sábado, 15 de dezembro de 2007

Autobiography and the Death of the Self

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.

Dário Borim
Department of Portuguese, UMass Dartmouth

4 comentários:

Maureen Eckert disse...

Hi Dario,
Thank you so much for presenting your views about autobiography. So much to think about... I’m unfamiliar with the literature on autobiography, though many of your points resonate with philosophical topics in the areas of personal identity, philosophy of mind/cognitive science and metaphysics. In these areas, Cartesian style dualism has been (long) abandoned, and as a result, the “self” is no longer the mysterious, transcendent, and ruling subject-substance. One of my favorite pieces on this topic might be interesting for thinking about the status of the self when it comes to autobiography and heteronymity. It is an "old" piece, but I find that folks outside of philosophy are unfamiliar with it. Here is a link:

Daniel Dennett: “The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity”


Dennett claims that selfhood itself is an *autobiographical* activity. Think of it in this way: If there is no Cartesian subject behind and apart from our mental lives, the self must be located within the immediacy of our mental experiences—an ongoing, constantly revisable drafting of “who” we are when the question of who we are is salient to ourselves (and others). We form narrative selves, which (to some degree) cohere over time, but not due to an essential “master subject” against which our narratives are to be compared and contrasted and corrected. This “master subject” (cartesian "Ghost in the Machine") does not exist. This is not to claim there is no consistency to selves at all. It is a more modest claim that selves are narrative driven (not the other way around).
It would seem that your view of autobiography is consistent with this line of thinking about the self. For the written expression of any self and its experiences would a) piggy-back on the very narrative of self-hood already operating and b) would itself be an activity of self-constitution to a greater or lesser extent. That is, the activity of writing, like the activities of thinking (a form of inner speech), and speaking are the activities that generate self-hood in the first place. The autobiographical act extends to readers who, as you suggest, approach the text identifying a kinship to their own "selves" that are similarly constituted (approach it as a human utterance that imparts experiential meaning “true” to its sense of self). There's a neat parallelism between author and reader, when selves themselves are *autobiographical* acts.
Anyway, it's interesting to have found out that the "death" of autobiography has been pronounced, although the patient was resuscitated by way of the proclamation.

An “autobiographical” side note: I studied with Michael Sprinker when I was at SUNY Stony Brook, completing a seminar focused on Marx-Althusser and Freud-Lacan. It was a great seminar experience, a veritable fight I had with him the whole semester about his Althusserian take on Ideology, which I argued was an uncritical privileging of scientific discourse over every other form of discourse. We really got along well, though I am sure I never convinced him to abandon his positivism.

djborim disse...

Hi, Maureen—
What a great sum of ideas! Thank you very much. Thanks, also, for Daniel Dennett’s bibliographical lead. If I may, I would add something to one of your lines, “selves are narrative driven (not necessarily the other way around).” Supporting your point I see this empirical role play: what can a person say in response to this question, “who are you?” The answer will inevitably be a piece of narrative, if it goes a few syllables beyond that person’s name. However, one of the issues in the concept of selfhood toward which I’ve moved in my studies is that the self can be understood as a point of convergence, conflict and production of discourses. In other words, while studying dozens of autobiographies, I noticed the symbiotic or dialectic relationship between ideas that came in and those that came out of one person’s thought processes and writings. I realized that autobiographies were fantastic material to examine the contradictions of all ideologies, of all essentialist and political ideas, and of all sorts of collective identities (national, regional, ethnic, sexual, gender-based, etc.). The “rules” of belonging are notoriously fraught with manipulative contradictions, which push “undesirable” people to the margins when they think the have (and they apparently they have) all the credentials to belong. Another couple of things I enjoyed reading in your inspiring and elucidating response were the autobiographical side note regarding Michael Sprinker’s in-class headstrong take on the issue of selfhood, and the way you paraphrased Candace Lang’s reaction to the so-called death of the self: “the ‘death’ of autobiography has been pronounced, although the patient was resuscitated by way of the proclamation.” Bravo! Cheers, Dario

Adama5torNet disse...

Caro Dário, Cara Maureen,

I just want to thank both of you again for your generosity in submitting your respective articles to the blog.


Anna M. Klobucka disse...

I thought I'd comment on the connection between the subjects of Maureen's earlier post on Pessoa and Dário's contribution on autobiography: to my mind, reading Pessoa's heteronymous experiment as an extended exploration of formal and substantive properties of autobiographic discourse that, at the same time, repeatedly and emphatically disavows any notion of a reliably identifiable "master subject" behind the self-representations of the author's various personae (including those of the so-called "Pessoa himself") is a very promising direction of inquiry. Witness Bernardo Soares's description of his Book of Disquiet as an "autobiography without facts" and countless other hints to the effect that the particular interest of the heteronymous exercise lies not so much in the content of the various authorial receptacles it produces and fills with texts, but in its probing and illumination of the signifying processes by which subjectivities themselves are constituted and represented (this observation paraphrases Judith Butler's notion of drag as a dramatization not of gendered identities per se but of processes through which they are enacted). Another author I find interesting to read along these ("meta-autobiographic") lines is Clarice Lispector; I'm going to be lazy for a moment and just copy the opening paragraphs of a brief text I wrote on Lispector's engagement with autobiography several years ago (full version available in Closer to the Wild Heart: Essays on Clarice Lispector, ed. Claudia Pazos Alonso and Claire Williams):
"The existence of complicated, multi-level intersections between fiction and autobiography in Clarice Lispector's writing has been noted and discussed by many critics; to quote just one representative comment, Earl E. Fitz has referred to the "intensely private" and "seemingly even autobiographical" tonality of her novels (60-61). Particularly in the last ten years of her life and work, Lispector developed a practice of recirculating her texts among, on the one hand, her works of fiction (both already published, such as The Foreign Legion, and in progress, such as The Stream of Life) and, on the other hand, the weekly crônicas--a genre that requires explicit deployment of an autobiographical persona--which she wrote from 1967 to 1973 for Jornal do Brasil. The exchange process worked in a truly reciprocal manner. On the one side, fragments of writing that at its point of origin was unambiguously auto-referential made their way into Lispector's novels, there to attach themselves to fictional characters such as Lóri in An Apprenticeship or The Book of Delights or Ângela in Um sopro de vida. At the same time, however, bits of seemingly fictional material would appear in the personal space of the crônica without being explicitly qualified as samples of "literary" creation external to the author's real-life persona. Needless to say, hermeneutic effects of such willful blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction prove to be highly complex. As Marta Peixoto notes, tracing the trail of "textual reappearances" in The Stream of Life, rewritten by Lispector so as to strip them of overt autobiographic reference, "[for] the reader familiar with Lispector's work, the effect of this textual déjà vu works against the grain of Lispector's revisions, endowing the nonautobiographical protagonist with an equivocal autobiographic resonance" (65). These patterns of solipsistic allusion may be traced in all of Lispector's later works, coalescing into a slippery dialectic of disguise and disclosure that is perhaps nowhere as prominently on display as in the notorious opening passages of her penultimate novel (and the last work she published before she died), The Hour of the Star. There, the parenthetical qualifier of its "dedicatória do autor" [Author's Dedication]--"Na verdade Clarice Lispector" [In truth, Clarice Lispector]--is followed by the confessional outpouring of the fictional author's "sangue de homem em plena idade" [blood of a man in his prime]. This equivocally gendered identification of the narrative authority is then further complicated by the inscription of Lispector's own handwritten signature among the novel's thirteen alternative titles. The Hour of the Star's prefatory maneuvers establish thus a pendular vacillation of the writing subject between the affirmation of self-sameness and the overt practice of narrative fingimento, accentuated by the emphasis on distribution of discursive agency along the fault lines of sexual difference.