Travel, Identity, Blogging

Last Thursday, in my Internet Writing & Society class, we discussed identity, and in what aspects specific media genres (for instance the “homepage,” webcam site, MUD, livejournals and weblog) allow for the fashioning of identities, which are not necessarily one the same type of identity that the author might intend — that the various media allow for a limited kind of “self-fashioning” and that the identity (or identities) fashioned by these media representations of self are generally distinct both from the author's “real life” identity and from what the author imagines the media identity to be. Many people do make assumptions from the posts to a weblog, and they aren't always the assumptions you'd want them to make. For instance, the caxton server went down shortly after I'd arrived in Bergen, so my travel memoirs were limited to an airport discussion and a discussion of a party I attended. When I arrived back at Stockton, I heard from several colleagues that they were jealous of me for getting over to Europe, and in one case that from my blog he saw that I was “carousing rather than visiting stave churches, which is the type of thing I would have done if I was over there.” While all these comments were well-intended, they did get me to thinking about the nature of blogging, about the nature of travel, about the idea of “vacation.”

If blogging from Norway only established that I was “carousing,” it would have perhaps been better not to have blogged. I could have just as easily focused on the work that I did while I was in Bergen — constructed a post about the half-day I spent preparing for the two-hour lecture I gave at the University of Bergen, and on the responses to it. The lecture did go well, and it was a great experience teaching to an audience of students trained in European, rather than American academic conventions. I could have blogged about the work that Jill and I did on an interview with Robert Coover and Noah Wardrip-Fruin for the Iowa Review Web. I could have blogged about prepping for courses in airports, about the curious experience of reading Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller while on a plane home following the sun, about reading essays from the Postmodern Reader and experiencing a slight disjuncture between my current reading of postmodernism and that of the last time I was really engaged in postmodern theory, as a graduate student a decade ago in central Illinois (Postmodernism is now oddly dated — we're post-post now). Or my thoughts about globalism (the glossolalia of Europe, different languages everywhere, compared to the parochialism of South Jersey). I could have focused on the art museums Jill and I visited — the Kunstmuseum in Bergen and my thoughts about the personal life of Edvard Munch (it seems as if he were a happy young man who grew more bitter as he aged — and the irony that his most bitter art is that for which he is remembered) and a contemporary art museum in Copenhagen, which was a kind of cross between an art gallery and a conventional museum, price tags on most pieces. The most remarkable works we saw there were a series of remarkable illustrations of fairy tales such as the little mermaid and little red riding hood, emphasizing what could only be called the depravity of these tales, done by a british artist, Paula Rego, and an installation which, on one side, appeared to be an example of modern design, a white construction of wood arranged in simple patterns, but which on the other side consisted of an aluminum framework covered in hand drawings, many of them seeming to be representations of often-scatalogical subconscious thought. I could have represented the professional connections made in Bergen, that I had the pleasure of scholarly discourse with at least a half dozen people who have done important work in my field. Ultimately, my trip was more about people than places — not primarily professional contacts, but personal ones. What made it a vacation was spending with Jill, playing with Aurora, meeting Jill's parents and seeing how people carry on life in Bergen.

There's an odd American idea that travel should be either about complete indulgence (margaritas on an anonymous beach) or about a kind of industry, an extension of the protestant work-for-work's sake ethos. Do nothing or do everything. When I was young, my family used to go on road-trip vacations that had history themes — the Revolutionary War vacation, the Civil War vacation. I have fond memories of lobbying with my brothers for trades, such as three battlefields in exchange for one amusement park. Were I to always apply the standards of vacation-as-extenstion-of-work, when in Norway I should have proven the content of my character by absorbing as much as possible of the geographical and cultural history of Scandinavia as possible in my allotted time. I should have visited multiple cities and hit all the major cultural institutions and demonstrated that I was incapable of wasting time. There's an idea that all vacations should be a form of intellectual colonialism, that we should bring back all the treasures to our own private British Museums. I don't subscribe to that idea — I learned as much from listening to Aurora talk about her struggle with a mean kid on the playground at school as I did in my limited exposure to the history of the Hanseatic League. There is pleasure in visiting new places, but more to be found in interacting with people who you care about, wherever they may happen to live. Of course, the day we spent in Copenhagen, I did give into the efficient American tourist urge — had to see a museum, the castle, the fort, the little mermaid. Check, check, check, check.

What am I trying to say? Perhaps that either I am not my blog or that I should try to be sharply aware of what slices of my life my blog represents to others. But on the other hand, were I to spend a great deal of time thinking about how my blog establishes a particular identity, I think that I would in some way become frustrated with its inauthenticity, and simply stop blogging. It feels like this should be a different kind of platform. I suppose that I have similar anxieties about The Unknown — a hypertext novel in which I am a character who is alternatively a meglomaniac, a heroin addict, an advocate of free speech, a lover, a fighter, a liar and a thief. Yet in real life, I don't even dabble in heroin. Perhaps all representations should be read as fictions. The identity you read from my blog may no more be my character than my simulacrum in The Unknown.

Along those lines, there's been an interesting discussion of some of the assumptions that people made, and the actions that they took, about Online Caroline, an email and web fiction that posed as reality (and which, as it turns out, to the author's surprise, some folks disturbingly took as reality), at Grand Text Auto.

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