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Milan Kundera's novel Immortality bears a close relation to contemporary social science debates about the production of the self. Commentators like Kleinman and Mishler seem to have introduced a new version of authenticity based on a reinvention of the Romantic subject with the interview (as the medium) and the narrative (as the content) portrayed as the means for constructing and sharing biographical experience. Unlike such contemporary Romantics, Kundera examines how the subject is constructed in literary biography and mass media "imagology." The authors show how Kundera's work leads in two possible directions: an analysis of the interview society and a concern with strategies for the invention of the self. By locating styles of the self, the authors reveal lively and skillful biographical work, overlooked by cultural critique and not reducible to any structural determinism.
The collection and celebration of personal narratives has become a major preoccupation for many contemporary sociologists and others in the social and cultural disciplines. Although it is by no means universal, there is a widespread assumption that such data provide uniquely privileged means of access to the biographically grounded experiences and meanings of social actors. Contemporary sociologists and anthropologists who espouse qualitative research methods often put special faith in the interview as the prime means of data collection. For survey researchers, the interview can be a reliable research instrument giving valid data on facts and attitudes. For the qualitatively minded researcher, the open-ended interview offers the opportunity for an authentic gaze into the soul of another, or even for a politically correct dialogue where researcher and researched offer mutual understanding and support. The rhetoric of interviewing in depth repeatedly hints at such a collection of assumptions. Here, we see a stubbornly persistent Romantic impulse in contemporary sociology: the elevation of the experiential as the authentic. Even when researchers and methodologists endorse more sophisticated versions of research interviewing, there is often an implicit appeal to the authenticity of narrated experience in the dialogic revelation of selves. In the course of this article, we explore some key features of this contemporary commitment to the interview, its role in the sociological celebration of the self, and some literary parallels to our observations. We argue that in promoting a particular view of narratives of personal experience, researchers too often recapitulate, in an uncritical fashion, features of the contemporary interview society. In this society, the interview becomes a personal confessional, and the biographical work of interviewer and interviewee is concealed. By juxtaposing sociological and literary sources, together with examples drawn from popular culture, we are able to gain greater analytic purchase on the general phenomenon, as well as some of its particular manifestations in social inquiry.
As Gubrium and Holstein (1995a) pointed out, biography is "work" precisely because it is the outcome of participants' creative activities. However, the emphasis on "creativity" should not be equated with the arbitrary construction of lives in some "contextual vacuum" (p. 46). Instead, biographical work "reflects locally promoted ways of interpreting experience and identity so that what is constructed is distinctively crafted, yet assembled from the meaningful categories and vocabularies of settings" (p. 47). As ethnographers, Gubrium and Holstein show how the "local cultures" of institutional milieux create biographies that are organizationally "embedded." Using a bigger palette, the novelist Milan Kundera has enlarged this sense of embeddedness to the political and cultural structures of the (post)modern world. We bring together the literary and cultural perspectives suggested by Kundera and the implications of current sociological interests in lives, narratives, and voices. We suggest that sociologists have much to learn from Kundera's literary imagination, not least as a corrective to uncritical, neo-Romantic celebrations of the speaking subject.
Kundera's (1991) novel Immortality is also relevant to our understanding of how literary productions respond to a postmodern world. In The Material Word (Silverman & Torode, 1980), one of the present authors analyzed fictions by Kafka and Robbe-Grillet. But both Kafka and Robbe-Grillet are modernists -- concerned to show our entrapment in language (representing the beginning and end of modernism, respectively). With Kundera, however, we enter postmodern territory. We are no longer concerned with the structures of language but free-floating signifiers. There is no appeal to an underlying reality, only a pastiche of simulations. In the postcommunist world of Immortality, the peoples of Eastern Europe still March, but the banners show Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse rather than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Disney has replaced Marx, but kitsch lives on and the spectacle is no less political. In this sense, Immortality is also instructive for current social science debates relating the postmodern to the self (see Gubrium & Holstein, 1994).
The following are some of the themes on which this article dwells. In doing so, we seek to link Kundera's fictional text to social science work on styles of the self. This leads to the threefold structure of the article as follows:
1. An examination of Kundera's discussion of how the subject is constructed in literary biography and mass media "imagology."
2. A critique of some contemporary sociological and anthropological interests in the interview as a method, and in narratives and voices as the outcomes of interviewing.
3. An analysis of how Kundera's work leads in two fruitful directions: a depiction of what we can the interview society and an analysis of styles of the self.
In pursuing this argument, then, we seek to promote a view of the interview society that suggests a research program transcending the specifics of interviewing as a research method, or of narrative analysis, to focus attention on biographical work in general. Our interest, then, is not in how to improve researchers' interviewing practices or to propose particular analytic strategies for the outcomes of interview studies. Rather, our general interest lies in a yet more general concern; that is, the current preoccupation with interviewing, life histories, narratives of personal experience, and the expression of actors' voices. It is our contention that sociologists' methods and analyses reflect a wider cultural preoccupation with the interview and personal revelation as a technology of biographical construction.
THE SUBJECT IN KUNDERA
Milan Kundera is a Czech novelist who, since the mid-1970s, has lived in Paris. This has not endeared him to some of his compatriots, who have constructed a contrast between Kundera and Vaclav Havel. Havel, of course, remained in Prague under the communist regime, was imprisoned and is now president of the Czech Republic. Moreover, unlike Havel, many of Kundera's latest works appear to have minimal links to clearly Czech themes. Indeed, Kundera has now taken out French citizenship. Thus, compared to Havel, Kundera might be accused of taking the easy option of success in the West.
In this snapshot, we are already constructing a personal and political biography Yet, the construction of selves, through the relationship between the personal and the political, is precisely Kundera's topic. In The Joke, a couple make sense of their relationship in the context of the Eastern European version of kitsch. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the alternating desire for personal lightness (no commitments) and weight (being committed) is played out by selves who emerge within a cultural order. Finally, in Immortality, shifting between today and Goethe's time, Kundera's musings about the construction of biography lead directly to the politics of the self.
In one of Immortality's subplots, Goethe is in heaven, describing a dream to Hemingway It involves a puppet theater production of his Faust:
And then I suddenly glanced at the seats and saw that the theatre was empty.
That puzzled me. Where was the audience? ... I expected them out front, and
instead they were at the back of the stage, gazing at me with wide-open,
inquisitive eyes. As soon as my glance met theirs, they began to applaud. And
I realized that my Faust didn't interest them at all and that the show they
wished to see was not the puppets I was leading round the stage, but me
myself! Not Faust but Goethe! (p. 93)
From heaven, Goethe understands that his audience is more interested in backstage than frontstage; more concerned with the celebrity than his text. In literary biography, immortality arises in the construction of such a celebrity. In this sense, immortality is not a modern phenomenon -- not invented by Andy Warhol's dictum that everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. Kundera tells us about the astronomer Tycho Brahe, who is now mainly remembered less for his work than for his incontinence at a dinner at the imperial court. Similarly Beethoven passed into memory via an account of how he had failed to tip his hat to the empress, unlike Goethe who had responded deferentially.
In the 20th century, biography constructs its subjects in the same way, although using a wider range of media. Take Kundera's account of the treatment of Ernest Hemingway by his biographers. On French radio, after an advertising jingle, the announcer tells us that the 127th biography of Hemingway is truly …