4/5 Research Stands / Constructing the Subject


Constructing the Subject


Studying the history and theory of biography is about questioning why and how individual lives are narrated and received, what kinds of knowledge life stories reveal, as well as exploring the critical implications of particular life-historical events. The research strand ‘Constructing the Subject’ is dedicated to these and related questions in the context of individual life stories. It is twentieth-century and Central European in focus.

The writing of biographies is often about finding narrative threads and continuities that bind different events and periods in a life together in a coherent way. On the other hand, certain kinds of event are often treated as rupture in life stories, although the idea of ‘rupture’ can also be questioned.  In twentieth-century Europe, forced emigration and exile were all too frequent events and the defining feature of many lives. National Socialism forced countless Central Europeans to flee to Western Europe, the Soviet Union and the Americas, while during the Cold War, new political conditions dictated different paths and patterns of migration. Exile is a rupture in a tangible biographical sense:  it means leaving behind homes, possessions, and communities. Migration creates ruptures in the cultural lives of nation-states and new impulses in others, as writers, artists, and intellectuals move to other shores.

It is not only the things that are lost, but also the things that are gained that create interest in such biographical narratives. The impact of major historical events on individual life stories need not only be seen in a negative mode. There is often a productive-destructive dialectic implicit in such events: new circumstances bring new insights and exposure to different ideas. The twentieth century was often tragic and bloody, but it also saw transnational lives become the norm for many people, requiring them to develop ways of coping with discontinuity and ruptures in their life stories.

‘Constructing the Subject’ is about examining the formulations and reformulations of biographical narratives. The projects of this research strand each throw a different light on questions of twentieth-century history, in particular on the dominant ideological tension between communism and liberalism. How individual biographical subjects responded to the central political questions of their time has helped determine the reception of their work and the way their lives have been written.

Oskar Pastior

Arthur Koestler

Hungary 1919: The Allure of Communism


Ludwig Boltzmann Institute
for the History and Theory of Biography

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