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Introduction: Biopics and American National Identity—Invented Lives, Imagined Communities

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 1, Summer 2011
pp. 1-33 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0001

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This is the first issue of this journal to be devoted to the biopic, almost certainly the most familiar and most significant form of biographical narrative to emerge from modernity and yet a "life[-] picturing" (Christie 288) discursive modality that has only recently begun to receive intense and systematic study. Our first extensive look at the biopic here in a/b enmeshes it with "American National Identity," itself a large and complex topic that has recently received much attention. Thus I am going to ask you to think of this introduction as providing a series of entry points to an important but somewhat neglected biographical subgenre, to a familiar if often vexing politico-cultural formation, and to two emergent academic fields. In a sense, of course, all Hollywood films (the primary focus of our inquiry here) are about American national identity: Hollywood is an important American industry, one of the "main instrument[s] of the ideological super-structure" of the nation (Cahiers 499), a powerful and influential discursive formation habitually and more or less reflexively deployed for both internal consumption and global export. Moreover, biographical narrative of whatever kind has traditionally been an ally of dominant structures of socio-economic authority, as have the film industry in general and the industrial, technical, and aesthetic practices of biopics in particular. I will return later to the generic history and poetics of biopics, but first a few words about some influential conceptual practices associated with "National Identity" and then a few more about how those practices have intersected cinema studies, especially where this conjuncture is concerned with film history and American national consciousness.

As I've already indicated, "National Identit(y)(ies)" is a burgeoning field of study, situated in and among political science, area studies, ethnic and multicultural studies, history, and social studies, a congeries of interests exemplified in the learned journal National Identities (founded 1999), which is published in London and tilted toward Europe but with a trans-national and post-national perspective (on, for example, globalization, identity formation, political institutions) and an eye on ethnic diversity, cultural geography, and postmodern theory, as well as such familiar topics as race, class, and gender and such recurring tropes as (among many others) "borders," "authenticity," "myth," "multi-culturalism," "homeland," "orientalism," "memory," "birth," "integration," "patriotism," "landscape," and "local(ity)." The most frequently cited founding figures in the field are Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983; 2nd ed. 1991; rev. ed. 2006), and Anthony D. Smith, National Identity (1991). Here is Smith's familiar formulation of "the fundamental features of national identity": "(1) an historic territory, or homeland; (2) common myths and historical memories; (3) a common, mass public culture; (4) common legal rights and duties for all members; (5) a common economy with territorial mobility for members" (14). Moreover, and crucially for us, Smith recognizes that "a sense of national identity provides a powerful means of defining and locating individual selves in the world," although "the quest for the national self and the individual's relationship to it remains the most baffling element in the nationalist project" (17).

Benedict Anderson explains how this baffling nationalist project could be mediated: as "an imagined political community," "inherently limited and sovereign"(6), which, since the invention of the printing press, is constantly "re-presenting" (25) itself through the languages people choose in order to engage in public discourse and through the various discursive formations with which they imagine the communities they inhabit. Over the course of the Long Eighteenth Century, these vehicles of transmission and formation were likely to be the novel and the newspaper (25), or, after the 1820s, "the inner premises and conventions of modern biography and autobiography" (xiv), or, in the twentieth century, radio, cinema, and television, or, "in the colonized worlds of Asia and Africa," "the census, the map, and the museum" (163). Obviously, this is only a partial listing of the many ways in which Anderson traces the history, indeed, histories, of the emergence, transformation, and proliferation of what he calls "national consciousness," which, he is at pains to point out, happens in different places at different times for some of the same and different reasons. Most pertinently for our purposes...

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