Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Ethics and the Biographical Artifact: Doing Biography in the Academy Today

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Ethics and the Biographical Artifact: Doing Biography in the Academy Today

Article excerpt

THESE DAYS, BIOGRAPHICAL "ARTIFACTS" in the most mundane sense of the phrase have come sharply, even painfully, into focus for me. This is simply to confess that, at the end of several years of researching and writing my recent biography, The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther, I have yet to confront the truly terrible job of cleaning up my study, which is still cluttered to overflowing with all of those "things"--those physical remnants and records--that we tend to collect in the process of attempting to "reconstruct" a "life." It's a mess that calls to mind Mary Shelley's "filthy workshop of creation." And as I've been tripping over the accordion files, maps, photographs, and so forth that litter my study floor, I've also been grappling with the question of what to do with all of this material now that the book is done: now that the work is, in deed, a "fact"--"a thing done."

As opposed to a "fact," "a thing done," artifact of course connotes instead "a thing made"--"an artificial product" of "human art and worksmanship." (1) Interestingly, the OED records the first usage of the word by the British poet Coleridge, who in 1821 deployed it in a long and loving epistolary disquisition on the "ideal qualities and properties" of a good inkstand. Long associated, then, with implements specific to "the art of writing," the term artifact is also useful in relation to the genre of nonfiction--specifically, in relation to the epistemological ambiguity that all nonfiction writing trades in, as the forging of some form of experience into literary truth, or even fact-based prose. (2) It is, clearly, in this epistemological ambiguity--in its exploitation or acknowledgement--that ethics also enters the picture. For if the line between outright artifice and the slippery nature of nonfictional "truth" is any clearer for biographers than it is for, say, memoirists or poets, it nevertheless remains true that the biographical subject, or "I;' too, is fortified on the one hand by "art" and on the other by "fact," just like the letter "i" literally encased in the middle of the word "art-i-fact." (3)

In isolating the biographical artifact for particular attention, my focus here falls first on questions of what might be called the ethics of narrative form: on when and how biography might seek to acknowledge (or indulge) its status as an artifactual alloy of experience, memory, and "facts"; and on the problem of the tension between the constructed and subjective nature of biographical "truth," on the one hand, and an awareness of life stories that seem to demand, especially on ethical and political grounds, a firm insistence on their non-fictionality, on their historical actuality as "things done"--however complicated those claims might be.

Such questions of narrative form, however, also emerge from a more comprehensive process of biographical research that is, I want to suggest, already ethically complicated because it invariably relies on an inductive or emergent methodology that is essentially context-specific and responsive in nature. For biographers working within the academy, moreover, this research process has, in recent years, also become newly complicated in terms of how it is played out in our larger institutional contexts. Here, I am referring specifically to forms of administrative oversight and regulation created in the wake of the Tri-Council's Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, implemented in 1998. I'd like to make space at the end of this discussion to consider some of the "far-reaching" and "standard setting" implications of this still-"evolving" Tri-Council policy document, which governs all post-secondary research involving living subjects, including work in the Humanities and Fine Arts (PRE, Refinements 2). I do so because the problems posed by this policy document, especially for researchers/creators in the Humanities and Fine Arts, should, I think, concern all of us--regardless of whether or not we write biographies or pursue "research involving humans. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.