Explorations question #6

Question #6 already -- my how time flies.

In class today I suggested, or at least observed, that Ellison and Augustine are in some ways doing the same thing in their respective books: by writing in a retrospective way, they are recalling past events and imbuing them with a significance that they might not have had at the time. In addition, both write autobiographically, in the first person; the main actor is "I" in each work. That said, Ellison is writing a novel, while Augustine is writing something that purports to be a true record of events (albeit as a confession, not merely as a litany of occurrences). Does this genre distinction -- fictional versus non-fictional memoir -- make a difference? Would Augustine's book have been different as a novel, or Ellison's as a true personal history?


responding to question #5

I have not been a very good blogger thus far this semester, and I know that this response is later than my own specified deadline. I'll have to deduct some points from my mid-semester blogging evaluating in a few weeks.

But anyway: my answer to question #5 involves challenging the presumptions of the question itself. The way that the question is phrased suggests that the value of a life precedes any possible autobiographical reflection on it, but (like some of you) I would invert that order: rather than reflecting value that already exists, it is the autobiography itself that imparts value. That said, I would not agree that the value of an autobiography comes from its artistic character, although that is probably an important part of the reader's experience (and presumably why Ms. Cyrus has a ghost-writer: to make the autobiography readable). Rather, I think that augustine is on to something when he regards his autobiographical account to be a "confession": by narrating his life in a particular way he is, in a sense, making it into something else, something that it wasn't when he lived those experiences that he relates, but something that it now can be given his present-day perspective on what he previously experienced. Obviously, for Augustine, this is about making his life into a particular kind of offering or testimony to God, but I don't think that's essential to the exercise -- what is essential is the notion of a summary meaning or plot, whether that involves divinity or not.

In other words, I would say that it is the performative act of writing an autobiography in the first place that produces -- the convoluted grammar in this next bit of the sentence is important -- a life that is worth having lived, at least from the vantage-point of having lived it if not from the vantage-point of actually living it. And this is a scalable process, I think: aren't the downtown memorials in some ways examples of the same kind of process, but often on a national rather than an individual level? "Why was it worth having died in this conflict? Oh, right, now we understand why they died, even if they didn't understand that themselves."

I wonder what a memorial to the "war on terror(ism)" might look like -- what stories it might tell, what experiences it might recollect, what meaning it might impart.


Explorations question #5

Forgot to toss out a question at the end of class today, so here goes:

It was suggested during class discussion that what makes for an interesting autobiography is whether a person has done something important in her or his life, because that makes their personal story an interesting part of the explanation of what they've done. Augustine, somewhat to the contrary, suggests that what makes for an interesting autobiography is a person having some profound experience -- perhaps conversion, but we can imagine alternatives, like a near-death experience -- that causes her or him to re-evaluate her or his life in the light of that changed sensibility. But in both cases, the conclusion is that autobiographies are worthwhile when something dramatic happens to a person. But what about a life that is not characterized by drama? is such a life not worthy of being remembered in autobiographical form?

Another way to think about this might be: would you want to live the kind of life that might merit an autobiography? Why or why not?


Explorations question #4

Another either/or option for this week's question. [If you feel compelled to answer both of these, feel free to do so!]

4a) in class today I tossed out the term "strategic remembrance" to characterize what Augustine is doing in the autobiographical sections of Confessions. It's "remembrance" because he's recalling past events, and "strategic" because he's clearly doing it with a purpose, a purpose that he makes clear in the later chapters of the book. Does this clear and obvious purpose raise problems for Augustine's claim that remembering also recalls things that we know innately, like what happiness is? Can memory be both strategic and innate?

4b) thinking specifically of the article on Alzheimer's that we looked at for this week, and also thinking about Augustine's analysis of the relationship between identity and memory: would you still be you if you couldn't remember your past?


Explorations question #3

A choice for the question this week:

3a) Book IX of the Confessions completes Augustine's autobiographical account of his life to the date of the work's composition. Running with the "advertisement" reading of the text that we generated in class, what is the main thing that Augustine is advertising with this presentation of (him)self? In other words, what's the punchline?

3b) does Augustine's proligic use of the category of "sin" in his autobiographical reflections make his work more effective, or does it limit the appeal of what he has produced?


Explorations question #2

For this week's question I would like you to engage in a brief two-part exercise:

1) choose an item that you brought to school in order to make your room feel more like "home." This could be something you brought to hang on your wall, something that sits on your desk, or whatever. The important thing is that it be something publicly visible that says "home" to you. Then write a bit about what that thing represents, and what kind of identity you think it performs.

2) ask someone else in the class -- could be your roommate, could be someone else -- what they think that item says about you. In their eyes, what identity does it perform? Write a bit about their repsponse and any potential discrepancies between what you intended the item to perform and what they thought that it was performing.