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Research Biografie Instituut

7th Biennial International Auto/Biography Association Conference

IABA Conference 2010
IABA Conference 2010

On behalf of the Institute of Biography of the University of Groningen Binne de Haan, Vera Hoorens and Hans Renders will present a panel on biography and life writing at the 7th Biennial International Auto/Biography Association (IABA) Conference at the University of Sussex.

This conference will be held from 28 June until 1 July 2010 and its theme is ‘Life Writing and Intimate Publics’. The panel will explore the troubled relationship between biography and life writing. Renders and De Haan will discuss disciplinary and theoretical aspects of this relationship, after which Vera Hoorens will illustrate the distinctive value of biographical research by demonstrating a case study. More information about the conference can be found on the website of the University of Sussex.


Hans Renders, ‘The Critical Frontier in Life Writing. Where Life Writing Shifts into Biography’

Historians show an increasing interest in the lives of marginal, oppressed and unknown members of past societies. This evolution is reflected in the emergence, around 1980, of the modern critical biography as a form of historiography as well as in the development of new research methods such as micro history. Similarly, the domain of life writing shows a dramatic increase in attention for lives in the margins of society. At the same time, life writing increasingly focuses on autobiographical sources, ego-documents and testimonials as the main sources of interest. Giving a voice to minorities in society, these sources are supposed to represent these groups. Subjects and readers of research become involved in the construction of what critical researcher Lauren Berlant calls an ‘intimate public’. Consequently, and echoing developments in other types of cultural studies, life writing has developed towards a type of research in which solidarity with specific societal groups plays a central role.

One consequence of the developments described above is that traditional biography has lost ground in the academic field of life writing. Although life writing as a research field is problematic to define, however, biography differs substantially from it. Biographers tend to take a detached stance, maintaining their autonomy towards both their subjects and their readers. In the ideal case, their products are not motivated by any ideological involvement. Just like journalists, professional biographers choose the point of view of the outsider. Although the sources of biography include autobiographical texts and ego-documents as sources, they therefore use these sources in a fundamentally different manner than life writing and autobiography do.

Binne de Haan, ‘In The Academical Shade of Life Writing. How Criticism and Biography Fell Apart’

In the first issue of the journal Biography. An interdisciplinary quarterly, published in 1978, the well-known biographer and critic of biography Leon Edel wrote ‘Biography: A Manifesto’. Given the title of the journal, it is not surprising that the remaining articles of the first volume mainly dealt with biographers and biographies. Already in the first issue, however, Donald Winslow also published his ‘Glossary of Terms in Life Writing’. The article provided for an excellent contextual understanding of biography as a research field. At the same time, its title was a harbinger for the next decades in which the focus of Biography shifted from biography to life writing. Biography, classically defined as a history of the life of an individual written by someone else, and biographers almost disappeared from it.

Of course, developments in the domain of biography as a whole over the last decades cannot be reduced to developments in the journal Biography. Stated differently, developments in the journal cannot be taken as the sole or even as the most important indicators of developments in the field. Yet it is undeniable that all forms of life writing other than biography, including autobiography, memoirs, oral history, gender and post-colonial studies, and more recently digital forms of life writing, have received much more academic attention than biography has. In a review published in 1998, Ira Bruce Nadel, a prominent researcher on biography, tellingly stated about the authors of an edited volume on biography that ‘[the] idea of invention and understanding, rather than fact and objectivity, appears inimical to these contributors’.

The question therefore arises why, in the last thirty years, social sciences dealt so sparsely with biography. This paper demonstrates that two factors have slowed down critical reflection on biography. First, biographers and biography researchers apprehend of methodical criticism. Second, historical sciences underestimate biography as a potentially pioneering historical method. Nevertheless, the last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed promising new directions both in the production and in the study of biography.

Vera Hoorens, ‘Conflicting Representations of Jan Wier (1515-1588)’

In this workshop, biographer Vera Hoorens will show how her research into the life of the Dutch physician Jan Wier (1515-1588) clarifies conflicting representations of his life achievements and his impact on societal criticism.

Wier is known as an early opponent of the witch persecution, a founding father of modern psychiatry, and a champion of human rights avant la lettre. Not surprisingly, his numerous admirers included thinkers as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Critics of Wier believe that he enhanced the witch prosecution, advocated a harsh treatment of certain types of criminals, and wrongly counts as a figure-head of psychiatry or even influenced the discipline in an undesirable direction. In the second half of the twentieth century, anti psychiatrist Thomas Szasz described Wier as the founder of a health care system that confined and silenced troublesome individuals.

Hoorens will show how she applied insights from experimental and social psychology both to identify Wier’s basic motives and to understand how the contradictory views on his legacy came about. She will demonstrate how her approach surprisingly brought to light that Wier’s aim was neither to protest against the witch prosecution, nor to describe witches as mentally ill or to advocate a human treatment of suspects, but to criticize the Catholic church and to advance his personal career. She will further demonstrate how a failure to apply basic psychological principles has contributed to problematic and conflicting representations of Wier’s life and legacy.

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