recreates YouTube] as a different object each time” given that “there is not yet a shared understanding of YouTube’s common culture” (p. 6). Having made this caveat, however, Burgess and Green continue along the lines of a standard scholarly study in the sense of trying to capture as best as possible, and in as up-to-date a way as possible, their object of study.

[13] All ontology is historical ontology, as Peter Osborne notes (2003, p. 63). That is, ontology as a philosophical practice only has meaning if we admit that the ontological—the nature of things—is subject to historical change.

[14] Mulvey follows Barthes (1981) in conceiving of photographs as singular and ghostly indices of a deathly pastness. Photography has the capacity to cause frissons of disquietude, to make us fall into metaphysical reverie and meditative states, to take us out of the stable certainties of everyday life—thus engendering affects that are irregular, disconcerting, aberrant. According to Mulvey, it may be the case that, with the advent of new technologies that now put films in the hands of their viewers, we are witnessing a clandestine return of the intense metaphysical feelings engendered by still photographs, given that we can now pause moving images so that they revert to the original stillness of the individual photogramme (2006, pp. 182-186). With new technologies, cinematic images suddenly have a new (or renewed) ability to perturb.

[15] For a brief, parodic discussion of the conventional wisdom that the Internet equals distraction, and that YouTube might be complicit in this (“Welcome to snack culture: watch a clip and move on”), see Lovink (2008, p. 10).

About the Author

Eu Jin Chua

About the Author

Eu Jin Chua

Eu Jin Chua directs the graduate program in the Department of Design and Visual Arts at the Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. He is also a PhD candidate at the London Consortium, University of London. His doctoral research is on film theory and the politics of nature. He has published in Postmodern Culture, The Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature, and in various edited volumes and exhibition catalogues. He has also served as curator or co-curator on a number of exhibitions in Auckland and London. More information at http://bbk.academia.edu/EuJinChua View all posts by Eu Jin Chua →