Despite the widespread cynicism of our post-modern times, many scholars in the humanities are using autobiographies as prime sources of information, or as objects of literary investigation. Paradoxically, some other researchers either claim that autobiography is dead or deny it has ever existed. I thus wonder: What is autobiography? Is it actually possible to write one? What's the purpose of studying it? If we divide the word "autobiography" by its constituents, we have autos, which in Greek means self; bios, the course of life; and graphe, writing. We hence suppose that a definition to the term autobiography may run like "the writing of a self's life course." The task of discerning what actually is autobiography is light years beyond this simplistic concept, though. To begin with, all three complex elements of the word (arbitrarily created and first printed in late 1809) have been understood very differently from time to time.
There have been theories, for instance, that call for the writing of history grounded in autobiographies, because such theories rely on the importance of an individual life and on the assumptions that language is an accurate medium of reference, and that the self is an authentic entity. There are several problems here: First of all, I agree with Françoise Lionnet, who says that "because language is molded by the politics and ideology of a community, it influences--in turn--the way a given community comes to think of the world." History, therefore, drawn from personal stories may become very deceptive. Secondly, not all lives seem to matter to those who write in the name of historical truth. Dealing with ancient writings, Georg Misch neglects women's texts because their bios are "culturally insignificant," and their graphe are "not aesthetically meaningful." Likewise, Karl Weintraub, a historian influenced by Misch, argues that male-model types of warriors, gentlemen, ideal monks and teachers are those lives and writings worth studying.
Despite its dangers and shortcomings, the studies in autobiography can be not only fascinating in and of themselves, but also very useful to other fields. For all the variety and depth of insight they provide, autobiographies may become a central reading to various kinds of research besides literary criticism (such as American studies, philosophy or women’s studies). Autobiographies can also be very helpful to our understanding of all other literature, especially since many autobiographies are written by the same people who produce fiction. A third and very important use has to do with preserving the history of those who are usually neglected by the dominant sectors of society--the people who produce historiography--in the name of the whole nation. James Olney contends, for example, that African-American history has been preserved in autobiographies rather than standard histories.
After major advancements in psychology, linguistics, and semiotics (among other sciences), however, we must definitely question not only the problematic issues of the so-called self-expression, but also the very existence of an entity called self. The pronoun "I" makes sense only within a communicative situation. There has to be a message sender and a listener, so that the former may be able to refer to him/herself by using the word "I." But "I," as this case exemplifies, is the object of a verbal reference; it is not a "self." The self, though, exists "as an arbitrary cultural fact," not a delusion, as Candace Lang explains. The self, which is a construct undergoing constant mutation both symbolically (through our understanding), and empirically (through any human deeds), gradually acquires a fictitious configuration within the limits of the written text, at the moment in which one writes an autobiography. As Sidonie Smith puts it, the fictions of the autobiographer "are always mediated by a historic identity with specific intentions, if not pretensions, of interpreting the meaning of one's experience."
The point in time in which the individual's life course apparently comes to a halt is nothing but an illusion, just like the notion of a solidified self constructing its own portrait. The impasse of this view of time is one among several incongruities of the autobiographical act to which many autobiographers of yesteryear could not relate. Life, after all, is never a finished product, but after death. (Indeed, even death as an ending to a life may be a debatable issue.) Despite the artificiality of that halt, which many autobiographers take for granted, one can actually read in the past, "one's acts and utterances," as Lang puts it, insofar as they signify within a social and linguistic context.
Lang rightfully says that it is ludicrous how "positivist critics," like Michael Sprinker, proclaim the end of autobiography, vis-a-vis the pitfalls of language, while they themselves read and interpret within linguistic constraints. They announce the very impuissance of what they do as they try "to maintain a discourse of mastery." To Lang, and myself, this is the "demise of criticism itself in the classical sense of interpretation." Barrett J. Mandell, in turn, contends that autobiographies and novels are totally distinct. I don't agree. To me these boundaries, in some cases, can be severely blurred. Yet I do believe in the existence of this complex mode of narrative per se, and thus oppose the critics who claim that the same impulse that produces fiction produces autobiographies. In other words, not everything is fiction.
In a slightly different way I also disagree with Robert F. Sayre, whose broad definition of autobiography seems large enough to accommodate all sorts of discourses. Not everything is autobiography either. My own concept of autobiography does not rely on normative or essentialist traits. Much indebted to the latest of Philippe Lejeune's thoughts on the issue, I understand autobiography as a mode of reading as well as a mode of writing. I also trust, in part, Elizabeth Bruss' theory based on John Searle's notion of illocutionary action. Bruss sustains that the style or structure of autobiography cannot explain what is at the heart of its generic value.
To me, an autobiography is possible, first, as long as the author, in good faith, acknowledges and carries on the will to write one's own personal visions of mostly his/her own real life experiences. Second, the reader, while aware of the author's conscious attitude toward the piece (as suggested, i.e., by the subtitle to the work, or the use of the same author/narrator/protagonist name), approaches the text as a human utterance within its potential to impart meaning to experience and within its limitations to tell the "truth" or express a sense of self. As Francis R. Harts remarks, the unreliability of the autobiographer is "an inescapable condition, not a rhetorical option." So I hesitate to say that there is, intrinsically, an autobiographical form. I believe in how a text may function as an autobiography, in which there may be an implicit or explicit binary pact between the writer's mode of writing and the reader's mode of reading. I do not mean to prescribe it as a "genre" in itself, though, mostly because an autobiography may escape all traditionally established generic forms.
Department of Portuguese, UMass Dartmouth