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Visually constructed selves: self-constructed representation in relation to personal narratives on



Contemporary film theory is relatively recent in origin, with founding texts dating from the sixties,
but bases itself around specific assumptions about the “impression of reality in the cinema” (Allen,
1995:1). The contemporary theorist is predominantly focussed on the production(s) and reception(s)
of representation and ideology from psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives, theorising the
communicative relationship between the “viewer and film, between the text and subject and the texts
power to determine the subjects response” (Fourie, 2001:223). The traditional cinematic experience is
deconstructed in terms how it affects the reception of the moving image, the productive processes and
languages in which films are created and received. In addition, these theories examine the way in
which the human being, or subject, is constructed within a cinematic discourse (Allen, 1995:2). This
study investigates how cinematic discourse is changing within the postmodern age of new
information and communication technologies. New patterns of production, reception and
consumption have placed the cinematic text within a new discourse.

Digital technologies, within the context of the Internet, have provided a virtual space in which
cinematic narratives find new purpose and means of production that are largely determined by the
technology itself. If, as Marshall McLuhan proposed (1969:15-16), the medium is the message and
the construction of the message is defined by the medium, then the changing media in a postmodern
(Internet) environment would result in a myriad of fluid, changing and ever re-constructing messages.
Cinematic discourse needs to be re-concepualised within this new hypermedia context, with the
uneasy implication that perhaps the way in which the human being (or subject) is constructed within
this discourse is in some way altered too. This research takes place within this new digital
environment, aiming to understand (in part) how a reconfigured medium changes the message, as
well as the content of that message, as the individual and their culture are similarly reconfigured by
the new environment. Largely due to technological advances within the Internet (as a communicative
medium) and cheaper production costs for digital cameras, the individual becomes participative in the
creation of new filmic texts. Websites such as YouTube provide a space where these individuals can
place their self-constructed texts online for a global audience to view. The human being as both
subject and object within this virtual space often produces texts that are extremely personal in relation

to specific events. For example, the recent Virginia Tech shootings are a historical event in which Cho
Seung-Hui (the shooter) took video footage of himself that is currently available on YouTube, and to
which more than 16, 000 people have posted video responses to the event (Anon, 2007).

This new medium for subject identification has thus provided a space where the subject can, to some
degree, also control their personal representation. Lacanian psychoanalysis provides a framework
from which to understand these new subject-object, self-other (re)configurations within a new
cinematic discourse. Lacan’s theories have been successfully applied to cinematic signification
processes in the traditional cinematic experience, but would need to be reconceptualised within the
new subject and object position online. By looking at Lacanian psychoanalysis within the discourse
of the Internet, specific personal narratives that are placed on YouTube will be discursively analysed
in terms of their positional discourse from a post-structuralist frame, exploring how individual
identity is constructed by the self online. As Denzin (1995:1) proposes, “the postmodern is a visual,
cinematic age; it knows itself in part through the reflections that flow from the cameras eye.” This
research is interested in both the visual reflection that flow from the camera, as well as the subjects
self representation in terms of the positioning of the (web) cameras eye, and their positioning of
themselves in relation to this camera.
Key concepts:
•Cinematic subject construction

•Internet as postmodern discourse

•YouTube as a specific cinematic discourse

•Virginia Tech event as recent historical narrative

2.1 Ethical Considerations

This research seems to have limited ethical implications for its participants (the video diaries that are
analysed). The personal narratives have been made publicly available by the individuals, and thus in
analysing specific content, the researcher will not be revealing personal or private information, since
this information is already freely available in the public sphere.


From the above orientation of the study the research problem can be stated as the following:

How do selected self-constructed visual narratives about the Virginia Tech shootings on YouTube
represent the construction of visual identities in cyberspace?

The following questions will further inform the process of researching the problem above:
•How are personal identities visually self-constructed on YouTube in terms of specific visual narrative
responses to the Virginia Tech shooting?
•How does the narrative of the Virginia Tech shooting influence the construction of a personal visual
•How does the YouTube Internet site function as a defining discourse in which personal visual identity
is constructed?


This research aims to:

•Explore how personal identities are visually self-constructed on YouTube in terms of specific visual
narrative responses to the Virginia Tech shooting.
•Analyse how the narrative of the Virginia Tech shooting influences the construction of a personal
visual identity.
•Explore how the YouTube Internet site functions as a defining discourse in which personal visual
identity is constructed.


•The distinctive feature of postmodern discourse is ‘informatisation’ – the fact that all facets of social
life are subjected to ubiquitous information technology (Hardt and Negri, 2001:280). The hypermedia context
of YouTube places the ‘informatised’ subject within a mediated ‘sensory world’ that provides a new means of
representational communication.
•YouTube is a discourse of signification that creates the appearance of a knowable reality, hence
confirming the self-definition of the human subject as someone capable of knowing that reality. Identity is
(re)constructed within this discourse that, to a large degree, determines the nature or definition of that identity
as the human subject is self-defined.


The following section deals with the methods that are used to address the research problem in a
practical way.
7.1 Literature Overview
A literary search has been conducted using the National Research Foundations Nexus database
system (NRF, 2007). It was concluded that no previous study has been conducted of this nature.

7.1.1 Postmodern discourse of informatisation

Postmodern logic is contextualised within post-structuralist ontological and epistemological
assumptions, the basis of which is “the impossibility of knowing” (Grenz, 1996:121). The post-
structuralist deconstruction of a “true discourse” of Western history (Foucault) simultaneously
dissolved the modern conceptions of a stable self and social reality (ibid). Where the modern is
recognisable in the way that it displays a permanent essence of being, the postmodern continuously
overcomes that stability, “opting instead for a show of ephemerality, fleetingness, flux, multiplicity,
open-endedness, fragmentation” (Olivier, 2006:2). ‘Informatisation,’ then, operates within this fluid
postmodern discourse and affects what Fredric Jameson (cited in Belton, 1999:202) refers to as the
“perpetual present,” wherein the salient feature of postmodernism is the “simultaneity and
instantaneity of Western technological, communicative, and consumptive practices.” Jameson (ibid)
uses Lacanian psychoanalysis to describe how the postmodern self is ‘schizophrenic,’ lost amongst
“the transformation of reality into images, the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual
presents.” Within this frame, the very possibility of having an identity becomes problematic, partly
because globalisation circulates heterogeneous cultural identities through processes of
‘informatisation,’ but also due to the fact that the postmodern individual exists in a permanent nascent
state within each new fragmented postmodern moment. The postmodern discourse is thus inherently
unstable, as are the communication practices within it.

7.1.2 Broadcasting the self - YouTube

The Internet has converged traditional media into a single digital medium, inevitably changing the
traditional methods of interaction with and production of media (Friedberg in Braudy & Marshall,
2004:914-915). For the cinema, it is losing its medium based specificity, “its image is digital, not
photographically based, its screen is small and not projection based, its implied interactivity turns the
spectator into a ‘user’” (ibid). In fact, Internet sites such as YouTube have not only privileged the
cinematic spectator as ‘user,’ but also producer of cinematic texts. YouTube is a website where video
clips, often produced by individuals acting on their own, are disseminated throughout the world on
the Internet. Bradshaw (2007:13) comments that the cinema of YouTube has a “transcendental

amateurism, un-housetrained by the conventions of narrative interest or good taste,” and that its un-
mediated aesthetic is the most noticeable feature of its medium: “the persistent, unjudging, almost
incomprehensible gaze; an unedited, deep focus scene in which our attention as audience is not
coerced or directed.” Thus, according to Bradshaw, the YouTube environment creates a persistent
illusion of actuality or reality for viewers. What is also evident within the hypermedia YouTube
context, however, is that “hypermedia immerses its participants in its simulated environments by its
particular aesthetic potentials for clarifying and intensifying sense perceptions,” a perceptual illusion
that mediated experience is not mediated (Gretchen, 1999:283). The ‘simulated environment’ is
structured aesthetically as well as discursively. Personal narratives should thus be read within the
discourse that governs YouTube, and not in isolation. Participation in the narrative of YouTube is
strongly determined by the illusion of objectivity and an assumption of reality. These characteristics
are significant in subject-object positioning, identification, representation and thus construction.

7.1.3 The Virginia Tech narrative

The recent Virginia Tech shootings are one of the many problematic events for the American
discourse known commonly as ‘the American Dream’. What is different about this school shooting
amongst the others is that the shooter shot video of himself, and that this video is available on
YouTube. The video footage provides a primary text narrative that becomes a vehicle on YouTube
around which people interact. People relate to their past and present through the use of narrative,
which, according to Roland Barthes (1977:89), gains meaning by structure and pattern. Remembered
history is presented to the viewer in a specific form which makes it meaningful to the viewer.
Secondary texts on YouTube are constructed around the primary text as a structured narrative. A
traumatic event, according to Slavoz Žižek (1989:169), can only be grasped retrospectively and
inadequately represented: “the traumatic event is ultimately just a fantasy-construct filling out a
certain void in a symbolic structure and, as such the retroactive effect of this structure.” In responding
to the primary text, participants on YouTube attempt to stabilise meaning, to stabilise or ‘archive’ the
event itself through their secondary text as response. This attempt is, however, inadequately unstable.

7.1.4 The dialectics of (mis)represented identity

Lacan provides a post-structuralist re-reading of Freud wherein language provides a basis for identity
construction. His work on the function of the mirror stage as formative of a sense-of-self is pertinent
within this study. The self is constituted in opposition to the other, as well as ambivalence. In the
mirror of the other, “the self or ego anticipates a form for itself as an autonomous, unified entity,” but
this process is characterised by ambivalence since this distinction between subject and object for the
self is always defined within “misrepresentation” or “misrecognition” (Allen, 1995:28). This iconic

process of identification creates a never-ending dialectic of successive identifications, wherein
Derrida (1996:13-20) proposes that ones very ‘identity’ may be configured and reconfigured in
relation to technological devices: “the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the
structure of the archivable content.” Identity representation (thus misrepresentation) now takes place
online, and since YouTube provides a visual mirror for the online self, it also provides opportunity for
the online self to more closely control the aesthetic projection. The web camera becomes an online
mirror, wherein the subject is simultaneously subject (online) and object (offline) of the mirrors
reflection, instantaneously viewing the image and its continuous (re)structuring. The mechanics of
filming and the mirror thus become conflated within identity construction.

7.1.5 Discourse Analysis

Lemon (cited in Fourie, 2001:377) defines discourse as “a language or system or representation that
develops socially in order to create and circulate meanings. [Those] meanings serve the interests of
the section of society within which the discourse originates.” Discourse analysis, then, involves the
juxtaposition of specific interconnected systems of language (D/discourses) so as to explore the ways
in which they interact with each other to create patterns within their interaction. Gee (1999:7)
distinguishes between two types of discourse, namely Discourse (upper case ‘D’) and discourse
(lower case ‘d’), where discourse is “language-in-use or stretches of language” that are used to “enact
specific identities and activities.” Discourse provides the structure for discourse to take place within.
This study is interested in the interaction of the above discourses: the postmodern Discourse, the
YouTube discourse about the Virginia Tech shooting, and the self created discourse within these.

7.2 Methodological orientation

The methodological orientation of this research will be qualitative in nature. Du Plooy (cited in
Fourie, 2001:60) states that using qualitative research methods enable the researcher “to interpret and
construct the qualitative aspects of communication experiences.” Qualitative research is appropriate
within this research since a qualitative reading of the discourses related to YouTube and specific texts
about the Virginia Tech shootings will be researched in terms of how discourses interact. In
determining how personal identity is created within these contexts, qualitative methodology allows
the researcher to analyse the textual data in terms of its specificity, rather than its generality to a
possible norm. Meaning is regarded within this study as “situated,” exploring how communicators
“give language specific meanings within specific situations” (Gee, 1999:40). Qualitative discourse
analysis, therefore, allows the researcher to study these meanings within their situated environments.

7.3 Research design

The theoretical positioning of this study does not assume that the ways in which the above discourses
interact are obvious, but rather seeks to provide qualitative insight into their interaction through the
qualitative research design. It is necessary, however, to define specific tools of enquiry that will
provide plausible reflections on the domain of cinematic texts as discourse, that is, “language-in-use”
(Gee, 1999:5). As Gee (ibid) states, discursive research is important in “using somewhat different, but
related, tools, terminologies, and theories, [in] contributing to a ‘big picture,’” and in this case that is
done through a specific method of discourse analysis.

7.3.1 Sampling and units of analysis

The units of analysis within this research will be selected visual texts that are in direct response to the
Virginia Tech shootings that have been placed on YouTube. The texts that are chosen will need to fit
within specific characteristics, namely: being produced by the person in their private capacity and
texts in which these individuals divulge personal reflections of the individual in response to the
Virginia Tech event. This framework of requirements defines a specific population of texts from the
whole, so that the texts analysed deal directly with the research problem and questions. In this case
not all of the population is known by the researcher, and so a purposive (unknown group) non-
probability sampling method will be used. The samples will be selected by their ‘perceived relevance’
within the YouTube context in terms of the number of hits (user viewings) the video has had. This
research aims to study video responses that the YouTube audience have defined as important, and thus
play an important role in the YouTube discourse.

7.3.2 Location and timing of study

The research will be conducted between July and October 2007. The primary site of study will be at
the University of Johannesburg where the necessary resources can be found in the library, as well as
online where the relevant texts can be viewed.

7.3.3 Research methods for Data Collection

Before data can be collected, the researcher needs to operationalise the key concepts within the study.
Operationalisation refers to a process where the researcher “define[s] the references or denotations of
[the central] concepts” of the study (Mouton, 2002:66). The process of operationalisation in this study
would be very closely tied to the theoretical framing used in analysis, since the concepts and
constructs are defined by that frame. The process creates linkages between these concepts and
phenomena that are going to be studied. Within this study, data is collected by taking the key
operational definitions and applying them to the specific visual texts and their defining D/discourses.

7.3.4 Data analysis and interpretation methods
Data in discourse analysis is approached using the same operational definitions above. This study will
present the findings in full, to show the reader exactly how the data was interpreted and the
conclusions reached. The data is interpreted through the key constructs and the ways that these
answer the research questions. The data is firstly analysed in its relation to a governing Discourse, in
this case postmodern theory. Secondly the data is interpreted within the discourse of YouTube within
the hypermedia Internet context. Lastly the data is itself analysed in terms of how signs systems and
symbols create meaning within the texts. The represented identity as a construct will then be analysed
within these three stages of enquiry so as to answer the central research problem and its consequent
questions. Discourse analysis therefore provides a research method from which the visual texts can be
analysed in terms of their constituent language systems.

7.3.5 Validity and Reliability

Validity refers to whether the research is “actually measuring what the researcher says [they] are
measuring” (Budd, Thorp, & Donohew, 1967:66). Gee (1999:94) states that validity within discourse
analysis “is not constituted by arguing that discourse analysis ‘reflects reality’ in any simple way,”
since the human being constructs their reality and so “discourse analysis, being itself composed in
language, is reflexively related to the ‘language-plus-situation’ it is about.” Discursive validity, then,
is about covering substantial data sources, the agreement about these sources and their interaction
from other researchers perspectives, and how well the analysis is tied to a wide variety of linguistic
details (Gee, 1999:7). A high level of internal validity is maintained within this study by selecting
visual texts that are defined as important within the YouTube context rather than subjectively selecting
texts, as well as by selecting more than a single text. External validity is dependent on the key
concepts and theoretical frameworks used, and their illumination, which in this study it is argued
maintains a high level of validity.

Reliability is defined by Budd et al (1967:66) as the ability to do research “repeatably with

consistency of results.” Reliability within this study will be maintained by presenting a full report of
data collection and interpretation methodologies. For discourse analysis, the problem exists in
theoretical grounding, since other researchers may not agree with the theoretical frame of this
research, and so if those are changed the results would undoubtedly be different. It is argued that this
research would reveal results that would be in agreement with the results of another researcher if the
above method is applied within the same theoretical frame, since the study is internally reliable.
Triangulation is used within this study to ensure reliable and valid research methods. The research is
triangulated by using more than one data source to analyse, prominent texts within the theoretical

positioning of the study, and the relationship between the researcher, text, and theory as source. This
relationship is vital since none can function in isolation within the research process. It is, however,
important that bias is avoided and that the process is guided by a search for accurate conclusions.

Technology has changed the way that the individual interacts with discursive social realities, and this
changes, in some way, the way that new realities shape the individual. Specific research for the videos
that fit the required framework is the next step towards the core focus of this study. The theoretical
frame will also need to be further elaborated and linked to the definition of key concepts within the
research so as to triangulate that definition further. Chapters developed for the study will include;
chapter 2: Postmodern Ontologies, and chapter 3: YouTube: a virtual mirror; so as to more
comprehensively answer the research problem and its constituent questions.

The basic structure of this research dissertation will be as follows:

Chapter 1: Research Proposal

Chapter 2: Literature Study
Chapter 3: Methodology
Chapter 4: Findings, Interpretations and Conclusion.


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