On auto-theory: Bodies that are (not) at home

In my first post on auto-theory in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I raised the question of whether auto-theory, arising as it does out of emancipatory political struggles, is something a multiply-privileged person like me can properly engage in.  Auto-theory is the insurrectionary intrusion of the personal into the theoretical. One way it works, according to some feminist theorists, is by orienting theory to the lived bodily reality of the author. I quoted Sara Ahmed, who describes a ‘sweaty concept’ as “one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world” (Living a Feminist Life, 13). I remarked that the body of a cis straight able-bodied white male tenured professor is not one that is generally imagined as “not at home in the world.”

But the reality is that I do not experience my body as being at home in the world at all. There are many reasons why my body does not feel ‘at home’ in the world. If I were braver, and if the anticipated result were less pitiful, I would describe a number of them. As it is, I will mention just one: how I hate the sound of my own voice. I cannot listen to recordings of it and when, as occasionally happens, I catch an echo from the inside of what it sounds like from the outside, I cringe. (I believe this is quite a common experience.)

shh
I’m very fond of this meme, which will be included in the book. It is the only one which modifies a speech bubble into a thought bubble. It is, of course, not entirely apropos relative to the point I am making in the text.

To speak in more general terms, Plato’s claim that the body is like a prison to the soul has always resonated strongly with me. I feel my body to be an alien thing, beset by inconvenient (this is hardly the right word) needs and desires.

At this point, though, my thoughts about “at homeness” in the world become confused. Feminist scholars such as Genevieve Lloyd and Andrea Nye (among others) have persuasively argued that such images of alienation from the body, along with the attendant prioritizing of mind over body, reason over emotion, action over passion, etc. (the very priorities auto-theory is aimed at overturning) are staples of specifically male-dominated philosophy. If being at home in the world means embracing the values of white men that are promulgated to the benefit of white men, then my very not feeling at home in the world (manifested in such things as hating the sound of my own voice) is part of what makes me at home in the world!

In one of the commentaries in the book, on a meme entitled Couples Therapy, I quote a passage from Andrea Nye’s book Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (1990). As a graduate student, I used to be fond of quoting this passage as an object of ridicule.

Desperate, lonely, cut off from the human community which in many cases has ceased to exist, under the sentence of violent death, wracked by desires for intimacy that they do not know how to fulfill, at the same time tormented by the presence of women, men turn to logic. (175)

Now, older, a little wiser, and more humble, I look at myself and see only its truth. (And of course, I contemn the younger man who laughed. But could my fascination have indicated, even then, some shameful self-knowledge?)

The man described in Nye’s passage is both at home and not at home in the world. Can he write auto-theory? What are the terms under which he can join, should he want to, the emancipatory struggle with which auto-theory is linked? As “at home” in the world in the sense of finding refuge in the scared hidey-hole that has been the headquarters of patriarchy, he surely has nothing to say. As “not at home” in the sense of being “desperate, lonely, wracked…,” he should surely keep his mouth shut if he doesn’t want to fall into the we cis white men have it so hard – if only you knew – in fact, we probably have it harder than trans people, people of color, women mode. Is nothing the only thing he can say?


The first part of this series on auto-theory in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! can be read here.

A third part will follow in which I discuss “the personal is political.”

On auto-theory: can it be done by the privileged?

For some years now, I have thought of my writing, in and around my book project, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, as auto-theory.  I even occasionally use the term in my  parergonal writings,  some of which will be quoted in the book.

I would like to tell you something about auto-theory at this point, but I am absolutely unqualified to do so. First, I simply don’t know enough of it, or about it. I can speak in vague generalities – the creative mingling of self-writing and theory/philosophy, with both formal and thematic implications – and I can point to some prominent examples – Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (which I briefly mention here, anticipating some of the themes of this post), Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. But for anything better, you will have to consult the experts. (I have found these recent writings by Lauren Fournier and Arianne Zwartjes helpful, as also this much earlier piece by Jane Tompkins.)

But a more profound reason why I am unqualified to speak about auto-theory is that it is a practice that springs, initially from feminist theory, and now from other identity-based approaches: queer theory, critical race theory, disability studies, trans studies, and others. It has, in my understanding, been developed as a tool of the oppressed, who have felt their oppression extended through the traditional idioms and norms of academic discourse, which privileges mind over body, abstraction over concretion, the general over the particular, the impersonal over the personal. Auto-theory’s formal novelties, its genre-b(l)ending intertwinings of the personal and the theoretical, are thus allied to a political project of liberation. Although this political project is, or should be, everyone’s, it belongs to different people in different ways. Given my position of privilege along so many dimensions, it does not belong to me, I feel, to say “what auto-theory is.”

I worry, too, that it does not belong to me to write it.

Arianne Zwartjes says that auto-theory’s

imaginative act is putting body on the same plane as intellect. What the term autotheory describes are ways of mixing “high theory” with our panting, sweating physicality, the embodied experience.

Panting and sweating. Sara Ahmed calls a “sweaty concept” “one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world” (Living a Feminist Life, 13). The body of a cis straight able-bodied white male tenured professor is not, typically, one that would be imagined as “not at home in the world.”

sweaty(1)
When I was a child, my father often quoted the saying: “Horses sweat; men perspire; ladies feel the heat.” In auto-theory, the ‘ladies’ are definitely sweating.

Consider the bravura opening of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which within ten lines gets to a brief, raw, somewhat abject description of a sexual encounter (“my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad… a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall”). Three years ago, I promised my readers they would never have to endure such writing from me. What is edgy and cool in Nelson’s work could only be sad and sordid (both in the wrong way) coming from one situated as I am.

Or take this example from Sara Ahmed. Talking of her first feminist essay, written at university, she adds this footnote:

Though one funny detail: I spelled patriarchy wrong throughout! Patriarchy became patriachy. Maybe that was a willful desire not to get patriarchy right. (271)

This anecdote is simultaneously charming and weighty. How can the anecdote pictured in this meme, from my own early educational days, compare?

Kant
Batman represents the philosopher Anthony Savile, my tutor for one term in AY 81-2 at Bedford College London.

It has some charm but none of the weight of Ahmed’s story, which comes from  someone who has fought on the front-lines against patriarchy. Ahmed writes:

It should not be possible to do feminist theory without being a feminist, which requires an active and ongoing commitment to live one’s life in a feminist way. (14)

Perhaps her point applies more generally: it should not be possible to do auto-theory without being committed to a life of emancipatory political work, work deriving from one’s body, from the very fabric of who one is.

Am I, then, just an interloper, wearing the vestments of auto-theory like an organ-grinder’s monkey, preening itself in an ill-fitting red military-style jacket and turquoise fez?


A second post on this topic follows up this one.

M.20 “Couples Therapy”

Here is the last of three actual excerpts from my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, posted a while back on the dedicated Facebook page and now transferred to this blog.

M.20 Couples Therapy

couples-full-size


M.20 Couples Therapy. Composed: February 22nd. Posted: February 29th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Arial. TB1: “How about couples therapy?”, black. TB2: “I don’t do feelings!!!”, black.


 

Another therapy-related meme. Not only does Robin acknowledge some sense of dysfunctionality in his and Batman’s relationship, he implies they are a couple. (See commentaries on M.27 and M.35 for further suggestions that the two of them may be intimately involved.) Given how they seem to be locked into a pattern of repeated abuse, it is brave of Robin to make the suggestion of couples therapy. (And see M.75.) Batman, however, contemptuously rejects the suggestion, on the grounds that he “doesn’t do feelings.” As Jennifer Matey (a philosophy professor at Southern Methodist University) pointed out in the comments to the post, Batman most certainly does ‘do’ one feeling, namely anger. (Matey’s sensitivity to the high degree of anger crammed into these memes is expressed in the comments to M.25, as we shall see.) This tension, between an attempt to renounce emotion altogether and the hypertrophy of one particular, often (though we should remember, not always) destructive emotion, is a staple of superhero culture – indeed, a staple of the culture of masculinity.

The toxic, hyper-masculine war on feelings and emotions also connects, in a roundabout way, with the logical and philosophical milieu of the artist. In graduate school, Evnine was drawn to a passage from Andrea Nye’s book Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic (1990):

Desperate, lonely, cut off from the human community which in many cases has ceased to exist, under the sentence of violent death, wracked by desires for intimacy that they do not know how to fulfill, at the same time tormented by the presence of women, men turn to logic. (175)

His interest in the passage, at the time, was as an object of ridicule, but given how well these words capture both Batman in this meme (and the superhero in general) and the stereotypical male logician (and analytic philosopher in general), we may perhaps surmise that the artist came to sense not a little truth in these words, at least as they apply to himself. Indeed, his very ridiculing of the passage as a much younger man probably betrayed an uncanny recognition of himself in an unexpected mirror. If such conjectures are not entirely ill-founded, this meme takes on an almost embarrassingly intimate and confessional tone.

Other voices

I have previously indicated that the spirit of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn hovers over my own efforts in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I first read the Sebald six or seven years ago. In the course of his loosely connected, almost free associative, wanderings from one reflection on death and destruction to another, he describes a visit to Somerleyton, the seat of an unlikely magnate from the nineteenth century, now a crumbling cabinet of curiosities in which a guided tour takes one through rooms of bygone paraphernalia. A camphorwood chest which may once have accompanied a former occupant of the house on a tour of duty to Nigeria or Singapore now contains old croquet mallets and wooden balls… The walls are hung with copper kettles, bedpans, hussars’ sabres, African masks, spears, safari trophies, hand-coloured engravings of Boer War battles… Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist… How fine a place the house seemed to me now, continues Sebald, that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.

In order to avail myself of its riches in the execution of my own current project, I recently started to re-read Sebald’s work – with some trepidation, since time leaves nothing unaltered. And indeed my experience of it has been rather different. On my first reading, I recall being enveloped by a single sustained mood, utterly enchanted. Now, owing perhaps to the somewhat difficult circumstances in which I have been re-encountering Sebald’s melancholy ramblings, my experience has been highly fragmented. I have learnt to recognize, and hence occasionally be irritated by, some of his mannerisms. Parts of the book have moved me nearly to tears while other parts have felt forced and predictable. I have little doubt that the differences here come from me and do not reflect substantial variations in the quality of Sebald’s writing.

One mannerism, which I had either not noticed on my first reading or else had forgotten about, is the way in which Sebald mentions a work by some other writer and then begins, without any warning (and hence without the use of quotation marks), to quote from it. One does not always realize this is happening until one runs into the use of a personal pronoun which is clearly the original author’s and not Sebald’s. At this juncture, Sebald will insert text into the quotation that alerts the reader to the dislocation of the personal pronoun, as I did two paragraphs above.

I had determined that I would use this technique to incorporate some of Sebald’s own book into the commentary on a meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne, who himself is the subject of some of Sebald’s reflections and whose own spirit evidently infuses his work.

number5
Meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne
Browne2
Edition of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn at an exhibition on Browne

How thrilled I was, then, when a friend and student, Ted Locke, suggested that I read a paper by the literary scholar Jane Tompkins called “Me and My Shadow.” Ted and I have discussed auto-theory off and on for over a year. Tompkins’s paper is an early manifesto of auto-theory. In it, she expresses a frustration with academic writing and a desire somehow to incorporate a more personal element into her work that exactly reflects (or I should say, preflects, since her essay was published in 1987) my own motivations for and aspirations in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Having referred to Ursula Le Guin’s distinction between father tongue (which only lectures) and mother tongue (which expects an answer), she goes on to say:

I find that having released myself from the duty to say things I’m not interested in, in a language I resist, I feel free to entertain other people’s voices. Quoting them becomes a pleasure of appreciation rather than the obligatory giving of credit, because when I write in a voice that is not struggling to be heard through the screen of forced language, I no longer feel that it is not I who am speaking, and so there is more room for what others have said.

Sebald’s murmuring prose does exactly what Tompkins seeks to articulate in her essay; it blends the impersonal historical with the personal, it seamlessly incorporates other voices, and it never struggles to make itself heard through forced language. This incorporation of other voices makes his work itself a cabinet of literary curiosities – a work in which one cannot tell what decade or century it is, in which one is as likely to find oneself conjecturing about Sir Thomas Browne’s attendance at a scene depicted by Rembrandt as on the childhood of Conrad, or on the death of Edward Fitzgerald, whose translations of Omar Khayam are so distinctive that they have passed into the English language as something generic –  just one of the many ways English can be – in the way that the King James translation of the Bible has. I have yet to finish my second reading of The Rings of Saturn but the frustrations of my re-reading of its earlier parts will, I feel sure, be entirely reconfigured, and perhaps disappear altogether, owing to Tompkins’s invigorating essay. And for anyone keeping track, you might have noticed that I have been silent on my blog for some time now – this post, “Other voices,” is the first new parergonal material I have been able to create for quite some time.

The personal is philosophical

At my presentation about my book-in-progress (A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!) last week, I used several different introductions (sequentially, not simultaneously!). Here is one of them (note that it may be inconsistent with some of the others):

In 1969, the expression “the personal is political” was coined by feminist thinkers to challenge the idea that there is a disjuncture between the personal and the broader structures of power in which individuals are inscribed. If we interpret “political” broadly, so as to include all forms of public, institutional discourse, a special case of the expression would be “the personal is philosophical.” This special case would cover efforts to overcome the disjuncture between the personal and the conventions and norms of philosophy as a discipline. Those norms enjoin authors to keep their own personalities out of their work, enjoin readers to focus only on the ‘ideas’ in the text, ideas that are supposed to be able to circulate without any vital connection to the lives and circumstances of their authors. This valorization of objectivity and impersonality, with its effacement of the people who produce philosophy and the ways their individuality affects the contents of their philosophy, has left philosophy shriveled and immature, deprived of the nourishing life-blood of the real people who make it. What is desperately needed for the reinvigoration of philosophy is the rude and forceful interpellation of our stunted disciplinary norms by the subject, in all her strange specificity and individuality. Auto-theory is one form this interpellation can take: the calling out of a moribund modality of philosophy by the subject, slowly and seductively revealing his own face. But because each subject is singular, unique, and real, the face of her desire, even as it reveals itself, will always retain an element of inscrutability to the other. “Fetish” is the name we give to what is inexplicable, what is surd, in desire.

My project is a work of auto-theory, conducted under the sign of this image [of Batman slapping Robin] in which the joyful, liberating, fetish-clad warrior, in his idiosyncratic singularity, forces the intrusion of the personal onto the stunted, childish discipline of academic philosophy, trying, with a slap, to bring the blood to its face, trying to rouse it from its valorization, at once perverse and torpid, of the production of philosophy without a visible human face.