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The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs

Author: Viviane Serfaty
Publisher: Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004
Review Published: November 2006

 REVIEW 1: Laurie N. Taylor
 REVIEW 2: Sarah Michele Ford
 REVIEW 3: Natalie Bennett
 REVIEW 4: Tama Leaver
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Viviane Serfaty

Publications on dead trees suffer from a substantial problem in describing and analyzing the development of the internet: time. Indeed, any research project will suffer from the fact that in the timespan of a typical research project, the subject, by reason of technology or fashion or electronic evolution, may no longer exist, at least in its original form. This fact frames the first and fundamental problem with Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs.

The original common definition of "blogs" was "online diaries," and it was those "blogs" most closely resembling diaries -- in the offline form -- that Serfaty chose for the sample studied between September 2001 and December 2003. As the author notes, "diaries and blogs primarily devoted to current events, politics or social commentary were ... dismissed out of hand" (16). This appears to be because she wants to focus on "self-representational" writing, although no explanation is given, nor is the potentially self-representational nature of "political" or "commentary" blogs addressed. Serfaty has thus excluded most of what have been considered for some years to be "blogs," and that term might have been better deleted from the book's title. A further point worth noting: no more than a dozen of the study sample are set out in any detail at all. (All are listed in an appendix.)

The introduction begins by making reference to the intellectual historian Georges Gusdorf and the development of his work by Philippe Lejeune, finding in them a theory of the origins of "modern self-representational writing that arrives at three categories: Catholicism, English Puritanism and Libertines" (4). It then goes on to draw a distinction between autobiographical writing that is "akin to apologia" in which "the autobiographer simultaneously plays the part of defendant, counsel and judge," and the diary as a (quoting Lawrence Rosenwald) "book of days and dates and intervals" (8). Serfaty says that while personal writing on the net can take either form, the study will concentrate on the diary because of the way it "ends up irretrievably interweaving the life and the written word" (8).

Chapter Two attempts to make an argument for the online diary as a format that "while not an exclusively American phenomenon, nevertheless appears to have elective affinities with some traits of American culture ... [that] harks back to deeply entrenched undercurrents in American culture" (43). Serfaty grounds this "American-ness" in Emersonian Transcendentalism, in the claim that "the search for value is, in and of itself, the end to strive for, rather than the setting up of norms which would but create a new kind of conformity" (49). The first basis for this claim is one Google search result -- that a search of sites considered by Google to be French with the term "journaux intimes" returned 5,890 items, while a search for online diaries across the whole web returned 210,000 items, producing a ratio of 36.5 to one for English-French diaries "with an overwhelming majority of North Americans" (43). Second, Serfaty cites the membership of Diarist.Net registry, which had 4,734 diaries from the US, 405 from the UK and 28 from France. Aside from the doubtful status of these statistics -- Google only counts words in websites; it doesn’t classify them -- this was in December 2002, when internet access had far greater penetration in the US than elsewhere. (A fact the author acknowledges and then ignores.)

The analysis then progresses to Rosenwald's understanding of Emerson's diarising as fusing "the diaristic form and the commonplace book ... a glimpse of the individual wrestling with creativity that characterizes the Transcendaltist artist and his vision of the foundation of value within the self" in a way that was essential to the creation of "American-ness" and American social practices (46). Serfaty says the online diarists are constructing themselves through the minutae of their everyday lives, suggesting that the American-ness lies in the refusal to separate abstract thoughts from everyday experiences.

I'm not equipped to comment on foundational American studies theory, but I do find this curious, and irritatingly US-centric. Indeed, there is an argument for saying that online diaries such as those chosen for analysis by Serfaty are most closely related the commonplace book in early modern Europe. As Lena Cowen Orlin, a scholar of the English Renaissance, has written: "In a culture in which the lines between public and private were not so clearly drawn as in our own time, diaries and letters often followed the forms and shared the concerns of public chronicles" (Orlin, 255). And as for the broad form of using comments on the external world as a method of contructing the self, one of the earliest examples I can think of is The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon, and Shonagon was writing in the Japanese imperial court in circa 965 AD.

After these introductory chapters of theory, we then enter what is expected to be the meat of the analysis -- although the text in total is only a scant 125 pages of largish text, with additional apparatus, and we are already at page 71. There are successive chapters entitled "Humor in Cyberspace," "The Public-Private Divide," and "Male and Female Cyberbodies." It might be expected that the analytical framework set out in the first two chapters would be used in these, but instead the book takes a lurch into the psychological; the two primary authors referred to are Lacan and Freud, and much of the analysis seems to have little to do with the online form. For example, in considering two bloggers who write a great deal about food consumption and dieting, Serfaty notes: "Growing fat and slimming down become stages in the narrative of self and the fastidious descriptions of their struggle with the temptation of fattening foods, repetitive and trivial as they are, turn into stages in a Sisyphean progression towards an imaginary state of goodness" (109).

Analyzing humor is a notoriously difficult task, but the chapter here is not a great effort, and no attempt is made to explain why it should be given such a central place in the analysis. Serfaty simply begins: "Online dairies conform to the general tendency of websites towards playfulness" (71). It is this chapter in particular that gives the monograph the feeling of a series of journal articles being roughly cobbled together. The analysis states that the juxtaposition of different media may be used, but other diarists base their humor mostly on text, which is sometimes offset by formatting to counterpoint different passages. Serfaty relies on Freud for the functions of humor as "the release of aggressive and sexual drives providing a means of saying precisely what cannot be voiced because of social or personal inhibitions" (75). In writing about the online diary of a woman who left her three children with her husband, while grappling with alcohol addiction, as her mother had before left her, Serfaty writes that "the humorous mode of diary-writing also provides a socially acceptable way of publicly acknowledging one's heavy burden of guilt and ambivalence, and actualizing one's potential for dynamic transmission rather than repetition" (81).

In the "gender" chapter, Serfaty attempts to "analyze the ways in which corporeity is involved in identity formation in online journals" (99). The analysis is founded on a detailed comparison -- the most detailed in the monograph -- between Bunt Sign, "a middle-aged man who works from home for a California construction company" (with a blog still functional -- http://www.buntsign.com), who writes a great deal about his health problems, and "Lisa," who "belongs to a sado-masochist diarists' webring, where sexually explicit entries are acceptable" (104). Later, Serfaty adds the diary of Columbine, a male sufferer of gender dysphobia. Drawing on Lacan, Serfaty concludes that "online embodied writing ... becomes a fully rounded thorough representation of corporeity channelling a necessarily self-defeating quest for a unified self" (122). To take these examples as representative of male and female online diarising seems distinctly curious. Certainly they are people writing about their bodies in an obvious way, but they are hardly representative of their genders.

I'm a great fan of interdisciplinarity, and believe that drawing insights from widely differing perspectives can be a highly valuable way of understanding the online (and off-line) world. For the meta-technique to work, however, it requires the different disciplinary strands to work together and speak to each other, and particularly to be drawn into some form of final synthesis. That's not what happens in The Mirror and the Veil. Instead, a grab-bag of theories and approaches seems to be flung at a selection of atypical websites.

This is a pity, for the idea that produced the title of this book, set out in the introduction and conclusion but ignored between, of the computer screen functioning for bloggers as both a mirror and a veil strikes me as a good one. Serfaty writes: "The screen ... establishes a dialectical relationship between disclosure and secrecy, between transparency and opacity" (13). When I think of two of the "diary-type" blogs that I read regularly, Petite Anglaise and Personal Political, I see that as a potentially useful framework for thinking about their writing. In the first case, Petite apparently discloses all, yet she is very careful to screen her physical identity; in the second case, "Susoz" admits her difficulties in dealing with the separation of the two and makes this part of her online persona.

Where this author might want to go next is to work on this idea in relation to the considerable body of material analyzing online texts, such as Kate Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (1999) and Steve Johnson's Interface Culture (1997). To try to think about online material -- as Serfaty does in The Mirror and the Veil -- purely through the framework of offline theories, is not sufficient. That's not to say that a historical perspective might not be valuable. If the net of considering what is a "blog" is cast more widely -- taking in sites generally considered blogs today -- it may be the commonplace book, rather than the diary, by which comparison could usefully be made.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Johnson, Steve. Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997.

Morris, I. editor, The Pillowbook of Sei Shonagon. London: Penguin, 1971.

Orlin, L.C. "Chronicles of Private Life." In Kinney, A.F., editor, The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1500-1600. Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 241-264.

Natalie Bennett:
Natalie Bennett is the founder of the Carnival of Feminists, a blogger at Philobiblon for about two years (which just about makes her a veteran), has an MA in Mass Communications from the University of Leicester, and has written on the role of blogs in women's history.  <natalieben@journ.freeserve.co.uk>

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