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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - No man is a hero to his valet. The itinerary of a metabiographical motif

6th March 2013, 17:30, The Birley Room, Hatfield College, Dr Caitríona Ni Dhúill

Biography – ‘the story of a person told by someone else’ (Hermione Lee) – continues to exert an enduring fascination on readers and to occupy a central place in the construction and imagination of the past. Yet its legitimacy as a mode of enquiry and representation has often been called into question. Responding to a long tradition of antibiographical skepticism, which this lecture will sketch by way of an introduction, metabiography – as elaborated by Nicolaas Rupke and others – reads biography not as a source of knowledge about past lives, but as a process of contestation, projection and creative investment, through which lives are turned into stories, questions of narratability tested, and the meanings of life-traces thrown open – or closed down.

The lecture sets out the tasks of metabiography as an emerging field of study which seeks to break the grip of the individual subject on one of its last bastions, biography. In order to show how metabiography reconfigures the biographical as a realm of intersubjective practice and epistemological uncertainty, the lecture follows the venerable figure of the anti-heroic valet through a series of reflections from Montaigne and Johnson through Hegel and Carlyle to Žižek. The shifting meanings of the figure – as bearer of disillusioned truth, privileged informant, harbourer of ressentiment, or harbinger of radical democracy – allow us to gauge the ideological temperature of biography at various historical moments, and return us to contemporary biographical practice with a renewed sense of the complexity of its investments.

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