Current Tides: Reflections on Trends in Life Writing Scholarship, An SNS Interview with John Zuern – Part 1

John Zuern, co-editor of Biography, reflects on current trends in life writing scholarship, selfies, digital ethics, and the upcoming issue of Biography, “Online Lives 2.0.”

John David Zuern is co-editor of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly and an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. With Laurie McNeill, he is currently editing a special issue of Biography titled “Online Lives 2.0,” which follows the journal’s 2003 “Online Lives” special issue. He has recently published on electronic poetry in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (2013), the life writing of Louis Althusser in Life Writing (2011), and a critical history of the networking company Cisco Systems in the volume Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation (Indiana UP, 2010).

Orly Lael Netzer, Maria Faini, and Emma Maguire have been fortunate to converse with John by email, reflecting on trends in life writing scholarship. Our correspondence has been so productive that we are happy to share it as a series, beginning with Part One: Digital Life.

Digital Life

The Selfie

SNS Network: We’d like to begin by addressing a term that became a buzzword during IABA 2014: selfie. Do you see selfies, as a social practice involving self-narration and curation as well as digital circulation, changing our understandings of life-writing in general and affecting what we might term the ethics of image-based self-representation?

John Zuern: My answer to this first question will probably set the tone for the rest of my responses, which I imagine will be a mix of personal and more or less scholarly reflections, often in connection with my work as a co-editor of the journal Biography. I hope that approach will be in keeping with what I sense is the spirit of your overall project. I think SNS is an inspiring and much-needed initiative, and it’s an honor to be asked to contribute to your conversations in this way.

The selfie did indeed become a recurring theme at IABA 2014, and in fact we were all encouraged to tweet at least one selfie during our time in Banff. It was great to watch people embrace the invitation with varying degrees of earnestness and irony, documenting their participation in what was a truly remarkable conference and, in group selfies (usies? groufies? wefies?), celebrating their connections with other scholars.

At the conference I kept putting off taking my own selfie, and in the end I didn’t do it at all. I felt bad about not doing it. In that safe and supportive and forgiving context, not doing it felt uncool and a little uncollegial. To tell the truth, I really did want to do it, largely because I wanted to be the kind of person for whom the selfie feels like a natural, spontaneous, and even joyful modality of self-expression. But I’m not that kind of person—my baseline self-consciousness and social anxiety still get in the way. I’ve always found it excruciating to have my picture taken by anyone, under any circumstances, and doing it myself doesn’t make it feel any better. My “selfie-loathing,” to borrow Jessica Winter’s title to her Slate essay on social-media-induced envy, doesn’t extend to other people’s selfies. I’m almost always happy to see them, but I do always envy their subjects, who for some mysterious reason weren’t paralyzed by embarrassment as soon as their own faces loomed up in their handheld screens. I aspire to that ease.

I’m indulging in this bit of over-sharing because it gets at the nexus of questions I find most interesting, from a scholarly perspective, about self-representation in social media: how do these powerful tools of self-expression galvanize our good and bad feelings about ourselves and about our relationships with other people, friends and strangers alike? How have they gotten under our skins? That is, how do they affect the phenomenology of everyday life, including things like our experience of time, our orientation in real and imagined spaces, our desires, our aspirations, our sense of what’s expected of us, and what we actually expect of ourselves and of others? Over the past couple of decades, have digital communication technologies really made an appreciable—and, more important for scholars, an isolable, definable, and perhaps even measurable—difference, not only in the practical ways we communicate with each other but in the ways we experience ourselves as embodied, more or less self-aware, more or less empowered subjects? What evidence of substantial changes to our experience of selfhood and sociality might be found in the artifacts of online life, such as selfies?

The selfie presents an especially intriguing object of analysis within auto/biography studies because it immediately raises the question of what we’re aiming to analyze and how we’re aiming to do it. It’s great that we’re extending the “writing” part of “life writing” into non-linguistic media like photography, but we then have to ask ourselves what it means to work within a discipline (and across identifiable disciplines) and to be disciplined in our engagement with those non-verbal artifacts.

In the introduction to their 2008 “Autographics” special issue of Biography, Anna Poletti and Gillian Whitlock encourage auto/biography scholars to enlarge their literacies, to adapt to the complex visual and cultural operations of graphic life narratives, and that challenge certainly applies here. All kinds of scholarly projects about selfies are possible, reaching out to photography and film studies, new media studies, performance studies, anthropology, semiotics, and on and on. One important contribution auto/biography studies can make in its own right lies in its emphasis on the mediated, non-transparent nature of any representation of “life,” which is always going to be caught up a set of historically and culturally specific conventions, whatever the medium happens to be. This is a point Anna Poletti and Julie Rak emphasize in the introduction to their 2014 edited volume Identity Technologies in regard to the study of digital self-representation, and it’s one that sometimes gets forgotten in treatments of self-representation in media of all kinds.

I always feel a little conservative when I say things like this, but for me it seems that in order to insure the coherence of a discipline like life writing studies (or literary or cultural studies), we always need to account for the fact that we’re working with a cultural artifact “figured” to steer its myriad possible impacts on our senses in one direction or another. Otherwise we’re in a different domain, one in which the tools of our field might not get the job done, or at least not very well.

I’ve taken this position in relation to digital literary studies, which I think at times gets caught up in the interesting computational aspects of electronic texts at the expense of the interesting things those texts are doing with the older but no less powerful technology of literary rhetoric, and I can imagine that some scholarship on digital auto/biography could run the same risk.

If I were going to try to write about selfies (I’m actually trying to write about something tangentially related, the still-life compositions of people’s treasured belongings collected in Foster Huntington’s The Burning House), I’d try to understand what protocols people seem to follow (and resist) when they “pose” and “compose” self-representations of themselves with the selfie as the primary unit of composition, whether as Facebook profile pictures, enticements on dating and hookup sites, or bids for Instafame. What visible, traceable patterns in these images and collections of images might constitute a tropology of that particular form in that particular context? What can we extrapolate from those patterns that would allow us to speculate responsibly about the affective investments and social practices that generate and mobilize selfies? Is the selfie a genre, and why is it useful to answer yes or no?

As your question suggests, a number of ethical questions probably arise. In keeping with my investment in rhetoric, I’d like to emphasize the function of selfies and other modes of online self-representations in the crafting of an ethos, a discursive and always to some degree morally fraught relationship with other people. Because it’s a relationship within a complex and not easily manageable network of relationships, people can sometimes come to harm. Secrets get unintentionally or maliciously revealed, feelings get hurt, the bad consequences of being somewhere with someone doing something at a particular time become clear only after the fact. Some of my own reluctance to take selfies comes from a discomfort with the exposure they entail, and I think for many people, even if they’re far less neurotic than I am, the double edge of the self-exposure (and the collateral exposure of others) inherent in social media is increasingly making itself apparent. Auto/biography studies has long been concerned with issues like these (G. Thomas Couser’s work in Vulnerable Subjects being only one example), and the field has a lot to contribute to thinking them through.

Online Lives-Revisited

SNS Network: In a similar vein, you and Laurie McNeill are currently editing a special issue of Biography on “Online Lives 2.0” (which revisits and rethinks the 2003 special issue on “Online Lives”). Why is there a need to revisit digital spaces for life writing, and what are some of the key ideas/concerns driving scholarship in this area of auto/biography studies?

John Zuern: We’re working on our introduction to that issue right now, so I’m just going to sketch out some of things Laurie and I have been Skyping about.

When we first started talking about what to call the follow-up issue to “Online Lives,” we were both a little concerned that the “2.0” thing would be too clichéd, but in the end we went with it because the technologies that comprise Web 2.0 and that have given rise to present-day social media really have transformed the terrain the 2003 issue was trying to map. On that note, I want to say how pleased we are that almost all the authors from the 2003 issue have contributed short essays to “Online Lives 2.0” in which they reflect on how these developments in the technologies have influenced their own work over the past decade.

I’ll admit that when I first starting thinking about a follow-up to “Online Lives,” I had in mind a collection of essays that focused on the various platforms that have emerged in Web 2.0: something on Facebook, something on Twitter, something on YouTube, and so on. In the end, though (and, in retrospect, fortunately), we wound up with a much less lock-step assortment of essays. Julie Rak’s article on the Sims and Pamela Graham’s investigation of Wikipedia biographies do focus on specific online environments, but they raise important theoretical and methodological questions that extend beyond the parameters of those particular platforms. Authors of the other article-length contributions deal with online hoaxes (Kylie Cardell and Emma Maguire), cyber-stalking (Molly Pulda), and refugees’ use of smart-phone video to document their harrowing experiences (Gillian Whitlock). On the whole, the collection focuses much more on questions and problems than on software.

That, I think, is as it should be. My first university job after graduate school in the mid-1990s was in an art department, where I taught students in the graphic design program how to use the industry-standard design software of the time. Even then, programs were getting upgraded and becoming obsolete at a bracing rate, which meant that even though we were teaching the specific interface of a particular version of PhotoShop and (back then) Quark, our focus had to be on the principles of digital photo editing and document design, which pretty much apply no matter what a program’s menus and tools happen to look like.

I think something comparable is going on now with scholarship on online life writing: even as we rigorously explore the particular structures and functions of whatever platform is dominant at the moment, what matters most is what the analysis adds to our understanding of how people are thinking about and representing their lives in a society saturated with communication technologies, which are themselves, as products of human intention and labor, saturated with society.

At the same time, Laurie and I were actually hoping for contributions that dug into the technical, algorithmic dimensions of social media, as that kind of research seems necessary if we are to grasp the fundamental material and, by extension, the economic and political conditions of possibility for online self-representation.

Our call for proposals reflected that wish, along with several others Laurie and I came up with in our initial discussions. One seems especially important to me in terms of future scholarship in this area. Laurie pointed out that it’s not always easy for life writing scholars to connect with the work of scholars in other fields, especially the social sciences, even when they’re all looking at pretty much the same thing, like Facebook or blogging. Significant differences in method and, to some extent, theoretical presuppositions interfere with mutual intelligibility. We were looking for contributions that addressed those challenges of interdisciplinary methodology and, ideally, attempted to bridge those gaps. That work is definitely going on (I’m thinking of the cross-disciplinary commitments of Ego-Media project at King’s College London), but it would be good to see more of it.

In terms of the current concerns of scholarship in this area, as we’ve been thinking about “Online Lives 2.0,” Laurie and I have been lucky to have as a touchstone Anna and Julie’s Identity Technologies, which offers a wide range of essays, including Laurie’s about the six-word memoir, all of which raise compelling questions and point the field in new directions. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, for example, assemble an extensive “toolbox” of concepts and problems related to online self-presentation. Aimée Morrison’s analysis of the “coaxed affordances” in Facebook precisely articulates the methodological challenges of studying the dynamic and ephemeral aspects of social media. Philippe Lejeune’s “Autobiography and New Communication Tools” provides an invaluable retrospective glance over the developments in online life writing since Cher écran, his groundbreaking 2000 book on Internet diaries. In short, Identity Technologies is a required reading.

The status of “narrative” in critical approaches to online self-representation is an issue Anna and Julie raise in their introduction, and it’s one Laurie and I grappled with as we started to craft our call for proposals. I kept wanting to use “life writing” as a catch-all category, and Laurie would point out that not everything we recognize as self-representation is “written,” exactly, and of course she was right. The same applies to “narrative.” I think we wound up using both “writing” and “narrative” in the CFP (and I myself still tend to default to “life writing studies” when I talk about the field), but we recognize that non- (and maybe even anti-)narrative forms pose a real challenge to a field that for a long time anchored itself in the written text.

The challenge to a critical mindset that sees everything as writing or narrative or a “story” doesn’t come only from the huge role images, selfies included, are playing in online self-presentation. It comes from all sorts of self-oriented sign-wrangling now taking place online, that certainly represent life—and so would come under the life writing umbrella—but don’t always aim at telling a story, or, in very interesting ways, displace storytelling, outsourcing it to an algorithm (Facebook) or making it an option (Snapchat). Cultivating a respectful critical resistance to “narrative” seems important not only for opening scholarship to a broader set of artifacts but also for helping us expose the ideological and potentially coercive aspects of the assumption that lives are by nature stories and that those stories play out in natural, predictable ways.

The hegemony of narrative is powerful; explaining its “Stories” feature, Snapchat’s website tells us, “Your Story always plays forward, because it makes sense to share moments in the order you experience them.” Analepsis be damned! At the same time, it might well be wrong-headed to expect elaborate temporal structures in a story generated in real time and surviving for only 24 hours, and even more wrong-headed to assume that this conception of what constitutes a story, in this particular cultural environment, is an impoverished one, however much it reproduces hegemonic ideas about what “makes sense.”

Those are a few of things we’ve been talking about.

Digital Ethics

SNS Network: Perhaps this is the moment to ask a follow up question about ethics, given your interest in the topic. What key questions regarding the ethics of life writing production and consumption are circulating right now in life writing discourse, particularly in relation to digital representation and engagement?

John Zuern: What’s been really striking as we’ve watched the “Online Lives 2.0” issue come together is the emphasis on ethical questions in so many of the contributions. In particular, several of our authors, in different contexts, reflect on the value of “being who you say you are” in online environments. It’s old hat by now to say that the early image of the Internet as an identity free-for-all is more than a little tarnished, but what’s interesting about these essays is their emphasis on the sometimes devastating impact of online imposture on people’s offline well being. As it turns out, in many instances it does in fact matter that people really are who they say they are online. Those concrete realities put some pressure on our sophisticated critiques of the sovereign subject and our notions of identity as performance and construction, but they don’t entirely discredit them. Working through these theoretical and ethical tensions, these essays’ examination of online hoaxes, sock-puppeting, and defamation all tap into a strong line of ethical thinking in life writing studies about “truth.” Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s essay “Witness or False Witness” (Biography 37.1 Winter 2014) gives a solid overview of the critical issues here, and Susanna Egan’s Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography (2011) covers a range of historical examples of autobiographical imposture.

Alongside these questions about telling the truth, a lot of ethical questions in life writing scholarship take the form of “is someone being harmed?” Again, Couser’s work has been especially influential, but throughout the history of the field a number of life writing scholars have taken on this question, which in many projects is all but impossible to avoid. The 2004 volume edited by Paul John Eakin, The Ethics of Life Writing, collects essays by leading figures in the field addressing both questions of authenticity and potential harm. One of our forthcoming issues of Biography includes a compelling essay by Bettina Stumm about how Bettina negotiated what she perceived as the ethical risks involved in an oral history interview she conducted with Rhodea Shandler, a Holocaust survivor. Another example of this line of questioning is Janet Marles’s “Auto/biographical Ethics: The Case of The Shoebox” in a/b: Autobiography Studies (Winter 2013), which explores the ethical conundrums Janet confronted while creating an online, interactive project based on her mother’s personal archive.

“Is someone being harmed?” is always good question to ask, but as my colleague Craig Howes has pointed out, this crucial question is entangling all sorts of life writing scholarship in the machinery of university review protocols for research with human subjects, which are tailored neither to the field’s methodologies nor to its own sense of the potential moral repercussions of its practices (see Craig’s 2011 essay “Asking Permission to Write” in Profession). I believe it’s also possible for us to get so tied up in our own hand-wringing about possible harms that we stall our projects, or pull our punches, or fail to think in more nuanced ways about the moral dangers (and, for that matter, the moral benefits) inhering in this or that project.

I think graduate students in particular should be candid with their supervisors and other trusted people about what they see as the potential risks in whatever they want to do so that they don’t lose time just fretting. Sometimes a reflection on ethical questions can get folded into a project in ways that significantly enrich the final product.

In my view, the Afrikaner writer Antjie Krog’s Begging to Be Black, which I assigned in a graduate seminar this past semester, offers a remarkably complex example of this kind of self-questioning, as do the other two books in the triology starting with Country of My Skull. Krog isn’t doing scholarship, strictly speaking, but in Begging to Be Black she’s doing memoir, biography, and, in her conversations with Paul Patton, a kind of philosophical meta-memoir work, while constantly (and for some readers, I suspect, inadequately) calling into question her own investments in the project and her right to write about the people and experiences it takes up. It happens that along with Bettina’s article our next issue of Biography will also include an insightful essay on Krog by Elizabeth Rodrigues, for which I’m happy to put in a plug.

“Is it the truth?” and “is someone being harmed?” appear to be the animating ethical questions for life writing studies at the moment, but another one seems equally important: “what is a good life?”

Here I’m looking to David Parker’s 2007 book The Self in Moral Space, which takes up that question in the context of life writing studies. How does consuming and reflecting on auto/biography, whether as scholars or as members of the auto/biography-hungry public, help us imagine the kind of people we want to be and the kind of world we want to live in? That’s very much the question Krog is trying to figure out in her work. For me, it’s the question guiding my effort to think about the vast body of life writing that has emerged in the United States in the wake of the recent financial crisis, in which people from across the spectrum of American society take stock of their situations and rethink, often in hesitant, muddled, and contradictory ways, the beliefs, values, and investments (financial and emotional) that led them into the catastrophe. Questions about harm are still important, especially as I try to think about how the myriad profiles of “victims” of predatory lending that circulate in American media, almost always focusing on poor people and people of color, might simultaneously expose and perpetuate dynamics of discrimination, marginalization, and criminalization.

I suppose I’m also trying to avoid a kind of harm as I try to figure out what it means to take many of the texts I’m reading “seriously,” especially the confessions and conversion narratives of subprime lenders and private bankers. Taking a person’s statements seriously doesn’t mean taking them at face value, but giving them the respect of not immediately seeing them as sincere or insincere, honest or dishonest, because of who the person happens to be—a hedge fund manager, say, or an African American homeowner facing foreclosure. Because they often run their fingertips over the fine grain of individual stories, life writing folks have a (mediated, circumscribed) access to the complexity of people’s lived experience that many other disciplines can’t manage, and we do ourselves, our readers, and the subjects of the texts a disservice if we don’t attend to inconsistencies in that texture that surprise us, trouble us, affront our theoretical and political pieties.

Of course, I’ve found Lauren Berlant’s work extremely valuable for thinking along these lines, as have many other people working in life writing studies. The 2010 IABA conference “Intimate Publics” and the Biography special issue that came out of it testify to Berlant’s enormous contribution to this field, and Anna and Julie’s interview with her in Identity Technologies is one of the many inspiring features of that collection. Eve Sedgwick’s idea of “reparative reading” also spurs me to be more imaginative as I try to work against my knee-jerk impulses to distrust and dismiss some of the post-crisis stories I’m reading.

I think it would be interesting for someone to try to trace the ways life writing scholarship has directly engaged philosophical ethics over the past couple of decades. Bettina enlists Emmanuel Levinas to think about the challenges of interviewing Rhodea Shandler, and in our “Online Lives 2.0” issue Molly Pulda also turns to Levinas, and Judith Butler’s reception of Levinas, to imagine a nuanced ethical orientation to relationships, good and bad, that emerge in networked lives.

It strikes me that the disciplines of life writing studies and contemporary philosophy alike would have much to gain from taking auto/biographical texts as occasions for rigorous investigations of ethical concepts and models of moral decision-making. It wouldn’t only be a matter of “using” Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (for example) to illuminate the ethical issues in this or that memoir (for example), but rather to see how the ethical negotiations of memoirists, biographers, and other people engaged in self-representation push back on the philosophy.

SNS Interviewers:  Maria Faini, Orly Lael Netzer, and Emma Maguire
SNS Interview Editors: Maria Faini and Orly Lael Netzer

Emma Maguire is a PhD Candidate at Flinders University of South Australia. She researches automedia, digital life narrative, and girlhood.

Maria Faini is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work focuses on US military culture, social media and digital activism, and art practice as radical sociality.

Orly Lael Netzer is a PhD student at the University of Alberta, Canada. She researches cross-cultural relations in contemporary Canadian literature. 

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