Unmasking the Mask (the Interaction Between Blogging and Performance)
I am a performer, and I like to think that everyone else is too. After all with the rise of so called "reality" entertainment, it isn't much of stretch to imagine that your aunt could someday write a best selling memoir, or your neighbor might audition for a reality show. The cell phone conversation you heard on the train, could make an excellent ice breaker at that next business meeting, and you have probably Googled your name a few times, just to see what someone else could dig up. At least theoretically, anyone you meet has the power to turn their life into a performance, and performance into their life. The blog, has been one of the most instrumental tools in sending the forth wall tumbling, and I've been interested in how this angle of performance might explain it's popularity. Is there something that the blog does that isn't achievable elsewhere? If all the world's a stage, including the cyber world, what is the blog?
As a performer, I have been given many opportunities to act in various styles. My most recent project was a commedia del art piece, which I performed in mask. I learned that in order to make a successful performance, the mask cannot be thought of as merely a costume piece. It should functions like a part of the actor's body and is part of the character's body. I've been exploring the idea that the theatrical mask might be a effective way of describing the use of blogs as tool for performing identity.
The theatrical mask has been used for thousands of years in everything from Greek theatre to Commedia, from Noh theater, to religious performance. These performance take place is meatspace, the space out bodies occupy, as opposed to cyberspace, or what some people call “reality.” In meatspace masks are used to represent identities, Clytemnestra, Brighella, or Spring, just to name a few. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a theatrical mask as “an image of a face worn by an actor; (Classical Theatre) a hollow figure of a human head intended both to introduce the character represented and to amplify the voice (mask).” The Classical mask, in other words, has two functions, to make a character identifiable and heard by the audience.
Well while the ancient amphitheatres are of a very impression size, they pale in comparison to the world stage the internet has access to. Similarly, the personal blog, which is the main focus of this post, offers a tantalizing dip into the lives of everyone from the check out girl at your grocer’s register to the rich and famous. The blog certainly fits the classical model of a mask, but I think the metaphor can dig a lot deeper.
I was told by my director that the advantage to performing in mask over our natural faces was that “masks reveal rather than conceal”. When you put on a mask, you “social” mask is stripped, and you make take on any number of the characters available in your brain. It comes from distancing your physical person from the person others have always expected it to inhabit. In this way, masks expand the self to included more selves.
A blog can function similarly. It also creates distance between the person you perform daily, and allows you to take on any number of characters. You are in complete control of the information that defines you. For instance, a transitioning male can list himself as such, and need not worry about making explanations to anyone, unless he decides that is something he wishes to share. Similarly, if you don’t want to be identified really by any gender, you don’t need to list it at all. People can judge you on what you choose to put out there.
This may read as if it limits the person to some specific details about there life in meatspace, and the way some bloggers choose to write that may be the case. However, when reading up on how bloggers feel about their work, it is the reveal, the self-expansion that seems to keep them going. Miller and Shepherd wrote an article entitled “Blogging as a Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog,” which explore the history, themes, and uses of blogging. They write that bloggers blog in order to “to foster ‘a unique vioce, a definate attitude, a clearer motivation,’ to explore old interests and discover new ones, to provide a forum for the voices in my head,’ or to experiment [with] self expression (Miller & Shepherd para. 28).” I especially enjoy the “voices in my head,” because it is just that experience which mask play is supposed to unleash.
These self expressions take on different levels of “masking.” In the last few months I have talked with several bloggers in various phases of masking. Some like Syllabub, a blogger whom explores food and their connections to literature, history, and philosophy in her blog, Syllabub: Words on Food, take great care to control their identity. She uses a pseudonym herself and gives them to others mentioned in the blog. Laura Blankenship, author of Geeky Mom, use her pseudonym more loosely, and only make small gestures to separate her interpretation of her life in meatspace to the final post, changing maybe names, or other very specific details. Both of these women can provide as templates for the experience of first using a mask.
My first time in mask was at auditions for my production, and I was stuck by my ability to jump into different characters, and perform one’s I never actually considered using. I went back to check out the beginning of Geeky Mom’s blog, and found that it was still confused about it’s character. She was first writing a professional blog, a more personal blog, a philosophical blog, but over time she found the hat that best fit her. Syllabub, confessed to not writing in her blog for year, because she was conflicted about it’s aim. Initially she was looking for it launch her into a career as a restaurant critic, but then realized that it could do a lot more for her than that both in a positive way, and some that put her off.
This is not to say that a blog that does not utilize a pseudonym cannot be described as a mask. Tim Burke’s blog, Easily Distracted, has a very specific blogging voice/character. His aim is to start quality discussions without becoming vicious. This clear intent makes him the character of proposer of topics, and moderator of discussion, but this is his blog under his name. He could write a post on which type of puppy is the cutest, if that’s what he happened to be thinking about. However, these aren’t the thing that Tim Burke as a blogger likes to explore.
The personal blog is also not the only type of blogging that has the quality of masking. Anne Dalke’s short travel blog, Grokking in the Americas, seems to have actaully been an exercise in taking on a mask in meatspace, and recording it’s progress. To quote, “the reflections of someone who has always thought outloud, who always thought best by talking and listening to others, by writing and responding to writing. I'll
soon find myself in a place where I don't know the language. How will I live, if I can't do what I do, to live?” The final product of the blog, written after the above statement, became more about archiving thoughts for herself and other than about recording the actions of a meatspace mask. Essentially, I think the final project may have created the character that allowed her, “the reflections of someone who has always thought outloud.” As the blog achieves, her physical self could not always find a place for the person she liked to be. The character she created online distanced herself from these experiences, providing a comfort zone.
So what else does distancing of self do for the individual writer? Syllabub described her reason for using a pseudonym as feeling that she could “reveal more when she wasn’t rubbing right up against her reader.” The use of the word “reveal” obviously triggered something in my thinking. Perhaps to look at a blog as a means not see what Patricia Hemple describes as the “memoirist’s illusion... an act of dutiful transcription Hemple 26).” Instead, it is to locate the story of the self, the “character” you.
Miller and Sheperd wrote that the performer, as I will refer to the blogger, are, at least partially, the product of mediated exhibitionism (Miller & Shepherd para. 12) However, from everything that I have gathered, bloggers are not exhibitionist. In fact, there is a good deal of inhibition that goes on in blogging. To return to Tim Burke’s feelings, he said that he often feels as though he wants to be a bit snarkier, but that’s not how his blog voice works.
Like any good mask, I am putting forth that the blog will eventually develop a stable character. This character becomes the person’s performed self online, as the
character in mask becomes the performed self on stage. On the character has been established the audience tends to get restless or confused if the actor breaks character. Just as in blogs, I have heard cites be criticized for lack of continuity.
The performer is not the only one that contributes the character development in a performance. The is also a cast onstage, all intermingling, pushing a pulling on each other’s motives, and ultimately revealing even more. In the blogosphere, there are other bloggers all linking, commenting, and posting along side one another.
It is here that the importance of the cast/community becomes even more important to the blogger than the actor. The actor can walk onto the stage with a full house, not say anything, not touch anything, and still be noticed. In the blogopshere, if you leave no trace (i.e. don’t post, don’t comment, don’t link) then there is no way to know that you exist as anything more than a number on a counter. In order for a blogger to have to same range of motion that an actor does, they must interact. Yet, once a blogger has begun to do these things there are lots of tricks that can be used to increase motion. Emoticons provide inflection. Also pictures and webcams may be used bring some of the physical advantages of meatspace to cyberspace.
In theatre, interacting with a cast helps to define the world presented to the audience, and ultimately leads to the suspension of disbelief. I think that this suspension of disbelief also exists in the blogosphere. There seems to be an expectation of non-fiction in the blogosphere, particularly in the arena of personal blogs. How else do we account for such uproar over incidence like the Kaycee Nicole Cance Hoax. This was a blog that lasted about two years and detailed a young womens losing battle with Lukemia.
The hoax was discovered when readers sought out funeral arrangements, but none could be found. In meatspace, Kaycee was middle-aged mother from the Midwest( Miller & Shepherd para. 22). Miller and Shepherd write, “The blogging community was outraged by the fictionalization, considering it an offensive deception. As one blogger writes ‘most people believed that Kaycee was real because no one would have attempted such a massive hoax (Miller & Shepherd para. 22).”
I think it is important to look at these hoaxes and not just brush them under the rug. In this, I feel that there may valuable information about why it is that blogs are so popular in our current society. As I have been discussing for several pages, the blog works like a theatrical mask. It allows us to explore other selves we could act out. However, in theatre there is an expectation of fiction, not non-fiction. The audience doesn’t expect it to be real, and the performer works very hard to get over this fact and into your brain despite it. However, our “reality entertainment” culture has set up for certain genre’s an expectation of non-fiction, whether it is entirely deserving of that title or not. The problem with the assumption is that it’s limiting. As Miller and Shepherd report Sherry Turkle as saying “ the ’culture of stimulation’ ultimately devalues direct experience, making it seem less compelling and ultimately less real (Miller & Shepherd para. 17).”
I am here to say that I don’t think meatspace is synonymous with reality. Blogs are inherently a challenge to that notion, because they are so performative. They ask us to explore ourselves apart from our direct experience in meatspace, and thus have the power to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction. They present us with a place where we
may interact with someone very deep in mask play, and directly experience a fiction.
What this means is that we take offense to someone once we have discovered that we believe our interaction was with a fiction, and thereby it must be a lie, a deceit. I will not say that mask play is not, in part at least, deceitful . As an actor, I have worked very hard to deceive my audiences for many years, but those audiences were always aware of my intention. The difference between lying and acting isn’t an intention, it’s audience perspective. If they do not expect a fiction and you fool them, you are a terrible person, but if they do expect a fiction and you fool them, you can win many fancy awards.
I do not think that the blogosphere is the only sphere limited to this type of blurring, but I do believe it offers the most productive space for exploration of the line between fiction and non-fiction. In her essay “Truth in Memoir” Mara Naselli writes about the false memoirist James Frey, “it [A Million Little Pieces] isn’t wrestling with the difficulty of truth. It’s wrestling with how he wants to see himself, a venture that is more trickery than art (Naselli para.4).” The memoir may not be the most productive space in which to do heavy experimenting with masking, as it exists in meatspace where the expectation is for it to be matched up with meatspace experience.
The blogosphere, however, offers a different space entirely. The personal blog only really needs to match up with the blogger’s experience in the blogosphere in order to be coherent. There are not the same watchmen in blogging that exist in other forms of publishing. There are no editors, producers, directors, or colleagues to impress. This has made it useful to academics as a space to let their ideas collect immediately, with out the grand publishing process. It opens to doors to the stay at home mom, who loves to travel
a few times a year, and wants to archive her adventures. Beyond this, net works are providing comfort. The girl who feels as though she doesn’t belong at high school, can find a community that thinks she’s really funny. The guy that loves ska music, but his friends don’t really get it can talk about it online. What to social mask discourages the cyber-mask can find a community for. They provide “ heightened understanding of self through communicating with others and confirmation that personal beliefs fit with social norms (Miller & Shepherd para. 16).”
But wait a minute. Stop the presses. Social norms? Is the blog a public or a private space. The mask enhances the inner speech, expands the person, but does so before an audience. The mask reveals the self, and builds a character. Flexible little bugger, but what do we do with it.
I have recently been rereading Thought and Word, by L.S. Vygotsky. His book highlights a type of speech previously explored by Piaget. Egocentric speech or the collective monologue, which I believe may unlock part of the blogs place in the world of words. Egocentric speech is the speech which a child speaks from about three to seven, or whenever the child enters school and is primarily a monologue about the child and their world (Vygotsky 135). He noted three things about this speech in particular. First “ Egocentric speech occurs only in the presence of other children engaged in the same activity, and not when the child is alone (Vygotsky 136)” Second, “The child is under the illusion that his egocentric talk, directed to nobody, is understood by those who surround him (Vygotsky 136).” Third, “Egocentric speech has the character of external speech; It is not inaudible or whispered (Vygotsky136) .” From Piaget, I draw that there is this type of
speech which exists in the presence of others, to be understood by others, but is not directed to anyone in particular and is centrally focused.
Piaget is under the impression that this speech eventually goes away when the child develops inner speech (Vygotsky 135), but Vygotsky’s theory is that egocentric speech is a step on the way to inner speech (Vygotsky 135). However, what I am interested in for the sake of uncovering more about the function of the blog, is how this type of speech operates. Vygotsky ran an experiment in which he tested his the relationship of egocentric speech to the understanding of those around the child. He found that when a child was placed in room with deaf children or children that spoke a different language “the coefficient of egocentric speech dropped to zero in the majority of cases... and this proves that the illusion of being understood is not a mere epiphenomenon of egocentric speech, but is fundamentally connected with it (Vygotsky 137).”
I am not a psychologist, and therefore, cannot say that Egocentric speech and blogging are psychologically linked. The point of this is that there is a type of speech that lives in-between the crevices of the private and public. This crevice is not without it’s other adventurers, however. Shakespeare is famous for his use of soliloquies, which are essentially private thoughts verbalized for an audience, though interaction was not nearly encouraged as it is in the blogosphere.
Since I have spent the majority of this paper talk about the self in connection to masked theatre, I will now spend some time talking about the audience. The techniques I am about to elaborate on are specific to my Commedia training, but are generalizable to other styles as well. All of them are to assist the audience in feeling invited into our
illusion. As I talked about above, blogs may not need as much help when it comes to making the audience believe in it’s reality, but these are essential interactions to make the experience enjoyable, and the blog/mask clearly defined.
Blogs have an interesting audience, because they do not just include bystanders. Sure, there are a fair amount of blurkers out there, but they also write for a community of bloggers, their fellow performers. Thereby, certain theatrical courtesy should be extended to them. When in mask, you always look at the performer speaking, because you will pull attention away from them when they have control of the stage. Looking at a fellow performer might mean commenting on their blog, linking to it if it sparks something interesting in you, or sending them links they may be interested in. To steal focus is to post unrelated comments, specifically try to start a fight for the purpose of getting attention, maybe even to promote your site.
It is also important to “show the mask first.” When entering look at the audience, because they are interested in who you are, not just in the person, but the art. Audiences like an well constructed character. Most bloggers do this on their About Me section. As blogs typically start with the most recent entry and are organized in reverse chronological order, a potential audience member may feel overwhelmed without some presentation of the person they are reading.
The idea is when the blogger is speaking they will face their audience, essentially break the forth wall. The audience, especially if the audience is being asked to physically respond, will need an invitation to do so. For some bloggers this means of direct address like, “you guys, I’m just not sure what I’m doing!” Others are extremely active in community, and try to write posts are relevant to the topics being discussed. There are often mistakes, from hasty construction, references to particular bagel shops, and lingo that your audience can latch onto. In fact, without these things a blog may become too perfect, and seem unapproachable.
Let me remind you that I said, I don’t believe bloggers to be exhibitionists. Despite this latter emphasis on the needs of the audience, I do think that something more intimate is occurring in the blogger than a simple need for attention. It is a controlled exploration into a new world cyber world that is continuously growing. As the technology becomes more and more accessible, the characters we have created online will become more and more significant. Their masks will become more colorful and lifelike, but will remain a mask, at least in it’s relation to our lives in meatspace. However, it is precisely
this quality of possibly which mask bring that accounts for their prolific use. They are the line separating us from the audience, a blur of fiction and non-fiction, and ultimately the revealer of the persons we might choose to be.
Hempl, Patricia. "Memory and Imagination." I Could Tell You Stories. W.W. Norton &
Company. New York, 1994.
"Mask, n³ .' Oxford English Dictionary Online. Draft Revision Mar. 2008. Cited 28 April
Miller, Caolyn R. & Shepherd, Dawn. “Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of theWeblog.”<http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/blogging_as_social_action_a_g enre_analysis_of_the_weblog.html>. cited 16 May 2008.
Naselli, Mara. "Truth in Memoir." Identity Theory. 2006. updated 2 Feb 2006.
<http://www.identitytheory.com/nonfiction/naselli_truth.php>. cited 16 May
Vygotsky, L.S. Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass: The M.I.T Press.