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‘Life itself is a quotation.’

– Borges

‘We, not Hamnet who died young, nor Susanna and Judith, who survived their father, are Shakespeare’s true children.’

– C. Kegan Paul

‘But now all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left to me.’

– Susan Barton in Coetzee’s Foe

Writing life? One might first of all wonder whether life can be written. On reflection, of course, it quickly becomes apparent that life is written constantly. Literature and popular narrative across various media conjure entire communities, breathing life into fictional characters that often then live on beyond the confines of the work in which they first appear. Biographies and autobiographies dominate the book publishing market, from serious literary biographies to the ghost-written semi-autobiographies that have become a staple of celebrity culture and its marketable dissemination. Philosophy, now as always, writes life, exploring its meaning and what it might be to live a good life. The rights and attendant obligations of life are decided upon and codified in legalese, ready then to be invoked in the name of the law. The field of medical ethics writes of life on the margins and in extremis, exploring beginning-of-life and end-of-life issues and questions of biogenetic manipulation. History writes of lives past, and with the advent and proliferation of digital media, life has come to be written—recorded and remade—online, in personal blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook etc by countless millions of people every day. Even when confronted by death the dominant cultural impulse is usually to write life: to obituarise, elegise, memorialise and generally to ponder, often in writing, the value of life. Arguably, then, life has never been more ‘written’ and we have never before been so engaged in, and exercised by, writing life.

Indeed, writing, in one form or another, has so colonised ‘life’ that imagining life unwritten is anything but a straightforward task. Is it even possible or desirable? And if it is, are there any identifiable strategies for bypassing or minimising the writerly mediation of life? How is unwritten life reflected in literature and other forms of narrative? The lessons of theory might well incline us to dismiss the idea of unmediated or unwritten life as naïve. If there is nothing outside of the text (as the mistranslation of Derrida’s observation usually has it) then why should we think life is an exception? Isn’t it a truism of theory that, in some sense, writing begets life? It is a Lacanian and, more broadly, a poststructuralist orthodoxy that we become who we are upon entering into language. Postcolonial theory, conversely, highlights the ways in which life can be stunted, subjugated and ultimately denied through the control of language—it is not the subaltern, after all, who writes life.

But what are the consequences of giving up the idea of life as, at the very least—that is, in its minimal instantiation—the bare substratum of existence that remains when everything else, writing included, has been subtracted? Following Foucault, for instance, Giorgio Agamben is inclined to see modernity defined by a wholly new and insidious political mediation and manipulation of such ‘bare life’. In other words, modernity can be understood as the era in which a properly pre-scriptive form of life is in effect proscribed, rendering life entirely prescribed. Life thus written might be considered biopolitically inscribed, attesting to the pervasive reach of modern biopower. Or is there a way in which the act of writing life can resist and push back against the tendency to see life as already written? And if, in the final analysis, life is always mediated by writing, and must therefore be judged indistinguishable from the written, might one want to argue that unwritten life—life not traversed by writing (and all that that entails)—is, to use Wallace Stevens’s phrase, a necessary fiction? Might it be necessary, in other words, to write (and thus ‘right’) unwritten life?

This symposium seeks to address such questions, but it is by no means limited to them. Indeed the organisers hope that the ways in which the topic ‘Writing Life’ will be taken up will be as rich and as variegated as life itself is proverbially held to be. Obvious points of focus will be literary biography, realism in literature, subjectivity and characterisation in literature, biopolitics, posthumanism, the vitalist turn in theory, the various forms of life writing facilitated by the new media, and so on, but there are many other topics to explore, such as, for instance:

  • Different media for writing/inscribing/adapting life
  • Life on the screen 
  • Life in-between the virtual and the real
  • Role-playing life online
  • Mediation and its (epistemological, political, ethical) problems
  • The complications of realism and mimesis 
  • Writing as life-affirming/negating
  • Unwritten life, the bare life, and life as Other
  • Writing as learning how to live/die
  • Life as after-life and resuscitating life
  • Writing life poetically
  • Writing life and disability
  • Epistolary life
  • auto-hetero-bio-thanatographies
  • Writing life and ecocriticism
  • Writing animal life
  • Writing gendered and queered life
  • Recollecting life


Abstracts of not more than 300 words, accompanied by a brief biographical note, should be emailed by 11 February 2013. The organisers are planning to publish selected Symposium papers in the postgraduate journal Antae.

Last Updated: 12 December 2012

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