BIOGRAPHY AND THE BIOGRAPHICAL MODE

Institut des Mondes Anglophone, Germanique et Roman (IMAGER – EA 3958)

Université Paris XII Val-de-Marne, Créteil, France

INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE: “BIOGRAPHY AND THE BIOGRAPHICAL MODE”

Friday January 16 & Saturday January 17, 2009

Call for papers:

The “Institut des Mondes Anglophone, Germanique et Roman” (IMAGER – EA 3958)—a research group at Université Paris XII Val-de-Marne in Créteil, France—is holding an interdisciplinary international conference on the “biographical mode” in English-, German-, and romance language-speaking literatures and cultures. The conference is interdisciplinary insofar as it deals with a variety of geographic and cultural areas, and also as it calls for various disciplinary approaches: literary, cultural, historical, sociological and linguistic. This conference focuses on two of IMAGER’s three main areas of research—on “identities and differences”, and “flows and exchanges”—and it dovetails with several seminars and one-day symposia on such topics as “obsession in literature”, “biography and autobiography in history”, and “flows, migrations and identity-building in the post-colonial world”.

Rather than biography, which can be defined as “a piece of writing which tells the story of an individual’s life”, we would like to focus on what we have chosen to call "the biographical mode", which raises a set of important issues, such as: chronology, the relationship between subject and object, and enunciation. As it relies upon chronological narratives which are put together ex post facto, the biographical mode consists both in remaining close to reality, and in recreating it. Consequently it calls into question one’s approach to time—both in terms of chronology and duration—and the relationship between biographer and “biographee”.

Studying the various manifestations of biography in literature—biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, etc.—simply cannot exhaust the biographical mode: there is more to it than biography per se. The biographical mode instead consists in the process of writing about someone’s life, or about the self—a process through which life seeps into fiction. Whereas in biography an author assumes control of the life of another—be it his or her own—the biographical mode may escape the author’s control. How is one then to conceive of the biographical mode, now that such figures as Proust, Barthes, or Foucault have signalled the “death of the author”? Among other approaches, literary scholars may choose to develop any of the following three issues. Firstly, modern poets, novelists, and playwrights are adept at depersonalisation: does this run contrary to the biographical mode? Does the impersonal deflect the biographical mode, or is biography bound to surface somehow? A second issue is whether the current, growing taste for such life-stories as autofiction and memoirs signals the end of an era when artists, writers, musicians, and critics conceived of the self as the reflection of a multiple array of narratives. Finally, literary theorist Philippe Forest—in Le Roman, le réel—asks how one is to conceive of a text as a mediated reflection of, and on, life without limiting the text to a mere naturalistic imitation of the intimate. What then might be “novels of the I” (“romans du Je”), as Philippe Forest terms them, or “novels of the subject”, according to Julia Kristeva?

In history and the social sciences, the first issue to be raised is that of biographical narratives as academic sources, and of biographies as a historiographical, or sociological genre. Historian François Dosse identifies biography as a halfway zone between, and a mixture of, fiction and reality, which raises the question of truthfulness. Dosse claims that biography has entered an age of hermeneutics: what then is biography’s capacity for highlighting processes of subjectivation whose reach by far exceeds the singular lives which are narrated, and for grasping life-courses which are, more often than not, piecemeal, if not chaotic? While the biographical approach is not necessarily an attempt to identify idealtypes, it nonetheless raises a second question—that of the link between objectivity and subjectivity in history and the social sciences. Just because biography consists in the narration of a singular life, is it bound to lead scholars away from their quest for collective realities—which are presumably more general and objective—or does it provide them with an entry into the realm of the general which makes for an alternative to univocal determinisms? Whereas Pierre Bourdieu in 1986 referred to the biographical approach as an “illusion” (“l’illusion biographique”), conference participants may choose to ask whether resorting to biography is tantamount to a complete disregard for historicity. Or do life stories on the contrary make it possible to piece together a more complex understanding of society or history—what Howard Becker calls a “mosaic”. What types of meaning may be disclosed through the diachronic reconstruction of “careers”, to borrow a term from Interactionism? May one actually go so far as to claim that the twists of reality which are unavoidable when resorting to biographical narratives, in fact enable authenticity to emerge?

Linguists may approach the specificities of biographical discourse in terms of referentiality and deictic references, and help elucidate how references are constructed—be they references to the past and to the fictitious, or references to situations which are either remembered or reported, or references to the subject (whether simple narrator or main protagonist). What kind of linguistic markers encode biographical narratives? What are the linguistic means at work in reporting "reality"? All types of biographical discourse may come under scrutiny: oral, literary, institutional, editorial etc. Particular attention may be devoted to some of those markers whose use is typical in biographical discourse: lexical, grammatical, suprasegmental markers, etc. Finally, comparative approaches—between two languages, or a text and its translation, or two diachronic stages of the same language—may be particularly fruitful in the perspective of a linguistic contribution to the conference.

Abstracts—approximately 250 words—should be submitted by May 15, 2008 to:

Guillaume Marche: email