A Detour: The Internet and Forms of Narration: A Short Note

Posted by Nitya V at Dec 02, 2010 12:40 PM |
There are a number of blog posts on the Internet about transgendered and transsexual people but there is a separation between print as a medium and Internet as a medium. This blog post informally discusses the authority that attaches to media other than the Internet and how this authority is displaced when it comes to Internet texts of the same nature.

Recently, Bangalore saw the release of the first hijra autobiography, The Truth About Me written by A Revati, a hijra activist working with Sangama. The event was celebrated by the queer community, as a public acknowledgment of the lives of hijras, in print. There is no taking away from the importance of this event, but this is not the first autobiographical text of this kind in the public domain. Internet has already seen the setting up of a number of blogs by trans people (transgendered, transsexual), most of them male to female1.

Some of the blogs speak about acceptance, and narrate the stories of these women. They narrate the lives they led, the violence they suffered, the transformations effected and the contemporary moments these women inhabit. Others are blogs set up by public figures (for instance, Rose, the Tamil television talk show host, and Kalki, who set up Sahodari, a magazine for transgendered people); yet others talk about the success stories of these transgendered women – Bobby Darling, Rose, and Laxmi Tripathi. One blog (gazalhopes), speaks of people with gender dysphoria and how they can and should deal with it. In this sense, there is sometimes a borrowing from medical discourse and Western discourse on transsexualism (for many of these women have undergone a sex change or are seeking to). There are links to American sites or blogs, and also the effort to produce videos or short films on the community in India. But these blogs are hardly discussed, except perhaps within the transgender community (and that too, that part of the community that can access the English text – except for the occasional blog in Tamil or Hindi).

Granted that there is still, in the public imagination, the separation between print as a medium and the Internet as a medium – print still carries with it the authority of the printed word, something that has been accepted by the publishing industry, that bears witness to financial transactions in the writing and printing of the text, that has been edited and reworked, that has perhaps been translated into more than one other language, that is displayed in shop windows, with a formal launch. So it then becomes an event that is covered by the media and added to the lgbt community’s list of events in the year.

This blog post will informally discuss then, the authority that attaches to media other than the Internet, and how this authority is displaced when it comes to Internet texts of the same nature. The transgender blogs operate through similar modes of self-narrations, beginning with the idea of the person being gender-troubled, and ending on a triumphant note of having achieved a transformation, whether in living conditions or in gender performance or in attitude shifts in other people (friends, family, strangers), and also refer to political activism, and being true to who and what you are. The blogs are in languages besides English (Tamil, for instance). But they lack the truth effect that print publications seem to carry in them – they become part of the vast expanse that is cyberspace, with many other such stories circulating, being read occasionally, and imitating each other (there are several blogs about transgendered people in the United States, for instance). It almost seems like since the Internet, as a mode of being, is autobiographical in its entirety, with everything you do being read as a part of who you are – whether it is emails, records, social networking, blogging, tweeting, downloading – that on the Internet, an autobiography does not then carry that same meaning that it does in the world of cinema, print, television and radio. The truth about yourself cannot be produced independently of your other practices online. For example, Wikipedia is a site that involves knowledge production of a certain kind, but is denied the authority that published texts on the same topics will automatically be granted. Reviews of published work do address this authority, of course, but the very fact of publishing grants it at the outset.

Another example of this difference is the Nishit Saran documentary film Summer in my Veins, which deals with a young boy coming out to his mother on camera – we watch the unfolding of the drama, the moment when the truth about him is revealed, the mother’s reactions to this revelation, and at the end we know that something has happened, of an autobiographical nature. On the Internet, one cannot witness such a dramatic unfolding, and in that way, the medium differs from those before it. The spectacle that is staged is no longer the truth about one’s identity and the drama that surrounds this truth – the theatricalisation is no longer of this nature. It is perhaps the revelation of the lie instead of truth. Sexual practices and the extent to which they are revealed always walk the shadowy line between explicitness and secrecy – people in this sense do not “come out” on the Internet. This is not to say that secret worlds do not exist, but everyone has secret worlds, everyone stages different facets of their own identity (whether to do with work, sex, family, relationships and politics). Representation, in this sense, shifts – it is no longer either just a mirror of yourself or the act of standing in for a community of people. The mirror surrounds you and so does the community. Revati, for instance, speaks as a member of the hijra community, as the first hijra to publish her autobiography (at least in the English press). Her text claims its place as a true-to-life portrayal of her life story, of her sense of selfhood.

This is not to say that the transgender bloggers are trying to do something different – there also is the effort to hold up a mirror to life. But you are in this case always already joining a community of such bloggers instead of standing in for them. The blog in fact is a way of excavating this community of other transgendered Internet users – one blog (which speaks of the blogger’s personal experiences, sex reassignment surgery in Bangkok, and the sense of triumph and comfort that followed) includes several comments from others at various stages of this process (of change and the desire for change).

This is also not to say that in RL (real life) there are no structures of imitation, and that Revati’s text emerges from a blank slate. Politics obviously involves these very structures of imitation (disloyal or otherwise). The autobiography of the dalit woman (Bama’s Sangati), that of the sex worker (Nalini Jameela’s Autobiography of a Sex Worker), that of Revati, a hijra activist – we have seen a trajectory of such texts in the Indian context, and it is not as if this particular text came out of nowhere. But it manages to stand apart in a way in which the Internet text does not – the latter becomes part of a continuum of producing the self and the identity online.

If this were true, what is to be made of it? Is the point simply to celebrate the diversity that exists in cyberspace? Or does the point lie elsewhere – in a discussion of the authority of texts and technologies, in this case when it comes to a production of the sexual and gendered self? This is not a set of scales where the weight of the printed word defeats the weight of the digitalized one – neither is it an argument talking about what the Internet enables. The question is – Does the form that is the autobiography smoothly get translated in the language of the Internet? Before discussing what the Internet does to content (how much is borrowed from the west in terms of vocabularies, how texts are layered in one space to displace the unitextness the print autobiography sometimes gives rise to), we need to see how forms play out in different media. The autobiography as a representational form (the telling of one’s self, and through this, the telling of others) – does the form retain its essential nature but lose its authority as a set of utterances, since it is surrounded by its own kind? Or does the fact that the Internet is embedded in the telling of the self change this essential nature irrevocably?

1 www.gazalhopes.blogspot.com

http://www.malikatv.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_archive.html

http://kalki.tblog.com/

http://madhuri.tblog.com/

http://www.close2rose.com/blog.php

http://livingsmile.blogspot.com/2010/08/blog-post_05.html

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