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Biography 26.1 (2003) v-xxv

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Online Lives:

John Zuern


Throughout The Pain Journal, an account of the year prior to his death from cystic fibrosis on January 6, 1996, the writer and performance artist Bob Flanagan reflects on his intimate and sometimes turbulent relationship with the computers on which he composes his diary. For Flanagan, whose brutally direct art employs a range of recording and display devices to explore the aesthetics of the suffering body, the computer occupies a middle position between companion and tool, a switch-point linking his work as artist and diarist to his family, his circle of devoted friends, his audiences throughout the world, and the medical apparatuses that treat, but cannot cure, his disease.

"I'm in the hospital," Flanagan writes in the entry for April 9, 1995: "So what else is new? Illuminated by my computer screen. I've been bringing computers to the hospital with me for more than ten years" (39). When he has a modem installed in his laptop in August 1995—a procedure he describes as an "implant" (100)—he is unimpressed with the chat rooms he visits, but finds the Internet an important way to keep in touch with people during his periods of hospitalization. At times, Flanagan connects computer breakdowns with the breakdown of his own health; when Photoshop freezes and the hard drive crashes, he remarks that his body, too, "is still on the fritz" (102). At other times, this connection happens automatically: exhausted by pain and medication, Flanagan frequently falls asleep with his fingers on the keyboard, generating a stream of "d's" or a half-page of back-slashes—preserved in the printed text of the journal. Here Flanagan's body, the principal focus of his artwork and his writing, speaks for itself.

Like Visiting Hours, his best-known installation and performance piece, Flanagan's Pain Journal, published posthumously in 2000, offers an unsentimental testimony of an artist's confrontation with illness and death. 1 But Pain Journal also documents an important moment in the history of the confluence of computing and life writing. Word-processing programs have been [End Page v] used for several decades to compose diaries and other autobiographical texts, relatively few of which have ever been published in printed form. Records of individual lives have piled up in email in-boxes for almost as long. Years before the development of the World Wide Web in 1991, the Internet gave rise to rich environments for self-expression, including virtual communities, role-playing games, and chat spaces. 2 In many ways, however, the year 1995 marks the arrival of the Web as a fertile environment for the development of innovative forms of self-representation with potentially global audiences: personal home pages, online diaries and photo albums, Weblogs or "blogs," Webrings of interconnected personal journals and home pages, and multimedia forms of self-exploration and exhibition using digital video cameras and other imaging and surveillance technologies. 3 As both Madeleine Sorapure and Laurie McNeill note in their articles in this issue, the first online diaries appeared early in 1995. In the following year, as John Killoran observes, Jennifer Ringley inaugurated her now-infamous JenniCam site. In the years since, as the techniques of Web publishing have become even more accessible to writers without extensive technical training, more individuals have found ways to document their lives in this new medium. Just this month —January 2003—the writer William Gibson, whose 1984 novel Neuromancer gave us the term cyberspace, added a Weblog to his personal home page.

In response to this remarkable expansion of online life writing over the past seven years, researchers in a variety of fields have been looking for ways to understand these dynamic and sometimes puzzling forms. In 1997, Philippe Lejeune, a leading scholar of the genres of autobiography and the diary, launched his first call for participants in a study of computer-based diaries. The results of this inquiry appeared in 2000 in "Cher écran . . .": Journal personnel, ordinateur, Internet, a major contribution to the emerging field of online life writing studies. Several of the contributors to this special...