In the introduction to Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography, Smith and Watson offer an approach to studying autobiographical narrative in a way that includes the everyday story. They state, “…we move in and out of autobiographical subjectivity, sometimes by our own desire and purposes, sometimes through the exertions and coercions of others” (Smith and Watson 17). In order to access these varying identities, they suggest a “backyard ethnography” (17). This methodology focuses on everyday practices rather than canonized autobiographies (17).
They begin their argument outlining the ways in which everyday uses of autobiography can be “disciplining occasions” through which institutions exert power to conform persons through imposed autobiographies (13). They confine their argument to the postmodern American autobiographer, who is positioned in: i. globalized capitalism, ii. bureaucratized life, iii. electronic communication networks, iv. “cultural asymmetries,” and v. the imposed idea of the universal, autonomous self (3).
Within this context, it is argued that Americans are obsessed with sharing their lives, and consuming the lives of others. Americans define themselves through identification with the consumption of products “that constitute ready-made, wholesale identities” (SW 3). This practice of consumption reinforces the authoritative power of institutions “through which we negotiate our daily existence” (3). Despite the belief that the autobiographical narrative is owned by the individual, the individual is more actively representing the community than the self.
Democracy promotes the cult of the individual, romanticizing the notion of a universal, representative subject. However, this individuality must be constantly authenticated by societal constructs. Various versions of our life narratives become housed in authenticating institutional archives.
Identity is a carefully constructed social performance and is always dialogical. Institutions dictate which models of identity are acceptable in society, and subjects conform to these. To be heard, one must adhere to a culturally available identity model. This creates fear that the “true self” cannot be located, yet habitual autobiographic practice continues.
Smith and Watson then discuss the ways in which the practice of everyday autobiography can be an act of resistance. They say, “…seizing the occasion and telling the story turns speakers into subjects of narrative who can exercise some control over the meaning of their ‘lives’” (14). People can resist assigned identity through imposed systems in several ways. They can: i. choose to remain silent , ii. tell narratives appropriate to one context in a different situation, iii. dissociate themselves from the identity given to them by institutions, iv. tell their own stories to alter the subject/object binary, or v. hyperbolize their autobiography to “disrupt the scene of narration” (13).
Smith, Sidonie & Watson, Julia, ed 5. Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.