Negotiating Selves: Exploring Cultures of Disclosure

Bree Hadley, Rebecca Caines

Abstract


If identity is a construct—and, more critically, a construct defined and developed through relationships with others in public and private spheres—then an understanding of the processes, mechanisms and platforms by which individuals disclose information about themselves is crucial in understanding the way identity, community and culture function, and the way individuals can intervene in the functioning of culture.

In this issue of M/C Journal, contributors from the U.S., U.K., and Australia consider the personal, professional and social consequences of disclosure in autobiographical art, community art, online media, and a range of other communicative and cultural practices. Approaching the topic from the perspective of those who disclose, and from the perspective of those who interpret disclosures by or about others, the contributors raise a range of questions about the way in which individuals are currently negotiating the difficult, risky business of disclosure. The articles develop a diverse, yet surprisingly coherent, body of theorisation, constantly returning to the motivations that underpin disclosure, the way disclosure can be interpreted or coopted by others, and, as a result, an overarching concern with the modes, mechanisms and contexts, rather than the content, of disclosure.

Disclosure can be defined as a voluntary or involuntary communication of facts, information, feelings or beliefs as part of a social interaction. What the contributors to this issue demonstrate, however, is that disclosure is never neutral—it is always burdened by a complex set of positive and negative valuations of its status. It acts as a revelation, confession, or confirmation of personal characteristics an individual is suspected or expected to possess; and it is readily coopted as part of a continuing cultural labour to categorise and control specific identity positions.

Certainly, the ability to open up and share of oneself continues to be seen as integral to the development of agency, a healthy personality, and healthy interpersonal relationships (Cozby 77; Frattaroli 823). As Joanne Frattaroli argues, psychological theory has validated the Freudian argument that disclosing information, thoughts and feeling to others, including therapists —especially feelings about the challenges an individual has encountered in their life—can be seen as cathartic, assisting individuals to release and regulate their emotions (824). Many of the contributors to this issue consider the personally transformative potential of disclosure—for instance, Petra Kuppers, Jill Dowse and Luis Sotelo-Castro. All three authors cite personal transformation as a potential consequence of participatory arts practices which involve disclosure. Their analyses of the personally empowering potential of such activities are, however, tempered by a clear recognition that such disclosures operate in a context where all participants in the interaction are involved in negotiations regarding agency, and access to position, recognition or power. This is a negotiation apparent in Jill Dowse’s description of her voluntary self-disclosures in a very public arts project, and, equally, in Christine Lohmeier’s description of her involuntary self-disclosures via Facebook during an ethnographic research project, Nick Muntean and Anne Petersen’s analysis of celebrity self-disclosures on Twitter, or Michelle Phillipov’s study of media responses to young people’s self-disclosures on the social networking site MySpace.

Understood in a social context, disclosures are bound up with what Erving Goffman has called impression management strategies, and are characterised by the more or less conscious efforts at definition, redefinition, discretion, deceit or manipulation designed to control the impression an individual conveys many contributors to this issue unpack. For Goffman, the social stakes of self-presentation “set the stage for a kind of information game—a potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation and rediscovery” (8) in which both individuals and society are implicated. “In Goffman’s framing of these acts of self-presentation”, as award-winning U.S. performance maker, facilitator and scholar Petra Kuppers says in our feature article, “performance and dramaturgical choices are foregrounded: impression management is an interactive, dynamic process. Disclosure becomes a semiotic act, not a ‘natural’ unfiltered display of an ‘authentic’ self, but a complex engagement with choices.” Whilst disclosure has been linked in popular discourse to values such as authenticity, authority and “truth,” our contributors highlight the fact that acts of disclosure are not—or, at least, not simply—about a personal decision to show some aspect of a (presumed) pre-existing self to the public. Disclosures are semiotic acts, ideological acts, and, above all, performative acts, which construct, rather than just convey or confirm, specific identities and realities. The subject of disclosure does not have control over the meanings attributed to it. Whilst the disclosure of personal information via language, movement, or the more subtle gestural registers our contributors discuss here, can be a deliberate choice in art, or in daily life, disclosure also happens in the extra-textual zones that exist beneath, in-between or beyond the elements of the communicative interaction participants can control. These actions can be hijacked by others, or by the media, and can leave individuals vulnerable to culturally reductive readings. Kuppers, for instance, provides a compelling account of the way she has felt the weight of long-established cultural narratives closing off her own reading of other people’s disclosures about disease and disability—“Yes, we know this story: we can manage her identity for her, and his social role can click into fixity.” As Kuppers reminds us, the right to speak of one’s self, and the right to a receptive audience, is hard earned. Disclosure can lead to closures as identity positions grow inflexible and oppressive under the weight of unexamined discourse.

The struggle for control over the processes, mechanisms and platforms of disclosure, and the tactics individuals use to try to take control of or challenge the meanings their disclosures are accorded, is a recurrent theme throughout this issue. Our contributors read this struggle in terms of vulnerability, power, and the performative construction of identity, drawing attention to the way disclosure can operate as a mode of liberation, as a liability, or both at once.

In the feature article, Petra Kuppers explores the performance of disclosure, circling around concepts such as intimacy, convergence, form, interactivity and specificity, and exposing fault lines in the practice of self-disclosure which are later taken up by other contributors. Using a performance-as-research perspective, Kuppers’s article takes the reader through the practical implementation of disclosure practices in performance making, exploring the sensuous, painful, powerful risks of telling personal stories to others and the difficulties of framing these stories in ways that connect to other performers and audiences. Drawing on examples from her work as Artistic Director of the long-running international performance project The Olimpias, including the performance workshop series Burning, and historical witnessing, and the inquiry “anti-archive” The Anarcha Project, Kuppers asks how artists using disclosure can form sensual, interactive, ethical, active responses to human lives. Through reference to artistic and theoretical responses to this sort of work, Kuppers argues that experimental forms of performance-making offer disclosures that are “matter: deterritorialising and reterritorialising, familiar and strange, shaping into form, and shaped out of formlessness.” She suggests that these “disclosures are in time and space: they are not narratives that create an archive or a body of knowledge,” but rather a porous and crumbling “vessel” for the precious secrets and revelations of lived experience.

Jill Dowse, actor and director for Foursight Theatre, a long-running women’s performance company based in Wolverhampton in the U.K., also addresses the performance practices of bodies in public space. Dowse analyses her own performance practice as a participant in the public art piece One and Other by Antony Gormley in London’s Trafalgar Square throughout the summer of 2009. Dowse explores her impulse to apply to be one of the 2,400 U.K. citizens chosen to have one hour on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. She explains how the project forced her to examine her relationship to her own artistic practice, as she negotiated the physical height of the plinth, her own vertigo, and the equally dizzying national expectations and commercialisation of the project by the media. Through reference to the work of Rachel Rosenthal, Dowse teases out the ways in which the process of making and enacting a performance work is a mediated process of disclosure and how subjects in acts of disclosure struggle for control over both the representation of self and the content and form of the communication which ensues in order to “re-imagine [the] relationship with fear and challenge, recognising, even in the core of fear, the potential for transformation.”

Artist and scholar Jenny Lawson provides another perspective on the difficult negotiations involved in disclosing the self in performance, unpacking the ways in which she has used the meanings attached to the making and sharing of food to disclose, confess and deconstruct elements of her own cultural identity in her interactive, durational performance If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake. Lawson situates her work in the context of others who have used a relationship to food to “confess” aspects of their lives, comparing and contrasting celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s use of intimate confessions about food, cooking and eating to construct a marketable media persona with performance artist Bobby Baker’s use of intimate confessions about food, cooking and eating as part of “a field of resistant arts practice through which she discloses her often painful and difficult relationship to femininity and the domestic.” Paying particular attention to the way boundaries between public and private, fact and fiction, are crossed in the “mock-autobiographical” performances of Nigella and Baker, Lawson points to the way relationships to food reflect broader cultural anxieties about the body, identity and femininity. Lawson argues that her own durational performances play with autobiographical disclosures that position her quite literally in the “Domestic Goddess Hall of Fame,” drawing attention to her own subjectivity (and failings), and inviting audiences—for instance, by photographing themselves interacting with Lawson and her cakes—to participate in a potentially transformative consideration of their own position in the process of constructing a self-narrative through food, cooking and eating.

Whilst Kuppers, Dowse and Lawson’s articles on disclosure, and the way identity is constructed or deconstructed through the performance of disclosures that operate at the nexus of self, other, identity, memory, history and the media, all speak from the perspective of the performer or performance maker, Luis Sotelo-Castro shifts our attention to the positioning of participants in such performance practices. Sotelo-Castro examines the potential cartographic (self-mapping) power of site-specific, participant-led performance practices. His work explores the theoretical concept of “positioning,” and the ways cartographic practices “present the self in spatio-temporal terms and by means of performative narratives that re-define the subject from an isolated individual into a participant within an unfolding live process.” Through an examination of Running Stitch (2006), a performance and visual art project by Jen Southern (U.K) and Jen Hamilton (Canada) in Brighton in the U.K., Sotelo-Castro examines the revelation and concealment that occurs when audiences are asked to enact and interact with the spaces around them and the problems which occur when there are no appropriate, collective methods for capturing the participants’ potentially transformative disclosures and realisations embedded in the design of these projects.

Donna Lee Brien and Jennifer Phillips investigate works that involve autobiographical confession and disclosure, again drawing attention to the complex relationships between fact and fiction that characterise such works, and the way the audience’s extra-textual knowledge of the subject of the disclosures (at times pleasurably) effects the audience’s engagement with such works.

Brien looks at fictionalised disclosures of biographical information in literary and theatrical texts. She explores how “contemporary authors play with, and across […] boundaries, creating hybrid texts that consciously slide between invention and disclosure.” Brien examines the example of Australian playwright Jill Shearer’s play Georgia and its reliance on disclosing the life of artist Georgia O’Keeffe. In Georgia, Brien finds that the biographical facts alongside dramatic (invented) elements creates a nuanced response to the complex subjectivity and history of this well-known artist. The piece also exposes the pitfalls facing authors who negotiate the expectations of readers and critics on the continuum between private “facts” and creative “expressions.”

Phillips also explores literary fictions and disclosures and audience expectations. She highlights the exorcism of personal and professional ghosts in the “mock-disclosures” of author Bret Easton Ellis. Phillips examines Ellis’s 2005 novel, Lunar Park. In it she finds a complex game occurring, where Ellis includes overtly autobiographical data that is suspect, incorrect or misrepresented in order to respond to critics’s and readers’s assumptions about this previous fiction works as somehow autobiographical. “It is possible,” Phillips says, “to see how this fictional text transgresses the boundaries between fiction and fact in an attempt to sever the feedback loop between the media’s representation of Ellis and the interpretation of his fictional texts.” Phillips argues that these mock-disclosures go further than just responding to the critics, in fact acting as a form of closure for both the public controversies surrounding his depiction of violent deaths in American Psycho, and more subtly for personal tragedy in the author’s life, especially for the death of his father, who at the close of the novel is depicted memorialised in the pages of a novel.

In the final section of this issue, Christine Lohmeier, Nick Muntean and Anne Petersen, and Michelle Phillipov take up the question of the way new technologies impact on the logics, mechanisms and processes of disclosure. They examine the part strategic efforts at closure through disclosure can play in constructing an image of the self for a specific online audience, the boundaries between public, private, fact and fiction in online disclosures, and the way such disclosures can become the locus for broader conversations about identity, relationships and the functioning of culture. As danah boyd has argued, “technology that makes social information more easily accessible can rupture people’s sense of public and private by altering the previously understood social norms” (14). For boyd, the locus of increased anxiety about the disclosure of private information in contemporary technoculture is not so much about the substance of the private information disclosed, but, rather, about people’s struggle to negotiate the processes by which the information is concealed or disclosed. “The reason for this is that privacy is not simply the state of an inanimate object or set of bytes,” which may be set as seen or unseen. Rather, boyd says, “it is about the sense of vulnerability that an individual feels when negotiating data” (14). Lohmeier, Muntean and Petersen, and Phillipov all focus on specific forms of personal, professional and social vulnerability that arise as a result of such negotiations, unpacking the way in which individuals and cultures respond to this vulnerability.

Lohmeier turns our attention to the complexities of constructing a self through voluntary and involuntary disclosures on social networking sites such as Facebook, within the specific context of ethnographic research with communities. Using her own ethnographic fieldwork with Cuban-American communities in Florida as an example, Lohmeier considers the way the challenges that have always accompanied the researcher’s attempt to position him or her self, and disclose an appropriate amount of information about him or her self, are further complicated in a contemporary context where study participants can Google the researcher and construct their own perception of the researcher’s identity on the basis of information placed on sites like Facebook. In doing so, Lohmeier raises important questions about the way the researcher’s identity is negotiated and constructed by the researcher and the research participants over time, about the co-presence of personal and professional identities on online platforms, and the lack of methodological and institutional frameworks to assist the researcher in dealing with these questions. She argues that “my wariness of disclosing too much of myself, aspects of my identity that would threaten my performance as a ‘stable researcher self,’ held other parts of my fragmented identity captive” during and after the research process.

Petersen and Muntean examine the way in which the rapid proliferation of new modes of probing into personal lives in contemporary technoculture has prompted celebrities to make use of social networking technology, particularly Twitter, in an attempt to take back control of the star image on which their career success and their value as a cultural commodity is based. “Through Twitter,” Muntean and Petersen say, “the celebrity seeks to arrest meaning—fixing it in place around their own seemingly coherent narrativisation,” as studio systems and strict control by publicists once tried to do. For Muntean and Petersen, though, the authenticity attributed to celebrity tweets is an ideological act, and Twitter itself is “a form of disclosure perfectly attuned to the mindset of technoculture.” Twitter operates in the space between what they call the “conspiratorial mindset,” as a mode of desire intent on discovery of the secret, and the “celebrity subject,” as the unknowable excess that gives substance or orientation to that mode of desire. Muntean and Petersen argue that it is the modality of the seemingly unrehearsed, self-revelatory disclosures on Twitter, rather than the actual object or content of such disclosures, that is central in constructing the inherently unstable subjectivity of both the celebrity and the fan.

Phillipov closes this issue with a timely analysis of cultural anxiety about the types of disclosure new media technology makes possible, focusing on the way Australian news media reports attempted to link the murder of Carly Ryan and the suicides of Jodie Gater and Stephanie Gestier in 2007 to their participation in emo subculture, and their presence on the MySpace social networking site in which this subculture is seen to flourish. Phillipov highlights the paradoxes embedded in the news reports on these tragic events. In particular, she unpacks the way the young women’s disclosures on MySpace were “seen as simultaneously excessive and inadequate”—revealing private feelings in a way that left them vulnerable to adult predators, but, at the same time, placing these revelations on a platform where they could be kept hidden from adults who might have helped them. Drawing on John Hartley’s theorisation of news reporting about young people, Phillipov casts the news commentators’s tenuous attempts to link the deaths of Ryan, Gater and Gestier to emo, and to excessive disclosure on MySpace, as what Hartley calls a “cultural thinking-out-loud” (17) in which discussion of the events themselves quickly became the basis for attempts to articulate and explore broader anxieties about the “unknowability” of youth and youth culture.

What Phillipov and our other contributors make clear is that the risks, perils and pleasures of self-disclosure are always tied to the subject’s ability to negotiate not just the content of their disclosures, but the cultural mechanisms and discourses that frame their disclosures, and that this negotiation always occurs at the nexus of the individual, medium, and culture. Our contributors point to the level of individual or cultural self-consciousness embedded in many forms of disclosure, and the factors that, as Kuppers argues, make speaking as, about or of a self a challenging, confronting yet compelling prospect for the individual (as in Kuppers, Dowse, Lawson, Lohmeier, and Muntean and Petersen’s articles), for the audience (as in Kupper, Sotelo-Castro, Brien, Phillips, and Muntean and Petersen’s articles), and for the culture (as in Phillipov’s article).

Though they cover a diverse cross-section of contemporary forms of disclosure, the articles in this issue capture a profound anxiety about disclosure that coheres around a conflicting desire to both deterritorialise and reterritorialise, both liberate and arrest, the meanings attached to self-narrations. They also highlight the way in which the phenomenon boyd has called social convergence underpins anxieties, and negotiations, about what people choose to disclose. As boyd says, “social convergence occurs when disparate social contexts are collapsed into one […] Social convergence requires people to handle disparate audiences simultaneously without a social script” (18). In one way or another, most of the contributors to this issue point to the way that convergence—of fiction, factual, public and private details about an artist’s life, a celebrity’s life, a researcher’s life, or a teenager’s life “normally” articulated in separate contexts for separate audiences—challenges their control over their self-disclosures (18), impacts on the way they negotiate their self-disclosures, and shapes the way audiences, media, and cultural authorities react to their self-disclosures. 

Whilst conscious of the risks that arise when facets of a fragmented identity momentarily cohere in an act of disclosure, including the risk that identities will be essentialised by the weight of expectation culture attaches to such acts, our contributors focus on the creative dimensions of disclosing. These articles highlight the way individuals and societies use the communicative modes and mechanisms of disclosure in order, as Kuppers says, to “think outside the structure of story, outside the habits of thought that make us sense and position ourselves in time and space, in power and knowledge,” feeling our way towards new formations of identity and culture, whether liberatory or oppressive, transformative or reintegrative. Whilst self-disclosures cannot always be perforated, contaminated or re-performed in ways that elide recuperative readings, through a focus on the slippery productive and performative dimensions of disclosure, our contributors remind us of the important cross-disciplinary work that is going on in the ongoing negotiation of identity, culture and community.

References

boyd, danah. “Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck: Exposure, Invasion, and Social Convergence.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14.1 (2008): 13–20.

Cozby, Paul C. “Self-Disclosure: A Literature Review.” Pschological Bulletin 79.2 (1973): 73–91.

Frattaroli, Joanne. “Experimental Disclosure and Its Moderators: A Meta-Analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 132.6 (2006): 823–865.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 1973.

Hartley, John. “‘When Your Child Grows Up Too Fast’: Juvenation and the Boundaries of the Social in the News Media.” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 12.1 (1998): 9–30.




Copyright (c) 2009 Bree Hadley, Rebecca Caines

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