It is worth mentioning from the outset that Serfaty’s research dates back to 2001 not long after their first emergence as an object of research and analysis.
Serfaty’s work is heavily influenced by that of Gusdorf. She makes little attempt to explain the significance of Gusdorf’s work.
Serfaty commences the definitions section of her study with an observation about the “scope of the history of self-representational writing” (p. 1, italics mine). It’s a well-worn path to treat writing as representative of the self but it glides over the possibility of writing that creates the self.
“…[O]nline diaries…represent the latest avatar in the long history of self-inscription” and it’s therefore important to understand why diaries are written and how diaries are defined (p. 4).
Serfaty proposes three major sources for the popularity of diary writing (p. 4). The Catholic tradition started with St. Augustine’s Confessions and was written to educate his peers and future students. These writings were written in the first person singular.
Seventeenth century England brought another form of self-representational writing that involved self-scrutiny, the interpretation of mundane events, and a recounting of a “spiritual journey towards personal salvation” (p. 5). Within these diaries was a continual recounting of the many tortures experienced in an attempt to maintain grace despite deep personal failings.
Rousseau’s Confessions is typical of the style associated with The Libertines of the seventeenth century. These accounts displayed a great freedom of thought and often caused outrage in a society where public behaviour was strictly regulated (p. 5).
The writings of Rousseau marked a significant break from religion’s influence. Whilst the Enlightenment created an interior space that was now controlled by reason and not religion (p. 6) it was in Rousseau that society saw the shift from reason to desire. The individual, established by religion, was now being secularised by desire.
But what is diary writing, or as Serfaty continually labels it, “self-representational writing”? Serfaty uses a definition Rosenwald that she claims excludes “the ‘to do’ list…the aspiring author’s notebooks [and] the fictional autobiography” (p. 7). Using this definition of a diary is a convenient way for Serfaty to narrow the field of her own research, removing from its purview those blogs which ambiguously sit between the real and the fictional. Serfaty does not explain why an author’s notebooks are excluded as others posit that note taking is an important category of self-writing (Foucault, 1997).
In Serfaty’s description of the diary autobiographies are excluded. She recognises that autobiography takes place online but chooses to limit her research to “the diaristic aspects of self-representational writing with its patient, sometimes brilliant recording of the flotsam and jetsam of daily life…” (p. 8). Again, Serfaty doesn’t explain the reasons for dismissing a vast corpus of online writing that form many blogs and blog posts.
Research note: Serfaty chose – wisely I believe – to maintain distance between herself and the subjects of her research. Although this goes against some of the recommendations of the International Association of Internet Researchers it makes sense at a number of levels. The object of her research is publicly available personal diaries and, whilst they are personal in nature, their authors, either implicitly or explicitly, intended them to be public.
Furthermore, if permission were sought from the research subject, the relationship between diarist and researcher could become untenably intimate and this could affect the subject’s writing.
Serfaty’s project, at least in part, was to attempt to discover the motivations behind online diarists and her research methodology restricted her to make this discovery solely by reading the diaries themselves. This makes a great deal of sense to me at the level of research ethics.
Serfaty claims that the computer screen serves to protect the diary writer from the gaze of others allowing them to say and reveal things normally held to be a taboo in society (p. 13). Whilst most content on the Internet is public its sheer size provides the diarist with a further sense of protection from the gaze of others.
On an Internet diary both reader and diarist create an imagined space where offline taboos are transgressed at will and (seemingly) without consequence. Self-revelation on the Internet gains meaning and power through the offline prohibitions it transgresses. “The prohibition [of intimate disclosure] therefore is constitutive of the meaning of self-revelation on the Internet” (p. 14).
Serfaty ascribes to the screen a multiplicity of meanings. She describes the screen as a space that both connects and separates the writer and reader. It becomes a symbolic space onto (or into) which the writer projects fragments of an at times fantasy self. These personality fragments serve to highlight aspects of the ideal self while at the same time concealing less desired aspects of the self.
Serfaty then claims that “the screen is transformed into a mirror onto which diary-writers project signifiers of their identity in an ongoing process of self-creation and destruction” (p. 15). She does not, however, explain how this transformation takes place.
In Serfaty’s view, the screen, onto which selected elements of the self are projected, may be endowed with “a plurality of meanings” and, therefore, it plays the part of the ideal Other. But if only parts of the self are projected on the screen, and it appears this is what Serfaty argues, then the screen becomes only a fragment of the ideal Self. Whilst Serfaty claims that the screen “functions as a mirror of the self” it appears that her intention is to claim the screen as a self-representation in the form of either a reflection or a projection.
Seen as self-representation, online diaries can be analysed as “literary, personal and social spaces”, each requiring their own methodological tools (p. 15).
Research note: Serfaty raises issues surrounding the scope of her research including the tools used for analysis – psycho-analysis for example – and the meta-information on a blog including About pages and blog title.
The question of what is included in the research must also address the use of multimedia, author- created links (both internal and external), and published linkbacks.
Images, videos, links, typography, colours and layout combine and overlay on one another in a way that creates “density and texture” and a plethora of meaning (p. 27).
Also important is the location of the blogger. Care needs to be taken with what might be inferred or generalised from research that doesn’t address issues of national culture. For example, the popularity of blogging in the US may well be driven and informed by a culture that values free speech as a fundamental right.
Serfaty believes that linearity distinguishes diaries from autobiography. Diaries are “rigorously chronological entries” (p. 29). Whereas diaries contain self-expression, autobiography tends toward painting a consistent version of the self.
…studies of self-representational writing have rested on the assumption that the selves which emerge in diaries come into being through the writing process itself and hence do not necessarily reflect the writer’s actual experience (p. 29).
Serfaty notes that, on the Internet, the distinction between diary writing and autobiography is “nebulous”. This arises from the continuing presence of online texts which gives rise to an open-endedness that is one of the hallmarks of Internet diaries (p. 30).
This open-endedness is produced in no small part by the interplay between “dialectics of stability and motion” (p. 30) that are present on personal blogs. On the one hand the chronological ordering of events provide a comforting linearity for the writer that plays conveniently to a belief in the progression of time. On the other linking back to archived posts bring these to life in the present and distorts a sense of the progressively unfolded self. “The writing process itself creates this space of redefinition: “the intention of self-representational writing […] is a dynamic factor in the evolution of the minds reality. Scrutinizing identity contributes to constituting identity”” (Gusdorf, 1991 as cited in Serfaty, 2004, p. 30).
“The individual’s constant interpretative process is what gives consistency and symbolic weight to the past, because there is no such thing as an over-and-done-with incident for human memory” (p. 30).
Most online diarists commence their journals with an explanation of why they’ve commenced the project. Serfaty believes this self-reflexivity is needed to transcend any feeling of vacuity produced through writing about the self. It is this writing that becomes a “way of taming the formlessness of experience, a formlessness that prefigures that of death” (p. 37).
These notes will be continued in an upcoming post.
Foucault, M. (1997). Self Writing (R. Hurley, Trans.). In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Ethics : subjectivity and truth. New York: New Press.
Serfaty, V. (2004). The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs. Amsterdam – New York: Rodopi.