University of Western Sydney, Australia
Literature Compass Special Issue: Life Writing and Critical Practice, 2011
Across the course of my research into issues of writing and representation and the affective power of research I have yet to come across a book that has affected me as much as Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer (1996). While the focus of the book rests with anthropology, Behar’s insights into the personal effects of research and fieldwork, and the line between the observer and the observed, are critical to contemporary studies involving the ‘writing of the other’. Behar’s book allowed me to rethink the auto/biographical divide and the processes and experiences that can inform the making of a biographical text.
Literary texts that deal, in part at least, with the affective qualities of biographical writing and/or the experience of unearthing the past are becoming more common. Richard Holmes’ seminal work Footsteps (1995) is well-known. Lesser-known but more contemporary works include Robert Dessaix’s Twilight in Love: Travels with Turgenev (2004) and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (2010). While these works do not explicitly deal with methodology, they do point to the feverish qualities of past/present field relationships.
In general, the field of biographical writing and biographical narrativity is widening. As I have indicated elsewhere, autoethnography and studies in qualitative research have a great deal to offer those interested in issues of method. Beyond Behar, the work of Carolyn Ellis (1995, 1996, 2004), Rosanna Hertz (1994), Kim Etherington (2004) and P.A Atkinson, A Coffey, S Delamont, J Lofland and L Lofland (eds) (2001) is also recommended.
This article aims to stimulate debate around issues of biographical narrativity, methodology and the affective power of the biographical research experience. The essay emerges out of a larger study that explores the processes and experiences that inform the making of a biographical text in an attempt to understand the effects of those experiences on research and writing, and the production of biographical knowledge more broadly. ‘Writing Intimate Lives: Mediations in Biographical Praxis’ would benefit a unit or course interested in issues of writing and representation – both in biographical writing and in qualitative research more broadly. Questions that might emerge after reading might include: how do the specific circumstances in which we write affect what we write and how? How does our encounter with the biographical world come to be enacted in biographical writing? Is it true that biographical studies has tended to ‘police’ or over-determine representational modes and the relationship between the biographer and the subject? And how might we develop a way of thinking about biography that enables us to reflect upon the epistemological basis of our theory and practice, thereby expanding its field of significance?