Autobiographical narratives—whether published as autobiographies per se, memoirs, testimonies, diaries, or texts posted online on blogs, social media, or personal websites—are frequently used by activists and social movement actors, but also elected officials and political leaders as tools for constructing or reconstructing a “strategic identity” (Collovald 1988). As such, these activist and political autobiographies (a term that covers the range of forms previously mentioned) can be analyzed as literary and scriptural strategies “of self-presentation or self-production” (Le Bart 2012), which allow their authors to establish or consolidate legitimacy, or even restore damaged authority. For example, in the United States, publishing an autobiography has basically become a prerequisite for any presidential candidate seeking the nomination of his or her party (Lepore 2019). This panel examines how such narrative forms reflect or, on the contrary, challenge these legitimation processes, whether in social movements or in the institutionalized political sphere.
As early as the colonial era—when narratives such as John Smith’s History of Virginia also recounted an individual lived experience of colonization—, the revolutionary period—when Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography recounted his individual life story within the frame of independence—and beyond, autobiographical narratives have served as tools of legitimation for political and activist organization leaders. Can these texts be considered to have instituted canons of the genre of activist and political autobiography, by virtue, for example, of the “Founding Father” status conferred on Benjamin Franklin? What precisely have their influence and legacy been on subsequent works? Generally speaking, are there more or less direct forms of intertextuality between activist and political autobiographies from one era to another?
A central question that the genre of activist and political autobiography raises is how the individual relates to the collective: as first-person narratives centered on an individual in his or her relationship to the rest of society, activist and political autobiographies can affirm authority—as when a leader poses as a reference for his or her movement or party—or protest—when one poses as a challenger, a maverick, or a rebel. Are the narrativity and literariness of autobiographical writing, and hence the singularity and exemplarity of an experience that they highlight, particularly effective tools or valuable resources for doing so? Does the auctoriality of autobiographical writing in itself convey or produce authority, legitimacy, or canonicity?
This genre can also be invested by those seeking inclusion within the pale of legitimacy, or by outsiders traditionally excluded from the realm of politics because of their gender, racial or ethnic identity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or characteristics constructed as disabilities. How is belonging to a minority then narrativized, emphasized, or euphemized? Is it a matter of challenging the traditional forms of autobiographical political narrative, or even proposing a counter-narrative? Does simultaneously belonging to several minority groups generate discourses that may be described as intersectional, or do narratives tend to highlight one identity at the expense of the others? Do the authors claim to speak for their group(s)? In particular, how do they address their connection with the social movements founded around this minoritized identity—feminism, movements for the rights of people with disabilities or against Islamophobia, etc.? What repertoire is dominant in these works: exemplarity, authenticity, universality, etc.? And, whether it be a matter of legitimizing outsiders, affirming, or challenging authority, to what extent do these autobiographical narratives abide by, or on the contrary resist, standardized, pre-determined formats, such as the scripts of coming out, heroism, resilience, the reversal of stigma, etc.?
In terms of production, writers are often hired to do part or all of the actual writing of political autobiographies (Le Bart 2012): what can these writers’ identity, when known, teach us about the links between political journalists, commentators, and politicians? Another worthwhile issue of inquiry is the publication, or non-publication, of these autobiographical accounts: what editorial and economic processes determine the legitimation or discrediting of these voices? To what extent does publication, but also its medium and the dissemination it either manages or fails to promote, determine legitimacy? Should published and unpublished narratives be approached differently, and if so, how should the latter be considered?
In terms of reception, which audiences do these narratives target and how are they received? How contentious is the assessment of the success or failure (commercial, literary, political) of these works, and hence these strategies of legitimation? To what extent can the writing, publication, circulation, and promotion of an activist or political autobiography help fight prejudice and discrimination (anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, validism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia...)? From an interdisciplinary perspective, it is also worth examining whether these works’ value, legitimacy, and credibility are gauged according to standards of literariness. In other words, do the canons of literary writing perform as standards of legitimacy for activist or political autobiographical voices—which do not necessarily manifest literary ambition—and do minority literatures—Native American, African American, Italian American, Arab American, women’s literature—offer them frameworks, patterns, or canons with which to comply, compare, or contrast?
A final question is what status scholars should give these activist and political autobiographies, when using them as sources for the history of social movements and politics. How to address the issue of reliability? Is an activist or political autobiography worthwhile in itself, or does it only make sense when compared, serially, with others? Do these narratives owe their heuristic value to the fact that they give voice to voices that are otherwise silenced or insufficiently audible? Do they offer counter-narratives whose study and consideration may allow scholars to enhance, deepen, or even renew their understanding of social and political changes? Participants are encouraged to pay attention not only to textual content, narrative patterns, and topical substance, but also to metadiscursive elements (title, first and fourth cover pages, acknowledgements, preface, foreword, and afterword, accompanying photographs or videos, etc.), while being reflexive about the methodological and epistemological implications of analyzing this genre (Marche 2015).
Please send paper submissions (300 to 500 words), including a presentation of method and sources, and a short biographical note by January 17, 2022 to Hugo Bouvard (email@example.com) and Guillaume Marche (firstname.lastname@example.org). The conference will take place in Bordeaux from May 31 to June 3, 2022.
- Hugo Bouvard, postodoctorant au laboratoire IMAGER (Université Paris-Est Créteil)
- Guillaume Marche, professeur de civilisation américaine, directeur du laboratoire IMAGER (Université Paris-Est Créteil)
Collovald, Annie. 1988. “Identité(s) stratégique(s).” Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 73 (1): 29‑40.
Le Bart, Christian. 2012. La politique en librairie. Les stratégies de publication des professionnels de la politique. Paris: Armand Colin.
Lepore, Jill. 2019. “Confessions of a Presidential Candidate.” The New Yorker, May 13, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/20/confessions-of-a-presidential-candidate (accessed October 4, 2021).
Marche, Guillaume. 2015. “Memoirs of Gay Militancy: A Methodological Challenge.” Social Movement Studies 14 (3): 270‑290.