"Irony is Ubiquitous" (Scholarly Talk and Paper)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
A version of this talk, first given at the Avant-Doc Conference, was later published online at no more potlucks. Here, I work through my puzzlement about how fake documentary, a form I had used and celebrated in relation to making radical claims about history, identity, and truth (in the film The Watermelon Woman, and the scholarly anthology, F is for Phony) was proving to be one of the most common, benign, and definitive vernaculars on YouTube.
Parody, "a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule," is also a key tactic of postmodernism, "because it foregrounds quotation and self-referentiality."

Cinema verite (film truth) was a documentary film movement developed in France in the 1960s. It took new, light-weight cameras into the world, and attempted to provoke the truth from lived reality. In the United States there was a related movement called direct cinema that attempted to allow film equipment to capture life unaware, like a fly on the wall. Much contemporary documentary theory (including my own) challenges documentary's truth claims.

In semiotics—the study of how signification works—an indexical sign is a "mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified."[cit]

Video and film have been used throughout their history to witness and document atrocities of those in power, as well as "people's history" of utopian political moments.

LonelyGirl15 was exposed as fiction by its own fans, who decided to track the email account used by Bree to interact with other users, eventually revealing the IP address of Creative Artists Agency, a talent agency representing the creators and actors of LonelyGirl15.[cit]
(A version of this talk, first given at the Avant-Doc Conference, was later published online at no more potlucks.)

"The week after the 2008 presidential election, in a talk at the New York Public Library, Joan Didion lamented that the United States in the era of Barack Obama had become an 'irony-free zone,' a vast Kool-Aid tank where 'naivete,' translated into 'hope' was 'now in' and where 'innocence, even when it looked like ignorance was now prized.'–Andy Newman, Sunday Styles Section, New York Times, November 23, 2008

Joan, seriously (umm ... ironically), have you spent much time on YouTube? You of all people must be aware that after the election, Barack Obama, heralded by the Washington Post, no less, as our first "YouTube President," announced the commencement of weekly broadcasts of his presidency's "fireside chats" online and on YouTube.

While the tone, form, and message of these networked national addresses are decidedly serious, presidential even, Joan, you're savvy enough to get the joke, to intuit the wink, the implied aside to a history of worn-out presidents, tired fires, and cornball communications. His move, like most on YouTube, is irony-full: a regal black American taking up the hot spot, filling the oft-segregated head shot, a new kind of president-talk produced through documentary's oldest, most eloquent sobriety, fireside-hot, only to be elegantly plopped into his society's silliest spot. Incongruity-free? Naive? I'd say not.

Furthermore, Joan, with all due respect to your many past cultural insights, you're using terms, like so many from the prenetworked generations, in ways that seem downright outdated for getting to the heart of today's innovative online ways. Garden-style YouTube irony is not oppositional to innocence, as you mistakenly suggest, but rather happily sits as bedfellow to performances of playful naivete and even ignorance. Think Obama-on-Letterman's dead pan rendering of a gravitas never to be taken at face value. Think of attempts by millions of regular Joes to match the "real"-looking under-stated performances of the professional cast of The Office. Obama simply, perhaps masterfully, twists Rain's Winterbottom riff. Obama's YouTube jam goes like this: the serious usually marks the funny, but in his version, get this: the serious is ... the serious. Really.

YouTube is all irony, all the time, and our YouTube President wittily plays it against itself. Sincerely folks, on YouTube, who came first, Tina Fey or Sarah Palin? I think you know the answer. On YouTube, what gets watched more: Obama's fireside chats, Obama Girl, Obama on Ellen, or Obama via Will.i.am? Yes we can. Irony-free? No we can't.

Interestingly, I've been engaged in a similar irony-joust with fellow YouTube scholar Michael Wesch, who also, but not due to age or nonnative status, views YouTube as a happy community-building Kool-Aid dispenser. I've suggested in a variety of fora, online and off—sarcastically, sorta—that his cheery findings align with where he lives ( Kansas), or perhaps his field of training (Anthropology: they do love a happy native). But here I choose to move from the jokey realm of the blog to the more academic framework of a fake-talk: how and why do some see sincerity where us black-clad, red-state, Obama-loving, bitter, hope-seeking city-dwellers perceive hypocrisy, or is that faith, or perhaps hope hiding hypocrisy? However to tell the difference!

Which leads me, naturally, to The History of LOLcats. This video was suggested to me by Julie via HASTAC. I'll soon detail my online search and method, looking for productive fake docs on YouTube for this talk. Leave it to say, I networked my research as part of the show and tell.

Julie's brief bio explains that she's a "PhD student in Modern Culture and Media at Brown." She explained her recommendation to me thus: "no hidden gems here, but I assume you've seen the History of LOLcats? it's a G4 network project, but clearly perfect for YouTube memosphere. I think it fits the first part of your definition of productive fake docs in its send-up of the hypernationalist Ken Burns formula, although given its adoption of civil rights discourse its politics is perhaps dubious. I'm not so certain it 'links and unlinks power to the act of recording the visible world and to the documentary record produced'—although perhaps I myself am understanding 'recording the visible world' too strictly in terms of the real."

I responded, thus: "That is a great fake and funny doc, so thanks, but not productive, as you also suggest. However, it effectively raises for me one of my central concerns in this project, namely: how are the register, affect, or meanings created by the fake doc approach is different from those produced by 'real' LOLcats. I am currently considering that the distancing, ironic, self-referential voice of fake docs IS the voice of YouTube. Any thoughts? Alex."

I'd like to bracket Julie's gesture toward considering how the role of the fantastic unsettles the fake documentary project until my conclusion, where I will address the magical's more rightful home, the art video, and will for now stay situated in documentary's hold on the steadfast: how our exchange marks that LOLcats, like Barack Obama, are a central cultural dividing line.

Do you, Kool-Aid drinker, actually find them cute—ooooh how precious, so sweet n furry—or, like me, would you posit that they enable a sarcastic viewing position: a calculated posture of slightly mean-spirited looking-down upon that other YouTuber who thinks they're unimaginably adorable? However, it is not this cutting critical distance, but rather its holding within itself its own sappy reverse, its soft-spot for cuteness, that is the structure definitive of this (and I would argue most other) YouTube staples: a common contemporary viewing position that negates the edge of ironic distance through a same-time self-indulgence in what once might have been the contradictory binaries upon which traditional irony depended: innocent and knowing, cute and repulsive, naive and cognizant.

While in earlier considerations of fake documentaries I found the multiplicity of viewing modalities to enable the possibility of critical knowledge, it is this talk's contention that YouTube has so escalated our culture's intense indulgence in ways ironic that it has actually become unpopular, if not simply downright impossible, to see the difference between sincerity and satire. We can't.

As a result we inhabit a new structure of viewing that is neither sharp nor critical; rather, what we now see is muddled and confused, albeit funny. So, fan that I am of Obama, yes we can, and hater (or secret admirer) that I may be of LOLcats, today I suggest that there are real perils for a visual culture (and The Real it is or will be) where irony becomes so dominant as to be invisible, the very plight, I suggest, that befell none other than the esteemed and erudite Didion and Wesch.

It's easy to miss. Or more to the point, uncertain muddle is the point. That explains the soft common ground that Didion, Wesch, and I share, albeit with different conclusions. I suggest that irony, and the fake documentary that often packages it, has served long and well as a modernist distancing device, sometimes productively enabling a structure for radical critique. As YouTube makes this style omnipresent, however, its function changes, its edges soften, the firm ground of the resolutely linked binary deconstructs beneath our feet. We are in ironic free-fall.

What does this look like, and why do I find it so unproductive? Let me share an anecdote that outlines the shape of the humorously hidden, the uncertain ironic. For two years, I have taught an undergraduate media studies course both about and on YouTube. In 2007, still a YouTube doubter, I thought my students could teach me to understand and appreciate its many vernaculars and values; and this they have. Early in Fall 2008, a male member of the class, going by the moniker, Footballbob, presented his first attempt at our course work, YouTube for Educational Purposes. Footballbob's video takes the form of a vblog where, true to form, he genuinely addresses us, eyes burrowing straight through his computer's little camera to our own, no edits, reading his script badly, his honest-to-goodness dormroom behind him. In his video the combined use of form, clearly homemade and verite, and performance style, a beefy boy's serious attempt at cautionary expression, signal to me (paired with the heavy-metal banner caught in the corner of the camera's eye) that he means the very opposite of what he says.

His video comes across as a mocking salutation to frat boy Footballbob debauchery, just as most media on the site signals something like itself and its reverse: cute cat and sarcastic cut. When pressed, and now somewhat confused, he ruefully admitted that his video was, in fact, straight, serious, sincere. As was he. But who's to know, really?

YouTube generates a viewing posture of disbelief, uncertainty, and cynicism about everything on it, about watching it, about believing. We were primed early by LonelyGirl. But in YouTube's brief history, she quickly led to Fred. Believe it or not, Fred is currently the most-subscribed YouTube channel of all time, where teens and even younger watch a teenage boy pretend to be a younger boy who leads a life eerily similar and also far removed from his own, one caught at once with user-generated simplicity but also with his voice sped up to mark his manipulation, as of course do his many lies about everything from his imprisoned murderer father to his inexplicably mannish mother. Of course, on YouTube Fred leads to Fred pretenders, boys playing versions of children younger squeakier and stranger than themselves or Fred, but enough like Fred to still be seeking some of his popularity (More on the unproductive self-promotion of video art narcissism later), begging their viewers to "subscribe to me," relying upon YouTube's signature mix of authenticity with its simultaneous childlike undoing and very self-aware unknowing to ratchet up more hits.

In Fred's Worst Nightmare, Aaron, like Footballbob, "worries" about how Fred is setting a bad example for six-year-olds (like the him he is pretending to be). Here, fake innocence that imitates ignorance is key. Fred's millions of kid-fans make and watch via an innocuous innocent ironic distance. And who outside of Kansas wouldn't take up this hypervigilant reflexive position when viewing online media?

Take, for example, my nine-year-old son's most recent video, Ham Sandwich. Raised on YouTube, and not because his mom is a YouTube scholar (I certainly do not bring these learned analyses home), Gabe's humor is so deadpan, so ironic, it's almost unbearable to believe it is performed by one so sweet and truly naive. Ironic and innocent all at once, Gabe's Ham Sandwich is an actual documentary of himself eating the titular delicacy in real time, just as it is a bona fide art video engaged in documenting the process and duration of his mastication. It is also a joke about flashy YouTube videos where too much happens, while at the same time mimicking vblogs where people are really boring even when they attempt to be interesting.

Ham sandwiches from and into the mouths of babes weaned at the tit of YouTube. It feels good, nearly hegemonic, I'd say, to be in on his joke, whose punch line is multiple if not uncertain, whose point is to be about nothing other than the fun of the form (and the sandwich, I suppose).

Needless to say, my life devoted to sarcastic media counterfeit began well before either my son or Fred's child fans were even born, and I'll suggest, like we mom's always do, that we did it better (or at least more productively) in the good ole days. In the 1990s, I produced a fake documentary film, The Watermelon Woman, which led to a collection of scholarly essays, edited with Jesse Lerner, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth's Undoing. In both projects I was convinced that there was significant productive play enabled by the visible and formal differences found between a straight documentary and that form's warped, falsified double. The book focused on a good many independent films and videos, those that we named productive fake documentaries that "self-consciously and directly engage with history, identity, and truth in a political and formal project that links and unlinks power to the act of recording the visible world and to the documentary record produced."[cit]

I now believe that these marvelous works, along with similar (if less productive, but perhaps funnier) fare currently available nearly everywhere in dominant culture (from the Daily Show, to Best in Show and then all over reality TV), have contributed to an unanticipated and deep cultural reprogramming in the ups and downs, wheres and hows, of the self-aware-bogus.

The wry aside of the fake documentary, its knowing wink and smug satire, has become a dominant way of seeing. This burgeoning vernacular of feigned veracity, and an audience trained and dying to see it, has been cemented on YouTube. However, in its ubiquity I believe that the humdrum fake doc has lost its productive bite. And this is because, as I suggest shortly, the very function of irony has changed.

Once, there was a modernist gap between the thing and its perverse double, an in-between space of clarity in which to create a humorous or serious distance or dissonance that allowed the artist and viewer the chance to speak and see critically. Now, the sobriety of documentary and its drunken foil are indistinguishable—no, the same thing—allowing no room for certainty or clarity, what I call the "anchor" required for productivity (or criticality), and instead offering up merely a gummy vantage point from which to observe messy, mixed-up messages of vague if giddy unknowing.

Alisa Lebow's wonderful chapter, "Faking What? Making a Mockery of Documentary" which ends my collection F is for Phony, is of some real help here. In her essay, she takes to task many of the claims made across that anthology, perhaps most successfully my own definitions set forth in the volume's introduction, ones that I've also been proudly displaying here. Her major move is to flip the causal and semiotic relations between fake and "true" docs, suggesting that since documentary has always itself been a fake—"the original is a poor replica of the real," she writes, in that it is never able to actually instantiate its quest for the Reality—the fake doc is actually more true or authentic. At least it acknowledges its deceits.

Counter-intuitively, it is the fake doc that props up the "real" one, giving it a legitimacy it could never achieve, given documentary's many lies and inadequacies. I suggest that the YouTube public inhabits the advanced place Lebow took up ten years ago. Lebow, writing as we all did, before YouTube (and even reality TV), seems to have predicted the very phony future which is now upon us, our day-to-day media landscape where everyone is as smart as the documentary scholar and understands that there is no difference between the fake or true documentary, so that distinction becomes unnecessary because both have succeeded in uncovering each other's formative lies, just as both have failed at getting us closer to what we once thought we really wanted: reality.

Our once-innocent audiences are sophisticated enough to recognize the interchangeability of the doc and the fake doc, now knowing neither to be true. They move between the thing and its reverse with as much grace as does my son: documentary, art video, YouTube joke, sandwich gag. No gap to mind. "It's not rocket science," says the stewardess in Jetblue's prize-winning mockumentary-style advertisement.

However, Lebow's keen theoretical tying up of two supposedly discrete binaries could not anticipate the numbing media practices that such a collapse has actually entailed. In her conclusion to the essay, Lebow suggests that it is, in fact, fake doc's possibility for producing the "double awry" that might prove closest to an answer to the need she suggests we have of all documentary (fake and real). We want it to allow us to see something more than film can deliver, but something we always desire; to actually, fleetingly but movingly, capture a glimpse of the Real, ever slipping from our grasp, unavailable to technology but key to our craving.

But it is my current understanding, drawn from the twenty productive fake docs on YouTube that form the basis for the remainder of this talk, that in its ubiquity the double awry can no longer allow us to occasionally and triumphantly see more clearly (as it once might), to be productive. Its estrangement qualities now flattened or doubled out, particularly in the fake docs I will get to shortly—those that refer back only to other shams—what results on YouTube is a sarcastic, ironic tone and style, for fake maker and viewer, who now wryly understand only and always that all that is left is to laugh, or perhaps to guess.

We no longer believe that we can know—what someone means, what someone believes, what someone is trying to say, what we might do. Thus, I suggest that in our YouTube moment, Kool-Aid drinkers all, we might want to look to the strategies and concerns of video art, played through the tones of YouTube, to find a more productive take than that currently allowed by either the doc or its fake.

I suggest that productivity demands an anchor, something that functions resolutely in the face of the ceaselessly self-reflexive. Where this was once, not so long ago, documentary style, or satire's reference to conditions in lived reality, I propose that the function of the straight man can now be best taken up by the interactive Internet video art witness.

When I began research for this project a few months ago, my hypothesis was already what I have developed thus far, that fake documentary dominates on YouTube, but not productively. However, as was true for my YouTube class, I also assumed that others might know better than I ... nostalgic, reactionary, anti-YouTube elitist that I might have become. I made a video for YouTube, networking it on my blog, Facebook, and HASTAC, and asking for my friends' and contacts' best YouTube recommendations.

The remainder of my talk is an analysis of the twenty videos, and associated comments, that I rather effortlessly acquired through outsourcing my research, and what this "data" suggests about our current viewing practices. Fittingly, the only response I got to my video plea circulated via my YouTube page (which is dedicated to the work of my media studies class, Learning from YouTube) was from wjrcbrown, who wrote this comment on my video, FakeTube: Join the Search!: "I am intrigued about this idea of nothing being real if it is broadcast. A layperson's understanding of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle would suggest that observation affects behavior. Similarly, one might say that all acts are acts intended for an audience. And, after Schrodinger, one might say that all unobserved acts do not necessarily count as real. Action is authentic (auto-hentes - creation of self); passion/passivity/passing has no reality status, except death (passion) ... In terms of feature filmmaking, I wonder if we cannot see this bleed between doc and fiction in Michael Winterbottom, some of whose films are docs of their own making. As for the project: good luck. Wonder if the hints of sarcasm might dissuade others participating."

Wjrcbrown, who are you and why did you write? You have a YouTube page with almost nothing on it. How did you find me and why do you care? Why are you nearly invisible? What are you hiding? Purportedly a 31-year-old Brit, you have watched 540 videos (including mine) since joining the site in January 2008. And that's all you wrote. Literally.

So, let's assume that your biographical information is false, and together pretend that Wjrc is a graduate student in film at the University of Iowa. Or perhaps a high-school film buff in Bristol. Or an out-of-work documentarian in Dubai. My commentator is certainly educated, showing interest in my erudite quest, as well as her own high brow concerns (auto-hentes? is that Greek?). But are her comments useful as primary research? And for me the vital question: Why does she assume I'm sarcastic?

Watching me here in this room, do I seem sardonic? Sure, a little playful, doling out the chance alliteration and peppering with the vernacular aside. But that's really all that I do on YouTube: perform myself socially. A wink here. A nod there. Me, sarcastic? Or is it the irony-rich platform confusing my every move? And why should I worry about Wjrcbrown, anyway, interacting with me from the depths of nowhere, unknown to me, unverifiable, and yet holding me to task on my performance? And, what am I to make of the other, very limited interactions I received from my viral study?

What's a good Internet sample, and what's a legitimate online method? On HASTAC, I got three responses, from digital humanities types of course. On Facebook, I indulged in five lively exchanges, with many more promises of suggestions that never came, like this one from the George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago, Lauren Berlant: "What do you mean by productive? What kind of distinction are you making between realism and fake documentary? Are you looking for no ironic interface? Would lonelygirl15 count, that kind of thing? Yes Men? Or do you mean counterfactual documentaries? Help me, and I'll come up with some things ..."

I respond: "Lauren: I suppose, quickly, that realism is a changing set of codes and fake documentary is a film genre that parodies those codes to piggy-back on reality effects, but repurpose them with humor and other distancing devises. Perhaps Yes Men, but the question would be, are those tactics still effective? Just hung out with a former Yes Man (woman) who has stopped engaging in that project for reasons of interest to my YouTube project: she believes ironic fakery has become the standard form of discourse and thus is not effective for counter-projects. LonelyGirl, no. Unless you can convince me. Thanks for writing!"

Lauren: "I thought the Yes Men's NYT's action was *incredibly* effective, by the way (this goes to the affective dimension of productive documentary part and not the cinematic documentary part), because the distancing effect put people closer to their desires and commitments. That's what I think this kind of work does at its best. But I'll educate myself in your idiom and then return." She did not, but who does, we're all so distracted!

Thus was created my sample of Twenty Productive Fake Documentaries on YouTube. Would I have found these videos on my own? Of course not. Who finds anything on YouTube? Unlike what my sister Linda, a recent film studies major at Mt. Holyoke College and current preschool teacher, wrote to me on Facebook, "I found some good ones using the search word 'mockumentary' ... I did not find much of interest using that key term or typing in "fake documentary" either." Sadly, Linda never wrote back with her favorites, and what I located using her search suggestion looks like everything else on YouTube, a random if eclectic mixture of student videos, conspiracy freaks, and the prizewinning JetBlue ad we've already seen. Honestly, besides HIV Fake Documentary, which I'll get to shortly (but which is no longer available due to copyright infringement), they weren't worth writing about.

Trying to make sense of my eclectic, eccentric list of twenty turns out to be not much different from making sense of any search on YouTube, only in this case the videos were vetted by some of my random friends, family, and general hangers-on rather than a corporate algorithm.

However, unlike more-traditional scholarly studies where popularity and marketability play little part, the structure of this project often allowed me to interact with people who are not experts in documentary, cinema studies, or new media, while also letting me engage with highly lauded specialists but via the Internet's funky places (Facebook) and by taking up the associated styles of nonscholarly prose (even when conversing about erudite matters like productive fake documentaries).

And thus, I began to note that my method was eerily evidencing an Obamian but not Didion incongruity, or context-shifting, between the who of I am, the where of I am supposed to be, the how of I am trained to talk, and the what of irony that happens in the dissonance between these once, but no longer, staid roles and structures: the very gap I had said not to mind, because it had disappeared in the fake doc but reappeared, if hard to unpack, in Obama's fireside chat.

According to Jane Roscoe and Craig Height in Faking It, their study of the mockumentary, this genre is defined by the incongruous intermixing of a sober form with a comedic subject, and of course here we could just as easily substitute a comedic form (Facebook, YouTube) and a serious subject or person (Lauren Berlant, Barack Obama).

As you can see, this Alice is headlong lost in an imitation hall-of-mirrors of her own devise. How utterly self-referential. Perhaps even narcissistic, but I'll save that, too, for video art, even as it does seem rather ripe for both the documentary and the keynote address about it. But for now, my twenty productive fake docs. On the first pass of my sample, I quickly determined that it could be organized using the same rubric Jesse Lerner and I had developed for our earlier book of essays on the subject. They all exhibited some attempt at undoing either history, authenticity, or identity.

The largest subset of my sample, nine in total, took up documentary temporality, which is to say they raised questions about history by taking up a satiric approach to either an imagined dystopian future, a hyperbolic present, or a retold past. In my sample, there were three fake docs interested in revisioning the past. All three presented an untrue incident from history (Charles Shultz's illegitimate son, Billy, as central to comic history, LOLcats as central to world and World Wide Web history, and negroes as central to the history of the space program).

These fabrications from the past were famed by a mocked if also authenticating, plodding, and predictable form, the seemingly omnipresent and unironic historical Ken Burns PBS documentary: melodramatic orchestral riffs, pompous professors, esteemed Egyptologists, and self-serious subjects of Americana.

Two from my pool documented a fake future from whence to make serious statements about where actual missteps of the present might lead. In both cases, an imagined reality, depicted through the faked but otherwise serious form of the news report or social problem documentary, served to neatly depict their makers' genuine political opinions about the effects of corporate globalization or militarization.

Then, there were four videos in my study that took on serious, existing issues or problems. Three did so by imagining a present organized by the opposite of what the video makers believed to be true about a contemporary crisis: Milwaukee news reporting's overreliance on spectacle, murder, and mayhem as a form of quality reporting, or the tromping of homosexual human rights via Proposition 8 as the best social policy. All three exposed their lie by placing it in an obviously faked serious form. We weren't ever to believe them.

That is certainly not the case for HIV Fake Documentary, perhaps the most plodding, if also downright innocent, of all the work suggested to me. The video relays AIDS facts as unselfconsciously accurate, harkening back to a lost time of truth, and the real or fake documentaries that could hold it, and therefore complicit in an outdated project of providing life-saving knowledge.

In the bunch, it was the only video that took itself seriously: its bad acting and sound, its lack of props and sets, all charmingly produced by real-world kids, serving to verify the innocent aims of its youth producers, but just as easily used as fodder for the very self-same mocked effects in A Special Election PSA: their desk made from a box as well, their bad eyebrows, their shooting against a wall, marking "HIV Fake Documentary's" reverse, now a joke logic that might also save someone's life, that is, if they could unpack the double meanings, triple entendres, and jokes leading nowhere before the election comes to pass and it's time to vote no, or is that yes?

That is not to say that I didn't find several of these productive. In fact, quite the opposite. The three present-situated queer fake docs, on Prop 8 and AIDS, respectively, while quite similarly applying their phony practices, also directed their fakery toward the vague possibility of an anchor, the potential concrete practices of voting or changing sexual behavior.

The second most common approach in my sample was not fake docs that productively engaged with history, but those that question authenticity, that of the media in particular. Seven of the twenty took an almost uniform tack: imitating not documentary, but fake documentary and therefore making media about media that was already, itself, about media, with nary a real-world time, problem, action, or person holding down this semiotic chain cum circle.

Following in Lebow's footsteps, these seven took the fake doc as itself a veritable form and then imitated its repeatable rubrics to little more than funny and tentative ends. In this category of fakers faking fake authenticity, there were five favorite spoof-genres to burlesque: (1) videos that imitate the Christopher Guest oeuvre (overly self-important entertainers seriously entertaining the importance of their artistic endeavors), (2) those that doubled the Gondry game (retro-futurists dreaming a quiet corporate-sponsored but corporate-questioning revolution), (3) many (like the Jet Blue ad) that took on the deadpan phony stylings of The Office, (4) some that played with the self-referential and self-important styling found as extras on DVDs, and (5) one that satired real but critical news about real news about fake news that could never happen but which is probably certainly true.

Despite their diversity, all seven YouTube versions of earlier counterfeits were made through a standardized starting position and shared stylistics. All take up formal practices once used to signal authenticity due to an assumed association with nonprofessional or committed production. But the components of this contemporary style are now highly practiced even when rendered by real nonprofessionals, and they include: a direct-to-camera address, an affectless performance style, and a performer who naively, and often offensively, says what they "really" believe because they are pretending to be innocently unaware of the power of the camera and the cruelty and/or stupidity of their recorded words, which is as often as not aimed at themselves as acts of self-exposure or self-ridicule, this being a stupid kind of ununderstanding.

And that is why I will end with fake documentaries about the self, which in turn forces me away from the field of fake documentary smack into the divergent but related properties and projects of the art video. From my sample, three videos play with the nature of identity, and to do so it seems they also necessarily make moves in forms that are not simply imitative, but also creative, arty, and not solely documentary, as if the faked self demands a bit more room to breathe and play, even as it engages in video art's definitive project and problematic of narcissism, at least as it was once seminally defined by Rosalind Krauss.

In "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism," Krauss explains that early art video, in this case that of Vito Acconci, uses "the video monitor as a mirror, a sustained tautology, a line of sight that begins at Acconci's plane of vision and ends at the eyes of his projected double. In that image of self-regard is configured a narcissism so endemic to works of video that I find myself wanting to generalize it as the condition of the entire genre. Yet, what would it mean to say, 'the medium of video is narcissism?'"[cit]

In her essay, Krauss answers, and as was true for founding modernist theories of the fake documentary, she discusses what might be productive in the double: "unlike the other visual arts, video is capable of recording and transmitting at the same time, producing instant feedback. The body is therefore as it were centered between two machines that are the opening and closing of a parenthesis. The first of these is the camera; the second is the monitor, which re-projects the performer's image with the immediacy of a mirror ... The result of this substitution is the presentation of a self understood to have no past, and as well, no connection with any objects that are external to it."

Krauss seems to be describing for video art of the past the same circle of irresolution that I have been raising to define the very contemporary video of YouTube: "a kind of weightless fall through the suspended space of narcissism." But Krauss then goes on to differentiate "reflection," which creates the circle of unknowing that I've been worrying about, and which she also describes as "fusion," from "reflexiveness," a "strategy to achieve a radical asymmetry, from within."

In other foundational media theory, in this case feminist film theory, Mary Ann Doane suggests that masquerade can break open the problematic female synthesis of over-identification, thereby creating a radical asymmetry out of a fusion that otherwise obfuscates the difference one needs to build a critical, or reflexive, viewing position.[cit]

And yet, here with Krauss and Doane, as I suggested for Lebow before, their abilities to see the relevant distancing strategies of the media of their own moment does not adequately address our contemporary situation where appropriations and adaptations of these self-same modernist strategies of estrangement and self-criticality have become endemic and thereby eviscerated via YouTube.

I suggest that these three final fake documentaries, perhaps as well categorized using Bill Nichols' term, "performative documentaries," are productive not because they engage in what are now predictable strategies of reflexiveness but because they make particular demands on the viewer by making good use of our latest technological possibilities.

For, YouTube adds to Krauss's equation a third machine, ensuring that video art about the self found online need not be unproductively stuck within the parentheses but rather may be situated within a different and more stable structure (yes, the steady ground I've been seeking throughout!), this because another machine, the home computer, enhances video art's originary structure of synchronous feedback, breaking a space into the narcissistic hold of the maker endlessly seeing himself by changing the structure to that of a triangle through the addition of the intersecting eye of the interactive internet public.

It is one's own sense of oneself watching that can provide a semblance of stability, no matter how fragmentary or self-aware is one's self, or is the spinning fabricator one witnesses. I grant to the Internet interlocutor the function of anchor, a new position of recognition of the video art self, a stop to the loop, a gap in the fusion, today's place for the double awry that might sometimes work productively because it refers back not to the media inside of YouTube, but to the self that watches from outside.

And here, Nichols on the performative documentary is also useful: "Performative documentaries address us ... with a sense of emphatic engagement that overshadows their reference to the historical world ... making their target an ethics of viewer response more than a politics of group action or analysis of the ideology of the subject."[cit]

And so it seems critical to note how the three faked or performative selves of YouTube from my sample call us to make a world with them. To consider what they might want from us and if this matters. To ask what will be the nature of our triangulating, responsive role: How do they want us to see them and why?

In her work on the early feminist video of Lynda Benglis, Susan Richmond worries about the troubling possibility of intermixing "self-promotion and self-involvement at the expense of self-reflexivity." In Benglis' 1973 Female Sensibility, for instance, Richmond suggests that Benglis ironically bounces against each other two competing feminist theories of lesbian and female sexuality, this allowing for that wedge for knowingness that holds a place from which to unlink the video's almost-identical women performers, whom Benglis tapes kissing each other, one of whom is Benglis herself. When does video art about the self produce fusion, and when a break for knowing video's selves?

In my three identity videos, the faked selves exhibit different degrees of self-promotion and self-involvement for their characters, and also for ours. For example, take Ben Voxley's What is the Maitrix: the revolution is in motion. While certainly "arty" in its use of animation and voice alteration, both used to underline the constructedness of his YouTube character (as does Fred by speeding up his voice), and definitely composed within the triangle of interactivity allowed by social networking, I'd say Ben steers too far toward the register of the self-aggrandizing friend search, claims about Congress, the war in Iraq, food, education, election fraud, toxins, and corporate ownership to be productive. He sees us so that we'll friend him, it remains all about him in the end.

Meanwhile, the self-questioning self-promotion of Josh is so comedically unproductive that it resonates differently. Josh's quest for female Asian-American friends leads to further isolation. Josh introduced his own video to me on my blog, writing, "Take a look at this: It's level of 'fakeness' is about a 6/10: http://www.newroachmotel.com/search?q=febris." I went and watched his fake documentary about himself on a webpage he built to hold it.

I wrote to Josh that I liked it and asked him to tell me more about his project. He replied: "I would say it's fake because I kind of went into it with a persona on. The idea behind the video was that my friends always accused me of having an Asian fetish, so I wanted to make a documentary kind of presupposing that it was true, although I still contend it was not. I did make it as a piece of nonfiction, but the me that was making the nonfictional piece wasn't really 'me.' I'm not sure I'm articulating it very well."

I think Josh is. While his strategy is no different from the other seventeen fake docs I saw on YouTube, ubiquitously using ironic fakery to register a state of unknowing contradiction, the form and subject mocked is video art's narcissistic self, and its assumed observer, you, not fake documentary's quest for reality and truth, or even their opposite. In the video, he quips about the female Asian-Americans who witness his project about them: "They're probably creeped out. They're thinking I'm a white guy using the doc to meet Asian-girls. Which I'm not entirely convinced I am not."

While Josh is some sort of fake, as very well may be his Asian-American female subjects, you and I are not, even if I am playing some sarcastic or even pedantic version of myself. In the free-floating wilds of YouTube, where everything is 1s and 0s about other 1s and 0s, video art about the fractured self, media about the unknowable and contradictory self, can call out and speak to a living, breathing onlooker, who herself may feel equally fractured and incomplete, but who becomes linked through difference in her observing, creating the requisite if fleeting anchor that allows the gap for productive knowledge between the digital and the real, the self and the other, the performer and her witness.

In the time of YouTube, the double awry relies upon a triangulated look. This is to say that I think productive fake docs only work on YouTube when they look outward, from a narcissistic circle of self-study, to critically engage a bystander not in a self-reflexive game about truth claims or even the authenticity of the image but in an artistic quest about who the videos selves are and more importantly what they might accomplish.

Thus, I conclude with ADHD Outtakes Nattyraver documentary. The videographer and his subject, Natty, unmake the stability of documentary and self to let us better see Natty. On her YouTube page, she says her documentary doesn't work, but that's patently untrue.

Our witnessing of her breaking of self seems a concrete but fragmentary presentation in this newest tradition of video art, one that uses the user to unlink narcissism's fusion. The end result is not some send up of truth, or its opposite, it is not some ironic play with a form of unbelieving, but instead a momentary, critical, and therefore satisfying, knowing of a troubled self and her witnessing other enabled by digital media. Marie, one of my graduate students who provided me with this link, writes: "And another, very short 'Fake' in that it uses the form and twists it on itself to reach its message, but poignant and possibly real, too."

In this case, perhaps the film intended to be made was NOT a "fake productive doc"; but the movie made, or rather the YouTube video made, most definitely is. Or perhaps its just a commercial spot, with the "fake" element being that the filmmakers did intend this to come out this way? So we, as the viewing audience, don't know whether it's real "outtakes" or not, but we don't care because the "positive" message is clear, and the character is "so likable and disarming (at least for 55 seconds)."

Both Natty and our newly elected made-for-YouTube president, people who make videos about themselves and their beliefs (whether fractured or resolute) and then put them up on to YouTube, restructure art video's narcissism within a definitively interactive and anchored configuration. Sitting in a sea of irony, there is no room for truth claims. However from my video sample I have learned that artsy attempts to enable communications about the mediated self and its real-world witness can be productively grounded, allowing for knowing another's uncertain difference with clarity, at least for 55 seconds.