Adventures Through the Looking Glass

Yesterday’s comments on my post really gave me pause for thought, particularly over the breakdown of the distinction between private and public life to which Ms Make Tea drew attention, and over the concept of the confessional memoir that the Literate Kitten mentioned. I’ve spoken before about the obscenification of the everyday, the way that what was once off- or ob-scene is now placed centre stage, and it seems to me that our contemporary culture has managed to confuse significance with visibility, so that the concept of ‘revelation’ no longer means a spiritual epiphany, but rather a public undressing. Let’s talk about that most degraded and corrupted of all 21st century concepts, celebrity. If ever there was a modern rewrite of Faust’s pact with the devil, celebrity is surely it. It used to be the case that people became well known because they had something tangible to offer the world – a talent, insight, wisdom, skill. Nowadays the criterion for celebrity is a willingness to be turned inside out for public consumption (and don’t get me started on the irresponsibility of the media – we could be here all day). Yet there is clearly a demand for such a structure of interaction based, I can only deduce, on the erroneous assumption that some form of intimacy arises from it. That celebrities feel gratified in some way by being ‘known’ to the public and that the public feel excited to be somehow ‘closer’ to the images on the screen. All this leads me to think that it is the notion of intimacy which has suffered most in the modern world, and that the permissiveness of our society has not in fact lead to a form of emotional utopia, but to a heightened awareness of our own isolation and a longing for ever more intense forms of recognition.

Two thoughts occur to me, the first being that humans have always overinvested in the power of their own image. In psychoanalysis, the supreme moment of identity formation occurs when the young child recognises itself in the mirror for the first time. It’s known as the mirror stage and is readily recognisable in toddlers who laugh and point and can remain fascinated for long stretches of time by their own reflection. All kinds of important things happen here: the child, who has up until this point experienced their body as a random, fragmented assortment of sensations, now has a neat carapace under which to house a sense of self. S/he abandons the confusing body and latches onto the lovely mirror image of wholeness. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was very scathing about humanity’s adoration of the mirror. Chimpanzees, he said, also recognise their reflections but have the sense to just walk on by. They don’t invest an entire sense of subjectivity in an image outside of themselves. However, the mirror stage is also understood as fixing in place the structure for language acquisition. If a child can make the leap of imagination that unites its bodily reality with an image, then it is ready to accept that a symbol, like a word, can stand in the place of the thing itself. It’s not like we can choose to be without the mirror stage – it’s a fundamental part of human development, but the fascination with the empty image speaks to me, once again, of a certain regressive tendency in contemporary society.

The second thought that occurs to me is to see how these elements of intimacy and recognition are played out in the blogosphere. What intrigues me is the way that they are entirely differently organised to any of the other modern forms of media. Whilst blogs have a highly visual dimension, and are often the site for montages of photos and images, it is very rare indeed to find those images glorifying the self who writes. In fact, bloggers are notable for maintaining anonymity. Yet at the same time they are platforms from which their owners speak to gain recognition for their views. So what I’m working my way around to saying, is that blogging is a way of making visible what is on the inside of a person as opposed to creating a cult out of externality. Bloggers then, are people who venture through – and beyond – the looking glass. Rather than become arrested at the level of the mirror, we seek instead to regain contact with that jumble of sensations, thoughts and feelings that constitute the more authentic subject. This is not to say that bloggers write their own online version of confessional memoirs – a few do, but it seems to me that the vast majority of even what are termed personal blogs are not detailing their lives in order to obtain ‘celebrity’ but to bear witness to their own authentic voice. What I’m saying is that bloggers shun, more than anything else, the artificiality with which the modern subject seems so enamoured in other contemporary forms of media, in order to reconnect with a more complex, genuine sense of self.

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15 thoughts on “Adventures Through the Looking Glass

  1. Once again, brilliant. You have taken some interesting ideas about blogging, writing, and identity and created an insightful, coherent, and provocative analysis. The notion that bloggers travel through the looking glass seems to perfectly capture ideas that I have been struggling to define in my own writing. What does it mean that some of my favorite writing–the writing that seems to illustrate my thoughts, ideas, talents most vibrantly–is not only anonymous but broadcast to readers who are so far removed (at least physically) from me?

  2. Well this is how I feel. Being away from public scrutiny, writing in an anonymous format, is something I find tremendously liberating. I feel I’m my best self here. And I also feel close to other bloggers, even though I’ve never met them and have no idea what they look like. But I feel I do hear their voices, in a clear and authentic way.

  3. I completely agree with you – as I move more fully into the blogging world I feel like I’m finding some of the most authentic and true writers and people around. Certainly, there are bloggers who relentlessly detail every part of their lives, but there are many more tackling exciting subjects and really getting to the heart of things. As for the rash of memoirs that chronicle drug abuse, molestation and all sorts of other confessional themes, I sometimes think these are tied in with the anti-intellectualism that seems to be a predominant theme, at least in the US. Our president alone found his support base by appealing as the kind of guy you could run into at a bar or a NASCAR race – and it seems the divide grows deeper daily. People don’t want to be ‘judged,’ they don’t want to be ‘looked down upon,’ etc. The confessional memoir, which allows you access into every detail of a person’s private life, not only fulfills our voyeuristic tendencies, it allows for indentification and a feeling, if not of superiority, at least the reader isn’t being ‘preached to’ or told how to live, etc. I definately recognized this is the rural students I used to teach. I plan write about this in my blog tomorrow.

  4. I like what you say about bearing witness to a more authentic voice. Voice is so important to me in the blogs I read; I like the way blogs give us access to people’s voices without the body intervening, and I like how I can create a voice that people will judge based on its own merits without making judgments about aspects of myself I have no control over. That part is so liberating, as you say. And blogging is very much about CREATING a voice, with all the experimentation and contingency that implies.

  5. I like what you (and Dorothy) say about voice and blogging. What do you make though of celebrity bloggers and bloggers who aren’t really who they say they are, for instance a blogger who creates a character and experiences that fictional?

  6. I love what you, Courtney, and Dorothy said about blogs. Each definitely has its own unique voice which strikes me as so much more authentic than anything you might get out of celebrity (or celebrity-idolizing, or reading “People” or “OK!”). Blogs still strike me as intensely personal, even when the gory personal detail are omitted. It really just underscores your point about the erroneous conception of intimacy — popular memoir today aren’t about that, they’re about celebrity. And in a weird way, they create their own kind of elite, as if those writers have experienced the stigmata.

  7. Just to put in a word about Stefanie’s question – it strikes me that there are many more types of bloggers than my theory can encompass, and motivation for blogging must ultimately have a lot of variety to it. But I think that fiction is very much the friend of truth and authenticity, and to create a fictional personae may well be a circuitous route to telling a more genuine truth about the self. Dorothy’s post today is very interesting on the self-creation that occurs at all moments of blogging, for no matter what genre of writing we engage upon, we are all telling stories about ourselves, one way or another.

  8. Having recently ditched my magazine habit (tired of gazing upon things which are unreal, tired of the depressing comparison to my own life, tired of the incitement to buy stuff), I seem to have replaced it with a blogging habit. Thank you for, once again so insightfully, putting into words what I am experiencing with my blog – experimenting with voice, telling stories about my life and who I am, enjoying the immediacy of it all. I also feel privileged to have chanced upon a blog like yours, which is always a fascinating, challenging and provoking read.
    Best, Charlotte

  9. As always, extremely interesting food for thought. I just love your mirror imagery.

    Maybe most writers (typically being introverts) really want the sort of anonymity bloggin allows and don’t believe they can get it by traditional publishing means in this day of celebrity publishing. They either won’t get published, because what they choose to write about isn’t “hot” enough, or they’re not copying the latest craze well enough, or if they CAN get published and succeed, they know they run the risk of having their pictures plastered everywhere and being requested to show up on talk shows.

    Also, what I love about blogging is that I can get what I consider to be authentic feedback. No one has anything to lose by commenting on what I write, and no one is trying to live up to a reputation, for example, as some particular type of book reviewer. I really like having that kind of interaction with my readers.

    One more thing: not only has the criterion for “celebrity” changed, but I’ve been noticing lately that the criterion for “hero” has been changing, too. I always think of a hero as being someone who is particularly selfless and altruistic, but now we seem to think someone who does nothing more than preserve his own life in a difficult situation is a hero.

  10. Yes, the facelessness of blogging is central to its power for me: the idea of thoughts, disembodied. Or rather, without the bother of physicality, thoughts becoming embodied of themselves…for their own sakes. 🙂

    Theorising on the spot, it strikes me also that the mirror, the looking-glass image, has a lot to do with interpersonal relationships as well as our relationship with ourselves. Not only mirrors are mirrors. I’m not sure I can explain. Hmmmmmm… For example, sibling incest amongst pre-adolescent children is surprisingly common (strange I know, but bear with me) and possibly occurs when, at a point of self-crisis, the child looks at its sibling and, instead of embodying itself in the mirror image, embodies itself in the biologically similar image of its brother or sister. Instead of understanding itself vis-a-vis a reflection, it becomes dependent for self-hood on a real physical Other…it then confuses its own desire for itself – for food, love, companionship – with the desires of the Other.

    And, somehow, I think something similar occurs during celebrity fixation. Mediums like television, magazines etc are a little like mirrors themselves. As we interpret them they come to signify, not themselves, but something in us; they have no independent, objective life…they’re always symbols. Perhaps as well as revelling in their grotesqueries or perfections the viewer is also thinking, at some level: “oh look, there’s me” obfuscating the self and the celebrity Other, confusing their own desires with the desires of the image.

    Perhaps that doesn’t make any sense. But I see it in myself when I read, the beginnings of a muddle between who is me and who is the character. An extreme form of empathy, or an absorption, or a synedoche of my selfhood? I don’t know.

  11. Victoria — I like the idea of an identity muddle as you read. I’m experiencing that as I read Blindness; I try to imagine what it’s like to be blind to understand the characters and I’m so into that imagining that I begin to think I’m blind myself and I have to catch myself and say, no, walking down the stairs won’t be difficult because I can see … very strange.

  12. Excellent post. I generally used my real name in all my online dealings, but that doesn’t inherently make the picture I’m presenting a true or an honest one. (Interestingly, the closer I got to a personal blog, the more I found myself obfuscating – worried about who might be, and certainly was, reading). The assumption, so often, is that anonymity indicates a desire to hide the self. But I’ve definitely encountered bloggers who seem to find a much greater freedom (and authenticity) of expression through this: the capacity to write, unfettered by one’s ordinary backdrop.

  13. Have you read a book called The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick? It’s a short essay about essays and memoirs as forms of writing, and several parts of it chime with what you’re talking about here (or at least, seem to me to chime, since Gornick doesn’t mention blogs).

    For example: she argues quite strongly that it’s not enough to relate an experience; to produce a worthwhile essay you have to have processed that experience, to have something to say about it. And to do that, she suggests, you have to identify the voice that’s telling the story, which she calls a persona, which will be an aspect of the writer but never the whole person. This seems to me to have obvious resonance with blogging, and perhaps particularly with anonymous blogging, when the created voice is all a reader has to go on.

    She also notes the increase in memoirs than you do, and relates that to wanting to gain ownership of experience (people wanting to show that they have a life that signifies, I think her phrase is). But she also relates it to what she perceives as a decline in fiction, and specifically a privileging of voice at the expense of story which has led the storytelling voices to move to memoir. I’m not so sure about that part of her argument.

    Anyway: fascinating post. Thanks!

  14. Just to say thank you for that wondeful recommendation – the argument runs very close to my own thinking and I’m ver keen to get hold of the book to read the rest now!

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