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.”

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?

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.