On Intellectual Biography

On Intellectual Biography

Tim Kaposy

When we have to change an opinion about anyone, we charge heavily to their account the inconvenience they thereby cause us.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil”

In lieu of amplifying that denunciation of biography some of us hear regularly–that history’s venerated figures tend to be its unacknowledged criminals–this issue of Politics and Culture is compelled by the techniques, theories, and traditions available for its interpretation. The study of biography, whose forms radiate out today beyond discrete expressions in books to montage biopics and multi-media retrospectives in museums, renews the questions many of us have concerning how a person is lionized and how such an ascent carries with it presumptions we affix to human identity.

An identity that accrues attention is different from a life that receives it or one that is impelled by it, which is not to say these qualities are always exclusive. Telling the difference requires an understanding of the details of a life in addition to reckoning with the claims identity make upon it. So, similar to the way documentarians are instructed to give their subjects an added uncomfortable minute to speak, in anticipation the interviewee will talk offhandedly and ditch the formalities of the conversation, attentiveness to intellectual biography is an invitation for unexpectedly revealing ideas to emerge from relatively familiar voices.

Archives are where most intellectual biographies begin and where they gain plausibility. But these materials and contacts are rarely if ever donated directly by the person studied. A thornier trespassing often occurs on behalf of biographers and many a well intentioned project is spurned by legal or familial stipulations. Of the biographers whose recent work is reviewed here, from Detlev Claussen to Sheila Rowbotham to Andrea Weiss, a majority of them characterize their research as unlikely, in pursuit of details along indirect routes and under duress, and culminating in a narrated life disseminated unto an unpredictable reading public. The relevance of an entire project is regularly dismissed without a second opinion. In a manner allegorical of the episodic quandaries of identity itself, one could say the biographical subject is imperiled by the risk of having to be found, represented, and legitimated anew. Scarcely audible are theories that inform such an undertaking, but a brief consideration of intellectual biography might prove valuable for countering the form’s noiseless integration into a mere commodity.

“Corpus” is a concept used by Jean-Luc Nancy to denote a representational space analogous to the body of a person examined. Primary in his conceptualization of “corpus” are the temporal trajectories of these bodies and their interrelation. Without getting too detailed, Nancy’s oeuvre is a meditation on the difficulty of locating the subject’s body per se. Not because of its physical movement, spiritual ineffability, or affective elusiveness (despite the respective importance of these aspects), but because a body is a locus of contradiction and action par excellence. He writes, “[e]ither it is by the body and through it that signification occurs, and then signification falls within its boundaries and is worth only what a shadow is worth in a cave, or it is from the body and on it that signification takes shape and is deposited, and signification never stops reaching toward this proper locus where it should endlessly curl up into itself.” [1] Nancy focuses on acts that problematize the category of “act” itself, aligning him with other artists and critics who are indebted to anti-metaphysical thought and studies of everyday life. Sleeping, listening, reading, and care-giving (to name a few) are acts assumed to have a habitual, passive, or reactive bodily valance that nevertheless signify and are traceable well after their immediate conduct.

How these less valued ‘acts’ register among the tattered material of archives is open to debate. For example, what effect does one’s sleep have on the way one is potentially catalogued? What of the sentences read or mouths fed? What of sounds savored or unheard? Nancy raises these questions to make a simple point: historical identities tend to be evaluated and written-up in a preordained way that differentiates the acts of that person according to their ability to reproduce or suspend a previous set of intelligible circumstances. In the rare instance that an act defies the rationale by which it may be interpreted, one enters a realm where new vocabularies and strategies are needed for its understanding. But are not iconoclasts, heroes, code-breakers, and outliers the usual subjects of biography?

Is it not also naive or misguided to assume new vocabularies or concepts always follow and correspond to an unprecedented set of historical situations? In this sense “corpus” is not an ideal of intellectual biography: it is rather a cautionary concept that leaves one skeptical of the belief that the dead are necessarily “updated” with each retelling of their life.

Another type of thinker, perhaps one prone to elegy, is drawn to the idea of a corpus because it mediates the definitive contradictions of community:

“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.” [2]

Mindful of the complexities of a corpus, a minimum of two conceits – the inadequacy of the historiographic form and the inconsistency of its subject – loom between the sentences of numerous intellectual biographies. The reviews in this issue cite this dual difficulty again and again, and they are aware of the trouble that arises with the biographical form’s breadth and investigative tenor. So often biographers snatch a corpus from its supposedly “proper place” and relegate or appropriate it for immediate recognition. Integral to biography are problems of historicity (or “existential time”), in a period where Being and Nothingness have been diminished from variable angles and seem unavailable to one another today as coordinates of our shared ontological issues. If only existence were a topic biographers, curators, directors, and philosophers could claim as their exclusive jurisdiction!

To describe the impetus behind this issue, “On Intellectual Biography,” enumeration of a few key tropes of biographical narration limns the form as it might be interpreted today. As with most cultural products, intellectual biography is beholden to the fads and fashions of publishing houses, the print media, universities, and prize systems. These institutions claim the symbolic and monetary values whose accumulative consequences exceed and standardize the conditions for assessing an identity’s authenticity or a work’s veracity. Diagrams of social differentiation akin to those imagined by Pierre Bourdieu in his 1979 magnum opus Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste should be redrawn to predict those of us set to have details of our life dramatized and reconstructed. Yet another diagram could be etched to analyze the milieus and dispositions of readers and writers who reproduce the republic of biographical letters in and against the “aesthetic of necessity.” A visit to the library or museum reveals an entire apparatus of endorsement–called “consecration” by Bourdieu–prefacing the books, providing walk-through commentaries of the exhibitions on headphones, and all effusive of artifacts supposedly the opposite of bare utility.

“Intellectual” biography might therefore sound patrician and subsequently denied inclusion into the annals of social or popular history. Such a hypothetical exclusion is unfounded for many reasons. For one, the possessive individualism of political culture, borrowing from C.B. Macpherson’s genealogy from the nineteenth century forth, having undercut long-standing social affiliations and political solidarity, has veered intensively into the so-called “disinterested” realms of thought and foreclosed viable means for imagining social life in all genres (see Minard’s review of a recent biography of Ayn Rand). [3] Where most intellectual biographies circulate, the divisions between “intellectual” and “rudimentary” are prefigured by an international division of labor, vast material processing and monocrop yields, which go unidentified (indeed negated from the realm of “acts” by many historians) and are presumed to persist endlessly. What better way to challenge the ordinary possessive imaginary adopted by subjects (along with their damaging effects) than to counter the growing bodies of work (e.g., Ron Chernow’s biographies) and narrative techniques fertilizing and recycling the myths of “great men” in our midst?

A last point. The adjective “intellectual” also marks a temporal delay or buffer between archive, author, subject narrated, text, and reader. Contemporaries of, say, Thelonious Monk or Simone de Beauvoir were readily able to hear “I Surrender Dear” at Washington D.C.’s Bohemian Cavern in the late 1950s or witness the scene at Cafe de Flore in the 1960s, but familiarity has always included a deafness or a way of precluding interpretation of Monk’s place in the soundscape of jazz piano and de Beauvoir’s contribution to generations of feminist struggle and philosophy. Contemporaries make for limited biographers. A period of gestation is required between an intimacy with the person and the reception of how their life translates back in the form of acclaim. The historical loop that encircles biographers invites them to double as chroniclers of narrated historicity, sift through its details scattered like gravel, and locate how and where historicity trades and travels.

The conditions generative of and degrading a life, as well as the material elements conducive for its reprise, indicate that intellectual biography and its analogous expressions take shape among many unorthodox issues of identity. For the purpose further provocation and inquiry set against biographies of possessive individualism and recapitulations of the lives of heroic men, we might investigate how biography is conceptualized against ideas of daily mimetic play with others, collectives, the Unconscious, and vanquished lives. The note below offers cursory speculations for each. [4]


[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Corpus” in Thinking Bodies. Ed. Juliet MacCannell. Stanford U.P., 1994. p.20.

[2] John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos. Vintage, 1992. p. 101.

[3] C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke. Oxford U.P., 1962

[4] (a) One’s double: figural representation of the double or doppelganger dramatizes a tension between one’s mimetic play with others and the compulsive desire for a singular, coherent personhood. Any empirical contention with likeness confounds clear and distinct notions of what composes a subject but the points of identification for this tension are inconsistent. Biographical writing does not employ the dialogic sentences and recurrent episodes of resemblance primary in Dostoevsky’s writing. Dialogue (rare in biography) is particularly suited to dramatize the aural and face-to-face engagement of neighborhood coexistence. Encountering one’s double arises by happenstance and by following one’s nose through the gamut of impressions, turns of phrase, rapidly edited screens, and scenarios of similarity. Two examples that complicate Dostoevsky’s immediate encounters push this idea further. Orhan Pamuk’s Kara Kitap (1990, translated as The Black Book) alternates between chapters written by the protagonist Galip and the writer Celal who Galip suspects has become reacquainted with his current lover Ruya. As a jealous fan of Celal’s reportage, Galip soon reads himself into Celal’s writings to the degree the reader has trouble determining one from the other. Jose Saramago’s O Homem Duplicado (2001, translated as The Double) also recreates the uncanny appearance of one’s self, but in this case, the divorced insomniac Tertuliano Maximo Afonso sees a man identical to himself in a rented VHS film. Seeking out the identical looking actor, Alfonso becomes embroiled in lives he otherwise would ignore. All three narratives are allegories of male protagonists struggling against their and others’ narcissism. The difficulty of recreating the tension experienced by a subject with its doubles, no matter how consistently they turn the corner and glimpse uncanny commonality, has been brought to a banal resolution with the fetishism of avatars. Replacing mimetic play and the upset of the norm that “everyone’s different” is the insistence of cute dictums such as “I am other” or forms of representation (especially film and online gaming) that invite a replication of the ego. Biographies rarely narrate as regularly as novels an explicit tension between their subject and his or her doubles, but this problem underlies the quandaries its subjects face, whether startlingly reminiscent or pre-packaged. (b) Collectives: I offer few ideas where to go here, but a quote from Paolo Virno may be where to begin. He reminds us in Grammar of the Multitude that “[u]nity is no longer something (the State, the sovereign) towards which things converge, as in the case of the people; rather it is taken for granted, as background or necessary condition precondition. The many must be thought of as the individualization of the universal, of the generic, of the shared experience.” This quote grasps the way representations of collectivities oscillate between individualizations (Obama’s America, Lula’s Brazil, etc.) and notional concepts that ring true to the ear but have inadequate narratives supporting its charm. Biographies also do not tend to broach collectivity as such, but millions of people populate and condition the lionized; (c) The Unconscious: Julia Kristeva concludes her intellectual biographies of Melanie Klein, Hannah Arendt, and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (a troika on the topic of feminine genius) by taking an account of the way “each of them, against that background of common condition, modulated an original and unprecedented advance” (Colette, p.425). Emblematic of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literature, Kristeva narrates their lives to critique ideation, which is a process often misidentified as the medium or product of psychical life. If the Surrealists tried their hand at writing an unconscious intellectual biography, it has yet to make a significant claim to the form. Nevertheless Kristeva’s texts draw inspiration from Sigmund Freud’s brief biographical essay on Leonardo DaVinci (1910) and she extends its scope and viability. In Kristeva the subject’s psyche is misunderstood by the biographer, but not because Arendt, Colette or Klein lack a lucidity of self-expression. The subjects of Kristeva’s biographies are, in other genres of analysis, regularly made synonymous with their ideas. We recognize Klein’s “paranoid-schizoid position,” Arendt’s “banality of evil” adage and Colette’s narration of desire, but more importantly Kristeva diverges from the usual way the ideas of a thinker are said to define her life story. Ideas are illusory markers of a life or, put differently, they are products neither of private intention nor context. Questions of intention and context will undoubtedly hound biographers in the future and they stand to benefit, as do readers, from the form’s innumerable problems.

Tim Kaposy is managing editor of Politics and Culture and Assistant Professor in the Cultural Studies Program at George Mason University.

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