autobiography 2022 : Autobiography: a matter of geometry?
Call For Papers
This call for papers aims to invite proposals that examine the relationship between a subject who narrates him/herself and the spatial dimension. This is not about seeing oneself in space, or casting a glance on space, but presenting oneself through a mental space. The subject can choose an omniscient or a partial vision, can interpose obstacles by asking questions on his/her identity, can find a way of observing him/herself from the outside.
This call for papers intends to consider not fictional works but rather autobiographical ones. Under the register of fiction, the category of space has in fact many points of reference that can be inscribed into defined pathways: think of the themes of wandering, nomadic thought, utopia (u-topos: non-place), Foucault’s discourse on heterotopia, Kafka’s vision, and much more. The autobiographical pact, which remains a fixed point, obliges one to take existential responsibility as a single focal point. (Ph. Lejeune, 1975).
In archaic Latin, the word existence means exsistere, ex + sistere. According to the Enciclopedia Treccani, in the language of philosophy, it is the state of every reality as it is, or, specifically, the state of a reality that can be the object of a sensory experience. In our case, this means that the subject that recounts his/her own existence chooses a place in which to situate, envision, project, pro-ject him/herself.
For those who engage in their own autobiography, the complexity lies in being able to avail of an external eye. In Life of Hernri Brulard, Stendhal writes: “… what eye can see itself?”
At the beginning of the 20th century, the expression biography of self underscores the distancing taken by the writer from him/herself. Dostoevsky talks about self-accounting regarding his novel The Double (1846).
In the past fifty years, many video artists have focused their research on the use of video as an external eye. They have intended to contrast the vision that, beginning from the Renaissance, had wanted to objectivise space; according to Christine Van Assche, the point of view of the spectator [N.B.: stimulated by some work of video art] is no longer the single and unperturbed point of view of the observer of Brunelleschi’s ‘tablet’; it is already perturbed, unstable, moving, but inevitably, physically, psychologically, and intellectually active. Van Assche refers to Rosalind Krauss’ essay The Aesthetics of Narcissism (1976). On this matter, see also issue n. 48 (1988) of Communication. The theme of defining the subject’s mental space is at the heart of a significant part of contemporary art and particularly video art.
The longitude and latitude of the self
‘Super-ego, subconscious, to emerge, to remove’ are words that highlight the subject’s vertical position in space. Psychoanalysis has given prominence to this geometry of the psyche. Freud compares memory to the stratification of Roman excavations, an archaeology of memory (Civilization and Its Discontents ).
The subject’s relationship to space is one of the dominant themes, the very focal point, of existentialism, which, beginning with Kierkegaard, crosses our contemporaneity.
In the chapter “The subjective truth, inwardness; truth is subjectivity” in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs (2009 ), Kierkegaard places inwardness at the centre, which is a choice, a path, a posture, a centripetal movement. Even supposing an objective reality, to give a meaning to our cosmos, to our cosmoi, everything then returns to subjectivity: “for as Hamlet says, existence and non-existence have only subjective significance.” (2009 , p. 163). The I = I (which comes from Fichte), is a constant in Kierkegaard’s thinking, which connects the subject’s identity to a permanent inward movement.
The Swiss psychiatrist Binswanger (1881-1966), defines Kierkegaard’s conception as ‘passion of inwardness’, meaning that one can assume oneself only beginning from within oneself. As already said, Kierkegaard insists upon the term ‘existence’ by underscoring how the self and only the self is in its isolation, in its being acontextual, it can determine itself by leaving external interferences at the margins.
Little by little, Binswanger, a staunch follower of Kirkegaard, will come to Heidegger. Observing patients’ language and behaviour, he examines the “basic forms and perception of human Dasein” (1942), noting the importance of space in the vision that patients have of themselves. Binswanger observes that, in order to describe themselves, patients closely connect bodily sensitivity and affectivity to space. Thus Binswanger orients himself towards a method that he calls Daseinsanalysis, a term that clearly refers to Heiddeger’s Dasein.
Heidegger writes: “Space is not in the subject, nor is the world in space. Space is rather ‘in’ the world in so far as space has been disclosed by that Being-in-the-world which is constitutive of Dasein. Space is not to be found in the subject, nor does the subject observe the world ‘as if’ that world were in a space; but the ‘subject’ (Dasein), if well understood ontologically, is spatial.” (Being and Time, 1972 , p.145, Paragraph 24, “Space and Dasein’s Spatiality”). This way of thinking about space will represent a change compared to all previous philosophy, and it will be only the beginning of a series of reflections on the subject-space relationship.
Sartre, Merleu-Ponty, Camus will undertake to develop aspects that go beyond Heidegger’s ontological discourse.
The space of the subject in language
In childhood and in pathological psychic states, it is through awareness of space that one manifests oneself. In The Psychology of Intelligence, Jean Piaget explains that space is a primary category of consciousness in children’s thinking (1967).
“To bring back to earth” or “to be over the moon” are expressions of our Dasein, our existence. And even though myths and poetry allow us – through a universalizing metaphorical language – sensations, feelings, psychic experiences, the self nonetheless remains the original subject of what climbs or falls. (L. Binswanger 2012, p. 42). Binswanger, who starts from Heidegger, moves away from the latter’s ontological conception, which is his own, to immerse it in concrete cases. A whole vocabulary situates in space the acts of the patient’s dasein: vertiginous height, climbing, aerial altitude, the infinite, etc. (L. Binswanger 1971, pp. 237-245).
Some linguistic expressions reveal how the self situates itself in the space that it constantly places in relation to his/her own persona.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003 ), in Metaphors We Live By (see paragraph “The ME-FIRST Orientation”], show how our way of recounting is modelled on a way of thinking in which the concept of up wins over that of down, front always precedes back, and here precedes there (Ibid., pp. 132-133). A whole cultural conception governs these forms of expression, in which the individual regards him/herself as at the epicentre in relation to the surrounding world that he/she modulates.
The order of words was studied by William E. Cooper and John Robert Ross, 1975, World Order.
The subject’s framing of the world
Man frames the world and frames himself in the world.
A metalanguage interprets the subject’s framing of the world, as Lotman writes. In particular, he talks about this in two essays on, respectively, the problem of artistic space in Gogol’s prose and the semiotics of cultural space, 1975 . The writing on Gogol constitutes an important methodological reference.
The extremization of a longitudinal contextualization of existence is described by Borges in a paradoxical manner: “So complex is reality, and so fragmentary and simplified is history, that an omniscient observer could write an indefinite, almost infinite, number of biographies of a man, each emphasizing different facts; we would have to read many of them before we realized that the protagonist was the same”. (1974 . Borges highlights how, by longitudinally crossing a life, each time choosing only one aspect and ignoring the others, we would find ourself before many parallel lives of a single person.
This reflection could be transposed as it is to autobiographical writing. Borges shows how fragile a linear description of existence is.
In Lines–A brief history (2007), Tim Ingold calls ‘ghostly lines’ those that derive from abstractions and constitute points of reference in various cultures, especially the Western one. These lines have neither consistency nor colour (as a furrow in agriculture could be, for example). It is especially beginning from Euclid that the idea of the straight line dominates visual perception, from which geometric perspective will derive, which insists on presenting reality in a unidirectional manner. (2007, p. 159).
Tim Ingold says that when we look at a starry sky, for example, we define the constellations of the stars by connecting them through abstract lines until we imagine structured figures. (Ibid., p. 49). This is completely normal in our Western vision.
Moreover, the conviction that history is evolutionary has generated genealogical trees in which past generations, instead of being brought back to the roots, are placed on the branches. Instead of a lineage as it was in the representation of ancestors in ancient Rome, our Western civilization has created an upward progression, towards the future. (Ibid., pp. 104-109).
Lotman observes how, in the military field, front line is a watchword, an anticipatory geometry. And yet, those who experience war realize the difficulties in finding this vision, this geometry, in concrete experience.
In the short autobiography Non-Memoirs (2001 ) on the war years spent on different Soviet fronts, Lotman writes that it is difficult to write about war because only those who have never been to war know what it is. He argues that is like describing a huge space with no precise boundaries and no internal unity, pointing out that there is one war in winter and another in spring; one during retreat and another during defence and offence; one in the day and one at night; one in the infantry, another in the artillery, and a third one in the aviation; one for the soldier and another for the journalist arriving at the front. (Ibid., p. 50-51).
In other words, the meaning that the individual and the community attribute to space is the result of processes of mutual semantization.
Marginalia and opacity
Authors and writers can choose particular habitats to avoid situating themselves and being seen in spaces that are, so to speak, conventional.
We consider only two examples: Edgar Allan Poe’s Marginalia and Rousseau’s Confessions as seen by Starobinski in his book La transparence et l’obstacle.
At the beginning of Marginalia (1844), Edgar Allan Poe writes: “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” And further on: “In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly – boldly – originally – with abandonment – without conceit”. [Bold is ours].
To put events into perspective also means to omit, to put aside spaces and aspects of one’s own life. Just as Starobinski highlights regarding Rousseau’s Confessions. It is possible to play with transparency (to see everything) and the obstacle. Starobinski calls this strategy Poppaea’s veil.
Tacitus writes about Poppaea: “Her conversation was charming and her wit anything but dull. She professed virtue, while she practised laxity. Seldom did she appear in public, and it was always with her face partly veiled, either to disappoint men’s gaze or to set off her beauty.” Annals XIII, 45. Poppaea did not want to conceal herself, she wanted to be glimpsed.
A painting by an unknown artist from the School of Fontainebleau (1550-1560), in the MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Geneva, 1839, shows Sabina Poppaea wrapped in gauze, in a falsely modest pose.
Starobinski wrote a long introduction to L’oeil vivant (1961), “Le voile de Poppée”, in which he argues that it is possible to intentionally interpose obstacles to the space of communication with the other, pointing out that that which is hidden is the other face of a presence. He asserts that Poppaea’s veil, which is both an obstacle and an interposed sign, generates an alienated perfection that, through her own escape, demands to be retrieved through our desire. By virtue of the interdiction posed by the obstacle, he continues, there appears a whole depth that passes as essential. He goes on to argue that fascination emanates from a real presence that forces us to prefer what she dissimulates, the remoteness that she prevents us from understanding, at the very moment in which she offers herself. (Ibid., p. 10).
Starobinski’s subtle analysis takes into account our mental spaces, how they are constructed.
Another important aspect concerns the influence on the construction of mental space due to circumstances less strictly subjective, so to speak: Foucault’s analysis of heterotopia (see Conference, 14 May 1967, Paris); the writings of Deleuze and Guattari on the concept of deterritorialization (1975) – ideas that allows us to understand the incidence of culture on the way of individually conceiving space.
In conclusion: if for Kierkegaard, come what may, introspection will never be a matter of geography, yet we know that conceiving oneself in space is certainly different for an American Indian, or an Eskimo, or a New Yorker. As Henri Lefèvre’s studies indicate, mental space does not correspond to either knowledge in space, or on space; that is, mental space is not external to the subject (1968). And yet, this individuality of mental space, as Lefèvre illustrates, is the long-term result of our interaction with the world and exposure to the universe, to the semiosphere, in which we find ourself living.
Beatrice Barbalato, 2018, “Le ‘FRONT’ sémantique de Non-memorie de Lotman”, 61-77. in (ed.) Cathérine Gravet, and al., with Serge Deruette, Pierre Gillis, Katherine Rondou, Cahiers Internationaux de Symbolisme, n. 149-150-151.
Raymond Bellour, Anne Marie Duguet, (dir.), 1988, Vidéo, Communication n. 48.
Ludwig Binswanger, 1942, Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschliche
Daseins, Zurich, Niehans.
- Introduction à l’analyse existentielle, 1971, translated from the German by J. Verdeaux and Roland Kuhn, preface by R. Kuhn and Henri Maldiney.
- Rêve et existence, 2012 , translation and introduction by Françoise Dastur, afterword by E. Basso, Paris, Vrin.
Caterina Borelli, 2018, «The House He Built : autobiografia in una casa», in B. Barbalato (dir.), Auto/biographie, polyphonie, plurivocalité, Mnemosyne n. 11, PuL, Presses universitaires de Louvain.
Jorge Luis Borges, “On William Beckford’s Vathek” 
William Cooper and John Robert Ross, 1975, “World order”, pp. 63–111, R. E. Grossman and al. (eds.), Papers from the parasession on functionalism, Chicago, Chicago Linguistic Society.
Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari 1975, Capitalisme et schizophrénie-L’Anti Oedipe, v. I, Parigi, Éditions du Minuit.
Michel Foucault 2004 , Des espaces autres, 12-19, Érès “Empan” 2004/2,
Sigmund Freud, first published in 1930, Civilization and Its Discontents, translation by James Strachey,
Martin Heidegger, 1972 , Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Tim Ingold 2007, Lines - A brief history, London-New York, Routledge.
Søren Kierkegaard, 2009 , “The subjective truth, inwardness; truth is subjectivity,” p. 163, in Conclusive Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Crumbs, edited and translated by Alistair Hannay, Cambridge University Press.
Rosalind Krauss 1976, The Aesthetics of Narcissism, Cambridge.
Georges Lakoff, Mark Johnson, 2003 , Metaphors We Live By, Chicago-London, The University of Chicago Press.
Henri Lefèvre, 1974, La production de l’espace, Paris, Anthropos.
Philippe Lejeune, Le pacte autobiographique, Paris, Seuil, 1975.
Yuri M. Lotman, 1975 , “Semiotica dello spazio culturale”, 143-248, “Il problema dello spazio artistico in Gogol”, 193-248, translated by Sergio Molinari, in J. M. Lotman and Boris A. Uspenskij, Tipologia della cultura, edited by Remo Faccani and Marzio Marzaduri, translated from the Russian into Italian by Manila Barbato Faccani, Remo Faccani, Marzio Marzaduri, Sergio Molinari, Milano, Bompiani.
Yuri M. Lotman, 2001 , Non-Memorie, Silvia Burini and Alessandro Niero (edited and translated), introduction by Maria Corti, Novara, Interlinea. Original Russian text “Ne-memuary”, 1994, in Lotmanovskij sbornik, I-C-Garant, Moscow.
Jean Piaget, “L’élaboration de la pensée”, pp. 129-165, in Ibid., La psychologie de l’intelligence, Paris, Colin, 1967.
Edgar Allan Poe, «Marginalia part I», 1844-1849, United States Magazine and Democratic Review, November 1844. http://pinkmonkey.com/dl/library1/marg.pdf
Tacitus, Annals, from Tacitus, Complete Works of Tacitus, Alfred John Church, William Jackson Brodribb, Sara Bryant, edited for Perseus, New York. Random House, Inc., reprinted 1942.
Christine Van Assche 1992, Une histoire de vidéo, introduction to the catalogue of Musée d’Art moderne du Centre Pompidou, Vidéo et après, Paris, Éditions Carré.
Beatrice BARBALATO, Mediapolis.Europa
May CHEHAB, Université de Chypre
Fabio CISMONDI, Euro Fusion
Antonio CASTILLO GÓMEZ, Univ. d’Alcalà de Henares
Françoise HIRAUX, Univ. cath. de Louvain
Giulia PELILLO-HESTERMEYER, Universität Heidelberg
Anna TYLUSIŃSKA-KOWALSKA, Uniwersytet Warszawski
Irene MELICIANI, managing director Mediapolis.Europa
Symposium – Rome
2, 3, 4 November 2022
Autobiography: a matter of geometry?
LANGUAGES ADMITTED FOR THE INTERVENTIONS: English, French, Italian, Spanish. Every speaker will speak in their chosen language; there will be no simultaneous translation. A rough passive understanding would be desirable.
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