We’ve all seen them – heartfelt autobiographical pieces to the computer camera, uploaded, with little or no editing, to Youtube. How are we to understand the phenomenon of the Youtube confession?
Michael Renov argues that it is a function of the personal video camera to elicit this type of media, in comparison to the industrial film cameras of heritage media. Autobiography has made a leap of mediums in the post-industrial age because of technology. He excavates the pre-history of the Youtube confession, starting with Jean Rouch in Chronique d’un ete (1961), who muses:
…the camera… becomes a kind of psychoanalytic stimulant which lets people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. (Rouch quoted by Renov, p 197)
…the camera… was not a brake but let’s say, to use an automotive term, an accelerator. You push these people to confess themselves and it seemed to us without any limit. Some of the public who saw the film said the film was a film of exhibitionists. I don’t think so. It’s not exactly exhibitionism: it’s a very strange kind of confession in front of the camera, where the camera is, let’s say, a mirror, and also a window open to the outside. (quoted by Renov, p 197)
Thus, Renov argues that the camera has become:
…a kind of two-way glass that retains a double function: it is a window that delivers the profilmic to an absent gaze and, at the same moment, a reflective surface that reintroduces us to ourselves. Rouch’s insight brilliantly anticipates what the video apparatus (with the playback monitor mounted alongside the camera) realizes. (Renov, p 197)
The new personal video technology meant that people could have a different relationship with the moving image, because the subject of the moving image could become the self, and the camera becomes a “camera-stylo”, the moving image equivalent to the pen (Renov, p 198).
Confession can serve many ends, as Renov reveals in a number of video confession works. In Anger (1986) by Maxis Cohen ‘confession has taken the place of penance’:
I am suggesting that first-person video confessions, addressed to an absent confessor/Other, mediated through an ever-present apparatus, constitute a discursive formation significantly different from the truncated dialogue, one that offers particular insight into the specificities and potentialities of the medium itself.
First-person video confessions satisfy Foucault’s formulation of confession as ‘a discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement,’ with the ‘speaking subject’ understood as necessarily and simultaneously the ‘enunciating subject’. (Renov, p200)
Video gives the confession ‘exchange value’:
Video preserves and deepens that dynamic of privatization and entrepreneurship. Now, with the help of their cameras, videomakers can exhume their deepest fears and indiscretions all on their own–then put their neuroses on display. In a sense, first-person video confession is uniquely suited to its moment. Born of late-stage capitalism, it endows therapeautic practice with exchange value.
There are other ways to understand the advantage of the first-person format. As Rouch demonstrated with Marceline’s soliloquy in Chronique d’un ete, the presence of the camera or recorder is sufficient to spur self-revelation. In the case of video confessions, the virtual presence of a parter–the imagined other effectuated by the technology–turns out to be a more powerful facilitator of emotion than flesh-and-blood interlocutors. (Renov, p 204)
The reality TV phenomenon illustrates another of late capitalism’s fetishes (see Fetveit 1999), which also, arguably, feeds into the impetus to confess.
The confessional moment establishes a ‘zone of liminality’ (Renov, p 212), even if it functions outside criminological, religious, or other formal institutional settings, because, so long as it is addressed to a public, it is a ‘threshold moment’ (Renov, p 212), holding a promise of moving on to another state. On the criminal confession a la Detective John Kelly in NYPD Blue:
“By confessing, he finds the first possibility of a return to the community after he had put himself, through his deed, outside its limits.” In that liminal zone, no emotion, no promise, no sign of remorse remains unthinkable. (Renov, p 212, including quote by Reik).
What, then is the role of the internet, as publisher and distributor, of a confessional video? It amplifies effects already identified by Renov, that:
To return to Foucault’s characterization, ‘one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile’.(Renov, including quote of Foucault, p 203)
It is as if the performer is confessing to her own conscience (super-ego) which has been manifested in the internet, second-gessing all the ways her behaviour might be assessed and trying to repond to them. The limits of the confession is her own sense of self, and it is perhaps those limits in which revelation most lies. The internet is the authority, the public(s) to which the confessor addresses. The confessor must possess an internalised sense of who this public is, its likely values and interests, so that s/he knows how to confess – what the scope of the confession should be, where the guilt, or shame, or despair lies that needs explaining.
If the ear of the other indeed contributes to the (re)construction of the speaking self, it is only on condition that the positions of self and other, confessor and confessant, remain fluid and reciprocal. (Renov, p 214)
An interesting observation, when transferred to a confession published online, in which there can be no expectation of any specific person confessing, but rather a potential for specific people to confess; meanwhile, the culture of confession that generally pervades social media platforms impart a sense of generalised reciprocity.
The impact of incorporating confessional video footage into a documentary may be profound (leaving aside the ethical issues).
Speaking in the first person edges the documentary form toward the diary, essay, and aspects of avant-garde or experimental film and video. The emphasis may shift from convincing the audience of a particular point of view or approach to a problem to the representation of a personal, clearly subjective view of things (Nichols, 14).
Such documentaries may become subjective, exploratory, and rather melancholic; with a subtext about an attempt to communicate. Exposition may counter to their power.
In The Love Tapes (1978-?) by Wendy Clarke, Renov explores the power of seeing your confession on the auto-playback screen attached to the camera:
The screen/mirror also becomes a blank surface on which an active projection of the self, rather than a scrictly receptive introjection, reigns triumphant. At last, in a reversal of broadcast fortunes close to Brecht’s dream, the television stops talking and just listens. Video becomes the eye that sees and the ear that listens, powerfully but without judegement or reprisal. (Renov p 206)
I think we don’t listen to social media and UGC all that often. It can be hard work, because it is not professionally made. But if we did, we’d find much wonderful, powerful, disturbing content.
Fetveit, Arild ‘Reality TV in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?’ Media Culture Society 1999 21: 787
Nichols, B (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press,
Renov, M (2004). ‘Video confessions’, in The subject of documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp 191-215.
[Scene from Chronique d'un ete (1961) by Jean Rouch]