ClassWrap 1: January 15


In my initial blog post, I discussed the idea of the self as existing in extended time—in a remembered past and a projected future.  Because of the sheer temporality of our existence, narrative comes to the fore as the way in which we add structure to our lives, the way we ‘plot’ our lives, and the way we arrange the various characters in our lives.

Understood as such, our truest identities do not exist in some ideal of an essential, transcendent self that exists outside of time and prior to our engagement with the world.  Our self resides precisely in the stories we tell about our experience. We are, in many ways, the stories we tell about ourselves, whether in the constant dialog of self-narration that starts when we open our eyes in the morning, or in our interactions with others. The respected scholar of autobiography, Paul John Eakin, makes precisely this case in his recent book Living Autobiographically.  This relationship between self as observing subject and self as observed or told is utterly complex: we are multiple even to ourselves, having evolving emotional and physical and intellectual identities.

The multiplicity of selves that our name holds grows even more complex when we realize the myriad cultural, historical, racial, political and familial narratives that exist outside of us, and that we often unconsciously write ourselves into: what a given society holds that it means to be an American or Mexican or a Native American; what it means to be a mother or father; a son or daughter; a Buddhist or Muslim; gay or straight.

Just as we learned that our as “selves” exist in constant points of contact and tension and overlap in relation to the evolving narratives that surround us, so the genre of autobiography itself exists in points of contact and tension and overlap with other genres.

History and autobiography share some sense that the world depicted is one that actually exists, and we can certainly glean historical information from autobiography.  But Histories are concerned with capstone cultural moments more often than intensely private ones.  Moreover, history depends upon a stricter ideal of truth, whereas autobiographies come with a more flexible, intersubjective kind of truth—what Smith and Watson define as “autobiographical truth.”  Such truth is not true or false, but rather based on the author’s perceived credibility and authenticity.  We accept the autobiographical truth of such an account not because it is precisely historically true, but, as W.E.B. Du Bois suggests, because it is viable and useful and intriguing theory of a life.

We saw a similarly dynamic interplay between fiction and autobiography. On the one hand, Novels often pose as autobiographies—sometimes explicitly so as in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—in order to gain access to a different order of truth that the mere fantasy of novel-writing does not always provide.  On the other hand, autobiographies themselves partake in aspects of literary invention as they build a theory of a life.  I think that overlap simply underscores the degree to which we are narrative beings: beings that exist in and as stories.

The distinction between biography and autobiography seemed a bit more rudimentary to many of us, but the distinction is still an interesting one.   Another word for autobiography, we learned, is “self-biography.”  If nothing else, such a word emphasizes the degree to which our selves are divided.  Just as a biographer needs to work through archives and interview others to uncover the truth of their subjects, autobiographers essentially research their own lives, combing the embodied archives of memory and sense, and visiting material archives such as scrapbooks, photo collections, and digital resources to help reconstruct a personal life situated within a broader political and historical environment. Thinking of biography in relation to autobiography, then, mirrors one of these author’s main objectives throughout: to defamiliarize the sturdiness and essence and uncomplicated simplicity that we might otherwise attribute to autobiographical selves.

In Chapter One of Reading Autobiography, we have a kind of synchronic conception of the genre of autobiography as it exists in relationship to these other genres.  In Chapter Four, we gain a more diachronic perspective as we learned how that genre came into being precisely through different conceptions of the self that emerged at specific cultural moments.  The key here is recognizing that at any given moment, there is a limited set of possibilities for self-presentation.   Who we are is determined not only by where we are, but when in time we are.

Though our authors traced autobiography back to ancient inscription, they mark the advent of autobiography in the West with Augustine’s Confessions (~397 AD). Christianity gave rise to a specific and unique brand of spiritual autobiography where the autobiographical self–so vividly rendered for the first time in writing–is extinguished at the very moment of union with the divine.

As time progresses, we pick up more selves: the profane self defined in relation to the sacred gave way, through Renaissance Humanism, to a more searching, secular, and nuanced sense of self.  The concept of the human itself expanded along with advances in arts and technology and government, and the seeking and investigating “I” becomes central–not something to be dissolved in the presence of the sacred.

This humanistic subject, exploring interior continents of self, gives rise in a surprising turn to the migratory subject: the explorer, the discoverer, the colonizer.  Here, Smith and Watson offer that provocative idea that forms of personal self exploration “both motivated and paralleled” these geographical explorations, which in turn led to physical encounters with unknown others that at times challenged but mostly reaffirmed the superiority of the humanistic subject of the West.

Around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Enlightenment subject begins to emerge alongside this humanistic self, offering an identity based in the rationality, self-containment, sovereignty, stability, and universality of the self.  This self is rooted in Decartes famous cogito ergo sum: “I think therefore I am.”

It is crucial to remember that alongside this very broadly sketched evolution of the autobiographical self, one sense of self is not extinguished as the next appears.  Spiritual autobiography, for example, persists in many ways as a reaction against the sovereign and self-determining self of the Enlightenment.  The Puritans sought a life in America in part to re-orient themselves toward the more sacred model of the self as dissolved in, and utterly subject to, the divine.  And spiritual autobiography continues to evolve, beyond the Puritans, in relation to historical change up to the present.  It’s a thriving genre as we speak.

Post-enlightenment selves range from the so-called “exceptional” self put forth not as a universal self, but as a self that is utterly unique and set apart from the rabble.  This is the model of self-absorbed individualism–the Frenchmen Rousseau being the model here–which in turn gives rise to the Romantic self, the self of the romantic quest for some ideal of nature or love.  Such a self models the earnestness and desire for self-transcendence that we see in spiritual autobiography, but the sacred itself is no longer the goal. The goal instead is ineffable, sublime, and always just out of reach. Thus, the Romantic quest often ends in disillusion and failure.

The Secular or bourgeois middle-class self then emerges alongside these other developments to model not the extremes of individuality, but to depict the necessity of social integration.  These subjects often begin as disjointed loners—set apart from society—and end in fully integration with the societies prevailing values and norms.  This is the model provided by the Bildungsroman, which is German for a novel of development or education or coming of age.

Alongside these dominant strands, we have to note that increasing prevalence of narratives that don’t quite fit in.  If the Enlightenment and Romantic self was basically a male and white one, we need to note emerging forms of women’s autobiography that we get not in the form of official memoirs, but in scraps of selfhood: diaries, confessions, poems, recipes, journals.  We also need to look at other stories the dominant narratives and privileged conceptions of selves exclude: the slave narrative and immigrant narrative, and, later, narratives of dynamically hybrid identities that don’t fit neatly into categories of racial identities.

At different places and times and in different contexts, certain voices are authorized while others are kept under shrouds of forgetting and silence.  This class recognizes that truth by attending in particular to those forms of autobiography that might have been silenced and overlooked in their own times.

In Friday’s class, we only had a chance to very briefly address the many concepts of self that arrive in the second chapter, “Autobiographical Subjects.”  There, the authors offer various riffs on memory, experience, identity, space, embodiment, and agency.  I know it can be thick read at times, and in many ways this is a crash course in literary theory: we have Foucault’s “discursive regimes,” Louis Althusser’s “interpellated ideologies.”  We have concepts like modalities of spatiality, geopolitics of mobility, Judith Butler’s notion of performing identities.  We have ideas about the crucial “intersectionality”–rather than additive nature–of identity.  The onslaught of such jargon signals that we are engaging a very specific discursive regime of our own: literary theory about autobiography.  While the jargon can sometimes confuse matters, beneath the language lie extremely useful and applicable ideas and concepts that we will return to throughout the semester.  Don’t be intimidated by the jargon; instead, have confidence in your ability to translate the author’s sometimes opaque language into a more readily usable and understandable terms.  In other words, don’t gloss over the jargon; delve into it and own it!

If there is a central story grounding each of these sections, it is that the self us utterly porous. Even the categories we worked through in Chapter 2–memory, experience, agency, etc.–merge into one another at nearly every point, mirroring this porousness.  The authors ask that we take the seemingly personal and self-evident notions such as memory and experience and identity and embodiment and agency and understand how they are constrained by historical context, by multiple communal identities, by cultural scripts, by geographical location and the attendant geopolitics, by the authority that the dominant society grants given bodies at a certain time.

We’ll talk more specifically on Monday about Memory, Experience, Identity, Space, Embodiment and Agency, but for now I just wanted to hopefully add some clarity here to the story that exists above and beyond the jargon.

These ideas, though not always expressed in the most clear language in our text here, all speak to a core set of concerns that I think we can grasp, and can talk about, and can take with us as we read actual autobiography in the weeks ahead. And that’s the crucial part: this is not a book we read and forget: what we’re doing is assembling a toolkit of ideas and concept.  We could call the first two weeks “500 often overlapping, sometimes confusing, but often useful concepts toward the reading of Autobiography.” This is our grounding text, and it will make more and more sense as we view various actual autobiographical reflections through the concepts it articulates.

Key Concepts:

  • Autobiographical Truth
  • Discursive Regime
  • Interpellation and Ideology
  • Performing identities
  • Autobiography vs. Life Narrative vs. Life Writing
  • Autobiography as genre
  • Autobiographical Subjects
    • In Antiquity and Middle Ages
    • Humanist Subject
    • Migratory Subject
    • Enlightenment Subject
    • Bourgeois Subject
    • The Exceptional Subject
    • The Romantic Subject
    • Counter-Subjects: Subjects who oppose the dominant conception of self at any give moment in time.


“The self-exploration of the early modern period both motivated and paralleled geographical explroation of the globe as travelers began to record the findings of their journeys in narratives that comprise another kind of autobiographical practice.  These travel narratives posed in ‘I’ in migration, encounter, conquest, and transformation” (RA 109).

I remain perplexed by this quote–one we discussed at some length in class on Wednesday.  The difficulty, for me, has to do with the sense of causality suggested by the word “motivated”–a sense that “parallel” does not include.  I find it to be a provocative idea, even if it is impossible to prove or disprove.  But it makes perfect sense that how we conceive of ourselves and write ourselves has everything to do with our actions in the world, even if the connections between those two realms of self-conception and action remain utterly complex and opaque. Any thoughts?

Looking Ahead and the Blog:

On Wednesday (after the MLK break) we will return to Chapter 2 (“Autobiographical Subjects”) and also discuss Chapter 3 (“Autobiographical Acts”).  The movement here is from the autobiographical self to the the autobiographical act itself: what inspires it, how it makes its way in the world, and what formal elements contribute to it.

I would also like you to peruse (just skim it, really, zeroing in on what interests you most) Appendix A: “60 Genres of Life Narrative.” Be prepared to discuss one genre that you found particularly interesting / exciting.

For your Blog post–due, as always, on Tuesday evening by midnight–I offer the following broad creative and critical options:

Creative Options

  • Compose a reflection on the complexities on any aspect of the autobiographical subject or self in the manner of Gertrude Stein (see the epigraph on page 21).
  • Writing about the “humanist subject,” the authors noted The Book of My Life by Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576).  I loved his chapter titles: “A Meditation on the Perpetuation of My Name”; “My Manner of Walking and Thinking”; “Five Unique Characteristics by which I am Helped”; “Perils, Accidents and Manifold, Diverse and Persistent Treacheries”; “My Own Particular Rules of Conduct.”  You can check out the full table of contents (and the book itself) here. Using one of these titles–or inventing a similarly-archaic sounding one of your own–offer a fitting autobiographical reflection.  You can even model your prose on Cardano’s if you so desire.

Critical Options:

  • At times, it is easy to feel that the “self” is drained of what makes it unique.  We all become bundles of pre-determined languages and politics and models of experience and identity.  Did you personally agree with or resist Smith and Watson’s continued insistence on this point as they repeatedly complicate conceptions of what a “self” even is?  And were you able to find points where the ideas they present do offer kinds of spontaneous agency and self-creation despite the various competing ideologies that press upon us?  That is, do you think the authors present an the opportunity to conceive of a renewed and grounded sense of self despite the broad “intersectionality” of our identities?
  • Take any single category or face of what Smith and Watson call “Autobiographical Subjects” or “Autobiographical Acts” and reflect on why you think that particular category is interesting, important, or in need of further clarification.
  • Take a sentence or paragraph that you found to be full of difficult jargon and offer a sensible “translation” for the class.

One Response to ClassWrap 1: January 15

  1. Cali says:

    Though we’ve only been in class for a week I see this class paralleling my English 357. I’m sure this will change as the semester progresses, but for now my mind is being forcibly loaded with information on ‘autobiography’, ‘narrative’, ‘storytelling’, ‘metanarrative’, ‘navel-gazing’, ‘self-biography’, etc. I think Professor VZ said it best – its all very exciting and scary at the same time. I’m especially interested in the sheer number of types of autobiography that exist. I’m not sure why this concept never quite dawned on me. I suppose I have always been exposed to “cookie-cutter” autobiographies and never really considered the sub-genres of autobiography. Of course every person is different so every person will have a different story and will tell it in a different way – but is it all just a variation of something that has already been done? I guess that is what I’m most cynical about and excited to delve into within this course.

    Michael Hanne reaffirms Hayden White’s suggestion that there are no ‘un-told’ stories and writes that “[…] there is no such thing as an untold story, since a story does not exist until it has been told” (Hanne, “Narrative and Power”, 13). I have to admit I’m not enthusiastic about our book “Reading Autobiography”, rather I am more excited to move into the other books like “Fun Home” and the slave narratives, etc. Though, as has been said, “Reading Autobiography” is littered with tough jargon, I do find it making sense at times and I have managed to learn quite a bit that I didn’t already know. I like the fact that chapter 2 was broken down into sections on memory, etc. I think its important to realize just how many aspects autobiography relies on, however, I felt that the authors of “Reading Autobiography” could have been a bit more concise. Early on in chapter 2 I began to feel like I was reading the work of a student who had written 3 good pages but needed to make the paper 5 pages long. To me, it seemed that there was a lot of filler. Regardless, I’m excited to delve into this class and incorporate it into my own internal autobiography.

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