:: Article

Random! Postmodern Bio Blurbs

By Daniel Hartley.

Gone are the golden days when an author’s bio blurb read like an obituary. Date and place of birth, occupation, current abode, names and dates of publications, year of death (if applicable): this was, apparently, all an educated public really needed to know about their writers to be able to ‘place’ their work. And as staid and conventional as that may now seem, there’s a lot to be said for this approach, not the least of which is avoiding bio-blurbs like this: “X lives in New York with her three cats. She makes cookies out of the weirdest things (and they taste REAL GOOD!). Her favourite word is ‘red’ and when it snows she wears sandals.” The only reasonable response to such postmodern narcissism is, firstly, to remind the author that we don’t actually give a damn about his or her personal idiosyncrasies, and, secondly, to ask them to grow up.

That said, it is not only younger writers who fall foul of this idiotic celebration of so-called eccentricity; as well-known a writer as Stephen Fry informs us in the author bio to his Ode Less Travelled (a wonderful book, as it happens) that “[h]is powers grow daily and his disciples are many” and that “his best friends are flowers”. Likewise, Neil Gaiman tells us that he is “a messy-haired white male author trapped in the body of an identical white male author with perhaps even less-tidy hair”, which, as author bios go, is hardly a knock-out. The point here, though, is not to be a killjoy, to declaim like a troubled old soul that the good days are behind us; rather, it is to point out an increasing trend of egoism fused with an insidious celebration of “randomness”.

Indeed, if there is any word in the English language whose current popularity is profoundly and boringly unrandom, it is “random”. Intellectual after intellectual, from Fredric Jameson to David Harvey and Terry Eagleton, have shown us that the shifts in the structure of the capitalist mode of production following World War II resulted in a new “cultural logic” which reflected those shifts. The upshot was a rejoicing in the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent, the hybrid, the liminal, the accidental, the fragmentary, the part, the border: the random. Randomness and the affirmative cries of “Random!” which accompany it are constitutive aspects of this cultural logic which has been unfurling since the postwar boom. That means that any indulgence in this logic leaves itself open to that once terrifying Enlightenment adjective: “uncritical”.

All of these aspects come together in a fairly toxic admixture in the recently-founded arts journal, A Tale of Three Cities, dedicated to London, Paris and Berlin. I use this example for two reasons: it was the first that came to hand and, also, it seems to represent a certain Western metropolitan young cultural elite. The magazine is run by “The Team”. Each member of “The Team” has a personal bio-blurb. Here, I include a selection of choice phrases from four of them: “He loves fine wine but loathes fine print, laughs maniacally in cold showers and is the 84th paid up member of the National Bookmark Society”; “She makes sandwiches out of things you don’t normally make sandwiches from, and likes simple adjectives, such as good and bad and fast”; “Like most moralists he is secretly quite sadistic. He takes photos of interesting people and interesting doorframes.”; “[she] enjoys fresh greens, Talking Heads and denim”. Given that these bios have the express purpose of making their authors seem unique, they are surprisingly uniform: they almost all mention personal taste, they are attracted to seemingly disparate objects abstracted from contexts of use (cold showers, doorframes, denim) and their tone is universally “breezy”. In fact, it is as if a postmodern biography-generator (rather like the Postmodernism Generator itself) has mechanically produced them according to a pre-programmed algorithm.

It is not coincidental, I think, that Fredric Jameson has identified a certain reduction to the present and a reduction to the body as two salient and interconnected features of postmodernism. The former refers to that feeling of historical amnesia – the sense that the past and potentially different futures do not even exist (particularly to those born after the Cold War). The latter, reduction to the body, signifies that obsession with all things corporeal which continues to rage throughout the field of Cultural Studies and beyond. What these “reductions” result in is, on the one hand, an incapacity to think alternative futures and, on the other, a difficulty to think collectively or mediately, since the body is usually reduced to the immediate corporeal individual. What the biographies of “The Team” thus demonstrate is, firstly, a reduction to the present in which objects are torn from the time of praxis and the time of narrative (the continuum of past, present and future), thereby rendering them seemingly random and contingent. Secondly, it reduces biography to bodily inclination in the form of what Kant called the “agreeable”, which he categorically distinguished from “taste” in that the former was mere individualist interest, whereas the latter was truly universal. In that sense, then, the very style of these biographies reproduces the cultural logic of late capitalism without seeming to be aware of that fact. (As does their manifesto, entitled “Solidism”, which is simply more of the same).

What we are seeing here is a tectonic shift in the ways people – especially those of the Western metropolitan cultural elite – make sense of who and what they are. There is, of course, much to be said for the postmodern: its charm is its impishness, its constant mischievous hyperactivity. Yet the obituary-style biography blurb, as static and conventional as it may seem, has the great advantage of sticking to the public realm of work and works. It is, to that limited extent, a collective form. The ideal, of course, would be a fusion of the two: a form of biography in which the collective was wholly at one with the personal. But for that form to arise we would first need an economic and political shift of a quite different order.

Daniel Hartley is a literary critic, currently writing his Ph.D. at the University of Giessen, Germany. He blogs at Thinking Blue Guitars.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 29th, 2012.