Source of Information: FICINO 2000-10-05
Date of Event: n.a. (2003 volume of a journal)
Location of event: n.a. (volume of a journal)
Deadline for abstracts etc.: 2001-03-31
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Call for papers for vol. 9 (2003) of EMF: Studies in Early Modern France, edited by Anne Birberick and Russ Ganim, on the subject of "New Biographical Criticism: On the Making New of an Old Discipline." Please send proposals, by the end of March, 2001, to: George Hoffmann, Co-editor Dept. of Romance Languages & Literatures University of Michigan 812 East Washington Street 4126 Modern Languages Building Ann Arbor MI 48109-1275 734/647-2329 fax: 764-8163 <email@example.com> "A Poem is the pearl that grows around a bit of grit in life" --Christopher Ricks Biographical criticism appears today as the old Old School of modern literary studies; it pre-dates the status quo ante now occupied by New Criticism--a position which New Criticism owes to having deposed the biographical as a meaningful field of inquiry for the literary critic. Over the last two decades, the pendulum between contextual and formal concerns has swung in the other direction, back toward what René Wellek called "extrinsic" criticism. But along the return trajectory, literary critics have somehow managed to avoid a reappraisal of biographical studies. Historical disciplines--social, political, institutional, and even stuffy old Intellectual History--have all reemerged as topics of interest and even as dominant modes within certain approaches; but biography has gone its own way, enjoying enduring commercial success while remaining virtually unnoticed by academic critics. For the most part, this oversight can be ascribed to two developments. First is the enormous influence that the Annales School has exerted upon current conception s of History: the new histoire sérielle introduced by Bloch and Febvre, and perfected by Braudel, turned its attention to the longue durée and seemed to discourage seeing the individual as a useful unit of measure for historical investigation. Second, over-frequent reference to the "Death of the Author" has continued to cloud the issue over whether it might not be time to reconsider the biographical dimension at the same time as we renew our interest in other forms of history. With Jacques Le Goff's much-remarked return to individual history in the recent Saint Louis, and a weariness with over-simplifications of Foucault's thesis on the Author, the time would seem ripe to overcome our reluctance, and to regard biography once again with a dispassionate eye. We have heard much, as students and literary scholars over the last half century, on the abuses of biography; all too little has been said on the subject of its uses. The admonition that one must not subordinate work's meaning to biographical fact still rings clear in classrooms, lending to the biographical an air of disreputability that suggests it might be one of the original literary sins, on par with the dreaded pathetic fallacy. Yet, in any serious attempt to relate a work to its immediate social, political , and economic context, the particular author's biography stands as a portal through which one must inevitably pass. In side-stepping the author's life, however, New Historicism and New Cultural History have risked falling into what one might call New Thematic Criticism, or, even, Old Thematic Criticism. That this is unfortunate in and of itself seems obvious, but the lack of attention given to biographical criticism may be felt all the more keenly once one realizes the vast potential in fact opened up for it by Annales-School methods. Rather than the tale of discreet "events," an author's life can now be studied as itself a sort of longue durée, a continuum acted upon by nearly imperceptible forces, punctuated by apparent fits and starts, and, occasionally, by real crisis. Such a description calls for distinction from psychoanalytical criticism-the one mode of study of the individual life that has seems to have weathered the critical storms of past decades, and, indeed, has flourished under the new theoretical schools. Proust, after pointing out a rather evident relationship between his narrator's obsession with Albertine and a childhood dependency on his mother, affirms that the rejection that an adult feels from a beloved can strike deeper, traumatize more completely, and move more profoundly one's sensibility than any loss one feels as a child. Freud would have held few secrets for Proust, yet for all his lucidity concerning the charades of the human heart, he was reluctant to award the psychoanalytical perspective the last word. The "primal scene," Proust suggests, does not lie in the past but, rather, in the present, no matter how entwined that present may be with the past. In this sense, Proust stands out sharply from many literary critics who find in one or another psychoanalytic complexes the end-point of their study, instead of its beginning. If it is fully to avail itself of new historical methods, biographical criticism must likewise become a discipline of the "present," in the sense of casting a wider net over the general conditions of life in the author's time. The oblique methods pioneered by French historians in the effort to reconstruct, for example, the conditions of a peasant's life serve one admirably well when it comes to filling gaps in our knowledge about an author's life, in the absence--as is so often the case-- of direct documents. It can come as somewhat of a surprise to recall twenty years later that the strongest pages in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, the work that catapulted Stephen Greenblatt to academic fame, are the opening ones devoted to Thomas More's life. Having assimilated Richard S. Sylvester's biographical studies Grrenblatt reads More in a manner reminiscent of de Man, almost as a trope writ large, collapsing in upon himself under the weight of insurmountable contradictions , in what Greenblatt terms "self-cancellation." It is not just Utopia that becomes a self-consuming artefact, but More himself. The idiosyncrasy of his unexpected application of deconstructive moves to more traditional literary history may be inimitable, nor would one want to reproduce the reading upon an indefinite number of subjects, but the example suffices to remind one that critical schools of recent years are not so inimical to biography as they are means by which to renew it. This volume hopes to bring together both theorizers and practitioners in the art of biography in order to reflect upon the ways such a renewal may be expected to advance literary study in the coming years.
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