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Performative Auto/biography in Ruth Klüger’s Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 238-264 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Today, I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful.

—Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After

The crucial issue is not what we learn from the Holocaust but what we unlearn from it.

—Lawrence Langer, Using and Abusing the Holocaust

Because of its interdisciplinarity, auto/biography is a field ripe with new avenues of inquiry, as it adds to, borrows from, and deconstructs the various disciplines with which it engages. For example, in recalling the explosion of auto/biography scholarship in the 1990s, Harold Rosen, counts literature, psychology, anthropology, and women’s studies as just a few of the disciplines occupied with the study of life narrative (3). Likewise, feminist inquiry has prompted questions in auto/biography about identity’s social construction and the negotiation of identities in the personal, political, and public sphere. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, in their introduction to Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, state that auto/biography has become a “privileged site” (5) for discussing the “intersections of feminist, postcolonial, and postmodern theories,” moving quickly from essentialist notions to questions about gender formation and embodied subjectivities (10–16). Such inquiries have “unsettled” universalist notions about auto/biography that suggest an objective subjectivity, while also suggesting that auto/biography is less a genre than it is a practice of creating subjectivities (Coslett, Lury, and Summerfield 2). As Tess Coslett, Celia Lury, and Penny Summerfield point out, one aspect of this focus on practice attends to the performance of the inner self, “implfying] an audience” as it “draws attention to the processual, dynamic nature of subjectivity” (7). Writing this inner self, however, is only one portion of the shifting elements that complicate the practice of writing auto/biography. In portraying the inner self in a public medium, performativity—the practice of writing that goes beyond implying an audience by engaging it in the creation of writing—pushes dynamic subjectivity even further. Indeed, performativity has become a fertile space in which to investigate the enmeshed relationship of private and public subjectivities, having in the past ten years “shifted the focus of auto/biographical criticism to representations of experiential histories and bodies, and to the actual processes of making and unmaking identities and their cultural significance” (Egan and Helms 7).

Although the making and unmaking of identity, as a performative practice, is no longer a “new” avenue of auto/biographical study, the performative practice of writing auto/biography continues to resonate with fields, like Holocaust Studies, where such deconstructive, theoretical practices have been applied only recently. Similarly, the “two selves” in auto/biography, the self in the past and the writing self now, have been a recognized feature of the genre for some time (Coslett, Lury, and Summerfield 8). The writing of auto/biography “uses not only facts and events, but also social representations and cultural values” in its construction, allowing female writers to employ such representations and values as examples of the oppressive structures they critique (Chanfrault-Duchet 61). As such, the work of writing these two selves in relation to audience and in relation to history continues to be a critical act for women auto/biographers, who can use life writing to interrogate the changing social milieu. Smith and Watson point out the use of the creative tension of memory and history in auto/biography, such as in Native American writing, where this tension “interrogate[s] the cultural stakes in remembering” historical events (Introduction 18). Correspondingly, there are significant cultural stakes in remembering traumatic, historical events like the Holocaust.

For women writing Holocaust auto/biography, especially later writers such as Ruth Klüger, referring to generalized, social representations and values about the Holocaust allows them not only to interrogate the milieu that surrounds contemporary Holocaust memorialization practices, but also to resist such universalist constructions actively. Ruth Klüger’s Holocaust auto/biography, Still Alive: A Girlhood Remembered, exemplifies the practice of writing two selves, performatively, in intimate relation to Holocaust audiences and Holocaust histories, presenting an individual story that resists any attempt to frame it within “universalized” Holocaust survivor stories. This article examines the writing of these two selves as a performative auto/biographical process; that is, I demonstrate how...

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