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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Acts of Identity: A Political Theory of Biography

  • Author(s): Stahl, William
  • Advisor(s): Dienstag, Joshua F
  • et al.

My dissertation, Acts of Identity: A Political Theory of Biography, is prompted by the puzzle: why have so many political theorists shown interest in the genre of biography, seemingly such a private and apolitical genre? I answer that biography is a powerful lens through which to analyze the link between individual identity formation and political action. I develop this answer through four chapters that engage with a selection of political theorists who have written biographic works. In the first chapter, I examine Hannah Arendt’s claim that human beings are unlike other living things because each one of us develops a unique identity from the singularity of our biography. For her, who we are – and what makes us human – is what we say and do. In chapter two, I analyze Giorgio Agamben’s challenge to Arendt: he concludes that what makes us human is not what we say or do, but what we have the potential to do. This implies that our biography does not define who we are or make us human. I agree with the latter implication, but not the former. While the form of human life may not be biographic, individual identity is. Henceforth, I argue that individual identity is an artifact of language – a product of biographizing. In the third chapter, I illustrate this contention through two dossiers edited by Michel Foucault: I, Pierre Rivi�re and Herculine Barbin. These dossiers – the former about a “village idiot” who commits a terrible crime, the latter about an intersexed convent teacher who is declared to be a “man” after being raised as a “girl” – demonstrate that who we are is not just what we do, but the conceptual framing of what we do. In the fourth chapter, I argue for the democratization of biographizing. I engage with Jacques Ranci�re, who suggests that biography should adopt the style of modern literature, which treats all literary subjects as worthy of space on the page. In sum, Acts of Identity provides a novel account of biography that contributes to democratic theory and discussions of identity, action, and equality.

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