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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


Acknowledgments I would like to thank the Australian National University for providing me with an ANU Publication Subsidy and an ANU PhD Scholarship. I would also like to thank the ANU English Program generally, for providing an excellent research environment. Intellectual stimulation, whether in the form of debate or of coffee, always flowed abundantly. The academics who oversaw this work from its inception were Simon Haines and Axel Clark. I shall speak about Axel separately, at the end of these acknowledgements. Simon’s wide-ranging philosophical interests proved invaluable, helping to strengthen the work and make it more precise. I would also like to express my gratitude to Winifred Lamb for her encouragement and intellectual engagement, and to Ra Campbell for all her support. Finally, I want to thank Mary Besemeres, whose friendship con- tinues to be a source of strength, inspiration and delight, for the immense amount of time she has devoted to reading and commenting on this work. Many others were generous in reading and commenting on earlier chapters or drafts of this work. I would like to thank Graham Cullum, Paul John Eakin, Jim Franklin, Richard Freadman, Kevin Hart, Richard Lansdown, David Parker, Doug Porpora and Anna Wierzbicka for both their criticisms and their support. Their generosity is another reminder that academic life is still flourishing, despite cuts to university funding both in Australia and elsewhere. It has been a pleasure to work with the staff at Peter Lang. I would particularly like to thank Peter Collier, David Edmonds,...

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