On the Record: Time and The Self as Data in Contemporary Autofiction

Sian Petronella Campbell

Abstract


In January of this year, artist Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video installation The Clock came to Melbourne. As Ben Lerner explains in 10:04, the autofictional novel Lerner published in 2014, The Clock by Christian Marclayis a clock: it is a twenty-four hour montage of thousands of scenes from movies and a few from TV edited together so as to be shown in real time; each scene indicates the time with a shot of a timepiece or its mention in dialogue, time in and outside of the film is synchronized” (52). I went to see The Clock at ACMI several times, with friends and alone, in the early morning and late at night. Each time I sank back into the comfortable chairs and settled into the communal experience of watching time pass on a screen in a dark room. I found myself sucked into the enforced narrative of time, the way in which the viewer – in this case myself, and those sharing the experience with me – sought to impose a sort of meaning on the arguably meaningless passing of the hours. 

In this essay, I will explore how we can expand our thinking of the idea of autofiction, as a genre, to include contemporary forms of digital media such as social media or activity trackers, as the authors of these new forms of digital media act as author-characters by playing with the divide between fact and fiction, and requiring their readers to ascertain meaning by interpreting the clues layered within. I will analyse the ways in which the meaning of autofictional texts—such as Lerner’s 10:04, but also including social media feeds, blogs and activity trackers—shifts depending on their audience. I consider that as technology develops, we increasingly use data to contextualise ourselves within a broader narrative – health data, media, journalistic data. As the sociologist John B. Thompson writes, “The development of the media not only enriches and transforms the process of self-formation, it also produces a new kind of intimacy which did not exist before … individuals can create and establish a form of intimacy which is essentially non-reciprocal” (208). New media and technologies have emerged to assist in this process of self-formation through the collection and publication of data. This essay is interested in analysing this process of self-formation, and its relationship to the genre of autofiction.

Contemporary Digital Media as Autofiction

While humans have always recorded themselves throughout history, with the rise of new technologies the instinct to record the self is increasingly becoming an automatic one; an instinct we can tie to what media theorist Nick Couldry terms as “presencing”: an “emerging requirement in everyday life to have a public presence beyond one’s bodily presence, to construct an objectification of oneself” (50). We are required to participate in ‘presencing’ by opting-in to new media; it is now uncommon – even unfavourable – for someone not to engage in any forms of social media or self-monitoring. We are now encouraged to participate in ‘presencing’ through the recording and online publication of data that would have once been considered private, such as employment histories and activity histories. Every Instagram photo, Snapchat or TikTok video contributes to an accumulating digital presence, an emerging narrative of the self. Couldry notes that presencing “is not the same as calling up a few friends to tell them some news; nor, although the audience is unspecific, is it like putting up something on a noticeboard. That is because presencing is oriented to a permanent site in public space that is distinctively marked by the producer for displaying that producer’s self” (50).

In this way, we can see that in effect we are all becoming increasingly positioned to become autofiction authors. As an experimental form of literature, autofiction has been around for a long time, the term having first been introduced in the 1970s, and with Serge Doubrovsky widely credited with having introduced the genre with the publication of his 1977 novel Fils (Browning 49). In the most basic terms, autofiction is simply a work of fiction featuring a protagonist who can be interpreted as a stand-in for its author. And while autofiction is also confused with or used interchangeably with other genres such as metafiction or memoir, the difference between autofiction and other genres, writes Arnaud Schmitt, is that autoficton “relies on fiction—runs on fiction, to be exact” (141). Usually the reader can pick up on the fact that a novel is an autofictional one by noting that the protagonist and the author share a name, or key autobiographical details, but it is debatable as to whether the reader in fact needs to know that the work is autofictional in the first place in order to properly engage with it as a literary text.

The same ideas can be applied to the application of digital media today. Kylie Cardell notes that “personal autobiographical but specifically diaristic (confessional, serial, quotidian) disclosure is increasingly positioned as a symptomatic feature of online life” (507). This ties in with Couldry’s idea of ‘presencing’; confession is increasingly a requirement when it comes to participation in digital media. As technology advances, the ways in which we can present and record the self evolve, and the narrative we can produce of the self expands alongside our understanding of the relationship between fact and fiction. Though of course we have always fabricated different narratives of the self, whether it be through diary entries or letter-writing, ‘presencing’ occurs when we literally present these edited versions of ourselves to an online audience. Lines become blurred between fiction and non-fiction, and the ability to distinguish between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ becomes almost impossible.

Increasingly, such a distinction fails to seem important, and in some cases, this blurred line becomes the point, or a punchline; we can see this most clearly in TikTok videos, wherein people (specifically, or at least most typically, young people—Generation Z) play with ideas of truth and unreality ironically. When a teenager posts a video of themselves on TikTok dancing in their school cafeteria with the caption, “I got suspended for this, don’t let this flop”, the savvy viewer understands without it needing to be said that the student was not actually suspended – and also understands that even less outlandish or unbelievable digital content is unreliable by nature, and simply the narrative the author or producer wishes to convey; just like the savvy reader of an autofiction novel understands, without it actually being said, that the novel is in part autobiographical, even when the author and protagonist do not share a name or other easily identifiable markers.

This is the nature of autofiction; it signals to the reader its status as a work of autofiction by littering intertextual clues throughout. Readers familiar with the author’s biography or body of work will pick up on these clues, creating a sense of uneasiness in the reader as they work to discern what is fact and what is not.

Indeed, in 10:04, Lerner flags the text as a work of autofiction by sketching a fictional-not-fictional image of himself as an author of a story, ‘The Golden Vanity’ published in The New Yorker, that earned him a book deal—a story the ‘real’ Ben Lerner did in fact publish, two years before the publication of 10:04: “a few months before, the agent had e-mailed me that she believed I could get a “strong six-figure” advance based on a story of mine that had appeared in The New Yorker” (Lerner 4).

In a review of 10:04 for the Sydney Review of Books, Stephanie Bishop writes:

we learn that he did indeed write a proposal, that there was a competitive auction … What had just happened? Where are we in time? Was the celebratory meal fictional or real? Can we (and should we) seek to distinguish these categories?

Here Lerner is ‘presencing’, crafting a multilayered version of himself across media by assuming that the reader of his work is also a reader of The New Yorker (an easy assumption to make given that his work often appears in, and is reviewed in, The New Yorker). Of course, this leads to the question: what becomes of autofiction when it is consumed by someone who is unable to pick up on the many metareferences layered within its narrative? In this case, the work itself becomes a joke that doesn’t land – much like a social media feed being consumed by someone who is not its intended audience.

The savvy media consumer also understands that even the most meaningless or obtuse of media is all part of the overarching narrative. Lerner highlights the way we try and impose meaning onto (arguably) meaningless media when he describes his experience of watching time pass in Marclay’s The Clock:

Big Ben, which I would come to learn appears frequently in the video, exploded, and people in the audience applauded… But then, a minute later, a young girl awakes from a nightmare and, as she’s comforted by her father (Clark Gable as Rhett Butler), you see Big Ben ticking away again outside their window, no sign of damage. The entire preceding twenty-four hours might have been the child’s dream, a storm that never happened, just one of many ways The Clock can be integrated into an overarching narrative. Indeed it was a greater challenge for me to resist the will to integration. (Lerner 52-53)

This desire to impose an overarching narrative that Lerner speaks of – and which I also experienced when watching The Clock, as detailed in the introduction to this essayis what the recording of the self both aims to achieve and achieves by default; it is the point and also the by-product. 

The Self as Data

The week my grandmother died, in 2017, my father bought me an Apple Watch. I had recently started running and—perhaps as an outlet for my grief—was looking to take my running further. I wanted a smart watch to help me record my runs; to turn the act of running into data that I could quantify and thus understand. This, in turn, would help me understand something about myself. Deborah Lupton explains my impulse here when she writes, “the body/self is portrayed as a conglomerate of quantifiable data that can be revealed using digital devices” (65). I wanted to reveal my ‘self’ by recording it, similar to the way the data accumulated in a diary, when reflected upon, helps a diarist understand their life more broadly. "Is a Fitbit a diary?”, asks Kylie Cardell. “The diary in the twenty-first century is already vastly different from many of its formal historical counterparts, yet there are discursive resonances. The Fitbit is a diary if we think of diary as a chronological record of data, which it can be” (348). The diary, as with the Apple Watch or Fitbit, is simply just a record of the self moving through time.

Thus I submitted myself to the task of turning as much of myself into digital data as was possible to do so. Every walk, swim, meditation, burst of productivity, lapse in productivity, and beat of my heart became quantified, as Cardell might say, diarised. There is a very simple sort of pleasure in watching the red, green and blue rings spin round as you stand more, move more, run more. There is something soothing in knowing that at any given moment in time, you can press a button and see exactly what your heart is doing; even more soothing is knowing that at any given time, you can open up an app and see what your heart has been doing today, yesterday, this month, this year. It made sense to me that this data was being collected via my timepiece; it was simply the accumulation of my ‘self,’ as viewed through the lens of time.

The Apple Watch was just the latest in a series of ways I have tasked technology with the act of quantifying myself; with my iPhone I track my periods with the Clue app. I measure my mental health with apps such as Shine, and my daily habits with Habitica. I have tried journaling apps such as Reflectly and Day One. While I have never actively tracked my food intake, or weight, or sex life, I know if I wanted to I could do this, too. And long before the Apple Watch, and long before my iPhone, too, I measured myself. In the late 2000s, I kept an online blog. Rebecca Blood notes that the development of blogging technology allowed blogging to become about “whatever came to mind. Walking to work. Last night’s party. Lunch” (54). Browning expands on this, noting that blogging

emerged as a mode of publication in the late ’90s, expressly smudging the boundaries of public and private. A diaristic mode, the blog nonetheless addresses (a) potential reader(s), often with great intimacy — and in its transition to print, as a boundary-shifting form with ill-defined goals regarding its readership. (49)

(It is worth noting here that while of course many different forms of blogging exist and have always existed, this essay is only concerned with the diaristic blog that Blood and Browning speak of – arguably the most popular, and at least the most well known, form of blog.)

My blog was also ostensibly about my own life, but really it was a work of autofiction, in the same way that my Apple Watch data, when shared, became a work of autofiction – which is to say that I became the central character, the author-character, whose narrative I was shaping with each post, using time as the setting. Jenny Davis writes:

if self-quantifiers are seeking self-knowledge through numbers, then narratives and subjective interpretations are the mechanisms by which data morphs into selves. Self-quantifiers don’t just use data to learn about themselves, but rather, use data to construct the stories that they tell themselves about themselves.

Over time, I became addicted to the blogging platform’s inbuilt metrics. I would watch with interest as certain posts performed better than others, and eventually the inevitable happened: I began – mostly unconsciously – to try and mould the content of my blogs to achieve certain outcomes – similar to the way that now, in 2019, it is hard to say whether I use an app to assist myself to meditate/journal/learn/etc, or whether I meditate/journal/learn/etc in order to record myself having done so.

David Sedaris notes how the collection of data subconsciously, automatically leads to its manipulation in his essay collection, Calypso:

for reasons I cannot determine my Fitbit died. I was devastated when I tapped the broadest part of it and the little dots failed to appear. Then I felt a great sense of freedom. It seemed that my life was now my own again. But was it? Walking twenty-five miles, or even running up the stairs and back, suddenly seemed pointless, since, without the steps being counted and registered, what use were they? (Sedaris, 49)

In this way, the data we collect on and produce about ourselves, be it fitness metrics, blog posts, Instagram stories or works of literature or art, allows us to control and shape our own narrative, and so we do, creating what Kylie Cardell describes as “an autobiographical representation of self that is coherent and linear, “excavated” from a mass of personal data” (502).

Of course, as foregrounded earlier, it is important to highlight the way ideas of privacy and audience shift in accordance with the type of media being consumed or created. Within different media, different author-characters emerge, and the author is required to participate in ‘presencing’ in different ways. For instance, data that exists only for the user does not require the user, or author, to participate in the act of ‘presencing’ at all – an example of this might be the Clue app, which records menstruation history. This information is only of interest to myself, and is not published or shared anywhere, with anyone. However even data intended for a limited audience still requires participation in ‘presencing’. While I only ‘share’ my Apple Watch’s activity with a few people, even just the act of sharing this activity influences the activity itself, creating an affect in which the fact of the content’s consumption shapes the creation of the content itself. Through consumption of Apple Watch data alone, a narrative can be built in which I am lazy, or dedicated, an early riser or a late sleeper, the kind of person who prefers setting their own goals, or the kind of person who enjoys group activities – and knowing that this narrative is being built requires me to act, consciously, in the experience of building it, which leads to the creation of something unreal or fictional interspersed with factual data. (All of which is to admit that sometimes I go on a run not because I want to go on a run, but because I want to be the sort of person who has gone on a run, and be seen as such: in this way I am ‘presencing’.)

Similarly, the ephemeral versus permanent nature of data shared through media like Snapchat or Instagram dictates its status as a work of autofiction. When a piece of data – for instance, a photograph on Instagram – is published permanently, it contributes to an evolving autofictional narrative. The ‘Instagrammed’ self is both real and unreal, both fictional and non-fictional. The consumer of this data can explore an author’s social media feed dating back years and consume this data in exactly the way the author intends. However, the ‘stories’ function on Instagram, for instance, allows the consumption of this data to change again. Content is published for a limited amount of time—usually 24 hours—then disappears, and is able to be shared with either the author’s entire group of followers, or a select audience, allowing an author more creative freedom to choose how their data is consumed.

Anxiety and Autofiction

Why do I feel the need to record all this data about myself? Obviously, this information is, to an extent, useful. If you are a person who menstruates, knowing exactly when your last period was, how long it lasted and how heavy it was is useful information to have, medically and logistically. If you run regularly, tracking your runs can be helpful in improving your time or routine. Similarly, recording the self in this way can be useful in keeping track of your moods, your habits, and your relationships.

Of course, as previously noted, humans have always recorded ourselves. Cardell notes that “although the forms, conditions, and technology for diary keeping have changed, a motivation for recording, documenting, and accounting for the experience of the self over time has endured” (349). Still, it is hard to ignore the fact that ultimately, we seem to be entering some sort of age of digital information hoarding, and harder still to ignore the sneaking suspicion that this all seems to speak to a growing anxiety – and specifically, an anxiety of the self.

Gayle Greene writes that “all writers are concerned with memory, since all writing is a remembrance of things past; all writers draw on the past, mine it as a quarry. Memory is especially important to anyone who cares about change, for forgetting dooms us to repetition” (291). If all writers are concerned with memory, as Greene posits, then perhaps we can draw the conclusion that autofiction writers are concerned with an anxiety of forgetting, or of being forgotten. We are self-conscious as authors of autofictional media; concerned with how our work is and will continue to be perceived – and whether it is perceived at all. Marjorie Worthington believes that that the rise in self-conscious fiction has resulted in an anxiety of obsolescence; that this anxiety in autofiction occurs “when a cultural trope (such as 'the author' is deemed to be in danger of becoming obsolete (or 'dying')” (27). However, it is worth considering the opposite – that an anxiety of obsolescence has resulted in a rise of self-conscious fiction, or autofiction.

This fear of obsolescence is pervasive in new digital media – Instagram stories and Snapchats, which once disappeared forever into a digital void, are now able to be saved and stored. The fifteen minutes of fame has morphed into fifteen seconds: in this way, time works both for and against the anxious author of digital autofiction. Technologies evolve quicker than we can keep up, with popular platforms becoming obsolete at a rapid pace. This results in what Kylie Cardell sees as an “anxiety around the traces of lives accumulating online and the consequences of 'accidental autobiography,' as well as the desire to have a 'tidy,' representable, and 'storied' life” (503).

This same desire can be seen at the root of autofiction. The media theorist José van Dijck notes that

with the advent of photography, and later film and television, writing tacitly transformed into an interior means of consciousness and remembrance, whereupon electronic forms of media received the artificiality label…writing gained status as a more authentic container of past recollection. (15)

Autofiction, however, disrupts this tacit transformation. It is a co-mingling of a desire to record the self, as well as a desire to control one’s own narrative. The drive to represent oneself in a specific way, with consideration to one’s audience and self-brand, has become the root of social media, but is so pervasive now that it is often an unexamined, subconscious one. In autofiction, this drive is not subconscious, it is self-conscious.

Conclusion

As technology has developed, new ways to record, present and evaluate the self have emerged. While an impulse to self-monitor has always existed within society, with the rise of ‘presencing’ through social media this impulse has been made public. In this way, we can see presencingor the public practice of self-performing through media, as an inherently autofictional practice. We can understand that the act of presencing stems from a place of anxiety and self-consciousness, and understand that is in fact impossible to create autofiction without self-consciousness. As we begin to understand that all digital media is becoming inherently autofictional in nature, we’re increasingly required to force to draw our own conclusions about the media we consume—just like the author-character of 10:04 is forced to draw his own conclusions about the passing of time, as represented by Big Ben, when interacting with Marclay’s The Clock. By analysing and comparing the ways in which the emerging digital landscape and autofiction both share a common goal of recording and preserving an interpretation of the ‘self’, we can then understand a deeper understanding of the purpose that autofiction serves. 

References

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Keywords


autofiction; social media; digital media



Copyright (c) 2019 Sian Petronella Campbell

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