Auto/biography, Polyphony, Plurivocality
XVI International Symposium of the Scientific Observatory for Written, Oral and Iconographic Autobiographical Memory
Cultural Association Mediapolis.Europa
19-20-21 June 2017
in collaboration with the
l’Istituto Centrale per i Beni Sonori e Audiovisivi,
la Biblioteca di Storia Moderna e Contemporanea,
Via Michelangelo Caetani 32 – 00186 Roma
and with
la Casa della Memoria e della Storia,
Via di S. Francesco di Sales, 5, 00165 Roma

Polyphony, plurivocality, dialogue, remake: what role do these play in autobiographical narration? Does quotation – reference to other texts – fulfil Rimbaud’s famous and paradoxical expression Je est un autre (1871)? 

On an extreme level, two poles accompany the use of words and images taken from other contexts and transplanted into one’s own textual corpus: on the one hand, these elements can be integrated because they are interpreted as ‘carriers of truth’; on the other hand, they can be used as mere instruments (“When words are missing, they must be searched for,” says a character in Open Doors, a film taken from L. Sciascia’s eponymous book and directed by G. Amelio, with screenplay by Amelio and V. Cerami, 1990).

Antoine  Compagnon reminds us that the term ‘quotation’ did not exist in Greek and Latin (A. Compagnon, 1979, p. 95). About the depictions of various characters who speak in the first person, Compagnon writes: “Plato, who recommended diffidence towards repetition and direct speech, uses them in his text; Aristotle, who judges their power favourably, refrains from using them.” (A. Compagnon, ibid., p. 109).

The reference par excellence to the concept of polyphony is still Bakhtin’s in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929). Bakhtin shows how, in the context of Dostoevsky’s novels, it is possible to fully identify the other’s voice and the character’s own existence if it is polyphonically represented in the narration. Bakhtin claims that Dostoevsky never ascribes the characters’ world and consciousness to a pre-existing judgement. The dramaturgy retains all of its tension, never obscured by the author’s ideology.

With due distinctions, and without aesthetic ambitions, we also find this procedure in popular autobiographies and in everyday interaction; in particular, the latter aspect has been highlighted in recent sociolinguistic studies of international phenomena such as translanguaging, stylisation and crossing (Ben Rampton 2005 and Ofelia García-Wen Li, 2014).

Collage, plurivocality and pastiche in popular culture 

 Bakhtin writes: “Even an illiterate peasant, miles away from any urban centre and naively immersed in an unmoving and for him unshakable everyday world, nonetheless lived in several language systems: he prayed God in one language (Church Slavonic), sang songs in another, spoke to his family in a third, and […] he tried speaking yet a fourth language (the official-literate language, ‘paper’ language). All these are different languages […] but they were not dialogically coordinated in the linguistic consciousness of the peasant; he passed from one to another without thinking, automatically: each was indisputably in its own place, and the place of each was indisputable.” (M. Bakhtin, 1981, p. 295-6). This is a form of plurilinguism in which what is being said fully adheres to how it is being said, in a sort of primordial nominalism.

In I quaderni di Luisa, the diary of a woman who does not possess a minimal level of standard Italian, the writer each time adopts the linguistic registers of her doctor, her children’s teachers, experts speaking on the radio, thereby believing that she has the legitimacy to narrate herself. She can do so only by using other people’s words because she is not sufficiently educated and does not believe herself to be so.  Luisa picks up everything that comes from the outside, and that she deems authoritative, in order to represent herself and earn the right to speak.  In this, there is certainly an aspiration towards realism, towards testimonial value. (Luisa, I quaderni di Luisa, Piacenza, Terre di mezzo, 2002. Prize of the Archivio diaristico di Pieve S.Stefano, 1990).

The same connection applies to Clelia Marchi’s act of self-narration itself, albeit as a premise to a more general discourse; in Gnanca ‘na busìa, [not even a lie], (Milano, Mondadori, 1992), her autobiography written in the Mantuan dialect, she justifies her right to self-narrate by writing on a sheet of her marital bed because, when she was a child, her teacher had told her that the ‘Truschi’, the Etruscans, did so.

Ascanio Celestini acts as a mouthpiece for multiple voices, albeit only on stage in his theatre of narration, while nonetheless making the autobiographical tone manifest by claiming to be their interpreter. His discursive strategies are exemplary for a discourse on polyphony.

The word as logos

Quoting Boris Uspenskij, Juri Lotman reminds us that writing a text in Church Slavonic is in itself a guarantee of its truthfulness (J. Lotman 1985, p. 187). This is the same concept expressed in the text Les Maitres de la vérité dans la Grèce archaïque by Marcel Detienne (Paris, Maspero, 1967). In the Christian tradition, the place in the church in which the priest delivers his sermon is called ‘the seat of truth’. The poet, the soothsayer and the king of justice were believed to speak words of truth. A specific person, a specific language, can determine the prestige and trustworthiness of writing. This also applies to the autobiographical area of interest. 

The adoption of a foreign language, or of fragments thereof (think of 19th-century Russian nobility as narrated by Tolstoy), or of certain registers, often confirms the aspiration towards a testimonial and truthful realism, to an identity pursued by following linguistic models.

The absolute narrating ‘I’ beyond plurivocality

In popular culture, as well as in everyday interaction, adherence to languages that are perceived as ‘other people’s’ is not filtered by aesthetic criteria and reveals the intention to assimilate one’s own image to the many situations to which one intends to somehow belong. In contrast, in high culture, first and foremost in the 19th century – as Barthes writes in the case of Flaubert – the writer wants to prevent the reader from understanding the speaker because this is the real aim of writing (R. Barthes, S/Z, translated by Richard Miller, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, Massachusetts, 1974, p. 140). The famous statement La Bovary c’est moi is attributed to Flaubert, essentially meaning that a writer’s every act is autobiographical. According to the well-known definition provided by Barthes himself, at the border between écrivains et écrivants, the recognisability of the sources takes on different functions.

In his autobiographical treatise Secretum (1347-1349), Petrarch mentions himself through an imaginary dialogue between himself and St Augustine, in which he puts excerpts from his own works in the Father of the Church’s mouth in support of his excusatio (as he accuses himself of being afflicted by sloth)! These interventions are comparable with plastic surgery.

The epistemic horizon (Cesare Segre, Intrecci di voci, Einaudi, Torino, 1992, see in particular Riflessioni sul punto di vista, pp. 13-26) can become flat or become dialect, act in additional forms or in forms strongly put into perspective. In the latter case, the sources that are not intended to be found in predetermined contexts, as the aspiration of the peasant evoked by Bakhtin proves to be, are made unidentifiable.

Pasolini also wrote about the functioning of high and low culture, and their respective ways of copying and quoting (Antonio Piromalli, Domenico Scarfoglio, 1976, p. 60).

Writing is always rewriting

Quoting in full; becoming the source. Borges’s paradox: what does Pierre Menard do when rewriting Don Quixote? It seemed to him that being a 17th-century novelist in the 20th century was a simulation. Being somehow Cervantes, and thereby arriving at Don Quixote, seemed less arduous to him; so, in this anachronism and simulation of time, Menard expunges his autobiographical profile and becomes tout court Cervantes himself (Jorge-Louis Borges, “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijotte” – Ficciones, in  Obras Completas I, ed. Rolando Costa Picazo and Irma Zangara, 2009, [1944], pp. 842-847). No need to mention how many interpretations Borges offers as he overturns completely the meaning commonly given to the artifice of quotation and surreptitious appropriation of the voice of other people. Was Borges thinking, albeit with irony, about the ultimate meaning of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, and especially Kierkeegard’s Repetition? About the need to return to the same place, to repeat some key passages of one’s own life in order to re-cognise oneself? Kierkegaard takes a critical stance towards Hegel’s dialectical philosophy and suggests the idea that repetition, similar to the Greek concept of reminiscence, evokes that which has already been, and by repeating it, he makes it live again in the present, turning it into an act.  Kierkegaard claims that the word ‘mediation’ is foreign not only in its form (specifically, German) but also in its value: instead, to repeat is to take back, to give once again life to the moments that man in his complete uniqueness has chosen as cornerstones of his existence in order to be free.

We also find the act of self-recognition through repetition in Casanova, albeit with different argumentations; at the beginning of his Mémoires (The Complete Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt) – originally written between 1789 and 1798, and published posthumously -, Casanova affirms his Esse est percipi through reminiscence: “By recollecting the pleasures I have had formerly, I renew them, I enjoy them a second time, while I laugh at the remembrance of troubles now past, and which I no longer feel […] I know that I have lived because I have felt; […] I know likewise that I shall exist no more when I shall have ceased to feel.”

In the above-mentioned cases, deliberately returning to the same memories, to the same places, and to the same gestures is regarded as a connection to, and proof of, one’s own existence, recognition of one’s own original components. In contrast, for Gilles Deleuze, eternal recurrence serves only to reveal the absence of an origin, the delusion of its inconsistency (Gilles Deleuze, 1968, p. 164).

In many respects, this claim leads us to the theories of Harold Bloom, who posits that contemporary culture can only misinterpret, copying the sources and making them unrecognisable in order to mislead, to avoid the anxiety due to the influence of our fathers (Harold Bloom, 1973).

The figurative arts and film studies have made an important contribution to this reflection; consider for example On connait la chanson (1997) by Alain Resnais, in which every character is enunciated by the refrain or by the musical score that is significant to a certain situation.  In his films, Resnais took into account the theories of neurobiologist Henri Laborit. 

Andrei Tarkovsky’s plurivocality has a different significance. In his autobiographical film The Mirror (Zerkalo, 1975), every reminiscence – be it symbolic, connected to the everyday reality of his childhood, connected to the historical reality (the Spanish Civil War and archival footage of the Second World War in the USSR) − zooms and recedes into the artist’s present. At first glance, every reminiscence has its own place in the film, but on the whole, there emerges the extraordinary picture of Tarkovsky’s way of being and perceiving, of his individual world and his belonging to Russian culture.

This call for papers is addressed to different disciplines. The primary aims of the XVI Symposium of the Observatory are the following:

a) to reflect upon the multiple forms of self-narration in the first person through the recourse or otherwise to quotations, evocations and interferences with the voice and/or with other people’s languages in written, oral and iconographic works;

b) to understand the function of these strategies in the construction of the image of the person, as well as in the way in which the latter relates to the others, for example by representing their own existence in the form of a monologue or by implementing performative processes of various kinds.

Other perspectives on the topics of plurivocality and polyphony are welcome.

Bibliographical references

Mikhail. BAKHTIN, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963), edited and translated by Caryl Emerson, introduction by Wayne C. Booth, in Theory and History of Literature, vol. 8, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1984.

M. BAKHTIN, Discourse in the Novel in The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press, Austin and London, 1981.

Beatrice BARBALATO, (ed.),  Le carnaval verbal d’Ascanio Celestini. Traduire le théâtre de narration? (dir.),  Bruxelles, Peter Lang, 2011.

B.BARBALATO «L’ipersegnicità nelle testimonianze autobiografiche», pp. 387-400, in Silvia Bonacchi (dir.), Introd. Anna Tylusińska-Kowalska, Le récit du moi: forme, strutture, modello del racconto autobiografico, in Kwartalnik neofilologiczny, Polska Akademia Nauk, Warzawa  29-30 April 2008. editor: Franciszek Grucza, publié en 2009.

Harold BLOOM, A Map of Misreading. New York, Oxford University Press, 1975

H. BLOOM, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York:, Oxford University Press, 1973.

Antoine COMPAGNON, La seconde main, Paris, Seuil, 1979.

Gilles DELEUZE, Différence et répétition, PUF 1968.

Søren  KIERKEGAARD,  La ripetizione, a cura di Dario Borso, Milano, BUR,  2008. (Gjentagelsen, 1843).

Ofelia GARCÍA, Wei LI, Translanguaging. Language, Bilingualism and Education, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Jurij LOTMAN, “Il diritto alla biografia”,  in Id. La semiosfera, Venezia, Marsilio, 1985. Dal saggio inedito  “Pravo na biografiju”, 1984.

Antonio PIROMALLI-Domenico SCARFOGLIO, Pier Paolo Pasolini, volgar’ eloquio, Napoli, Athena, 1976.

Ben RAMPTON (2005): Crossing, Manchester, St. Jerome, 2005.

Cesare SEGRE, Intrecci di voci, Einaudi, Torino,1992.


A) The deadline for the submission of papers is 15 January 2017. Candidates are asked to present an abstract of up to 250 words, with citation of two reference texts, and a brief curriculum vitae of up to 100 words, with possible mention of two publications, be they articles or books. These must be submitted online on the conference registration page of the website.

The scientific committee will read and select every proposal that will be sent to the conference registration page of the website.

For any information, please contact the following:,,

B) Notification of the accepted proposals will be given by 15 February 2017.

C) For information on registration fees, past symposia, the association’s activities, and the organising and scientific teams, please refer to our website:

The association Mediapolis.Europa contributes to the publication of the journal Mnemosyne, o la costruzione del senso, Presses universitaires de Louvain,

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Scientific Committee

Beatrice Barbalato, Mediapolis.Europa
Fabio Cismondi, Euro Fusion
Antonio Castillo Gómez, Alcalá de Henares (Madrid)
Irene Meliciani, Mediapolis Europa
Albert Mingelgrün, Université Libre de Bruxelles
Giulia Pelillo-Hestermeyer, Universität Heidelberg
Anna Tylusińska-Kowalska, Uniwersytet Warszawski


Irene Meliciani, managing director Mediapolis.Europa

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