The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs
Author: Viviane Serfaty
Publisher: Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004
Review Published: November 2006
In cybercultural writing there is still something of a tendency to emphasise the supposed newness of digital media (or, indeed, new media) often at the expense of both an awareness of the historical lineage of many media forms and of the people who use them. In this context, Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil provides a valuable perspective, focusing on the phenomenon of online diaries, both as blogs and in other forms, and building upon a robust review of diary writing and autobiography across the last two millennia. Similarly, while Serfaty is following a tradition in literary criticism of treating any written work as a form of 'fiction' in the broadest sense -- that is, fictional in that words cannot give an unproblematic and direct access to someone's internal thoughts, but rather words must by their very nature 'construct' a sense of the subject, even if that subject is oneself -- her theoretical stance is carefully balanced in order to keep the voices of online diarists (or, more accurately, their diaries) at center stage.
The book begins with a well-structured and thoughtful introduction which offers a historical overview of self-representational writing across Western history. Key questions about online privacy in relation to a study of personal writing are asked, and the theoretical underpinnings, drawing mainly on literary and psychoanalytical theory, are laid bare. Serfaty's central thesis builds upon her historical overview, arguing that online diaries are even more keyed to self-construction, both in what is written and what is purposefully avoided. As Serfaty argues: "The technological set-up required for Internet access includes a computer screen, operating as a paradoxical twofold metaphor, that of a veil and that or a mirror. . . The screen, which mediates access, thus establishes a dialectical relationship between transparency and opacity" (13). The texts themselves are forty-two personal diaries or diary-style blogs, studied across a twenty-six month period beginning in September, 2001.
The first chapter traces the intersection of diary writing with online existence and does the necessary work of exploring the norms of layout, structure, linking, the increasing prevalence of multimedia, questions of self-construction, and the importance of interactivity between a self-representational blogger and his/her audience. The second chapter takes something of a turn and addresses more specifically 'American' character and ethos driving the online diaries being analyzed. Serfaty draws heavily on the nineteenth-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who not only espoused a particular view of individualism, but also linked that trait to self-representational writing and, of course, kept journals which combined the styles of diaries and books. Serfaty argues that self-representational writing is interwoven with notions of American individualism. Shifting to address the online self-representational writing at the core of her study, Serfaty argues that blogs build on Emersonian ideas, but the very public nature of the supposedly private writing has more of a dialogical function: "Weblogs include software enabling readers' responses to be automatically posted and to appear next to the entry. Thus a dialogical space is created within what is supposed to be an intensely personal space" (53). The dialogical function of online diaries and blogs then leads onto further exploration of the interactivity and psychological utility of these forms in terms of providing a sympathetic audience, support, recognition, and ultimately complex communities. These points are all well-made, although some readers may find the Lacanian psychoanalytic theory used to interpret the motivations of diarists a little challenging at times. I am presuming Serfaty had an audience in mind who were already aware of Lacan, Freud, Foucault, and other theorists -- as she spends very few words introducing some of their quite complex ideas.
The middle chapter focuses on the use of humor in online diaries, with an understanding of humor derived from Freud's writing. Unfortunately, this chapter adds little to the overall argument and offers little insight beyond the idea that humor can act as a release for certain energies in a safe way. Thankfully, this is also the shortest chapter (only eleven pages in length) of the book.
In direct contrast, chapter four, "The Private - Public Divide," is the strongest part of Serfaty's argument, highlighting the many contradictions between diary-style writing, ostensibly a record of one's own thoughts for private use, being purposefully placed in a public arena. The idea of an implicit audience is explored in some depth as are the worries some diarists or bloggers have about being discovered by the wrong people, especially family members. The chapter ends with a look at erotic diaries, discussing the tensions which see the most intimate acts and details chronicled publicly, in contrast with more explicitly pornographic material which is aimed at a public audience. The final chapter, entitled "Male and Female Cyberbodies," examines how the fleshiness of bodies is evident from online diaries and blogs, despite the predominantly textual form. Serfaty makes some clear points about the way embodiment is apparent from everyday tales, from talk of food and eating to eroticism. However, in the more ambitious sections which explore the connections and dissonance between material bodies and informatic expressions, a number of key theorists -- Donna Haraway (1991), N. Katherine Hayles (1999), and Anne Balsamo (1996), to name three -- are notably absent.
The Mirror and the Veil is by no means a perfect text -- the section on humor adds little to the overall argument and the final chapter would be far more robust if it addressed some of the key theorists on the intersection of embodiment, technology, and subjectivity. However, Serfaty nevertheless manages to explore some fascinating and important ground in relation to the way online diaries and diary-style blogs create, re-create, or occlude identity in different ways. Similarly, issues raised about the importance of an interactive audience in the process of diary writing remain central to current cultural events. As something of a test-case, the most recent controversy (I am writing this review in September 2006) about diary-style writing was the phenomenon of lonelygirl15 on YouTube.com. The lonely girl in question was supposedly a home-schooled 16-year-old girl with strict religious parents who poured her heart out in frequent videoblog posts. When it was revealed that the videos were actually created by a production team and actors, big media across the world reported the story as thousands of fans expressed dismay that they had been lied to. In thinking about how the lonelygirl15 saga played out, Serfaty's work provided some key insights into how deeply the audience of an online diary -- be it in text form or digital video -- may feel connected to the diary-writer. As long as online diaries and blogs continue to be a major presence in the digital mediascape, The Mirror and the Veil will prove a useful starting point in exploring and understanding them.
Balsamo, Anne. Technologies of the Gendered Body. Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1996.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York, Routledge, 1991.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Tama Leaver is a lecturer at the University of Western Australia where he also recently earned his doctorate in English, Communication and Cultural Studies for a thesis entitled "Artificialities: From Artificial Intelligence to Artificial Culture -- Subjectivity, Embodiment and Technology in Contemporary Speculative Texts." He also maintains two research blogs: Ponderance and the rather unimaginatively titled Tama's eLearning Blog. Tama has previously reviewed David Bell's An Introduction to Cybercultures and William Gibson's Pattern Recognition for RCCS. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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