This video was developed as a presentation for the 2016 Computers and Writing Conference. It opens with a number of screens showing citations from articles that raise questions about traditional methods of scholarly criticism. It also explores the poem "A Blessing" by James Wright. The video offers a survey of issues associated with scholarship and media composing, and then an embodied response to "A Blessing" in the form of a song.
This video is somewhat traditional in the way it brings together quotations and narration to discuss alternative scholarship. The opening segments feature scholarly excerpts displayed on screen. The piece also includes aspects of process narrative or artist statement when the making of the video is discussed. The second half of the piece veers away from familiar response as the song performs an interpretation of Wright's poem.
00:00 The video opens with a title screen: "The Blessing of Rescuing Critique, Daniel Anderson, @iamdan." A quotation appears on screen: "Suspicious reading inscribes itself in the psyche as . . . a mind-set equipped with distinct qualities: distance rather than closeness; guardedness rather than openness; aggression rather than submission; superiority rather than reverence; attentiveness rather than distraction; exposure rather than tact. . . . The danger . . . is less its potential brutality than the threat of banality (Rita Felski, 'Suspicious Minds')." Imagery of wild horses appears in the lower portion of the video, accompanied by soft, western-themed music. The narrator speaks: "In this piece, I show how multimedia invites us to move from concrete to abstract, opening avenues for emergent interpretation. I also experiment with a mode of response that recognizes some of the limits of critique and closure. Critique can be competitive, exclusionary, banal. Closure can lead us to overlook the generosity of the world around us, including the world of the texts that we study."
00:37 The text of the poem "A Blessing" begins scrolling on the lower half of the screen beneath another quotation that reads: "What drives [a hermeneutics of suspicion] is the conviction that appearances are deceptive, that texts do not gracefully relinquish their meanings, that manifest content shrouds darker, more unpalatable truths. It is a mode of interpretation that adopts a distrustful attitude toward texts in order to draw out meanings or implications that are not intended and that remain inaccessible to their authors as well as to ordinary readers (Rita Felski, explicating Ricoeur in 'Suspicious Minds')." The narrator speaks: "Practicing a mode of alt-scholarship, I created a response to this poem scrolling on the screen: 'A Blessing,' by James Wright. The poem is set off a rural highway near Rochester, Minnesota. It is about two companions who stumble across a pair of horses in a meadow. The poem suggests a bond between human and animal and among humans, an emotional connection."
01:04 A new quotation appears in the top half of the screen: "Such an orientation has clear affinities with the burgeoning interest in affect. One of the distinguishing marks of works of art, after all, is their ability to inspire intense responses, inchoate emotions, quasi-visceral passions, working and worming their way into our minds and bodies. Art is the quintessential mood-altering substance. (Rita Felski, 'After Suspicion')." The Wright poem continues to scroll in the lower left: "We step over the barbed wire into the pasture." The narrator continues: "This emotional connection is often lost among the logic of academic closure. But affect is linked to abstraction and audio-visual registers, which makes multimodal production a space for emergent composing. The works we study are rich and ambiguous, unfolding like flowers. Why not our responses?"
01:28 A new quotation appears at the top of the screen: "A critical inquiry involves some manner of courage or audacity. It is also why such a critical practice opens up a new possibility for elaborating the subject or what [Foucault] sometimes calls creating a new subjectivity, one that would by definition maintain an uncertain relation to existing terms of legitimacy and intelligibility, at least at first. (Judith Butler, 'Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity')." In the lower portion of the screen, the poem continues scrolling: "For she has walked over to me / And nuzzled my left hand." The narrator continues: "These kinds of responses can create new subjectivities. 'A Blessing' depicts a coming-together as the speaker and his companion connect with 'two Indian ponies.'"
01:38 A new quotation appears at the top of the screen: "The object of study is no longer an object. A generous reading is always, in part, a reading of ourselves reading. The thought it produces is never transferable, recognizable, paraphrasable, applicable, expoundable, or illustratable—meaning that it cannot be detached either from the text itself or from the moment of reading. (Timothy Bewes, 'Reading with the Grain')." The narrator continues: "And the poem extends that human-animal connection with a metaphor that transcends the subject/object divide and generates a new sense of self, at one with the world. "Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom." (This spoken quote corresponds with the scrolling text of the poem.)
02:00 On screen, a folder displays a number of video files with timestamps from December 17, 2015. The narrator speaks: "On a Thursday morning, I worked up a response that plays with layering, cameras, and screens."
02:08 Imagery of wild horses appears on screen, accompanied by the soft western music from the opening sequence. The narrator continues: "I started with a YouTube clip that depicts horses. I began bringing together verbal and visual representations; the literal associations translated into mostly corresponding moving images. I then used my laptop camera and Photo Booth to film an adaptation."
02:22 On screen, a red guitar held in someone's lap fills the screen. A hand begins strumming the guitar.
02:33 The volume level of the guitar strumming is lowered. The narrator speaks: "Here, we have a typical instance of a camera filming a subject, with the added layering of a reflection of the laptop on the surface of the guitar."
02:46 The guitar strumming fades out. The narrator continues: "At the same time I used Snapz to capture the Photo Booth application recording on the screen. I used a transparency application to layer the YouTube video over the Photo Booth application as it filmed the guitar. Snapz captured a composite of Photo Booth filming and the YouTube video playing."
03:03 On screen, a composite image shows a red guitar and images of wild horses on a laptop screen. The words "this machine performs critique with compassion" are visible as the desktop background. A hand begins strumming the guitar.
03:11 The sound of the guitar fades out. The narrator continues: "I next turned on a visualizer and captured a clip with singing."
03:17 On screen, an image of a sound visualizer color bar appears. The narrator sings the phrase "the greener grass starts at the edge of town." The colors in the color bar shift and spike in time with the singing.
03:25 The color bar on the screen is replaced by the composite image of the guitar and horses. The narrator continues: "I also captured a scrolling video of the text of the poem. I brought all these materials into a video editor, made a few adjustments, and uploaded my response to YouTube. The process compressed a couple of hours and several captures into a three-and-a-half minute video that interprets the poem through creative response."
03:44 The same composite images, this time framed in a video hosted on YouTube, appear. A hand begins strumming the guitar. The narrator sings the phrase "the greener grass starts at the edge of town."
04:00 The music fades out. The imagery on the screen fades out leaving a white screen, which is quickly replaced with a close-up image of a man's face. The man's expression is distressed. The narrator speaks: "I enjoyed mixing horse imagery with music as a response to the poem, but was not satisfied. I wanted a response driven more by affect and companionship, something more abstract."
04:13 On screen, a video is projected on a wall in a dark room. The video depicts drag racers and is sporadically paused and fast-forwarded. Segments of the video's subtitles are occasionally visible. The narrator continues: "I started over with this footage of drag racer Don Prudhomme, captured just after his competitor's car broke into pieces at over 200 miles per hour. Fortunately, the other racer was okay, but Prudhomme did not know this at the moment. I combined this clip with segments of another video depicting the early days of drag racing, a time that featured what might be called a cherished rivalry between Prudhomme and fellow racer Tom McEwen. The original translation with horses was too literal—horse reference to horse image. I wanted to feel and share the generative compassion in the poem. Taking another tack, I created this experiment in affective response."
05:00 On screen, the narrator sits down in front of the projected video. The narrator is holding a red guitar and wears a white shirt. The images of drag racers are now projected on the shirt of the narrator. The dialogue accompanying the drag racing video is audible, but soft. The text of the poem "A Blessing" begins scrolling on screen. A small window showing the narrator singing and playing guitar filmed from a different angle is visible in the bottom right corner. The narrator begins playing the guitar.
05:20 The narrator begins singing:
The greener grass starts at the edge of town
And there you'll find a wooden house with windows wide and porch steps leading down
To a meadow before evening casting dust specks in the sunbeams all around
As by the willow tree you walk pulled forward by the crickets' talk and the water sound
Rochester your fields are full of horses in the grasses
You step a little closer as each tender moment passes
You know their skin is breathing and the dust smells of forever
You start to think of leaving but you know that you will never
06:26 On screen, imagery of two drag racers walking together appears. The narrator continues singing:
And turning from the road two silhouettes in soft shadow against the sky
You see them as they're coming down through corridors of dust specks in the light
And as they're moving closer and your blood is flowing faster you realize
That when you come together you will open like a blossom to a butterfly
07:02 On screen, two dragsters move into place at a starting line. The narrator continues singing:
Rochester your horses know the secrets of the grasses
They learn about forever with each tender shoot that passes
The heat beneath their rippling skin is rising in the twilight
And when you come together you will open like blossom to a butterfly
07:32 On screen, the two dragsters are racing down the track. One loses control and crashes. The sound of sirens can be heard. The narrator continues singing:
Rochester your secret's safe with me
Rochester your secret's safe
Rochester your secret's safe with me
Rochester your secret's safe
08:04 On screen, images of a distraught drag racer appear. The drag racer is speaking to an interviewer. Captions appear showing the drag racer's speech: "How bad is he?" A commentator is barely audible, with the phrase "the emotions of Don Prudhomme" distinguishable. The narrator continues singing:
Rochester oh Rochester
Oh Rochester oh Rochester
Rochester your secret's safe with me
Rochester your secret's safe
Rochester your secret's safe with me
Rochester your secret's safe
08:40 The guitar strumming and the singing of the narrator fade out. On screen, the image of the distraught drag racer appears projected on the narrator's shirt. A caption appears on the image: "Oh my God." The image freezes on the narrator's shirt. The video ends.
Many of the items in the opening segment are standard citations incorporated as images. The video moves slowly through the narration with these materials held on screen. The piece also contains a number of video clips that provide visual elements. The imagery of wild horses plays a smaller role in this video than in an earlier iteration, where it was primary. Two videos provide the imagery of early drag racing. Those videos have been mixed to create a composite with multiple layers.
The text of "A Blessing" is included as part of the academic discussion. In this instance, the poem is included in its entirety and transformed as it is projected onto surfaces and mixed with the imagery and sonics of the piece. The remaining materials are created by the author. There is footage with a view of the author's yard from an upstairs window. Mobile phone footage also captures the view from the perspective of the guitar. Laptop camera footage shows the sung response and the narrator playing guitar.
American Nitro . Directed by Bill Kimberlin, KB Production, 1979.
Arroyo, Sarah J. Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013.
Bewes, Timothy. "Reading with the Grain: A New World in Literary Criticism." Difference: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 21, no. 3 (2010): 1–33.
Butler, Judith. "Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity." Critical Inquiry 40, no. 4 (2009): 773-95.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Athlone Press, 1989.
"Don Prudhomme Says 'I Quit' vs. Jim Nicoll in 1970." YouTube, uploaded by NHRA, June 2, 2014, https://youtu.be/wAhsQvDscK4
Felski, Rita. "After Suspicion." Profession 8 (2009): 28–35. https://doi.org/10.1632/prof.2009.2009.1.28
Felski, Rita. "Suspicious Minds." Poetics Today 32, no. 2 (2011): 215–34.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
"Free Roaming Wild Horses & Mustangs of Nevada—Pioneer Spirit of the West." YouTube, uploaded by mixup98, July 15, 2013, https://youtu.be/osOgH7mMEgg
Manning, Erin, and Brian Massumi. Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Modern American Poetry. "On 'A Blessing.'" Department of English, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, accessed May 20, 2106, http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/j_wright/blessing.htm
Pink, David. "Wright's 'A Blessing'." The Explicator 54, no. 1 (1995): 44–45.
Purdy, James, and Joyce Walker. "Valuing Digital Scholarship: Exploring the Changing Realities of Intellectual Work." Profession (2010): 177-95. Accessed June 22, 2020, www.jstor.org/stable/41419875
Shaviro, Steven. Post Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zero Books, 2010.
Sorapure, Madeline. "Between Modes: Assessing New Media Compositions." Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 10, no. 2 (2005). http://www.technorhetoric.net/10.2/binder2.html?coverweb/sorapure/index.html
"Vintage 1970's Drag Racing—Rare Footage." YouTube, uploaded by MaccaIsntDead, October 14, 2009, https://youtu.be/Nzkr4F_4Xlo
Wright, James. "A Blessing." In Selected Poems, 54. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
Scholarship often highlights relevant passages from a text, and then discusses them. In the opening segments of the video, images show quotations about negative aspects of academic critique. "A hermeneutics of suspicion dissipates its problem-solving powers and loses much of its allure" (Suspicious Minds, 231), Rita Felski tells us. Judith Butler asks whether critique can be "something other than the practice of destruction, of nay-saying" (795). Timothy Bewes advocates for an approach he calls "generous" and notes how such readings can be embodied and resist closure: "A generous reading is always, in part, a reading of ourselves reading. The thought it produces is never transferable, recognizable, paraphrasable, applicable, expoundable" (28). Kathleen Fitzpatrick similarly calls for "generous thinking" that asks us to "focus just a bit less on mastery and more on connection" (86). These scholars point us away from negativity and toward empathy, both in our relations with others and our academic work.
Blessing Critique takes up these concerns, and then generates a text with an affective message that mixes image, sound, and music. The result is a critical response to a poem. Steven Shaviro (following Lev Manovich) suggests that digitization flattens information hierarchies so that "perceptual impressions . . . cannot be ordered by vision alone" (79). Screen compositions feature "other senses, most notably hearing." Sound and music, Shaviro explains, have been at "the leading edge of change" (134) as cinema has moved into the twenty-first century. At 07:40, a siren can be heard in the video while imagery of Don Prudhomme appears on screen. "We now live in the midst of an audiovisual continuum" (134), Shaviro writes. This continuum emerges as the video response plays with our perceptions of empathy by blending the sonic wailing of the ambulance with the anguish in the face of the drag racer.
In cinema and digital composing, we expect empathetic, audiovisual mixings. In academic responses, we're not sure what to make of them. James Purdy and Joyce Walker warn of a tendency to cast what's unfamiliar as creative expression, a move that "often privilege[s] print and reinscribe[s] the creative-scholarly split" (178). Such reinscription will struggle to account for the possibilities of audiovisual response. Instead, "when we consider alternative modes, we must also reconsider the methods through which they produce knowledge" (182). In a response to James Wright's "A Blessing," David Pink tells us, the poem's speaker fulfills a desire "to cross the boundaries of being." Purdy and Walker note that "how we see texts shapes how we see (our) bodies—and vice versa" (184). In Blessing Critique, a projected image appears on the author's chest depicting the distraught face of Don Prudhomme. Boundaries are crossed as the response to the poem is projected, sung, and embodied, asking us to reconsider what counts as scholarship.
The response in the version included here is a remake of an earlier effort that featured horse imagery rather than the motif of drag racing. Gilles Deleuze urges us to think of mixing images as "not an operation of association, but of differentiation" (174). The switch from horse to drag racing imagery represents such a move. Wright's poem deals directly with horses. The video that drifts further away gains complexity through distance in its layers of meaning. In many ways, this move increases the ambiguity of the video. Following Madeline Sorapure, who thinks about how "metaphor exploits similarity and substitution, while metonymy exploits contiguity and association," we might imagine a continuum from direct to indirect symbolic representation that can be deployed through the screen. Composing becomes a tuning process for balancing association and distance along the continuum, with the results transforming into texts that, in varying degrees, display ambiguity or decipherability.
Wright's poem is interpreted here with an open-ended approach. Scholars have noted the epiphany that closes the poem, a move built upon the bonds of companionship. The poem brings together material boundaries with imagery of natural communion: "the horses are enclosed in 'barbed wire'; the poet and his friend must transgress an unnatural boundary to enter into the natural setting" (Modern American Poetry). All of this crossing evokes a sense of transformation that provides the poet with an out-of-body experience that is captured in the closing of the poem: "Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom."
The video replicates the in/out of body experience in the poem with its own closing scene. The projected image offers a layering of media on the body. This move is amplified by the intense affect conveyed by the visual materials. Shaviro argues that digital videos, "like other media works, are machines for generating affect, and for capitalizing upon, or extracting value from, this affect" (2–3). Felski points out that affect offers an untapped resource that might inspire or evoke impassioned scholarship. Projected on the body, video response generates in the body insights or feelings, what Gregory Ulmer and Sarah Arroyo (extending Roland Barthes) have discussed as the punctum. Arroyo explains, "the concept of the punctum . . . provides access to knowledge residing in the body" (57). It is the sting, the wound, the spark, the mysterious recognition that registers as emotions. Ambiguity flows through these emotional moments and materials. Composing in these registers yields a scholarship more open to interpretation. In many ways, the most open scholarship begins at the 05:00 mark in the video with the embodied response to "A Blessing." The reading of the poem that it offers both contains and casts forth its secrets.