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On Diary (review)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 1, Summer 2012
pp. 231-234 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0009

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Philippe Lejeune has long been recognized as a central figure in autobiography studies. His theory of the “autobiographical pact” has become a cornerstone for scholarly research in autobiography. It was therefore surprising to read On Diary, the recent collection of Lejeune’s essays edited by Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak—surprising not so much because these essays hold to the high caliber of scholarship that one would expect from the progenitor of the theory of the “autobiographical pact” but because these essays take great risks.

On Diary positions Lejeune as an interdisciplinarian who refuses to recognize unproductive divisions between genres that have often become the blueprint for building scholarly and educational models. In his quest to develop new ways to read diaries, Lejeune has expanded his critical reading skills to include material aspects of the diary, such as illustration, collage, handwriting, physical construction, and a consideration of digital media. In Popkin’s discussion of the 1997 diaries exhibition at the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon and the resulting book, he situates Lejeune as a trailblazer, lauding him for “the Lyon exhibition [that] allowed him to show how much more there is to a diary than just the words of its text” (4).

Lejeune, reflecting on the exhibition and the documentaries and book projects that grew from it, states “that the journal is fundamentally ‘autographical,’ like those texts which artists call a ‘single-copy edition’: it signifies by virtue of its paper, its ink, its spelling, and its script, and many other aspects, while the printed text only captures words, and often very few words. To publish a journal, then, is like trying to fit a sponge into a match box” (47). Lejeune’s attempt to reposition the diary as a multimodal text that exists simultaneously as a written text and as a visual text asks readers to reexamine their own research, scholarship, and teaching to determine if they are attempting to force a multimodal text into the lines of rigid subject divisions, as the “sponge into the matchbox.” Allowing the space for readers to reflect upon new ways of reading texts that include their material conditions opens doors to complicate productively the visage of the humanities and consider new ways of pushing interdisciplinarity in scholarship and teaching. These ideas can, of course, be seen reflected in some of the current discourse in autobiography studies. A recent International Auto/Biography Studies Association Conference, for example, included a gallery of visual and multimodal autobiography, and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, among others, have theorized visual autobiography in their scholarly publications.

The themes of multimodality, the materiality of texts, and interdisciplinary studies are enhanced by the inclusion of Lejeune’s essay entitled, “Diaries on the Internet: A Year of Reading.” In an earlier chapter, first published in 1997, Lejeune refers to the diary as more closely aligned to a hypertext document than a bound text, stating “its endless proliferation makes it more akin to the computer screen and hypertext than to the closed linear form of the book” and that “in some ways, it is unpublishable” (154). It is then useful in this context to include the chapter on blogs, first published in 2000, as it shows some of Lejeune’s earlier musings coming to fruition. He is particularly interested in a young blogger named Mongolo who actively utilizes the hypertext feature in his blog (302), mirroring the exact format that Lejeune had pegged as most similar to the diary.

While this chapter is very charming in many respects, as Lejeune reveals quite a bit about his own nature—calling himself “an old grump” and stating that he has “trouble understanding” the bloggers’ enthusiasm (308)—this essay ultimately will be relegated to having historical interest solely, given how the digital diary known as the blog has progressed in both shape and proliferation since Lejeune wrote this piece. He reports feeling “dizzy” over finding a “list of 1,800 English diaries” (309) and one wonders how he would react to the current explosion of digital diaries.

The importance of this essay is, to some extent, found in the acceptance and inclusion of digital technologies. While scholars who specialize in new media are actively...


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