Biography and Life Story
Faculty Convener: Carla Kaplan
Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature, Department of English
Founding Director, Northeastern Humanities Center
From “This American Life” to the “Diagnosis” column in The New York Times to the Biography Channel, to the myriad uses of “case studies” in advertising and politics, to the sales figures for print biography (now accounting for as much as ¾ of all nonfiction book sales by some accounts), it is clear that all forms of “life story” are experiencing an unprecedented cultural interest. At the same time, the standard human biography or life story keeps expanding: group biographies, graphic life stories, and the wildly popular recent biographies of racehorses, of salt, of cod fish, of oysters, for examples. What do we make of all this? What can we — as a group of writers and scholars who (variously) use life story — learn from one another’s methods, goals, disciplinary backgrounds, audiences, medias, and different ways of asking questions about the shapes and meanings of human lives? “Biography” is meant here in the widest possible sense and we hope to include a range of people who use “life stories” – case studies, interviews, ethnographic work, and so on.
Incompatible notions of identity permeate the modern political arena, the world of commerce and information exchange, social organizations of all shapes and sizes, and the private sphere. Debates over identity flow between the singular and plural — me and we. They also impact our discussion of they — the other. Perceptions of identity impact our notions of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religious identification and sexual orientation. This working group explored these issues and concerns from a host of disciplinary and methodological perspectives.
Members of the Sexualities group worked together to suggest and present readings addressing contemporary public constructions, contestations, and practices of sexuality, particularly forms of queer sexuality, broadly defined. Areas of focus within this context were determined by group members’ interest and included: Representation of sexualities in various media forms and outlets; within legal and legislative discourses and practices; within health sciences and medicine; in business and economic contexts.
From community-based theatre and art installations to documentary film and music, the performance arts have been engaged in finding words and representations for social conditions (economic, political, environmental ) that they seek to change. This group considered the nature, scope, and effectiveness of the performance arts (that is, artistic expression that involves direct audience engagement) in their various roles of (1) bringing issues into the public forum, (2) fostering dialogue about how change becomes possible, (3) advancing a utopian vision, (4) retrieving and/or shaping cultural memory, and in some cases (5) actively intervening in problem-solving. The group considered works from respective fields (for example, but not limited to: solo performance artists Nilanja Sun and Anna Deavere Smith, composer John Adams, plays by August Wilson, documentaries by Barbara Kopple and the Yes Men, films by Lisa Cholodenko and Marlon Riggs, poetry slams), and they also invited guests from Boston area initiatives who worked with young people (Boston spoken word, Thinking Different) as well as Boston-area art practitioners such as Michael Sheridan (installation art), Laura Kepley (theatre), and John Gianvito (film) whose work has a social emphasis.