digital rhetoric

Becoming b-roll #4C19

Here’s the text and videos used in my presentation in case you weren’t inclined to drag yourself over here at 8am.

Rhetoric and composition has been talking about video for decades—as a teaching tool, an object of study, and a medium of scholarly and student composing. More than 15 years ago, Dan Anderson was discussing the impact of prosumer media creation tools, including digital video cameras, on pedagogy. Of course that was years before the arrival of YouTube. I don’t think it is surprising that the last decade has produced hundreds of scholarly articles on the rhetorical practices of YouTube. To generalize about that research, I would say that we are quite apt at the cultural critique of the videos we study. However this presentation isn’t really along those lines. 

Today I’m talking about a specific filmic, compositional technique and investigating its rhetorical operation. I imagine we are all familiar with the concept of b-roll, but just in case it’s basically the footage filmmakers record away from the primary action that is intended to give a more holistic sense of the setting. So it’s often used in introductory and transitional moments in the narration. Sometimes it’s used to help characterize or illustrate the narration. 

Certainly b-roll can be some of the cheesiest, cliched crap that you see in a low-budget informational. It can be overly staged and phony. 

(n.b. I’m only showing clips from these videos but I’m including the whole things here.)

In other words, it’s rhetoric, just like your momma and Plato warned you about. Now these are cases of decontextualized, stock footage and that is one kind of b-roll. But I’m interested in a different, more singular use of b-roll that we find in the work of some YouTube vloggers. This b-roll footage is not stock material. And I would argue that it is not simple scene-setting. In the case of vloggers we are not only seeing their setting, we are seeing their world, their environment, and often their homes and private spaces as they see them.

Now I need to pause and qualify that last statement. Obviously we are not literally seeing through their physical eyes, nor are we transparently or telepathically sharing their phenomenological experience. There are rhetorical and aesthetic stylistic choices. There are technological characteristics. There are genre considerations. Each of these shapes each step from camera placement to the final edit. It is, in this respect, a fiction, but as Latour would point out, it is not a fiction in the sense of being untrue, but a fiction in the sense that all truths, all knowledge, must first be built. So the vlogger’s b-roll does tell us how they see their world in that they involved in a recursive relationship as they are shaping and shaped by their environment and that environment is shaping and shaped by the particular vlog episode. 

So far I don’t think I’ve ventured into unfamiliar territory. Maybe we don’t often give much thought to the b-roll in YouTube vlogs but the idea that composers participate in this kind of recursive shaping relationship with their cultural-material contexts is not so odd. It is an insight we might find recurring in various ecological approaches to composing going back to Marilyn Cooper’s “Ecology of Writing.”

I’m going to push this a little further to take up the idea of b-roll in relation to Thomas Rickert’s theory of ambient rhetoric. B-roll is not itself “ambient video,” which is an entirely different genre. Instead b-roll is a version of language as Rickert describes when he writes

the world comes to speaking in language and gives bearings to being, human beings included, but cannot be understood to issue solely from human being; the world is the largely assumed and relied-on background stitchwork of relations emergent with our everyday doing and making. Language, then, is a way of the world’s being grappling with the rest of the world, with humans as a site for its meaningful disclosure.

Thomas Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric 102

So we can just substitute “video” for “language” in that passage, and while the two are not equivalent, there is sense in saying video is a way of the world’s being grappling with the rest of the world. In some respects we might even find that easier to recognize in our willingness to conceive of video, perhaps because of its obvious technical qualities, as being something that does not “issue solely from human being.”

Even though the shots are composed and edited so that the vlogger might exert maximal agency over what appears on the screen, it is still the vlogger’s world that is being grappled with. Casey Neistat lives in Manhattan. He cannot compose a non-Manhattan. Peter McKinnon lives in Toronto. When it is winter, it is winter. 

Commercial filmmakers have sets and soundstages. A film like Avatar can place actors in a completely virtual world. But vloggers must compose from the world in which they are situated. To return to Rickert’s terms, in b-roll we encounter the “largely assumed and relied-on background stitchwork of relations emergent with our everyday doing and making.” And what better way to describe a core value of the vlog than as an engagement with our everyday doing and making?

We can push this a little further though. If b-roll grapples with the rest of the world, then what about a-roll? For vloggers a-roll puts them in front of the camera. Sometimes it’s a locked shot with the camera fixed on a tripod. Since vloggers are often one-person production teams, it’s either a locked shot or the shaky, handheld selfie style shot. As with the b-roll vloggers can certainly give thought to the space behind them as they move through it, but again it is always set against the limits of their lived, built environment. 

If we can manage to extricate ourselves at some level from our anthropocentrism, at what point might we see ourselves as becoming b-roll, as becoming part of the ambient hum of the world grappling with itself? Perhaps it is hardest to imagine this with our a-roll vlogger, but witness the other humans. They have become b-roll: a new generation of animated render ghosts in an ambient cityscape. 

The render ghost is James Bridle’s term for the inclusion of people into architectural drawings and illustrations. Understandably the inclusion of people can provide a drawing with a sense of scale and offers a way for the viewer to situate herself in the space. I too can imagine standing on that street corner, waiting for the light to change. As one of Bridle’s projects investigates, these render ghosts are often created from photographs of real people scraped from the public web. 

Architectural render ghosts

In some ways this is a part of a long tradition. There have been people set into the backdrop of cityscapes as long as artists have drawn them. We are similarly familiar with the role of extras in movie-making. There are always people filling in the scene. However, I would say the phenomenon I’m discussing here is part of a shift in this practice. Implicitly we know that we are surrounded by camera. Most people we walk past carry one with them. There are security cameras, cameras on cars, and so on. You might walk into the frame as someone is face-timing or taking a selfie. There are a nearly endless number of rhetorical purposes into which you have inadvertently stepped. Much of this camera footage is never seen by human eyes and in the rest your presence is likely ignored as just another feature of the backdrop. Sure, we are used to being anonymous in an airport, at a mall, or on a university campus, but such anonymity is always anchored to our own perspective and narrative. Here our anonymity becomes a rhetorical feature of a scene. We are simply another feature of the world.

So what’s happening in my classroom with this? I suppose I might say that the underlying impetus of the composing courses I teach is to disrupt the disciplinary, paradigmatic hegemony of the late age of print. Of course that doesn’t really fit in a learning outcomes bullet point so I tend to go with something like “Understand how new technologies create new writing practices.” I think it’s very hard to identify ambient rhetoric operating in the spaces of textual composing. The technologies of textual production, combined with the cybernetic, territorializing, and encoding features of genres, serve to smooth out and erase the disruptions of ambient conditions, though maybe you can tell if something you read was written by someone a little buzzed at a party or hungover the next morning or while flying on a plane to a conference. In other words, the world is always in the background, even if it isn’t on camera. Having students create a short b-roll video, what I sometimes call a “portrait of a place,” is a way to focus on this aspect of composing. 

The tricky part then is trying to understand how we are ourselves a part of this background hum. In our own semi-consistent conscious narratives, we are front and center, of course, and that’s one slice of the world, one brain humming away. But other slices see us and our composition processes as interwoven with the background. I’m not here to say which slice is distorted and which one real or better or worse or more or less just. They do however interact. 

I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t end with some gesture toward the kairos of the college bribery scandal and specifically where it intersects the subject of vlogging with the case of “social media influencer” Olivia Jade Gianulli. I’m guessing you know the sordid details of the criminal case so I won’t rehearse them here. What’s relevant from my perspective was the way that being a college student, and maybe particularly being a USC college student, was integral to her brand strategy. In this situation, we can see how the ambient hum of b-roll moves out in different directions. One direction is familiar to our critical modes in that it attaches Olivia Jade to an ideological position as a college student that offers her some veneer of ethos in reaching her demographic of college attending and college aspiring viewers. Sitting in the dorm room gives her that in a way that’s perhaps subtler but no less real than what accrues to a judge on the bench or a professor in front of lecture hall. 

The other direction is harder to parse, and I’ll end with it. It sends us down proprietary algorithmic rabbit holes where image becomes data. Growing one’s brand and social media influence is a data-driven game. Under the eye of the digital camera we all become data points. We all become part of the hum of network servers and their cooling units. There is some attenuated relationship between those data points and our bodies and voices. This context seems indifferent to Olivia Jade’s ambitions and ethical judgments of her actions. The point I’m trying to make here is that while we have competing ethical and political goals carried out on these platforms and we might study and intercede in the space of human agency, there is another layer of rhetorical operation—material, ecological, and technological—that operates with indifference to our intentions. It is there in the background, in our b-roll, and in the network. My work is about trying to understand how that thing works.

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