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Reframing Documentary in the Age of Social Media

Workshop Leaders: Anne T. Demo, Syracuse Universit; Cara A. Finnegan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Workshop Leaders:

Anne T. Demo, Syracuse University
Cara A. Finnegan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Our workshop explores the nature and status of documentary in the age of social media. In the 1920s, Scottish filmmaker John Grierson coined the term “documentary,” which he famously and enigmatically defined as the “creative interpretation of actuality.” Since that time scholars in multiple fields, including rhetorical studies, have explored the rhetorical dimensions of the genre by engaging its exemplars, accounting for its paradoxes, and analyzing the diverse products of the documentary imagination. A survey of recent scholarship on the rhetoric of documentary finds, however, that while we still produce vigorous studies of documentary photography, film, and television, we largely have ignored how the new media landscape has changed the context for distributing and interpreting documentary forms. Put simply, scholarship has not kept up with practice.

Such a lack of attention is surprising given the increasing reliance on digital platforms by diverse communities and the ubiquity of documentary practice itself. Indeed, by some measures documentary is in better shape than ever. Cameras, microphones, editing equipment, multimedia platforms, and worldwide audiences are widely available not only to professionals but amateurs of all stripes. In light of such democratization, what are we to make of the rhetoric of documentary today? Our workshop seeks to explore the nature and status of documentary in the age of social media by taking up questions such as,

  • Where do we find documentary today?
  • Who speaks in the documentary form, and with what force? How has the rise of user-generated content reshaped the rhetoric of documentary?
  • How is documentary practice shaped by the economics of distribution?
  • How do new media foster different approaches to multimodality in the documentary genre?
  • In the seemingly more democratic world of social media, is documentary itself becoming more democratic?
  • What groups, individuals, or projects seem especially to warrant attention from rhetorical scholars?
  • What forms of documentary are emerging or flourishing while others decline?

The goal of the workshop will be to offer a context for scholars to share work-in-progress on these questions and related topics. Ultimately, we hope that the workshop will synthesize the variety of ways rhetoric scholars might encourage and collaboratively facilitate the field’s engagement with contemporary documentary practice. Just as importantly, we hope the workshop will provide a network of support for burgeoning projects on the diverse forms of new media documentary.

We welcome participants with a firm research interest related to any form of documentary practice and/in new media (e.g., not only film, photography, video, or audio but also emerging forms such as docu-games or digital storytelling), in any national or transnational context. The workshop will not be focused on canonical histories or studies of documentary. Rather, our discussions will draw on pre-circulated readings that illuminate the nascent patterns found in projects submitted by participants. These discussions will constitute the workshop’s early sessions and form the basis for collaborative discussions of each participant’s project in the later sessions.

To facilitate a meaningful exchange, participants and workshop leaders will be expected to submit a 5-6 page extended abstract/excerpt from a current research project or equivalent work in other modalities prior to the workshop, which will be circulated among the group along with the readings. Those interested in participating in the workshop should send a CV and a two-page statement outlining how their current research and/or teaching would be enriched by participation in the workshop.

Questions should be directed to Cara Finnegan at

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