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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 Two: Embodiment in Biography 47


Chapter Two: Embodiment in Biography Embodiment and feminism In this chapter, I want to consider in detail the ways in which Holmes, Ashton and several other biographers of Coleridge have chosen to deal with aspects of Coleridge’s embodiment, because of the questions these treatments raise about the potential deceptiveness of biographical narratives and of our conceptions of the self. ‘Embodiment’ is a term I am using to capture the experiences excluded by certain conceptions of the self. ‘Embodiment’ is a term frequently used by feminist writers, and I am using it in a similar sense. Nancy Hartsock criticises views of the self where ‘the body is both irrelevant and in opposition to the (real) self, an impediment to be overcome by the mind’.1 Lucy Tatman also uses the term ‘embodiment’.2 While I am attending to these feminist views by using the term ‘embodiment’, I do not wish to imply that selves must be regarded as embodied (only that this is a useful way of conceptualising them). Among feminist approaches to the question of embodiment, there is a wide variety, with some approaches being significantly more nuanced than others. The feminist philosopher Eva Kittay criticises John Rawls’s conception of justice, for example, arguing that it fails to take into account that for large parts of our lives we are dependent on others because of our physical frailty (whether caused by infancy, old age or illness). Kittay argues that the idea of the physically independent adult is not in fact normative.3 This...

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