Eluding singular definition, autobiography slides in and out of various genres with some conviction but has posed particular difficulties in relation to film. Film opens possibilities for grounding a viewer’s experience in a life before and beyond the text (viewers tend to believe in the prior existence of that which is photographed, to resist the possibility of absolute fiction) but it raises questions simultaneously about the subjectivity-in-representation of that life (because that which is manifest is the object of the camera eye and often of a photographer other than the apparently originating subject). This paradox whereby film may address issues of referentiality but presumably at the expense of subjectivity opens a number of questions that I would like to explore: first in terms of the assumptions that feed into such a paradox and then by examining the possibility that film may enable autobiographers to define and represent subjectivity not as singular or solipsistic but as multiple and as revealed in relationship.
To begin with assumptions: autobiography is distinct from biography and history by virtue of its self-referential stance and distinct from all other genres because such self-reference connects its subject-matter distinctively with the world outside the text. As a referential genre it makes, or at least seeks to make, meaning/s out of heterogeneous, contingent reality, beginning of course with the problematic reality of its subject. Once upon a time, theorists of autobiography were comfortable with [End Page 593] this genre’s claim to represent extra-textual reality and with narrative’s exposition of lived experience. They raised questions about verifiable truth and authorial sincerity. With James Olney’s groundbreaking Metaphors of Self in 1972, however, theorists began talking about the roles of fiction in such truth-telling and sincerity. In Fictions in Autobiography (1985), Paul John Eakin explored this genre in terms of his subtitle, The Art of Self-Invention. More recently, Timothy Dow Adams has examined the role of the “tall tale” and the “lie direct,” the implications, in other words, of the autobiographer as unreliable narrator (Telling Lies, 1990). While such work has enriched interpretation of fictions in autobiography, theorizing for this genre cannot travel too far from the relations between text and pre-textual realities, so Eakin’s most recent work (Touching the World, 1992) returns discussion to the varieties of reference in autobiography. Even working with the Barthesian disappearing act, sensitive to such issues as the autobiographer’s necessary absence and the complex ways in which language structures recognition of experience, recognizing the “self,” indeed, as a linguistic and cultural construction, he remains reluctant, even resistant to conceiving that originating self as a delusion. Where theorists have tended to dismantle distinctions between autobiography and related genres, and encouraged permissive reading practices, Eakin’s return to the complex issues of referentiality serves autobiographers well; in their various genres, they insist on a reality external to their text but to which their text must convincingly refer. Their urgent question remains how most adequately to connect their genre of autobiography to their originally lived experience.
This present inquiry into some of the potentials of film as autobiography is divided, like Gaul, into three parts. First, to begin to deal with this irreducible problem of the interaction of life and varieties of text, I would like to approach contemporary autobiography as an interactive genre: interactive among subjects, among genres, and among autobiographers and their readers. l would like to define “interaction” within the context of current autobiography theory both to indicate the context of life-experience and to suggest a wider lens with which to read the translation of life into text.
Second, as the lens in this instance is the camera lens as literal and necessarily figurative means of access to experience, I need to examine some of the problems that arise in thinking about film as autobiography. Just as autobiographers increasingly identify themselves in relationship, so [End Page 594] they also work self-consciously with their chosen medium, drawing attention to the effects of any given medium upon their self-representation. Neither they nor their viewers can assume a stable or...