Thursday 30th March 2017,
Televisual

“Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”

Ryan Trecartin - I-Be Area, 2007

Today, a reading of a classic essay by art history titan Rosalind Krauss: “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” Full of sharp insights still relevant to video art today, I found it especially relevant — though ultimately insufficient — for understanding the phenomenon of YouTube and mumblecore (a paper I’m working on).

The central idea is simple: the medium of video is narcissism, or, in less Freudian terms, an obsession with the self.

“In that image of self-regard is configured a narcissism so endemic to works of video that I find myself wanting to generalize it as the condition of the entire genre.” She asks: is “the medium of video is narcissism”?

Krauss gets to her point when she brings in Lacan. She uses Lacan’s theorizing of the mirror stage to suggest that video is like the silence in a therapy session. A person realizes he is a construction or object of himself. He, in my words, becomes a stranger unto himself. The difference between a mirror (Lacan’s metaphoric image) and video is that video collapses time, subject and object. The performer is able to see himself as an object. Subject becomes object. This phenomenon is pretty erotic (Krauss cites Benglis’ Now) and leads to obsession: hence, narcissism.

This self-obsession doesn’t say much, Krauss implies. It’s self-satisfying and provides no criticism or evaluation of subjectivity or objecthood.

I agreed with most of her point, and I relished finding an essay from 1976 that talks about the camera as a tool for self-broadcasting. It’s hard to find predecessors to YouTube beyond the 90s-00s webcam movement. Most of video/films prior to that were cinema and homemade videos, neither of which completely suffice.

New media has, however, transformed the camera. It has allowed users — or performers — to work through issues of self-alienation and despair. The most recent example being the 16 year-old girl who cried in despair at the loss of her legal prosecution of her alleged rapist. These “working through” moments, in my opinion, is less about disassociation — being alienated from oneself — than narrativization — writing one’s own story. Through narrative, people feel whole. It’s a stunning process to watch and it’s productive not only for the performers themselves, but for the viewers as well, who watch in occasional cynicism but more often in wonder.

Krauss says video cuts the self (object) away from external objects. It’s more than lonely, it’s solipsistic, she implies. But in new media, the self is networked with others as well. This makes it possible to have a open, human, intimate spaces, as opposed to a myopic, objectified spaces (the spaces of Foucault, Lacan and Barthes if you’ll allow me to get carried away). It suggests the postmodernist, psychoanalytic framework might not be enough to describe how video operates in the 21st century.

It’s telling that the videos Krauss describes are not overtly emotional — some video art was — or when it was emotional, it was “put on.” I think YouTube, as a potential space for emotional honesty, is a foil to this. Some vloggers — most? — are denser and deeper than objects and different kinds of subjects.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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