On auto-theory: Form as dress-up

A recent call for papers by a journal planning a special issue on auto-theory asked contributors to remove any identifying information and prepare their submissions for anonymous review! Not quite a paradox, since the submissions were not intended to be auto-theory, but nearly one, since one might expect even academic journal articles, if they are about auto-theory, to be somewhat personal.

I suppose it is sometimes appropriate to think of auto-theory as coming from the ‘auto’ side of things and sometimes from the ‘theory’ side. (Though no doubt there are cases that cannot be happily classified in either way.) The infusion of theoretical writing into memoir or autobiography need not, though it might, leave the surface form of the writing undisturbed. For example, The Argnonauts, by Maggie Nelson, reads as, indeed is, a memoir, but one that happens to contain a lot of theoretical writing. The inclusion of the theory does not make it anomalous as a memoir. It is there as a manifestation of its author’s own understanding of the events she writes about. But I suspect that auto-theory is more frequently thought of as the infusion of personal writing into theoretical work or theoretical contexts. In this case, disruption to the surface form is likely to be more problematic, as my opening anecdote illustrates.

In another example of auto-theory, Eve Sedgwick writes, quoting herself speaking to her therapist:

“What you completely do not seem to catch on to about these two parts of the kid [my gloss: the childish and the precocious] is that they are not separate. They are constantly whirlpooling around in each other—and the basic rule is this: that each one has the power to poison the other one. So what being a kid was like for me was, at the same time, like being an adult in bad drag as a child, and being a child in bad drag as an adult.” (Dialogue on Love, p. 30)

How perfectly this captures the spirit of my own book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!! I have already reproduced on this blog the following meme and commentary. (The commentary takes the form of embedding the meme as the top panel in another meme format known as Increasingly Verbose in which an image and text are iterated, with the image becoming progressively more abstract and the text becoming progressively more verbose.) I put it here again, now letting it resonate with Sedgwick’s beautiful description of the mutual impersonation of her adult and child personae.

Slap-Itself-commentary1slap-itself-commentary2slap-itself-commentary3

 

In thinking about Sedgwick’s passage, I am struck by how often the notion of costume comes up in my writing about my book. In the two introductions to a lecture that I posted here, the ideas of concealing oneself with a mask and of Batman’s outfit as fetish wear both appear. In this first post of mine on auto-theory, I wonder if I am like “an organ-grinder’s monkey, preening itself in an ill-fitting red military-style jacket and turquoise fez.” Here, I ruminate on the meaning of Batman’s glove. (In one of the memes that I have since decided not to include in the book, there is a reference to cosplay, as well.)

The form of a work is how it appears, how it shows itself, its costume. This form or appearance can, of course, be talked about within a work, but in being talked about, a new form or appearance is generated. Ultimately, as Wittgenstein says: “What can be shown cannot be said.” For example, my book has the form, the appearance, of an art catalogue in which an artist’s works are reproduced and commented on by an editor. But the artist and editor are, at bottom, the same person. Making this device explicit within the work is something neither the artist nor the editor can do, in their assigned roles. The attempt to articulate the work’s two-facedness (in both senses of that expression) inevitably generates an unarticulated and even trickier threefoldness. (And somewhere in there, though I won’t try to unearth it now, is a connection with the parergon.)

Putting Wittgenstein’s “what can be shown cannot be said” together with the psychoanalytic commonplace that if there is something in an analysis that cannot be said, it inevitably becomes the crux of the whole analysis, one is led, inexorably, to the conclusion that for auto-theory, form is everything. Even relatively straight memoiristic writing, such as Sedgwick’s, typically likes to dress itself up with some formal innovations. (In Sedgwick’s case, passages from her therapist’s notes, and haikus, often seamlessly integrated with surrounding text.) And in other cases, such as Kraus’s I Love Dick, one cannot separate the formal innovations of the work from its auto-theoretical intent. In the best auto-theoretical writing, the personal and the theoretical are “whirlpooling around in each other,” each appearing in the other’s clothes, each with the power to poison the other, to deflate it with a slap. This is the thrilling risk of auto-theory.


Check out my previous three posts on auto-theory: Can it be done by the privileged?Bodies that are (not) at home and Is the personal political?

Excisions: 2

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

graduation

Posted on Facebook on March 1st, 2016. The meme represents a cross-over between the world of Batman memes and the real world, my world, of academia in both content and circumstance. It was occasioned by an email from my department chair to the faculty, asking (for a second time) for volunteers to go to an impending graduation ceremony at which philosophy students would be walking. To the best of my knowledge, neither the locution “walk with x at graduation” nor the suggested practice exists, but I needed a way to imply that Batman was expected to wear academic regalia and not merely be in the audience in his Bat-Civvies, so to speak, to watch Robin graduate.

In fact, the meme was was not just occasioned by my chair’s email. It constituted my reply-to-all to it. So in this sense, the cross-over between Batman and academia was not confined to the meme’s content. It was the first time in which there was a real connection between the Batman Meme Project and my academic world. It was also the first time I confronted my colleagues, en bloc, with evidence of the Batman Meme Project. (A couple were Facebook friends and may have seen some of the previous 20 memes I had posted there by that point.) Even though I had not yet fully conceived of the philosophical work that these memes would become a part of, sending the meme in an email to my colleagues was nonetheless a sort of  philosophical ‘coming out.’ So in a way, given its content and history, and the way they are intertwined, the meme epitomizes the entire book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

I remember, after I sent that reply-to-all, being a little apprehensive at the step I had taken. What would my colleagues make of my conducting departmental business with Batman memes? What would they make of the meme itself? Predictably, I need not have worried. No-one gave any acknowledgment of it at all. My meme fell still-born from the meme generator. Not a smile in the corridor (or smiley face in an email). Not an irritated “what?” Not a concern that I was having a midlife crisis. And now, here I am, joining in the silence by excluding the meme from the book. Am I trying to reassure my colleagues? “Don’t worry! That was an accident. Won’t happen again! Look, it’s gone!”

If the meme and its initial distribution somehow represent the collision between Batman memes and academic philosophy that the book as a whole embodies, its chilly reception by a bunch of philosophers anticipates the subsequent vicissitudes of my project. Somewhat to my surprise, as I have made parts of the project public and talked about it in various places, I have encountered a small amount of outright hostility and a much larger amount of what I would call “baffled indifference” (if that isn’t too much of a contradiction in terms).

I have, as you would expect, thought long and hard about the reaction my project elicits. I don’t think it is a result of wanting to use Batman memes in philosophy per se. I can imagine ways of using them that I guess would not get the same response. But the particular use I make of them is to heighten all the peculiarities and dissatisfactions that have attended my own trajectory through philosophy.  I won’t attempt a full accounting of those here. The book itself is for that. But super-briefly, I have not settled anywhere; my work has repeatedly shifted its focus and a number of papers are one-off interventions in areas I am not expert in. As a result of this, I have found I have had to struggle to be heard. As happens to all those who engage in this struggle, my voice has had to contort itself and express itself, finally, through acting out. A ‘slap’ delivered by email to my philosophical colleagues or underlying an experimental philosophical work is an utterance in the language of hysteria. And for those not highly attuned to it, the language of hysteria must always elicit baffled indifference.


OK, that’s two for two! Once again, what I have written about this meme makes me sorry that it is being cut from the book. But here is a case where it would have been much more difficult for me to write a commentary on these lines in the book, where the commentator is notionally distinct from the meme-maker. (More difficult, but perhaps not impossible, since I approach some similar issues in my commentary to another meme.)