- Documents of Life Revisited: Narrative and Biographical Methodology for a 21st Century Critical Humanism ed. by Liz Stanley
This wide-ranging collection takes its cue from Ken Plummer’s Documents of Life (1983) and Documents of Life 2 (2001). In her introduction to the volume, the editor Liz Stanley writes that Plummer recognized the “eclectic often taken-for-granted but nonetheless pervasive character of documents of life” (4). The documents of life pondered in these pages from the announced “critical humanist” perspective are themselves therefore suitably diverse. In addition to expected kinds of documents (oral histories, diaries, letters, autobiographies) are less obvious “texts” of everyday life, such as online postmortem photographs, an academic novella (written by one of the contributors), lying, and testimonial objects of various kinds—“letters, forms, journals, photographs, drawings, wood carvings, war medals, ritual artefacts, family heirlooms and even gravestones, monuments and buildings” (195)—listed by one contributor as her points of attempted entry into the Lithuanian Jewish past.
The individuals and groups of individuals whose life documents are studied are equally varied. The unknown and anonymized “Lisa” is the co-subject (the other being the researcher herself) of the chapter on lying, while Myra Hindley is the focus of a chapter on the contested documentation of the infamous serial murderess’s life. Other individuals and constituencies of individuals treated in the volume include British working-class autobiographers and their archivists, Lithuanian Jews (as already mentioned), a Second World War evacuee, Finnish children (writing letters to the President of Finland), nineteenth-century white South African women, dead people, the inhabitants of [End Page 808] a Northumbrian market-town, academics working in UK Higher Education during the academic year 2010–11, and some of the researchers themselves. The book is organized into three parts: “After the Posts: Reconceiving Methods and Methodologies”; “On Tellings and Retellings: Analysing Stories, Audiences and Constructed Lives”; and “The Ordinary, Virtual, Untimely, Sacred: Critical Humanist Knowledge-Making.” Liz Stanley provides a general introduction as well as shorter section introductions, with Ken Plummer himself appropriately granted the last word in his free-flowing “A Manifesto for Social Stories.”
Many of the documents and/or the way they are framed are compelling. Claire Lynch’s consideration of the often occluded literariness of working-class autobiographies is illuminating. So, too, is Clair Morrow’s discussion of why people lie. Helen Pleasance on Myra Hindley perceptively discusses the effects of transforming “documentary” photographs into art: “The meaning of the photograph is denaturalised in this different form for looking at her. The painting [Marcus Harvey’s Myra] plays with visual perception and perspective; from a distance it appears to be the ‘true likeness’ of a human face, but close up this image is fractured and it becomes an abstract” (50). Ulla-Maija Salo probes children’s motivations for writing letters to the Finish President, while Shivaun Woolfson thought-provokingly makes space for a sense of the sacred in her excavations of the Lithuanian Jewish past. These are some examples of how the book practices a non-reductive, generously open form of sociology.
The range of the volume means that there is probably something for everyone in these pages. “Something for everyone” rather than “everything for everyone” is the operative phrase, I feel. One of the several humanist principles at work in the volume is inclusiveness, but inevitably some of these human documents of quotidian life are more interesting and significant than others. Words like “interesting” and “significant” are of course value-laden, but the bracing eclecticism of the book left me somewhat shamefacedly feeling that not everything that people say and write is of equal interest. The democratic, leveling principle that has traditionally inspired social historians to seek out the voices of the marginalized is still apparent in the commitment of many contributors to a “bottom-up” view of history. This kind of enterprise has always seemed important and justified, as Liz Stanley in her introduction recognizes (5), although still there is the moot issue of...