Angela Nissel’s life writing reveals how a newly digitized public sphere is altering self-fashioning, in that an electronically mediated public sphere can create innovative spaces for self-expression and wider commercialization. Digitalization’s impact on African American writers, who view literature—and especially autobiography—as both artistic medium and an important way to reshape social status, can be especially vexed. [End Page 127]
In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas focuses attention on the concept of the public sphere by arguing that the print culture of the Enlightenment mediated between the public and the state, providing a means through which the public’s voice could be heard by the state’s administrative powers. He thus conceived of the public sphere as a space that enables democracy by facilitating an exchange between the state and face-to-face deliberations among citizens. Habermas also pointed out, however, that in late modernity the public sphere was in danger of being manipulated by state power such that it became proscriptive rather than deliberative. The tension between these alternative readings of the possibilities and dangers of the public sphere energizes much contemporary work on the challenges posed by the more recent turn from a print to an electronically mediated public sphere: does the rise of digital technology and New Media create new spaces for democratic deliberation and creative self-expression or more extensive structures for proscriptive power and commercialization? What is the impact of such changes on the production of literature? In particular, what challenges and opportunities are created by the digitalization of the public sphere for African American writers, for whom literature—and especially autobiography—has long served as both an artistic medium and as an important means to redefine their social status?
Black Americans, of course, were always aware that the public sphere was more complicated than Habermas’s romanticized description of Enlightenment deliberations might suggest. Living under social institutions of slavery and segregation, African Americans were intimately acquainted with the cultural and legal exclusivity of the public sphere. In reaction, they created alternative public spheres more responsive to their needs, from hush harbors to segregated churches to an oppositional Black Press to hip-hop clubs. Alternative pubic spheres such as these comprise an essential feature of African American life. At the same time, black activism in the “mainstream” public sphere has been a feature of the country’s history—from the moment Africans first landed on the continent, to African American’s active participation in abolitionism in the nineteenth century (in which black autobiography played an important role), to the successes [End Page 128] of the mid-twentieth century’s Civil Rights Movement, one well-recognized for its effective mobilization of mainstream communications. But the success of black people at integrating mainstream media has led ironically to a growing sense that such integration has come at a price: the late twentieth century was marked by the failure of a number of long-standing black presses and journals and thereby by the diminishment, some argue, of an alternative black public sphere. As Adolph Reed comments, “[t]he Demise of Black World and atrophy of The Black Scholar both fuel and reflect the shriveling of an autonomous domain for black debate” (34).
Just as a number of articles were lamenting the collapse of a separate black public sphere, however, digital technologies were in the process of creating public spaces with radically new dimensions. A public sphere in the sense of a space for face-to-face negotiations as described by Habermas was being joined by—or, some feared, was being replaced by—electronically mediated social networking sites such as chat rooms, blogs, and internet social networking sites. Reactions to such changes, especially as they relate to the interests of black Americans, have been deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, cultural critics like Mark Anthony Neal argue that digitized spaces provide new alternative black public spheres—if virtual ones. In What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture, Neal argues specifically that the digitalization of public space may offer a...