Category Archives: LBIV

Blogs, Narrative, Writing, and the Self

In this section we respond to some of the questions about blogs thaat emerged from our reading and responding. These questions include:

  • How do blogs as communicative technologies highlight the interrelation of writer and readers?
  • How do blogs create different possibilities for autobiography?
  • In what sense can blogs present texts with narrative shape?
  • How is narrative agency exercised in blogs?

Authority, Authorship, and Audience. Steve Cohen.

Others have written about the blog as affording a writer the opportunity to construct a “self” discursively. A central thread of our discussion about blogs (and about the epistolary novel) has been the idea of response. Bloggers write into a community, who is then invited to respond; similarly, the authors of letters enter a dialogue. Both kinds of writers, then, seek not only to construct a self, but also to position it in relation to others.

In “Self-Making,” Jerome Bruner (1991) recalled Roman Jakobson’s assertion that “Language is a system not only for communicating, but also for organizing attention” (p. 73). Bruner (1991) went on to detail how the organizing function of language is essential in the construction of a coherent narrative of self—events happen; it’s how we “pattern” them that gives us a story of the self (p. 74). In reading blogs, and in reading Clarissa over the course of the semester, the importance of how that narrated self is interpreted by others has emerged as a key concern.

In the case of Clarissa, much of what’s at stake early in the novel is her ability to convince her parents that they should still view her as the dutiful daughter she attempts to construct in her letters. Her parents refuse to read those letters, preferring their own construction of her as willful and selfish. It’s paradoxical that Clarissa’s parents should have so much authority to create the Clarissa they believe they know (the Clarissa who is “perversely” willing to run off with Lovelace) in the face of their acknowledgement that Clarissa is so powerfully able to shape her own identity. Clarissa attempts to narrate an identity in her letters to them; she writes and she writes and she writes, but ultimately she’s unsuccessful. This is indicative to me that there is more involved in the construction of an identity than self-narrative. To some extent, there also has to be external assent to the version of “self” one creates. As Bruner (1991) put it “self-making is powerfully affected not only by your own interpretations of yourself, but by the interpretations others offer your version” (p. 76). No one, including Clarissa, is completely free to author a “self,” as such a thing is always defined with and against others and their perspectives.

The blog, as a communicative technology, highlights this interdependence. It calls attention to the “distributed” nature of the self (Bruner, 1991, p. 76). There has been much work on the “online diary” quality of many blogs, but virtually all of that work has acknowledged that the public nature of the blog, at the very least, fundamentally alters how we can think about their “diary-ness.” A different kind of blog, like Radical Faggot for instance, offers an identity, but it offers an identity explicitly for the purpose of public participation with its meanings. This is what I see as the most important connection between blogs and the epistolary novel; identity as and in dialogue. The creation of an “I” is impossible in a vacuum. It requires the presence (if not attention) of an “other.”

Blogs and the Self in Time. Jessica Winck.

Jens Brockmeier (2000) argued that narrativizing is a process of understanding ourselves in time. Constructions of ourselves are “reflexive” and represent our own autobiographical memories, a “back and forth movement between past and present that relates to the future” (p. 54). Blogs present a unique case study for understanding the concept of time. They not only represent the linguistic and rhetorical moves in our writing that reveal our understanding of ourselves in time; we also have to contend with the material structure of blogs. The ways that they structure time for us.

Blogs enable reflexive construction of the self because their materiality maintains past and present attempts to represent ourselves. If we blog about our day-to-day lives, the exceptional and the mundane, the blog functions as a record of our lives, at least as we represent it. The blog is also a record of how we understand ourselves temporally because it prompts several choices in relation to time—how frequently we write; for how long we write; and the ways we represent how, why, and when things occurred. These choices point to how writers rely on constructions of time to achieve a reflexive sense of self.

Additionally, blogs enable this reflexive construction of the self because a notion of time is already built into the structure of blogs. The reverse-chronological order of posts acts as a framework or organizing principle (Brockmeier, 2000). By this I mean that the blog post I wrote today is first on the page, followed by the post I wrote last week, followed by the post I wrote the week before. Blogs privilege a linearity of the occurrence of writing, beginning with the most recent. In this sense, currency matters: the most recent post is the most relevant. Thus, this unique structure shapes the selves that people construct on blogs.

We might also wonder if blogs draw our attention to writing in the present. Brockmeier (2000) argued that our understanding of the present is always inflected by how we think of our past and the expectations we have for our future (p. 55). Narrating one’s life through blog writing draws upon a past that is necessarily structured by the technology of the blog itself.

The Blog as “Distributed Autobiography.” Tony O’Keeffe.

A constant theme in contemporary writing about blogs is that they offer new ways to narrate and to understand the self. Blogs create “a new form of subjectivity, a new understanding of the self” (Fitzpatrick, 2007, p. 174); they provide an especially rich site for “reflexive identity construction” (Brockmeier, 2000, p. 54); they present a “new forum for the ‘presentation of self’” that also instigates “new ways in which this ‘self’ can be presented” (Van Doorn, Van Zooen & Wyatt, 2007, p. 144).

This recurrent idea suggests that one established branch of theory might be useful in critical attempts to analyze and understand the nature of personal blogging: criticism and theory concerned with autobiography. Several of the foundational issues raised in Georges Gusdorf’s (1980) seminal Conditions and Limits of Autobiography arise within blogs as well. Like autobiography, the personal blog is “a second reading of experience,” and it “adds to experience itself consciousness of it” (p. 38). The blog “realizes itself as a work in the present; it effects a true creation of self by the self” (p. 44). Most importantly, like the richest autobiographies, the personal blog can be driven by conscious aesthetic awareness, so that its “artistic function is . . . of greater importance than the historic and objective function” (p. 43).

If, as Fitzpatrick (2007) asserted, the self is always a “multiply constructed subjectivity” (p. 167), blogs offer a set of interactive elements—text, visual design, an immediately reactive audience, a range of technological affordances provided by the online environment—that advance and transform our sense of what autobiography can be. In a sense, the personal blog can be seen as a kind of “distributed autobiography,” one in which the composing self becomes part of “a collective and intersubjective authorship” (Fitzpatrick, 2007, p. 177). Even as one expresses a “self” grounded in one’s individual awareness and understanding, that self can be altered and changed by its interaction with the community responding to the blog, and it is not uncommon for the blogger to acknowledge publicly the role that audience can play in one’s self-development (Dennen, 2009, p. 28; Fitzpatrick, 2007, pp. 180-181).

The visual and technological possibilities available through the blog’s being situated in the online environment create a form of autobiography that both conflicts with and advances critical thinking. For example, Gusdorf (1980) would certainly see the fragmentary nature of blogging as a bar to its being considered meaningful as autobiography, but contemporary treatments see the blog as a distinctive embodiment of postmodern ideas of the self as “discontinuous, shifting, and polycentric” (Brockmeier, 2009, p. 69; Fitzpatrick, 2008, pp. 168, 183). The necessary “incompleteness” and “seriality” of the blog (Fitzpatrick, 2007, p. 170) would also trouble traditional autobiographical criticism, while contemporary writers see the blog as enacting a new kind of completeness, born out of the immediate interaction of the blogger and her audience (Fitzpatrick, 2007, p. 169). The blog also makes available to all writers, in their self-presentation, what was previously available only to the autobiographer who was a visual artist: rich visual means of expressing and individuating the self.

In the end, the blog—in its immediacy and its range of resources—allows one to enact what Gusdorf (1980), quoting the philosopher Lequier, suggests as the motto for all autobiography, “to created and in creating to be created” (p. 44).

How Blogging Communities Stay Together. Rachel Gramer

As we have discussed blogs this semester, we’ve circled around questions of narrative technique, technological affordances, and identity construction using the “technology of self” made available through blogging. Recently, I arrived at an enlightening moment in the analysis of my particular blog, which I think will be helpful when considering other blogs as well. At some point—quite early on—the narrative agency exercised in blogging is not the story told, but the writing of it. The construction of identity is the time investment people put into the blog in order to communicate some sense of mediated self that is vital for them to make public, to put on the record. And the blog is what they use to do so.

In “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre” (1994), Carolyn R. Miller suggested that there are “some centripetal forces that are rhetorically available to keep a virtual community from flying apart (or dissipating)” (p. 74). We have referred to the blogosphere, to bloggers, as some kind of collective rhetorical community. Yet there are many ways to tell a story and construct identity online. So what keeps bloggers together, shapes them in a recognizable way in their particular choices of identity construction online? Miller identifies three centripetal forces in virtual communities that stay “together”: 1) Genre, 2) Metaphor, and 3) Narrative. I believe each of these “forces” is helpful in considering how blogs function as virtual spaces of identity construction.

We’ve discussed blogs as a genre frequently characterized by their features. For our purposes in this class, we used many of these features to discuss our individual blogs: reverse chronological order, comments, dated posts with multimodal capabilities, and hyperlinks to other posts, blogs, or websites.

But is a genre merely a sum of its parts? In “Weblogs as a Bridging Genre” Susan Herring, Lois Ann Scheidt, Elijah Wright, and Sabrina Bonus (2005) analyze a sample of blogs based on the features present, and those that were commonly understood to be most popular or most replicated within blogs—particularly hyperlinking and commenting—were not actually present in the statistical majority of blogs.

This does not appear a loss for blogs or bloggers, people who live within the rich metaphor of the blogosphere and still seem compelled to write, to link to others who are writing, and in this act of writing and publishing to participate in this “technology of self” to construct an identity that can reinforce their offline identity—or recreate it.

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The Blog as a Site for Social Action and Identity Formation. Megan Faver Hartline.

Carolyn R. Miller (1984) argued in her seminal piece on genre, “Genre as Social Action,” that “a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish” (p. 151). She asked what the exigence for a particular genre is and looked to how the genre answers that exigence in order to determine how to group genres together. Even though Miller (1984) later argued that a blog should no longer be considered a genre, but rather a medium (Miller and Shepherd, 2009), thinking of the blog as a place where action is accomplished can be productive for the discussion of blogs, narrative, writing, and identity.

For this class, we mostly chose blogs with a particular type of exigence, even if that exigence looks very different across all the blogs—dealing with some sort of a “problem” and trying to write through or out of that problem. Whether it be living in the tension of doubt and faith (Rachel Held Evans), wanting to shed traditional views of womanhood and strike out alone (Nomadic Chick), or dealing with depression (Lifting the Weight), these bloggers are specifically facing some sort of issue that they interact with and attempt to work through by writing. 

Writing, then, is a very important action for these writers. Many of the traditional features of the blog are used in these sites (links, pictures, comments, etc.), but it is the ability to write and to be read that answers the exigence of the situation because the act of sharing writing is almost as important as the writing itself. If these writers wanted to work through problems in their writing for themselves only, they would buy a journal, or open a word document on their computer, or even maintain a private blog that only they can see. The act of sharing (and asking for responses) is what truly fulfills this exigence. It is through the blog community that these writers can interact with other people who face similar difficulties and garner support for themselves.

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The Writing of Narrative and Identity in Blogs and Clarissa. Kendra Sheehan.

From what I have observed in the blog I analyzed, articles about blogs, and Clarissa, writing is an act that allows one to form an identity. In blogs and letters, the writer has a distinct voice and distinct experiences unique to them. In the case of Clarissa and the blog I observed, writing can also be a cathartic act that allows one to express emotions and experiences.

Letters and blogs can help writers express their emotions when they have no one else to listen to their problems or thoughts. A blog can at times be nothing more than a diary, allowing bloggers to confess emotions or thoughts without judgment. Blogs also allow the blogger to write about subjects that can be directed at no one in particular, with the option to let readers comment or engage with the blogger. Similarly, Clarissa essentially writes herself into sanity after her rape in the sixth volume. She does not send the letters, and it is possible that they were not meant to be sent despite the fact several of them are addressed to others. In these “mad letters,” Clarissa breaks with writing traditions, scratches through lines, crumples the papers up, and even references Shakespeare. Writing allows Clarissa to organize her thoughts and feelings.

Like bloggers, Clarissa constructs identity through post content, voice (or writing style), and affiliation (Dennen, 2009, pp. 29-30). For example, Clarissa shares with Anna the poem, “Ode to Wisdom” that she has set to music. Similarly, bloggers are able to share links or images when they are feeling emotions that they cannot describe in their own words. In a particularly poignant moment, Clarissa references Shakespeare in “Paper X” of Volume VI. Here, (mis)quoting a scene from Hamlet, Clarissa goes from an emotionally devastated Ophelia to a staunch and determined Hamlet. Similarly, blogs allow the writers to relate their feelings to those of others by posting links and images. These links or intertextual connections add an extra dimension to the formation of narrative through writing letters and blogs.

Narrative Affordances of the Blog. Keri Mathis.

The digital medium of the weblog, or “blog,” offers writers a platform for reflecting on, navigating, assembling, and publishing narratives of the self. Bloggers must also determine how to position themselves in relationship to their audiences in order to achieve the desired narrative that emerges from a prolific number of posts and often from reader comments (Bamberg, 1997). Thus, the medium of the blog affords its users multiple tools to aid in meaning-making and identity construction, namely its continued narrative, its instability, and its ability to blur the lines between author/reader roles and public/private discourse.

Continued Narrative: The blog medium promises a continuation of the narrative its author begins. Because of its reverse-chronological construction, the blog platform prioritizes the newest, latest information in attempt to fulfill this understood promise to the blog’s readers. This refusal of closure is not only alluring to the blog’s readers, but also to its author (Fitzpatrick, 2007). The blog’s narrative can go any direction the writer wishes or needs it to go. The platform, then, tempts its writer and reader to keep writing or keep reading, pointing to the users’ conflicted desire for both completion and incompletion of the narrative.

Furthermore, because of its potential for narrative continuation, the blog author can construct his/her identity through writing. A crucial part of this identity construction, however, is the ability to reflect upon the self through the narrative presented. Because of the other features the blog offers, this opportunity to reflect is available because of post archives, tags, labels, etc. This continued reflection, then, necessarily accompanies the narrative’s continuation in order for the writer (or reader) to construct a meaningful narrative and sense of identity.

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Blogs and the Sense of an Ending. Debra Journet.

In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode (2000) argued that we experience time as extended from a beginning through middle towards an end. Moreover, it is this “sense of an ending” that makes temporal reality meaningful, transforming what would otherwise be mere sequence into a meaningful and coherent narrative. (See also Ricoeur, 1981.)

The ending towards which one moves, however, is always fictional; it is we who impose organization on what would otherwise be sheer chronicity (Kermode, 2000). (This insight is beautifully embodied in Julian Barnes’s [2012] novel, The Sense of An Ending.) Kermode’s (2000) primary examples of fictions that offer the allure of beginning, middle, and end are apocalyptic thinking and novels. However, he illustrated the idea most keenly in a tiny example:

Let us use a very simple example, the ticking of a clock. We ask what it says: and we agree it says tick-tock. By this fiction, we humanize it, make it talk our language. Of course, it is we who provide the fictional difference between the two sounds; tick is our word for a physical beginning, tock is our word for an end. We say they differ. What enables them to be different is a special kind of middle. We can perceive a duration only when it is organized. . . . The fact that we call the second of the two related soundstock is evidence that we use fictions to enable the end to confer organization and form on the temporal structure (p. 44-45).

It is this lack of an “ending”—the lack of a “tock,” as it were—that, according to Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007), differentiates blogs from other kinds of life-stories, such as autobiographies or memoirs. Blogs, according to Fitzpatrick (2007) evade the “pressure toward coherence, toward rationality, toward teleology” that characterizes memoirs (or autobiographies or novels) (p. 181).

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