SEPTEMBER 17, 2021
“I CAME TO THEORY because I was hurting,” writes bell hooks in her 1991 essay, “Theory as Liberatory Practice.” She describes a kind of critical reflection that helps to make sense of the world while imagining possible futures — “a place where life can be lived differently.” When such theorizing is “fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation,” hooks continues, it can provide a “healing, liberatory, or revolutionary” space.
Now we can argue about whether the academy or any such institution in which theory tends to be practiced can foster a truly liberatory space, but the point I want to dwell on is hooks’s description of a theory with stakes. Drawing phenomenologically on the experience of being in the world while transforming that embodied experience into something else, such as art, writing, new relations, or communities of care, this is a form of theorizing with implications outside the text or institution. And hooks is clear: not all theory does this. Some theory, including some feminist theory, reinscribes logics of superiority and domination. Theory might privilege writing over orality, for example, or obfuscation over accessible language and translation. Which isn’t to say that plain language is necessarily clear (to wit: Gertrude Stein), or that translation is a one-to-one computation. But hooks is raising a point about the kind of space theorizing can open, and who is invited into that space — who is being addressed, in conversation with whom, and how and why. About the kinds of embodied socialities that art and theory draw on and create in the world.
Which is one reason I’m thrilled with the emerging conversation about autotheory: art/writing that combines theory or philosophy with autobiography. Lauren Fournier’s Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism, recently published by MIT Press, is a welcome new addition to the efforts at defining this relatively new genre. Fournier’s text joins two intriguing essays by Arianne Zwartjes, both of which place autotheoretical works within feminist kinships, noting that “Black feminists and other women of color,” such as hooks, are some of the earliest practitioners of autotheory. Their experimental work collectively laid “a foundation for more explicitly autotheoretical work to come,” like Paul Preciado’s Testo Yonqui/Testo Junkie (2008/2013), Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016). In such works, personal experience in-forms the writers’ understandings of theory, which recursively in-forms the personal experience. Both the body of the text and the body of the writer are sites of curiosity and knowledge; the text may take a more experimental form, the writer may be made over via the writing. To this end, Zwartjes wonders how autotheoretical work differs from the feminist mantra the personal is political.
It does not, asserts Lauren Fournier, who argues that “the history of feminism is, in a sense, a history of autotheory — one that actively seeks to bridge theory and practice and uphold tenets like ‘the personal is political.’” Making this connection between feminism and autotheory explicit is just one of the valuable insights in Fournier’s book. She draws on years of research as well as her ongoing artistic and curatorial practices: this book emerged from her dissertation at York University, and she has curated “Autotheory” screenings of films and art films at venues in Canada and the UK. As Fournier points out, autotheoretical modes run through the philosophical tradition, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Frantz Fanon, but as a genre, autotheory really began taking shape through feminist practices, extending from early critical-creative hybrid texts (Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde), conceptual art (Adrian Piper), and performance (Carolee Schneemann, Annie Sprinkle), to contemporary uses of exhibition spaces (Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue), social media, and other digital platforms (Sonia Fernández Pan, @gothshakira). Thus, Fournier’s definition, “the integration of the auto or ‘self’ with philosophy or theory, often in ways that are direct, performative, or self-aware,” establishes autotheory as an interdisciplinary genre, while finger-poking the locks of other disciplinary gates.
Because according to Fournier, autotheory is, or can be read as, a form of philosophical inquiry in and of itself. She takes Adrian Piper’s Food for the Spirit — a performance artwork in which Piper photographed herself over the course of a summer as she read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason — as one such instance. Fournier argues that Food “is an instantiation of the very problematics and terms that Kant himself is working through.” Piper’s mirrored image, the selfie shot before the mirror, “becomes an attempt to access her own being as the ‘thing in itself’ through re-presentation.” As art piece, Food incorporates Piper’s artist statement and a physical copy of Kant’s Critique, which Piper marked while she read. The interactions of the artist with the book, the text, and the images hold in tension the perceiver and the perceived, a body reading and a body read.
What’s interesting to me about Fournier’s expanded notion of autotheory — as expressed in the reading above — is how the theorizing might move into a space beyond the categorical limits of the written form. It emerges as performance, image, photography, video, or digital practice. Form and medium become an explicit part of the inquiry, with theoretical and material implications. Autotheory may hang in a gallery, like Hazel Meyer’s No Theory, No Cry, or exist as a photograph in a book, like the performance shots and film stills Fournier includes within her text. Reading Autotheory as Feminist Practice, I note how some of these images provide another perspective or orientation into Fournier’s arguments, even as she may not directly address or analyze the image.
A photograph from Gabrielle Civil’s performance Fugue (Dissolution, Accra) is one such example. The image appears in a section exploring the history of narcissistic charges against women — more specifically, feminist artists who directly incorporate their bodies and personal experiences into their work. Fournier moves from a discussion of a persistent Cartesian dualism that signals women and artists of color as either sexy (body) or smart (brain), to Sigmund Freud’s contention that “narcissism and femininity are integrally linked”; to Simone de Beauvoir’s idea that the image of a woman gazing into the mirror emblematizes her status in the world as subject-object. And within this discussion there is Civil’s image, presented without comment, in which we see the artist’s body reclined, Venus-style, in the ocean’s surf, her face obscured by the mirror she holds, glass side toward the world and an absent but imagined viewer. From its title, we know Civil’s photo is set in Accra, Ghana, the site of several commercial forts instrumental to the transatlantic slave trade. A fugue is a “blackout” or loss of memory; a dissolution is a closure, suspension, or ending. Thus, Civil’s photograph images the way that race, or as Hortense J. Spillers writes, “flesh [a]s the concentration of ‘ethnicity,’” is generally “forgotten” or blocked out (“neither acknowledge[d] nor discourse[d] away”) from theoretical discussions. Civil’s photograph brings Spillers and other Black thinkers (Saidiya Hartman, George Yancy, etc.) into the foreground of this conversation about gender and narcissism, making visible that which is unsaid but present. Because to talk about gender is to talk about race; to talk about the formation of modern subjectivities is to evoke the institutions of slavery and colonization which built the modern world. We wouldn’t have the word “narcissism” without the Middle Passage, and there’s no narcissism like white narcissism, which denies Black humanity. Civil holds the mirror glass side out as if to say: Notice how what you see reflects your own racial and gendered subject position. On the page, then, Fournier sets up a multi-valent interpretative and critical space. The images seem to exist as a form of lateral citation, becoming highly visible within, to draw on Fournier’s language, “the mise-en-page or the mise-en-scène” of the work. Read as part of the text, the images facilitate a profusion of interpretive threads, instead of bringing the work into a unified, cohesive whole. Can autotheoretical work help us perceive differently? Can it move us closer to the interdisciplinary and trans-medium reality of our contemporary lives?
One issue I take with Fournier’s text, however, is in the way she folds autofiction into the broader umbrella of autotheory. While both genres draw on the autobiographical, I think it’s important to give each genre the space of its own evolution and forms. At the most basic level, autotheory is nonfiction while autofiction is, well, fiction. The term “autofiction” was famously coined by Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 to describe his novel Fils, in response to Philippe LeJeune’s notion of the autobiographical pact. Doubrovsky wanted a “fiction of events and facts strictly real,” but that which entrusted “the language of an adventure to the adventure of language.” To state the obvious then: in autofiction there is an overt emphasis on the materiality of language as a performance and experiment. Autofiction often — though not always — takes narrative as its form, and the novel as its body. Thus, autofiction may play with paratextual elements, like the epigraph (any number of works by Clarice Lispector), the copyright page (Pamela: A Novel, Pamela Lu), or naming (I Love Dick, Chris Kraus). It may riff on or morph into other genres, like Pola Oloixarac’s Mona or Tope Folarin’s A Particular Kind of Black Man. And while autofiction is still an evolving genre, the autofictional protagonist is usually — surprise! — a writer, who, in the course of the writing, reflects on the process. Yes, there is something “meta” happening. The body as a site for story, consciousness, socialization, and identity — these are the questions of autofiction. Elsewhere, I’ve described autofiction as “non-mimetic self-portrait.” Consider Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits: they are true and staged; they reflect Kahlo’s image and the construction of identities and narratives within her embodied experience, thus experimenting with the tradition of portraiture in a meta- or self-reflective way. Perhaps, then, autofiction — like autotheory — does not have to be restricted to the written format after all.
While an “I” may be constructed performatively within either genre, the respective contracts between the implied authors and their audiences are distinct in important ways. Where autotheory declares this is true, autofiction suggests this may be true. It follows, then, that there are different ethical considerations for each genre, both in terms of the reliability of one’s narrator and in the portrayal of the other “characters” referenced in a text. To write a mother is very different than writing my mother, and while any representation will fall short of the complicated IRL person, the way a written-mother moves among readers — and her possible impact on my actual mother and her web of relations — differs. This is not to say that I want to reify autotheory or autofiction into rigid categories whose borders may then be policed by self-proclaimed gatekeepers. Rather, and returning to Zwartjes, the very process by which a genre is named makes that work visible, and thinking through “something as in a category allows us to think about and probe the edges of the category, its function and its politics.” Extending this argument, we perceive how the ongoing process of creating and naming genres and discursive practices might invite new or alternative modes of relation and sociality.
How might the liberatory possibilities of such alternative modes be realized? For even as genre makes some work legible, the process of genre classification cannot be disentangled from the disparities of power structuring the literary-critical discourse. In an essay for The New Republic, Tope Folarin notes how the critic-designated pantheon of autofiction authors “at the cutting edge of literary innovation” is overwhelmingly white, while similar literary experimentation by writers of color are reviewed as “autobiographical fiction” — a category perceived as entirely conventional. White critics, argues Folarin, “gravitate toward writers in whom they see themselves, and who write about topics and lead the kinds of lives they are familiar with,” and the experience of whiteness in the work of the autofictional writers most frequently cited — Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk — passes without remark or reflection. In other words, they inhabit their whiteness like white people do: reifying whiteness as the transcendental norm (see Yancy, 2008) in a world designed for their bodies. “Whiteness,” writes Sara Ahmed, “is an orientation that puts certain things within reach […] not just physical objects, but also styles, capacities, aspirations, techniques, habits.” Which may explain the shared tonal mode of so much critic-designated autofiction: ironic and sincere, hyper self-aware yet still striving for awards from the system they critique — because what else can a cosmopolitan body do?
Now don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the work of Heti, Lerner, and Cusk, but I want the genre of autofiction to be capacious enough for multiple expressions of embodied experience and sociality. Folarin offers a great list of titles to expand the genre’s scope, including work by Michael Thomas, Mitchell Jackson, Zinzi Clemmons, and Akwaeke Emezi. Folarin’s own novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man, certainly does the same. Playing with point of view and varying modes of address, the novel follows Tunde, the son of Nigerian immigrants, as he comes to know himself via a web of intra- and interpersonal relations. There’s the sea of whiteness in Utah and Texas, where he lives with his father and brother. There’s his missing mother and the stepmother who refuses to be a replacement. There’s the uncanny voice of his grandmother on the telephone from Nigeria, familiar and unfamiliar. And as Tunde’s memory begins to branch into other narrative possibilities, I find myself steeped in the sociality of consciousness itself, the experience of remembering more than one’s own knowing.
So, here’s some sociality, in real time. I get stuck on the whiteness of autofiction and reach out to Vidhu Aggarwal, who reads my draft and then we get on the phone. It seems, she says, that autotheory is the case study while autofiction is the symptom. Wait; rewind, while noting the exquisite collaboration of writing. As a form of critical or aesthetic engagement, autotheory draws on the personal in order to make a point about a larger trend or situation. The body is the case study or instantiation of a theoretical point. So, as Aggarwal writes in an email: “Piper is testing herself against Kant — disrupting/disputing theories of aesthetics with the disturbance of her particular body.” Or, as in the case of Preciado — they call themself an “auto-guineapig or something — like their subjectivity is a specimen!”
In contrast, autofiction emerges from the tradition of belles lettres and tends to prioritize interiority and subjectivity over any philosophical point, which, back to Vidhu, allows it to “somewhat evade structural issues of race — in particular.” The subjectivity portrayed may be read “as a symptom of neo-liberal capitalism and the white artist.” (Ah yes, here we see Lerner, Cusk, etc.) But it can also be read as a powerful witness to a particular experience, one that the artist wants the world to know as true. Even as the artist knows: I’m making this up. Returning to Frida Kahlo: she stages for the public eye experiences of a fraught interiority; a persona is created, which Vidhu calls the “traumatized/powerful/ambivalent feminine mestiza.” While the fantastic proportions attained by the Kahlo persona may lead us to forget it, the core of her work bears witness to something real and deeply felt. And it’s this feeling, held within the artwork, that deeply moves the viewer. Who senses, I imagine, something with stakes.