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.