In not dismissing the personal narratives of individuals, Frederic Jameson describes the ‘telling of the individual story and individual experience as ultimately involving the whole laborious process of telling of the collectivity itself’ (cf. Bhabha 292). The construction of a nation involves a process of selection and textual mediation which binds an imagined community to a constructed past. Homi Bhabha refers to the ‘cultural construction of nationness as a form of social and textual affiliation’ (292). He observes how narratives employ a host of complex strategies and cultural identification and discursive address which displace historicism. The focus on temporality, according to Bhabha, then resists the linearity of events and idea that historicism proposes. Personal narratives in this sense, provide a canvas for disjunctive forms of representations to re-represent cultures and nations.
It is in this context, this paper considers the role of weblogs in society and seeks to analyse their potential agency to re-cast historicity and to re-negotiate the identity of a nation. Personal commentaries and narratives contained in weblogs firstly jam spaces in the Internet, and secondly, they jam both temporality and the linearity of historicity that is contained in official voices that claim to speak on behalf of the nation. Nations are conceived as ‘imagined’ (Anderson), as a ‘myth’ (Gellner) or ‘invented’ (Hobsbawm & Ranger) rather than real and consequentially require great effort to construct and maintain. As such people and their narratives can be conceived as ‘neither the end nor the beginning of the national narrative’ (Bhabha 297). They represent a binary dialogism between the ethnographic perspective of people’s individual psyche and the ideological forces of the nation. While weblogs are often viewed as having the potential to build social networks and virtual settlements (Nardi et al.; Blanchard), this paper analyses the agency of personal narratives in providing embedded ethnographic perspectives in the electronic terrain and its consequences for the trajectory of history. It seeks to understand how mediated texts in weblogs can be situated in society and how it can be assessed as a media genre through cultural and literary theories.
New media spaces have created opportunities and novel ways of recording and archiving narratives of communities, cultures and societies. They represent sites of cultural production where cultural or collective memory can be articulated or re-ignited. The act of remembering can be ritualised and visualised in web spaces. The ability to personalise and publicise on the web presents new avenues for understanding and reviewing history. Undoubtedly, the internet as a repository of information and narratives accommodates a multitude of environments and genres which co-exist on the same platform. This co-presence can in many ways represent the dialectical struggles between competing forces in the offline society. The web spaces present a possibility for both the ephemeral and transient to manifest and equally narratives which can resist the linearity of historicity.
This jamming or flooding of electronic spaces with competing narratives makes the electronic terrain a contested space between the authentic and inauthentic as well as the empowered and the marginalised. This incessant plurality on the Internet can reorder both the temporal and spatial dimensions of mediated consciousness hence disrupting the linear historicity of nation-states and modernity. Modernity as a form of cognitive consciousness in society is constructed by carefully selecting the narratives of its birth to celebrate rationality, to resist the primeval tendencies and to renounce any association with its ignominious past or traditions. New media to a degree resists the dominant power structures of mainstream media thus encouraging civic participation and plurality in the new spaces where audiences can appropriate the role of producers; where the pronoun ‘I’ can assume a counter-point to the dominant discourses in society. Invariably, the age of globalization is one characterised by competing mediations which give rise to a postmodern ‘new memory’ (Hoskins) which is diffused yet not entirely free from the processes of state power or the emergence of ‘Holocaust Industry’ (Finklestein).
The Internet as a diverse platform for activities ranging from publishing to commerce forms part of the wider contemporary media landscape. Its lack of centrality and sheer expanse makes it a diffused medium catering to a plethora of niche interests and audiences. The personal blogs compete with a multitude of data and information that occur on the Internet and elsewhere in other media. The mass media inevitably has the power to construct national events and to sustain a mediated national memory through its image archives and narratives. Its ability to reach a wider audience and its pervasiveness in narrating the nation stands in contrast to niche and personalised media like blogs with their disparate audiences. Nevertheless, the occurrence of personal narratives in the alternative and niche spaces provides a counter-point to the dominant narratives of the mass media. Its occurrence, presence and sustained counter-commentary create a civilian electronic archive to represent people’s narratives and memory. While its ability to monopolise or dominate national narratives may be limited, its presence and utterance needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. With the proliferation of new media platforms in postmodern societies, the centre-periphery distinctions with regard to information, news and memory construction will become more problematic without completely diminishing the divisions between mass and niche media spaces.
The Physical and Virtual as Entwined
Just as physical spaces are a place of gathering for those who belong and those who are displaced, the Internet provides a convening space for disembodied presence. This is often viewed as a Manichean dualism between the occurrence of thought and material presence. Equally, this is seen as unleashing a virulent ‘avatarism’ (Donath) which seeks to re-invent this virtual disembodiment by assuming different identities or by embracing a non-identity of anonymity. This cognitive engagement with the virtual sphere and the attendant consequences with regard to identity construction and reinvention have been observed and studied by media theorists. Nevertheless the offline and online are not separate and compartmentalised entities. They are entwined in complex ways (Miller and Slater).
Virtual articulations as sites of cultural production reinforce the links between the real society and the virtual world, for the virtual is mediated through the societal norms and values of offline communities. Vygotsky’s (cf. Wertsch, Vygotsky; “Narrative”) concept of ‘mediation’ particularly in the form of language provides a link between the individual and the socio-cultural setting in which an individual is located. Hence the media artefact and the forms of use provide a form of mediation which reinforces the link between the individual and the social context.
The performative in the pronoun ‘I’ in a personal narrative can implicate the collective consciousness of a society linking the ‘I’ with an abstract ‘we’ and hence connecting individual narratives to the social frames and groups in society. In applying the Bakhtinian approach of self and authorship, for the ‘perceiver their own time is forever open and unfinished, their own space is always the centre of perception. In contrast the time within which we perceive others is always closed and finished’ (cf. Holquist 29). The cognitive time and space of an individual in a weblog interacts with the virtual spaces imposing a material world time on an illusive and imagined cyberspace. For Bakhtin, existence, like language is a shared event. Invariably, ‘self and authorship’ both conjoin and separate the immediate reality of ‘my own living particularity (a uniqueness that is present itself as only for me ) with the reality of the system that precedes me in existence (that is always-already-there) and which is intertwined with everyone and everything else.’ (Holquist 28). Unequivocally, ‘otherness’ is perceived from the vantage point of the self and in tandem, the utterance of ‘I’ provides the central point needed to calibrate all further time and space discriminations. Hence, ‘I’ is the invisible ground of all further time and space discriminations (Bakhtin).
Individual Psyche and Collective Memory
Maurice Halbwachs conceived the concept of collective memory in the 1920’s inspired by Durkeim’s notion of a ‘collective consciousness’ realized through the will of a crowd in a gathering. According to Halbwachs, it is the individuals (as group members) who remember with the aid of cultural tools (cf. Wertsch, “Narrative”). Hence the act of remembering is a diffused activity which is realised through the interface between individual agency and the utilization of cultural tools. Central to the notion of collective memory is textual mediation where active agents use symbolic means such as written texts, particularly narratives (Wertsch, “Narrative”). Web spaces with an abundance of individual and communal narratives embody a construct which is incomplete and prone to de-selection and decentring and where the identity of a nation can be re-imagined and re-conceived textually.
Employing the recurrent metaphor of the palimpsest (sheets of vellum on which the original writing has been rubbed out and written over) to the narratives of the Internet, these personal narratives or weblogs both challenge and retain the national past hence disrupting the sense of temporality and history. They can be both a symbolic form of resistance and conformity. For the post-structuralists, the palimpsest is representative of an intertextuality between different fields (Cryderman). These contemporaneous narratives on the Internet viewed through the allegory of the palimpsest signify a dialogism between the nationally-endorsed narratives and individual perspectives. In citing Homi Bhaba in the context of the Internet, it is evident that ‘the nation reveals in its ambivalent and vacillating representations, the ethnography of its own historicity and opens up the possibility of other narratives of the people and their difference’ (Bhabha 300)
Weblogs as Ethnographic Tools
Weblogs have started to a play a bigger role in the breaking and shaping of news since the late 1990s. With millions being published, blogs offer a new way of mediating national and global events with personal narratives which can contradict and or complement news and events as they are told in traditional media spaces. Blogs are often more localized and may be useful in building communities (Herring et al.). The Internet was initially conceived as a borderless entity with fluid boundaries which threaten the physical demarcations of nation-states. Nevertheless, the moulding of the Internet through the context and culture of use has witnessed a rise in the role of nation-states in enacting artificial boundaries on the virtual environment through regulations and social norms which have mediated the patterns of usage and forms of local appropriation of this global platform. The localisation and the personalisation of this electronic terrain represent the embeddedness of the Internet in the offline society and culture.
One of the most significant events in the trajectory of this electronic genre was the emergence of the post 9/11 weblogs which re-told the stories of ground-zero from the perspectives of the personal (Krishnamurthy). It showcased how individual narratives mediated global events tempering the landscape of news reporting. Likewise, the warblogs recorded the Iraq war from ethnographic perspectives providing intricate insights and in the process re-mediating the tone and coverage of mainstream media and public opinion.
Weblogs or web-based diaries occupy a tenuous space between the private and public. While diaries are kept by individuals to relate private experiences; their sacredness is in many ways characterised by their inaccessibility by others; often representing a solitary space for private ruminations and reflection. A diary loses its aura if its engagement with the self and the tenets of privacy are broken or violated. Weblogs which are written by individuals and made available to a potentially global community celebrate the performative aspect of the ‘self.’ A weblog’s relevance as an e-genre is signified by both its ability to retain its individual voice and its access to a wider community of strangers.
Weblogs are intrinsically hybrid formats which fuse private thoughts and commentary on a global plaftform facilitating communion with ‘imagined others’ while anchoring the self at the centre stage of articulation. In applying Bakhtin’s ‘law of placement’ in dialogism, everything is perceived from a unique position in existence, as such the meaning of whatever is observed is shaped by the place from which it is perceived (cf. Holquist 21). In this sense, we regard each other from different centres in cognitive space and thus the personal articulation has significance for the representation of the society and social frames. These spaces of private commemoration in part puncture the temporality of history and indeed the processes of history-making. Invariably, ‘the present of the people’s history then is a practice that destroys the constant principles of the national culture that attempt to hark back to true national past which is often represented in the reified forms of realism and stereotype’ (Bhabha 300). The present is not a static moment, but a mass of different combinations of past and present relations (Holquist 37). This is comparable to the format of a weblog where permalinks to other sites mediate the memory of blogs widening the potential ability to remember beyond the text that falls in the spaces of personal narrative.
The jamming of web spaces with personal narratives for the consumption of local and global audiences signifies new public spaces of private commentary, public commemoration and global communion. These private spaces then link the national events of the world with personal perceptions, hence incorporating historic time within the spaces of self expression. Here the chronotope of world events becomes embedded in the ‘personal.’ Web diaries written in war zones by citizens of their day-to-day encounters with the aggressor record both time and events from the vantage point of the oppressed; a private narrative which occupies its space in a global stage. Here the private narrative in a public space challenges the temporality of war as well as the linearity of historicity. National cultures, according to Bhabha are ‘signs of control or abandonment and as such counter-narratives continuously evoke and erase its totalising boundaries both actual and conceptual thus disturbing those ideological manoeuvres through which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities’ (Bhabha 300). Inevitably the emergence of ‘new memory’ (Hoskins) in the postmodern world is a contradictory one which needs to reconcile the durable visual images of our electronically mediated world as well as the competing mediations of diverse niche and personalised media artefacts which negate or recast the hegemony of this visual culture.