Conference of the Biography Society: LA VÉRITÉ D’UNE VIE : BIOGRAPHY & VERITY (Oct. 2017).

Updated 08/08/2017

Go directly to the Conference’s internet site :
Image credits: Basile Moulin

https://veritebio.sciencesconf.org/

Programme: 
https://veritebio.sciencesconf.org/data/pages/Programme_la_verite_d_une_vie_New_1909.pdf

AN INTERDISCIPLINARY COLLOQUIUM

Affiche 4-Vérité d'une vie_HD

Abstract:
Biography entertains a peculiar relationship to the notion of verity, by aiming far less at the Truth than at the fluctuating truths of unique individual lives. Indeed, in science and in the humanities alike, truth appears to us today as a construction, always conveyed by a discourse ; indeed, verity is an unattainable horizon, an object of desire that keeps receding on and on as we strive to get closer to it, but the very quest ceaselessly modifies the landscape of our knowledge. The recent development of ‘biofiction’ can be interpreted as a ‘biographisation’ of contemporary fiction, which characterises our time, and is comparable to the ‘novelisation’ of genres one century ago. This phenomenon is what Hans Renders, Binne de Haan et Jonne Harmsma investigate in The Biographical Turn : Lives in History (Routledge, 2016). In historiography and philosophy of history, Hayden White’s theses, especially in The Fiction of Narrative (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), like Ivan Jablonka’s in L’Histoire est une littérature contemporaine (Seuil, 2014), clearly pose the problem of the partly fictional, and in any case literary nature of historiography. Biography, commonly described as a hybrid genre, between history and literature (see Michael Benton, Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), is distinguished by a peculiar aesthetics; it is assessed (by readers, critics, and the juries of literary awards) by the double standard of the verity of the knowledge it conveys, and the quality of the style in which it expresses it. A biographer is expected, on the one hand, to administrate the proof of what she writes in her texts and paratexts, and, on the other hand, to do so while producing a text where the pleasure to read must satisfy the desire to know: where scientific quest and aesthetic experience cross-fertilize one another. The most interesting biographers are those for whom literary writing is not a mere form but their very method, the very path of their thinking towards a better understanding of their subject. Some are fascinated by the gradual metamorphoses their character goes through, others keep swinging backward and forward in the chronological unravelling of a life, unwilling to wrench their eyes from the accomplished historical personage. Mixing memory and desire, scientific truth and literary verity, biography is a peculiar field, a crossroads of humanities, where a significant turn is taking place. The biographic turn partakes of a reprise, a new start, a reorientation of writing and reading towards this verity, always surprising, of which we cannot but see that it is the text that our lives are made of. Contributions can propose theoretical reflexions on the notion of verity in biography, or case studies, interrogating for instance the political uses of biography to inflect the “truth” about a person in the eyes of the public, addressing methods of investigation and verification of the facts, or analysing literary, rhetorical, strategies of administration of the proof. They can also be studies of the paratexts (footnote, prefaces, postfaces, documentary appendixes, etc.), or of the iconographic illustrations, taking especially into account the impact of photography. Considerations on the cinema are also expected, investigating the special relationship of biographical films to historical truth. In the field of digital humanities, the truth effect of on-line biographical notices and dictionaries of biography, as well as the impact of digital tools on biographical research are a case in point. Papers should also address fictionalisation as a method of investigative construction to fill in the gaps of documentation. Proposals, in French or in English, with a provisional title, an abstract no longer than 100 words, and 5 key-words, should be sent before February 1st, 2017, to Pr Yannick Gouchan yannick.gouchan@univ-amu.fr and Pr Joanny Moulin joanny.moulin@univ-amu.fr.

Go directly to the Conference’s internet site :
https://veritebio.sciencesconf.org/

(Français)

Appel à contributions

La biographie sollicite de façon singulière la notion de vérité, en poursuivant moins la vérité que de celles de vies individuelles toutes uniques. Certes, en lettres comme en sciences, toute vérité nous apparaît désormais comme une construction, toujours portée par un discours ; certes, la vérité n’est qu’un horizon inaccessible, un objet de désir qui se dérobe au fur et à mesure qu’on s’en approche, mais cette quête modifie sans cesse le paysage de notre connaissance. Le développement actuel de la « biofiction » peut s’interpréter comme une « biographisation » du roman contemporain, caractéristique de l’époque actuelle au même titre que la « romanisation » des genres au début siècle dernier. Ce phénomène est ce que Hans Renders, Binne de Haan et Jonne Harmsma nomment « le tournant biographique », dans The Biographical Turn : Lives in History (Routledge, 2016). En philosophie de l’histoire, les thèses de Hayden White, particulièrement dans son ouvrage le plus récent, The Fiction of Narrative (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), comme celles d’Ivan Jablonka dans L’Histoire est une littérature contemporaine (Seuil, 2014), posent clairement le problème de la nature en partie fictionnelle et en tout cas littéraire de l’écriture de l’historiographie. La biographie, genre communément décrit comme hybride entre histoire et littérature (voir Michael Benton, Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) se distingue par une esthétique particulière. Elle est évaluée (par le public, par la critique et par les jurys des prix littéraires) d’après le double standard de la justesse des connaissances qu’elle contient, et de la qualité du style dans lequel elle les exprime. On attend d’un biographe, d’une part, qu’il administre la preuve de ce qu’il avance dans son texte et ses paratextes, et d’autre part qu’il le fasse en produisant un texte où le plaisir de lire doit satisfaire le désir de savoir : où quête scientifique et expérience esthétique se fécondent l’une l’autre. Les biographes les plus intéressants sont ceux pour qui l’écriture littéraire n’est pas un outil formel, c’est leur méthode même, le chemin qu’emprunte la pensée pour mieux connaître et faire connaître leur sujet. Certains sont fascinés par les métamorphoses successives de leur personnage, d’autres font d’incessantes incursions dans son avenir, gardant toujours sous les yeux la personnalité accomplie. De vérité scientifique en vérité littéraire, la biographie est un champ bien particulier, au carrefour des lettres et des sciences humaines, où un tournant significatif semble bien se produire. Le tournant biographique participe d’une reprise, d’une relance, d’une réorientation de l’écriture et de la lecture vers cette « vérité » toujours surprenante, dont nous voyons bien qu’elle est le texte dont nos vies sont faites. Les contributions pourront proposer des réflexions théoriques sur la notion de vérité en biographie, ou bien des études de cas, interrogeant par exemple les utilisations politiques de la biographie, visant à infléchir la « vérité » d’une personne telle que le public la perçoit ; considérations sur les méthodes d’investigation et de vérification des faits dans les recherches, analyses des stratégies littéraires, rhétoriques et discursives, d’administration de la preuve. Il pourrait s’agir aussi d’analyses des paratextes et de leur valeur vérificative (notes, avant-propos et postfaces, annexes documentaires, etc.), ou des images illustratives et de l’impact de la photographie. On attend également des considérations sur la biographie au cinéma et le rapport du film biographique (ou biopic) à la vérité historique. Dans le domaine des humanités numériques, on s’interrogera sur l’effet de vérité des notices biographiques et dictionnaires biographiques en ligne, et l’impact des outils numériques de recherche biographique. D’autres contributions encore étudieront la fictionnalisation comme méthode de construction investigatrice pour pallier les lacunes de la documentation. Les propositions, en français ou en anglais, comprenant un titre provisoire, un abstract de 100 mots et 5 mots-clés, sont à remettre avant le 1er février 2016 au Pr Yannick Gouchan yannick.gouchan@univ-amu.fr et au Pr Joanny Moulin joanny.moulin@univ-amu.fr.

Accèder au site internet du colloque :
https://veritebio.sciencesconf.org/

Programme: Programme_la_verite_d_une_vie_New_1909

 

Modern Biographers Popularity Survey / Enquête sur la popularité des biographes modernes

The interdisciplinary seminar of the Biography Society is launching a Modern Biographers Popularity Survey as part of an investigation to determine which modern biographers are the most well-known, in the United Kingdom, in the United States of America, and in France. Would you please take a few minutes of your precious time to express your opinion? (follow the link above)

A synthesis of the results will be issued in due time.

Many thanks in advance,

The Biography Society
info@biographysociety.org

Le séminaire interdisciplinaire de la Société de Biographie vous invite à participer à une Enquête sur la popularité des biographes modernes, dans le cadre d’une étude pour déterminer quels biographes modernes sont les mieux connus, au Royaume-Uni, aux États-Unis, et en France. Voudriez-vous bien prendre quelques minutes de votre temps précieux pour exprimer votre opinion ? (suivre le lien ci-dessus)

Une synthèse des résultats sera diffusée en temps utile.

En vous remerciant par avance, 

La Société de Biographie
info@biographysociety.org

REVISIONIST BIOGRAPHY TODAY

by Nigel Hamilton

 Historians have been skeptical about téléchargementbiography since they invented it. By the same token biographers have been skeptical of historians.

Plutarch, in his life of Alexander the Great, felt impelled to remind readers he was writing “biography not history.” Histories, he pointed out, often told nothing of a “man’s character,” focusing rather on the facts of whether or not he won his battles. In his life of Timoleon, Plutarch rhapsodized on the joy he experienced in writing biography – treating history as a kind of mirror in which he could “adorn my own life by imitating the virtues of the men whose actions I have described. It is as though I could talk with the subjects of my Lives and enjoy their company every day.” Samuel Johnson later echoed that sentiment, but extended it to include both the “virtues and the vices” from which a thoughtful reader might learn.

For six years now, for my own part, I’ve been breaking bread with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not only am I glad to share his company in World War II, but I want others to, for the first time – since no historian has yet managed it. Moreover, in terms of lessons learned, I’m keen to show historians how for the most part they have wholly misunderstood FDR in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. Far from being the laid-back, avuncular leader who left his generals to direct the war – as well his ally Winston Churchill – FDR was, I argue, the strategic mastermind and the patient military director or conductor of the Allies’ victory in World War II. As I’m seeking to narrate, he was almost constantly having to overrule his generals. And most importantly of all, he was having almost constantly to put down the strategic insurrections or rebellions of his crucial but junior ally and self-declared “lieutenant,” Winston Spencer Churchill.

Some historians – especially those bought up on Churchill’s self-laudatory six-volume war memoirs, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature – are reluctant to accept my somewhat radical biographical reconstruction of the war, and of FDR’s commanding role in its military prosecution. At my doctoral defense last spring, at Groningen University, one professor – a distinguished historian – noted that he, personally, was convinced by the forensic detail and authority of my revisionist approach. He posited that the reason Churchill and his supporters in the history profession had gotten away for so long with such a flawed account of the prime minister’s primacy in the direction of World War II might best be explained by what he called “structural” reasons.

How right he was – and is!

One such wall that the revisionist biographer must scale is patriotic pride. Another is accepted dogma. A third is the personal stake people may have in a given interpretation. A fourth is the lack of evidence to counter myth.  And so on….

All revisionist work must encounter such “structural” defense, or counterreformation, as it might be called – in fact I’m sure it’s little different in other areas of knowledge. A new proposition in science, say, or paleontology, or biology, will rarely be welcomed without fierce opposition – especially where professional reputations are at stake. In history, too. But biography is, I think, on an especially contentious ground, structurally and culturally. Just as Plutarch extolled the pleasures of his subjects’ company, so too do aficionados and supporters of a revered individual – and who feel threatened by revisionism.

In reevaluating Franklin Roosevelt as the true architect and director of military operations in World War II, in other words, I am bound to upset those who are wedded to the notion that it was the U.S. generals, not the U.S. President, who were chiefly responsible for strategy and victory in World II, as well as the many who stand by Winston Churchill’s magisterial account of his own leadership in his 6-volume account, The Second World War – namely the vast, colorful canvas Churchill painted in which it was he, not FDR, who was the strategic military genius behind the winning of WWII. And the first line of the structuralists’ defense of such a hero will always be to attack the factual basis, or evidence being put forward, in the revisionist case.

There are two aspects of this that I would like briefly to examine today. The first relates to what Hans Renders, in his forthcoming collection of essays on modern biography, calls “the biographical turn.”[1]

               Now in the late 1980s and early 1990s it became fashionable to decry the trend among modern biographers to write long, and in great forensic detail. As Lord Skidelsky put it, the “professionalization” of biography, especially among American university-led biographers, was leading to “works of scholarship rather than the imagination.” Janet Malcolm took up this claim in order to defend Ted Hughes, the husband of Sylvia Plath, in her 1994 investigation of biographers seeking to understand Plath, memorably accusing them of using “the apparatus of scholarship” to give “an appearance of bank-like scholarship and solidity, when the biography was nothing but a burglar, a busybody, a voyeur “simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.” Even thirty years later, long after Hughes had died, Ms. Malcolm was trumpeting his postmortal right to silence, by pointing to the errors in Professor Jonathan Bate’s new biography, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life.

               In seeking to understand the “professionalization” of biography in recent years I’ve argued in my essay “Biography as Corrective” in the Biographical Turn, that far from being an effort to conceal the nefarious motives of burglars and voyeurs, the length and forensic detail a modern biographer feels he or she has to exhibit are professionally necessary to overcome the structuralist walls put up by opponents – the very likes of Ms. Malcolm! Lytton Strachey may have been successful in mocking the myths of his Victorian models in Eminent Victorians, but his amusing, succinct irony, without forensic new research, was ultimately found to be insufficient in a new century of scientific investigation to change people’s minds. Biographers have thus been forced to resort to ever higher levels of scholarship if they are to succeed in correcting historians’ structuralist defense mechanisms.

It was for this reason that, for the second volume of my “FDR at War” trilogy, I was grateful to the Biografie Instituut at Groningen University for offering me the chance to develop and present my manuscript in part for the university’s Ph.D. program, in order to ensure that, with their help, it would pass scholarly muster once the book met the inevitable structuralist defenders of the faith: those reviewers, readers and aficionados who cannot accept that the U.S. generals in World War II were dangerously wrong in 1942 and 1943, or who cannot accept that Winston Churchill was not the strategic genius of World War II that he claimed to be, after president Roosevelt was no longer alive to contest their versions.

The second aspect I would like to consider here is the possible analogy between modern biography and our justice system.

In order to better understand how the serious, revisionist biographer operates today it may be helpful for us to see him or her as a prosecuting attorney. The biographer, in this analogy, assembles a case to present to the jury – i.e. the reader and reviewer. He or she will have to be a master of rhetoric, and of detail. For the structuralist defense will do everything possible to question and discount the evidence the biographer produces – since otherwise, the defense’s client may go to jail!

               Revisionist biography, in other words – especially biography that seeks to correct history – is not only an exercise in good, Ciceronian argument, it must take account of the likely methods that the defenders, or opponents, in the case will employ. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was the “dream team’s” famous mantra in the famous O.J. Simpson trial (referring to a blood-stained glove) – and it proved enough, together with efforts to question the factual evidence (DNA included) of the prosecuting attorney, Marcia Clark, to free the famous black footballer and broadcaster (though he was later convicted in civil court).

In another post I will look at the interesting way Commander in Chief, the second volume of my FDR trilogy, has fared before the jury since my PhD defense and publication.

For now, however, let me end by saying this. Revisionist biography – biography that has a moral agenda in contesting received opinion, and seeks to revise the current judgment of an individual in history, whether in the academy or in public – is a serious mission. Like the quality of our justice system as it is practiced, it has serious ramifications for the health of our society.

As proponents of the theory, justification and practice of biography in the modern world, members of the growing Biography Society have a noble purpose. In an age of Twitter, “professionalizing” biography is not a mask for burglary or voyeurism, pace Ms. Malcolm; it is a crucial, integral part of facing the many challenges – and ensuring the longevity – of the genre, today.

 An award-winning historical biographer, Dr Nigel Hamilton is currently a senior fellow at McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston.
He is the author of:

[1] Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, The Biographical Turn [Routledge, forthcoming]