Missing in Action: The Strange Case of Imperial Autobiography
Philip Holden
National University of Singapore
In their recent Reading Autobiography, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson provide a
succinct and persuasive historiography of autobiography criticism over the past halfcentury.
Early approaches to the subject, Smith and Watson argue, emphasized the
transparency and representativeness of individual autobiographical texts, and aimed to
construct a canon of life-writing. A second wave of critics and theorists, exemplified by
Karl Weintraub and Georges Gusdorf, were more conscious that autobiography was a
matter of construction of self through narrative, rather than a simple transcription of the
past; such criticism, nonetheless, was informed by “an ideology of . . . autonomous
selfhood” which in turn influenced “the texts privileged and the practices of self-creation
[it] valued” (128). Now a third wave of autobiography criticism challenges “the concept
of a unified, sovereign subject” which founds “Western” narratives of progress and
reason. If the “unitary self of liberal humanism” still has power in a new millennium,
Smith and Watson suggest, it is increasingly being challenged by non-Western narratives
which resist, which emphasize different kinds of subjectivity—performative, communitybased,
or flexible selves (135). This new wave of autobiography criticism, then, drawing
upon the apparatus of contemporary literary theory--in particular poststructuralist,
postcolonial, and feminist readings--is very much in line with a concomitant expansion in
practices of life-writing.
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