Video Grammatology -- Video Culture: A Critical Investigation Edited by John G. Hanhardt / Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art Edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer

By Ulmer, Gregory L. | Art Journal, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview
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Video Grammatology -- Video Culture: A Critical Investigation Edited by John G. Hanhardt / Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art Edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer


Ulmer, Gregory L., Art Journal


John G. Hanhardt, ed. Video Culture: A Critical Investigation. Rochester, N.Y.: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986. Distr. Gibbs Smith/ Peregrine Smith, Layton, Utah. 296 pp. $14.95 paper

Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, Eds. Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art. New York: Aperture Foundation; San Francisco: Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990. 566 pp.; 100 b/w ills. $40.00; $25.00 paper

The anthology--one of the finest inventions of literacy--is now having its life extended into the internet, where many homepages function as collections of favorite nodes. Some say that the Bible was the first anthology and that the higher criticism amounts to little more than pointing out this fact. Modern critics of the book, such as Walter Benjamin, have suggested that every book is a disguised anthology, and that the only part of rhetoric worth retaining in the age of mechanical reproduction might well be inventio--the gathering or collecting of materials (the scholar's card file). One version of the book made entirely of quotations that is associated with Benjamin would be an anthology with selections arranged to evoke the idea that motivated the editor to gather just these pieces. Perhaps the best evidence of the anthology form's continuing fascination is that one of the most significant theoretical texts of our time--Glas by Jacques Derrida--could be described as a theory of the anthology effect.

What is the anthology effect? Pattern. What is the source of confidence that allowed countless generations of scholars to pass their preliminary examinations for the Ph.D.? The anthology, with its headnotes, system of classification, selection of key examples, combination of examples into sequences, must share a large part of the credit. The illusion of coverage required by the traditional doctorate in the national languages was sustainable primarily due to the existence of anthologies. Nor is it surprising that those who benefited from the anthologies in receiving their license to teach would continue to rely upon them in designing the syllabi for their courses. The virtue of the anthology is that the work of inference remains to be done by the students, who must discover the principle of coherence binding the collection, with the rewards of this work guaranteed by the editor.

One of the best ways to focus or direct the work of a discipline is to put one of its defining problems into an anthology. Such is the purpose of both Video Culture and Illuminating Video. My name for this defining problem is "grammatology"--the history and theory of writing. Grammatology supplies a context that cuts across the debates about periodization and politics. The arguments that divide the thinkers and artists of our century into the categories of modern, postmodern, and avant-garde dissolve where subjected to the framework of grammatology, with its historical periodization of orally, literacy, and electronic civilization. This larger perspective proposes that the shift from orally transmitted culture to literacy provides an analogy for understanding how the emergence of an electronic apparatus in our time is affecting literacy.

By opening Video Culture with Benjamin's "Mechanical Reproduction" essay, John Hanhardt locates the question of video within the debates about aesthetics and politics that informed the work of the Frankfurt School. "The distinction between author and public," wrote Benjamin, in a phrase that sums up the organizing issue of these two collections, "is about to lose its basic character" (Video Culture, p. 39). The effect of this first section of Video Culture, titled "Theory and Practice," which takes up nearly half the book, is to illustrate the relevance of Frankfurt School theorists to the history of writing. The questions and prospects proposed by Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht in relation to the phenomenon of cinema still await their answer in the era of television. Both Benjamin and Brecht envisioned a new medium capable of supporting a new institutionalization of letters, a two-way medium in which the receivers would become the makers, the readers become the authors of the texts created.

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Video Grammatology -- Video Culture: A Critical Investigation Edited by John G. Hanhardt / Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art Edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer
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