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The Practice of Blogging: A Personal and Academic Perspective

One Student's picture

One idea that has come out of class, which I find very useful, is that the ‘blog’ is a medium, not a genre; and that an individual blog can function in multiple genres. Tagging sometimes signals which genre is being used: ‘personal’ is one very common tag on livejournal, for example, and usually signals the use of the diary-with-an-audience/letter genre. I don’t use that tag myself. I usually tag things that I’ll want to find again, and I don’t want to read my ‘diary’ entries again, most of the time. They’re single-use entries, often used to express a particular emotional moment. Perhaps if I did use that tag, if I consciously identified topics which I consider ‘personal’ (though not necessarily in need of friends-locking, also known as flocking), I would have figured out faster that Serendip is not where I want to talk about the personal, that on Serendip I write with a different range of genres than on livejournal. I made a few entries in my Serendip blog last semester which I wouldn’t make now. I won’t delete them now, though – they’re part of the history of my blog, and how its range of genres has and is emerging.

I have decided that my Serendip blog will be my academic blog, and my livejournal will be everything else. It’s a question of audience. Serendip better serves as both an archive of my early efforts at scholarship and as an intellectual scratchpad; I have a grant to do research on Greek religious imagery this summer, and I’ll have to be very self-motivated, so having a place to think out loud will be helpful to me. But my friends on livejournal won’t be anymore interested in the minutiae of the research I’ll do this summer than most of my RL (real-life) friends are. Livejournal will continue to include the more personal genre of diary-with-an-audience/letter, as well as being my fannish writing space.

If only it were that simple; if only the personal and the scholarly inhabited discrete spheres.

Last spring, I took a class called Interpreting Mythology. It was for students who were assumed to already have at least a basic knowledge of classical (Greek and Roman) mythology. I learned some important things in that class: that I want to be a scholar because I enjoyed writing my final paper so much, despite the level of depression and anxiety I was working through; that different tellings of a myth can have very different meanings from each other, that there is no essential core meaning to a myth; that scholars have biases which inform their interpretations in profound ways.

This fall, I took a class called Critical Feminist Theory, and one thing which was brought to my attention was … how shall I summarize this? The necessity and danger of speaking personally; the limits of the impersonal in academic writing. There is a … dishonesty to academic writing, because it tries to hide the place from which the scholar is speaking. The impersonality of academic writing implies that objectivity is possible, for one thing. And for another, I know what motivates me to be a scholar, and they are deep existential motives, motives of fear and desire. I’m not looking out on the world from the ivory tower, but from a muddy field in Middle Earth, from a spaceship, from a sailing ship, from the mire of queer identity, from the postmodern shards of my Jewish heritage, from the chthonic depths of mental illness, from the writer’s rollercoaster, from the peaks of intellectual endeavor which I can’t help but climb. Yeah, yeah, I’m getting dramatic and my prose is getting purple. But seriously, do you think there’s any scholar out there who’s in it for pure motives? We’re not paid enough for the hard work of producing knowledge. I suspect that most scholars do it out of some kind of need, a need which varies from person to person. But what this means is that every work of scholarship is permeated with the self of the scholar, even though the language of scholarship hides that – the sparse use of the first person gives it away. This is one thing I’ve learned, even as I’ve felt more and more desire to be a scholar myself, and more and more certainty that I could and I should.
And I have Issues with honesty. So this perceived dishonesty (which I suppose might be called professionalism) of the genre of writing of my intended profession, well, it’s a problem for me. Last semester I started looking for a genre that provided a place for the academic and the personal. First, I found see, minotaur, which is a poem posted earlier in this blog. And I think that was important, because it taught me that I could break language open and find something soft and juicy which I can chew and stomach on even the worst days. Labyrinthlanguage gives me a place to hide my self (or at least, gives me a sense of hiding, but maybe I’m just speaking with my eyes closed) while admitting to my audience that it is the self that I am hiding. This is at least different from academic language, which reveals the subject matter but hides the self and doesn’t admit to hiding the self.

This semester, I wrote a paper for a class Here and Queer on the film Velvet Goldmine and queer mythologies and Oscar Wilde and things like that. Now, I usually don’t have a huge personal stake in the papers I write for my class, but in this case I did, because I was trying to understand why queer males like Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp form part of my personal pantheon – they are among my heroes. But … they’re male, and they’re gay, and they’re fabulous, while I am female and genderqueer, and ‘fabulous’ in that usage cannot be applied to me, with my uniform of sneakers and jeans and navy-blue zippered hoodie. In part, I wrote that paper in an effort to understand. And I didn’t quite get there in the paper, but it certainly helped. And in writing that paper I took some risks, I owned up to my personal stake in the beginning. For one thing, the title is “That’s Me!” (mind you, that’s a quote from Velvet Goldmine); there’s a more academic-y subtitle. These are my first three paragraphs:

The first chapter of Ian Small’s book Oscar Wilde Revalued is titled “The Myth of Wilde”. Small is not keen on mythology. He criticizes modern biographers for not fully surmounting the myth of Wilde created and popularized by his early biographers, and speaks approvingly of a de-mythologized Wilde currently under construction. “The ‘new’ Wilde is occupied less by the brilliant salon life of the 1890s and much more by hard and sometimes prosaic work. Wilde becomes the epitome of the new type of professional writer at the turn of the century, concerned with the unglamorous business of self-promotion, negotiating with publishers, cultivating potential reviewers, and constantly polishing his work …he is seen as thoroughly and studiously engaged with some of the most contentious intellectual issues of his day” (Small 3). On one hand, it is wholly desirable that biographers should no longer moralize on Wilde’s life and to marginalize Wilde as a literary figure, as Small observes they have ceased to do, beginning in the 1960s. On the other hand, there is nothing fabulous, in any possible sense of the word, in this new Wilde; nothing of the dandy, nothing really extraordinary, and not even a good story, no Wildean fable. In the story of the new Wilde, spoken of approvingly by Small, the tragedy of the dandy is disavowed.

I am not concerned with the recovery of the withered facts of Wilde’s life. I take it as given that lived reality is never accurately represented in either memory or history. I am not asking, Who was that man? I am asking, What does he look like to us now? I am asking, What does a man look like? What does a queer look like? I am asking, What do I look like? And do they show me how I look? (Wilde must have asked similar questions of the ancient Greeks, must have examined himself in the mirror of the Symposium). I am not interested in writing history. I am interested in the dandy Wilde, the wit Wilde, the perceived Wilde. And I am interested in the tragic Wilde, all the more tragic because he is part of the same mythic cycle as the dandy Wilde. And (contra Small) Wilde’s life is rightly told as a tragedy, since at its end is a vile love affair, three humiliating trials, a prison sentence, bankruptcy, exile, divorce, heartbreak, and almost no artistic output. A personal tragedy, an artistic tragedy, a tragedy of love. The fact that much of this was enabled by the Labouchere Amendment makes this a queer tragedy and part of queer history and queer heritage.

So get your dry-as-dust mitts off of The Wilde, Mr. Small, if you please. Our Wilde, the Queer Mythic Wilde, the Granddandy of the Fabulous. Leave us this early proponent of gay pride, the one who named what he felt ‘love’, rather than the medical condition known as inversion. This Wilde is in our hearts and in our brains, because when we look back in heterosexual history … we see him.

The only reason to make academic writing personal, the only justification for content which is otherwise more appropriate to a letter, a personal blog, a diary, is if the personal is interpreted so as to make the piece stronger, if it helps the scholar to make zir point better and with greater honesty. My point was not simply about, as my sub-title goes, Self-Recognition, Possibility and Tragedy in the Production of Queer Self-Images only in the film, but in life generally. I point out how both Oscar Wilde and Todd Haynes, the director of Velvet Goldmine, experienced self-recognition – in the ancient Greeks and in glam rock, respectively. I think that my own personal testimony strengthens that point. And so “That’s Me!” was an experiment in interpreting the personal for academic purposes, and in many ways a successful one. But not quite enough. I couldn’t quite make the space to say exactly why I admire Oscar Wilde et al (time permitting, I will blog about that later).

I’ve been blogging regularly on livejournal since the summer of 2006, but it was only this semester that I started talking about my intellectual interests more. And then I realized that the medium of the blog is a space-in-potential for exactly the kind of personal-academic writing I want to experiment towards. I certainly haven’t developed it yet. I think out loud about genre theory, I write pieces like this – but the one is all academic, and the other is largely personal. So, I’ll keep blogging, on livejournal certainly, and quite possibly on Serendip as well. I’ll be more mindful of genre from now on. And I’ll see what emerges.

I would like to note that I have shied away from another kind of personal entirely in writing this. I didn’t expect to write the piece that I just did, you see, but that happens sometimes. And perhaps I will open up that can of worms before the end of the semester. I’ve got pages of notes, but I’ve also got a nasty apathetic depression going on, which does not make me personally bold. Maybe that's a disadvantage to using the personal in writing which is overall non-personal: one has to be in the right place emotionally as well as intellectually, and while I wish to ally the two, they are not the same thing at all.


Anne Dalke's picture

Performing the (Not) Personal


Continued rich thinking, beginning with your very useful notion that the blog is a medium, not a genre; working your way through the two different ways—thus locations—you might blog (using LiveJournal as a diary, Serendip as intellectual scratchpad); complexifying that binary with the acknowledgement that the personal and the scholarly are not discrete, either in origins or in product, and ending with the claim that keeping them separate is an act of intellectual dishonesty. Your most striking locution is that this perceived dishonesty “might be called professionalism.”

When you say that “the work of scholarship is permeated with the self of the scholar,” I hear embedded in that “permeation” the “meatspace” that was once called RealLife.

I’ve just finished reading a senior thesis in anthropology, about “How Women Fans of Superhero Comics Built a Community on the Internet,” and one of the interesting points was that the phrase “community of strangers,” commonly used to describe the gatherings that are blogs, valorizes real life over the virtual. I’m wondering if your construction here does the same, in its insistence that the personal can make a piece of scholarship stronger.

Can you tell me more how that works? Using personal testimony as additional evidence for an argument? Can you tell me more how that works, once we’ve acknowledged the constructedness and the multiplicity of the persona? That the impression of privacy on the net, along with its reduced social cues, leads to “disinhibitions”—and so may invite more wide-ranging intellectual exploration, not bound by another’s visual cues or conventional markers of status? That identities can thus be disassociated from the ideas they have to offer?

akeefe has started a fascinating exploration of How the Mask Works. She says, in part, that "once the mask was put on, the 'social mask' we use for interaction is covered up. We are not concelad, but rather the character we play daily is....expanding identity comes from slipping the 'social mask.' The performers now have acess to all the persons they could present themselves as...") And Christina’s written a related essay about The Blogging Identity. You’ll see, in the notes I wrote in response to her paper, a suggestion for further reading about what it means to construct an on-line persona. Is that the direction your work is also heading? I look forward to seeing where you go….

While wanting also to take note of some of the distinctive places you have been. The clearest current example I know, of the complexities we’re discussing here--not of "finding" but of "inventing" self--is your own performance of the non-performance that was your finale in this course, not to mention your archiving it in the virtual—now no longer only a textual—world. Lovely.