Alain Corbin’s Life of an Unknown is a book that I return to time and time again. Not so much the biography of the ‘unknown’ 19th-century clog maker who Corbin chose at random in the archive, it is more akin to an anti-biography. Corbin’s own conclusion is that he knows nothing of who Pinagot – the subject – really was. This is:
not a biography of Louis-François Pinagot, which has turned out to be impossible to write, but… an evocation of the life of a man who vanished almost without a trace on the day he diedThe Life of an Unknown, 212
In my notes on the book, taken several years ago, I wrote that this is an ‘anti-biography’ in the sense Michel de Certeau meant the term.
Now, several years later, I have no evidence that Certeau used this phrase, or how he meant it.
So what might it mean, and where does it come from? An obvious answer: it is an antithesis to biography, a negation of its principles. Any account of the term itself must be the anti-biography of an idea.
To stand against biography is to reject its coherence, its unity, and its knowability. The ant-biography of anti-biography must be multiple.
- Anti-biography is the work to recover the lives of those who are not normally thought of as biographical subjects. This is true of Corbin’s book, it is also true of Saidiya Hartmann’s recent Wayward Lives. It is against the assumptions of who has a biography.
- Anti-biography is the work to shatter what biographies have sought to achieve. This is the project of David Nye’s ‘anti-biography of Thomas A. Edison’ and of Brian Cumming’s reflections on Shakespeare and anti-biography. It is clearly inconsistent with the focus on the untold lives of the first kind of anti-biography. But its subjects are not, for all that, necessarily famous today. Perhaps the two sets of documents Michel Foucault presented concerning the lives of Herculine Barbin and Pierre Rivière also belong in this tradition of focusing on one person, not to highlight their coherence and importance, but the constructed nature of this very individuality. A rejection of the form from within the form, a rejection of the biographical self through the biographical method. A project continued by other historians since – I think of Matt Houlbrook’s Prince of Tricksters, the anti(?)biography of the con-artist Netley Lucas.
- Anti-biography consists of the ‘stories of virtuous, often brilliant obscurity—the lives of people we never heard of because people we’ve definitely heard of merely used them’. This is how Sarah Ruden has defined the ‘age of anti-biography’ in a review of recent books. Anti-biography is shadow biography, the stories hidden by the stories we know. In fact, not just hidden, but literally shadowed. Lives that matter more than we had remembered until the anti-biographer did their work of unpicking.
There is, then, so much to be against in biography!
So much that anti-biography itself is a field of contradiction and inconsistency. Sometimes the effort to disprove the uniqueness or unity of the famous or extraordinary example. Sometimes the effort to elevate the forgotten to the level of the celebrity. A ‘parallel poesis spawned from curious seismographic molten‘.
As ever, I’m interested in suggestions for readings to add to this short list-in-progress on ‘anti-biography’:
- Alexander, Will, ‘On Anti-Biography’ [a poem]
- Corbin, Alain, Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of a Clog Maker in Nineteenth- Century France (2001 )
- Cummings, Brian, ‘Shakespeare, Biography and Anti-Biography’ (2014)
- Foucault, Michel (ed.), I, Pierre Rivière Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother …: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century (), and Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite ()
- Hartman, Saidiya, Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (2019)
- Nye, David, The Invented Self: An Anti-Biography of Thomas A. Edison (1983)
- Ruden, Sarah, ‘The Age of Anti-biography’.