Biography was brought to life by Modernity. It emerged with the decline of traditional society and the emergence of an autonomous subject that henceforth would be able to master his / her own destiny. Consequently, biography suggests variability: each stage and twist in it is a consequence of individual decisions and choices among the possible alternatives.
Hence stems the first of numerous paradoxes of biography phenomenon. On one side, it is historical, as it presents a subject in its development; on the other, it assumes that a subject possesses a certain purely individual totality, which unfolds in the subject's becoming. This paradox leads us to another equally self-contradictory feature of biographical narrative. Biography is a vivid process of living one's life through creatively, so that each new turn could bring about a dramatic transformation. That is exactly the reason why biography is indissoluble from death: its essential meaning becomes evident only when life comes to an end and the potential for development is no more there. Therefore biographies are usually compiled posthumously.
Even more so – and here is a new paradox: autobiography is also associated with death, as it has an inherent suicidal note. Existence of a living person is always open, while incomplete narration, one without both beginning and end, is impossible. Anyway, there is yet another way to describe the paradox of autobiography. The very possibility of first-person narrative about oneself implies seeing oneself as if through another's eyes. To write an autobiographical account a person should imagine being someone else or see oneself with the eyes of the Other. Still, the reverse perspective is also true: any biography is also autobiography, since any biography comprises autobiography of the author.
Biographical narrative is believed to be justified by the fact that it presents a unique personal story. At the same time, biography possesses a certain transpersonal quality, as, being a literary genre, it is based on established genre topoi and conventions that provide an indispensable frame for unique individual experience. Therefore, so far as it is impossible to extract the reality of a life lived from a biographic narrative, i.e. to make it a fact of pure imagination, biography is a genre artistically inconsistent, always on the verge of fiasco. However, all at the same time, as biography is a literary genre, it is often considered to be lacking objectivity. A biography, even most thorough and based on most authenticated evidence, is not a historical record per se but a work of art.
It is not only cultural theory but also social philosophy that denies objectivity in biographical narratives. It has equally been argued that biographical narration tends to romanticize its subject, overstate his/her autonomy: shaping his/her own destiny, the subject proceeds from the opportunities and circumstances rooted in his/her social environment, that is to say, the choices of a person are largely predetermined both socially and culturally. Others point out that any story of life lived, especially a story of one's own life, is inherently motivated. Consciously or unconsciously the narrative tends to give biographical facts a predefined and subjective or even ideological interpretation
Nevertheless, this view has its counterpart in a polemical and once again pretty paradoxical reaction. Since biography is far from being an objective fact and appears more as a fictional construct, let us at least partially turn it back to objective reality by pointedly deconstructing its artistic conventionality. To evoke the title of a remarkable biographical novel of the past century (that by Julio Cortàzar), we may portray biography, of self or of another, individual or collective, as a 'model kit'. Still, another, even more radical reaction showed up. If biographies are biased by the very fact that their compilation has somehow been motivated, why not to perceive the very author's motivation and correspondent personal experience as objective entities?
Such is now the position of those who hail the end of ideologies and their 'great narratives', wherein individual lives tended either to utterly disappear behind the whole or to turn into personalised metaphors of large-scale social processes and events. The end of 'great narratives' essentially starts the 'era of biographies', with mind gravitating from heroic mythologised biographies to life stories of real people.
Finally, the phenomenon of biography suggests yet another existential paradox. People tell stories of their own or other's life so as to draw a lesson for their future existence. "One can say, paradoxically," wrote Zygmunt Bauman, "that the stories told of lives interfere with the lives lived before the lives have been lived to be told".