Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Blogging the Real

There was a bit of a kerfuffle over at a friend of mine's blog (I'm not linking because she's doing her best to squash it) because of a post she wrote venting about her life. I've had similar experiences with blogging - where when I write a post because I'm frustrated or pissed off or something, it blows way up. Well-meaning readers advise - antagonistic readers make me feel like crap - and everybody leaves the exchange feeling the worse for it. And I've been on the other side of such outbursts, too, where I read something someone writes on their blog or mine, and what I see in the post isn't in fact what's there. Or it is there, but the emphasis wasn't intended. I want to write about this today. In part I want to write about it because I'm trying to warm up for an afternoon of actual writing; in part I want to write about it because in my actual intellectual life (as opposed to my blogging life) I'm especially interested in the relationship between representation and that which is represented - those things we might think of in our non-theoretical minds as "real." This is related to the project of close reading - to what extent do texts drive our readings and to what extent do we bring something to what we read that has more to do with ourselves than with anything that is actually pinned down in language.

In a weird way, though what I'm discussing here is very abstract, this will probably be one of the more personal posts that I do on this blog. These things have everything to do with why I started the experiment of blogging lo nearly 3 years ago, with what I am preoccupied by in my scholarship, with the questions that I introduce in the courses that I teach. And as I think about it now, I think I've been getting it wrong on the blog when I've talked about blogging and identity. I don't think it's actually about identity (real, constructed, or otherwise). I think it's more about a certain kind of intimacy that develops through the medium of written language. The identity of the reader or writer is less important than the thing that happens when people are connected through a text.

Words on a page are not, ultimately, "real." They are a translation, or a copy, and they reflect and produce certain kinds of experience, but they are not who a person is nor do they necessarily express some innate truth. Even though I know that what people respond to in many of my posts is the fact that "I" seem to come through in them, that they are "raw" (I miss Michael Berube!) as opposed to "cooked," I also know that the intimacy that my writing voice produces is not necessarily controlled by me once I hit "publish." People develop a certain relationship to the voice of this blog, but I can't really know what's happening on the other side. I construct my readers as wanting certain things from me. I try to speak to an audience with whom I feel a certain kind of intimacy, produced through writing for that audience consistently over years - do you realize my relationship with the people who read this blog is longer than some actual relationships I've had? - but in the end, I'm making up those for whom I write. And when you read what I write, you make me up, whatever truths are imbedded in the things that I write here. (Of course, this makes it a "perfect" intimacy.) We "know" each other, but we also are divided by the very thing that allows that knowing. The text stands between the reader and the writer even as it bridges the chasm between them.

This then leads to the problem of emphasis. When you've not met me, or spoken to me, you read these posts in a different cadence. You might respond to them because I'm somewhat talented at controlling how you "hear" the words that I put together, but you're not "hearing" me in the same way that you would, say, if we were on the phone or having a chat over a cup of coffee. (Aside: this came home to me when I met other bloggers at MLA. I realized I'd been reading them with MY voice in my head, even as much as I was "getting to know" them. Now, when I read the blogs of those people, I hear not my but their voices in my head. It's neither better nor worse, just different.) But it's not only "you" who brings something to the text or "me" who puts something there to be elicited. The intimacy that's constructed in reading the writing of another also is colored by the learned reading practices that we inherit - the how of reading. So, for example, if I choose a certain word, I can anticipate how that word will affect the tone for the reader, not because I know the reader but because I know how that word works in the greater lexicon of written prose.

The problem is not one of wanting to mask certain kinds of experience or to express them but rather a problem of how to reveal those experiences that truly communicates their significance. The difficulty, of course, is that the moment one chooses to reveal one thing over another, or chooses to reveal something in a particular context or in a particular order, a hierarchy of truth emerges. So the anxiety that some feel about blogging isn't so much about being "found out" or about people "discovering" who they really are - it's about finding a way to negotiate this treacherous terrain of achieving the proper emphasis, and of articulating that emphasis in such a way that readers won't get the emphasis "wrong." But that negotiation isn't only about honesty. It's about dealing with centuries of cultural baggage, conventions of academia (in the case of academic blogging), the personal experiences of the writer and reader (which of course are impossible to catalogue), and who knows what else. And so in the space of the blog post, what is written is not real and not-not-real. It is separate from lived experience, but that doesn't invalidate the "real" experiences that are produced both for writer and reader through the text.

But you might say that about any written text. The thing that makes this issue particularly crucial in thinking about what blogs do, however, is that it is writing that is simultaneously personal and public. Where I might feel a certain intimacy when I'm reading any text - a novel, a poem, a journal article - a meeting of minds, a kind of understanding - the intimacy that is produced by reading personal writing is an intensified intimacy. Moreover, it is even more greatly intensified when that person writes for you every day - not in a carefully constructed memoir but in a messy diaristic medium that underscores that a real person is doing the writing (not merely an Author).

This then becomes further complicated when "real" people read one's blog, and so you have to negotiate the difficult passage of writing for an audience with whom you are perfectly intimate through not-real-knowing and writing for an audience who knows the person behind the curtain. And so you write certain things that are in-jokes for the "real" people, or you choose to communicate certain things to them in blog-form so as to distance yourself from a "real" conversation, all the while trying to write for the general audience. It's one fuck of a balancing act.

And with that word "fuck" I return you to your regularly scheduled blog reading. I mean, shit, this post has been as close to my "academic" writing voice as any of you who don't know the identity behind "Dr. Crazy" will probably ever get. I'm so glad I don't do these posts all the time! That said, I do feel ready to do some for real academic writing now.

But before I close for real, I want to just mention as a counterpoint to all this theorizing an excerpt from an email that I received from a "reader" (whom I've never met but with whom I've been in various writing contact since 1997 - actually, we first encountered one another on a listserv, lost contact, and then he found me through Dr. Crazy, wrote to me, I realized I "knew" him... yeah, it's a small fucking world) that made me laugh my head off. It was in response to something that I said to him on the blog.

"Baby! I'm officially hott for you now, you lil' queen of spades, you."

God, we totally can't take ourselves so seriously, can we? Also, I may be a blogging whore.


thelogicoftheuniverse said...

I am over-emphasizing a comment you made in passing, but I found it very interesting that you say that you hear your own voice when you read blogs of people you don't know. At least with your blog and a couple of others I read consistently, the voice I hear is most certainly not mine-the clarity with which I can say this stems in part from the voice having a different gender. That voice is also different from blog to blog; I hear a different voice when reading, say, profgrrrrl's blog as compared to yours.

Bringing this back to context, I think that actually coincides with your point quite well. The voice I hear in my head most likely does not sound like you. It only sounds like the construct of you that I have in my head from reading several months worth of blog posts. The construct I have of you is formed almost exclusively from your language, but I would argue that there is also an amount of idealism that goes into how we think of our favorite bloggers.

The idea I have of you in my head also is greatly influenced by how I want to believe you are. I think this comes back to your thoughts on emphasis and understanding of intent. For example, your post on cars has been completely disregarded in my mind from helping develop your character. People who care a lot about cars has a thoroughly distasteful association to me. Thus, I have blocked out the idea that you care at all about cars-or might cavort with someone who does-due to the fact that I would much prefer you to be separated from that association.

All in all, very interesting post.

Nik said...

I love the idea of hierarchies of truth and yet I'm not convinced by verticality so much as so many horizontal realities. Negotiating the real people with the know-me-only-through-the-blog is the hardest part of blogging. It's more like registers of truth for me than levels of truth. Perhaps we can't please two masters--the "real" and the bloggerly-intimate cannot read the same post in the same way and trying to respond to both dilutes the real, sans quotations marks.

Tom Paine said...

As I told her, one can understand a situation, but disagree with how the friend is handling it. I believe we have settled our issues, but it will change no minds.

Blogging is about putting your life out there for people to think they know you. You either accept their reactions and shrug them off, or give it up. People can't help but form opinions based on incomplete information. It's just human. Look at how people react to the soap operas/daytime drames?

Dr. Crazy said...

TLOU: I think it's interesting the way that you note how gender comes into play for you. For me, even when I read blogs by male writers whom I don't know, I realize I import my voice into their posts. This may be my own self-absorption (probably), but it's very different for me once I hear the actual "voice" of the person - whether on the telephone or in person. In other words, all blogs read by Dr. Crazy are translated into a Great Lakes style midwestern accent. It ain't pretty. As for the car thing, I have no special interest in cars, but a girl's gotta date whom a girl's gotta date. What I thought was most interesting about that post is how many male readers weighed in, not with votes for whom Crazy would date but challenging the choice of cars or wondering whether Crazy needed to date a Car-type at all.

Nik: I take you your point about registers of truth, but I think I'm still invested in the idea of hierarchy in that if we leave something off blog, it ultimately is at the bottom of the totem pole. The things we write here take on significance precisely because we choose to write them here, if that makes sense. What's interesting for me is that because for long I kept the blog top-secret, I really do write for those whom I don't know more than for those whom I know. And when I write for those whom I know, it's always very specific, and in some cases gets me into trouble. I think my best posts are not for those whom I know (as a rule) but rather for those whom I imagine reading.

TP: I take your point about the situation that inspired the post, though I think I continue to disagree about blogging being about putting your life out there for people to think they know you. Or maybe that's true, BUT, even if it is, it's a constructed "you," no? My point is not that the real me doesn't seep into things here, but rather that I don't have this kind of consistency in my "real" life. I think that's the writing exercise of this whole blogging thing - developing that kind of consistency. And that's not about putting my SELF out there so much as it is about putting a VERSION of myself out there, and so when I slip up, and the inconsistent self emerges, that's when problems happen. Not sure if any of this makes sense, but I'm hogging my own comments. I'll shut up. Feel free to continue with the comment thread anybody who wishes - I'm interested in what people think about this stuff.

Dean Dad said...

"what I see in the post isn't in fact what's there."

I get that ALL the time.

The frustrations from those experiences have piled up to the point that I've actually chosen not to post some things I thought were highly post-worthy, just because I could anticipate (and didn't feel like dealing with) the shitstorm of accusations-based-on-misreadings.

Some misreadings can be anticipated, especially when you've developed a sense of your readership's tastes. The really frustrating ones are the ones that come from out of the blue. "How could you possibly say...?," to which I think "when the hell did I say that?" It's the price of admission to the blogosphere, but it's still annoying.

Deaning is the same way. "The Administration believes..." as if we're The Borg. Very annoying.

Love the point about hearing voices. I imagine you as a low soprano. Don't know why.