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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 339-343

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Autobiography as Performative Utterance

Michael Bérubé

A Forum on Disability and Self-Representation

My participation in this forum is oddly--but pleasantly--overdetermined. I presume that I might be considered a plausible contributor to a discussion of autobiography and disability if we employ a capacious definition of autobiography and biography as "life writing," whereunder it could be said that I have contributed to the genre of life writing about disability by writing about my second child, Jamie, who is now eight years old and was born with Down syndrome. The fact that my book on Jamie, Life As We Know It, is not an autobiography is important to my understanding of the issues relevant to this discussion, so although I hope to speak directly to some of those issues, I necessarily come at them somewhat aslant. But, as it happens, this is not my only angle of approach here. The other reason I might be a plausible discussant is probably opaque to everyone in the profession save for Tom Couser, whose second book, Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography I reviewed for the Journal of English and Germanic Philology (JEGP) some years ago. 1 My reading Couser's book was, at the time, a happy accident: not long after I arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 1989, I was invited to review something for the University of Illinois's only humanities journal, JEGP. But because no one at JEGP knew exactly what kind of book I was supposed to be competent to review (and, as a terrified first-year assistant professor, neither did I), they chose a book almost at random. And so Altered Egos became, for no good reason, the first book I reviewed in my life, and I am not sure that anyone other than Tom Couser and JEGP's editors ever read that review. I am sure [End Page 339] that when I reviewed the book, I did not know that Couser would go on to make a substantial contribution to an emergent field called "disability studies," just as I had no idea that I would wind up working in the field myself.

This point of dual intersection is more than simple coincidence. For I learned from reading Altered Egos that the genre of autobiography, long understood by scholars from Georges Gusdorf to James Olney to be a vehicle for (relatively) unmediated self-expression, can be fruitfully approached from its most problematic and "marginal" instances--not only slave narratives, formerly excluded from autobiography proper for rather spurious theoretical reasons, but even co-authored and/or edited texts as corrupt as John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks. Altered Egos, representing what I could call the poststructuralist turn in studies of life writing, thus seeks to illuminate the genre precisely by bringing to light the features that are normally considered to threaten or violate the boundaries of the genre. To this end, Couser writes that "far from being an anomaly . . . Black Elk Speaks may represent the general condition of autobiography, which always seeks--but always fails--to recapture 'aboriginal' experience, and whose ontological status is perhaps less important than the question of how it was produced or constructed." 2 This is a broadly deconstructive move, designed both to draw out instructive "infelicities" in American autobiography and to reconstitute such infelicities as the very condition of possibility for autobiography as traditionally understood. And, I believe, it has been largely successful, both on its own terms and for how it has opened the door, so to speak, to quite broad theoretical questions about the social and historical conditions of composition, production, dissemination, and reception of all forms of life writing, particularly including those forms under discussion at present.

Then again, there are poststructuralisms and then there are poststructuralisms. It is one thing to inquire--after the manner of the Foucault of "What is an Author?"--into the conditions of production of autobiography and life writing; it is quite another thing to suggest (as Couser does not but as one Foucauldian strand of...


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