Saturday, June 16, 2007

Au Revoir Nos Vie Privé?, or, Keepin' It Unreal in the TwitBin?

being sick. still being sick., from twitterrific

sick. i'm sick. i hate being sick.
from web

Client review pushed up to 9am. I find out at 8am... Large Redbull, donut, let's roll
from web

my eyeballs are sore
from TwitBin

round the corner from tiger tiger.. must.. resist.. coffee, cake and wifi.. cravings....

To sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.......
the Internet has democratized and amplified personal gut spilling," and further,

Such waves of revelation are fast eroding our notions of private identity. People have always been inclined to share their secrets, to unburden their consciences, and to show off, but in times past these admissions were aimed at confidants—priests, soul mates, diaries. Telling secrets can be therapeutic, but when confession targets the masses, what's really being processed, and who benefits from the disclosure?

Ironically, humans now enjoy more privacy than ever, says Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, president of the University of Haifa and author of Love Online: Emotions on the Internet. "Two hundred years ago, when people lived in villages or very dense cities, everyone's behavior was evident to many and it was extremely hard to hide it," he says. Today, e-mail and "chatting" online allow for completely anonymous interactions. We can talk and make plans without the whole household or office knowing. But if we're so able to keep things to ourselves, then why are we doing exactly the opposite?

. . . .

"There's a way in which our lives seem valid only if they obtain some veneer of media recognition," says Jefferson Singer, a psychologist at Connecticut College. A blog makes your mundane life into an electronic saga that turns you into something more than an anonymous drone in a technological and impersonal world. "You now have a story and perhaps you've even become the focus of other watchers and listeners," says Singer. "You become a character, a speaking part, in the larger theater of society." Even if you're playing the role of the loser—blogging about being unhappy and unattractive—at least you're part of the show.

While both Turkle and Flora were willing to hear Kendall's arguments that blogging has actually helped her to self-actualize in positive ways, and that--maybe, just maybe--the Internet has actually provided productive avenues toward sociality that have brought some persons out of their sometimes-painful isolation into meaningful community with others [a view I share], the ultimate consensus of the show's [one-sided] "conversation" and its "last word" seemed to be best summed up by Turkle, who repeatedly expressed the concern, as she once put it in an interview with New Scientist [20 Sep. 2006],

what is not being cultivated is the ability to be alone and to manage and contain one's emotions. When technology brings us to the point where we're used to sharing our thoughts and feelings instantaneously, it can lead to a new dependence, sometimes to the extent that we need others in order to feel our feelings in the first place.

What is being bemoaned [or perhaps lamented] here is the loss of what might be called "authenticity" or the "authentic self" [a self who knows "who she is" when no one else is around]. Turkle has a unique position here because, while on the one hand it may appear as if she is worried [anxiously worried, even] over a possible future in which an "authentic human self" will no longer exist [and therefore, what will it mean in this future to talk about the singular person, human rights, free will, or even love?], her own work at MIT is deeply concerned with exploring the [often positive] connections between technology, technological artifacts [such as robots], and human beings: go here for more information on that.

For myself, I was a little disappointed that the program did not focus at all on the type of blogging, such as the kind we do here at In The Middle, that combines serious academic discussion and debate [of an immediate sort that is not usually available outside of the space of a medieval studies conference, and which allows us to extend and deepen our intellectual work, even in virtual "congress" with non-medievalists who can help us to sharpen our thought] with more personal reflections that aid us in coming closer together as a human and not just a medievalist community--and here I can't help but nominate Stephanie Trigg's humanities researcher as exemplary in this regard. To think that Stephanie would blog about her cancer just because she would not know how to "feel" about it otherwise is preposterous to me [she is no Tila Tequila!]--indeed, her commitment to catalogue and narrate her ordeal with breast cancer is both brave and inspiring and reminds us that, for all the powerful scholarship some of us accomplish and for all the passion and commitment many of us bring to our work, we are all frail and mortal and need to remember how, in the midst of all of our professional anxieties and in the often-hostile climate and snobbery of medieval studies, we need to "keep it real." I'm as interested in Stephanie's reflections upon her cancer as I am in her sadness over the loss of her favorite milk bar ["I Still Miss Isella"--great post] as I am in her chronicling of her research activities and her academic travels. The narrative she provides on her blog is of a three-dimensional person who has enough to keep her busy without blogging about all of it, but the fact that she does so is an act of generosity not narcissism, and it enriches all of us who read it.

Just after listening to the On Point program I arrived home to find my new issue of Vanity Fair in my mailbox [the special Africa issue guest edited by Bono], in which issue there were excerpts from Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason, where, interestingly, he descries television as the main culprit in the so-called "death" or "decline" of authentic and reflective life and heralds the Internet as perhaps the last place where democracy might still be possible.

So, all of this got me thinking and wondering: does too much blogging, life-logging, live-caming, and live-journaling really threaten the cultivation of the authentic and private self? Is "being alone" a necessary precondition for authentic self-actualization? Was it really more difficult in the premodern era to "hide" one's behavior, thoughts, and emotions? Why does a "private self" matter so much to what we think of as "being human"? Could the Internet really be the last safe haven of rational thought, strong critique, and freedom?

UPDATE: As a side-letter to my post here and also to partially respond to Karl's comment below, see also Tim Spence's Kalamazoo paper [which he presented on BABEL's "premodern to modern humanisms" panel], "The Book of Hours and iPods, Passionate Lyrics and Prayers: Technologies of the Devotional Self." It's awesome.


Karl Steel said...

Important questions, EJ. I do think--and I'm sure you do too--that our NPR scholars have failed by not historicizing the notion of privacy (nor, for that matter, by considering privacy as culturally specific: it'd be boneheaded of me to argue for some straight chronological narrative). It's common to talk about the invention of subjectivity and of private life, but we here know or at least suspect that what's changed is not the emergence of the individual but what counts as individuality. We're liking seeing another such shift/invention here.

Moreover, as your post hints at, blogging plays an essential role in creating community in an American where many people suffer increasing atomization (bowling alone anyone?). In other words, blogging provides more than just psychological solutions for people experience a "sometimes-painful isolation." It provides a political solution to an infrastructure and entertainment complex designed to isolate people (and to bring them together not in conversation but only in the Nuremburg-style events of megachurches and major league sports).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Ages hence, sociologists will declare that we were the age that couldn't stop declaring we have witnessed "The End of X." (Then those sociologists will declare their own age to be "The End of Declaring the End of X" -- only they will have just done the thing they say they aren't doing anymore).

Intriguing post, Eileen. It is fascinating to speculate why technology catalyzed so many confessions while also enabling kinds of privacy previously unknown. I have no easy answer for that, only to observe that historically people have not been all that interested in keeping themselves to themselves (or to themselves and a shaman, priest, solitary confessor). In general humans tend to be gregarious and not especially secretive, no?

I love how you brought Stephanie Trigg's blog into it. For me that eloquent blog is like one of those Other Worlds I've been writing about: a glimpse of a place with many similarities to the place in which I find myself, but also strange and intriguing enough to estrange me from what I take for granted. The milk bar post, for example -- I didn't even know there were milk bars. The struggle with cancer and mortality. The Australian university system. The sunlight that shines on gardens at the other side of the globe from me.

Karl Steel said...

"The End of Declaring the End of X"

Very funny.

Occurred to me, tonight, while I watched a funny and melancholic Love's Labour Lost en plein air, that I suspect my declaration about different modes of individuality and subjectivity. It's not that I want to renew the barrier between the Modern and the Medieval (or the High Middle Ages and the Dark Ages...for example); it's that I want to refuse any continuity of subjectivity/privacy/etc., even if it's different modes of subjectivity/privacy/etc., if I'm making such claims to recuperate the Middle Ages as a time worthy of study and of complex analysis. That seems retrograde to me. Just a caveat, an accusation leveled only against me.

More than a usual number of typos in my post above. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Blogs bring many good things.

Including Eve's Alexandria - as the entry here describes the impact of love of literature on the literary professionals.

And there is a medieval connection, I promise you. One of the authors is a very bright young historian of medieval Jewish women.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--I love that new picture.

JJC--yes, it also drives me kind of crazy when people declare "the end" of things [my nomination for worst hubristic case: Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History," although it's a swell read and thought-provoking in a good way]; HOWever, I really like to read through these pronouncements, dirges, etc. because they almost always provide interesting food for thought regarding how we're living or thought we were living, etc. It's probably best though not to pull a Chicken Little, but to pose a question like, "*is* the sky falling, and if so, how, or why not?" etc.

What really intrigued my about the NPR program was not so much the question, is there no longer a private self/life? [that seems stupid--of course there is, although I question whether a "self" can ever be really private--the self is always, in my mind, a social creature, a product of social networks and inter-meshings, etc.], but rather this idea of needing to "be alone" to really know/understand oneself and one's feelings. Also, this idea that, somehow, in a distant premodern period people were less able to "hide" themselves--they had no Internet, sure, but that doesn't mean they didn't have other rich resources for "devising" and "writing" [fictionalizing/making artistic] their lives--jeez, just look at Margery Kempe.

srj: great link; I enjoyed reading that.

This old world is a new world said...

Thanks, Eileen and JJC, for these comments. A number of thoughts arise. First, I do think it's odd for us medieval bloggers to be on the other side of the high/popular culture divide for once. For me it's about cultural politics as much as about historicisation, to say nothing of the deeply problematic equation of the 'private' with the 'authentic' self. I do think these things are not necessarily the same.

Just as it took a while for literary/cultural criticism of popular culture to find its feet, so, too, blog-criticism is clearly in its infancy. What would it be called? Blogography? Blogcritique? We would start, perhaps, with a taxonomy of the different kinds of blogs...

I feel bound to say that the bravery of which Eileen is kind enough to write is very relative. I'm deeply conscious of the much greater difficulties faced by many who are sick or disabled. I also keep very secure boundaries around the things I won't blog about; and I suspect most bloggers are the same. Perhaps there is always a differential between what is blogged about and what is not; that the border line between the private and public is always historically, personally, generically and culturally variable.

It would be interesting to compare the current critique of internet disclosure to the fuss over the growth in women's access to print in the C17 and C18, perhaps....

Rick Godden said...

I join many of you in being very tired of the constant refrain of "The End of X," but I'm equally tired of the flip side of this phenomenon. The internet age, generation X or D, or insert other letter here, the youtube age, the post-Mark Foley age, etc. We're just as trigger happy when it comes to declaring the arrival of a new age as we are to toll the death knell of a different one.

I'm unpersuaded in general by alarmist arguments that warn of the death of something, especially in the case of something like a private self. I wonder if the phenomenon of blogging, vlogging, and all these emotionally exhibitionist websites couldn't possibly increase one's self of a private self. While displaying one's self for all the world to see can only solidify the notion of a social self, the act of creation of these visual and textual selves must require some level of self-examination (I mean more than posting pictures of the party last night of course.) There's always going to be a distance between the blogged self and the lived self--it's inevitable.

Unlike tv watching, blogging is at least an active pursuit, and I'd certainly rather someone actively create a version of themselves for the web rather than watching American Idol.

Now I'm going to watch Futurama.

Eileen Joy said...

Stephanie--I really appreciate your comments and clarifications here. Although I really do admire your bravery in being willing to blog about your cancer, I've always understood implicitly [and I'm sure others have too] that

"there is always a differential between what is blogged about and what is not; that the border line between the private and public is always historically, personally, generically and culturally variable."

So of course there will always be "secure boundaries" around the things you won't blog about and the same is true for me [readers of this blog, for example, will be hard pressed to find any details about my family life on this blog--I have shared some kind of crazy stuff about my past and even my present solitary existence in St Louis, but as considers my partner and daughter in S. Carolina--you won't find anything here because I want that to remain mainly private--for their sake much more than my own].

But what's really got me thinking vis-a-vis Stephanie's comments here is how each of us, as much as we may or may not be willing to fully admit it, likely cultivate something "like" a blogging persona when we post here. Sure, we are "ourselves"--honest and true, whatever that might mean--but we're also being somewhat careful about what we will or will not reveal [re: factual details provided and also withheld] and the style in which we "say" things. I'm not sure that is much different from how we are in person, though, when we are also likely thinking a bit about the persona we want to project--it's the rare person to whom we reveal our "all," our most vulnerable and not always our most attractive selves. At some level, we are always "author-ing" ourselves: our lives as art and somesuch.

Which is to also say that I'm not sure that the Internet really changes the terms of how we present ourselves to others so much as it hyper-facilitates, maximizes [numerically], and makes more "liquid" the actual exchanges/encounters. This does not, though, minimize "real" encounters, but perhaps even enhances them. Kalamazoo is a good example: think of how many of us, having only "met" through this blog, as well as through "Quod She," "Old English in New York," "Unlocked Wordhoard," etc. actually met in person in Michigan and "three-dimensionalized" our already-established "virtual" relationships [and we'll meet again in "real time," believe me, especially if I have anything to do with it]. It was all to the good and really made me feel energized about future scholarly projects, this blog and the communities/friendships it is creating, etc.

Stephanie raises an interesting question, too, about "blog-critique," which is something I think we should occasionally take up here--some serious and critical [meta]self-reflection on what it is we think we are "doing" here and why it matters not only to the profession of medieval studies but also to intellectual life in general and also to what might be called the cultivation of the social self. It's also cool [and nice, for once], isn't it [?], as Stephanie also indicates, to be "on the other side of the high/popular cultural divide for once"? Uh, yeah!!!

Rick--thanks for your comments about blogging being more of an "active" pursuit than watching tv. Amen, brother.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Add "teaching persona" to the mix as well, since many of us are in the classroom a version of our selves that we are not elsewhere. Just like the blogging persona, inseparable from who we are but emphasizing some personality traits over others.

Stephanie, I'd suggest that blogging has been incredibly self-conscious and self-critical from its very instigation. the Ivan Tribble brouhaha of a few years back brought that out well. And as a term for this mirror on the blog, my colleague Margaret Soltan always uses "blogoscopy" and that seems as good as any.

This old world is a new world said...

Yes I'm sure that's true (I'm the first to admit I came lateish to the blogosphere). But I guess my question then becomes whether blogging will attract critical analysis from non-bloggers, or whether it's a discursive mode that generates critique only from within.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I will guess that blogging is relatively insular enough that good critique is likely internal critique. I know that millions blog and read blogs ... but it still seems something out of the mainstream, to me.

Karl Steel said...

EJ: I like where you comment ended up. I've been of a mind that my person is persona probably since I was 16 (which I why poststructuralism felt like meeting an old friend).

critical analysis from non-bloggers

Well, there's going to be this. It's going to be very, very bad.

Better examples of discussions of the medium are, yes, from bloggers rather than from self-professed victims of bloggers. See Bérubé's Rhetorical Occasions. For instance, there's this, which also mention's Tedra Osell, better known as Bitch PhD, who gave a great talk at the MLA, which set blogging in conversation with pseudonymous periodicals in the 18th century (see here.)

I got into blogging through despair at the 2002 US elections, so my approach to these online academic matters has been through political blogs rather than through, for example, listservs like Med-Text. I think I started with Eschaton, Daily Kos, and Pandagon, and I've pretty much stuck with those for the past 5 years. All of these have engaged in much self-scrutiny about what it is they want to do.

But are non bloggers interested in writing about blogs? I doubt it. I would expect the same motivations that would lead someone to want to write about blogs would lead that person to write a blog, also.

This old world is a new world said...

Yeah, but Karl, why is that? Lots of us write about fiction and poetry without wanting to produce more of it ourselves...