Blogging and/as Grey Literature, or, How Media Studies Can Continue to Learn from Cultural Studies

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What is online film criticism good for? I ask this question earnestly. As the Mediascape Blog moves into its third year of operation, I want use the precedence of “grey literature” as one potential answer to the question of film criticism’s worth, and a potential direction for our work’s future.

Let me be clear at the outset: I don’t want to use this post as a manifesto. Clearly, the Blog’s output has generated a substantial amount of clear and thoughtful writing of many varieties—and should continue to do so. What this post offers, instead, is another avenue among many for us to develop an evolving trajectory for what online academic blogs can bring to the field and to larger communities.

In a 2013 article for new formations, Ted Striphas and Mark Hayward traced the evolution of “Working Papers in Cultural Studies,” the provisional or “grey” literature published in conjunction with the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies during the 1960s and 1970s.  As Striphas and Hayward suggest early in their article, “recovering the history of diverse forms of textual production identified with an earlier incarnation of cultural studies gives some precedence for allowing – perhaps even embracing – a much greater diversity of textual forms today” (103).

One of the better things to come out of this recent boom in university-sponsored media studies blogs has been, I would argue, the ability for graduate students to not only share but also edit each others’ work; if the Birmingham Centre’s “Occasional Papers” were “instrumental in helping to secure scholarly authority for its…students” (105), Mediascape, In Media Res, Antenna, Flow, and others can perform much the same function today.

Sharing, editing, and debating our work in a more public forum allows us, at best, to continually define the goal of media studies in the twenty-first century, while simultaneously challenging the traditional gate-keeping of academic publishing. This is not to argue against the worth of peer-reviewed articles, film criticism, or other modes of publishing and researching. However, if we seek a way for our scholarship to mean something both to the field and—moreover—to any other number of publics, we should also search for ways to better invest in the promise, accessibility, and spreadability of open access journals. As Striphas and Hayward summarize, “exorbitant subscription services, embargoes on digital pre- and post-prints, content paywalls, costly licensing fees, and other strictures have created a situation in which cultural studies now seems to circulate less freely than it did in the era of mimeograph machines and postage stamps” (114).

The idea of the “working paper” has not necessarily found much sway in media studies, but I’m inspired by the dialogic nature of a number of other collectives—the Cahiers du Cinema of the mid-1950s, perhaps most famously, struck a balance between polemics about filmmaking while publishing important works of criticism.

As Striphas and Hayward further suggest, “What emerged was a way of talking about publication that never fully settled the relationship between the process of research, the formalization of writing and the circulation of particular texts” (109). That is to say, media studies can continue to learn from institutional Cultural Studies not only through the methods we implore in studying media, but also through how we circulate our work. Particularly, I envision this through engaging “the provisionality, partiality and dialogic nature of the project of cultural studies” (109) in media studies.

Certainly, we “talk with” our colleagues through anthologies, special issues, and critiques embedded in articles, but we can also “talk through” issues in the form of more ephemeral and developing blog posts.

Media studies blogs can, in this sense, reinvigorate “the sociality of intellectual production” (Striphas and Hayward, 114). This is why I find the model In Media Res deploys useful—their calls for short contributions on designated topics requires contributors to talk with each other through comments on posts, making each themed week not only about the production of a series of short articles, but more importantly the production of a conversation about this academic work. Flow, which launched in 2004 and is housed under the umbrella of the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, asks contributors to write “three short, topical articles over a six-month period,” and has bolstered its sense of community through the annual Flow Conference. Antenna, accessed through University of Wisconsin-Madison, encourages “blogging without guilt.” These sites have all, in their own way, highlighted the potential of sociality in intellectual work for productive ends.

I’m also struck by two examples of different kinds of textual production. Jason Mittell used Media Commons Press to post the chapters to his manuscript Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling in serialized installments. Drew Morton has, similarly, offered “drafts” of his video essays for friends to critique on social media throughout his editing process. The recent partnership of Media Commons and Cinema Journal to create [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies allows videographic essays to be “curated” and discussed by other writers. The idea here is that these persons and groups rely on contributions and discussion to actively shape the production of a work.

Sure, academic writing is never a solely isolated process. Conversations with colleagues, gracious readers, journal editors, and many others form traces on any product. We all, I think, understand this. In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick suggests, “a full acknowledgement of the benefits of digital authorship practices for our writing, much less any further acceptance of the digital as a primary mode of our work, will require significant shifts in our thinking about ourselves in the act of writing—what we’re doing, how and with whom we’re doing it, and the relationship between ourselves and the texts we produce” (65). As such, we must constantly rethink our traditional practices, and use digital communication technologies to enhance them.

If we take “publication” back to its origins, to the Latin publicare, we can better see its meaning: “to make public.” Here, we can make ideas public, and not necessarily for sale. Film criticism matters when it operates in the service of something else, when it uses its textual analysis to make a difference in how we experience, use, or otherwise make sense of media. Increasingly, I have realized that the mere discussion or reading of a text is never enough and that, further, the glut of online voices offering critiques and readings necessitates that we ask the question I posed at the start of this post: What is online criticism good for? At the least, criticism and grey literature can operate as supplements to each other, as mutually reinforcing directions of thought in the online discussion of media objects. While grey literature opens up the possibility to share early versions of research, it can also frame that research in more public ways. As such, we ought to consider grey literature and/or criticism that involve media literacy, media use, and other forms of everyday being with and consumption of popular media forms, regardless of our writing’s methodology.

Works Cited

[in]Transition. <http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/> Accessed 05 Jan. 2015.

Antenna: Responses to Film and Culture. <http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu> Accessed 05 Jan. 2015.

“Drew Morton on Vimeo.” Vimeo. <http://vimeo.com/user15915571> Accessed 05 Jan. 2015.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

Flow. <http://flowtv.org> Accessed 05 Jan. 2015.

In Media Res. <http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/> Accessed 05 Jan. 2015.

Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. Pre-publication edition (MediaCommons Press, 2012-13). Available at: <http://mcpress.media-commons.org/complextelevision/> Accessed 05 Jan. 2015.

Striphas, Ted and Mark Hayward. “Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Grey Literature.” New formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics. Vol. 78 (2013), pp. 102-116.

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