Abstracts

Mineke Bosch (Groningen University) – Performing Gender and Science. Parallel Developments in Science and Gender Biographical Writing

The writing of ‘lives’ has been part and parcel of the ‘scientific lore’ since the éloges that were written for members of the French pantheon, but biography was not immediately taken up by professional science scholars. Indeed, the art of scholarly scientific biography has taken off only since the 1980’s with Hankins’ passionate call for a scientific biography that looks at science through the prism of the scientist, while not reducing any of the two parts to the other. Yet how to understand the connection between the person and the truth was largely unclear until Steven Shapin as part of his 1991 study A Social History of truth began to explore ‘the identity of individuals making claims’ and the ‘credibility of what they claim’ by looking into Boyle’s biography. In this chapter he not only invoked George Herbert Mead’s theory of The Social Self, but also Irving Goffman’s The everyday presentation of self, in order to sustain his argument that ‘the scientific self’ was always in the making and using vocabularies and repertoires for creating an identity already there by way of bricolage. To study scientific self in the making, did not only contribute to an understanding of the person of the scientist, but also to the way in which knowledge was produced and legitimated. That is why he called for a scientific biography as a kind of ‘practical epistemology’.

Comparable to the history of science, biography was not immediately embraced by the first purveyors of women’s and gender history, a discipline that in its prime was struggling to acquire some degree of recognition and institutional form as an academic discipline. Biography (even in Great Britain) did not have an established academic reputation, and was seen as too literary and too subjective and – in the case of feminist and socialist biography – as ‘emancipationist’ and therefore hagiographic. Moreover, feminists regarded biography also with a certain suspicion because the genre of biography was pre-eminently expressive and perhaps even constitutive of the modern emphasis on “autonomous man” who had won his spurs in public life. Given the strong historical link between women and private life, sexuality and social context, did women’s biographies not by definition confirm women in their status as the second sex – representing them either as (unhistorical) exceptions to the rule or as exemplary of their “species”?

Happily, such hesitations have not prevented the further development of biography as an academic genre, also within women’s and gender history. As the writing of feminist biography was not self-evident, biographical activity went hand in hand with intense theoretical reflection. If one theme stands out in these reflections it is the desire to understand the way in which (socially constructed) gender is constituted on an individual or personal level and the uses of biography in this quest. Indeed, biography is seen by most feminist or gender aware biographers as the genre par excellence to study the interconnection between social resources and norms and individual identity. The wish to avoid a ‘spotlight biography’ that cast everyone else but the protagonist into the shadows went hand in hand with the recognition that the nineteenth-century biographical plot of the linear and unified life was more the product of the author than an aspect of the self. This stimulated a search for different ‘relational’ or ‘collective’ plots. All these reflections on and experiments with ‘changing the subject’ in feminist biography show that not the hyper individual detail, but rather, the commonalities and shared peculiarities, in specific settings at specific moments in time were seen as meaningful in biography, and not only biographies of women. Also biographies of men were increasingly explored for their gendered identity formation.

New theories on ‘technologies of the self’ or gender as performance, that were more radical or theoretical variations on earlier theories regarding ‘socialization’ or ‘role enactment’, further encouraged the use of theatrical metaphors and the search for the performed, rather than the authentic self in identity construction. Interestingly, in a study of the connections between developments in turn of the twentieth-century theatre and the feminist spectacle of suffrage, Susan Glenn has drawn attention to the importance that social scientists like George Herbert Mead and William James, who in earlier times proclaimed that the self was ‘social’, attached to mimesis and imitation as central in the constitution of social selves. The recognition of the self as a socially constituted phenomenon re-values the importance of imitation as a creative and active, rather than a passive act, and crucial in a performative model of identity.

It is exactly in the performative aspect of identity constructions and its relation to social position and power that gender biography and science studies can meet fruitfully to understand science as a gendered process through the writing of biographies.

 

Gaston Franssen (University of Amsterdam) – The Work of Literary Authenticity in the Age of Medial Reproduction (Panel lecture)

To experience authenticity, we often turn to literature. This is not surprising: if authenticity can be understood as a longing for an essence that is uncontaminated by technocratic alienation, commodification and mass mediation, then modern literature, which we tend to associate – particularly when it comes to avant-garde and modernist literature – with individuality, originality and resistance to instrumentalization, holds out the promise of regaining authenticity.

Yet it is obvious that the domain of literature has been fundamentally influenced by commercialization and mediatization nonetheless. Now more than ever, writing literature is a global culture industry, and achieving literary success implies self-conscious ‘posturing’, marketing techniques and media strategies. The literary author has met with competition from the literary celebrity, a figure (according to, for example, Deleuze) whose subjectivity is not established by critics, reviewers or literary historians, but first and foremost discursively produced by mass media.

For many contemporary authors that are unwilling to leave behind the legacy of modernism, therefore, fulfilling the expectation of authenticity requires negotiation. By analyzing the strategies behind this ‘authenticity work’ as deployed by the novelist, public intellectual and media personality Norman Mailer (1923-2007), this paper examines the tensions between the public ‘performance’ of celebrity authorship on the one hand, and the claim to an experience of uncorrupted, unmediated self-hood on the other hand.

 

Odile Heynders (Tilburg University) – The Public Intellectual at War: Bernard-Henri Lévy (Panel lecture)

In the 1993 Reith Lectures Edward W. Said uses the Gramscian notion of the organic intellectual to describe an intellectual who is always on the move, trying to change minds and expand markets, striving to gain power and control. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy could be considered such an organic intellectual. He is ‘the quintessential intellectual-as-media-pin-up’ (Stefan Collini 2006), who has written many books and critical articles on current political issues. He not only writes and thinks, but also acts. This is what his latest publication, La Guerre sans l’aimer, (2011) shows, it is a diary kept while BHL supported and actively took part in the Libyan revolution in the first half of 2011. This text (as his text on the assassination of an American journalist in Karachi, Who killed Daniel Pearl, 2003) offers insight information in political strategies (the political decisions of Sarkozy and Netanyanu) and contingencies, and is spiced with ethnographic, colonial impressions. Political, social, philosophical and literary discourses are fascinatingly mixed up.

In this paper I will analyze BHL’s texts and performances. First I will build up a framework of the celebrity-intellectual (Bourdieu 1991; Lewis 2001; Etzioni 2006), the questions asked are who can be considered such an intellectual and what are his/her typical activities. Subsequently I will focus on BHL’s career and especially on his activities in Lybia in 2011. I will analyze the various voices and political discourses in Lévy’s texts in order to answer questions on authority and authenticity. Finally I will examine the effectiveness of this public intellectual: how was this celebrity-public able to mobilize the European audience into greater democratic participation?

 

Dennis Kersten (Radboud University Nijmegen) – “A memorable hand”: Virginia Woolf’s Life-Writing in Theory and Practice

Contemporary theorising of life-writing frequently refers to Virginia Woolf’s reflections on auto/biography, as well as the products of her own writing of lives – not only in the English-speaking world. Recent innovations in biography, but also the (post-)postmodern fictionalisation of life stories have been explained by using terminology derived from, for instance, Woolf’s essays on the subject. But how does early-twentieth-century ‘New Biography’ , a category used to describe Woolf’s theory and practice of life-writing, relate to (experiments in) the mediation of lives today? This lecture will trace the influence of Woolf and her ‘New Biography’ contemporaries on present-day thinking about the representation of ‘real’ lives. It will present detailed readings of two of Woolf’s most important essays about life-writing (“The New Biography” from 1927 and “The Art of Biography” from 1939), as well as of fragments from Orlando, her 1928 novel/ biography of Vita Sackville-West.

 

Marc de Kesel (Arteveldehogeschool Ghent, Radboud University Nijmegen, Leuven University) – Words as Kalashnikovs: Literature and the ‘Phantasm’

‘Durch das Parterrefenster eines Hauses an einem um den Hals gelegten Strick hineingezogen und ohne Rücksicht, wie von einem, der nicht acht gibt, blutend und zerfetzt durch alle Zimmerdecken, Möbel, Mauern und Dachböden hinaufgerissen werden, bis oben auf dem Dach die leere Schlinge erscheint, die auch meine Reste erst beim Durchbrechen der Dachziegel verloren hat.’ This phrase, taken from Kafka’s famous letters addressed to Felice, will be the starting point in order to try and find out how the Lacanian concept of phantasm can be applied in studying works of literature. Phrases like the quoted example tend to function like phantasms: imaginary crystalizing points in which the author gives away his very singular and idiosyncratic libidinal locus. These specific kind of ‘nodal points’ are exactly the places wherein the author’s life and literature intertwine and collide.

 

Sanna Lehtonen (Tilburg University) – Debates about a Celebrity Author as a Public Intellectual in Finnish Social Media (Panel lecture)

In Finland, the roles of a literary author, celebrity, and public intellectual are rarely combined. Few literary authors in Finland have a celebrity status and even fewer make it to the headlines of foreign media. Moreover, it is not common for literary authors to participate in societal debates as public intellectuals. While a celebrity status is often seen to threaten the seriousness of an author and her works, the role of a public intellectual is considered too challenging for a literary author, who is not thought to have the competence (i.e. expert education in the Finnish context) to give general comments about social and political issues. In this context, the multiply awarded Finnish author Sofi Oksanen is an exceptional media figure: a writer and a celebrity who actively engages in societal critique and comments on various social and political issues in her columns as well as in her interviews both in Finland and abroad. In terms of her reception, Oksanen is controversial – both because of her discussion of women’s rights, violence and Estonian history in her literary works and because of the ways in which she participates in identity politics by performing her own public identity as a Finnish-Estonian bisexual Goth.

This project investigates how Oksanen is received in social media contexts, including blogs and discussion forums, where the common public can have their say on the texts and public performances of literary authors. Key questions are: how are the different roles of Oksanen as a literary author, a celebrity and a public intellectual perceived? What role does her embodied identity as a Finnish-Estonian bisexual Goth have in discussion about her status as a celebrity and/or public intellectual? Can a celebrity author with a strong subcultural identity gain a position as a public intellectual in the online discourse produced by the public?

 

Henriëtte Louwerse (Sheffield University) – “Can’t we just read the text on the page anymore?” Authors acting characters. The case of Robert Vuijsje’s Alleen maar nette mensen 

 In an intriguing interview in the Paris Review in 1984 Philip Roth shares his view on the art of fiction writing: ‘There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguises. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend.’ In our media dominated era, ‘acting a character’ has taken on very concrete meaning. From television talk shows, online interviews, YouTube promotion videos to creating Facebook pages for fictional characters, authors and publishers can employ a range of media possibilities to create an additional narrative to supplement their fictional work. ‘Acting a character’ may in itself not be a new phenomenon, the range of options available to groom one’s readership has grown exponentially and appears to have become an integral part of the literary reading experience.

This interplay between the literary and the extra-literary gives rise to questions about the relationship between the work and the author. In this contribution I will take a closer look at the case of Alleen maar nette mensen, the 2008 debut novel by Robert Vuijsje. When Vuijsje was awarded the prestigious literary prize De Gouden Uil in 2009 a heated media debate erupted in which the self-fashioning of the author and the relationship between text and paratext proved key. I will examine the literary ‘package’ that forces us to rethink received views of literature in particularly in relation to life writing, as a genre that derives from a close interrelatedness of the text and the world outside of the text.

 

André Nusselder (Academy for Information & Management Amsterdam) – Philosophy and the scene of writing

In the current ‘postmetaphysical era’ philosophy needs to reinvent itself. When it can no longer claim to speak on behalf of an abstract rationality it must look for other sources. In my presentation I will present thoughts from the foreword and theoretical justification of my book “on” Georges Bataille, which seeks other forms for philosophical writing. The philosopher is above all an author: her ideas cannot be separated from her life and experiences. This ‘subjective condition’ is – as Schopenhauer calls it – the always flowing, but much neglected, source of philosophical writing. This does not imply an easy plea for subjectivism, but is an acknowledgement that old metaphysical distinctions (between mind and body, content and form, intention and materiality of a text) do not longer hold. Especially in the Nietzschean tradition that the book “on” Bataille seeks to continue, the scene of writing is that of the author’s biography, his language, his body, even his landscape; it is that of desire, as theorists like Barthes and Derrida already acknowledged. Taking this seriously pushes us beyond the rigidity of academic commentary (using someone else’s voice) and stresses philosophical writing as a thoughtful and creative articulation of a personal voice.

 

 

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