chapter  7
20 Pages

Political Self-representation in postcolonial life-writing

Attempts to constitute autobiography as a literary mode in the first two phases of Auto/biography Studies were governed by the predominant systems of aesthetic criticism, from genre theory itself to New Criticism. In contrast to a nascent Marxist literary criticism, these generally divorced literature ‘proper’ from politics, which was deemed to threaten the instrumentalisation of a supposedly autonomous and sacrosanct aesthetic sphere. For Auto/biography Studies, the effects of these emphases were profound. As was seen in Chapter 5, Misch hierarchised autobiographical forms according to their inverse proportion ‘worldly’ preoccupations.1 Despite claiming that autobiography expresses a concern which has been of good use in colonialism, Gusdorf also draws a distinction between canonical ‘masterpieces’ and the memoirs of ‘heads of government or generals, ministers of state’, largely on the basis that the latter aim simply to provide ‘posthumous propaganda for posterity’.2 As seen in the previous chapter, for Spengemann, writing at the beginning of the third phase of Auto/biography Studies, ‘poetic self-expression’ represents the supreme development of the genre after successive stages of historical self-exploration and philosophical self-scrutiny.3

Such criteria shed further light on the exclusion of women’s life-writing from the canon and its marginalisation within traditional Auto/biography Studies. As Sauling Wong suggests, the traditional privileging of the private/personal over the public/political domains is inimical to the sub-genre’s preoccupation with a variety of woman-centred engagements of instrumental kinds.4