Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA) Auto/biography in Transit (Part 2)
July 24, 2014 by Darren
By: Seraphima Kennedy
What life writing scholarship means in the field, and how scholars engage with both texts and subjects was a key area of concern. Laurie McNeill presented a valuable critique of one university’s pedagogy of decolonization in relation to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission directives, asking whether we could encourage an ethical awareness for students to productively engage with these issues. How can instructors create awareness without allowing testimonies to be simply consumed? This was a practical, as well as an ethical concern. In the panel on ‘Liminal Memory,’ Sidonie Smith, Janice Hladki and Bina Freiwald all used autobiography and visual biography to explore notions of shadows and border-crossing, as well as desolation and betrayal in the lives of their subjects. Smith’s account of the “State of Exception Exhibit,” became a text written on the bodies of those involved through the use of tattooage. Bina Freidl’s work on Jewish Women’s writing demonstrated how stories of collective identities could subsume individual identities. In her presentation on Kent Monkmann’s video art, Janice Hladki raised important questions about memory and affect, with Monkmann’s video interrogating the ways that countermemorial artworks can reclaim/recast dominant narratives of nation-state celebrations of white settler histories.
Leigh Gilmore’s paper ‘Getting a Handle on Pain’ crystallised a repeated scholarly preoccupation with ethical methodologies of reading. Looking over her shoulder at Sontag, Gilmore complicated verbal-visual interactions in the graphic novel. What meaning takes place in a text and where? How do verbal and visual texts instruct us in interpreting pain? What does paratextual imagery in memoirs of illness actually do? Questioning the use of metonymy to invite the reader to identify with the source of pain, Gilmore ended with a call to look at the methodologies and critical tools we use in our encounters with auto/biographical texts.
This deconstruction of the verbal-visual matrix echoed Miller’s injunction to scholars to think visibly (vis à vis the selfie), while pointing forward towards Julia Watson and Candida Rifkind’s separate papers in ‘Comics and Justice.’ Rifkind’s paper on ‘Graphic Biography and the Half-Lives of Robert Oppenheimer’ encapsulated some of the key themes that we were beginning to see develop, with Rifkind arguing that ‘atomic graphic biographies’ open up new ways of seeing a familiar scientific context with their ‘triangulation of instability.’ Julia Watson – ‘always at the cutting edge of method,’ as one blogger tweeted – asked us to think about how we read and how we are engaged by texts. Creating a taxonomy of the first person in comics, Watson reinterpreted narrative tropes in Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road, arguing that the auto/biographical act becomes an occasion for evaluating who the narrator is across national borders. Watson went on to consider the opportunities provided by multimodal auto/biographical acts. What are the affordances of comics for holding disparate moments in productive tension?
A sense of tension holding together ideas and selves – of the text as an arena in which things simultaneously do and do not fall apart –was echoed in John Zuern’s paper on US memoirs written after the economic crash of 2008. Pinning down the idea of post-crash memoirs as transitory texts, Zuern highlighted the transits of the memoirist’s self into pre-written narrative modes, and argued that austerity had led to a ‘precarization of the self’ in which the centre does not hold. In Emily Hipchen’s paper on the construction of Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s memoir of the same name, Hipchen commented productively on the ways in which Jobs’ life is narrated in orbit by his status as hyper-capable human, traumatised adoptee, and ‘supercrip.’ There was a lightbulb moment in the discussion between Hipchen and Craig Howes when the relevance to the Superman story was noted. This was the kind of electricity of which the best intellectual discussions are made.
This blog post is part of a four-part series by Seraphima Kennedy that will be continued in the following week. Visit the IABA website here.