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
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
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
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
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
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).
Todd Napolitano is a doctoral candidate
at Temple University.
Copyright © 1996 ebr
and the author. All rights reserved.