So, like many many academic bloggers, I found myself sitting in the audience today for the packed “Meet the Bloggers” panel at MLA. (I won’t grumble too much about how that panel filled the room while my 8:30 panel drew only five of my own friends and colleagues). Organized by Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephalous, John Holbo, most prominently of The Valve, Michael Berube of Michael Berube fame, the blogger known as Bitch Ph.D., whose identity was outed by this panel, the talks brought up, cogently though not uncntroversally, issues surrounding academic discourse, academic publishing, academic community, bloggy in-fighting, the historical antecendents of the manifestations of blogs, gendered implications of blogging, you name it.
But what was far more compelling for me was the actual meeting of bloggers whom I knew, until only recently, as electronic personae. I knew a few names, and in the case of Nels, had seen a few pics, but the actual meeting was something. Despite having read their words for months or even years in some cases, the actuality of them as people is already changing (or perhaps temporarily changing) the way I read their blogs.
I wanted to take a little time to speculate about why this is, and how this effect might be working, because a lot of the discussion about community in the blogosphere I think might be implicated in the phenomenon, if not hinge on it.
First, I want to add all of my critical caveats about privileging the ontological status of liveness (with a nod to Phillip Auslander), and to the role of the body is reifying or naturalizing some kind of identity construct. I know the name of the person who goes by Dr. Crazy, but I cannot say with any certainty that those two personae are a) the same, b) congruent, or even if neither, which persona is more authentic. I hate the notion of authenticity anyway.
That said, bodies matter here. and voices, too. They have gendered implications, to be sure, and I have to acknowledge that as a straight white man, the male gaze is a component of my impressions that I might account for, if not resist. But having Flavia's voice to attach to her posts is in some way difficult to explain, deeply rewarding.
There's stuff to be said about all of this from the discourses of autobiography and theatre. Life Writing scholars all know that an autobiography can hardly be said to be a reliable document of any kind of essential self. Sidonie Smith goes so far as to argue that the act of writing autobiography is a performative utterance of identity constitution (Foucault's sense of confession as an entrance into subjectivity is also relevant here). And given that Butler has given us plenty to think about with the notion of the body as constructed by discourse, we can extend this to live self-narration, or even live "performances" of real life (because we all know how "on-stage" we are at MLA or most any conference, really.
But theatre theorist Susan Bennett reminds us that the live body seems to offer any representation of self a "special purchase on the real," and whether this is a statement about the ontological status of live performance, or merely about the rhetorical effects of it, it seems to apply to the f2f meetings I've just had. Of course, how am I to know that the person I just met is the same person as the blogger whom I read? There may be ways of verifying generally, but I will never be certain that I actually met real bloggers--who's to say that Mel wasn't really GF? or that Dr. Crazy wasn't really Medusa?
And yet, I cannot underestimate that purchase on the real of the bodies and voices I can now attach to the narratives. And this has implications for how I read them:
First is the fact that I will continue to read them. It is certain that I tended to read blogs more when a pseudonymous identity was revealed to me, and this seems even deeper--my blog-circle, my blogging house, to borrow from Oso Raro--is now centered around these writers.
So what of the purported community of bloggers, if a simple meet-up deepens it immeasurably? Is the blogosphere a "real" community, or just the breeding grounds for some pre-conditions for community? Can a community exist without place? without bodies?
Of course it can, and I'd be a fool to say that a live meeting suggested the falsity of the community that brought us together in the first place, but the questions this whole meet-up raised for me implicated the very nature of what we're doing here (see? space!) and why. And the fact that these already existing electronic communications were bolstered (and decidedly not undermined) by the aspect of liveness of the past week tells me something about the value of this endeavor for me personally, and even professionally.
Of course there are far fewer conclusions drawn here than questions raised, but at any rate, let me pull back and simply mention how, well, nice, it was to meet you all. My reading in the future, my sense of community in this space-without-a-place, is utterly changed, and I suspect for the richer.