Group Title: Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies (RCCS) Book Reviews
Title: Review of Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs
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Title: Review of Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs
Physical Description: Archival
Language: English
Creator: Taylor, Laurie
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Publisher: Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies (RCCS) Book Reviews
Place of Publication: San Francisco, Cal.
Publication Date: 2006
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Funding: Collected for University of Florida's Institutional Repository by the UFIR Self-Submittal tool. Submitted by Laurie Taylor.
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Review of Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs
(Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004).

Review by Laurie N. Taylor, published in RCCS (Resource Center for Cyberculture
Studies), November 2006: .

Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs proves a
welcome and needed entry into studies of online writing, and particularly studies of online diaries and
blogs. The Mirror and the Veil adds to existing research done on online identities, particularly Sherry
Turkle's Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet with its case studies of online identity and
research on various types of blogs (as seen in the work of Graham Lampa and other contributors to Into
the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs). More importantly, however, Serfaty's
book confronts issues of interdisciplinarity and online research and then meticulously documents those
issues and methods for dealing with them. In doing so, The Mirror and the Veil serves as an essential
reference for studies of online personal writings as well as an essential basis for further studies of online
writings as they relate to various fields, including sociology, psychology, literary criticism, game studies,
and children's literature studies among others. The Mirror and the Veil is also relevant because online
diaries and blogs in themselves are almost a fullly new media form and, thus, they allow for various new
forms of writing and serve as updates to older forms.

Working in a comparative mode between print and online diary forms, Serfaty, associate professor of
American Studies at Universite de Marne la Vallee, proves acutely aware of the benefits of her
interdisciplinary approach, as well as the potential complications. Serfaty narrows the possibility for
complications by limiting the types of works she studies, focusing narrowly on diaristic American online
writing. Included within her analysis of online diaries are blogs because, after all, the term blogs comes
originally from web logs, which were and often are still used for diaristic writing. Given the narrow
frame of American diaristic writing, Serfaty explains her subject of study within the multiple fields in
which she works, stating that "viewing online diaries as primary sources may afford insights into the
mores of ordinary people in contemporary America." She continues, noting, "In other words, studying
online diaries may require approaches drawn from literary criticism as much as from social sciences --
two disciplines with starkly different outlooks, methods and goals" (10). Serfaty also explains that
studying a literary form requires a full "understanding of the symbolic and cultural stakes intertwined in
even the seemingly most ethereal art form" (15). This initial context for the rest of the book is essential
as Serfaty goes on to illustrate the relevance and method by which to study online diaries.

Many researchers working within digital media are able to move easily into their focused topic of
investigation without having to justify or explain their studies. However, texts that operate in a more
comparative mode of analysis must often prove the validity of their methods and of their objects of
study. This builds into the quandary faced by The Mirror and the Veil -- much of the book is spent
explaining methodology and justifying those methods and the subject of the study and, in doing so, less
space is left in this short volume for the analysis of online diaries and blogs. This is not a complaint
against the book; rather, it is a problem that The Mirror and the Veil well addresses for studies of digital
media. Further, The Mirror and the Veil serves as an excellent study of the blooming American online
diaristic tradition. It proves both exceptionally useful as an initial point of inquiry for other studies of
blog and diaristic writings as well as for its own examination of the diaristic tradition -- self-
representation, identity, and body image as presented in online diaries.










Even before the book officially begins, its argument takes shape through the books paratexts. In doing
so, The Mirror and the Veil manages to reflect the technology it studies. For instance, the initial
paratextual pages note that "The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of 'ISO
9706:1994, Information and documentation Paper for documents Requirements for permanence'"
unnumberedd, iv). The dedication page also connects to the community of diarists, with the dedication
running over fifteen lines and closing with a thanks for "writing about themselves on the Internet and
giving me, and many others, such fascinating texts to read, ponder, and get impassioned about"
unnumberedd, v). Finally, the bibliography section lists works, diaries, archives, webrings, political blogs,
and miscellaneous sites. This sort of extended works cited is necessary in works that study online forms
and the explicit reference to the different types of texts referenced shows an awareness of digital media
and its relationship to more familiar printed forms. The book's chapters themselves similarly address the
connections between print and digital media.

The book is divided into seven chapters, with the introduction, five main chapters, and the conclusion.
The main chapters focus on different aspects of online diaries, with each chapter helping to establish
methodology and to establish the validity of online scholarship. In fact, running throughout the chapters
is an acute awareness of arguments against the web as ephemeral, and Serfaty deftly combats these by
citing different online archiving projects like the Online Diary History Project (19). While for digital media
researchers this information will often repeat existing knowledge, the manner in which Serfaty
addresses digital materials and their validity in reference to print scholarship proves useful and
important in bridging the gap between traditional and digital media scholarship. It also proves useful in
opening discussions on digital media to a larger body of researchers, even those with relatively no
knowledge of digital media.

The introduction serves to establish the book's methods and concerns, as well as the concerns under
which the book's research operates. This includes noting the problems of securing consent when
studying people online, especially as securing that consent can create a relationship between academic
and subject that can alter results. After carefully weighing the problems and benefits of following the
Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) recommended methods, Serfaty states that she chose to view
diaries as published literary works, and thus as works that demand "compliance with copyright law and
quotation rules, without, however, any further precautions regarding privacy or anonymity" (10). These
sorts of choices are necessary in digital media in order to properly define the media under study as well
as to properly define the methods used in digital media research. Serfaty states that the book's main
concern is the manner in which the screen connects diary writers and society while also keeping others
at a distance and allowing for fantastic projections (14) -- hence the mirror and the veil. Another main
concern of the book is how digital media both mirrors and masks existing forms. The book's explicit
purpose, however, deals with diary writers in terms of their expression of gender, self-identity, and
body-image.

The first chapter, "Offline and Online Diaries," provides the history of online diaries and blogs in the
United States. It then goes on to explain the most common components of online diaries, including:
titles, images, sounds, and paratextual items that frame the diaries often to make them appear more
like print diaries. As with the rest of the book, Serfaty here connects diaries and blogs to print versions,
noting that online diaries normally include a bibliographic or "about" section, which is used to ensure
proper interpretation of the diary (23). Serfaty quickly builds an argument for the structure of the diary
as related to the writer, suggesting that, like print diaries, the self-referential writing of online diaries
"makes possible the structuring of self-description and ultimately the structuring of self, even in the
midst of the chaotic complexity mentioned earlier" (28). The majority of the chapter collects elements of










online diaries and their functions, including such topics as diaries' ability to link to other sites and the
open-ended and self-reflexive nature of the writing. The odd amalgamation of elements and their
functions serves the book well by providing a sound basis for both the formal layout and writing
structures present and operating in online diaries. While the book does not mention audio blogging --
most likely because audio blogging is a more recent phenomenon than the book -- the chapter does
serve as an excellent reference for later discussions of audio blogging and podcasting as an added or
new type of diaristic writing, and one that explores different options in terms of user accessibility.

Chapter two, "Social Functions of Online Diaries in America," focuses on the diaristic tradition in America
and its continuity with online diaries. This chapter again operates in a comparative mode, connecting
print and online diaries, and noting that technological shifts alone do not account for the prevalence of
online diaries. Instead, Serfaty argues:
A deeper set of causes, having to do with the American philosophical tradition, may underlie the
rise of the blogging phenomenon and more generally of online diary-writing. The practice of
keeping an online diary may indeed be seen as a direct offshoot of the philosophical outlook
developed in America in the nineteenth century, Transcendentalism. (44)
By connecting the diaristic tradition from print to web with Transcendentalism, Serfaty argues
persuasively for the implicit self-representational nature of American diaristic writings and thus
illustrates the literary tradition in which diaries operate as well as the validity of studying diaries for
sociological studies of identity. Rather than simply articulating existing arguments about the function of
diaries, Serfaty also argues that online diaries then act as socializers by using "hypertextual links with
other people's diaries [which] turn into real life interconnections" (60). Again, Serfaty builds from this
shift to social networking with online diaries and notes that many online diaries, because their writers
seek to connect socially, end up connecting to other writers in a manner akin to co-enunciation,
especially through various sites like LiveJournal.com that facilitate linking and through the overall ability
in many blogs to include readers' comments (60-1). This chapter also continues to compare and contrast
print and online diaries, noting that blogs and diaries are organized differently, and that online diarists
rarely correct their spelling in an attempt to simulate the realism and immediacy of print diaries (66-68).

The third chapter, "Humor in Cyberspace," studies humor in online diaries and supports the arguments
through close studies of diarists Shmuel and Terri. The chapter opens by arguing that "Online diaries
conform to the general tendency of websites towards playfulness, no matter how serious their purpose
might be" (71). The chapter goes on to list methods for implementing humor, including juxtaposition
and textual humor, and the functions of humor in online diaries, including acting as transitions and
serving to distance the writers from possible criticism. The use of humor in cyberspace connects to
online diaries as well as much of online writing, in part because of another point Serfaty addresses, that
online writing is seen as ephemeral and taken less seriously so the writing can be allowed greater
leeway. For instance, on April Fool's Day 2002, Google announced PigeonRank as a method for ranking
web pages. The false announcement stated that Google's search engine was partially fueled by pigeons
pecking at computers. The playful language of online diaries even played into PigeonRank with Google's
note that "unscrupulous websites have tried to boost their ranking by including images on their pages of
bread crumbs" (para. 6). Bread crumbs refers to the double colons, which are used to show a path
through particular postings and information, often used between the path text on online diaries and
blogs. The humor in online diaries and blogs thus also relates to the terminology used in online diaries
and then the play used with those terms. The use of humor -- particularly in regards to the
private/public divide -- supports the book's overall argument, that online journals both reflect and
conceal their writers through a mirroring and veiling effect.










As Serfaty notes, the prevalent use of self-deprecating humor in online diaries relates directly to the
position of online journals as connecting private and public spheres, which is the subject of the fourth
chapter, "The Private-Public Divide." This chapter moves into the more serious audience concerns for
writers of online diaries, including concerns about family members and others who know the author
reading the diary (84-7). Serfaty interestingly notes that, despite the fact that many diaries include
personal discussions of body image and sexuality, many also contain identifying information even while
stating that they feared repercussions and hoped family members would not read the journal. Others
addressed audience concerns more generally, noting a sense of worthlessness at the ordinariness of
diary entries for readers (87). Serfaty contrasts personal journals that are available online with the
seemingly private, yet actually commercial, erotic diaries found online at sites like SuicideGirls.com.
Unlike the liberatory potential she sees in online diaries, Serfaty sees erotic diaries as less subversive,
"because they thrive on the existence of taboos and on their continued power over the psyche of a large
number of people" (96). Thus, Serfaty argues that the more subversive diaries, unlike many erotic
journals, balance the mirror and the veil, reflecting and concealing. This argument, a difficult one which
serves as the focus of the book, is augmented by her discussion of male and female cyberbodies in the
fifth chapter.

In "Male and Female Cyberbodies," Serfaty argues with and against many theories of digital media,
stating that the chapter works "against the assumption that the body and [. .] corporeity play no part in
the development of online identities." She then specifies that this chapter focuses on "the intersection
of the body, gender and cyberspace in a number of Internet diaries" (99). As with much of the book,
Serfaty's analysis is bolstered by her grasp of the interdisciplinary concerns. Different disciplines, and
even within particular disciplines, argue for the utopian or dystopian function of the Internet, and they
often do so by arguing for the erasure of the body in cyberspace. Serfaty cites William Gibson's
Neuromancer and then states that the "fictional fascination with radicalizing the mind/body divide is
widely echoed in social sciences" (100). However, another body of research -- coming from many of the
disciplines Serfaty connects -- argues for the importance of the body in relation to online
representations. Importantly, Serfaty notes that the body itself is critical for self-referential writings and
images, including those on weight loss sites. Arguments to reinsert the body into discourses on digital
media are particularly important as digital representations of the body proliferate online, including
virtual models for clothing and weight loss ("My Virtual Model," 2001). Serfaty also mentions that using
the computer is a physical act and interface metaphors make that physical interaction explicit. This is
important to note given the tendency toward a hyperbolic erasure of the mediation of technological
experiences (121). After establishing the relevance of the body to cyberspace, Serfaty argues from
several cases studies that, because diaries act as self-representational writings, the diary form "allows
the writers to institute the body as language and to embody language in a back-and-forth, mirror-like
movement" including the blurring of gender in text and visual diary entries (114). The case studies she
examines showcase how the writers construct their bodies textually and pictorial in fluid, changing, and
often contradictory manners.

Summing up these different threads is the book's conclusion. The conclusion covers the differences
between older diaries and their readers, and argues that online diaries, while lacking a "prescriptive or
normative ambition, they de facto offer exemplars of social mores, and hence may contribute to
alleviating the anxiety of inventing one's life as it is being lived" (125). By studying online diaries as
indicative of American social mores, The Mirror and the Veil importantly connects to sociological studies
of trends based on self-representational writings as well as literary trends with new print books
published following the evolving online diaristic form, like Confessions of a Boyfriend Stealer: A Blog, and
other works being published as online diaries. The conclusion then returns to the book's premise,










arguing that online diaries express and illuminate certain possibilities within the tradition of self-
representational writing while simultaneously obscuring others.

In all, Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs
establishes a sound basis for interdisciplinary studies of online diaries and blogs as they operate as
literary and social texts more largely and specifically in relation to the body, identity, and online
communities. While the book is quite brief with only 125 pages of primary text, the book itself densely
studies online diaries in themselves and in terms of their relationship to other forms. The book's overall
structure, including the paratext with its explanation of the books' form and the bibliography with its
lengthy list of online sources, serve to further bolster the strength of the book's argument.
Undergraduates and graduates will find that the book's meticulous layout and explanation of
methodology make it accessible for those even only lightly versed in digital media, while the attention to
detail for larger interdisciplinary questions makes the book useful for all researchers of online media. In
particular, this book will interest researchers operating in comparative modes. Overall, The Mirror and
the Veil is an essential text for researchers of blogs, online diaries and communities, and representations
of the body and identity online.

References

Clairday, Robynn. Confessions of a Boyfriend Stealer: A Blog. New York: Delacorte, 2005.

Google. "Google Technology: PigeonRank." Google.com. 1 April 2002. Accessed: 27 March 2006.

Lampa, Graham. "Imagining the Blogosphere: An Introduction to the Imagined Community of Instant
Publishing." In Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs. Ed. Laura J. Gurak,
Smiljana Antonijevic, Laurie Johnson, Clancy Ratliff, and Jessica Reyman. June 2004.

My Virtual Model. 2001. Accessed: 27 March 2006.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.




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