Meet Samuel Pepys.
Born in London in 1633, Pepys was the fifth son of eleven children, born into a merchant-class family. Pepys attended Cambridge University, and entered the British Navy as a bureaucratic administrator. Finding himself particularly adept at the tasks of administration, Pepys rose in the ranks of the Navy Board, despite his lack of nautical experience. In 1673, Pepys was elected to Parliament, and he later spent two years as President of the Royal Society – in that capacity, you can find his name on the title page of Isaac Newton’s original Principia Mathematica.
And yet, today we remember Pepys for none of those reasons.
Why are academic papers and books being written every year about dear Samuel Pepys?
Because he wrote a diary.
On January 1st, 1660, Pepys began a diary.
For nearly ten years, Pepys would record a daily accounting of his life – personal and public. The decade that Pepys kept his diary happened to coincide with some particularly pivotal moments in British history – the restoration of the monarchy, the Great Fire of London, and one of the worst plague outbreaks in London.
Pepys also happened to be a bibliophile, and in his lifetime created a personal library of thousands of texts. When the man died, the library survived and was transferred to Magdalene College in Cambridge, where it was preserved and maintained as one of the greatest private libraries (remember, this was during that foggy pre-Internet age, where physical collections of texts played a paramount role in the preservation and dissemination of culture and knowledge).
Pepys’s six-volume, hand-written diary went along for the ride to Cambridge, but did not garner much attention for years.
Then, over a century after the man’s death, his diary was transcribed (translated, in fact, from a personal form of shorthand) and published in 1825.
From its first publication, Pepys’s meticulous diary has been one of the most significant sources of our conception of England in the latter 17th century. More so than any other text, Pepys’s daily recollections have provided later generations with a picture of what life was like at that time and place.
Written in the 17th century. Published in the 19th. Studied ever since.
Scholars from a breadth of disciplines have scrutinized Pepys’s diary to create and bolster theories in the fields of history, psychology, social philosophy, political science, gender studies, literary theory, and more. The diary is taken as a window into the man’s mind, life, and society, through which modern readers are able to peek into centuries past.
The ways in which modern academics use the diary reveal the fundamental view we hold of diaries as a textual form: we take them to be unfiltered reflections and genuine accounts of the author, and his or her life.
Now this doesn’t mean we assume diaries are by any means unbiased or ‘fair’ accounts of one’s life or personhood. Of course, diaries are full of biased opinions, skewed perspectives, hasty judgments, and all the rest of the colorful array of any person’s thoughts. Rather, we take diaries to be faithful reflections of those colorful thoughts.
We can better understand the special consideration we give to forms of seemingly reflective media by looking at similar texts that we don’t interpret as purely reflective. Take letter-writing, for instance.
When one person writes a personal letter to another, much of the content in that letter might be the sort of thing that could also go into a diary – important personal events, worries, celebrations, and so forth. But we don’t automatically assume that letters are unfiltered reflections of the letter-writer, because there is an intended audience, and so we recognize that there may be intentions or motivations shaping the narrative of the text.
A soldier writing a letter home to his family might create a text (the letter) that masks the soldier’s fear and uncertainty, because the soldier doesn’t want their family worrying. The soldier essentially creates a ‘character’ (of him or herself), and presents that brave-soldier character to his ‘audience’ (his family).
Or, one businessman writing an email to a partner, trying to minimize the severity of some financial consequences of the author’s poor decisions. The author might narrate ‘true‘ events, but skew their presentation in such a way as to intentionally control his reader’s perceptions.
Because of these realities, we don’t consider letters – even personal, private letters from one individual to another – to be genuinely reflective media, in the way we consider diaries to be so. When scholars study a person’s letters, they interpret the contents with much greater skepticism and recognition of narrative artifice.
Diaries – and what else?
So if, unlike letters, diaries are considered as reflective media – what else do we take to be reflective?
The big player these days: social media.
Though platforms like Facebook create a context for mini-texts (posts, messages, pictures, and so on) addressed to an audience – indeed, far more of an audience than written letters – we take those mini-texts to be reflective without much question. When I see an acquaintance post an angry rant about their perceived slights by the government, I might not be inclined to agree with their beliefs about the government, but I am inclined to believe that their post is a genuine, unfiltered reflection of their thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.
We’ve all heard the refrains from countless corners, lamenting how utterly “narcissistic” today’s young generations are. And what’s largely the evidence for this? The media they create and present within social-media platforms.
And notice how we even speak of that content-creation. It sounds stilted to talk about someone’s Facebook postings as “creating pieces of text” or “creating media.”
How do we normally talk about that collection of personal textuality? As someone’s behavior on Facebook.
In talking about ‘behavior’ rather than ‘media creation,’ we reveal our assumption that social media texts are direct reflections of the author’s personhood. Rarely would we talk about someone’s behavior in the letters they write, or their behavior in an essay.
But is ‘reflective media’ really reflective?
Our attitudes about seemingly reflective media are so ingrained and automatic that we rarely put them under any scrutiny.
Such has been the case with old Samuel Pepys’s diary, until Mark Dawson, at the time a historian at Cambridge, entered the discussion in 2000. In his article, “Histories and Texts: Refiguring the Diary of Samuel Pepys,” Dawson rocks the body of Pepys academia by asserting that, all along, we’ve been wrong in thinking the diary reflected the man.
Dawson points out the long-known but rarely considered fact that Pepys’s diary was only one of numerous daily personal texts that Pepys created (others for his business, for financial accounting, and so on) – and so that one must look at the function and intention of Pepys’s diary, as a text among differently oriented texts.
Doing so, Dawson goes on to show that, “The diary is essentially a narrative of social accounting by a middling man on the make.” Rather than a reflection of Pepys’s day-to-day thoughts and experiences, the diary is a meticulous recording of certain selections of Pepys’s experiences, filtered through the lens of social mobility – how each event would improve or harm his social standing.
An example will be particularly telling. The diary entry for the morning of Sunday, November 29th, 1663 reads:
“29. Lords day. This morning I put on my best black cloth-suit trimmed with Scarlett ribbon, very neat, with my cloak lined with Velvett and a new Beaver, which altogether is very noble, with my black silk knit canons I bought one month ago. I to church alone, my wife not going.”
If we read this entry assuming it to reflect Pepys the man, we might reasonably conclude that Pepys is very concerned with the smartness of his dress, is rather vain, and gives a little perfunctory attention to church and his wife. Indeed, that’s how it’s usually read in the scholarly world – as evidence of Pepys’s “innocent vanity.”
Dawson shows how misguided such conclusions are. The November 29th entries is surrounded that week by entries in which Pepys writes his worries about falling behind fashion, and worrying that his and his wife’s ‘uncool’ clothes are going to hurt their social standing. That same Sunday afternoon, Pepys records his stress at finding out at church that his neighbor’s wife is wearing a flashy new style of dress before Pepys’s has been able to buy the same for his own wife.
The November 29th entry does not show us Pepys being vain or petty, but rather offers an example of Pepys trying to determine – and elevate – his current social status.
And though it would be easy to say, “Well, it still shows Pepys being vain, because all he cares about is his own social standing and what people think of him,” we must remember that the whole purpose of the diary was to be a tool of social accounting. And to purport that a tool’s purpose reflects the entirety of its user’s personhood is a more than shaky leap.
Flashes of Facebook.
Does the November 29th entry, and the differing conclusions drawn from it, remind you of anything today?
It might – it’s basically the written version of a “selfie” photo (for those unaware, a ‘selfie’ is a picture one takes of oneself).
Selfies proliferate on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Their ubiquity is one of the most oft-pointed to proofs of growing narcissism among youth. These young’uns just can’t stop taking pictures of themselves!
Self-obsessed vanity? What if we look at selfies with the same eye Dawson looks at Pepys’s diary?
No less so than in Pepys’s time, one’s physical appearance is a fundamental indicator of where one is located – both through one’s own volition, and social imposition – within the social arena. A snapshot of one’s physical appearance is one of the simplest, clearest, and most direct ways to assess one’s social standing – and, when shared with others, to direct that social standing (e.g., if you want to be seen as a sports fanatic, be seen in a bunch of pictures always wearing different sports jerseys).
Selfies, and the rest of self-referential media uploaded to platforms like Facebook, are created with the intention of assessing and controlling one’s social standing. The body of texts and media created by a particular person and uploaded to Facebook are not a ‘reflection’ of them, but rather an artifice – not in the sense of being fake, but in the sense of being intentionally crafted with a specific purpose.
And should we be surprised that content on social media is overwhelmingly concerned with assessing and directing social standing?
To say someone – or a generation – is narcissistic or obsessed with social standing because such content comprises the vast majority of the media they create and upload to the contextual space of Facebook, is like saying someone is obsessed with videos because that’s all they upload to YouTube, or is obsessed with buying books because that’s all they do at bookstores.
Mind the context.
As we’ve looked at before in The Quandary of Context, context plays an inextricable role in how we perceive anything. And when we misinterpret or lose focus of the proper context, our interpretations and conclusions can run amok.
Samuel Pepys would likely be horrified to learn that whole books had been written about him based solely on what he wrote in a diary he wrote from ages 26-36. And yes, as many critics are quick to point out, many teenagers today would likely be horrified as adults to be judged solely based on the content they uploaded to Facebook from ages 16-26.
But to base a conception of a person on such a skewed segment of contextually biased media content is faulty in any case. And for all the worries that social media content will come back to haunt the young and vain, perhaps instead we’re all just still learning how to interpret within the new and expanding contextual playgrounds of the internet.
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