Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Personal and the Public

I don't know whether y'all have been following the brouhaha in the comments over at Bitch PhD's generated by a few recent posts that she's made about her marriage, but I have, and in response I've been doing a lot of thinking (and rethinking) about how blogs work, how we invite people into our lives through them and how our attempts to project an "authentic" voice can be complicated by the very audience that celebrates and villifies us on the basis of that authenticity or perceived lack thereof.

The point of this post is not to enter into the debate raging in Dr. B's comments about her relationships or her choice to communicate certain things on her blog. Basically, I just hope everything's ok for her and the people she cares about however everything plays out, and I don't see the point in throwing any further commentary her way than that. My point, rather, is to take what I've been thinking while silently lurking and watching others' responses and to translate that into something that is perhaps more easily discussable, more neutral.

I'd like to begin by breaking my thoughts down into general premises that I think are in play for those who choose to blog in ways that are both personal and "public"- including political, professional, etc.. (i.e., I'm not talking about purely personal diaristic blogs, nor am I talking about purely professional or issue-oriented or political blogs. I'm talking about blogs that blend the two.)

Premises Related to Writing:
  • It is impossible for writing to articulate reality in any exact way. Who a person is in writing will necessarily differ from a person's "real" identity.
  • Writing consists of a variety of rhetorical choices (such as my decision to use bullets here, for example, which one might argue indicate that I'm being very logical and point-driven, whether or not that is in fact true of what is included in the bullets) that convey a certain persona to readers, even if readers do not consciously perceive how those choices affect (effect?) their perceptions of the "author" of the writing that they consume.
  • We do, in spite of Barthes and Foucault and all of those other dead French guys, respond on a visceral level to the idea of an "author" who speaks to us through the text. I might know in theory that the author is dead or that the author is just a function through with we collect a certain group of texts, but in practice I like to feel as if I'm being told a story by a real person.

Premises Related to Academic Identity:

  • Because we "know" that a blogger is an academic, we expect him/her to be thoughtful in his/her posts and for the blog to encourage a certain level of discourse in comments.
  • Because we "know" that a blogger is an academic, we expect a certain level of theoretical sophistication from the blogger, thus meaning that we may tend to invest the writing of that blogger with more inherent significance than it, in fact, is worth.
  • Because we "know" that a blogger is an academic, we infer that we can "trust" his/her representation of his/her own identity and/or his/her take on the issues he/she discusses.

Premises Related to Gender:

  • Because we "know" that a blogger is a woman, we expect a certain level of personal content on her blog, if it is pseudonymous. There seems to be a corelation between pseudonymity for female bloggers and a desire to talk about "personal" issues like difficulty in conceiving a child, being single, going through a divorce, mothering, depression or other psychological problems, etc.
  • Because we "know" that a blogger is a woman, and because we think that they are more inclined to this sort of personal writing, we believe that female bloggers will not necessarily make political posts. If they do make political posts, these will be firmly separate from their more personal posts. (I'm not saying this is true, but I do think it's an assumption.)
  • Because we "know" that a blogger is a woman, we evaluate that blogger's posts through the gender expectations and norms that we carry around with us in everyday life.

Premises Related to Blogging/Bloggers:

  • Bloggers are narcissists, who seek validation and approval from audiences of "fans."
  • Blogging is the equivalent of journaling if it includes personal content.
  • Bloggers ask for what they get in terms of comments because they post what they do in a public forum.

I suppose my point in outlining these premises here is to try to think about the ways in which these premises dictate the kinds of things that we can/can't write in one blogspace or another (a) or the responses that we will get to what we write (b).

In watching all of the wildly busy commenting over at Bitch Ph.D.'s (200+ comments in some of the threads! and on a good day for me I get like 20!), I've been somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, I was jealous of her "popularity." That's part of this whole blogging thing, you know? Wanting to be a "popular" blogger, wanting to have a thriving community or audience or whatever of readers. On the other, I felt like she was being villified in ways that were unfair, as if posting on a blog is something more than just writing but rather is a kind of action that she's taking. At the end of the day, isn't writing a blog just writing? But then one has to ask oneself whether public writing doesn't somehow acquire greater meaning, and I think I do believe that it does. If I didn't, I'm not sure I would be as inclined to continue with blogging. It is satisfying to write for an actual audience, and it is satisfying to be able to do so in a forum that has such immediacy.

And I suppose this is the thing, and this is where the title of this post comes in. If blogging is an action that one takes, rather than the mere passive reflection of the world around us, isn't it exactly the space in which to explore the conjunction between the personal and the public? Doesn't the format lend itself to exactly that because it, too, is both personal and public? And isn't to try to explore those connections between personal life and public life exactly in line with many different versions of feminist politics? And, as such, isn't it entirely appropriate for a woman who is a mother and a scholar and a wife and an intellectual to write both about difficulties in her marriage and about the confirmation of a supreme court justice, both about her fantastic kid and about her sometimes less fantastic job? And why should others feel obligated to tell her that to post about "personal" things on the blog that don't fall in line with our world's version of "good wife" (whether in an open marriage or not), "good mother," or "good academic" is inappropriate? Isn't the point that those models for identity are kind of fucked up? Or am I missing something here?

But let's telescope back in and look at my own choices related to my blogging. One of the things that is most interesting about blogging to me is the way in which we can construct an online identity that is at first entirely conscious and then that later becomes less so. One of the reasons that I changed blogspace was because I couldn't comfortably inhabit the identity that I had constructed on my first blog any longer but at the same time I wasn't happy about the ways in which I couldn't consciously control the "Dr. Crazy" identity on that blog. My solution was to move house, thus allowing me to reinvent my blogging voice without abandoning the whole kit and caboodle. I've been experimenting with my voice in this new space, and it is both more and less personal. Strangely, on my old blog things that totally were not personal material, like the books that I was teaching, became the very things that I had to protect as my most personal information. I could write about very, very personal things, but I couldn't write about my everyday life or everyday interests or academic specialties. Now, in this space, I've inverted that paradigm. I tend to write more about the everyday things in much more open ways. In that way, I've made what is personal (in the sense of identifying) very public. On the other hand, things that are traditionally personal (i.e., intimate details of one's private life) don't show up on this blog. The funny thing is, though, that those things are actually totally anonymous, and I risk much more (in a practical sense) by going public with this material that is more suitable for public consumption. At the same time though, I also feel like I've stopped fighting the good fight to make visible the fact that I am both a public and a private person, even though I'm a "career girl" (as my grandmother would have said). It's easy to be seen as having a personal life when one gets to call oneself "wife," "mother," "sister," in our culture. When the signifiers that one has are "cat-owner," "friend," and "only-child-who-lives-hours-from-family," it's a lot harder to be seen as having a personal life that "counts." Why does it matter that it counts? I don't know. I still feel like it does, though. Nevertheless, I've given up trying to make myself visible in that way through the blog. That was the experiment of the old space, and either it succeeded as far as it was going to or it failed - I'm still not sure which.

The thing that I keep coming back to, as I think about all of the different opinions raging over at Bitch PhD's, is something that's unrelated. With all of the readers chastising her for posting about her marriage, I keep coming back to the many boyfriends of my past who've said to me when I was uppity in some way that "there's a time and a place for everything" or, perhaps better, "this is neither the time nor the place" - in other words, you're embarassing, you're not being a good girl, shut your mouth, I'm putting you in your place. I feel like that's what some of the comments over at Dr. B's are doing to her. Maybe that's what happens when you have as big a readership as she does. Maybe that's what happens when you're a woman and you step out of line. Maybe even in the personal-public genre of blogging it's still not ok to go public with the personal.

20 comments:

Anastasia said...

thoughtful post. I'm not sure I have anything to add to it. Your last paragraph rings true in some ways.

The Bailiff said...

It seems to me, though, the Dr. B also receives a lot of validation from many of her commenters.

I don't read her blog any more, because I just found it totally boring and a bit strange to have people commenting about how brilliant and wonderful she is (as a mother or wife or academic or feminist, depending on the post) whenever she espoused an opinion or told a story.

So, I guess it goes both ways, in terms of how blog comments can cut. I think Dr. B also gets a lot of very affirming comments from her readership, from what I've seen, in addition to people being mean and critical.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, I agree with you that she gets a lot of affirming comments, and even throughout this mess she has as well. See, this is where my post wasn't a direct response but rather a jumping off kind of a post. I'd say, as well, that "positive" comments might have the same sort of regulatory effect as the negative, in this case, no? Part of why I was interested enough to continue with the comments over on Dr. B's blog is that it occurred to me that both her detractors and supporters (at times) were putting her in her place, just in different ways, for what she'd written.

Again, the point here of my post, though, wasn't about that particular brouhaha per se or about Dr. B's blog as much as it is about the crap it inspired me to think about. You know, me-me-me, the narcissist who runs this blog ;)

Lina said...

Very interesting post. Bloggers are narcissists? Hmm. What about the more political ones? I think sometimes blogging is a good platform for sharing information, I do it sometimes, you do too, then you've got Bitch PhD, Pandagon and Femniste who do it as a matter of course. I know one could say that sharing information that an individual deems important is narcissistic, but I'm not 100% sure...Tricky...Didn't you write about this before? Comparing blogging with academic writing?

Dr. Virago said...

A really thoughtful post, Dr. Crazy. (And I'm not saying that just to be affirming! :) )

You know, it's funny, I stopped reading the big blogs' voluminous comments a long time ago (except Berube's) because I just don't have time, so I wouldn't have been inclined to comment on those posts of Dr. B's anyway, but my first thought was, in fact, "Wow, how can you say anything to that -- especially without really knowing what's going on." So I was startled when she took down the first post and said "but read the comments" and noted the huge number.

So along the lines of your two blogs/personalities having inverse relations to the personal and public, Dr. Crazy, I was surprised to see that Bitch's most "personal" post received some of the most public attention. I don't know what to make of it -- it just seems weird. And proabably very, very gendered, as you point out.

And speaking of the two "voices" of your blog, Dr. Crazy, I now have to confess something that I think will make you laugh. I was reading your old blog long before I got the nerve to comment, and part of why it took my so long to comment was because I was actually really intimidated by "you" (or the "you" on that blog) despite the fact that I identified with so many of your stories (especially dating woes, but also teaching stuff, etc.). Clearly, I got over the intimidation, but nevertheless I've felt much more automatically comfortable with the "you" here. All of which says more about me than you -- oops! sorry! -- except that I wanted to point out I noticed the change in voice in a big way.

Dr. Crazy said...

Re: the more political bloggers as narcissists: Well, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's possible to read anybody who blogs as a narcissist because I don't think it's JUST about sharing information. Perhaps that's not true of group blogs, but for blogs run by individuals, I'd say that one goes to that blog for that person's perspective and voice. It's kind of like a person is running his/her own daily column in a newspaper, only there are no editors to oversee the thing. In that regard, I'd say that it can be (although I'm sure isn't always) appealing to one's self-involved side. I'm not sure that blogging is inherently narcissistic, but I do think that many if not most people think of it as such, even if one has a blog of one's own. (In that case I think it often comes out as a fear of appearing narcissistic.)
And I think I did write on the old blog about this in some fashion, and I think my argument was something like blogging is in fact less narcissistic because it's interactive vs. academic writing being more solipsistic (at its worst). I don't know. I say a lot of things on my blog. (smile)

Heya, Virago. That's so interesting that thing that you say about my change in voices (says the narcissistic blogger) :) But really, what you're noting.... the kind of... aggressiveness of the Dr. Crazy voice on the other blog ultimately began to feel very limiting to me. I'd be inclined to say that this voice is more like the "real" me, but you know, that's not really true either. Probably the real me is a combination of the two that can't really be translated onto a blog. But part of the reason I really needed to change was so that it wouldn't be so hard to switch gears between my academic voice and my blogging voice. I think I'm hearing voices....

Lina said...

I get your point, but what about if someone blogs about something cos they think it's genuinely useful? Like Bitch PhD's bra post for example? And I did one (and only one!) post once in which I blogged about something that I genuinely thought was important and that people would benefit from knowing it, rather than, say, 'I think society is patriarchal, here's how I interpreted this news paper article' (a favourite of mine!)
I do get the point about the editorial column, it is a very persuasive point. But I'm not sure if saying that something is narcisisitic because the writer has deemed it important. But I don't know...tricky one. (have I just made the same point again?!)

kermitthefrog said...

re: blogging as narcissism:

Starting a blog implies that you think what you have to say matters to people, on whatever level, whether it's updating your family on your everyday life or calling the attention of total strangers to political issues. I agree that it's easy to translate that into an assumption of narcissism: "Listen to me/my authorial voice!" But speaking personally implies narcissism, I think, only if you refuse to listen in turn; for me, commenting and getting comments on blogs is much of why I started one in the first place. So perhaps I'm duplicating your previous blog entry with this comment, but I don't think that enjoying being part of an ongoing conversation is the same as needing adoration from fans. (I know you're not arguing this yourself - I'm just responding to the assumption you've been discussing. Perhaps those making that assumption feel like they're on the outside of the conversation.)

What Now? said...

Interesting post. Here's a comment sort of similar to Virago's: I had stopped reading your former blog, and I reguarly read your current blog, because I'm more comfortable with the tone and have more to respond to the content of your new blog. But I hate to think that your personal life, aside from your "career girl" life, would have to disappear from your blogging in this new home. So how do these personas that we create or these voices that we adopt shape how we present our lives?

Food for thought here. Thanks.

Tree of Knowledge said...

I read this post a bit earlier, thought about it while reading other blogs (including Bitch Ph.D.'s superlong comment threads), then got out my trusty Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism because I couldn't find the link I wanted online. My immediate reaction was to think of Jane Tompkins's essay "Me and My Shadow." This essay has stuck with more than any other essay in that whole, damn, big blue book, and for one reason:

"Most of all, I don't know how to enter the debate without leaving everything else behind--the birds outside my window, my grief over Janice, just myself as a person sitting here in stockinged feet, a little bit chilly because the windows are open, and thinking about going to the bathroom. But not going yet."

I think it's easy to forget that the author is a real person too (wiggling in her chair because she needs to pee, but has to keep writing 'cause she's on a roll), and that "author" does not equal "real person." That an authorial voice is a performance, and we all have many characters that we play.

For that reason, blogs are brilliant because they allow all of those disparate characters to come together on one stage. But it bothers me that 19 years after Tompkins essay was published (New Literacy History 19 and Gender and Theory, ed. Linda Kauffman) the same issues of public and private voice exist. I know 19 years isn't *that* long in some academic circles, but 19 years ago none of us could have imagined this medium for communication.

That said, thank you, Dr. Crazy, for bringing up such an important issue and not letting me forget.

I wonder if Jane Tompkins has a blog.

Dean Dad said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Gotta admit, I've been mystified by the whole "men blog better" thing. There are a few good male bloggers (I try!), but most of the folks I actually read are (apparently) women. Maybe it has to do with the willingness to blend the personal and the public; to my mind, the best test of public things is their effect on actual people. Only the ability to jump back and forth, thoughtfully, can allow for really helpful discourse. Otherwise you just get the ritualistic shouting of our politics.

Authorial position can be fairly concrete. The fact that I put my job title in both my pseudonym and my blog's title is very much deliberate; the small corner of the academic universe I occupy seems to be mysterious to many, and I consider my contribution (if any) to be in demystifying it (which, paradoxically, requires a certain anonymity).

I agree that Bitch is an extraordinary blogger, and that the venom people spew at her personal life seems entirely inappropriate. I've never commented on any of her 'open marriage' entries, just because it never seemed like it was my place to. Her marriage is her own, and what she chooses to share about it is her call. My choices (about both marriage and writing about marriage) are different, but whatever.

Blending the personal and the public in a thoughtful way isn't easy, especially when you need to maintain a certain anonymity. Relatively few people do it well. They're the ones I keep coming back to. Blog on, Dr. C.

Bored Dominatrix said...

Really fabulous, thought-provoking post.

A couple of comments.

One, I have two blogs. They're kind of inter-related, in that I mention each on the other. I started the second because I realized that there was just somehow not room for certain topics on the first. In the beginning I thought the second blog would be a place to talk about sex, but it has turned out that it's where I talk about a much more dangerous topic: my tenure-track job.

I never paid much attention to blogging until last August, when someone asked me to look at his blog on Blogger, and I noticed that little "get your own blog" button. And then I started thinking about what blogging is and how it functions and it just kind of clicked for me, what it can be for, and about, and why people do it, and why I *needed* to do it as part of my intellectual, artistic and scholarly endeavor.

My main area is contemporary American literary nonfiction--i.e, memoir and the essay. And it occurred to me, as I thought about blogging, that if Montaigne, father of the essay, were alive today, he would be a blogger. It is the space where people ATTEMPT (*essayer* in French, hence the word "essay") to figure out how to say things that matter about the topics that matter to them, and I personally think that is very, very cool.

The entry you have posted here, Dr. Crazy, is a marvelous essay. It is thoughtful and educated and personal. It does many of the things good essays do, and it does them well. And not only does it function as a thoroughly great essay, but the way it is disseminated allows for this great conversation.

I don't know what's going to happen with blogging. I know it's important. I admit I didn't read your old blog because I didn't discover it before it was defunct, but I love this blog. And I check it more often than Bitch PhD because, well, because I like your voice better.

For what that's worth.

P.S. Speaking of dead French guys, has anyone read Philippe Lejeune, on "The Autobiographical Pact" and "Looking at a Self-Portrait" and such? I love this:

It's best to get on with the confessions: yes, I have been fooled. I believe that we can promise to tell the truth; I believe in the transparency of language, and in the existence of a complete subject who expresses himself through it; I believe that my proper name guarantees my autonomy and my singularity;... I believe that when I say "I," it is I who am speaking: I believe in the Holy Ghost of the first person. And who doesn't believe in it? But of course it also happens that I believe the contrary. Whence the fascination that "Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes" has held for me; it seems to be the anti-Pact par excellence and proposes a dizzying game of lucidity around all the presuppositions of autobiographical discourse--so dizzying that it ends up giving the reader the illusion that it is not doing what it is nevertheless doing. "In the field of the subject, there is no referent." To a lesser degree, and more candidly, many autobiographers have outlined analogous strategies. We indeed know all this; we are not so dumb, but, once this precaution has been taken, we go on as if we did not know it. Telling the truth about the self, constituting the self as complete subject--it is a fantasy. In spite of the fact that autobiography is impossible, this in no way prevents it from existing.

Dr. Crazy said...

Well, you're welcome for complimenting me on the post, and now I have a compliment for you all: thank YOU for the thoughtful responses. I'm still processing what you all have said - and still thinking over what I said, to be honest - but one thing I want to make sure I respond to What Now:
I don't imagine that there will be no "personal" stuff on this blog - and I think some has already found it's way here - but at the same time the different tone/voice/whatever and my different agenda in this space I think will necessarily make whatever I choose to put here different from what I had posted over on the other blog. I don't think that's bad or good - just different, you know? And at this point I'm still not sure what form it will take. I suppose the reason I wanted to write about what's happening with Bitch PhD is that I identified with her (on a much smaller scale, obviously) because as I read the comments I got a feeling similar to one I often got when people would post on some of the things I'd write about my personal life over at the other blog. Whether people were supportive or not, I often felt somehow... limited by the way that they responded to me, but I also felt like I produced those responses because of choices that I was making, so I was somehow complicit in the negative feelings that I was having. In the new space I don't feel that, but I do think I've also lost some of the zing of the old blog. That's ok, though. I think it's ok not always to be zingy, and in some cases preferable.

At any rate, again, thank you all for the thoughtful comments. I promise to respond more fully later. Also, if anybody finds this thread and wants to continue the conversation, do not hesitate to post a comment. I always feel like when I comment back it shuts people up, which I hate. I really don't want to have the last word on everything (though on some things....)

susan said...

Ok, let me chime in: the blogging = narcissism angle is something I'm not so sure about. I started reading blogs because of an assignment I gave my own students; I got sucked into the world of mama blogs after I did a sample presentation for my students on the dot moms' blog. I kept reading over the summer, gradually surfing around more and more and found a stable core of blogs I liked to read. And I really liked the writing, and eventually got restless and envious and thought "i want to write like that, too." So that's why I started: beautiful writing, beautiful thoughtful writing simply appeals to me (for some of the reasons bored dominatrix cites). And I felt I was in a writing rut myself, and blogging has added some writing discipline to my life, which I like. Is that all narcissistic? Not sure.

I think sometimes people blog, too, to get views aired, again not in a solely personal way (birthmothers have recently started blogging, drawing attention to that fact, joining forces in a blogring). It's partly b/c they each individually have a story to tell, and partly out of a desire to serve the common good, to get their views into a dominant discourse on adoption they view as ignoring them.

This is a really thoughtful post. Lots to think about. Thanks.

MommyProf said...

I'll get you one closer to 20.

Dr. Crazy said...

You're so nice, Mommyprof :)

Also, I've got a comment to post for a reader who can't comment because she doesn't have a blogger account (which I require in my ever-vigilant efforts to prevent spam):

Premises Related to Blogging/Bloggers:

* Bloggers are narcissists, who seek validation and approval from
audiences of "fans."
* Blogging is the equivalent of journaling if it includes personal
content.
* Bloggers ask for what they get in terms of comments because they
post what they do in a public forum.

I disagree with your premises.

I started my blog for a number of reasons, some of which included:
curiosity, desire to be able to *find* the stuff I'd written/thought
about, and a desire to publish on a few topics of interest to me.
Validation? Fans? Not particularly a motive.

Along the way, I wrote about personal/family issues (usually in
passing) which came to the attention of a person who did not wish to be
written about. Much unnecessary drama ensued, as that person chose to
communicate those desires to me through a rather aggressive attorney.
All the person needed to do was to tell me my comments violated his
privacy. Sigh. I removed all mention of most of my family from the
blog.

So I adopted a blogging policy to help me make decisions in the future.
It includes the caveat that I will edit comments as I see fit.

http://lizditz.typepad.com/i_speak_of_dreams/2005/12/
blogging_princi.html

(every time I link to it, I see the Socrates typo, and resolve to fix
it and don't)

bitchphd said...

I love you, Dr. C. (Oh no, that's just an affirming, fannish comment--I have to post something more substantive and intellectual, or I'll drag your blog into the "boring" category!)

I think your point about the gendering thing is, of course, right; and it's linked to the main argument here, that the revelation of public information is less risky than the private stuff. There's a real resistance, which we all probably feel, to the revelation that ideological structures contain paradoxes and untruths: that a "good marriage" doesn't fit a known model, that "career girls" have not, in fact, "given up" personal lives for their jobs, and so on. The identity models for women are narrower and more confining, I think, than those for men.

On the other hand, there's a lot of risk in men doing that stuff too. All one needs to do is think of the way undergraduates react to, say, Nabokov or Donne: they focus on judging the *author's* moral standing vis-a-vis sex rather than considering the nuances of narration, context, ideology. When the generic categories are more fucked up (we have yet to establish the precise distinctions between a writer, an author, and a narrator in blog-land), then the problems become even more acute.

ScienceWoman said...

Affirmation: I found this to be a wonderful thoughtful post.

Narcissistic self-reflection: I too have found it paradoxical that what I must keep most under wraps on my blog is my professional identity. I feel very constrained by not being able to discuss specifics of what I am doing in my research or even what field I am in. But, I started my blog as attempt to chronicle life as a woman scientist, because I felt very alone and couldn't find another place for community with women undergoing the same things. So I have contradictory purposes: my writing helps me but (I hope) it also helps my readers too - at least to know they are not alone.

It would be nice to find a professionally-safe and societally-acceptable way to show our whole persons on blogs, but we obviously aren't there yet.

ejnw06 said...

I followed you from your old blog to this one and I feel that while different, the feel is the same. I actually appreciate the "new start" of it. And I am very happy that Man-kitty did not disappear! I think for some people, blogging was supposed to be this wonderful space free of many of the constraints that folks who are marked visibly as different (race, gender) deal with in their everyday lives. However, it is not surprising that the power dynamics of the "real world" are replicated in the blogsphere. As for the issue of narcissism, I think especially for academics blogging is less about narcissism but about the need for a connection or to have a space to articulate one's thoughts. In my own situation in my current blog and previous incarnations, I have used my blog to ask questions that I could not ask of my colleagues, vent about students, and in general find some comfort and solace in the fact that I was having a shared experience even if it was anonymous. Many of you may ask why I don't develop these kinds of relationships at my own institution. My home institutions like others encourage competition among junior faculty. Thus, I am unwilling to make myself vulnerable in this way. In the first year of my job which I felt was a disaster, I found it comforting that the issues I was grappling with was less about my lack of ability but about academia in general. Thus, your blog, NK, and Prof. Grrrrl were an important part of my support system.

Manorama said...
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