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Biography

The basic discipline for human science*

Robert M. Young

This is the second in a series of studies I have undertaken on the nature of the genre of biography and its significance for the study of human nature and society. I am interested in its potential for personal and social change. The first study sketched some features of the genre and the light it sheds on the historicity and anthropocentricity of scientific knowledge, using Darwin as a case study (Young, 1987).

 

In this paper I shall try to persuade you at least to consider a role for biographical studies in university courses in what we hopefully and contradictorily call the human sciences. Following Russell Jacoby (1971, pp. 143-4), I would prefer to call them the sciences of second nature, but that is another paper.

 

Why then biography? As I see it, our work has to find its place between two very extreme interpretations of the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. At one extreme we can see matter as the limiting case of human purposiveness. At the other, we can treat human purpose as a specially complicated case of complex states of matter, and the only problem we are left with is that of electrochemical decoding. Lest these seem bizarre over-simplifications, I give you the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, aspects of that of C.L. Morgan, of S. Alexander and others who argue for organicism and emergentism, treating, as I say, matter as the limiting case of purposiveness (Collingwood, 1961; Rorty, 1983). This point of view is undergoing considerable revival in more or less mystical forms in the wake of the environmental, ecology, and women's movements (Merchant, 1982; Worster, 1985). Aspects of

 

*This is a revised version of a talk given at the founding conference of a new journal, History of the Human Sciences (Tavistock), at Durham University, September 1986.

it appear in the general culture in the work of Bergson, Sheldrake, Lovelock's Gaia and in more disreputable forms in the ideas of Capra and others. All these are manifestations of alienation from physicalist reductionism, and I really have little sympathy for the more mystical versions of this point of view except in so far as they are symptoms of what is wrong with the paradigm of explanation of that materialist reductionism. When they are put forward as cures rather than symptoms, they seem to me to hypostatize the problem and then call it a solution. That is, if we do not know how systems manage to be systematic, we postulate a special force, and if we do not know how wetness emerges from water, we postulate emergents or, in the grand scale, Gaia (Myers, 1985).

 

At the other extreme we find Frances Crick, most current American psychiatry, so-called behavioural genetics and the hard forms of sociobiology (Yoxen, 1981; Leeds and Dusek, 1981-2). Stephen Gould has recently dubbed this approach 'cardboard Darwinism - the central belief of pop sociobiology', which he says 'is a theory of pure functionalism that denies history and views organic structure as neutral before a moulding environment. It is a reductionist, one-way theory about the grafting of information from environment upon organism through natural selection of good designs.' He goes on to say,

 

We need a richer theory, a structural biology, that views evolution as an interaction of outside and inside, of environment and the structural rules for genetic and developmental architecture - rules set by the contingencies of history and physico-cheniical laws of the stuff itself. The downfall of pop sociobiology will be a small benefit of this richer theory; its chief joy will be the deep satisfaction of integration: environment and organism; function and structure; current operation and past history; the world outside passing through a boundary (whether the skin of an organism or the geography of a species) into organic vitality within. (New York Review of Books, 13 September 1986, p. 54)

 

I quote this (and it is the first of three rather thorny quotes in this paper) to show that enlightened biologists draw liniits to the reductionist programme and wish to introduce historicity into our conception of organisms, including human ones.

 

More familiar to most people here is the high tide of behaviourism - the reduction of what organisms do to elaboration of the hardest form of the criteria of scientific explanation which came in the wake of the scientific revolution, i.e., the doctrine of primary and secondary qualities, literally and triumphally extolled by Clark Hull in his search for quantitative laws describing what he called colourless, odourless, tasteless movements. Behaviourism in its operant form was less astringent but no less reductionist in its operationist goals of behavioural technology, although these were said to be independent of the metaphysical reductionism held out for by Hull and other purists (Bergmann, 1956; Mackenzie, 1972).

 

I came upon this debate when the operationists - making explicit obeisance to P.W. Bridgman's operationist representations of physics and, as some of you will know, E. G. Boring, the eponymous father of The History of Experimental Psychology, was an operationist in this tradition - as I say, I came upon this in a period when the operationists were beginning to lose their nerve and to allow in some more or less mysterious happenings in the black box which had a familiar smell of the banished metaphysical entities. I mean, of course, the wonderful debate of the late 1950s and early 1960s about 'hypothetical constructs' and 'intervening variables' (Marx, 1951). You will be glad to know that it is no part of my intention to ride us through that debate, even at a canter.

 

Rather I shall point out just two moments - moments which remind me of Major - deCoverley in Catch 22, - because everyone was so afraid of him that no one dared ask his Christian name. He wore an eye patch and glowered through his one eye so dauntingly that he brooked no opposition. It was he who at the height of The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, a crusade which had become so complex and demanding that one had to swear loyalty to the United States Constitution in all settings, even the mess hall, to get a tray, a knife, a fork, a spoon and so on ... It was Major - deCoverley who came upon this setting one day and simply said, 'Gimme eat'. Thus ended The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, Joseph Heller's metaphor for McCarthyism, and we even learned a human truth about the Major. He had lost that eye - thereby getting the patch which made him so fierce - when a grateful admirer threw a rose at him as he rode through a liberated town in Italy. I mean to suggest that behaviourism was a sort of McCarthyism of the human sciences whose hegemony was dissipated as soon as anyone was bold enough to say, 'Gimme mind'.

 

Hence the two moments which bring Major - deCoverley to mind for me are two books. The first is George Miller's Psychology: The Science of Mental Life (1962; UK 1964). The subtitle was a gauntlet, and the organization of the book had topical chapters interspersed with biographical ones on Wundt, James, Freud, Galton, Pavlov and Binet. It proved a very popular text, but its polemical invocation of mental life on the one hand and biography on the other was more effective than any of its particular claims. The second moment was the appearance of Charles Taylor's The Explanation of Behaviour (1964) in which he showed, in a way reminiscent of Wittgenstein's demonstration of the logical impossibility of a private language, that when we speak of animals solving problems we do so by inescapable analogy to human insight and intention, i.e. to human purposiveness.

 

Now once Miller and Taylor, along with Jerome Bruner and others, broke the ice on this topic (a phrase deliberately borrowed from p. 69 of Descartes's Discourse on Method, the fountainhead of modern reductionism [see pp. 65-76]), where does our departure from physicalist reductionism stop - at cognitive mapping, symbolic interactionism, personal construct theory, at the study of cognitive psychology, at Bruner on narrative in consciousness? I say that it stops at none of these places, but at biography. For example, in a recent review of cognitive psychology Jacques Vončche writes that cognitive psychology

 

de-emphasizes emotional, social, historical, cultural and background aspects in general ... it has fallen back on methodological and strategic considerations to justify its dismissal of contextual social factors. These considerations are the usual ones for rationalism: social, historical and political factors are secondary, emotional ones are obscure, methodological solipsism is just a moment in the history of cognitive science, and so on. (1987, pp. 139-40)

 

He accuses cognitive psychology of being concerned with 'a mere processing of information without reference to affective or social-historical context' and calls this 'very bureaucratic' (p. 141). He goes on to say:

 

One could draw many more parallels between bureaucracy and cognitive science. So many, I think, that even someone without special longing for psychoanalytic explanations [and I do have such longings] comes to think of cognitive science as a formidable defence mechanism (if not a machine) against emotions and passions perceived as dangerously obscure, chaotic and disruptive of the universal harmony. (p. 142)

 

It is, of course, the very factors ruled out by this approach which I wish to privilege. I am not merely advocating old-fashioned biography (although as a person most at home in Victorian letters I have a fondness for it) but historical biography complemented by, and preferably integrated with, psychobiography and the resolution of epochal forces through the biography of an individual in a setting of a society, a culture, a country, a mode of production and whatever else we find useful and relevant, for example, a discipline.

 

I am not alone in going for such a mundane solution. Look at Richard Rorty on the fate of scientism in the philosophy of science (the very funny concluding chapter in his recent collection of essays) and on metaphor in language, in psychoanalysis and elsewhere in our intellectual and personal lives (Rorty, 1982, 1986). He says somewhere that we live in story after story after story and elsewhere that we must cease to seek to root our human purposes in nature, in what I have come to think of as 'the naturalization of value systems in the human sciences' (Young, 1981).

 

Arriving at this point in my initial location of the assertion that biography is the basic discipline for a human science at one extreme of a continuum extending from reductionism to humanism, makes it less startling to mention another path to the same position. Where else can contextualism fetch up or find a place for its curiosity to rest? I use the term contextualism with deliberate looseness to refer to a whole group of partially overlapping perspectives - relativism in the history and philosophy and social studies of science, contextualism in history, the study of institutional constraints and patronage in sociology and social history and, of course, at the centre of current fashion, phenomenology and hermeneutics (Bernstein, 1985, 1986). Not all these are anti-rationalist, but they all share an anti-reductionism by most accounts and an anti-scientism in the understanding of human understanding, and, beyond that, of humanity itself. I would say that Marx and Engels got it in one in The German Ideology: 'We know only a single science: the science of history' (Marx and Engels, 1968, p. 28n).

 

Notice that I say biography is a discipline. I do not advocate hagiography or mere psychohistory. Nor do I say that one does not invoke universals in the exploration, explanation and interpretation of a human's history as part of human history. I mean only that we must remain nominalist, hold our concepts loosely and wear them lightly (cf Young, 1986, pp.30-1).

 

I will not attempt to sketch the consequences and potentialities of these humanizing tendencies. I suspect that every historian and social scientist in this room (unless there lurks a positivist amongst us) has enjoyed being on this slippery slope from the dogmatisms of the 1950s and the early 1960s, at the same time as we have felt a roller-coaster, pit-of-the-stomach anxiety which asks, 'Where will it all end?'

 

I say that it ends in biography as the central discipline of the study of human nature, culture and society. I do not mean this only polemically and rhetorically. I mean Biography 101; Elements of Biography; History and Schools of Biography; Resolution of Historical Forces; Parameters of Individual, Familial and Group Dynamics; Social History; Epochal Causation; Institutionalization. These are proposed courses, and I am available to teach any of them.

 

Those who prefer microprocesses and wallow in microsociology, perception research and systems theory need not panic. Winnicott's theory of transitional objects and transitional phenomena, along with Bion's theory of thinking, offer wholly adequate scope for painting on a small canvas in the understanding of the development of the individual, in genetic epistemology and in the philosophy of science (I recently gave a paper on these issues called 'Life among the mediations: labour, groups, breasts' [in press]).

 

The point - the fundamental desideratum - is that it is stories about people, not the search for analogies to the periodic table of elements and fundamental particles in physics, which constitute what we really want to know about human beings.

 

The third route to my point is confessional. I have never understood any theory, concept or school unless or until I read the biographical studies which were available on the main figures and read round in the social, institutional and intellectual history of the period. Am I alone in this? If, as I suspect, I am not, then why do we not take it seriously in our teaching and research? Why do we not make them more reflexive?

 

I do not wish to be seen as a believer in a wholly coherent world - in a pure organicity, a functionalism, a systems theory or an expressive totality. The world is not, in my experience, totally coherent, but its contradictions can be thought about. Henry Ford makes more unified sense to me than Alan Turing, and Ford's creative products seem more of a piece with what we know of his private life and value system than do Turing's (Ford, 1923; Jardim, 1970; Herndon, 1971; Hodges, 1985). Darwin, as Jim Moore and I have tried to show, is more of a Ford than a Turing, i.e., there are fewer dramatic splits and fissures in his private work and life if you know where to look. Even so, there is no satisfactory biography of Darwin (Colp, in press). Von Neumann and Wiener, fathers of computer analogies to thinking and cybernetics, are easier to see - in very different ways - as of a piece (Heims, 1980). Students of the Progressive Era have helped us feel more able to make sense of J.B. Watson, Talcott Parsons and B. F. Skinner, just as historians have given us a richer sense of Freud and of Melanie Klein, although more is to come. I am thinking in particular of the work of John Burnham on behaviourism and Phyllis Grosskurth on Klein, to which I shall return (Burnham, 1960, 1968; Cravens and Burnham, 1970; Grosskurth, 1985).

 

While my main purpose is to advocate the study of biography and biographies, anyone with even a sardonic interest in the trajectory of my thinking will know that beneath and beyond this I am, as always, beating the primitive prestructuralist and humanistic drum for that deepest and controverted Marxist commitment - to historicity: the historicity of what matters about humanity, about life, about the planet and the universe and, of course, the historicity of concepts, including that of historicity itself and even of the infinite regress I have just generated. For the most part, science is the enemy of historicity H.-G. Gadamer says it is the aim of science so to objectify experience that it no longer contains any historical element. He claims that no place can be left for the historicity of experience in science (quoted in Grunbaum, 1985, p. 16; cf. Outhwaite, 1985). Adolf Grunbaum has neatly shown (as if Whewell had not done so in the 1830s) that there are historical sciences as well as science of unique events; but the great sweep of scientificity is still conveyed by Gadamer's broad opposition between it and historicity.

 

Another reason for advocating biography as the basic discipline for a human science is that, as I have adumbrated earlier, that is what it means to go the whole hog, or - as I gather they say in America these days - sometimes, to get your point across, you have to go the whole rhino. There are all sorts of timid, arcane and labyrinthine arguments for teleology, purposiveness, systems thinking, feedback loops, anthropomorphism, etc., etc., in the space between the physical, biological and human sciences. Hermeneutics, for example, is in my view an attempt to have the discipline and structure of a science but to include within it the reflexivity and purposiveness of human thinking. Why not cut the crap and do biography well?

 

One of the things I like most about biography is that it celebrates so many of the approaches jettisoned by smarty-pants in the 1970s, for example, the history of ideas, narrative, will, character and the validity of the subject's subjectivity. In biography at its best these are combined with structural and epochal causation and the historicity of the construction of the subject and subjectivity. So I want to stress and advocate historicity just as much as biography, which is only the special case. I mean that it is the paradigm case. The epistemological problem for the historian and the biographer is much the same: to reconstruct and give insight into the lives of subjects, individual and collective. At the same time they both have a historiographic task, what Lowenberg describes as 'tracing and analysing the unconscious scotomata of past historians' (Lowenberg, 1985, p. 6).

 

I am therefore arguing that an important place for biography in the human sciences is a result of a wholehearted anti-positivism. It involves contextualism (or as I call it in my own work, constitutiveness - Young, 1979); historicity (including narrative and the resolution of forces); and focuses all these in the story of the subject, told as richly as possible.

 

One of the elements of that richness which I advocate most wholeheartedly is psychoanalysis. I know there are debates about psycho-history and that there are reasons for treading carefully. However, as Peter Gay has recently and successfully argued in Freud for Historians, psychoanalytic research on the past provides us with multilayered explanations and the dialectical interrelations of inner and outer.

I now reach a choice point in my argument. I could go back down the line into the historicity of biology, as I have in a paper on 'Persons, organisms ... and primary qualities', and follow up Gould's position that evolution is the quintessential science of history. That is, I could argue strongly for nature as the limiting case of human purposiveness. Instead, however, I want to spend my remaining time giving some examples of biography.

 

The first of these is Eugene Victory Wolfenstein's book The Victims of Democracy, subtitled Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (1981), his third volume on the intersection of the psychology of personality and politics. The first was The Revolutionary Personality (1967), on Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi. The second was called Personality and Politics (1969). (Neither of these is as remarkable as the Malcolm X biography.)

 

Why do I place it first in my pantheon of recommended biographies? Because it tells me what I want to know about something I have found almost totally absent in the literature, especially the literature of psychoanalysis and most certainly the literature in departments of human science which I have either been in, been attached to or spoken at: the nature and dynamics of racism seen in fully social and historical terms but always integrating the socioeconomic and historical analysis with the way racism becomes a material force in the unconscious, the conscious life and the public lives of people. In this case it does so with respect to the leading militant of the black resistance movement in the United States: Malcolm X, né Little. It has been said of Malcolm X that more than any other individual he was responsible for the development of the interrelated set of concepts we associate with black militancy in America in the 1960s.

 

I will say straight away that Wolfenstein's book is one of the best I have ever read. For me that means it is up there with Lovejoy, Burtt, Whitehead, Marcuse, Lukács, Marx and Freud. It is as incisive, moving and compassionate as the music of Mahler, the novels of Larry McMurtry and the songs of Willie Nelson. It is the only book in the Freudo-Marxist literature that brings it off - that does not swallow one into the other. It is convincing Marxist psychohistory, and its chapters on the psychodynamics of racism and its grip on Malcolm's character are almost unbearably moving and intellectually thrilling.

 

I speak, by the way - and I will come back to my reasons for mentioning this in a moment - as a member of a family of slave owners whose natal household always had a black servant who was its main source of caring stability. I have also spent the last ten years studying various versions of Freudo-Marxism, so my compliment is a considered one.

 

What I found most powerful in Wolfenstein's book was the integration of his psychological analysis of the unconscious dynamics of racism - especially in the black mind - with quite precise, historically specific research on the individual and the social and economic history of the times, year by year. I say year by year in this way to emphasize the contrast with Foucault on the one hand and Kovel on the other, both of whom have important things to say, but I sometimes think you could move backwards and forwards 150 years and not notice the difference. Fanon, on the other hand, is put to good and specific use in this argument. Wolfenstein is particularly illuminating about the charismatic personality, group psychology, identification with the oppressor and the vicissitudes of racially induced self-hatred.

 

One of his premises is what he calls Laswell's formula:

 

Private motives are displaced on to public objects and are then rationalized in terms of the public interest [which is the connection with the sources of my own anti-racism]. But this is only half of the dialectic, since political interests are first reflected into the private sphere, then internalized as character structure, and only subsequently displaced again into the public realm. (pp. ix-x)

 

I shall not try to summarize the book. Four out of six of Malcolm's uncles were killed by Whites and then the father had his head smashed in by Ku Klux Klanners. Malcolm's mother was driven insane. He became a good Negro, then a bad nigger, then a hustler and then a prison inmate, and transformed his father's Garveyism to a totally absorbing Black Muslim faith following the Honourable Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X became America's leading black militant and transcended the Black Muslim position for a socialist internationalism, for which he was rewarded with assassination. I would, however, like to read out two rather tough passages to give you a sense of how the book functions.

 

Wolfenstein is talking about the suppression of the 'bad black boy' in Malcolm X's consciousness, emptied of its authentic content and then I ‘whitened’ out. Then he speaks about identification with the oppressor:

 

Conscience and consciousness are both whitened out, and blackness becomes firmly attached to unacceptable, predominantly aggressive, infantile emotional impulses. Black people and white people alike come to have a character-structure in which the I, including the moral I, is white, and the It is black. Within this relationship, black people can think of themselves as fully human only by denying their true racial identity [there is elsewhere a tremendously heart-rending passage about when he first used lye on his hair to straighten it or conk it], while white people secure their humanity only at the price of black dehumanization. Thus the concept of the emotional - group here emerges in the form of a dominating-dominated intergroup relationship. In this relationship the repressed sadistic tendencies of the dominating group become the self-hatred, the masochistic tendency, of the dominated group. Conversely, the alienated self-esteem of the dominated group becomes the narcissism of the dominating one. And through the work of secondary elaboration or rationalization, the members of both groups are held firmly in the grip of stereotypical false consciousness. (p. 145)

 

And now a passage where he talks about what it is like to be in one of the meetings where Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad worked together. This is a passage about charisma:

Stating the argument more formally, the mass anticipation of a charismatic experience is, in substance, labile sexual energy, with which Malcolm's image of Muhammad as the Truth incarnate could be grasped and thereby internalized. This erotized image was then projected on to Muhammad as he began to speak, so that the man and his words were reflected back into the self in an hypnotically magnified form. But having passed through the double movement of projection and introjection, the flow of sexual energy had been crystallized as the Prophet, with the result that the return of this emotional power was experienced as the penetration of the Self by a beloved Other, as an aim-inhibited orgasmic moment. Finally, the consequence of this experience was that the Prophet's truth became a part of the Self - which is to say, the Self itself was re-formed, to a greater or lesser extent, in Mohammad's image.

Now it follows from our prior investigations that the Other generated in the group-emotional process is a composite figure, a condensation of the parental deities of childhood and the person(s) actually speaking. In a strictly psychological sense, it is the immanent presence of these archaic gods that gives the speaker his charismatic aura, and thus his ability to mesmerize his audience through the return of its own repressed emotions. (pp. 258-9)

 

I am sorry those are such dense passages, but I wanted to provide a sense of the kind of analysis that is mounted here, and its power.

 

In the time that remains I want to chat about some other biographies I happen to have read recently - or, in a couple of cases, read at. My aim is to give you a sense of (and frankly, I hope in an enticing way) the range, depth and relevance of biographical studies to the human sciences. I shall start with some that will be respectable here and move to the ones I really most enjoyed reading.

 

I never understood functionalism until I read Man and Culture, a collection of biographical essays on Malinowski and the setting of Malinowski's functionalism within the whole colonial project (Firth, 1957). It just did not make sense until I saw it in that way This is not an original insight on my part, but it was my path to this knowledge. Similarly with Steven Lukes on Durkheim and with Weber's biographers (Bendix, 1960). I cannot say the same of Freud, and here I think the contrast between Jones's writing about Freud and Grosskurth's biography of Melanie Klein is quite important (I will come back to that). I have other names here like Sharaf on Wilhelm Reich; Hearnshaw's biography of Cyril Burt, which certainly gives one an insight into the validity and ideological role of IQ testing; Lowe on Whitehead, Wilfred Bion's autobiography and, of course, the existing biographies of Marx, none of which is in my view wholly satisfactory (but if you read Kapp's biography of Marx's daughter, Eleanor, you will certainly have a powerful sense of the integration of public and private).

 

There are also biographies of the rich and powerful (which, since I am a scholarship boy from Dallas, have a particular attraction for me): the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, the Hunts (the Hunts are the basis of the Dallas television series) - that is, dynasties: families of inherited power. The one from which I have learned most is Drosnin's Citizen Hughes, which was based on the memos written by Howard Hughes in his last years. All the memos he wrote on yellow pads were given to a journalist who wrote one of the most psychologically illuminating books I have ever read on what it is like to have that kind of power. It vies for effectiveness with Kapuscinski's biography of the last years of Haile Selassie, The Emperor (1984). Such works show what happens when you have power without limit.

 

In Howard Hughes's life he was on the one hand preventing or delaying nuclear testing in Nevada, had several presidents and presidential candidates on his payroll and was the source of the Watergate incident: the break-in was to discover who knew what about his bribes. On the other hand he was able to kill himself slowly because nobody dared gainsay him in his indulgences. There are wonderful passages about how many Kleenexes had to touch the Kleenex which touched the Kleenex which touched the chicken-soup bowl. He would also ring up his television station, cancel the film for that night and substitute one he would rather see, treating it as his private viewing room. He was also unwilling to be treated for his various addictions and his kidney disease. You get into the fine texture of a person in history, in this case a man of practically unlimited power.

 

I think that political biographies also have that kind of appeal, whether they be of political dynasties or of political individuals. Caro's Lyndon Johnson is one of the most effective and shocking in giving one a sense of what happens inside power situations and the relationship between that, the subject's personality, and the public images. I think also of Ted Morgan on FDR, T.H. Williams on Huey Long and, of course, Freud on Woodrow Wilson. My absolute favourite is Carl Sandburg's six-volume life of Abraham Lincoln; idealized, yes, but let us have some heroes.

 

There are also explorations of creativity: Maynard Solomon's Beethoven gives a fine sense of the inside of a mind in its most creative periods. Similarly Frederick Crews on Hawthorne's psychological themes, The Sins of the Fathers. I have also found illuminating and entertaining recent biographies of Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby, Montgomery Clift, Bert Lahr, Elvis Presley, the Mamas and Papas and - in my view the most insightful of all - As Time Goes By, Laurence Leamer's necessary corrective to Ingrid Bergman's autobiography. There are, I am glad to say, some candid and self-critical autobiographies of showbiz people. Three come to mind: Sterling Hayden's Wanderer, Bob Geldof’s Is That It? and John Houseman's n-mgisterial three volumes, the first of which is a classic text on containment - in this case of his maddening co-worker Orson Welles.

 

All these reveal the splits between idealized public selves (I am a full participant in these idealizations) and the actual lives of these people and the way they tried to negotiate these matters. In our less public ways, all of us are faced with these kinds of splits. I think they are powerfully illuminated by some of these biographies of prominent people in our culture. Even though most are 'knocking biographies'- and partly because they are - they still provide the illumination of our public myths and private fantasies: manic defence, idealization, envy, spoiling.

 

This applies not only to the good, the great and the idealized, of course; there are also collective biographies - I am thinking of Ronald Fraser's Blood of Spain, of Studs Terkel's biographical interviews, of Vivian Gornick's account of what it is like being a member of the Communist Party in America, of the Centreprise series of working-class biographies published in London. So we are not confined to biographies of famous people. And we must not forget the notorious: Killing for Company, Brian Masters' account of the life of Dennis Nilsen (Britain's most prolific murderer) is, according to Arthur Hyatt Williams, the best study ever written of the mind of a murderer. It compares favourably with Nathan Leopold's autobiography (his trial was an early use of psychoanalysis in the courts), Robert Lindner's hypnoanalysis of a criminal psychopath, Rebel Without a Cause, and Hannah Arendt's book on Eichmann (subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil).

 

I want to repeat that biography is now a discipline, and we should take that seriously. We should ask ourselves why at this point in time biography has become a discipline. I think the humanistic aspects of biography and the characteristics of the genre are a refuge from all sorts of rather astringent forms of scholarship which have come to prevail. (I remember reading somewhere that structuralist thought swept through Britain 'like a breath of carbon monoxide'.) It is a discipline with its own literature, its own reflexive writings, its own methodological debates, its own journals (e.g. Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly), and it also seems to me to give a key to epistemology in action. By this I mean that the biographer has to negotiate all these epistemological shoals and to be more or less self-conscious about them.

 

There is now a rich secondary literature on biography. I have to admit there is a danger that this secondary literature will disappear up its own fundament, because we now have psychoanalytic introspections about why people wrote the biographies of individuals. It is becoming a meta-meta-discipline, like some others (see, for example, Baron and Pletsch, 1985; Eakin, 1985; Finney, 1985; Holmes, 1985; Peterson, 1986; Zinsser, 1986).

 

I want to conclude with some reflections on Phyllis Grosskurth's biography of Melanie Klein. There is as much wrong with this book as there is right about Wolfenstein on Malcolm X. And the weaknesses in Grosskurth are in just the areas where Wolfenstein is most admirable: in the close examination of her subject's inner life. That is, the book sets out to be a Kleinian biography of Klein, but the author is not subtle enough to escape the charge of 'wild analysis'. It also fails to connect the conceptual issues with the small-, medium- and large-scale forces in the period. This is a grievous fault, since the setting is Europe, including both World War I and World War II, the latter having only a walk-on (it is in fact a 'not-walk-off') part in showing just how preoccupied the British analysts were with the conflict between the views of Klein and those of Anna Freud on infantile sexuality, the dating of the Oedipus complex and the depressive position. During one meeting things got so hot that someone drily observed that there was an air raid going on outside, but because things were so warlike inside nobody moved. The war also played a small role in getting Anna Freud and her dying father to London and then keeping her there as an alien while Klein, who had been naturalized, could be evacuated. This contributed to the split. As I say, these are inadequately conceptualized.

 

But these are small faults compared with Grosskurth's great gifts and her bravery in keeping her nerve with respect to the narrative social history of the Controversial Discussions in the British Psycho-Analytical Society in the 1940s. The British School of object relations is, I think, the most important development in psychoanalysis since the death of Freud. These were very bitter and very personal controversies involving Melanie Klein's daughter and the mantle passed from Freud to his daughter. Klein's main enemies were her own daughter and her analyst, Edward Glover. I could go on at some length about this labyrinth; the conceptual parallels are drawn by Grosskurth in every case. You actually see the connections between the microstructure of the controversy and the personal relations involved - familial and institutional factors. And, pace Ricardo Steiner and Gregorio Kohon, I think it is the only thing worth reading on this particular controversy. I also hope nobody thinks it is not important in the history of British culture and psychoanalysis.

 

I think a book of limited value like that - strong in some areas, weak in others - actually has advantages, because we can teach the same way as we learn. In Grosskurth one aspect of the biography is weak, so we complement it with other writings and other critiques: we do a review of it in the course of teaching, we point people to the work of Hanna Segal to supplement her inadequate exposition of some of the concepts; we fill the lacunae; we commission a dictionary of Kleinian thought (Hinshelwood); we teach our students what we have had to learn the hard way: that real knowledge is put together by assemblage, by reflexive thinking and by critique. We teach the method of self-teaching. We also get people into Kleinian thought. In the particular case of this book, Klein both explains and in her life exemplifies that there is a psychotic core to everyone. She embodied, as Grosskurth shows, her own theory that 'the world is not an objective reality, but a phantasmagoria peopled with our own fears and desires' (p. 62). So the book is a mixed bag but is, at the same time, profound.

 

Now, to conclude. Biography is human nature on the hoof, embedded in lived contradictions, replete with the mediations and articulations of social, familial and historical life. It is the opposite of what Bernard Williams says analytical philosophy does, which is to take the paradigm case example and pare away all the connections to get to the essence. The essence is the articulations and the mediations.

 

Biography also addresses us to things we are woefully inadequate about in our teaching of the human sciences: race, class, sexism, exploitation, alienation, jealousy, rejection, greed, envy, the hierarchical division of labour, despair, narcissism, hope, joy, Sisyphean struggle, enduring love, creativity, group dynamics, spoiling, solidarity, spite, reparation. Finally, I would be very disappointed if you treated this paper as a jeu dčsprit. What I have to say about biography bears on the subject-object distinction; on scientism, on reflexivity, on the so-called 'internalist-externalist debate' in the history of science, on the social constitutionist picture. What was peripheral and contextual in the human sciences as now practised becomes central and constitutive.

 

With biography we link ideas, like a reclining Gulliver, to the ground of place and time. We link it by a thousand threads - they are all threads of historicity. The more influences represented in a hagiographic biography, the less genius. I want to say that more articulations mean more social embedding and more ways of holding the Gulliver of human arrogance by Lilliputian ties.

 

Much of my work has been concerned with asking what happens if we take a concept to its limit. I have tried to do this in work on science as social relations, science as a labour process, nature as a labour process. My thesis in this essay is that the limiting case of the role of humanistic studies in the human sciences is biography. In assessing its proper place we learn a lot about epistemology, ontology and human nature as a project, not an ahistorical essence.

 

REFERENCES

 

Bibliographical note: Since I am aware that some of the allusions in this article, while fairly familiar to its original audience, may not be to some readers of this journal, I have tried to provide one or more references to each of the topics and figures mentioned in the text.

 

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Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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