Hybridity in Life Writing: How Text and Images Work Together to Tell a Life

deadline for submissions: 
November 30, 2021
full name / name of organization: 
Arnaud Schmitt (Université de Paris & Bordeaux University)

Call for PapersInternational and Interdisciplinary Conference 

Hybridity in Life Writing: How Text and Images Work Together to Tell a Life

Organizers: Clare Brant (King’s College London), Arnaud Schmitt (Bordeaux University & LARCA, Université de Paris) 

Venue: Université de Paris, Paris, 7–8 July, 2022 

Keynote Speaker: Pr. Teresa Bruś (Wrocław University)

 

  • Please submit an abstract of approx. 250 words and a short bionote to 

clare.brant@kcl.ac.uk and arnaud.schmitt@u-bordeaux.fr by 30 November, 2021 at the latest. 

 

It might seem that, to some extent, almost all visual content in autobiographical texts is visual aid. But what is it in aid of? Of the text, somehow. Victor Burgin notes that “we rarely see a photograph in use which does not have a caption or a title, it is more usual to encounter photographs attached to long texts, or with copy superimposed over them. Even a photograph which has no actual writing on or around it is traversed by language when it is ‘read’ by a viewer.” As powerful as images can be, and they frequently outshine the text that precedes or follows them, their narrative potential is nevertheless tethered to the text that introduces them or comments them a posteriori. In other words, the text has the first or last word, it frames the picture and, in a way, ‘tames’ its impact: a picture is at the text’s service. And yet, it can also be argued that images contradict texts in the same Derridean way as texts and more particularly words contradict each other, or at least unsettle themselves. In Picture Theory, W. J. T. Mitchell states that he wants “to concentrate, however, on the kinds of photographic essays which contain strong textual elements, where the text is most definitely an ‘invasive’ and even domineering element.” Thus, even if and when they are supposed to work together, words and images in a memoir establish a balance of power, one that requires investigation as the autobiographical narrative of a hybrid memoir depends on this very balance.

From a historical point of view, this balance of power may also result from the evolution of each medium’s status, as an art form or cultural artefact. For instance, it can be argued that the first memoir written by a photographer is Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature. Teresa Bruś claims that “The Pencil of Nature, presented to the public in 1844, is the first autobiographical book of a photographer. […] aligning the ‘art’ of photography with a rhetorical, if not a literary, project.” But in Photography and Literature, François Brunet points out that, contrary to what might have been expected, Talbot’s effort had little effect on the publishing world, and this “estrangement of photography from literature,” with the odd exception, lasted until the end of the 19th century. According to him, nothing much happened before the beginning of the 20th century and “the growing recognition of photography as a distinct art form.” It makes sense that photography’s relation with literature very much depended on its evolving status.

On a more positive note, hybridity may also be seen to operate beyond this semantic and cultural balance of power and to aim at an additional meaning created thanks to intermediality at a level where, despite their intrinsic cognitive features and differences, text and images are able to produce content that they would not have been able to produce had they been kept separate. In a way, it hinges on how a book balances text and images, how it ‘monitors’ intermediality. But Gilles Mora writes that “photography has rarely generated autobiographical works able to exist without the support of language” (“la photographie a rarement produit des œuvres autobiographiques qui puissent se passer de l’appui du langage”). Maybe because one of the main (if not the only) functions of photographs in life writing is to authenticate. Roland Barthes is mostly responsible for the widespread belief that photography is better at accessing the past than words, principally through two assertions he made in Camera Lucida: “it [photography] does not invent; it is authentication incarnate. […] Every photograph certifies a presence” (“elle [la photographie] n’invente rien ; elle est l’authentification même. […] Toute photographie est un certificat de presence”) and “It seems that Photography always carries its referent with it […]” (“On dirait que la Photographie emporte toujours son référent avec elle […]”). The role of non-photographic images in hybrid memoirs or autobiographical works is thus more complex as paintings for instance do not have this ability to authenticate and similarly to words do not “carry their referent with them.” However, in a post-PhotoShop age, the way photographs have the ability to tamper with or even falsify “their referent” can be seen as highly problematic in an autobiographical context. 

The same can be said about graphic memoirs, a booming field, as drawings are also very low on the ‘authentication scale’. Nevertheless, Narratologist Robyn Warhol made the following remark regarding them: “The juxtaposition of cartooning with verbal memoir offers methods of representing subjectivity that are unprecedented in traditional autobiography. Indeed, as Versaci asserts ‘while many prose memoirists address the complex nature of identity and the self, comic book memoirists are able to represent such complexity in ways that cannot be captured in words alone’.” But is this “subjectivity” represented separately or jointly? And in the latter case, how? Also not as authenticating as photographs, paintings remain nevertheless a potential narrative resource for any autobiographer. In The Privileged Eye, Max Kozloff reminds us that “a main distinction between a painting and a photograph is that the painting alludes to its content, whereas the photograph summons it, from wherever and whenever, to us.” It might only be “alluding to a content,” but a painting in a memoir simply is another form of hybridity and a way for an author to diversify the work’s content. Stanley Cavell wrote that we might say that “a painting is a world” and that “a photograph is of the world” but a painting in many ways continue to allude to the world, and more precisely to the autobiographer’s world. 

Finally, beyond the intermedial question, there is the issue of autobiography, and more specifically autobiography at the beginning of the 21st century, a different type from previous centuries, one more informed of the limits of referential writing and more than ever aware of its importance; one also that has often outgrown its usual vessel—even though the latter remains its most prestigious one in terms of official recognition­—and has branched out into social and often more visual media (just one example among so many: the renowned American photographer Stephen Shore’s Instagram account on which he posts one picture everyday). Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have identified and explored “the visual-verbal-virtual contexts of life narrative” which have multiplied through for example performance and visual arts, autobiographical films and videos, and variously curated online lives.

Véronique Montémont rightfully points out that Philippe Lejeune, one of the most prominent life writing theorists, “does not mention photography because for him autobiography involves enunciation, a narrator in other terms.” And yet photography has entered the field of autobiography in a multitude of ways. In Picturing Ourselves: Photography & Autobiography, Linda Haverty Rugg sums up her study’s main objectives thus: “This book explores the intersection of these two debates—the point at which photographs enter the autobiographical act. What (or how) do photographs mean in the context of an autobiography?” The aim of this symposium is to explore the point at which an image, any image, whether fixed or moving (in vlogs for instance), enters the autobiographical act and confronts the verbal form. 

Keynote Speaker: Pr. Teresa Bruś (Wrocław University), author of the forthcoming Face Forms in Photography and Life Writing of the 1920s and 1930s