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Autobiography & Postmodernism, and: Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self- Representation (review)

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 43, Number 4, Winter 1997
pp. 1053-1060 | 10.1353/mfs.1997.0069

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Modern Fiction Studies 43.4 (1997) 1053-1060

Book Review

Autobiography & Postmodernism

Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation

Cultural Studies And Literary Theory
Kathleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore, and Gerald Peters, eds. Autobiography & Postmodernism . Boston: U of Massachusetts P, 1994. 318 pp.
Leigh Gilmore. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women's Self-Representation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1994. 255 pp.

At a time when memoir-writing is an increasingly widespread form of author-ization for the famous, the humble, and many "crossover" academics, staking the boundaries and terms of autobiography is, depending on how you look at it, an act of vigilant policing or the creation of a zone for exchange between stable and outlaw genres. These books, which propose a postmodernist revision of the terms and technologies of subjectivity, constitute the most ambitious and sustained examination to date of how autobiography as a genre and postmodernism as a movement intersect. Leigh Gilmore figures centrally as the author of one text and the introducer, co-editor, and contributor to the other. Gilmore's lively mind, acute insights, and ability to link texts disparate in time and place make both books a pleasurable read for readers normally wary of pomo posturing. And both books are as indispensable to critics of autobiography as they are illuminating to scholars of American ethnic literature, women's writing, and feminist theory, and relevant to such disciplines as photography and ethnography.

Anne Goldman has suggested, in Take My Word, that postmodern autobiography is characterized by a self-conscious, rather than unconscious, Althusserian self-subjection of the "I." The essays in Autobiography & Postmodernism, most originally presented during a conference at the University of Southern Maine, explore and extend these terms in conversations that pose the relationship of autobiography and postmodernism through multiple lenses and discuss narratives ranging from medieval meditations to contemporary and ethnic American texts. The contributors share at least one foundational assumption -- that writing identity is not simply an expressive act, but a process of negotiating the conflicting terms and terrains of subjectivity. Unlike conventional understandings of autobiography as the domain of universalized and transcendent self-presentation, these essays reconceive it as irreducibly hybrid, written on the body and at the borders of authorized cultural discourses. And they emphasize the centrality of narratives often considered "marginal" to the "high" literary canon of twentieth-century writings of identity.

Gilmore's Introduction to Autobiography & Postmodernism ambitiously frames theoretical contexts for a postmodern investigation of how subjectivity both resists and produces identity. The project is a "mutual historicization" of autobiographical and postmodern practices, she argues, since both are interested in theorizing the subject; in a sense, each needs the other in its challenge to the universal, transcendent Enlightenment self. And reading subjectivity dialogically, attentive to the instabilities of texts, allows new questions about the possibilities of human agency, and emphasizes the dynamic, multiply embedded, and fundamentally discursive character of self-representational discourse. If the mark of autobiography is, according to Gilmore, "the discursive signature of the subject . . . [that] signifies agency in self-representation," its narratives are necessarily written in fragments and contradictions.

Several contributors argue for autobiography as a privileged point of departure for postmodern theorizing. In a suggestive essay, Michael M. J. Fischer revisits his important article, "Ethnicity and the Postmodern Arts of Memory," to consider "autobiography as a methodological tool in reconstructing theories of contemporary ethnicity." His sondages are drawn from a wide range of American ethnic and scientific autobiographies of writers as diverse as Michael Arlen and Karl Popper, Michelle Cliff, and Edward Said (in After the Last Sky). For Fischer, postmodern narratives act as "informants" on how ethnicity is being negotiated at the interstices of conventional identity categories, as they propose new terms for defining ethnicity comparatively. Arguing for autobiographical narrative as both "dialogic storytelling" and the voices of a "mosaic composition" of identities, Fischer raises provocative questions about framing narrative cross-culturally at specific historical moments and calling for a new methodology to redefine ethnicity.

Other essays read ethnic autobiographies as texts of an alternative American cultural history repressed by modernism, a kind of multicultural unconscious. Betty Bergland traces an ambitious trajectory of "Reconstructing the 'Other.'" Applying a Bakhtinian chronotopic model...


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