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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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Chapter One: The Myth of Objective Biography 25


Chapter One: The Myth of Objective Biography Objectivity or interpretation By assuming that traditional biographies rely simplistically on facts, Derrida was able to launch what Richard Freadman calls ‘Perhaps the most influential and representative theoretical challenge to empirical approaches to the biography of philosophers’.1 In The Ear of the Other Derrida writes: We no longer consider the biography of a ‘philosopher’ as a corpus of empirical accidents that leaves both a name and a signature outside a system which would itself be offered up to an immanent philosophical reading – the only kind of read- ing held to be philosophically legitimate […] In return for having accepted these limits, one can then and on the other hand proceed to write ‘lives of philosophers,’ those biographical novels (complete with style flourishes and character develop- ment) to which great historians of philosophy occasionally resign themselves.2 Freadman analyses at length, both in this article and elsewhere, some of the unconvincing aspects of Derrida’s philosophical approach.3 Such an argument is beyond the scope of this book. I will only make two suggestions. One is that by regarding biographies as arguments, rather than as transparent containers of facts, some of the main difficulties of representation can be avoided: the focus is instead on the art of the biographer, on how convincing the tale he or she is telling seems. The second is that Derrida gains most of his rhetorical power in this paragraph by employing a straw man argument. He contrasts what he claims to be...

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