Memoire Projects

Looking back on our Workshop on 2 December at the Cohrs Café, Mannheim

On 2 December, we had the great pleasure to host an evening event at the Café Cohrs in Mannheim on biographical writing and the narratives biographies generate as well as on our ideas about digital biography. Besides, we had our first opportunity to present ourselves as an enterprise featuring this subject, and to convey an understanding maybe why it is that what we call biographical knowledge cannot casually be produced in passing and privately, but requires instead clear organizational structures – after all, it‘s cost-intensive work that goes along with it.

In my presentation, I started out from a distinction which in everyday life we‘re usually not compelled to make and whose respective terms we therefore tend to treat as synonyms. Talk here is of the distinction between curriculum vitae (as in course of life) and biography. Some remarks by sociologist Alois Hahn were apt to point out the marked difference between these categories: that a CV has a clear starting point – that is, birth – whereas biographies, according to Hahn, may „encompass much broader time frames, which include the future and past way beyond one‘s own lifetime.“ Biography thus turns out as not only as the narration of a CV, but also, because it embeds a course of life within a historical continuum, as a narration of history, or „history-telling“.

Usually, many biographies get compiled about most people as long as they live. They either do it themselves or others to do it on them – be it in the form of classic CVs as drafted for job applications, or in the form of stories and narratives which become all the more numerous the longer someone lives – and taking it from there I went on to talk about the sources that biographical narratives refer to. But also, how – by and by – the portrait of a person can be drawn using such sources. As applies with any form of portrait, biographical portraits do not display the respective person, either, „what she was like“; rather, they construe a somewhat more reflected perspective on a person in his or her time. Based on my biography of Klaus Mollenhauer and by presenting some of the sources I worked with, however, I wanted to show, too, how single biographies can bring something out that‘s usually withdrawn from people‘s perception: e.g., how the move into a generational framework or how parts of their biography become historical even within their life time.

A central interest of mine and our company – which we came to talk about last on this pleasant evening riddled with interesting discussions – was the possibilities opening up in the digital world in particular, thanks to its enormous storage capacities and thanks to its simple options in visualizing, in the field of biographical narration. Really, opportunities were arising just now to generate biographical narratives, conceived on a broad collective scale and allowing for its sources to be checked and tracked, as it has only been possible so far on the level of single biographies. Digital biographical archives, whose central source material would be narrative film interviews, would – and this was our argument – make it possible, on the one hand, to make visible processes of the formation of generations, as it could be seen, e.g., how people‘s use of language changes by and by between birth cohorts when describing their everyday problems, but also how new topics and issues come while old ones vanish. On the other hand, it would be possible just as well to follow such accounts on the individual level. So it would possible to show both – and in high resolution: the supra-individual perspective, in which narratives become historically comparable, and the individual one, in which what is subjectively particular is expressed. In the form of book, it was our point, this would simply be impossible for collective biographies. In the digital sphere it would become visually possible – thus creating new forms of biographical narration, too.

Besides discussions with regard to content, events like these often also bring up valuable new ideas, like, for instance, to establish a series format on biographical and contemporary history topics. We‘ll see what might become of that. Naturally, we‘d much appreciate it. But for now, we would like to warmly thank Daniela Cohrs for providing the premises which are not just perfectly suited for events like ours. We wish for her to be able to establish something similar – which would also be a big gain for Mannheim‘s cultural life.

Alex Aßmann