The Self-Construction of Public Identity (Blogging, Authorship, and Roland Barthes’s Autobiography, Part IV of IV)

Here's a wordle visualizing the keyword-frequency of Part IV of this talk. Click to visit for a larger version. This is a difficult point. To begin with, let’s return, again, to a brief description of how blogs work. So far we’ve covered the prose entries themselves and the metadata structuring the definitions and operations of those entries. There are two additional elements, mostly non-manipulable by a blogs’ readers. Those two elements are the "blog theme" which is also referred to as the visual design, and the author’s "dashboard." A blog’s author can define, change, and experiment with all sorts interface elements. She can design different combinations of colors, graphics, and layouts to create a certain atmosphere framing the experience of the blog. But she also has access to her own "dashboard," an author-only interface where she configures certain navigational elements and small applets called "widgets." It’s here at the dashboard where she structures the ways which her visitors can search for specific terms, organize entries according to categories and keyword tags she defines. At no other point in the blogging experience is it more clear to the author just how much control she does and doesn’t have over the way her readers encounter her and her work.

Barthes has always been interested in self-representation. Even from his earliest writings, Barthes was constantly working toward a theoretical and practical understanding of his own work and identity as a writer.

In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes worked to establish the role of a writer’s background in determining his literary style and identity. In Mythologies, Barthes articulates a system of signification which operates on already existing meaning systems and narratives. In "The Death of the Author," Barthes acknowledges that the Author is no longer the arbiter of meaning within a text, and he posits infinite possible meanings within the space of the text. And finally, in his "Theory of the Text," he fully articulates the "signifiance" at play in all readings, concluding that all readings are writings and therefore all readers are authors of their own texts. But in each of these texts, Barthes constructs the originary Author as someone other than the reader. These positions become infinitely more complex when the author of a text is himself the subject of that text.

One of the clearest ways in which Barthes responds to this crisis of authorial identity is to define, as clearly as possible some sort of role for the author in making meaning within a text. In one sense, the one most closely related to classic notions of authorship, the author is someone who performs the "structuration" of semantic elements within a text ("Theory" 38). This collection of elements is the "tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture" to which Barthes refers in "The Death of the Author" (146). In keeping with the game theme scattered throughout so many post-structural texts, it can be said the Barthes Author is no longer a player in the meaning-constructing game, but is instead the one who sets the pieces. However, Barthes’s theory of the text strains under the problem of the first person pronoun, I, in fictional work, or in autobiographical contexts.

Striking in this text, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, are Barthes’s strategies for referring to himself: sometimes as “Barthes”, other times as “R.B.”, often “I”, “he”, “the boy”, “the writer”, etc. He also challenges reader expectations of chronological progression, moving eclectically from his childhood, early career, and later work. What his reader is left with is an undifferentiated mass of memories, musings, reflections, and aphorisms. A reader is left to wonder whether this odd book is a work of fiction, biography, autobiography, or disarticulated essay. Barthes’s explanation reveals little:

"To write by fragments: the fragments are then so many stones on the perimeter of a circle: I spread myself around: my whole little universe in crumbs; at the center, what?" (92-93).

How Might These Preoccupations of Barthes Enhance Scholars’ Understanding of the Genealogy of Blogging

I’d like to close with a couple of remarks about the import of the ways these preoccupations of Barthes so remarkably resemble those of contemporary bloggers.

When Barthes, in this final quotation asks, "at the center, what?" he acknowledges the instabilities and anxieties of identity in a post-structural experience of the world. And it’s unclear whether blogging is merely another way of asking Barthes’s question. Barthes was a post-structural writer navigating a post-structural experience of the world. Each word he wrote was an act of self-erasure as much as it was of self-construction. And what of bloggers, then? If not stones, then digital entries and metadata. And the question becomes not "at the center, what?" but "is there a center at all?" Blogs are databases constructed by authors and experienced by readers. And as such, more clearly than ever, both writing and reading are acts of construction. The question that bloggers will still be faced with is, is it an author, exactly, that’s being constructed?

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