Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Histories of the Self

The notion of the liberal, autonomous self is being challenged in new and unexpected ways in the post-post-modern, post-truth era. On the one hand, new technologies are disrupting our understanding of social relations and re-configuring our bodies; on the other, trends in neuroscience and ‘deep history’ are telling us that human nature should be understood at the level of our brains and cells. But what does that mean for the way we write history? This week’s session will consider how the notion of the historical ‘self’ has changed over time, and how looking for new types of selves in the past can sometimes lead to problematic history.


Core Readings

Roy Porter, “Introduction”, in Roy Porter, ed., Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present, 1 edition (London ; New York: Routledge, 1996).

Anna Krylova, “The Tenacious Liberal Subject in Soviet Studies,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 1, no. 1 (2000): 119–46.


Seminar Questions

  • How have histories of the self changed in the era of ‘identity politics’?
  • In what ways have new conceptions of human nature impacted on how historians imagine the people of the past?
  • In the case of Soviet history, what problems were caused by historians’ attempts to find a ‘tenacious liberal subject’ in the Stalinist system? How have historians tried to overcome these limitations?
  • How might we write better histories of the self?


Further Readings

Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1999)

Anna Clark, Alternative Histories of the Self: A Cultural History of Sexuality and Secrets, 1762-1917 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017)

Peter Heehs, Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self (Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2013)

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Carlson, David, ‘Autobiography’, in Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann (eds.), Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History, (London; New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 175–91.

Caruth, Cathy (ed.), Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

Eakin, Paul John, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Halbwachs, Maurice, On Collective Memory, trans. by Lewis A. Coser (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Lejeune, Philippe, On Autobiography, ed. by Paul John Eakin (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

Olick, Jeffrey K., Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy (eds.), The Collective Memory Reader (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Popkin, Jeremy D., History, Historians, and Autobiography (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Tumblety, Joan (ed.), Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject (London: Routledge, 2013).

Please also consult the reading list of week 10.


Truffle Hunt

Truffle Hunt: Primary Sources: Histories of the Self

Historians of the self often rely on what we term ‘ego documents’: memoirs, autobiographies, diaries, letters and other sources written by an individual about him or herself. These documents give us access to information about how individuals think about themselves, and how they relate themselves to other people, and to the wider social landscape.

Ego documents relating to key political and cultural figures can be relatively easy to find: look for published political biographies, diaries of artists or writers, or collections of letters by individuals that you have encountered in your history modules. For more marginal figures, you may need to track them down through their encounters with others (letters to government organisations, for example, or accounts of a meeting or speech).

When reading ‘ego documents’, it is important to pay attention, not just to the factual information the source contains, but its intention and style, and what it can tell us about the identity, emotions, and experiences of the individual writer. Such documents are sometimes dismissed as ‘biased’ (a terrible word!), because they give a partial and subjective view of a historical moment. Yet for the historian of the self, it is that subjectivity that interests us: these documents can tell us a lot about the person, their self-understanding, their emotions, and their worldview.

When faced with an ego document, therefore, the historian must ask a series of questions. These can include:

  • Who wrote this source, and when?
  • What was the historical context, both of the events depicted, and the time in which the source was written?
  • What was the intended audience of the source? In what ways does the author address the audience, and how does this shape the source?
  • Do the events depicted in the narrative accord with our wider understanding of the historical record? Are there gaps, repetitions, or distortions? How might we understand them?
  • If the source is about an event, then how is it experienced? Do we see any privileging of emotional, sensory, or gendered understandings?
  • How does the author understand his/her own identity, his/her relationship to certain individuals and communities, and to history?
  • Can we see this account as representative, either of a particular community, or of the wider social experience?