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.
2 years ago