Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3, 2019
Biographic Mediation: On the Uses of Personal Disclosure in Bureaucracy and Politics
a special issue edited by Ebony Coletu
“Introduction to Biographic Mediation: On the Uses of Personal Disclosure in Bureaucracy and Politics”
This special issue explores biographic mediation as a tool to analyze technical demands for personal disclosure that affect earnings and overexposure to policing. Biographic mediation refers to institutional documentation of personal information to make decisions about who gets what and why, alongside public critiques and calls to action that feature personal narratives. The issue engages the dialectic between bureaucracy and politics, where institutional paperwork and public perception of applicants interact, making the case for exploring less visible linkages between paperwork and politics to better understand how biographic data operates within a political economy. Contributors include scholars and activists working to redefine the scope of rights that are narrowed on paper, while drawing attention to mechanisms for surveillance operating through biographic forms.
“Biographic Mediation and the Formerly Incarcerated: How Dissembling and Disclosure Counter the Extended Consequences of Criminal Convictions”
When formerly incarcerated people seek access to resources and opportunities upon release they are often met with biographic mediation processes that weaponize stigma, as the demand for disclosure re-adjudicates criminality upon them. Performing dissemblance and managing disclosure are two ways in which the formerly incarcerated counter the violence inherent in the carceral rationality of governance that works to break or keep broken, disabled, and therefore easily controlled, formerly incarcerated people. As this essay shows, weaponized stigma, while effective, is not absolute.
“A Complaint Biography”
Originally appearing as a blog entry on Sara Ahmed’s public research site, Feminist Killjoys, this essay understands paperwork as a tool to both address and deflect complaints, with the file appearing as an object made to manipulate time and exhaust energy. By interviewing people who have engaged the complaint process, Ahmed develops a means of tracking tensions in the act of reporting, incorporating silences and the effect of time on decisions to withdraw complaints—to “get on with life.” Creating a working vocabulary from the interviews themselves, Ahmed proposes alternative forms of listening and accountability that exceed the reputation-management functions of university protocols. In this essay, Ahmed models a listening technique that takes place outside of the grievance protocol while reflecting on it publicly.
“Lives on the Line: An Interview with Aly Wane”
Aly Wane interviewed by Ebony Coletu
In this interview, Ebony Coletu speaks with Aly Wane, an undocumented immigrant and human rights organizer. Wane reflects on his own path to activism and how personal disclosure became a central part of his practice. Turning away from exceptional narratives tailored for national inclusion, Wane emphasizes the need to recuperate the criminalized remainder left out of immigration reform proposals. He contributes to a theory of biographic mediation by using his own story to interrogate the ways racial profiling, violence, and deportation operate together, marking the limits of “papers” as a form of protection. With specific attention to Black and indigenous experiences in the United States and the ongoing resource of Black feminism, he argues that citizenship cannot be the horizon for migrants’ rights organizing if it justifies mass incarceration, selective recognition, and patriarchy as a model of power.
“The Securitate File as a Record of Psuchegraphy”
Working primarily with Securitate files, currently stored at the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (CNSAS), located in Bucharest and Popesti-Leordeni, Romania, this essay explains the various terror mechanisms the Securitate, Romania’s secret police during the country’s communist period, employed in order to gain recruits and employ them as part of its surveillance network. This article discusses the following two concepts—psuchegraphy and dossierveillance—described herein as two terror methods applied by the Securitate to obtain informers and compel them to collaborate.
“‘Has someone taken your passport?’: Everyday Surveillance of the Migrant Laborer as Trafficked Subject”
Annie Isabel Fukushima
This article examines the role of the missing passport in human rights discourse about migrants who experience violence in the form of human trafficking. Fukushima argues that the passport and mechanisms of documentation that emerge in human trafficking survivor accounts are central to legal and social appeals for recognition. Through a scavenger methodology, the essay analyzes the “missing passport” in campaign materials, a survivor memoir (Shyima Hall), and court testimonies in U.S. v. Kil Soo Lee, Rana v. Islam, Lipenga v. Kambalame, Gurung v. Malhotra, U.S. v. Firas Majeed et al., and U.S. v. Wood. Ultimately, Fukushima explores how the question “has someone taken your passport?” discursively and socially compels the everyday person to participate in surveillance, thus witnessing transnational migrant laborers through the racializing and policing logic of biographic mediation that furthers neighborly suspicion.
“Guidelines for Squatting: Concerned Citizens of North Camden, 1978–1990”
Concerned Citizens of North Camden (CCNC), a multiracial activist group in Camden, New Jersey, used genres of organizational writing, from pamphlets to housing applications, to circulate and develop its practices, from squatting to a community land trust. CCNC developed a counter-bureaucracy to pressure policy reforms that included the least-resourced residents of North Camden. Throughout, CCNC carefully used biographic mediation—from their identification as “concerned citizens,” to a fixed sense of neighborhood affiliation and belonging, all designed to communicate across bureaucratic information networks that held the economic potential to alleviate the lived conditions of homelessness and push against discourses of demolition and blight.
“Frames of Witness: The Kavanaugh Hearings, Survivor Testimony, and #MeToo”
This article argues that three frames of witness competed in the 2018 Kavanaugh hearings: the life story of Supreme Court nominee—now Justice—Brett Kavanaugh that was fashioned for the nomination process, the survivor testimony of Christine Blasey Ford that interrupted it, and the cultural frame of #MeToo in which her testimony and his repudiation of it were heard, which includes the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing and the accompanying pattern of erasing Black women as they bear witness. With reference to Judith Butler’s work on grievability, “Frames of Witness” identifies the potential affiliation of #MeToo discourse with other protest movements in order to underline how vulnerable subjects cross into testimonial spaces and find, or fail to find, a hearing.
“Call My Name: Using Biographical Storytelling to Reconceptualize the History of African Americans at Clemson University”
Rhondda Robinson Thomas
Biographical storytelling can be an effective means for higher education institutions like Clemson University, which was built by a predominately African American convict workforce on John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill Plantation, to reclaim complicated public narratives that are informed by the history of slavery and its legacies enacted in Jim Crow policies and practices. Thomas examines how biographic mediation enables the extraction of details from historical records that were created to commodify or criminalize people of African descent who are inextricably intertwined with institutional histories for the creation of life histories. The author asserts that biographic accountability can lead to the development of a multifaceted approach to acknowledging and commemorating Black labor as a critical component of the building and sustaining of higher education institutions, while offering descendants the documentation they need to make a case for redress and reparations.
“Mirror Memoirs: Amita Swadhin on Survivor Storytelling and the Mediation of Rape Culture”
Amita Swadhin interviewed by Ebony Coletu
Ebony Coletu interviews Amita Swadhin, the founder of Mirror Memoirs, a national storytelling and organizing project featuring the narratives, healing, and leadership of LGBTQI+ people of color who survived child sexual abuse. Recently, they completed sixty audio interviews for a growing archive that brings storytelling to bear on our understanding of how institutional spaces designated for “help” sustain child sexual assault. Working through the theme of this special issue, Swadhin reflects on biographic mediation as a mechanism operating within Mirror Memoirs, explaining how the collection of “inconvenient” stories about survivorship can help transform institutional practices of profiling that disappear the most vulnerable targets of violence.
“The Consumption of Adoption and Adoptees in American Middlebrow Culture”
Interested in how the media engages instances of fraud within adoption, as well as how adoptees negotiate the practices that led to their adoptions, this essay explores the reunion of Korean adoptee twins Samantha Futerman and Anaïs Bordier. The author analyzes the depiction of the twins’ reunion in the documentary Twinsters (2015) and Futerman and Bordier’s reflections in their co-authored memoir. Central to this analysis is how biographic mediation functions—demands for personal disclosure affect public perception of adoption and adoptees’ reflections of their adoption experiences—to shape the documentary’s arc, and how it affects what information is disclosed in the memoir. Operating simultaneously is how adoption agencies and institutions mediate their adoption records, and what is shared to both adoptees in adulthood and adoptive parents during the adoption process.
“(Un)Reasonable, (Un)Necessary, and (In)Appropriate: Biographic Mediation of Neurodivergence in Academic Accommodations”
Using neuroqueerness as a heuristic as well as a form of situated auto/biographical knowledge, this article considers the biographic mediation of disability in the academic workplace. Ultimately, what is at stake when disability makes itself visible to the institution is not so much whether the provision of extra administrative assistance or noise-mitigating equipment is affordable. It is, instead, this: what do disabled lives mean? The main sites of biographic mediation of disability in the academic workplace are diagnosis; the formalized process of disclosure and verification in the university accessibility bureaucracy; and the enactment and framing of any granted accommodation. Each site is the ground for battles over agency enacted through the solicitation, management, and framing of disabled life stories. Biographic mediation of disability in the academic workplace works to contain and control difference in such a way as to leave intact the fundamentally ableist set of values, practices, and built environments that constitute the institution known as “the university.”