This year the Berkeley Center for New Media offered four junior faculty research grants to seed ambitious academic scholarship in new media at Cal. Damon Young (Film & Media) was selected for “After the Private Self.” Read more about the project below!
Is the self of Rousseau’s Confessions the same as the self of the twenty-first century digital selfie? To what extent is subjectivity bound up in the apparatuses of its technical mediation? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a “modern individual” took shape through the relatively new forms of the novel and the autobiography. That modern individual, writes Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe, is “supposed to have an interiorized ‘private’ self that pours out incessantly in diaries, letters, autobiographies, novels, and, of course, in what we say to our analysts.” In this project, I ask in what way this “private self” survives into the twenty-first century, when novels and autobiographies have ceded their position as “cultural dominant” to new media modes and platforms, and when psychoanalysis has ceded its own position of cultural dominance to cognitive behavioral therapy and other data-based and empirical methods.
After offering a short history of autobiographical practices across media forms, I will turn my attention to the near-ubiquitous practices of self-narration and self-representation that have come to characterize the mediascapes of Web 2.0 — from social media profiles, blogs, vlogs and selfie archives, to new artistic practices of self-portraiture — which seem to indicate that the 21st-century self is no longer “private” in the same way as the self of an earlier period of colonial modernity. That earlier period produced a deep and dimensional subject whose unconscious speaks through symptomatic slips that betray an opaque foundation of complex sexuality. By contrast, in these new media practices, the self-articulating or self-imaging subject is one that talks about himself or herself constantly, but in a manner that frequently remains sexualized but is no longer “confessional.” Instead, the discourse of the self that emerges tends to be phatic or merely affirmative, caught in an auto-reflexive feedback loop. I will explore the function of the voice (in the “let’s play” genre of YouTube), the image (on photoblogs like Instagram) and the changing status of written text (which tends towards emojis and expressive forms of punctuation rather than grammatical sentences) as among the modes and apparatuses of this emergent digital subject. The 21st century self also leaves its traces in non-representational digital metadata that demonstrate that surveillance is the twin of self-representation in the digital era. Both ubiquitous self-representation and ubiquitous surveillance indicate the transformed parameters of “privacy” in an era in which — as a character in Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (2013) puts it — “nobody has a private life anymore.”
This research is geared towards producing a book that has been commissioned by NYU Press for its new series, “Quickies,” offering hot takes on contemporary topics. The editors of the series have asked me to write a book on selfies. My approach to the topic will be to situate contemporary modes of self-narration and self-representation in relation to a longer media history which has generated diverse forms of autobiography. In the fall, I am teaching a graduate seminar in the French department titled “I Confess: Self-Narration and Self-Representation from the Novel to New Media,” which will allow me to work through some of the material in a classroom setting. The support of the BCNM Faculty Seed Grant will additionally allow me to involve one or several graduate students in the research by hiring them as research assistants on a casual basis throughout the year.