Picture Philosophy Tube Oliver Thorn

Performativity by Philosophy Tube

19 minutes to read
Merel Groot

Philosophy Tube combines philosophy with theatre performance and autobiographical elements to discuss topics like mental health, suicide, trauma and abuse. This article reflects on how two videos use performativity to talk about real life experience.

Philosophy Tube

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women are merely players”. On his channel Philosophy Tube in a video entitled Youtube: Art or Reality?, Olly Lennards quotes these famous lines by Shakespeare. The video is based on a play about a writer being interrogated about the gruesome content of his children stories, called The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. Similarly, in the video Youtube: Art or Reality?, Olly is interrogated by two police officers, both played by himself, about his YouTube channel. They specifically ask about a confessional video he released a few months earlier. He explores questions like ‘is acting lying?’, ‘is it possible to be authentic on YouTube?’ and ‘are YouTube videos performances?’.

Olly makes monthly videos which he releases on his channel, Philosophy Tube. In these videos, under the stage name Oliver Thorn, he discusses philosophy from a left-wing perspective, often including contemporary events and politics. The first few years the videos he made were mostly in a lecture format. However, starting about two years ago, Olly began dressing up in elaborate costumes and using his experience as an actor to make videos in a new style. One might recognize this theatrical style as similar to the one employed by Natalie Wynn, or Contrapoints on YouTube.

One does not have to be mentally ill to attempt suicide.

Olly Lennards is 27 years old and grew up in Northumberland, UK . He studied philosophy and theology and after that, went to acting school. As of right now (6 October 2020), Olly has 744K subscribers and the topics of his videos range from antisemitism, to queerness, to sex work or Brexit.

On 28 September 2018, Olly released a video in which he talks about his own experiences with mental illness, self-harm and his two suicide attempts. In this video, called Suicide and Mental Health, Olly asks the question ‘who decides what a mental illness is?’ and tries to explain, with his own experiences, that one does not have to be mentally ill to attempt suicide. Ten months later, he uploads a video titled Men. Abuse. Trauma. The video is a 30-minute-long monologue about "masculinity, anxiety, relationships and Shrek" filmed in one take, without cuts. He talks about how he realized through therapy that he has a deep trauma because of the abusive relationship he was in for years. At the end of the video, he announces he will be doing a livestream in which he reads the entire works of Shakespeare, to raise money for the mental health charity Samaritans.

These two videos are deeply personal and touch upon sensitive topics. Although he involves theatrics, costumes and philosophy in them, they really are about himself. In this article, these autobiographical videos will be analyzed to examine how Olly combines philosophy and his own experiences as (relatively) non-fictional discourse with elements of performance. To do this, there will first follow an overview of the literature and terms used in the analysis, after which the two videos will be analyzed and compared. The video YouTube: Art or Reality? in which Oliver discusses his own opinion on these topics, will help to conclude the analysis.

Philosophy Tube Videos as Performative Documentaries

To understand how Olly’s videos show realism and authenticity, the first term which is important to explain here is The Reality Effect. In his article, Barthes (1986) argues that works of art can use reality as an effect. It can be used as a strategy, to convey to the audience that “we are the real” (Barthes, 148). It is an effect, not a cause. So, for example, the elaborate descriptions of a room, such as “Flaubert’s barometer, Michelet’s little door” (Barthes, 148), are messages the authors send to the audience that it is real. Similarly, in films, fourth wall breaks, shaky, handheld cameras, bad lighting etc. are all part of the Reality Effect.

The performative documentary is one type of documentary modes. This term is used differently by different authors. Nichols, (1994, in: Bruzzi, 2006) uses the term to describe documentaries which focus on subjective truths about topics usually talked about objectively. In this paper, the definition by Bruzzi (2006) will be used. According to Bruzzi , the performative documentary is constructed around aspects of performance. Usually in documentaries, these aspects are hidden, either by the subject of the documentary, or the filmmakers themselves, but not in performative documentaries (Bruzzi). The reason for showing these aspects is that a performative documentary “uses performance within a non-fiction context to draw attention to the impossibilities of authentic documentary representation” (Bruzzi, 185). So, in a performative documentary, there will be elements which show that in the making of the documentary and in the coming on the scene of camera crews, the situations are influenced and altered. Examples of this are showing somebody instructing the people in the documentary, editing in such a way it is clear there are edits made or showing the equipment and set up used to shoot a certain part. This makes for a sort of alternative honesty, because the impossibility of authenticity is acknowledged. However, it can also be a device to distance or alienate the audience (Bruzzi).

“I know this is a philosophy channel, but sometimes it really is easier to just not think about stuff.”

In linguistics, a performative speech act is one where the act of speaking actually changes reality. An example of this is saying ‘I do’ in the context of a wedding ceremony. When two people speak those words, they proclaim they will take the other as their husband or wife. Legally, this makes them married, so the utterance not only describes an act, but actually performs it (Austin, 1970, in: Bruzzi, 2006). The term 'Performativity' in the name performative documentary alludes to this speech act. The central notion here is that “a documentary only comes into being as it is performed” (Bruzzi, 186). The information might have already existed, but the film itself only comes into being once it is made, once it is performed.

De Man (1976) wrote about another form of making art about oneself: an autobiography. He argued that when one writes an autobiography, the autobiographical self is the effect of the writing: “We assume that life produces the autobiography… but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life?”.

When one reads an autobiography, one infers that the author has indeed experienced all the events described in the book. This autobiographical pact involves an implicit contract between the reader and the author. By signing their name, the author confirms they are the narrator and the one who has lived through the events. Everything written is truth (Lejeune, 1975).

YouTuber's Real Experience in Suicide & Mental Health

The video Suicide and Mental Health starts with a soliloquy from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Oliver is in costume and does not look at the camera. The footage is a bit blurry, and an effect is edited over it, as shown in image 1. Because of this effect and Oliver not looking at the camera, either as Hamlet (‘Subject H’) or the therapist, a sort of reality effect is created (Barthes, 1986), as it creates the illusion that the subjects are looking at each other and a conversation between them is being recorded. This is an interesting choice, because it mostly adds to the silliness of the fragment. It seems almost a parody of a conversation with a therapist, where the reality effect merely plays into this and does not point to it being real, but reinforces the joke instead.

Image 1: Screenshot Mental Health & Suicide on Philosphy Tube.jpg

After this introduction, the informative part of the video begins and Oliver starts talking about the importance of how we define a mental illness. Interestingly, the name 'Olly' flashes into screen at the beginning. Usually, Olly performs under his stage name Oliver Thorn, and the video indeed started with the text ‘Oliver Thorn presenteth’. One could view this showing of the name ‘Olly’ as him signing his name under the video, as a writer does in an autobiography. Implied in the autobiographical pact, this suggests that the events talked about, were truth (Lejeune, 1975). The audience will probably only pick up on this on the second watch, as it is unclear the first time around that Oliver will talk about his own experiences.

For the first 14 minutes of the video, after which ‘ACT II’ starts, the format of Oliver talking about mental illness, depression and how to define it, is interrupted by shots of an interview with ‘The Cosmonaut’. The same format is used as in the introduction and although the interviewee is a different character, the therapist is Oliver in the same outfit as before. Because of the similarities to the introduction, the illusion that ‘The Cosmonaut’ is simply another character is held up. Most of the time, music is edited under it giving it a silly vibe, although sometimes the music is absent, and it suddenly seems more serious.

In this part, when Oliver talks about suicide, footage of actual cosmonauts going into space is edited in as a visual in the video (e.g. 8:03). At 10:38, the question “Is suicidality always a sign of insanity” appears on the screen and Oliver’s monologue about it becomes increasingly emotional. After he says “We’ll presumably also be doing a lot of people a solid, because they may then be more open to talking about how they feel”, the therapist flashes into screen and asks: “thoughts about ending your own live, or feeling you’d be better off dead?”. Act I ends with Oliver saying: “I know this is a philosophy channel, but sometimes it really is easier to just not think about stuff.” (13:46).

"You can’t do a video about how suicidality isn’t necessarily a sign of insanity and only give examples of people who actually killed themselves."

At the start of act II, Oliver seems rational again. He starts to give philosophical arguments and a historical example to prove that suicidality is not always a sign of insanity. At 15:31, the interview of ‘The Cosmonaut’ flashes into the screen, and all of a sudden, the therapist asks why Oliver is talking about the example. The cosmonaut answers, which is the first time he actually speaks, “because I don’t want to talk about myself”. The music starts becoming tense, and Oliver comes back into screen and keeps talking about examples of when bad circumstances in life can impair your functioning, just like a disease. He becomes emotional again, especially when talking about “when you love someone and they die, or you love someone and they hurt you, really bad.” (16:19). When he says these words, a short video of cosmonauts in space plays again. He then starts talking about a book, and as he is talking, the sentence “Oliver, talking about your feelings might help” flashes on the screen. Afterwards, the same sentence appears, this time in the style of Philosophy Tube's usual citations. Signed by Dr Rosencrantz, it takes over the screen. Texts signed by “mister Not Good Enough” start to appear as well. The therapist breaks in and says “mate”. Oliver keeps ranting for a little longer, but then the therapist comes into screen, puts down his glasses and says: “mate, you can’t do a video about how suicidality isn’t necessarily a sign of insanity and only provide historical examples of people who actually killed themselves. It undermines your point. You have to tell them about somebody who tried to kill themselves, and isn’t insane, and who is still alive. You have to tell them what that’s like.” (17:49).

This way, the stories come into shape through the performance. The structure of the video seems to symbolize Oliver’s hesitance to talk about the topic. Rationally, viewers will know that it is all scripted, filmed separately and edited together, but when watching, they will not think about the fact that it is actually mostly a performance. A personal, emotional one, but a performance nonetheless. Oliver already decided to talk about his experience and scripted it, whilst filming the part of the video where he keeps ranting despite the text in screen and the therapist breaking in. It seems like he is hesitant to talk about it, but really it is all part of the video.

The next part of the video starts with a warning: “Content warning. Personal experiences of suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and self-harm”. Starting with this message, all the pretence falls away. It is time for Oliver’s own story. He, in the cosmonaut costume, addresses the camera. The camera effect shown in image 1 slowly fades away. The text changes to “Interview with Oliver Thorn”. He then starts talking about his two suicide attempts and history of self harm. He directly addresses the audience, saying “you” multiple times. With these fourth wall breaks, Oliver addresses the audience and creates the illusion that there is a connection between him and any individual viewer. This way, it is almost like having a conversation. He also explains the significance of the Cosmonaut costume: “whenever I feel like hurting myself now, or killing myself now, I imagine that I’m a cosmonaut. That’s why I’m dressed like this.” (23:38). Act II ends with Oliver saying “I am the Cosmonaut” (26:03).

This turn of the video sheds a new light on the reality effects (Barthes, 1968) used to establish the format in the introduction. It seemed almost silly at first, when it is used in an obviously staged soliloquy by Hamlet. This way, it actually has the function of keeping up the pretence of the cosmonaut interview being fictional, even comical, instead of making it seem more real. When one knows that the interview with the cosmonaut is actually an interview with Oliver, things start to fall into place. It gives another layer to the effect: the interview with the Cosmonaut, was in some way actually real. The timing of breaking to these scenes becomes clearer too, as it is often at points when the informational part starts to touch on things the Cosmonaut/Oliver experienced or feels deeply about.

In act III, he involves his own life experiences in the discussion on whether suicide is always a sign of insanity and ends the video with an emotional message to the people in his audience who might also have suicidal thoughts.

Reliving and Recovering from Trauma in Men. Abuse. Trauma.

The 35-minute-long video Men. Abuse. Trauma is one long monologue, recorded in one go, without any cuts. Oliver memorized the whole monologue and uploaded the second of two takes. There are no effects edited into it and there is only one costume change, around the middle of the video, facilitated by a camera pan. In an article, a writer who talked to Oliver reveals: “no, as the camera pans, he’s just off to the side changing his costume for when it reaches his next setup. This gives the illusion of a video broken into two parts but also doesn’t release you from the video’s grip. You are stuck in the emotional, vulnerable place with Thorn, and he wants you to live with it in that silent pan.” (VanDerWerff, 2019).

This makes the video seem very different from the highly edited Suicide & Mental Health. Contrary to that video, here Oliver immediately makes it clear the video is personal and about his own experiences. In this way, he kind of signs the video again, and commits to the autobiographical pact.

However, although the videos seem different, they use a similar strategy to tell the story. In this one, Oliver first talks about some philosophers in relation to the plot of a play he really likes: No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. He talks about these things, pointing to some parts of the play and the philosophy he found particularly interesting, without really connecting it to his own experiences. Around 8 minutes into the video, he starts talking about himself, his mental health and going to therapy. He imitates the voice and accent of his therapist and plays out conversations he had with her. These include conversations about the way he feels when he gets suicidal and about his YouTube channel, as he changed up his style only a few months after his suicide attempt. Oliver starts spiralling, talking about why he tried to commit suicide and how he was replaceable, had no friends and his YouTube channel was “deeply immoral” (12:12), as he was nowhere to be found in the videos. He grows more and more agitated, but suddenly breaks the tension with a joke.

"Recovering from trauma is not like a movie. It is more like rehearsing a play."

He then imitates his therapist again, asking him what changed in his live, because he was feeling relatively good and very creative only a few months later. Oliver reveals he broke up with his girlfriend around that same time, but just plays it off as having more time on his hands. He then starts talking about how he beat up a closet that belonged to both of them after she moved out and kind of plays it off as a joke, until his therapist says: “I think this is trauma,” (14:49) and “you’ve been in an abusive relationship” (14:54). Oliver contradicts this and start summing up characteristics of his relationship which might seem like abuse, but really, were not that bad. He grows more and more emotional and, in the end, admits that his ex-girlfriend hit him once. The camera starts to pan, and shows the room he is shooting the video in. His cosmonaut outfit lies in his room. Eventually, Oliver comes back in shot, having changed into a suit and tie.

When talking about his experiences and mimicking conversations with his therapist, Oliver embodies the person he was when talking to his therapist. He has not acknowledged his trauma yet; he is still in denial. This way, the monologue draws you in and keeps you guessing. As the audience, you are on the emotional rollercoaster together with Oliver. Once again, the narrative unfolds as it is performed. We, as viewers, do not know if this is actually how Oliver recognized he had a deep trauma due to the abusive relationship he was in for years, but it is the way Oliver chooses to tell it, possibly dramatizing or exaggerating it.

In the remainder of the video, Oliver talks about his experience and relating it to the philosophy and play he discussed earlier in the video. In some parts, he talks energetically, like he often does in his videos when talking about philosophy. However, he sometimes also goes back into the more down, vulnerable version of himself. This seems to be in moments when he mentions ways in which one can rationalize and discount abuse, or how trauma can affect you, and what he thought or felt about it.

In creating this autobiographical video, Olly creates an autobiographical self who comes to terms with his trauma.

At one point, he compares recovering from trauma with rehearsing a play: “recovering from trauma is not like a movie where the character learns their lesson and then goes on to apply and save the day. It is more like rehearsing a play. You have to keep going over it and over it until it becomes unconscious and natural.” (24:28). It is not possible to know in what way making this video helped Oliver as well, going over all the reasons he rationalized his abuse and trauma, denying and downplaying it, but it could be the case that embodying those feelings, reliving them in his performance, helped him get through it as well. In creating this autobiographical video, he creates an autobiographical self who comes to terms with his trauma.

In this second part, just like in the part in Suicide & Mental Health where Oliver talks about his own experiences, he addresses the audience with ‘you’ and mentions that he is making a video. These fourth wall breaks generate reality effects (Barthes, 1968). Furthermore, the panning of the camera not only marks the costume change and keeps the viewer captivated by the story. It also functions as a sort of reality effect, as the viewers can see where Oliver films and that he uses equipment and a screen for it (Barthes, 1968).

Philosophy Tube, Performativity and the Reality Effect

There are some important similarities between the first video discussed, about the Cosmonaut, and the second video, about abuse, masculinity and trauma. In both videos, the creator of Philosophy Tube uses some of the same reality effects, especially the fourth wall breaks. Oliver also signs the autobiographical pact in both, although he does it differently.

Furthermore, Oliver does not start by talking about himself in either of the videos. Instead, he talks mostly about philosophy, or a play. Both videos embody a sort of transition: of Oliver first not addressing his own experiences and jumping to philosophy when it gets too personal. Slowly, the personal significance of all he discussed is revealed to the audience. Oliver acts as if he is actually going through this change. In the first video, this effect is also achieved through editing. In the second, purely through a monologue. Like mentioned before, this points to performativity in the videos, toa narrative arising through the act of performing it.

As in the theoretical discussion above, performative documentaries show that in the making of a documentary, factors like the documentary makers, camera equipment, etc., coming into play inevitably influence the result (Bruzzi, 2006). According to Bruzzi this creates an alternative honesty and can also work in an alienating way. This first part may be applicable to Oliver's videos on Philosophy Tube, although the acknowledgements that he is making a video and consistent breaking of the fourth wall are not uncommon in YouTube videos. Based on the discussed videos, one could argue that this is mostly a way for YouTubers to create a connection to their audience and make the viewers feel closer to the creator. It is regularly used in other YouTube videos, by Philosophy Tube and other YouTubers (Tarnovskaya, 2017). The pan camera effect is an example of such a reality effect which actually draws the viewer in more, leaving them in the tension and emotion of the revelation, instead of alienating them.  The performative way in which Oliver acts out these videos also definitely does not alienate the audience. It all makes the viewer more engaged and pulled along in the narrative Oliver creates based on his own experiences.

YouTube: Art or Reality?

In the video YouTube: Art or Reality?, Oliver is interrogated by two police officers, played by himself, about his YouTube channel. The video was made a few months after Suicide and Mental Health, and specifically addresses it. The video almost seems like an argument Oliver has with himself, about the importance of authenticity, truth and aesthetics when making a video and about how to balance it. He himself thinks YouTube is not about authenticity per se, because that is hard to measure or even define, but this is questioned by the two characters he created. In the video, he also reveals that he filmed certain emotional scenes in Suicide and Mental Health six, or even eight times. Some of those he filmed on the same day he filmed a video where he was supposedly upbeat and happy. Oliver defends this by saying acting is not about literal truth, but about emotional truth. In the moment of filming that video, or when acting in general, an actor actually feels the emotion they perform. They are not lying, like the two detectives suggest.

Performativity is a way of engaging the audience in the topic of philosophy. It does not make the videos fake.

It is an interesting video, one which shows that Oliver himself thinks about the philosophy and morality of art and truth regularly. Once again, the information or point Oliver tries to make is tied in with the narrative, the performance of the video. He examines the ethical questions surrounding YouTube, authenticity and truth not by merely talking about it, but by performing a play about it.

Performativity clearly is an important aspect of Oliver’s videos, but his point of view is that this makes it more enjoyable for the audience. He does not believe that it makes it unreal or that it sacrifices the truth. He claims he always guards the truth, making sure the audience will not come to untrue conclusions when he “sacrifices the truth for aesthetics”, as the police officer puts it. When looking at performativity from Oliver's point of view, it is not necessarily an instrument that shows the difficulties of representing something authentically. Together with the reality effect, it is a way of engaging the audience in the seemingly dreary topic of philosophy. According to him, the use of performativity does not make the videos fake. It does not necessarily even make them performances. For him, his whole life is a series of hyperreal performances, “that aren’t like somebody putting on a mask, but that actually inform the person being them: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women are merely players” (25:06).


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