Personal Narrative & Political Discourse
vol. 33, no. 1, Winter 2010
Guest Editor: Sidonie Smith
No ordinary memoirists: Michael Ignatieff and Barack Obama position themselves as politicians and celebrities (photo by Jean-Marc Carisse © 2009, reproduced by permission of the photographer; all rights reserved).
“Autobiographical Discourse in the Theaters of Politics” by Sidonie Smith
During the course of the 2008 presidential election in the United States, candidates, voters, journalists, pundits, and campaign operatives engaged directly and indirectly in an extended national debate about auto/biographical storytelling, its generic forms, its grounds of authenticity, its routes of circulation, and its afterlives in various media. In the wake of that election, scholars have been probing the conjunctions of personal discourse and political discourse, autobiographical acts, and the “theater” of politics. This introduction situates contributions to this special issue of Biography in the context of three broad themes: the personalization of politics over the last five decades, with its mobilization of the personal story to suture political persona and national fable; the social action of genre in constituting political publics, in such diverse genres as television reality shows, blogs, and national biography; and the archives of the fragment animating strategic biographism and scholarly methodology.
“Insecure Citizenship: Michael Ignatieff, Memoir, Canada” by Julie Rak
This article links Michael Ignatieff’s need to write memoir to his desire to explore what family, public service, and citizenship can mean when they are thought together. Ignatieff does not yet use memoir as most politicians do, to recall what public life was like or to set records straight. He writes as part of a process of self-invention and reinvention. In the process, the concepts of citizenship and national belonging move too, from a position of insecurity and migration as a challenge to national belonging, to a position of citizenship as securely patriotic and the focus of national security.
“‘Home Squared’: Barack Obama’s Transnational Self-Reliance” by Georgiana Banita
One of the most important aspects of Barack Obama’s political success concerns the transnational makeup of his identity. Taking Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006) as case studies, this article examines how Obama’s autobiographical self squares with the precepts of American exceptionalism in an era that has witnessed a palpable decline in the centrality and leverage of the US on an international stage.
“The Personal in Political Television Biographies” by Rosa Van Santen and Liesbet Van Zoonen
This article analyzes themes and styles of personal narratives of Dutch politicians on television. We find that general developments in the personalization of politicians are typifi ed by complex patterns of change and continuity, and that the portrait as a genre has diversified but is still mainly constituted by the politician’s political and personal stories.
“Autobiography in Australian Parliamentary First Speeches” by David McCooey and David Lowe
This article analyzes the autobiographical content in the First Speeches of three Australian parliaments (1950, 1976, and 1996). It argues that such autobiographical disclosure has significant political functions—in particular, representing credentials, and representing social and political affiliations. The essay argues that these functions highlight, and finesse, the paradoxical condition that parliamentarians find themselves in, of having to simultaneously represent themselves and their constituencies.
“Malaysia: The Writing of Lives and the Constructing of Nation” by Dawn Morais
I examine the biographies and memoirs of John Victor Morais to show how middle-class leaders used their colonial legacy to build an independent nation. The affi rmation of ethnic roots and national allegiance continues today, not just in Malaysia, but in the diasporic lives of those who look back even as they venture beyond Malaysia’s borders.
“Blogging and Mass Politics” by Michael Keren
In an attempt to understand the political implications of online life writing, or blogging, I construct a typology of modes of expression by politically engaged bloggers who are conceptualized as public intellectuals. I then propose the hypothesis that once the public dialogue in society is held almost exclusively online, it can be expected to follow more closely modes of expression associated with mass politics than with Aristotle’s rules of civic discourse.
“Human Rights Singular-Plural: Translating Dalit Autobiography from Hindi” by Christi Merrill
I focus on the English translation of the first-person narrative Joothan by Dalit Hindi writer Omprakash Valmiki to ask how we read accounts from the “downtrodden” across languages and cultures. I argue that the Dalit atmakatha posits a different relationship between self and society than most autobiography in English, and so puts productive pressure on the generic expectations used to assess human rights.
“Transnational Adoption, Hallyu, and the Politics of Korean Popular Culture” by So Young Park
This essay examines the phenomenon of the return of transnational adoptees to Korea, as represented in the popular media. I argue that television shows and films melodramatize adoptees’ narratives to produce new narratives that promote the idea of a globalized South. The essay contexualizes this process of melodramatization within Hallyu, a contemporary renaissance in Korean arts and entertainment.
“A Nuclear Narrative: Robert Oppenheimer, Autobiography, and Public Authority” by David K. Hecht
This article explores the rhetorical strategies employed by Robert Oppenheimer in a personal narrative he wrote in 1954, defending himself against McCarthy-era charges that he was unfit for continued government employment. It argues that this personal narrative was central to establishing his public authority at this culturally tense moment, particularly in terms of his standing as a trustworthy atomic scientist.
“Mob Rule in New Orleans: Anarchy, Governance, and Media Representation” by James Edward Ford III
This article deconstructs the terms “anarchy” and “mob rule,” which are used to restore legitimacy to failed hegemonic structures and to misrepresent collective governance working outside those structures. I use this argument to reinterpret Mob Rule in New Orleans by Ida B Wells, and ultimately, to contribute to a new theory of “crisis.”
“The Personal Politics of Raphael Samuel” by Joseph Maslen
In the 1980s, the writings of the historian Raphael Samuel (1934–1996) were oriented toward personal politics. In his autobiographical work on his personal and political lives, memory was a site of history. Personal narrative and political discourse were located at different points within the same domain of historical recollection.
“Charles H. Malik and Human Rights: Notes on a Biography” by Glenn Mitoma
I examine the contributions of Lebanese diplomat and educator Charles H. Malik as a leading member of the UN Human Rights Commission, particularly in relation to his educational experiences in American-run institutions in Lebanon and the US. I also propose biography as a significant mode of inquiry for understanding the political discourse of human rights more generally.