Special Issue:  Autotheory

Lisa Johnson (Guest Editor)

Summer 2003

This Is Your Issue and It’s a Party and Nothing Bad Will Happen to You Here:

Introduction to the Autotheoretical Issue, Spring 2003

     As I read the submissions for this issue and corresponded with some of the contributors, I was struck by the mixture of their delight in this opportunity to experiment with new forms of literary criticism and their dismay at the irregularity of such opportunities, having endured disdain towards autobiographical literary criticism from journal editors, dissertation directors, and tenure committee members. Despite the long history of feminist resistance and revision in academic writing, the field remains under-appreciated, under-taught, and largely underground. Most people who study and write this hybrid genre discover it by accident, perhaps running across Jane Tompkins’ “Me and My Shadow” in a theory course or finding a felicitous footnote (as I did) in a text in another discipline and following up on these threads of differently rational, a-linear argument. In my own search for this other academic voice, I was surprised at how much experimental critical writing there is to find at the ends of these threads, pleasantly surprised, but also a little miffed that I had had to find this rich field on my own, that it is not, for the most, the subject of graduate courses in the way that deconstruction or post-colonialism might be. For this reason, I am particularly excited to be creating a forum for publishing new writing in this alternative critical tradition. Contributor queries had about them the aura of the academic refugee, fleeing traditional conventions of objectivity and text-centered analysis and the arbiters of acceptable theory, thrilled to find a space where their bodies and histories and whole-self engagements with texts could be admitted.

     Autotheoretical writing (Stacey Young’s term for writing that integrates autobiography with social criticism) appears to me as a particularly female form, not because of any essentializing notions about women’s ways of knowing, but because women are so often forced to reckon with our bodies consciously and carefully in spaces ranging from street to scholarship. We are, as Nancy Mairs writes about her own female multiple-sclerosis-ridden existence, rammed back into our bodies on a regular basis (Carnal Acts 84). The mind/body divide of western philosophy is a luxury most women cannot afford, and Mairs writes eloquently about dismantling it in her essay, “Body in Trouble,” from Waist-High in the World: A Life among the Nondisabled. As her eyesight fails and her motor skills deteriorate limb by limb, Mairs finds herself forced to acknowledge her body as the location and material of her self: “The body in trouble, becoming both a warier and a humbler creature, is more apt to experience herself all of a piece” (42). Without erasing the specificity of her disabled bodily experience, I would like to think about “the body in trouble” as a state not unrelated to the problem of femininity in general, not to present femininity or womanhood as a disability, exactly, but rather as a restlessness, a troubled embodiment, as many feminist scholars have outlined in relation to body image, make-up and skincare as disciplinary practices, vulnerability to rape, harassment, and the milder humiliations of daily heterosexuality, not to mention the particular experiences of being a female body in academia (warranting a whole book from Ms. Manners on the subject), or, slightly more elusive, simply an awareness of ourselves as bodies, gendered in posture, dress, comportment, and discourse.

     Being in the world as a female body is being in the world as a body in trouble, and this body trouble can be the site of resistance to the very social norms that construct it. Like Judith Butler’s concept of gender trouble, in which one intervenes in the normativity of socially sanctioned gender roles by refusing, exaggerating, or otherwise revising them, “body trouble” might be seen as interventions into the normativity of mind/body dualism, in particular the rule of academic discourse that requires us to leave our bodies and stories out of our literary and cultural criticism. Jane Tompkins pioneered this body trouble in her manifesto for autobiographical literary criticism, “Me and My Shadow,” worth quoting at length. I take the following passage from a section where Tompkins is describing the two voices inside her, one that would write in a traditionally professional, distanced tone and vocabulary, and one that sounds more personal and personable, the part of her that writes in diaries:

     The dichotomy drawn here is false—and not false. I mean in reality there’s no split. It’s the same person who feels and who discourses about epistemology. The problem is that you can’t talk about your private life in the course of doing your professional work. You have to pretend that epistemology, or whatever you’re writing about, has nothing to do with your life, that it’s more exalted, more important, because it (supposedly) transcends the merely personal. Well, I’m tired of the conventions that keep discussions of epistemology, or James Joyce, segregated from meditations on what is happening outside my window or inside my heart. The public-private dichotomy, which is to say, the public-private hierarchy, is a founding condition of female oppression. I say to hell with it. The reason I feel embarrassed at my own attempts to speak personally in a professional context is that I have been conditioned to feel that way. That’s all there is to it. (24-25)

     Tompkins’ assertion that mind/body and public/private dualisms constitute “a founding condition of female oppression” may warrant further explanation. While a full discussion of this point is beyond the scope of my introductory words, the short version is that women have long been associated with the body in a body-hating world, where philosophy and theology and literary criticism consistently prod human beings to transcend body and world, to exert mind over matter, to see our material selves as obstacles to enlightenment. (For more on this point, see Sidonie Smith’s brilliant opening chapter in Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century. )The urgency of Tompkins’ “to hell with it” stirs within the essays showcased in this special issue of Women Writers, and it is the reason I feel both honored and compelled to promote these authors and their genre-clasm.

     Reading through my sources on autobiographical literary and cultural criticism, I notice that many critics pause to consider the problem of ineffective attempts to integrate personal stories with professional analyses. Ruth Behar writes,

Of course, as is the case with any intellectual trend, some experiments work out better than others. It is far from easy to think up interesting ways to locate oneself in one’s own text. Writing vulnerably takes as much skill, nuance, and willingness to follow through on all the ramifications of a complicated idea as does writing invulnerably and distantly. I would say it takes yet greater skill. The worst that can happen in an invulnerable text is that it will be boring. But when an author has made herself or himself vulnerable, the stakes are higher: a boring self-revelation, one that fails to move the reader, is more than embarrassing; it is humiliating. To assert that one is a ‘white middle-class woman’ or a ‘black gay man’ or a ‘working-class Latina’ within one’s study of Shakespeare or Santeria is only interesting if one is able to draw deeper connections between one’s personal experience and the subject under study. That doesn’t require a full-length autobiography, but it does require a keen understanding of what aspects of the self are the most important filters through which one perceives the world and, more particularly, the topic being studied. Efforts at self-revelation flop not because the personal voice has been used, but because it has been poorly used, leaving unscrutinized the connection, intellectual and emotional, between the observer and the observed. Vulnerability doesn’t mean that anything personal goes. The exposure of the self who is also a spectator has to take us somewhere we couldn’t otherwise get to. It has to be essential to the argument, not a decorative flourish, not exposure for its own sake. (14)

     I can’t say for sure that all of us in this issue have hit the mark perfectly; indeed most of the contributors embed their own anxieties about performing the autobiographical body inside their texts, but regardless of whether we have figured out how not to flop or how to scrutinize the connections adequately, what is important is that we are continuing the experiment and adding to the cultural weight and visibility of this alternative academic discourse.

     (This is, so far, what I think I ought to be writing about, but like Jane’s grief over Janice’s death and the birds outside her window, something is flitting at the edge of my vision, wants to come in. What I want to be writing about is the fact that through the whole month of May, while I’ve been trying to pull this issue of Women Writers together and also to move from North Carolina to South Carolina—new town, new state, new apartment, new job—I have been enduring a sort of embarrassing emotional trauma, and my attention is sucked into it in the filmy spaces of the day, when I first wake up, or step into the shower, turn a page in the book I’m reading or pause to think of what I want to say next in this essay. The newly lost boyfriend and this introduction are not, in the life of my mind, separate, so why make them stand on opposite sides of the page as if they did not know each other? )

     So I will come out of the parentheses and italics to indulge here in a brief revelation of my own autobiographical body, to say that I have been searching for poetry, recently, to see me through a romantic break-up (it’s not quite as corny and seventeen as it sounds—he was married, for one thing, and I was living out Anne Sexton’s old hurts disguised as ennui [see “You All Know the Story of the Other Woman” in Love Poems]—I was hoping to find a Generation X version, in fact, of Anne Sexton). I wanted something young and angry and vulnerable and sexy all at once. Something fed-up and somehow still hopeful. I turned to Daphne Gottlieb’s Why Things Burn (Soft Skull Press, 2001). Picture me reading “Satan Says” over a dirty martini at a local bar, alone on a Friday night, trying to be cool and independent and desperate and a little drunk: “Satan says have a drink Satan says have a cigarette Satan Says he’s married Satan says better than nothing Satan Says he’s not coming check the time” (23-25). I giggled and the gray-haired drunk guy sitting next to me asked what I was reading. Poetry. He wanted to know by who, and if it was new. 2001. So are they saying something new, he slurred sideways, or is it just somebody new saying the same old shit? Same old shit—relationships, pain, relearning solitude, again. You all know the story.

     I had already been won over, though, by Daphne Gottlieb when I picked up her book from a display at the Southern Girl Convention earlier this spring and saw the excerpt on the back cover, from her poem, “The Personal Is Political”: “I like you so much I had to have / therapy for it / and / I like you so much / I fucked other people / to get rid of it” (19-24). Her willingness to reveal the embarrassing extremes of emotion in the throes of passion’s endings fills her poetry with risk and redemption. Describing the political agendas she ought to be writing about instead of love, she rails, “I like you so much but this / should be a poem about genocide / and I like you so much this / should be a poem about ending capitalism / smashing the state / stating the obvious / getting smashed / to tell you / I’ll fuck capitalism and patriarchy and totalitarianism / to get next to you / I will deep throat my politics” (40-50). And I see a reflection of my own troubled split image—woman in love with a married man and now scorned versus all my fancy titles: feminist scholar, professor, guest-editor of Women Writers—in Gottlieb’s unflinching self-portrait. I can imagine critics charging that personal validation cannot be enough of a reason to interact autobiographically with a text, but I don’t know about that; it’s why I’ve always come to texts, to understand myself, to find language for my experience and refuge in like-minded community. Certain schools of criticism would perceive this interpretive move as not only indulgent but imperialistic, a colonization of the text. Surely colonization is not the only possible result, though, of reading through the body, reading autobiographically. I worry about accidentally annexing texts, little Puerto Ricos for my own personal playgrounds. But I don’t want to worry right now (the truth is, I am sure there are better ways to do what I’m doing, say what I’m saying, but I’m going to do it this way anyway), so I listen to Daphne Gottlieb in her title poem, “Why Things Burn,” let her words fire me with certainty within the experimental: “I forget the difference / between seduction / and arson, / ignition and cognition. I am a girl / with incendiary / vices . . . ” (13-18). Her poetry, like autotheoretical writing, insists that we admit in ourselves and each other a mixture of good intentions and contrary behaviors, the cool marble surface of our professional personas and the raging fires of our personal lives.

     In “The Personal Is Political,” Gottlieb echoes Jane Tompkins’ double-voiced narration, a device common to much women’s writing, in which authors go back and forth between the conservative desire for legitimacy and the utopian project of rejecting the whole idea of legitimacy, fitting into existing roles and scripts versus rewriting the roles and scripts so they don’t shave off our uneven edges, making room for our whole complex selves, leaving legitimacy for the cowardly. Why bring in my personal transgressions and loss in this essay, and to what effect? Perhaps only this: to remember that our academic stances and theoretical perspectives are always grounded in real lives and bodies, that what we do with texts and stories says something about who we are, what we need. The community I am trying to create here is not unrelated to the disillusionment with romance that has been unfolding inside me for just over a decade. The rejection of rules in academic discourse is of a piece with my recent experiment in adultery—trying to figure out what, after my marriage ten years ago didn’t work, and this thumbing my nose at marriage by dating someone else’s husband didn’t work, is left to try—both moves (the autotheoretical and the anti-romantic) are rooted in the same question: what am I supposed to be doing here (in this career, this essay, this life)? This supposed-to-be-doing haunts the margins of all the essays that follow, giving shape to each project even as the authors consciously invent their own personal writerly imperatives.

     The title of my introduction comes from Gottlieb’s poem, “Sanctuary. ”While things burn all through her hot little book, “Sanctuary” creates a cool space away from the fire, a place for pleasure and playfulness amid the encroaching flames of violence against women in all its forms. The poem is shaped like a church, topped with spindly steeple, ending with two steps to the door. I am reproducing approximately the bottom third of it:

the women in my head

are growing restless, pulling at the crime scenes of their bodies,

wrestling with the police line tape that binds them together like

memory or genetics. i stick my fingers in my mouth and blow, a whistle

so loud it is heard on pages five continents away. their searchlight eyes

widen as i tell them: ladies, i have had enough. today, we’re going to

do it differently. i’ll tell you what. grab a beer from the fridge. turn on

the radio too loud, open the window and dance. inflate the body bags

into balloons and set them free into the sky. put on a party hat.

remember how to laugh until your throat hurts. tell me a story that

ends “and they lived happily ever after” because this is your poem and

it’s a party and nothing bad will happen to you here. when everything

else has fallen apart, this will still stand; this is your memorial, your

sanctuary, your legacy. come on in.

         stay forever.



     Gottlieb’s response to overwhelming anti-woman forces in the world is, delightfully, to create a sanctuary, to encourage joy and indulgence despite and in resistance to the forces ranging against us. She resists the social construction of women as victims by constructing an alternate social space inside her book, inside language, inside the sanctuary of her poem where women are party-goers. This joyful response to oppression marks her text as part of feminism’s third wave, beyond the resisting reader into exuberant performativity and reconstruction. I envision this issue of Women Writers as sharing Gottlieb’s method of wedding anger to joy, critique to reconstruction. The essayists included here have found the spaces of conventional academic criticism to be constraining, distorting, and instead of settling for simple critique, we are building something else, setting up in another corner of the playground. Patrocinio Schweickart’s words come to mind here, infusing our project with a sense of purpose beyond our own experiences in academia, to address the larger epistemological problem of reintegrating bodies and minds, lives and texts: “Feminist criticism, we should remember, is a mode of praxis. The point is not merely to interpret literature in various ways; the point is to change the world. We cannot afford to ignore the activity of reading, for it is here that literature is realized as praxis. Literature acts on the world by acting on its readers” (615). It is this wildfire effect—connection zinging from page to reader to world—that autotheoretical writing honors and makes possible. A wider space, where limbs and lives unfold unfettered.

     With Gottlieb, in this spirit of making wider and wilder, I want to say to the contributors and readers of Women Writers: This is your issue and it’s a party and nothing bad will happen to you here. The emotional and discursive violence against women and bodies that many of us have encountered in various academic arenas cannot reach you here. So open the fridge, pop open a beer, and turn up the music too loud. This is your sanctuary. Come in. Welcome.

Works Cited

Behar, Ruth. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Gottlieb, Daphne. Why Things Burn. New York: Soft Skull, 2001.

Mairs, Nancy. Carnal Acts: Essays. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

---. Waist-High in the World: A Life among the Nondisabled. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

Schweickart, Patrocinio. “Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading. ”Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997. 609-34.

Sexton, Anne. Love Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Tompkins, Jane. “Me and My Shadow. ”The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Eds. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. 23-40.

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