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University of Illinois Press
Sovereign Selves: American Indian Autobiography and the Law

Sovereign Selves: American Indian Autobiography and the Law

by David J. Carlson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252072666
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 11/15/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

David Carlson is an assistant professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino.

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Sovereign Selves



Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-07266-9


For scholars interested in the conjunction between law and literature, one of the most significant early examples of what we would now call "ideological analysis" appears in Alexis de Tocqueville's 1835 classic Democracy in America. In chapter 16 of the first volume, Tocqueville suggests that the cultural fabric of early America had been shaped in significant ways by the dissemination of legal language. Commenting on the role that legal professionals played in preventing majoritarian tyranny in the young republic, he notes that in the United States "the language of the law thus becomes, in some measure, a vulgar tongue," while "the spirit of the law, which is produced in the schools and the courts of justice, gradually penetrates beyond their walls into the bosom of society" (290). In considering the possibility of an ideological connection between law and national identity, Tocqueville was well ahead of his time. Indeed, his theses anticipate the contemporary field of law and literature scholarship, particularly that strain focusing on the relationship between legal discourse (a term encompassing both the language and institutions of law) and identity formation. Sovereign Selves may be best understood as a part of that critical tradition. It represents the first stageof a broad inquiry into the relationship between legal models of self and the autobiographical acts of a variety of subjects writing during the period from the Revolution to the beginning of the twentieth century. At this stage, I focus particularly on autobiographies by early Native American writers, whose experience can be usefully understood under the broad rubric of colonialism. In doing so, I aim to contribute to three major critical conversations: (1) debates over the generic definition of autobiography; (2) attempts to define a critical methodology for law and literature scholarship; and (3) concerns about the viability of "authenticity" as a critical term in the study of Native American literatures.

Adequately framing my entry into the first of these conversations requires a brief overview of some of the major trends in autobiography scholarship since the 1960s. Before the middle decades of the twentieth century, the study of autobiography had been more or less limited to treatments of texts as historical documents (often seen as limited by their subjective perspective) or to inquiries into the origins and history of the autobiographical form. Since Roy Pascal's Design and Truth in Autobiography (1960), though, many scholars have taken issue with what we might call the "referential fallacy" (the idea that autobiography offers a transparent, objective window onto historical events) and the related notion that authorial veracity is the central critical issue in reading autobiographical writing. Pascal's innovation was to argue that the subject of autobiography is not historical fact, but experience, the organization of fact through consciousness to create meaning (17-19). His work thus opened the door for the literary criticism of autobiography, built on a greater appreciation of the relationship between autobiography and other forms of imaginative writing (like fiction). Of course, in doing so Pascal introduced a host of new theoretical problems. For if autobiography's defining characteristic is the presence of an ordering consciousness recording its experience of the world, how are we to make generic distinctions between, say, an autobiographical novel, a memoir, a diary, a confessional record, or a poem? Attempts to make such distinctions, meeting with only limited success, have dominated a significant strand of autobiography theory ever since.

The fundamental problem with efforts to create a taxonomy of autobiography has been the difficulty of applying traditional (normative, or rule-based) theories of genre to autobiographical writing. For years, critics have struggled with the fact that in its apparent variety, autobiography seems unlike almost any other literary "form." One can say that the sestina, for instance, is a poetic structure self-consciously used in Western versification, originating in the thirteenth century, and possessing certain formal characteristics. In this sense, the sestina is easily designated as a literary "object" with a definite history. In such a case, one can readily conceive of genre, in its normative sense, without much trouble. It is difficult to make such confident pronouncements about autobiography, however. The briefest survey of the relevant critical literature reveals thoughtful arguments that the autobiographical tradition begins with texts as different as Egyptian tomb hieroglyphics, Augustine's Confessions, Petrarch's Secretum, Rousseau's Confessions, and Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography. Even critics trying to offer definitions that emphasize process (focusing on the autobiographical turn of mind) have often fallen back into some version of what we might call the "normative fallacy." In his early and important book Metaphors of Self (1972), for example, James Olney theorizes autobiography in terms of the "vital impulse to order that has always caused man to create" (1). Almost immediately, though, he grafts a broadly normative definition of autobiography (as a noun) onto his theory of the autobiographical impulse (as a verb). Olney argues that the essence of "order" in autobiography is the adoption of a unique, coherent, and individual point of view. Thus, the act of self-becoming must involve the creation of a unified identity around a complex of metaphors. The problem with such a fusion, linking a normative generic definition with the functional idea that autobiography is a response to experience, is that the former designates a specific "thing" (a literary object with certain characteristics, like unity and cohesiveness) while the latter designates an impulse (whose result might well vary cross-culturally and historically). These two kinds of definitions are not congruent.

The limitations of approaches to autobiography like that in Metaphors of Self suggest the need for theoretical distinctions between specific norms, or "models" of identity, and the broader processes of self-definition. The consequences of failing to do so extend well beyond academic debates regarding the contents of the literary canon. Without a distinction between self as an object and self-definition as an action, claims that autobiography is defined by characteristics X, Y, and Z commit both critic and reader to some difficult corollary positions. Having posited a series of characteristic elements, many traditional generic approaches go on to use these elements as a litmus test for defining not just the canon of autobiography, but also the canon of significant selfhood. In effect, then, in spite of a critic's best intentions, such scholarship can amount to a de facto argument that there are only certain models of identity that are authentic, legitimate, interesting, or valuable. Persons who fail to represent themselves according to these models either fail to show up at all on the critical radar screen (becoming non-persons) or find themselves relegated to a lesser status. No contemporary literary critic would consciously use the language of primitivism or "savagism" so much in vogue during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Still, one cannot help but recognize the subordinate position an Australian aborigine occupies in a world where the development of self-expression is tied, in the words of one prominent scholar, to the emergence of "individuality" and the "full form of historical mindedness" embodied by men like Rousseau, Franklin, and Goethe.

The central critical problem I am tracing here involves the failure of many scholars to start from the premise that there are various kinds of writing we might call autobiographical, all of which represent the attempts of discrete persons to understand the nature of self and identity. The study of autobiography implicates any critic, whether he or she wishes it, into a broader discussion of the nature of human identity and selfhood. Every statement we make about autobiographical writing, however innocent, has implications for the way we perceive ourselves, others, and human history. In this respect, we can see that the act of reading and writing about autobiography carries with it a unique set of ethical demands. To produce a transhistorical definition of autobiography understood only as a specific form is, in a sense, to produce a transhistorical definition of selfhood as a form. Such a notion may have been commonplace during the eighteenth century, but even without claiming great expertise in anthropology, philosophy, or comparative religion, readers of our era should feel uneasy about such universalism. Increasingly, scholars from a variety of fields maintain that selfhood is not a "thing," but a category or signifier, variously conceived by individuals and cultures throughout human history. This point suggests an ethical imperative to reformulate the terms of literary analysis and to ask a different set of questions in analyzing autobiographical texts. In the study that follows, then, my critical orientation will be toward what we might call the autobiographical impulse (a mode of consciousness and linguistic action that involves generating a concept of personal identity within a specific cultural context) rather than on a specific definition of autobiography as a generic thing. (The autobiographical impulse is, of course, a mode with its own history, but the study of that history involves considering not what the autobiographical ur-text is in some absolute sense, but what various kinds of texts do in different times and places.) Such an orientation places the present work within the realm of the philosophy of language, suggesting a dynamic, "performative" understanding of genre, as opposed to a rigidly formalistic and normative one.

As developed in the work of thinkers like J. L. Austin and John Searle, the term "performative" designates the capacity of language not simply to reflect reality, but to actually constitute a form of action (shaping reality). Performative language, as Austin would say, "makes things happen." Understood as a kind of performance, autobiography becomes the act of self-making through the use of language. Such an understanding of autobiographical writing links my work with the scholarship of Philippe Lejeune and Elizabeth Bruss. In his essay "Autobiography and Literary History," Lejeune (drawing on reader-response critics like Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss) argues that genre is a historically specific code between authors and readers that enables works to be produced and circulated. Genre is not something inherent in the text itself, in other words; it is the product of a communicative circuit that influences the creation and reception of texts. Lejeune's insight draws attention to the idea that what we generally refer to today as autobiography emerged in conjunction with a particular historical paradigm regarding what constitutes a "self," a "life," and a life story.

As generic objects, the modern autobiographies of Rousseau or Franklin, for example, are particular manifestations of the broadly human autobiographical impulse, filtered through a cultural matrix (tied to modern individualism, in this case). Bruss's work foregrounds the idea that this matrix is a sociolinguistic one. In Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre, she argues that genre is an "institutional" reality, tied to the recognition by both author and audience of rules and norms regarding identity. This is, of course, just another way of suggesting that we view genre as the product of a communicative process, not necessarily as a description of fixed properties inherent in texts themselves. At the same time, though, Bruss draws our attention to the embeddedness of autobiographical writing within its particular social and historical context. Autobiographical forms emerge and acquire legitimacy within specific systems of intersubjective communication that can, of course, change over time (6-7). Following such an understanding, a number of the key principles of this study emerge: (1) the autobiographical impulse does not point us toward a single "referent" (the Self) that can be defined transhistorically; (2) autobiographical expression is not focused on a self or a life which exists outside or prior to it, but rather constitutes ("performs") that self in the act of narration; this is what Bruss, drawing on the philosophy of language, has referred to as the "autobiographical act"; (3) the nature and form of an autobiographical act is tied to the cultural context in which it occurs; (4) understanding that context requires close attentiveness to the discursive situation of the autobiographer (i.e., his or her relationship to the culture's ways of knowing the self and the institutions that legitimize and authorize those ways of knowing).

The analyses of Native American autobiographies that form the heart of this book are attempts to understand how specific instances of autobiographical self-performance take place within equally specific linguistic and cultural contexts. This is a key point, for the understanding of autobiography I propose has a significant impact on the way I read the Native American texts I have chosen. (It also helps to explain my resistance to the discourse of authenticity pervading some Native Americanist scholarship, an issue I will take up shortly). Bruss's argument that autobiographies, as particular kinds of language acts, are made possible by certain "constitutive rules" and institutions seems to me to be another way of saying that autobiographical selves emerge within the context of some kind of normative universe, or nomos, the nature of which will have a profound impact on the way the autobiographical impulse plays out. The one element that is missing from Bruss's theoretical account of autobiographical performance and its context, though, is a clear discussion of the institutional structures that help define and disseminate the "symbolic systems" undergirding autobiographies. This book marks my attempt to bring at least one example of those structures into sharper focus by looking at autobiographies produced within the particularly pressurized communicative context of internal colonialism in the United States.

In this study, I argue for the centrality of legal discourse in defining the sociolinguistic context of early Native American writers' autobiographical acts. Between the Revolutionary War and the early twentieth century, these autobiographers produced their acts of self-definition in the shadow of a hegemonic legal system designed explicitly to reshape their sense of identity. During this period, legal models of identity profoundly influenced not only the political and cultural landscape confronting Native American writers, but also the broader literary tradition of autobiography from which they might draw inspiration (and in which their non-Indian readers expected them to situate themselves). Generally speaking, from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, the sense of what was both possible and acceptable in American lifewriting became increasingly circumscribed by the normative characteristics of what we might call the "liberal autobiography," a form that itself takes shape largely within the context of the legal discourse of emergent capitalism. Such constraints had enormous implications for the concurrent emergence of a tradition of American Indian lifewriting. As a result, Native American autobiographies provide a fascinating (if extreme) starting point for an inquiry into the deep and broad connections between legal discourse and autobiographical action in the United States.


Excerpted from Sovereign Selves by DAVID J. CARLSON Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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