19: The Mirror and the Veil

Viviane Serfaty, The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs.

The Mirror and the Veil

The Mirror and the Veil was another book I read for my Directed Reading course this summer. Here’s Serfaty’s explanation of the title:

[The computer screen] operat[es] as a paradoxical, twofold metaphor, that of a veil and that of a mirror. … The screen, which mediates Internet access, thus establishes a dialectical relationship between disclosure and secrecy, between transparency and opacity. There is no such thing as private content on the Internet; the pretence of privacy is de facto shattered to pieces, since anyone can gain access to any site the world over, yet the diarists feel protected by the very size of the Internet. (p.13)

The most valuable thing about this book for me was Serfaty’s discussion of her methodological approach and her reasoned justification for taking the approach that she did because it gives me a precedent for the approach I plan to take with my thesis.

Serfaty discusses the privacy issues with respect to researching diaries and discusses the literary and the social scientific approaches to such research. The literary approach rests on the assumption that the protagonist is a fictional construct (to a certain extent): “personal writings on the Internet are not be viewed as ‘slice-of-life’ documents or faithful reflections of reality. Attention is instead focused on the internal logic of the text, seen as a self-contained, self-referential artifact.” (p.10) The social scientific approach, on the other hand, requires the researcher to look beyond the text and make contact with the diarists.

Serfaty finds this problematic for a number of reasons. It requires the researcher to engage in participant observation, which is difficult and modifies the behavior of the observed (exactly my concern). Also, the exchange of correspondence between researcher and diarist creates “an intimate pact” that isn’t a very scientific approach to research. Familiarity with the diarist is likely to lead to further problems: either breaching the diarist’s trust, or conversely, being reluctant to expose unflattering aspects of the diarist’s life. Serfaty’s approach was thus to carefully avoid any interaction with the diarists she studied.

Another key issue is anonymity (or the lack thereof). The AoIR approach is to use pseudonyms. However, as Serfaty points out (and as I have reiterated many times) URLs of the blogs must be cited, making pseudonyms moot. Serfaty takes the approach that while blogs are often personal and intimate, they are not private. “Anyone who engages in self-representational writing on the Internet is not producing private material, but is engaging instead in ‘public acts deliberately intended for public consumption'” (p. 12).

On a less serious note, she quotes these very bloggy moments from “The Importance of Being Earnest” (Oscar Wilde):

Miss Prism: I really don’t see why you keep a diary at all.
Cecily: I keep a diary in order to enter all the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn’t write them down, I should probably forget all about them.

Cecily: I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. [shows diary]
Gwendolen: [examines diary through her lorgnette carefully] It is certainly very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5:30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. [produces diary of her own.] I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

Algernon: Do you really keep a diary? I’d keep anything to look at it. May I?
Cecily: Oh no. You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.

If Oscar were around today, I bet he’d blog. Funniest play ever, I tell ya. Must go read it again.