Why self-writing and the hupomnemata?
In the paragraphs ahead I explain how writing is central to the question of personal blogging. I briefly summarise Michel Foucault’s theories of self-writing and propose how they might be used to develop an understanding of self-creation through personal blogging.
The central question of my thesis is “What is a blog?” It’s a question that asks ‘by what means did the term blog come into existence?’ It also begs a further question: what is a blog, to whom?
The definition of a blog is contingent on the relationship of the to the blog.
A person who has never blogged will define a blog quite differently to someone who is an experienced blogger. Indeed, within the population of bloggers a blog means something different to each actor. For example, someone maintaining a corporate blog might see a blog as a branding tool whereas to a struggling mum there blog might be a creative outlet.
My response to this range of potential definitions is to limit my field of inquiry to ask: what is a blog to those who maintain a personal blog? There is any amount of commentary about business blogging and I have no inclination to add further to the swill of opinion on the matter.
By focussing on the experience of personal blogging – writing, linking, commenting, maintaining – I can potentially unfurl what blogging is as a project of self-creation.
So when I talk about blogging I talk about personal blogging; and by personal blogging I mean a blog that’s written in the first person, that records the everyday and the mundane, that reveals the personal and reflects on the past so as to create meaning in the present.
The subject of a personal blog, then, is the self.
Personal blogs contrast to other forms of blogging where the subject is an Other. The other may be a person or it may be an inanimate object, such as blogs about cars and pets and search engine optimisation.
I recognise, though, the potential for a blog to contain elements of the personal in the guise of – to coin a phrase – an object blog. For example, a blog about a pet may in fact be a blog about the relationship between the pet and the self. And with the contemplation of the self-pet relationship the blog begins to include the primary markers of a personal blog: the existence of a first person narrative and a significant degree of self-revelation that include descriptions of thoughts, perceptions, emotions and bodily sensations.
It is this self-revelation I want to analyse. To do so I intend using Michel Foucault’s technologies of the self as a toolkit for understanding what is taking place on a personal blog.
Foucault, in Technologies of the Self (1988) and Ethics: subjectivity and truth (1997), outlined a range of means by which individuals took care of the self (epimelésthai sautou) (1988, 19). This care for the self involved various practices (askésis) that “involve the progressive consideration of self, or mastery over oneself…through the acquisition and assimilation of truth…It is a set of practices by which once can acquire, assimilate, and transform truth into a permanent principle of action” (1988, 35).
For Foucault, epimelésthai involved taking definite and purposeful steps; activities directed toward taking care of ones health and well-being (25). The principle activity for the care of the self is for the “soul to know itself”. It is, in Foucault’s view, activity that is important and leads to care of the self, not the more benign attitude of “know thyself” (gnothi sauton) (19).
To take care of oneself, then, involved various ascetic practices. It is here that Foucault found, in Hellenistic culture, the importance of writing as an important technology (tecchné) for living a good life.
Foucault detailed two primary forms of self-writing: the hupomnemata and letters or correspondence.
The hupomnemata were records made primarily as a memory aid. “They constituted a material record of things read, heard, or thought, thus offering them up as a kind of accumulated treasure for subsequent rereading and meditation” (??, 1997). And while the hupomnemata served as a memory aid its more important role is to serve as a “framework” (??) of ascetic practices. Whilst personal in nature, Foucault maintained they do not “constitute a “narrative of oneself”…[their] intent is not to pursue the unspeakable, nor to reveal the hidden, nor to say the unsaid, but on the contrary to capture the already-said, to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self (??).
And it is this capturing and recording of the said, read and heard that is at the heart of what takes place on a personal blog. But this is no ordinary recording of life. Rather, it is a “subjectivation of discourse” (??), a means by which a blogger draws together disparate life experiences and establishes an identity and a relationship with themselves.
Blogging, however, can be distinguished somewhat from the hupomnemata. Most notably, a blog usually has an audience; and the awareness of an (often unknown) audience makes for a particular style of writing. Foucault noted that both the hupomnemata and correspondence work similarly on the writer. Both are productive of the self.
Whereas the hupomnemata was often a document that served the writer alone, correspondence acted as a “way of manifesting oneself to oneself and to others…[making] the writer “present” to whom he addresses it” (??). Being present to another, then, becomes a way for a writer to place himself or herself in view of the other’s subjectivizing gaze. Correspondence, then, becomes a means by which “one opens oneself to the gaze of others and puts the correspondent in the place of the inner god” (??). But, in the case of correspondence, the gaze is two-way; the writer and the reader exchange positions as part of the communication process.
And correspondence or letters work at the level of the banal. The writer is “constituting oneself as an “inspector of oneself,” and hence of gauging the common faults, and of reactivating the rules of behavior that one must always bear in mind” (??).
The interplay between the gaze of the other and the gaze of the self as created through the process of correspondence becomes an important development in the art of living (tekhê tou biou).
It is here that I see most value in Foucault’s concept of self-writing. Although the hupomnemata helps us to understand the self-productive nature of some blog post, it is when these are turned over to the gaze of the audience that they become correspondence or letters. Not only is the writing productive of the self but it also allows the presence of the reader and the writer to be experienced by one another; and that is made particularly so through comments whereby the writer becomes the reader and vice versa.
Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self. In L. Martin, H. Gutman & P. Hutton (Eds.), Technologies of the self. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Press.
Foucault, M. (1997). Self Writing (R. Hurley, Trans.). In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Ethics : subjectivity and truth. New York: New Press.