Of Graphomania, Confession, and the Writing Self

Of Graphomania, Confession, and the Writing Self

1996-09-01

Todd E. Napolitano on the kitsch of on-line journals, most of which have flashed and disappeared since they were panned here, in the Fall 1996 ebr.

[ At the time of its publication in 1996, this essay caused quite a stir in the greater online community, with an essay by Diane Patterson at the fore. At stake was the association of online journals and “women’s writing.” The links to the journals mentioned are no longer active. For a contemporaneous essay on Web journals, see Greg Dyer’s Stealing Glances, or Rob Wittig’s Justin Hall and the Birth of the Blogs for a more recent look at “blogs,” Eds. ]

Anyone venturing to explore a genre as vast as women’s writing on the Web is bound to feel a bit overwhelmed by the innumerable number of people calling themselves “writers.” Milan Kundera’s words readily come to mind here. “According to my calculations,” writes Kundera, “there are two or three fictional characters baptized on earth every second.” For years, I felt Kundera’s estimate to be rather exaggerated, flash-in-the-pan “creative writers” not withstanding. Until recently, that is. For as I think about his project on women’s writing on the net, I can’t help wondering if Kundera’s estimate isn’t somewhat understated.

I don’t want to sound overly pessimistic here. In fact, I very much relish the idea that all net identities are fictional characters of sorts - isn’t this the creative allure of virtual reality, to become-beyond-oneself in an endless “web” of information, identities, and virtual bodies, to experience a radically new aporia with one’s mundane, this-worldly existence. The ironic juxtaposition of “virtual” reality and the “real” - this was the power of transgression that once attracted me to the Net. A new moment of aesthetic emergence [ entstehung ], the moment of arising as Nietzsche puts it. Indeed, what is so important here is that Nietzsche always writes to efface himself. The Net, I thought - the ironic play of identities, an electronic masquerade, writing to unwrite oneself.

Ah, I am quite the fool. Having spent hours over the past three or four years reading through just some of the thousands of so-called “writers” publishing themselves electronically, I now completely empathize with Kundera when he claims, “I am always unsure of myself when it comes time for me to enter that vast crowd of John the Baptists.” Unfortunately, Kundera’s Kierkegaardian moments of self-doubt remain the exception rather than the rule. Now, I certainly do not wish to squelch creativity (I am not quite as abject as Adorno in this regard), and I by no means want to dismiss women’s writing per se. Quite the contrary, I am an advocate. What I am lamenting is how anyone with a computer and access to the Net fancies themselves a writer who simply must be read. Like an assembly of crazed narrators from a Poe anthology, this new generation of hacks simply grab you by the shirt collar and refuse to let go until their story has been told.

Kundera has the perfect term for this sort of writing - Graphomania. As Kundera describes it, graphomania is not “the mania to create a form,” that is, not a mania to create challenging new aesthetic forms and media, but rather a mania “to impose one’s self on others” through already established modes of “received ideas” and pervasive non-thought [ idées reçues ]. Graphomania reflects a singular neurosis common to modernity: namely, the need to have an audience, “a public audience of unknown readers.” Graphomaniacs aspire to make stories out of their lives and thus presume to do a lot of people good. Writing four love letters a day is not graphomania; xeroxing your love letters so that they may be published one day is. In other words, it is true we cannot do without feelings. But I think Kundera puts it best when he says that “the moment they are considered values in themselves, criteria of truth, justifications for kinds of behavior, they become frightening.”

Frankly, I find many on-line journals frightening, all the more so because graphomania is not just an isolated phenomenon; no, it is a cultural ethos and a morality, and it is not restricted to writing per se. On the contrary, it pervades the very fabric of our every-day relations with others.

“That’s just like me, I….”

We may see graphomania as the overpowering conflation of the will to truth, the will to power, and ressentiment.

The on-line personal journal - at its worst, a new outlet for personal refuge we would otherwise find inane, petty, and grotesquely self-indulgent - is a perfect case in point. For here we have graphomania masquerading as the journal, that progressive, alternative women’s medium which has fortuitously found voice in academe. Certainly, journals are an empowering medium in the history of women’s writing, given the patriarchal politics underpinning the aesthetic realm. As such, their artistic and political import cannot and should not be overlooked. But too many on-line journals, while purporting to have a place within the larger tradition of women’s journal writing, are in actuality merely the same old blather recycled in the guise of the “new” and politically correct.

These journals include Carolyn Burke’s Diary, Jessa’s Journal, Willa’s Journal, Mary Anne’s “An Ongoing, Erratic Diary,” Laura’s Warm Puppy Diary,” Sabina’s Old Diaries. The list goes on.

From what I can tell, the gnomic injunction of your average on-line journal is two-fold and interpellative: Confess, and be true to your Self (understood here as something essential and virtuous). “Who one is,” to borrow Foucault’s once sardonic and ironic phrase, is made impervious to the cancerous threat of the fictive which is so much a part of the writing (and written) self. The on-line journals I read are not writing; they are graphomaniacal confessions which are quite blind to their own insight (ironic considering the self-reflective nature of the genre).

Case in point: “Coffee Shakes” by Sage A. Lunsford. Filled with nightmares, parental warfare, and Prozac, “Coffee Shakes,” like many on- line journals I have read, is overburdened with “ache” and “anger”, “veggie burgers”, politically incorrect neighbors, and the overblown environment of “feeling unaccountably terrible.” Amidst all the feeling “bone-crushingly sad” - pathos above all else - readers are told that the cat was fed wet food, sanitary pads were purchased as a fortuitous afterthought, and pop culture just sucks (compared to truly avant-garde phenomena such as X Files, used book stores, and Ruth Rendel novels). Life is simple in this neck of the Net. Racism is bad and “pop-psych” radio shows are good. Wal-Mart, MTV, and America On-Line are “Blech”; purging personal “monsters” is healing.

Such is “Coffee Shakes” And as I mentioned above, it is symptomatic of the poor quality characterizing on-line journals in general. Clearly, a preponderance of these diarists are searching for a sense of connectedness with others. There is a strong urge here to confess with an odd sense of arrogance about having been bad, or beaten, or unloved. But there is also a deep need for compassion and understanding which is quite poignant. And so the guilt readers feel, coupled with their own senses of alienation and disconnectedness, keeps them clicking the page, so to speak. With each page, one moves further into the quagmire of graphomania with its overblown environment of sentimental gestures.

The computer is such an impersonal medium, however, that the desire to “connect” with others will always fall short. A fine journal would ironize this. Instead, we usually get the sort of self-aggrandizing myopia that fills “Coffee Shakes.” “But then, Todd and I are quite anti-social (Sarah and Todd and I like to say that we enjoy each other’s company precisely because we’re all anti-social and enjoy our time alone and Sarah’s really the only person we hang out with outside the computer).” Alienation and “anti-social” feelings become as marketable a commodity as anything pandered by Wal-Mart or MTV.

Aside from the co-option of this otherwise historically important women’s medium, what concerns me most is the penchant these diarists have for essentializing their otherwise psychologically nihilistic identities. They do indeed constitute, in Kundera’s definition of graphomania, “a brute revolt against brute force, an attempt to free one’s ear from bondage, a frontal attack the objective of which is to occupy the enemy’s ear.” In the process - and this is the fundamental characteristic of confession - all political nuance is lost as are the subtleties of writing fiction (which, like it or not, is all we ever write when we write about ourselves).

In retrospect, I suppose that I shouldn’t have expected so much. After all, the computer is the most efficient, industrious, and productive creation our society has spawned. When the dust settles, when this most recent technological tumult finally quiets, I suspect we will remain one-dimensional all the same. Marcuse was so right. What seemed like great progress will prove to be stagnation, nonetheless, with the notable exception of the NASDAQ, which soared to new heights, making fantasies come true for daring high-tech investors, not adventurous Net surfers. One person’s artistic dream is another’s dividend, I suppose.

The ironies abound considering that sending identity adrift through the medium of writing, what Oscar Wilde might call the fine art of “lying,” seems to be increasingly intolerable among site masters these days, fiction having given way to the ethical imperative that one must always present oneself to be who one “really” is. Above all, no lying! (Of course, recent government regulations will now ensure that we do not represent ourselves as more depraved than good Americans should be. Is this Big Brother or a reflection of ourselves?). Indeed, the tensions of writing about human existence, the ironies of trying to write what is always ever ahead of language, are lost - the mortification of the question (Blanchot). And if it is merely superficial and trite to demand sources and continuities, centers and consistencies amidst the infinities of the net, we can say the very same about the writing self, the written self. Yet amidst the growing marketplace of technological flights of fancy daring us to go where no one has gone before, one thing seems to be missing, namely writing, that is, writing which, with the sweeping gesture of the fictive, allows the writing self to continually form anew.

Unfortunately, I have found that too many on-line journals - women’s or otherwise - are simply another cog in the mode of mainstream, normative, socio-cultural identity production. What we have, then, is kitsch, albeit something far more than just l’art pacotilliste, far more than just junk art. What we have is a facet of an overwhelming socio-cultural ethos, a life-force and a spirit even (we can speak of the Kitschmensch and the Kitsch-Man’s need for kitsch, as does Hermann Broch).

Kitsch - that is, the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at our own reflection (Kundera).