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On autobiographies

Updated on March 27, 2015

Let's talk about memory and self-writing

As subjective as it is, a person's memory can be deceptive, not only because it fades as time goes by, but also because of one's personal experiences and beliefs, that will conduct a chain of thoughts and points of view regarding an event eventually kept in that person's mind. (For more on the subject of memory itself, I suggest you to read my previous hub, "On memories and different truths".) Also, the acquisition of new memories interfere in our old ones, and sometimes they can become blurred and mix with one another.

Since early ages, man uses memory and writing as ways to build a sense of self. According to Foucault, in Writing the Self, the culture of reading and writing emerged in the Roman Empire as a kind of exercise to help one constitute himself as a subject. By registring readings, impressions and memories, the self was carefuly organized through writing, so that the subject could result from a rational action.

Writing diaries and letters were considered good mental exercises and tools for reflecting about one's own life and experiences, and even as a kind of self-surveillance. In fact, when we read old published letters we can notice how they were used for reflection and for giving advices to a friend, telling anecdotes and experiences a pal could learn from...

Some scholars consider Saint Augustine the "creator" of the autobiography as memoirs with his Confessions, written between the years 397 and 398. In this book he narrates his life since birth to the moment of writing, reflecting, among other matters, about his childhood, his education and his conversion to Catholic faith.

During Iluminism, when reason and rationalization were directly attached to wisdom, philosophers like John Locke also believed in memory and writing as source of self-knowledge. One could achieve conscience of his own identity through time, dedicating himself to write about his life, studies and experiences.


The subject and the (social) act of remembering

French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs dedicated most of his studies to memory in its subjective and in its social forms - and how these could be related -, being the first scholar to use the term "collective memory". According to his theory, each and every individual memory needs social resources to be reconstructed, such as language, conceptions, and ideas. Therefore, the act of remembering doesn't happen only in a psychic plan but it is also molded by social constructs. In other words, the individual uses elements from a social group to narrate a personal event, and, inevitably, there will be social marks of time and space in that remembering - and in that writing. As a result, we can't have access to an event just as it happened before; our recalling and written reconstruction will be affected by the present time.

In more recent times, the relation between the individual and the collective in autobiographies has become much more complex and fragmented, specially after Nietzsche's critique of the subject, the subsequent "death of the author" and the contemporary "return of the author".

Because the subject is an observer with a point of view, Nietzsche questions the subject's "truth", stating that the subject is actually an interpretation, thus, a fiction. Contradicting Plato's idea of the subject as an underlying unity, the German philosopher posts the notion of the "subject as multiplicity", in which thought does not transcend body/matter - the moment of being is material, transitory, and there's no such thing as an enduring, metaphysical self.

As radical as Nietzsche's thought seems to be, he nevertheless aknowledges the self, the "I" as a product of thinking - and that's how the subject is a fiction, it is something imagined. Our bodies, in which our selves are conceived, occupy a physical space, a point, a place where we stand and from where we observe. Our interpretations (of the world and of ourselves) are perspectival, developed from where our body stands, from our needs, drives and experiences.

The path for the deconstruction of the subject came with Marx and Freud. While Marx develops his theories within the idea of alienation and the social conditions surrounding people, Freud's studies the unconscious mind and the states of the self, both becoming responsible for questioning the notion of an autonomous, unitary subject. Their works are still a big influence in current post-modern thinking.

The ideas developed by French structuralism lead to an even more relational approach. The author would be substituted by the "function of author". Post-structuralism made things even more complex with Roland Barthes' and Foucault's notion of the "death of the author".

The death and the return of the author

In Foucault's essay, "What is an Author?", the French philosopher discusses about the concept of "author" itself and how this notion is socially constructed. He drew attention to the idea of the literary author, that who "owned the text", being created during the 18th century, a movement that gives certain power and legitimacy to the author. Going further, Barthes argued that, after published, the text no longer belongs to the writer - therefore, the author dies and the reader is born.

Through his analysis of the system of the myth, Barthes sees the text as means for the creation of the myth of the author, who produces himself through his autobiography. The notion of truth, in relation to the autobiography, can only be achieved through the mediation of fiction, so that the author becomes a character, and all the truth he says about himself should be regarded as fiction. In fact, to the autobiography as a genre, it doesn't really matter if a fact is verifiable, but the claim, by the author, that it is true - the claim for itself will install a specific relation with the reader, somehow guiding his expectations. This relation is what Phillipe Lejeune has called "the autobiographic pact".

So, the author is not an identity anymore, the subject is constructed, and the autobiography is not necessarily the truth - actually, we don't even know what truth is or if it exists. Is there anything left?

Here we are, facing post-modernity, a time when we are called to question everything that we take for granted. The subject is an effect of society, just as society is an effect of how subjects have been behaving through time. Paradoxes are everywhere and all concepts and idendities are fluid. In terms of authorship, there is a return, but not of that authority who owned the text.

Because identity is now seen as fragmented and somehow chaotic, the author is back precisely to criticise fixed authority and stable subjects. The contemporary notion of the subject is that it is non-essential, incomplete, and susceptible to many elements; it needs to be constantly created and asserted through discourse.

by Hugh MacLeod
by Hugh MacLeod

Contemporary autobiographies

Literary genres aren't precisely defined in contemporary perspective, and hibrid categories have become quite common. When it comes to autobiography, new discourses have emerged, specially with the popularization of internet and, now, with affordable technology available, we seem to have more tools to register our lives than ever before.

In this sense, we can consider ourselves authors of, well, ourselves. We register what we want and publish it according to our needs and wills, as we construct our virtual autobiographies. We can create different subjects for different occasions, deciding what part of our identities to share online - for example, our profile on Facebook is "written" differently from our profile on LinkedIn.

Those varied forms of representation of the self show how the "truth" about oneself is relative and that it is, in fact, possible, for a person, to be a multiplicity of subjects. What is more, as we have discussed on memory, accounts of a same happening can differ greatly, and what is told by the author can be a different truth from the one seen by the reader - this might be even more obvious when we think about famous personalities whose images on the news are constructed in a way, their images in a reality show is another one, and, if they publish an autobiography, there will be, certainly, a third image of that same person.

In our current narcisistic state, every selfie we take is a part of a fragmented narrative, of our own myth, of our self-writing as authors of our lifes. In fact, this is the "life is what we make of it" statement to its last extent so far.


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