The essay as deformation
Happy 2019, all. This year, as in years past with the alt / pop cultural genres I became obsessed with — like SF in film or future garage in music — my resolution is to investigate and contribute to the literary category of the essay, in all of its transmedial forms — the text-essay, the audio-essay, the music-essay, the photographic-essay, the film-essay, the blog-essay, and the video-essay, amongst others.
Just as SF deforms technoscience and future garage deforms (corporate) electronic music, the essay, as a literary+ category deforms all of its sources simultaneously: journalism, criticism, philosophy, and typically, whatever technological medium it emerges from as well.
But, what do I mean by deformation?
In his book FRANCIS BACON: THE LOGIC OF SENSATION, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze argues that in the paintings of Francis Bacon, the artist engages in “the breaking with cliché, that is, the domain of representation… in order to allow for the possibility of a sensation that would work directly on the nervous system… [thereby leading to an] undoing of the object-form, its ‘deformation’.”
If the essay is the corresponding deforming form of the literary, it is a necessarily hybrid one, and one more capable of transmedial adaptation than other longer forms.
My view is that, in essence, the blogosphere is over, after having been killed by social media, but social media too, is entering a kind of terminal decline, suicided via its own claustrophobic form. Medium.com and similar alternatives occupy an interesting, new space, that can bridge the best of both.
But the history of the past two decades, as far as online critical writing goes, are that the essayistic era of the blog-oriented mid-00s transformed into the aphoristic era of the social media-oriented 2010s, which had many amazing moments (which I also participated in).
What was gained, and what was lost?
Ultimately, I have to agree with Susan Sontag: overly-brief forms of critical writing like the aphorism often tend towards solipsism and myopia, and given the individualization and totalization of our everyday lives today, we need more than that, much more.
Our current political climate, with the rise of new economic, cultural, and technological challenges, and the slow-motion collapse of both social media and the university, is confronted by the essay-form, especially in its emerging transmedial form.
What I want to do here, on Medium.com and elsewhere, is demonstrate what can be done with it in transmedial fashion, across a variety of mediums simultaneously, in order to inspire others to do the same, especially in ways that creatively and critically engage the mounting cultural and political problems of our time.
I’m fairly convinced that, as one of the only categories of short attention span-friendly cultural objects in which thought and the communication of thought develops in a more fleshed-out manner, the essay is one of the most promising modes from which to begin to exit the logic of overinteractivity / overconclusiveness, which seems to be entering into decline anyways.
Today perhaps, the essay can serve as a “vacuole of non-communication”, in which we can still communicate, but in a less self-assured, more reflective, and importantly, in an at least somewhat longer-form manner.
While there is much to recommend live media forms, I miss the kind of delayed communication characteristic of the essay form, which was more of a thing even in the decade prior to the 2010s, when the theory blogosphere prevailed. Contrapoints, interestingly, chooses to produce only one video-essay per month — and when they arrive, they are usually well worth the wait. Comparatively speaking, especially, to those in the thrall of the imperative for daily or even more frequent posting.
Starting out with Adorno’s “Essay as Form”, I plan to refresh and reorient my understanding of the genre, and I fully expect that I’ll be rambling on about this and other such texts in one manner or another, for at least the remainder of 2019. I’ll be working through essays on the essay, exemplary essays of the theory-informed but still primarily materialist / immanent critique type (Arendt, Barthes, etc.), critiques of the essay vs. shorter and longer form “writing”, and, even more, exemplary theory-informed essays of the transmedial type that are emerging today in audiovisual and other forms.
Here’s Adorno — predicting in a way, I think, the transmedial potential of the essay:
“The essay approaches the logic of music, that stringent and yet aconceptual art of transition, in order to appropriate for verbal language something it forfeited under the domination of discursive logic… it coordinates elements instead of subordinating them, and only the essence of its content, not the manner in which it is presented, is commensurable with logical criteria… the essay is more dynamic than traditional thought by virtue of the tension between the presentation and the matter presented. But at the same time, as a constructed juxtaposition of elements, it is more static. Its affinity with the image lies solely in this, except that the staticness of the essay is one in which relationships of tension have been brought, as it were, to a standstill.”
The essay is the punk rock of writing. It refuses 24/7, always-on discursive logics, while composing points and counterpoints that focus more upon the sonorous logics of resonance and dissonance, without succumbing to the command to arrive at final resolutions.
And what’s more, much like punk rock and all of the DIY microgenres that followed it (from Vaporwave to Lo-Fi House), just about anyone can be an essayist, whether trained formally or self-educated — and as a result, just about anyone can have an impact on the world, the way we think about the world, and therefore, the future directions the world might take.
To be done well (the only way one should seek to do one, of course), the essay-form requires attention, effort, and a certain level of seriousness, all of which would amount to nothing, at least in this particular form, if not balanced by a degree of playfulness, irony, and experimentation, as well as the mobilization of the very heights of one’s critical and expressive capacities.
The essay-form is thus both egalitarian in terms of production and Promethean in terms of expression. And, even in its purely textual form, it is already transmedial, in that, as Adorno holds, it is both musical and photographic.
The essay-form balances the best of the aphorism or hot take social media share (the truly insightful ones, I mean) and the best of the magnum opus or longstanding, opinion leader-level Twitter-feed or Facebook-feed.
While shares and tweets on social media can be quite impactful, by now, these particular virtual forms can also be as limiting as the traditional forms of physical books, in that they’re exceedingly short and stressfully interactive, while physical books are excessively long and materially isolating.
Even in its purely textual form, the essay-form builds upon the best of both while leaving the worst of both behind — and again, it is already transmedial, both musical and photographic, at a minimum.
Transmedia essays of the type I seek to champion and create, build upon the best of the critical essay-form’s already-existing traditions, whether that means text-essays like Walter Benjamin’s, video-essays like Nathalie Wynn’s, film-essays like Chris Marker’s, or any other form.
Although essayists remain free to engage any topic they like however they like, for me, there are really, in the end, two major categories of essayists. Those seeking to critically engage a wide range of interconnected phenomena including culture, race, philosophy, gender, economics, ethnicity, aesthetics, indigeneity, technology, sexuality, science, and politics — all at once, as much as possible — and those not seeking to.
Those who have done so in the past, disregarding archaic disciplinary borders, and addressing the most pressing issues facing the world, are the precursors to what the critical transmedia essay might become into the 2020s.
As I’ve stated, in addition to The New Centre, I’m working on a few projects currently, in which I’d like to extend the best of the 20th century critical essayistic tradition, as expressed and articulated in the essays of figures like Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Frantz Fanon, Susan Sontag, Paul Virilio, and Simone Weil, and the early 21s century critical essayistic tradition, as expressed in the mid-00s critical theory blogosphere, which involved figures like Jodi Dean and Mark Fisher, amongst many others. I was part of the mid-00s critical theory blogosphere, via my blog Immanent Multiplicity, and I mourn its passing profoundly.
But what I seek to do here on Medium, at The New Centre, and elsewhere, is to chronicle, foment, and contribute to the emergence of a “phase two”, which I believe is increasingly visible in the emergence of the critical transmedia essay: audio-essays, video-essays, and film-essays, amongst other non-exclusively textual forms, that also appear in additional media formats.
I will leave you with some recommended texts:
- T. Adorno The Essay as Form
- N. Alter & T. Corrigan Essays on the Essay Film
- B. Ballenger Teaching the Audio Essay
- W. Benjamin Reflections on Radio
- W. Benjamin Theater and Radio
- T. Corrigan The Essay Film
- B. Dillon Essayism
- M. Fisher K-Punk
- A. Goodloe Writing the Audio Essay
- A. Gould Teaching the Transmedia Essay
- P. Graham The Age of the Essay
- A. Huxley Preface to the Collected Essays
- H. Jenkins Transmedia Storytelling
- G. Lukacs On the Nature and Form of the Essay
- E. Puschack How YouTube Changed the Essay
- M. Rosen The Benjamin Broadcasts
- S. Sontag On Aphorisms
- C. Wampole The Essayification of Everything
- N. Wynn Contrapoints
From here forward, all of my essays posted here and elsewhere, will be transmedial, in that they will at least be made available as both shorter text-essays and extended audio-essays, and if I venture into other mediums like the photographic-essay or art-essay, I will accompany these too, with both a text-essay and audio-essay.