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Reviewed by:
  • L’épuisement du biographique? ed. by Vincent Broqua, Guillaume Marche
  • Joanny Moulin (bio)
Vincent Broqua and Guillaume Marche, eds. L’épuisement du biographique?Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010. xvi + 470 pp. ISBN 978-144382-5726, $74.99/£49.99.

The question mark in the title of this anthology enigmatically indicates its essential theme. According to Vincent Broqua and Guillaume Marche, it is rather biography as a genre that they consider as being nowadays “always already exhausted,” whereas “the biographic” survives in a disseminated, almost [End Page 395] spectral state, in literature and the human sciences, and that is what this collection of articles aims to interrogate in various ways. The biographic should therefore be apprehended not as a genre, but as a mode that is also viewed as having reached such a stage of exhaustion that we would be “authorized” to envisage it once more as a possible object of research. This volume is in fact the published form of the proceedings of a colloquium organized in January 2009 at the University of Paris-Est Créteil. Although the book is published by a Newcastle publishing house—the academic reputation of Cambridge Scholars Publishing is still in the making—all the articles but three are in French. They add up to a collection of case studies, having in common the theme of the biographic, written by thirty-two French academics and five colleagues from abroad—Britain, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Mexico—doing research mostly in literature from several linguistic and cultural areas. A reading committee of thirty-one, including nine from other countries than France, is listed at the end of the volume, but there are no biographical notes about the authors, no index, and each article has its own bibliography, but yet repeats the bibliographical references in footnotes.

The whole is pervaded by a strong impression of helter-skelter variety, compensated for by a division of the thick volume into three parts. The first part rather poses the question of the place of the biographic in historiography—without a single reference to authors like Hayden White or Carlo Ginzburg. The second part focuses on issues of enunciation and intertextuality in biographical writings. The articles in the third part provide examples of how biographical writing may go beyond mere life writing. The most striking characteristic of this book is the centrifugal quality of the various texts it is made of: the biographic is consistently considered as exhausted, passé, and worthy of interest only as an echo—that is to say, merely in so far as it is a norm to be transgressed, or because it may serve as an angle or a take for various discourses on history and society. However, the recent developments of biographical methods in historiography, microhistory, sociology, or ethno-anthropology are superbly ignored. “Thinking the biographic,” Broqua and Marche write in their introduction, “means precisely to focus on what biographical narrative usually eschews, to listen to the gap that the lacuna opens up in the narration” (15).

The feature text in this collection, and the only one that is really worth reading, is undoubtedly the preface by historian François Dosse, where he very briefly sums up some of the main theses of his remarkable theory of biography:Le Pari biographique, écrire une vie (La Découverte, 2005). Adapting to biography the concept developed by Philippe Lejeune in Le Pacte autobiographic (1975), Dosse argues that the biographic is characterized by a pact [End Page 396] of truthfulness, answering the biography reader’s demand for authenticity, and also by an “effet de vécu” (“lived-experience effect”) that is a particular case of what Roland Barthes called the “effet de réel ” (“reality effect”). In his theory of biography, Dosse shows that the genre has evolved through three successive phases: the “heroic age,” the “modal age,” and the “hermeneutic age.” What is mostly exemplified in this volume is the “modal biographic”—i.e., an approach consisting in “decentering the attention paid to the singularity of the narrated life course to envision it as representative of a larger perspective” (Le Pari biographique 213)—but this to such a radical extent that there emanates from these articles an...