Although our discipline is self-consciously intellectual and often overtly concerned with epistemological limits, there are some ways in which our practice seems, well…odd in a theoretical sense (if not naive or even retrograde) to other artists and scholars. To put it rather bluntly: essayists often have an uncommon amount of faith in the capacity of an I to constitute or articulate or represent (at least partially) a stable, coherent self. I don’t mean to suggest here that the essay is an area where 19th-Century notions of authorial intent live on. Both New Criticism and Roland Barthes have rendered those easy, determinative notions of intent-as-meaning impossible, incomprehensible. And I don’t know of any essayist who thinks that their person can be easily slipped en tout into the page. There’s always elision, construction, subtraction, a certain amount of squeezing and trimming, and so on and so forth. There’s never quite going to be total agreement as to what forms of alteration are/aren’t acceptable (e.g., we will never live in a world free from think-pieces about D’Agata’s projects), but there’s a general consensus that what an essayist ends up offering the world is a contingent persona (a representative aspect or set of aspects of the self) rather than the self per se (as if one could even get at such a thing directly). What’s distinctive about the essayistic use of persona, as compared to the way it’s used in say, poetry, is the implicit expectation of partial correspondence with authorial self.
It might be helpful to think about some of this in light of Ander’s conversation with Yiyun Li earlier this month, particularly in light of the distinction between self-as-subject and self-as-instrument. Self-as-subject can be a rather boring thing to encounter. But self-as-instrument? Self-as-instrument (i.e., applied persona) offers something rather unique: a chance to partially invite the reader into the unspooling mind of the essayist, a sort of performance of intimacy, connection, empathy.
Passarello’s March Fadness video essay is absolutely fantastic at this sort of connection-making, which is why I’m going to proceed here by offering a short reading of each video segment, in an effort to articulate some hopefully useful/steal-able craft moves.
Immediately the essayist confesses that this entire project is "a little harder than I thought it was going to be," i.e., the nature of the Bad Idea Essay is made explicit. But again, the piece offers us more than just the amusing spectacle of a witnessing a person survive the experience of a ’90s 1-hit wonder on endless, droning repeat. The reader gets a relatable anecdote (who hasn’t at some point been in a crappy job or gig where the playlist was an easy way to mark time?). And there’s a sort of intimacy-building confession: "my journey involves a lot of misinformation" with regards to the lyrics of "Return of the Mack" (which means that the essayist is going to be working through this reprocessing for the benefit of the reader/viewer).
Another appealing aspect of this essay is the everyday ordinariness of the setting. Yes, the conceit of listening to a song on repeat over 24 hours is ambitious and extraordinary, but in other regards this video essay gives us a sort of fly-on-the-wall observational window into the familiar: we’re situated in an ordinary home, listening to a person talk about familiar stuff: errands and politics. We also get a long, rambling, things-are-starting-to-unhinge-a-little-bit-maybe digression that nonetheless ends at a moment of real insight about what the repetitiveness of this song must mean in Mark Morrison’s life. Are the digressions offered by this essaying persona practiced? Mostly impromptu? Kind of extemporaneous? Carefully rehearsed? Totally off the cuff? Does it matter? (No, it does not: the experience of connection works the same either way).
A different, more self-explanatory form of skillful performance.
The conversational working-through of the song’s significance continues here, marked again by expressions of intimate ordinariness, e.g., the essayist drinks….something(?) and there is a background noise that is possibly from Skype(?), serving as a reminder that a real life is continuing in and around the moments of this experiment selected and performed for us, the readers/viewers.
The grinding forces of seventeen hours of consecutive repetition continue their erosive motion. The only possible response is Chekhovian: immense sympathy tinged with morbid amusement.
This check-in is very similar in structure to that of hour eight in that we get to see the action of a digressive (perhaps even now somewhat unmoored) mind working through its own ruminations, this time by centering on Vanna White as a sort of metaphor or representative figure for machine automation as a segue to a frank consideration of human agency (i.e., "the Vanna-ness of Vanna") and doubt. The editing deliberately refuses to show us a neat resolution to this thread of thought, thus formally enacting the same murky ambiguity experienced in real time by the essaying persona.
Another uncertain confession: "I feel like I’m not really learning anything" (but we, the readers/viewers, certainly are).