Monday, March 6, 2017

Guest post: It's Personal

by Marie Carrière

I am on a half-sabbatical leave from my university. And lo and behold, I am working on a book! In a nutshell, my reflection focuses on our present, or late, feminist moment that I call metafeminism. Here is how I am defining metafeminism: I find the idea ensconced in the prefix meta central to understanding this moment; it delineates the reflections and deflections of the several recognizable faces of feminism with which Western culture has grown familiar. Such vacillation of feminism’s tropes, waves, and manifestations is at the heart of my understanding of metafeminism.

But I want to slow down, and I want to write differently.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues that revolutionary feminist theory – meant to inform masses of people and transform the societies we live in – is not, ironically enough, readily available or accessible to a non academic public. It “remains a privileged discourse,” hooks writes, “available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated, and usually materially privileged.” This is more than a fair point. But unlike hooks’ work here, my essay cannot claim to address anybody other than those already with an interest in feminist thought and writing. I cannot claim nor do I want to pretend that the book I’m writing is not an academically driven project. It stems from my long-standing research into contemporary feminism, especially of the late twentieth century and new millennium. But I am looking to break with the monographic tradition that continues to render so much academic writing, including my own, relevant only to… academic reading and yet more academic writing… I look to also speak to skilled readers and certainly to students curious about feminism’s trajectories through thought and literature.

Of course I am not writing in a generic vacuum with no history. The French essai is a literary genre of writing that comes close to what I have in mind for my book. I’m not sure that “essay” is the most accurate English equivalent. But for now, I’ll take it, with a few qualifications. The online Larousse defines the French term essai as follows:

ouvrage regroupant des réflexions diverses ou traitant un sujet qu’il ne prétend pas épuiser; genre littéraire constitué par ce type d’ouvrages […] action entreprise en vue de réaliser, d’obtenir quelque chose, sans être sûr du résultat ; tentative.

This definition appeals to me. Not only does it help me understand how I might distance my work from the comprehensiveness of the standard academic monograph. It helps me imagine how a personalized (but not, in my case, intimate or confessional) academic essay might take shape and give rise to a different form of scholarly writing.

Simply put, how might I say I in my academic writing?

So “simply put,” that when I read out this last sentence to S., my 13-year old daughter, she replied, “It’s not hard, Maman. We learn that in first grade.”

What I haven’t yet explained to S. is that figuring out how to say I, as a woman, within the academy, even from a tenured, white, cis gender privileged position like my own, is not that simple. Although writing in the first person as a woman will not, of course, automatically produce more accessible scholarship, I still hope that in this essay it might give rise to a different form of scholarly writing. How might I say I in an academic book project and write from a place of intellectual feeling, of literary sensation, and of feminist care? How might I tap into what Audre Lorde describes as a “disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me’?”

Ann Cvetkovich’s remarkable 2012 book, Depression: A Public Feeling is, unlike my own, partly written in the form of the academic memoir, laying out her personal struggle with depression. Of note is what I would call the metafeminist “rapprochement with legacies of 1970s feminism such as consciousness-raising, personal narrative, and craft” that Cvetkovich recognizes in her blending of memoir and criticism. As in metafeminism, there are in fact multiple sites of influence in Cvetkovich’s work. She also acknowledges the legacy of a generation of feminists including bell hooks, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jane Gallop who have continued the trend of personal academic writing. And she harks back to the influence of a more marginal feminist confessional zine culture of the early 1990s.

And so, perhaps that’s the big deal (with affection, ma fille): I too would like my own personalized essay to be a kind of rapprochement to these different expressions of feminist thought. To recall a context closer to home, the fiction theories (or fictions théoriques) practiced by feminist and queer Québécois writers in the 1970s (Bersianik, Brossard, Théoret) and their Anglo-Canadian counterparts in the 1980s (Brandt, Marlatt, Tostevin) also serve as my models.

(A girl can dream, especially during a thought experiment.)

I discovered these texts during my undergraduate studies in my early twenties, delving deeper into them in graduate school. Bringing together anglophone and francophone influences has allowed this bilingual feminist room to dream across borders and boundaries. In a sense, these texts have been my feminist super-egos, my propédeutique to literary understanding, my entry into feminist ethics. With their blend of female subjectivity, feeling, creative reflection, and aesthetic experimentation, these authors started to write at an exceptional time in Québécois and Canadian literature, which I examined in my first book (a monograph!). Since then, some, though not numerous, Canadian works of more recent personal criticism by women (Lee Maracle, Catherine Mavrikakis, Andrea Oberhuber, or Erin Wunker) have followed in this vein. Finally, just as Cvetkovich’s turn to the confessional in her critical work on affect fittingly sets out to raise public consciousness through the expression of personal experience and emotion, my own personalized essay, like metafeminism, hopes to fittingly oscillate between various manifestations, or waves, of feminist theory and practice.

Further to the resistance of academic exhaustiveness in my adoption of the personalized essay is perhaps the issue of exhaustion itself. Attributing the appeal of personal memoir in criticism to humanities scholarship’s affective turn (Clough; Gregg and Seigworth), Cvetkovich entertains the idea of personalized academic writing “as a sign of either the exhaustion of theory or its renewed life.” I find the idea very provocative. But I’m also a bit loathe to pigeonhole theory in those terms. I refuse to believe that theory is exhausting, exhausted, or even exhaustive.

Theory, I try to reassure my students (to a variable degree of success), is just theory: a thought experiment, a set of principles, a string of ideas; it’s always historical with a material context, and to an attentive reader willing to take a few risks and work a little harder, it should be no more daunting than any other narrative. But I do think there is room for deeper thinking about why more open forms of theoretical writing, that draw from intimate experience and personal understanding, might be apt at this time in feminist, indeed metafeminist, work. I’m thinking especially of theory that draws from intimate experience and personal understanding, and adopts a jargon-free, intelligible, fathomable language. In what is still a profoundly scholarly meditation on the socio-cultural aspects of depression, Cvetkovich’s book, particularly its “depression journals” segment, is as personal and readable as it is intellectually engaging.

This work also falls in line with other recent turns to academic memoir, such as Maggie Nelson’s brilliant feminist “autotheory” in The Argonauts, at the heart of which she traces her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, her experience of queer pregnancy, and her realization that pregnancy is queer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s personal essay We Should All be Feminists, adapted from her TEDx talks of the same title, is in turn an attempt to free feminism from stereotypical notions that Adichie grew up with in Nigeria and still encounters in American culture. (And this is before that orange fuckface entered politics.) Wunker in turn writes, in her own words, at the “interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking” in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. She posits her use of the pronoun I as a personal and intellectual gesture of positioning herself, textually and socially, as a white privileged woman writing about feminism in Canada today. Most recent is Sara Ahmed’s highly anticipated, Living a Feminist Life, an academic memoir that Ahmed began to construct through her ongoing blog, feministkilljoys.com.

To my mind, these works are not exhibiting theoretical exhaustion. They are brazen, filled with admirable feminist boldness, as they pursue the more open forms of writing that may, from a neoliberal standpoint, be slowing them down, and that the neoliberal university may not be ready to fully acknowledge. But these are forms that feminism today – whether intersectional, queer, or oriented around affect studies – fully warrants. Given the accumulation of its multiple variables and directions, metafeminism, to hark back to hooks’ argument, “needs to be written in a range of styles and formats.” I would love to continue to see feminist writing that loosens, as do the works mentioned above, age-old boundaries separating the academic and the personal, or the scholarly and the accessible. I believe such efforts can address the need for stylistic diversity and enrich both a common reading experience and a more specialized scholarly one.

It’s difficult not to notice as well the early second-wave mantra of “the personal is political” being powerfully re-invoked by works like Nelson’s or Cvetkovich’s. Hence my argument that my book, my personalized essay is an attempt, my attempt, at a metafeminist form of academic writing. This project is also an attempt to figure out how my scholarly learning, which is always in process, can breathe life, or let life breathe, into forms of expression that fall outside of strict or standard academic norms of writing. Finally, and maybe this is (too) brazen on my own part, but could these personalized moments in my writing be a form of queering such norms? Through Nelson’s own take, I recall Sedgwick’s controversial notion of queer as encompassing various kinds of disruptions and subversions. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant […] relational, and strange,” writes Sedgwick, to which Nelson adds:

She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder – a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do – they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.

Meanwhile, Sedgwick also acknowledged the danger of dematerializing the term through this removal of “same-sex sexual expression” from queer’s “definitional center.” As Nelson again adds: “In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” (29).

That’s what metafeminism, by the way, is all about: reflecting and deflecting; having it both ways.

Writing about feminism today, at least for me, craves a suppler form than the monograph allows. One that’s less exhaustive and less exhaustible, one that’s fugitive perhaps, and maybe even queer. One that wants it both ways. To write, then, an academic personalized essay. To take the unfinished wave of a scholarly attempt, and to chase the tides of feminism’s first, second, third, and even fourth movements in the texts of Canadian women writers today. Maybe a personalized essay is the only form possible for an academic study of metafeminism. Vast and extensive in historicity as well as content, metafeminism encompasses what has been referred to for some time as feminisms in the plural; it denotes those shifting parts of sexual, racial, gender, and trans identities articulated beyond the normative categories of a very old and very persistent patriarchal tradition. Perhaps metafeminism’s breadth, multidirectional texture, and ambivalences, indeed its queerness, already resist the monograph – the highly detailed, authoritative, legitimized account of a single thing.

Perhaps only the essai personnalisé, with its open process and its desire to give academic discipline the slip, will do.


Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta where she also teaches literature in English and in French. Her most recent publication is a critical anthology co-edited with Curtis Gillespie and Jason Purcell, Ten Canadian Writers in Context.

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