History and her story

Auto/Biographical Discourse
March 31, 1995

Theory has rendered the term individual anachronistic. There is no fixed identity or inner self. Instead, there are socially constructed and plural subjectivities, situated selves and a continous process of self fashioning. In the words of Judith Butler, identity "is an enactment that performatively constitutes the appearance of its own interior fixity".

Such views challenge the traditional notion of autobiography, expressed by Wilhelm Dilthey, as "the highest and most instructive form of the understanding of life". But, as Laura Marcus argues in this excellent study, this sort of comment is premissed on the exclusion of women's writing. This often took the form of diaries, letters or journals which appeared anecdotal in relation to autobiography's evocation of life as a totality. Autobiography was the preserve of great men who wrote in the tradition of Saint Augustine, Benvenuto Cellini, Edward Gibbon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These exemplifed the values of inwardness and sincerity and they also served to embody what was considered to be the best of western culture.

Marcus begins her critique of this tradition by noting a number of problems. First, the fact that the self who writes can never wholly coincide with the self who is written about means that autobiography cannot attain that totality which is claimed for it. Second, the conception of autobiography as both a unique and a representative life gives it a highly paradoxical character and, third, there is the question of whether writing about the self merely records its growth and development or whether, in patterning the life, it objectifies the self and turns it into something other.

It is at this point that Marcus mentions what she considers to be the biggest problem in respect of autobiography; its hybridity. She notes that it is closely connected with literature. Indeed, since it deploys the same conventions and stylisations it threatens to turn the real life into a fictional one. Autobiography is also intimately linked to biography because both involve an identification with their subject. In addition, there is no clear cut division between autobiography and science. In the 19th century, autobiography was regarded as a crucial resource for the scientific study of human nature, particularly for what it could reveal about "genius".

The hybrid nature of autobiography means that it unsettles divisions allowing feminists to challenge the "great men" tradition of autobiography and create their own writings which exploit the links between autobiography and other genres. Thus fiction, argues Marcus, can become the space for experimentation, for trying out "potentialities and possibilities -what might have been, what could have been, what might yet be." This approach is in contrast to the "confessional" autobiographies of the early 1970s, such as Kate Millett's Flying (1974). These aimed to give a voice to women which was denied to them in official culture and to appeal to the authority of experience in opposition to abstract systems.

History decided in favour of theory. Instead of the concrete life we have declarations like the following from Judith Butler:"I describe and propose a set of parodic practices based in performative theory of gender acts that disrupt the categories of the body, sex, gender and sexuality... and occasion their subversive resignification and proliferation beyond the binary frame." Such hubris, utterly devoid of charm or humour, undermines what Marcus sees as one of the main strengths of female writing, its attempt to give a group history to "individual" identities.

All in all, this is a scholarly and challenging work. Its depth of research, elegant argument and impressive grasp of detail will ensure it becomes a classic of autobiographical criticism.

Gary Day is a senior lecturer in critical and cultural theory, De Montfort University, Bedford.

Auto/Biographical Discourse: Criticism, Theory, Practice

Author - Laura Marcus
ISBN - 0 7190 3642 9
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 322pp

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