Overview & Key Concepts:
In the first two weeks where we lost our Mondays (happily, I’m sure) to weather and a holiday, I still feel we managed to cover significant ground. The reading has been heavy—and heavily theoretical–but the effort has been worth it. We have a crucial set of concepts and questions (nicely condensed and alphabetically organized in the concluding “Tool Kit”) to take with us. Please continue to bring Reading Autobiography to class. I think it’s clear that this isn’t a book we read and put back on the shelf; rather, it’s a book that will continue to illuminate the texts we read.
Our reading for Wednesday took us from “Autobiographical Subjects” to “Autobiographical Acts.” The broad distinction here is between content and form, between what constitutes a self and what cultural and literary means are available for that selves’ emergence and articulation.
Watson and Smith discuss autobiographical subjects in relation to six broad overlapping concepts: memory, experience, identity, space, embodiment and agency.
Memory appears first, and we might think of it as the complex engine of autobiography. Because we are selves extended in time, we constantly have to mine archives–both physical and psychic–as we reconstruct and reinterpret our lives. Discussing experience, Watson and Smith demonstrate how embedded we are in the cultural scripts and ideologies that surround us. They quote philosopher Joan Scott who writes that “it is not individuals who have experience, but subjects who are constituted through experience.”
Identity, like experience, is subject to the various languages, cultural scripts, and models of identity available at any given historical point and time. Identity, they argue, is intersectional rather than additive–a fact that offers space for spontaneous self-invention as we negotiate the various identities available to us and emerge, finally, with a sense of thoughtful agency rather than some bland, essential self-hood existing outside of time.
The concept of agency helps us think about the way in which memories, experience and identities contribute to form a sense of agency that is–again–multiple and complex rather than singular and straightforward. As fully realized agents, we can manipulate these overlapping frames of identity, experience, and memory to craft distinct selves by variously embracing and rejecting the cultural scrips that surround us.
The concept of space emphasizes one’s physical and social location and their attendant politics. But this concept also also echoes the spatial logic of “intersectional identities” as Smith and Waton discuss the various “coordinates”–national, racial, sexual, generational–in which we are “located.” We quickly see how quickly space becomes a metaphor: it’s not just physical location, but psychic dwelling.
Finally, the concept of embodiment grounds these various concepts–which, admittedly, can seem at times abstract, even cold. When we consider bodies we realize the degree to which bodies are directly affected by the various discourses surrounding them. Embodiment returns us to elemental feelings such as hunger, pain and joy; embodiment reminds us how rooted we are, how human.
The story that Smith and Watson tell through these overlapping concepts remains largely consistent: at any given time and in any given location, precisely how an autobiographical subject conceives of and deploys notions of identity, memory, agency, experience, space and embodiment will differ radically. And they are radically complex. It remains remarkable how different each person emerges distinctly into life: a post-colonial subject in the 1960s, a state diplomat in Victorian England, a former slave in America after the Civil War, a sixteenth-century Spanish explorer, a working mother today. We need a complex set of questions and concerns to address the complexity and variety of autobiographical existence across time.
Moving from autobiographical subjects to autobiographical acts, we approach the formal and generic (in the sense of genre) means through which autobiographical selves emerge and become legible in the world. One way we become legible is through the myriad ways that stories are coaxed out of us. Each day–whether we’re filling out a medical form or attending a family gathering or updating our Facebook status–we see the extent to which our identities enter the world as a story. Each of these stories also has a site–a space and/or occasion from which a story emerges. The site can be a prison sell, a confessional, a holiday party or, an online chat room, or a broader geographical space such as the urban shock of a New York street or the rural repose of a national park.
Perhaps the most important consideration in this chapter on autobiographical acts has to do with the multiple “I”s that emerge in a text. These “I”s range from the narrating “I” to the narrated “I”; and from the historical “I,” which exists behind the more processed “I’ of autobiographical writing, to the ideological “I,” which finds itself enmeshed in various cultural and political scripts that might be opaque even to the author “I.”
The concept of Voice–which suggests that we hear autobiographical subject even when we only read their words–emerges to compliment these various “I”s. Here, the concepts of polyvocality and heteroglossia (which both suggest that the voice we hear is actually composed of multiple competing voices) help us grasp the depth and texture of any autobiographical voice. The concept of relationality powerfully humanizes the ways in which our voices are woven from a social fabric. The autobiographical “I” is not solitary and alone, but composed in and through its many others–cultural and collective and significant others.
Another core concept to consider when reading an autobiographical act is the matter of audience and addressee: Who does the author address? What is her ideal or intended audience? How are multiple audiences managed throughout a given text? Looking to patterns of emplotment helps us consider the structures of storytelling available at any given time. Understanding various modes of self inquiry across history reminds us that even how we know ourselves and express that knowledge is mediated by cultural and historical context. More materially, we might think of the medium–whether it’s a book, a Twitter feed, or in a tattoo–that any give autobiographical acts assumes. Thinking of the market, we might consider the consumer and the multiple paratexts–from blurbs and pictures to the broader marketing apparatus–surrounding a book. All of these remain crucial for a complete understanding of autobiographical acts.
Fortunately, my very quick overview is not the only place to go for a refresh on these multiplying concepts. The authors provide a very handy and alphabetically organized “Tool Kit” as a final chapter that offer more routes into a given text than we could possibly hope to take.
Quote and Tell:
“It is in the contextual, provisional, and performative aspects of our autobiographical acts that we give shape to and remake ourselves through memory, experience, identity, location, embodiment, and agency. Understanding the profound complexities of these acts enables us to better understand what is at stake in life narrative, in the narrator-reader-publisher relationship, and in the international culture of autobiographical prevalent in the early twenty-first century” (RA 102).
I appreciate this quote because it is, above all, self evident. It nicely captures the work we’ve done so far, and anticipates the work we’ll continue to do over the course of the semester.
I realize that I didn’t quite make it to what I found to be our riveting discussion of Alexie. In next week’s ClassWrap, I’ll fold that conversation into our work on Native American Autobiography.
Looking Ahead and Auto[BLOG]raphy
We didn’t get a chance to talk about Phillip Lopate’s brief essay “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” It’s a lovely piece, and it does a nice job of describing how one might begin to achieve a certain distance from oneself that renders the “I” at once rare and engaging.
We need to be round rather than flat as the E.M. Forster’s instructs. We need to transcend the shame we have in light of our utter weirdness or our utter normality. Authors mus must, in Lopate’s words, “acknowledge just those moments in the day, in their loves and friendships, in their family dynamics, in their historical moments, in their interactions with the natural world, that remain genuinely perplexing, vexing. luminous, unresolved.” We need to embrace our differences in terms of identity and idiosyncrasy. We need, above all, to have a curiosity (from the Latin for care) about ourselves.
Giving ourselves something to do, Lopate reminds us, helps as well. We’d rather be moving in an imagined world than stagnating in an imagined mind. Such concentration on the self ultimately allows a certain kind of transcendence of our ego: we gain a certain distance that makes us knowable as others for others.
(1) Your creative blogging option for this week is to compose a character sketch. Make yourself available to us as a character in the richest possible sense.
(2) Your critical blogging option for this week is to utilize the “Took Kit” (which you can find in the final chapter in Reading Autobiography) to address any aspect of either Alexie’s “Unauthorized Autobiography” (as we began to do in class) or the reading for next week (the chapter on pre-literate life writing, the warrior tale of Two Leggings, or Brumble’s article connecting warrior cultures across time). That should leave plenty of room for your thoughts to roam widely!