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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 Five: Autonomous and Relational Selves 103


Chapter Five: Autonomous and Relational Selves Controversies over autonomy One of the more controversial aspects of many modern Western biographies is their tendency to focus on a single person, a single self. A stress in the narrative on what the biographical subject thought and felt gives an inward-turning quality to these biographies, as hopes and thoughts, rather than deeds, are emphasised. These controversial aspects of modern Western (and especially Anglo-American) biography need to be seen in the light of broader cultural debates about autonomous and relational conceptions of the self, as well as debates over inward-turning conceptions of the self. Critics of autonomous conceptions of the self object to the self be- ing portrayed in isolation from others. The critics of inward-turning conceptions of the self also object to the isolation of the self from its deeds, its actions in the world. Some critics of inward-turning concep- tions of the self have commented that such a conceptualisation greatly increases biographical intrusiveness, as well as its speculative nature. Feminist objections to autonomous conceptions of the self Let us start with an overview of some of the major objections to narratives centred on a single self. Many of the objections to this type of narrative have come from feminist commentators, who note the ways in which any self can be seen as relational rather than autonomous, and who point out that the focus on a single person falsifies both our impression of the world and our impression of the person by throwing...

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