Life Writing & Intimate Publics
vol. 34, no. 1, Winter 2011
Guest Editor: Margaretta Jolly
Julia and the Window of Vulnerability (silver print with chalk pastel, 1983), by Joanne Leonard, the Diane M. Kirkpatrick and Griselda Pollack Distinguished University Professor of Art and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan (© copyright and used by permission of the artist; all rights reserved).
“Introduction: Life Writing as Intimate Publics” by Margaretta Jolly
This special issue of Biography begins from the US cultural critic Lauren Berlant’s term “intimate public” to explore new constituencies of belonging in relation to life writing and life storying across media. Life writing creates affect worlds, where strangers meet through emotional connection, worlds that are economically and politically dynamic. This collection assesses them as global forms, including British televisual genealogy, post-Communist Eastern European memoir, Scottish oral history, Iranian blogging, Chinese sentimental essay, and American genomic dataset. It includes Berlant’s response, the first time she has engaged directly with life writing.
“The Present of Intimacy: My Very Public Private Life” by Vesna Goldsworthy
Vesna Goldsworthy’s “The Present of Intimacy: My Very Public Private Life” reflects on the aftermath of the publication of a bestselling memoir. Combining personal account and critical examination, this hybrid study explores the intersections and tensions between public and private, as well as individual and collective elements in autobiographical writing.
This essay investigates similarities and differences in Sennett’s and Berlant’s understanding and assessment of the altered balance between the public and the intimate in American society since the nineteenth century. While Sennett warns of the growing tyranny of intimacy, Berlant stresses the power of shared intimate knowledge and experience. Both views are problematized in a brief discussion of a sample of contemporary autobiographical texts.
“Intimate Economies: PostSecret and the Affect of Confession” by Anna Poletti
This article argues that the scale and success of the PostSecret project evidences the continuing influence of confession in contemporary autobiography. It analyzes the importance of materiality as a signifier of authenticity in a participatory media project that functions as an intimate public by coaxing life writing texts and detaching them from their authorial subjects.
“ʻSuffused by Feeling and Affectʻ: The Intimate Public of Personal Mommy Blogging” by Aimée Morrison
Personal mommy blogging forcefully enacts a productive tension linking the story of the self to broader public discourses. Mommy bloggers seem to understand their texts as at once public and private, in ways that are for the most part enabling rather than paralyzing or paradoxical. Based on an anonymous online survey I conducted of mommy bloggers, I conclude that they deliberately court and manage “intimate publics” that nurture a community of shared practice around the emotional, physical, and intellectual labor of parenting.
This article explores the ways in which social media was used by diasporic Iranians in the aftermath of the June 2009 Iranian presidential elections. With particular attention to global reactions to the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the author considers how social networking sites such as Facebook create an “intimate public sphere,” simultaneously facilitating and defanging collective activism through expressions of compassion for others.
“Communism: Intimate Publics” by Ioana Luca
My article examines Anca Vlasopolos’s No Return Address: A Memoir of Displacement (2000) and Kapka Kassabova’s Street Without A Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) in order to demonstrate how, in the case of communism, “intimate publics” was a space of survival, a means to evade full ideological indoctrination and also the very space of continuous state oppression.
Readings of two autobiographical essays by Yang Jiang (1911–) suggest that Confucian conventions of intimacy exert a major force on personal memories of the Chinese twentieth century. To resolve the anxieties of a life that extends over the entire Chinese era of revolution, Yang Jiang reinvents the values of the Confucian intellectual and the Confucian family. This work certainly draws on the business of sentimentality in Chinese popular literature, which begs the question: is Yang Jiang part of a Chinese intimate public?
“ʻI’d Like My Life Backʻ: Corporate Personhood and the BP Oil Disaster” by Laura E. Lyons
In this essay, I analyze British Petroleum’s initial attempts to manage its enormous environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and its concomitant public relations crisis through the use of its Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward. In his public interviews and statements, he both personifies the corporation and distances himself from its decisions. At stake in these attempts to make use of life stories either to limit the damage (and liability) that have resulted from the disaster or to hold the corporation accountable is the continued viability of “corporate personhood,” a concept central to American corporate law.
“Who Do You Think You Are?: Intimate Pasts Made Public” by Claire Lynch
The hugely successful BBC television series Who Do You Think You Are?™ follows celebrities tracing their family trees as part of a journey of self discovery in a format described here as “biogravision.” The show’s popularity runs in parallel with the rise in genealogy made possible by digital archives. What impact has this had on modes of self-narration and the move between private and public histories?
“Writing Biodigital Life: Personal Genomes and Digital Media” by Kate O’Riordan
A recent proliferation of genome sequences and scans, and direct-to-consumer genomic services, has also led to a boom in life writing in this area. This article examines some of the contradictions in tales from the genome as they are told by an elite group of genomic biographers.
“Tell-Tale Heart: Organ Donation and Transplanted Subjectivities” by Susan M. Stabile
After a fatal cardiac arrest in June 2009, my five-year-old niece was revived and put on life-support until her “new heart” arrived (at the awed relief of my family and the unbearable loss of another’s) on the morning of August 6th. I will explore what I call the “transplanted subjectivities” formed through the anonymous gestures of organ donation, as the transplanted organ upsets the boundaries between separate bodies and intimate, incorporated, though anonymous identities. Illuminating overlapping social, medical, psychological, and literary discourses of transplantation, I will examine the unanswerable autobiographical questions of incorporating an unknown other into one’s self.
“Recent Trends in Using Life Stories for Social and Political Activism” by Helga Lénárt-Cheng, Darija Walker
Lifestory-sharing sites have never been as popular as today. These sites interpret the act of “sharing” life stories as a form of communal endeavor, and argue that publicly shared life stories will lead to more inclusive communities and to more effective forms of participatory democracy. The present article studies the rhetoric of this new form of lifestory-based activism, and suggests that we need to be cautious about accepting some of its more idealistic claims.
“Life Writing and Intimate Publics: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant” by Lauren Berlant and Jay Prosser
Prosser and Berlant focus on some paradoxes of autobiography: notably, that individual stories are impersonal too, in their formal and emotional conventionality. Relatedly, they discuss how different genres, media, and political situations produce the sense of immediacy, of belonging and survival that Berlant associates with what binds people to intimate publics.