How YouTube Changed The Essay | Evan Puschak
So, when I say the word “essay”, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Probably, for a lot of you the word “essay” triggers a kind of Pavlovian twist in your gut, a reminder of how pointless and stressful it was to write five double-spaced pages for Mrs. Walsh on “The Motif Of Whiteness In Moby Dick”. I think, for this reason, when we don’t have to write any more essays, we hang up our topic sentences and supporting paragraphs and conclusions, and never think about Moby Dick or Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina ever again. But the English paper doesn’t represent what’s best about the essay, or what’s most exciting about it, from my point of view. As Paul Graham, the famous programmer and essayist, detailed in a wonderful essay about essays called “The Age of the Essay”, the English paper as we know today is sort of historical accident, a result of the way English departments formed, and how much medieval universities focused on law. When we think about that, that actually makes a lot of sense. Topic sentences, supporting paragraphs, conclusions – I’ve watched enough “Law & Order” to know how much this resembles opening statements, prosecuting the case with witnesses and evidence, and, of course, concluding remarks to the jury, which is just a forceful rephrasing of the opening statement. It’s actually kind of weird that English classes, the place where we ended up learning both English literature and composition, how to write, – you don’t really think about that, but because stuff like this totally fascinates me, I dug into Graham’s footnotes and found a fantastic article from 1967 called “Where Do English Departments Come From?” by William Parker. In it Parker traces the incredibly short history of teaching English in schools. Actually, the first chair of an English department anywhere in the country was Fancis March, who was appointed in 1857 to Lafayette College. And that was my favorite slide to me.
English literature had a hard enough time overtaking Latin literature, eventually it did do that, but writing had always been under the province of another subject called rhetoric. Basically what happened was this, as I understand it: as public speaking became less and less popular, and the number of colleges doubled at the end of the eighteen hundreds, because we were encouraging more and more people to go to school, academic departments rose to power, and they decided what was going to be in the curriculum. So, it was basically like an arms race. English got really greedy and gobbled up literature, linguistics, journalism, theater, and of course composition. So, if English departments had to teach both literature and writing, it’s no surprise that we had to write so much about literature. I admit that’s a bit of a digression, something that is totally frowned upon in English papers, but in the wider world of essays things really aren’t so strict. You don’t have to follow the model of a court case. You don’t have to rigorously defend your thesis point by point. We have other forms of writing for that. In an essay you are perfectly allowed to follow a train of thought. In fact, essays sort of are trains of thought. I want to get back to that point at the end, but for right now what you need to know is that essay should be short, interesting, and it should get to the truth. And that’s actually a good three-word definition for what essays are: short, interesting, truth. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the modern essay, wrote about everything from sadness to drunkenness, to friendship, to cannibals. He even has a great essay on thumbs. It’s a short essay, you really can’t write that much about thumbs. But it’s worth a read, if you are a thumb enthusiast, which I am, obviously.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, my favorite essayist, wrote things that changed the course of my life. And it wasn’t so much what he wrote about, but how he wrote about those things, the way he phrased and positioned facts and insights, so that something that was needling you, that you couldn’t quite put into words, suddenly became as clear as glass. And that kind of writing… It opens up doors in your mind. It shows you that you are allowed to think a certain way. It invites you in for investigations of your own. Of course, essays don’t have to be heady and abstract. David Foster Wallace writes wonderfully about tennis. Elif Batuman wrote a great essay last year about Istanbul’s construction and its archeology and their intersection. Kristin Dombek wrote a sprawling, beautiful essay about sex and addiction and love in 2012. And Jeffrey Downard wrote brilliantly about the motif of whiteness in Moby Dick! See, I can’t shit on Moby Dick, because I love Moby Dick, actually, and literature. You don’t have to write about them, but you can obviously, if you want to. Essays are having a little bit of a cultural moment write now, actually. As Christy Wampole wrote in “The Essayification of Everything”: “It seems that, even in a proliferation of new forms of writing and communication [before us], the essay has become a talisman of our times.” And you can see that in the proliferation of blogs and think pieces, but you can also see it in things like medium.com, where anybody can write an essay on a topic of their choosing, where the public gets to decide what points of view to elevate, where media gatekeepers no longer have the power to marginalize radical or different points of view. But there is a whole another form of the essay I want to spend the rest of my time talking about. It’s what I do for living. It’s called the video essay.
Are you ever aware that you try to preserve fleeting moments?
Well, it depends on what you call “fleeting”. Sometimes, in geologic sense a year is a very fleeting moment. And sometimes for the people it’s a twenty fifth of a second. These days you are most likely to see the work of American photographer Ansel Adams on a post card or on the wall of your boss’s office. These photographs are so ubiquitous now, that it’s easy to walk by them without noticing their technical and aesthetic mastery. Indeed, thanks to things like Instagram and Snapchat, photographs in general are so ever present in our lives, that standards about what we believe to be great work in this field are drowned out by the literally billions of photos, that are uploaded to these services every day. That’s a short clip from an essay I did on Ansel Adams, and at “The Nerdwriter” I produce a weekly show of video essays about art and culture, and science, politics – whatever I happen to find interesting that week. So, what is a video essay? Well, it’s about as hard to define as a written essay. It’s like written essays blend into articles, reportage, pamphlets and short stories, essays blend into films, documentaries, TV journalism, photojournalism, and the lines there are always going to be blurry. But there is a history here too. Not nearly as long as the written essay, but going all the way back to 1940, Hans Richter wrote in the film essay, a new form of documentary film: “In this effort to give body to the invisible world of imagination, thought and ideas, the essay film can employ an incomparably greater reservoir of expressive means than can the pure documentary film. Freed from recording external phenomena in simple sequence the film essay must collect its material from everywhere. its space and time must be conditioned only by the need to explain and show the idea.” That excerpt is 80 years old, but it hits the nail on a head in so many ways, namely, in this greater reservoir of expressive means. What do I mean by that? Following from 1940 the essay film evolved in a number of different ways. Orson Welles famously made “F for Fake”, an examination of authorship and authenticity told through the story of an art forger. Let’s take a look at a clip.Then, finally, on a distant island he did find a home. He doesn’t own it, remember, but it’s a splendid villa with a fine view of the village, the village jail.
To be in jail here is probably, I would say – here is better than somewhere else. But a jail is a jail. Let’s face it. Moment of truth. He is talking about the time they took him down out of that villa, which he doesn’t own, and put him into prison. Let me show you that again. [Elmyr de Hory]: To be in jail here is probably, I would say – here is better than somewhere else. But a jail is a jail. Let’s face it. So that’s almost like a documentary film, but when Welles cuts back to himself, he is revealing a deeper layer of commentary, showing how he is manipulating the footage to examine his ideas and make his points. And this is exactly what Richter was talking about. Along these lines – let’s take a look at one more essay film. This time “Sans Soleil”, a seminal piece in this field, by Chris Marker from 1983.
The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness, and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: “One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” So, that’s a striking clip and it’s a fantastic movie. And that other line from Richter “freed from recording external phenomena in simple sequence” – Marker took that to heart. All throughout “Sans Soleil” he’s cutting abruptly back and forth from West Africa to Japan to show how hard it is to contextualize his memories of these experiences and how that affects our perception of time and history as we conceive of it in these simple sequences that we normally see in film. Many would say that the video essay is a continuation of the essay-film, and in a lot of ways it is. The narration from both those examples has proven to be wildly popular in the video essay on YouTube. And film analysis channels, like my friend’s Tony Jones “Every Frame a Painting”, are certainly in tune with the traditions of cinema. But I think that the video essay is a slightly different beast from the essay-film. With the few rare exceptions, the video essay hasn’t ventured nearly as close to the avant-guard as like Chris Marker’s work, for example, or those who were inspired by him. It seems to me, that video essays take their cues more from academia and journalism, and from their online predecessors, the educational explainer YouTube channels, that objectively present fascinating information, channels like “ASAP Science”, “Crash Course”, “In a Nutshell”, “Minute Physics”. Their massive success has proven that there is a real thirst for knowledge online. More than that, there is a thirst for curated knowledge by people who are willing to put the work and do the research and show you the world, maybe something you, guys, never got the chance to study at school, in an engaging way. That, in turn, opened up a lane for broader video essayists like myself or video essayists like Mike Rugnetta over at “PBS Idea Channel”.
Thanks everyone for joining us during our continuing segment on the destruction caused by superhero activity and the question of responsibility for destroyed infrastructure. Joining us live via satellite from their respective studios, we have Josephine Shirley, COO of Destructator, the app for tracking superhero-related destruction in real time. Anne Hannigan, director of communications for the Safety First Foundation. and Brock Funderburg, researcher at the independent policy group Center for Heroism Studies. Let’s get right into it. Anne, before the break, we were discussing whether there is any price too high for the protection of the human race. [Anne Hannigan]: That’s right, Tom. And I think, you know, in these superhero-related activities, there’s going to be some damage. And we just have to be as prepared as we can to face the costs. It’s just a fact of life. And there’s even regulations –
And so what are you saying, that when the Hulk smashes your Benz or collapses your entire apartment building, that’s fine, and the federal government should just have to foot the bill?! Congress didn’t wreck your car or your sofa. Heck, you chose to live there, and you should have to take – Brock Funderburg: Listen, listen. – responsibility for that. There are many forces beyond choice and even law and regulations at work here, including the Avengers. We can plan for and solve this problem ourselves through clear communication, international funds, workflows, and agreements. It’s not so much an economic problem as it is one about attitude. So, I love that clip, and I love it, because it’s something you could only do in this format. And what Rugnetta is doing here is taking something from pop culture, the massive destruction that we see in all these superhero movies, and he is staging a fake newscast, imagining what the official reactions might be. And by doing that, he is able to interrogate a very real issue, disaster relief, and all the problems associated with it from a different interesting angle. Or take the video essays that Vox makes, extremely slick pieces, that pull from journalism, animation, and those explainer channels to produce affecting essayistic takes on news worth the issues, or sometimes issues that aren’t so newsworthy, but are still fascinating like this one, which I really love, on how the NFL’s yellow line works.
The key challenge in making the yellow line is that the scene is constantly changing, which means that the yellow line has to constantly change. Not only are there three different cameras used for wide shots of the field, each camera pans, tilts, and zooms to follow the action. So, the first thing Sportvision does before the game is create a 3D mathematical model of each football field using laser surveying tools. And during the game they gather data from the cameras about their pan, tilt and zoom positions for every single frame. So, when the operator specifies that the first down is at the 43 yard line, for example, the computers combine the camera data with their own model of the field to draw the yellow line in the proper perspective and to redraw it, for every frame being broadcast to viewers. There are so many more examples I could show you. I wish I could, I just don’t have the time. What suffices to say is that video essay is a rapidly expanding genre of online video. And people are watching. “Every Frame a Painting” has over 24 million total views. I did a little linguistic analysis of how Donald Trump answers questions. It has over three million views. Vox’s most viewed video has over 23 million views alone. What was the last time a written essay had that kind of reach? And just like essay films grew up out of the traditions of cinema, commenting on borrowing from and reacting to those traditions, the video essay is growing up out of the Internet, commenting on borrowing from and reacting to the audio visual styles that are being created there every day. Increasingly, our experience of media is audio visual. 65% of people are visual learners, and video essays play to that fact. They help people engage with things that they might not otherwise have been able to. No, I am not saying that written essays are obsolete. I still read plenty of them. But I am encouraged by how many people are watching video essays, and even more by how many people are making them. Because for all its differences the video essay still retains the spirit of Montaigne, that meditative spirit on all things within the field of human life. I said at the beginning that essays are sort of like a train of thought. Well, I kind of think that writing is thought. I believe for a long time that we learn by saying. So, when you are watching the video that I make, what you are really watching is me learning, that’s what you are watching right now, as I give this talk at Lafayette College. And I encourage everybody to try that out for themselves. Because only by articulating in words, in video, or in both, do we really find our point of view. Thank you very much!