The heuristic value of autobiographies for gender studies: comparing the theoretical results of Russian and foreign studies

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Heuristic value of autobiographies for specialists in gender and female studies (based on the comparison of theoretical results of Russian and international autobiographical studies). The article discusses the qualitative changes in the study of autobiographies in historical works. The author focuses on the importance of gender studies in the field of complex relations between various approaches, including the philosophical, psychological, and linguistic way of analyzing life histories, in general, and women’s autobiographies, in particular (which comprises using the theory of female writing created by French feminist philosophers), as well as old and recent literature in the field of autobiographical research. The gender approach to the analysis of documents makes it possible to conclude that men report less about their family and private life and tend to give this life a different meaning and place in the system of value hierarchies. The second conclusion when comparing male and female autobiographies is the individualized and independent representation of the ego in life stories. Analysts point out that when collecting material about men’s lives, it is the gender of the story collector that is important. When talking to a female interviewer, the narrator presents the same life events in a different way than to male interviewer. When reading an egotext, a male analyst immediately forms a male community and, at the same time, hierarchies typical of relations between men. Keywords: autobiography, women, gender, gender history, history methodology, biographi- cal research, memory psychology, historiography

Introduction Attitudes toward autobiographies, memoirs, and other ego-documents can be twofold: one can perceive them as carriers of information about the past and as an independent phenomenon of spiritual culture. Historians, who have traditionally refered to memoirs as to a documentary source, primarily noted the utilitarian significance of life histories for their research. For a historian, any memoir or autobiography is a common narrative source, which does not always record an event accurately. In this “inaccuracy”, one can discover the sources of disregard for ego-documents, typical of researchers of the past, which is manifested in the following statement by L. von Ranke. According to it, the purpose of the autobiography is “to clarify personal connections; historians must be careful not to let themselves be taken away by the recollections and disengage from the ups and downs of the personal life described in them.”1 The fictional level of memoirs, the psychologism of autobiographies and personal notes were of even smaller interest for historians. The latter considered these aspects to be within the field of activity of literary critics. Keeping in mind the historiographic views dating back to half a century ago, historians saw autobiographies only as auxiliary empirical material, the social function of which is very subjectified.2 Subjectivity (which, in the opinion of A. Tartakovsky, an outstanding source-study expert of the stagnation period, is a “personal beginning as a structure-forming principle”), retrospectiveness (or “double vision”), and memory as an indicator of the selectivity of material fixation were considered the main features of ego-documents.3 For decades, historians taught the younger generation of analysts to conduct various analytical operations, using such a type of historical sources as ego-documents. These operations included: (1) verifying the reflection of the historical setting - the time when the text was created, (2) verifying the accuracy of the information communicated in the source, (3) attributing, (4) exploring the possibility for the author to overcome the obstacles of censorship (texts not intended for printing, texts for official use, taking into account the “internal editor” involved in the preparation of the text for publication, etc.), (5) identifying the sources involved (press materials, current to the events described; personal diaries, written at the same time when the recollections were recorded - the so-called “pillars of memory”4, (6) making cross-textual (cross-memoir) comparisons and, finally, (7) analyzing of the degree of fictionalization, which, as educators insisted then, is always higher “in more public persons”, who tend to generalize, typify the phenomena they have seen.5 For all its unquestionable merits, the Soviet source study was distinguished by the desire to label the author of the text. Textbooks aimed young specialists at acquiring the ability to “characterize the personality of the memoirist (outlook, sense of tact, ability to correctly understand the meaning of events)”, to “change attitudes throughout life”. They taught the skill of diagnosing “what ideological and political stances the memoirist”, or author of some other autodocumentary text, took, “in whose favor” the text was written6, whether it was “love or hate” that moved its creator to the portrayed.7 On the basis of more than subjective assessments and views of the researcher, those specialists were asked to rank the authors of autodocumentary texts - from “outstanding historical figures who managed to reflect the thoughts and experiences of many people” to ordinary, and therefore, ... not very interesting people.8 It is curious that works by memoir researchers who were more distant from ideology (e.g., literary scholars) were also marked by a striving to introduce the concept of “more” or “less” valuable texts of recollections, to build an hierarchy from “memoir classics” to ordinary people’s recollections, and to do so on the basis of identifying “a measure of objectivity” and “a degree of public responsibility”.9 The obvious “suspiciousness” of researchers with regard to such personal sources as recollections, notes and memoirs was expressed in the fact that preference was always given to legal, regulatory, and statistical documents, created chronologically at the same time as the events described in memoirs, since those documents were considered more objective and necessary for scholars. That is why for decades, memoirs and autobiographical sources were viewed in Russian research as merely auxiliary and supplementary.10 “Direct witnesses of the document’s appearance can interpret its language better than people who approach even their own documents, but a few years later, with moods and ideas they didn’t have the moment when the document emerged”11 - this is an example of the prejudices that Soviet historical research had towards autobiographical sources when studying ego-documentary texts. A record of a life history is already a social act In the last quarter of the century, attitudes toward the descriptions of “life histories” have changed. Modern authors understand that the texts of memoirs or recollections are not only “a verbal construct, but also a social act that includes the text in the reality of human relations: promising to testify to what happened, the writer interferes in relations between people”.12 It is now clear that the controversial and the unreliable in memoirs is explained not only by the imperfect work of memory or by deliberate reserve and distortion. A certain element of unreliability is a priori embedded in the very essence of the works of memoir literature. Only the simplest information (names, dates, etc.) can coincide in works of pure memoirists; beyond this limit starts choice, evaluation, point of view.13 Every author has an internal setting for authenticity, a certain contract with the reader who is offered non-fiction prose. The modern Finnish researcher I. Savkina rightfully emphasizes that these attitudes toward authenticity are historically variable and depend on ideological, historical, cultural, ethnographic, national, gender, and many other conventions that are “relevant to the author consciously or unconsciously”.14 The interest of gender scholars and women historians in life histories and various kinds of documentary prose is directly related to disputes over whether the texts analyzed by them belong to fiction or stand on the line between documents and literature. These disputes unfolded in Russian literary criticism during the period of stagnation, when it was necessary to comprehend a huge flow of memoir texts, which literally flooded the field of scholarly research.15 Everyone who addressed them could not help but recall that the classical European literary criticism of the 19th century marked the start of the tradition to consider autobiography as “the daughter of the novel” (G. Glagau), to view it not as a documentary source, but as fiction.16 However, from the literary point of view, memoir and autobiographical prose is “an unmanifested genre” (A. Akhmatova), which is “elusive, lacking firm boundaries and rules”.17 Historians, therefore, were quite satisfied with the opinion that memoirs and autobiographies occupy an intermediate place between documents and literary works18, and the literary (writerly) level of language, the skill of expounding a memoir text, has a significant impact on the popularity of that text and its usability as a source. As noted by literary scholars, memoirs are anecdotal prose, possessing some sketchiness, set by the repetitive nature of the life course stages of any individual.19 As it turns out, in terms of genre, it the closest to the novel20, historical prose, or documentary and historical essays.21 For a gender scholar, always seeking to reveal some subtle nuances of intergender relations, it becomes very important that memoir and autobiographical prose as a genre-type phenomenon strongly appeals to the authenticity of the depicted.22 Unlike an ordinary writer, a memoirist (which is again important for understanding the relations between men and women in different eras) moves not from era to personality, but from personality (his or her own) to an attempt to characterize the time in which he (she) lived.23 The modern Russian philosopher V. Podoroga says that memoirs are “pure cinema, however, of a very specific nature; they are certain mnesic attractions with a slight presence of editing.”24 Both philosophers and literary scholars see didacticism and pathos in the texts of memoirs: authors “write themselves” to summarize their own life experience and relate it to the experience of others, but not without a purpose, but for the reader to draws his or conclusions. Author want to assert themselves and encourage certain actions.25 Whether memoirs really help in solving one’s own everyday tasks is not an easy problem: “When the memoirist fails to solve it, the memories pass by like a pelting rain and are buried in the sand.”26 And here it is very important for a women historian or a gender scholar that memoir prose be distinguished as a genre by “a specific frank intonation”.27 The author’s subjectivity becomes a peculiar form of perceiving objective reality. By identifying where exactly the author is trying to hide the personal beginning of the narrative, the analyst can identify these main points and sometimes notice that they are not only not less, but even occasionally more subjectively colored.28 A historian cannot fail to appreciate the opportunity to compare different temporary layers by analyzing oral and written autobiographies,. This gives his or her analysis greater depth and objectivity.29 A fixation on authenticity, associativity, chronology, fragmentation, factualism, retrospectiveness, subjectivity, semantic completeness (the embodiment of a certain concept of reality), a sense of uniqueness and unusualness of the lived30 - all these are common features of memoir and autobiographical literature as a whole. As another feature, historians certainly also point out the “inaccuracy of the information reported”, since memory “could have betrayed” the writer of the text.31 Such “inaccuracy” can also be caused by other reasons, such as the desire to “embellish” reality, to make up something that never existed in reality32: there was considered to be no place for “the smoke of legends and rumors” in a scholarly work.33 A “room of one’s own”: the place of women’s autobiographical texts in the totality of memoirs, and their differences from men’s Without dwelling on the psychological types of autobiographies, I note that the analysis of life histories makes it possible to distinguish three main types of information that are methodologically important for a historian: (1) content and factual; (2) content and conceptual, and (3) informative.34 The first of these three types prevails in memoirs of the military, which are also characterized by time-space concreteness, exact naming of places, names, etc. In memoirs of scholars, there is a balance between the first and second types. In memoirs of politicians, it is the second type that prevails, which is even more apparent in memoirs of people of art, referred to by researchers as memoirs of “double or maximum subjectivity”.35 At the same time, in the long history of autobiographies, female names are significantly less frequent than those of men... Women wrote their life histories less often than men; I have already written about the features of female autobiographical prose separately36, so here I will only reiterate the most important aspects... The ability to write one’s own life history (or part of it - as notes or recollections of some life event) is a psychologically complex action of an individual who has succeeded as a personality. It has always been more difficult for women to become personalities, to be held as personalities. “A devastated, broken, lost person, is uncapable of writing a memoir.”37 This theoretical premise is similar to another one: “an autobiography is impossible in such a cultural landscape where there is no self-awareness and self-reflection.”38 However, such a cultural landscape is difficult to even imagine when it comes to women; it is not by chance that the right to self-awareness requires a special state, figuratively speaking, a “room of one’s own” (Virginia Woolf). In addition, a female individual may not be accustomed to verbalizing the reflections of her life experience or be too dependent on restrictive social conditions (when self-reflection and fixation are simply punishable). Gender history quickly found a common field with another new area in the research of the past - oral history: in the case of an oral account of her life historiy, a female memoirist does not need to “break herself” in order to overcome embarrassment: making the interviewer pledge the anonymity of the story, she sets out what is not meant for publication, but should simply “serve the science”. That is why the study of the psychology of memory was born in the context of the psychology of emotions39 and developmental psychology40 (it considers plots in connection with the features of childhood memory), sometimes, in the context of cognitive psychology.41 But alas, it is extremely rare for non-feminist psychologists to bring up the issue of gender differences in such a memory.42 Constructivist approaches to the study of historical memory, which were established in the 1930-1960-ies by F. Bartlett and G. Mead, force contemporary interpreters to pose such questions as “particularities of the memorization situation” (coverage, distance and breadth of the review), the circumstances in which everyday episodes transfer from short-term to long-term memory; ways of integrating what has been remembered into knowledge, and elimination of the contradictions between knowledge and the information obtained; the problem of repetitive experience in similar everyday situations (the so-called “re-episodic memory”) - this is especially important in the analysis of male and female texts about the same historical event or phenomenon.43 Psychologists suggest taking into account the fact that there are gender differences between the ability to vigorously experience an event and the skills of describing it (which is often easier for women); between impression and expression, the ability to be impressed and record what produced the impression.44 The problem of everyday memory is primarily the fact that ordinary people do not set themselves the objective of remembering something that is ordinary, not surprising, routine for them. In presenting the ordinary, individuals of both sexes may find something that - in their own opinion, based on individual or social reasons, - should be omitted, not mentioned.45 Women are more constrained by this kind of prescriptions, and men are inclined to the so-called “intentional verbal misrepresentation of remembered events”.46 When everyday experience is not traumatic, it is rarely subject to critical reflection and selection in recollections. One of the American psychologists divided the standards of truthfulness verification into psychological and epistemological. To the former, he referred to gender, age, character, as well as their groups (gender-age, age-character, etc.); He believed that in all studies with mixed gender groups, women’s memory turned out to be both more complete and more accurate, more saturated with details.47 He further named the context, the desire to remember or lack thereof, the degree of prevalence/ routine of the remembered, personal experience and personal memory of the listener/ reader, as factors affecting the memory of everyday events.48 A number of psychologists studying gender features of memory raised the question of how to reconstruct past events.49 Those who remember them link them either to events of public significance (death of the president, governor, the beginning or end of war, etc.), or to calendar dates (year, month, day) related to the individual’s private life.50 For women, it is not even chronological “bindings”, but emotional experiences, which are part of everyday experience, that are more significant for remembering. Researchers of ten mention them, but only when they say that there are certain cultural and social “rules” governing the understanding and interpretation of everyday ones. I am not talking about “biological heritage”, which, from the point of view of traditional (non-gender) psychology, defines “interpretation, evaluation, manifestations of emotions and their construction in social interaction”. Sources of emotional reaction, receptors, structure, expression and the experience that follows - such is the “scheme” of any emotional reaction to an event (incident).51 However, this “scheme” has large ethnocultural, historical, chronological variations.52 It is culture and epoch that determine emotional reactions; therefore, the same emotional stimulus can provoke such reactions as anger, fear, pride, or disappointment. There are undoubted gender differences in the types of emotional reactions to the same event53, it is where psychologists look for explanations of discrepancies that discrepancies begin. Supporters of the gender concept believe that the reason consists primarily in different ways of socializing different-sex children, which causes children different types of emotional reactions, and not at all in the basic physiological differences between men and women (as “ordinary” researchers believe).54 A common feature in the assessments of psychologists of these areas is the conviction that mothers show greater communicative links and greater empathy in relations with daughters (especially when experiencing negative emotions and events that caused them) .55 Women generally speak (and write) about emotional life more often than men, which also (according to gender psychologists) is a consequence of the development of this psychological need in women by society. It is for the same reason that women are more normative in their reactions56 - when they are expected to express “condolences”, they sympathize, when they are expected to cry, they cry, etc. Men most often talk about work in their autobiographies. The female presence in their stories about the past cannot be called minimal, but it is only included in them to some degree57, therefore, according to a German researcher who interviewed Swiss men born in the 1920s-1930s, the female characters in their autobiographies are either secondary, or “vague” in their roles in the “everyday scene”.58 A. Lehmann called stories about family life in men’s “life histories” “a black hole in male autobiographies”59: men talk primarily about work, the second frequent topic being stories about serving in the army (or, sometimes, thematization of political orientations and preferences) and, finally, (speaking the recollections of men who grew up in the former GDR and are currently living in the territory of the former East Germany), sports.60 The gender approach to analyzing collected texts found itself in the initial premises of the interpreter-researchers: they state that both “biography” and “gender” are inseparable social constructs [which, of course, shows that structural functionalism and social constructivism remain their common methodological approach to research]. The consequence of this is the type of teaching ability to talk about oneself which leads to the results obtained (men do not talk about their emotional, family, private life) 61 - even obvious events of emotional and private life, are ultimately given a different meaning (during subsequent reflection and recollection retelling); the presence of a “tension line” between male hegemony in the existing social order and the destructive tendency of legal equality (equal pay for equal work regardless of gender) .62 The second obvious conclusion when comparing male and female autobiographies is the individualization and independence of one’s own Self in stories about life: for every man his masculinity is a “competitive structure” in his own recollection stories, and therefore, it assumes that the narrator talks only about himself.63 The third conclusion: the comparability of male ideas about ideal masculinity for each age cohort: with certain personal features, almost all men of all ages include such characteristics as professionalism, realism in the assessment of the surrounding reality, and personal responsibility in the image of the “real man”; and, as if everyone is in collusion, no one tries to assess the degree of masculinity through attitudes towards women. Men’s autobiographies are simply poor in such plots: men even try to answer direct questions (How did you meet your spouse?) evasively, with excuses, briefly. In the case of the interviewer’s perseverance, sometimes it is even not joyful events, which brought together their families in the past and the present, that they recall, but the “problem areas” of family life, e.g., dissatisfaction with the wife’s too high professional engagement. However, we should not forget that the sex of the researcher, the story-collector, is also of importance when accumulating material about men’s lives: when talking to a female interviewer, the narrator describes the same life events differently than in the case with a male interviewer (in the latter case, there is a male community that emerges immediately, and, at the same time, hierarchies typical for relations between men).64 Gender aspect of studying the psychology of memory: main results Difficulties and discrepancies in the interpretation of the results obtained about differences in male and female assessments of events are usually explained by a simplified approach to systematizing the emotional reactions “recorded” in the memory of individuals. In conventional research schemes, they are simply divided into negative and positive, while in reality, emotional reactions are not reducible to a simple scheme or to the two categories indicated above. R. Fivush, who was particularly engaged in the study of emotional experiences in stories about the past by representatives of different generations, noted that almost all women tend to view the “emotional” as the basis of interpersonal constructs, and men tend to assume that it constructs the individual, private world of a person.65 In addition, the verbal palette for describing the experiences is incomparably wider in women and girls than in men.66 How possible is it to combine individual autobiographical narratives - male or female - for memory analysis? What techniques can be offered here? In order to formalize the material described in autobiographies (life stories, recollections, etc.), some researchers propose to separate individual episodes of biographies (personal memory) and common, “recollected” memory (similar episodes of biographies of representatives of the same social class, generation and so on.) - “a set of similar individual life episodes”67, which were not something special, distinguished for memorization, but were firmly imprinted in the memory, as time passed. An important aspect of the psychological study of memory is the question of whose memory the text reproduces, and the answer to it lies in what causes the recollection of this or that event, what is the reason for writing the autobiography, who - in a simpler case - demands, “Recall!” (and consequently, “Forget!” regarding other information). In a broader sense, this is a question of the interaction of an individual and the cultural stereotypes which construct his or her “remembrance” and make him or her omit something that is not essential for society. T. Trabasso, who studied the influence of these stereotypes, came to the conclusion that memorization from this point of view is determined by social roles, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values, social connections and relations, the ability to use language to express these experiences (linguistic competence), motivation for respect for one person or another.68 In the relationship between an adult and a child, the question of whose memory is reproduced by a recollection is particularly acute; however, in the relationship between, e.g. a journalist and a narrator, an ethnographer and a respondent, this question turns out to be relevant, although more hidden.69 Finally, the written text of the recollections always contains the author’s intention to take them down - it also derives from the factors listed above (values, beliefs, etc.). It is not surprising that, wishing to remove the mediation described above, psychologists (and not at all adherents of feminist anthropology, in which the requirement below is one of the fundamental ones) are now actively proposing to conduct audio and video recording of reported recollections, in order to obtain additional information about what is hidden intentionally or unwillingly, to analyze non-verbal interactions.70 Ultimately, the analysis of poorly researched female autobiographies (which are even referred to as autogynographies in feminist literature) versus male or autonomous ones is the basis for the tactics of building one of the grounded theory about the functioning of the female community. The unrealized task so far consists not so much in confirming or verifying existing opinions and assessments concerning the texts themselves, but in creating - through testing hypotheses - some mini-theory concerning certain general social female experience or, more precisely, the survival of women in the male community. Of course, the experience of historical analysis, “oral history” helps to fill those pages of women’s history that have been documented scarcely and poorly. Therefore, women’s autobiographies are a way to create a “databank”, an “archive of women’s history”; to enrich the knowledge about the socio-historical context of women’s life in different historical eras. Externally similar facts of life, sometimes hide different social meanings of human actions, social behavior of individuals. The discovery of the gender aspect of these differences is a heuristically relevant and important research task.71

Natalia L Pushkareva

N.N. Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology

Author for correspondence.
32 a, Leninsky Prospect, Moscow, 119334, Russia

Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor, Нead of the sector of ethniс and gender studies, N.N. Miklukho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, President of the Russian Association for the Study of Women’s History (RAIZHI).

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