The New [Digital] Biography

Curating autobiographies, the Modernist movement, and the false promise of social media in the Trump era

This essay was written during the days following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a means of sorting through the benefits of social media in establishing a political stance in the Trump era, I found myself at an impasse. With the worst of our collective dystopian nightmares unfolding before us, many dissenters (myself included) have turned to social media as a form of resistance. Yet upon further consideration, I noted a perhaps more chillingly dystopian consequence of the Trump era taking shape—that of a totalitarian narrative gradually beginning to write itself via social media. As we consider the use of social media platforms as tools of the resistance, we must also consider their role in the hands of the oppressors. This essay revisits a 1927 article by Virginia Woolf as a means of grappling with the notion of “truth” in the Trump era.

In the opening paragraph of her 1927 article “The New Biography,” Virginia Woolf articulates the problematic nature of life writing: the difficulty the biographer faces in uniting two opposing forces: truth and personality. Truth, Woolf notes, we deem as “something of granite-like solidity,” whereas personality encompasses a “rainbow-like intangibility.” For Woolf, writing in 1927, the art of biography presented its own challenges—yet today, with social media endowing anyone access to as many social apps as they please, the art of life writing—of wresting a consistent and truthful narrative from the ever-protean whims of personality, has become further problematized. If we actively curate, through texts, Facebook posts, Instagrams, and tweets, our own autobiographical narratives for our friends and family—public access to our profiles are effectively writing their own biographies of us. Just as Woolf presents an argument for the “new biography,” this essay argues that the promise of digital autobiographies is a false notion—that even in 2017 we wrestle to unite the “granite-like” truth with the “rainbow-like” personality.

 In the age of Donald Trump’s “fake news” and the terrifyingly Orwellian “alternative facts,” the notion of a “granite-like” truth prevailing in the splintered media is not a hopeful one. Woolf writes of the “truth biography demands…truth in its hardest, most obdurate form.” This is a vision of truth which she likens to the vast collections of the British Museum—“truth out of which all vapor of falsehood has been pressed by the weight of research.” Woolf’s allusion to a notion of a consistent, archival truth-behind-glass is, of course, in and of itself a reflection on the inconsistencies of truth—even when supposedly curated, archived, and preserved for the ages. Perhaps the most truly terrifying possibility the Trump era has provoked is that perhaps all facts are “alternative,” and all news, to some degree, “fake.”

However, Woolf’s article, carefully poised eight years following the end of World War I, and thirteen years before World War II, was published during a cautiously hopeful time for Europe. For the moment, it seemed, good had triumphed. The “Great War” was in the past, and the possibility of truth could prevail once again. For Woolf, perhaps there was “a virtue” in the concept of truth—perhaps, indeed, “an almost mystical power” inherent to the idea that if truth exists, so, perhaps can goodness or hope. That said, if 1926 was indeed an optimistic time for Europe—it was simultaneously an unprecedently prolific time for fiction. With the birth of the Modernist movement and the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, the idea of truth quickly took a backseat to what the melancholic Stephen Dedalus deemed “the ineluctable modality of the visible” (Joyce 37).

Whether Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Ulysses, or Woolf’s own Mrs. Dalloway should be read autobiographically is a question that has long plagued critics. Yet perhaps this question evades the issue at hand—that the very “British Museum” Truth-with-a-capital-T concept of truth never existed in the first place—that such a notion was bred, born, and raised only within the covers of history books, or behind the glass of a museum display. As Woolf remarks, it is largely nineteenth-century biography which sought to move past the idea that “life consists in actions only or in works” (Woolf 1). Indeed, Woolf affirms, life “consists in personality.” Stephen Dedalus, gazing into the darkness of his own eyelids, sees “all time without [him]” (Joyce 37). Mrs. Dalloway can’t remember how many years she’s lived in Westminster but is content with rounding up to “over twenty” (Mrs. Dalloway 4). Literary critics point to the Modernist period as the age of a revolution in style, yet such a distinction might be better articulated as a revolution of truth.

Indeed, it is this very stylistic revolution in the conception of truth which has culminated in what many consider today’s Cult of Personality. Narcissism, the most pathological by-product of this literary and cultural move inward, represents the ultimate subjugation of truth to personality. For Woolf, this movement inward owes its inception to the nineteenth-century trend within the genre of biography, as it “sought painstakingly and devotedly to express not only the outer life of work and activity but the inner life of emotion and thought” (Woolf 1). Such an emphasis on “the inner life of emotion” is exactly what the behemoth of social media feeds upon—and since, through social media, we are allowed to act as the authors of our own “inner life of emotion and thought,” we “painstakingly and devotedly” set ourselves to the task. Further, we do so without any fear of judgment. If writing an autobiography smacks of vanity—curating a social media account is mere de rigueur.

Whether logged into a Facebook account or live-tweeting our approval (or outrage) at any given moment, we are taking an active hand in shaping our autobiography—presenting the world with a written or visual account of our opinions, views, and personal histories. However, the account itself, regarded from an outside (public) perspective, is presenting a biography of its own, independent from our authorial voice. By taking an active role in curating our social media presence we are participating in the false notion that we can control the “truth” of our narrative. In commenting on biography in the early twentieth century, Woolf presciently notes that “the life which is increasingly real to us is the fictitious life,” as it “dwells in the personality rather than in the act.” Social media represents the pinnacle of this notion, as it exists within the duality of personality and truth.

The current political climate being as it is, Woolf’s argument that fiction, even in the early twentieth century, was gradually melding with the active experience of life, seems eerily prophetic. Donald Trump cannot wrest himself away from Twitter because he finds solace in the idea that he is the author of his own reality. For a man whose entire career has been built solely on his pugnacious personality, the granite colossus of truth is a difficult barrier to come up against. However, Trump’s frenetic Tweeting has betrayed him. As his approval rating continues to plummet, he takes to Twitter with more and more to prove—evidence be damned! “All news but my news is fake news”, he shrieks into the void. Yet, for most of the country, his protestations are empty. The shadow narrative of Donald Trump’s attempted autobiography-in-140-characters-or-less is the biography of a man desperate for approval. In an attempt to control his own narrative, Trump’s narrative has controlled him.

Not all examples are as extreme as that of Donald Trump—and most of us are guilty of abusing social media in this manner. In seeking to shape the narrative of our lives, we have created a complex online meta-narrative—an automated autobiography which writes itself for the public even as we curate private posts for family and friends. If, for Woolf, the work of the biographer is marked by difficulty because “truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible,” yet the modern biographer is “urged to combine them”, for the digital autobiographer the task is nearly impossible. That we are being written by our social media accounts is perhaps not so frightening a concept as “alternative facts,” yet each time we return to our online platforms with the hope that we might assert our own autobiographical truth we are participating in a similar rhetorical game. The action of asserting your own truth against all others contains the admission that other narratives are fiction—that ‘all news but my news is fake news.’

For Woolf, in 1927, the ultimate union of “granite and rainbow” remained elusive. “Consider one’s own life,” she urges, “pass under review a few years that one has actually lived. Conceive how Lord Morely would have expounded them; how Sir Sidney Lee would have documented them; how strangely all that has been the most real in them would have slipped through their fingers.” Biographers aside, consider your own representation of the previous year on Facebook or Twitter and you may see that all that was “the most real” has also somehow “slipped through” your own fingers. Indeed, as Woolf claims, we cannot “name the biographer whose art is subtle and bold enough to present that queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow”; nor can we hope to attempt such an “art” ourselves. Social media has made a false promise—the truth of personality or the truth of experience are fundamentally ephemeral experiences; we are all still walking into the darkness grappling with the “ineluctable modality of the visible.”

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. Print.

— “The New Biography.” New York Herald Tribune. 30 October 1927. Print.

Joyce, James, and Hans W. Gabler. Ulysses. London: Vintage Classic, 2008. Print.

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