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Understanding Our Selves

The Dangerous Art of Biography


Susan Tridgell

Modern Western biography has become one of the most popular and most controversial forms of literature. Critics have attacked its tendency to rely on a strong narrative drive, its focus on a single person’s life and its tendency to delve ever more deeply into that person’s inner, private experience, though these tendencies seem to have only increased biography’s popularity. To date, however, biography has been a rarely studied literary form. Little serious attention has been given to the light biographies can shed on philosophical problems, such as the intertwining of knowledge and power, or the ways in which we can understand lives, or terms like ‘the self’. Should selves be seen as relational or as autonomous? What of the ‘lies and silences’ of biographies, the ways in which embodiment can be ignored? A study of these problems allows engagement with a range of philosophers and literary theorists, including Roland Barthes, Lorraine Code, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, Ray Monk, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor. Biography can be a dangerous art, claiming to know ‘just how you feel’. This book explores the double-edged nature of biography, looking at what it reveals about both narratives and selves.


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Acknowledgments 9 Introduction 11 Chapter One: The Myth of Objective Biography 25 Chapter Two: Embodiment in Biography 47 Chapter Three: Lives as Narratives: Experiences of Time 63 Chapter Four: Moral Accountability and Narrating the Self 85 Chapter Five: Autonomous and Relational Selves 103 Chapter Six: Linear Narratives, Fragmented Selves 115 Chapter Seven: ‘I Know Just How You Feel’: The Ethics of Epistemology in Biography 133 Chapter Eight: Biography and Truth: The Limits of What Can be Said 165 Conclusion 187 Notes 191 Bibliography 209 Index 229

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