Digital Media and the Auto-biographical Impulse [April 30-May 4, 2012]
by Alisa Perren — University of Texas at Austin
April 19, 2012 – 13:27
Monday, April 30, 2012 - Dara Persis Murray (Rutgers University) presents: Am I Ugly?: Female Beauty, Digital Media, and the True Me
Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - Zara Dinnen (Birkbeck, University of London) presents: Pictures of Self-Portraits: Eva and Franco Mattes’ Avatar Portraits
Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - Eric LeMay (Ohio University) presents: Taking Up Montaigne: The Essayist in the Digital Age
Thursday, May 3, 2012 - Lyndsey Beutin (University of Pennsylvania) presents: “I’m so angry that I made a sign”: Selfhood and Media Reflexivity in Occupy Protest Signs
Friday, May 4, 2012 - Daniel C. Faltesek (University of Iowa) presents: An Autobiography of an Autobiographic Medium
Theme week organized by Laurel Ahnert (Georgia State University).
“Am I Ugly?” is a personal, self-conscious question often asked among friends and family. It is also at the center of a YouTube phenomenon wherein girls as young as age eleven pose the query to unknown, presumably unbiased viewers. In response, the viewers assess the girls as ugly/pretty and their body parts as aesthetically pleasing or socially unacceptable.
In soliciting replies to “Am I Ugly?,” these vloggers appear to have made the decision that they want to be judged on their appearance. At first glance, this choice and these subjects are anchored in postfeminist culture, emphasizing the external over the internal, taking responsibility for future work on the self through others’ feedback, and standing in opposition to feminist voices that decry such assessment. Moreover, the videos can be seen as a vehicle for insta-celebrity since the vloggers have an audience (many videos have received a few thousand hits, some even millions), thanks in part to media attention.
Why, then, do the vloggers frequently note that they want “the truth” about their appearance? The accompanying clips demonstrate the vloggers’ sense of frankness in inquiring “Am I Ugly?,” suggesting that if they are the ones doing the asking, they are in control of others’ opinions of their beauty. However, the anxious tone of many of the vlogs, as well as the duration (ranging from 5 seconds to a few minutes), indicates that while they ask viewers to “be honest,” the creation of their texts reinforces the pain attached to their question.
The “Am I Ugly” phenomenon can be read as a sign of the times, yet it also raises concern about whether girls and young women can handle “the truth” that they are inviting. By intertwining the realization of their true selves with the audience’s judgment of appearance, the users’ comments can potentially translate into vloggers’ loss of self-esteem and cyberbullying. On the other hand, this phenomenon suggests that female vloggers may be looking for ways to move beyond the beauty dilemma.
While their communication suggests that feminist concerns about female conflict with beauty is not passé, it does indicate that the identity negotiation of girls and women with such matters has resulted in them asking inherently disempowering questions and participating in problematic self-assessments and user interactions. Although the “Am I Ugly?” vlogs may be an attempt towards problem solving institutional beauty messages, they are not the way to get there.
In 2006 the artists Eva and Franco Mattes held a solo exhibition titled “13 Most Beautiful Avatars” at Ars Virtua, a gallery inside Second Life; two weeks later they opened a show with the same title at the Italian Academy, Columbia University, New York. “13 Most Beautiful Avatars” is one version of a larger project of self-portraits of avatars from Second Life. The portraits are images of avatars. They are exhibited inworld in SL, online on the Mattes’ website, and as canvases on gallery walls in Real Life. Whilst it remains unclear how the artists ‘take’ or make these portraits, they describe their process as one of reappropriation: ‘[…] our works are not portraits, but rather “pictures of self-portraits”’ (artist’s website).
The avatars are someone else’s design; the artwork is the Mattes’ capturing and framing of an image of someone else’s image. To call these images ‘self-portraits’ is problematic. The Mattes’ reappropriation can be straightforwardly read as the production of a portrait (of an avatar). The use of ‘self’ in this formulation reconfigures this process, implying the Mattes’ images are portraits of someone’s self-portrait. These images complicate received ideas about the way an avatar functions, remediating the performance of these digital incarnations of (unseen, unknown) users. The overall construct is complicated by the Mattes’ agency as the artist-producers of these ‘self-portraits’. At no point is an audience able to gauge to what extent the users behind these avatars view the avatars as portraits of themselves—this is a framework imposed by the Mattes.
The portraits signify the emergent aesthetic values of Second Life, and remediate pop art modalities of the fallacy of “portraiture” through digital culture. They also play with the shared language of these two discourses—the idea of “likeness”. The Mattes’ Portraits draw a viewer’s attention to the likeness inherent in the digital medium—its propensity to make things look the same, the by-product of digitisation—in place of viewing the portrait as a likeness of a user. Maybe then these are portraits of a medium as much (or as little) as they are likenesses of the embodied person they ‘stand-in’ for.
“Que sçay-je?” Montaigne famously asks in 1580. “What do I know?” Montaigne’s question shapes the entirety of his Essais, and his title gives name to a new genre, one that weds selfhood and knowledge: the essay drives inward, seeking to “test” and “try” what the essayist does or doesn’t know. Through knowledge, the essay voices, perhaps even brings into being, the self who composes it. This interest in self-knowledge isn’t exclusive to the essay. Yet, since Montaigne invented it, the essay has been a particularly keen means of investigating that enigma we call “I.”
In our moment, Montaigne’s 432-year-old genre has shown it can adapt to new media. Audio essays regularly appear on programs like NPR and in contests like the Third Coast International Audio Festival. The essay has also gone visual on literary websites such as Blackbird and TriQuarterly Online. And the digital work in the Electronic Literature Collections has shown how the essay can use interactivity and computation toward its ends. Montaigne may have initiated the essay in print, but the genre has escaped the page. Essays now show up in any medium through which we render ourselves to ourselves, and these innovations have revealed the essay’s true nature: not (or not only) a literary genre, but rather a certain act of mind, of self-seaching, captured in art.
New media also demonstrates new possibilities for essaying. How, for example, does the self emerge through the inflection of a voice in an audio essay? How do images yield or obscure knowledge? Take Dinty W. Moore’s video essay “History.” During a trip to Edinburgh, Moore discovers he’s unintentionally taken several photographs of old men. These images become the mystery the essay tries to solve—to know their meaning, to know the self for whom they mean. And Moore invites us into this mystery. We stare at these photos. We ask what they mean. We, too, don’t know.
And perhaps we never will. The essay seeks knowledge; it doesn’t always find it. At the end of “History,” Moore states, “I’ll never know myself.” Moore’s hard-won conclusion reminds us that the essay lies not in attaining some final knowledge of the self, but in the try, the attempt, and at times in the beauty that emerges when an essayist, working in whatever medium, takes up Montaigne’s simple question: “What do I know?”
Personal stories popped up everywhere during the first two months of the Occupy protests. News coverage and social media outlets included protest signs toting individual anger and motivations for occupying public space. Autobiographical messages ranged from printed “Lost my job; found an occupation” signs to extensive, handwritten accounts of the calamities of expensive healthcare. These messages are multiply autobiographical and digital: they are produced by the individuals physically holding them; they are captured with digital photography and circulated on digital news platforms; and their individualism and autobiographical impulse reflects trends in digital media authorship. The handmade aesthetic - far from a visual cliché simply signaling left politics - signifies the presence of the body, of the lived, amidst the digital and global distribution of images. In this way, selfhood is understood and publicized not just through the autobiographical statement on a placard, but remains in the frame through the embedded mark of one’s hand when the protest sign is digitally reproduced.
The first five images in the slideshow illustrate this pattern. “I am 84 and mad as hell” uses demographics to simultaneously legitimize and highlight frustration while challenging ageism. “I can’t afford a lobbyist so I organize” declares a protester’s motivation and economic situation while decrying a corrupt political system and educating the media and the public about why people are mobilizing.
As Occupy spread, “top 10” lists of signs proliferated. Digital news sources began recognizing the signs as objects themselves - not only as political symbols, delegitimizing signifiers, or the means to understand the occupation. Ironically, many of the media’s favorite signs contained statements challenging representations of the movement. The protesters used media reflexivity to capitalize on the press’s love of covering itself. Media literate activists made autobiographical interventions in the mediascape with placards like “not a jobless anarchist,” “I DO have a job,” and the double entendre “give me some credit.” The final image is a one-two punch of selfhood and media reflexivity: an infant’s first-person sign shames the greedy 1% through innocence and common sense; her father’s sign mocks the media who question the goals of the movement by turning the common refrain “we want justice” into a direct address, “we want justice, stupid.” Denied visibility and then ridiculed by the press, the protesters turned their critical and creative thinking skills on the media itself. And the media took the bait.
It was unclear if or when Facebook would file form S-1, the document used to begin an inital public offering and the object of this curation. In their S-1 Facebook wrote an autobiography in the style of the Timeline. On the left side of the timeline, technical features and revenue; on the right side of the timeline, the estimated number of monthly active users, or MAUs to use their parlance. Formatting the history as a timeline tells the story of Facebook through results – how big it was and what was it doing. Using the Facebook visual vernacular also tells us that users and Facebook use the same images. This strategy is much akin to building an autobiography of a person through childhood report cards and etchings on a doorframe. It describes the capacities of Facebook, but it leaves motivation vague.
Zuckerberg’s letter to the shareholders in the S-1 may be more revealing in this respect. The purpose of Facebook as described by Zuckerberg was not to be a company, but to fulfill a social mission, an almost Habermasian vision of reflexivity where the sharing of perspectives and conversation might enliven democratic life. Retroactively defining Facebook as being for a productive political function does important relational work, their motives were always pure, neither a pawn of the advertising industry nor law enforcement. The creation of Facebook can be attributed to vision, surely not the accidental result of ever-increasing acceleration or the absurdity of random chance. What we learn in great detail is that Facebook is a controlled company with great risks and perhaps great rewards.
The autobiography manages the corporate history of Facebook and the precarious future. As I have curated this document it has continued to change: now it includes the Yahoo! Patent lawsuit, softening advertising margins, and the precariousness of revenue via payments, resistance against the estrangement of surveillance, and the possibility that the idea of Facebook from the S-1 isn’t interested enough in cash. If a corporation is a person, the S-1 is their autobiography. A profile and the S-1 are very similar. They are both imperfect: interrupted by old party pictures, impulsive statuses, disclosures of risk, and risky disclosures. It is the slippage that animates social media: making autobiography more than the mere collection of details, and business more than the collection of profit.
Thu, 19 Apr 2012 18:27:58 +0000