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Volume 1, No. 3 - February 1991 FOCUS: Gender and Sexuality   
Pride & Prejudice
Feminist Scholars Reclaim The First Person
By Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

I RECALL A YOUNG COLLEAGUE, freshly Ph.D.'d in English, remarking how shocked she was by an essay of mine in which I had not only used the pronoun "I" but had discussed one of my own books. "It's not done!" she said, this woman whose lectures on feminist theory were, a student informed me, "like really radical." That was in 1982. Not long ago, I read one of her new articles, and, sure enough, it was thick with "I."

Until recently, American academic prose was a generic item, with "one" and "we" marking the outer limits of the permissible in personal pronounage. That this has changed, for better and for worse, seems to me one of the principle achievements of feminism, as it has made its way into the academy. The feminist "I" common in today's academic journals often introduces not just an opinion but an autobiography. "For some time I have been writing about my great-great-grandmother," begins one article in Signs by a legal scholar. "The first time I heard the claim that we, as women, needed female role models to make our way through the world, I felt angry," begins another. Stages on life's way are traced in emotions, not dates and citations.

Along with the stories and the language of passion and experience, readers often receive an implicit claim: my story, of oppression, marginalization, and struggle, is part of my work; my story has given me the means to my work and constitutes my special insight, especially into the ways of the enemies -- sexism, racism, classism, all forms of prejudice.

If this deeply personal voice often doesn't sound much like "scholarship," one reason may be that it was born not within the academy but outside, in the feminists' consciousness-raising and activist political groups of the late 1960s. For women, these groups developed a new way of talking about oneself -- a self-asserting, self-rescuing feminist "I" was created. This voice did not pass directly into academic prose. Like former colonials adjusting to independence, feminists, as they entered the academy, turned first to provisional formulas with which to articulate their experience. At first, abstract nouns were given revolutionary inflection by yet other abstract nouns, and "I" became the "we" of movement solidarity. For example, in the early 1970s' structuralist phase of feminist theory, books bore all-inclusive, difference-ignoring titles like Women, Culture and Politics, and the personal of the preface was plural: "We are looking for ways to think about ourselves."

When an academic "I," singular and enstoried, finally did emerge, it owed much more to scholarship that appropriated psychoanalysis, deemphasizing its biological determinism and linking it to social analysis. Indeed, one of the most interesting ironies of modern feminism is that the first wave of postwar feminist writers, from de Beauvoir and Viola Klein to the Kate Millet of Sexual Politics, grew strong by raging against the patriarchal edifice of psychoanalysis, while members of the most recent generation of feminist intellectuals have found their voices by variously interpreting psychoanalysis for feminism. Some assert that there is a "primary femininity" to be found by analysis, an original feminine "I"; some say the "I" is a scene of shifting desires and identifications, like a mobile museum; and some say the "I" is once and always sexually polymorphous or bisexual; but all start their inquiries on the ground of their subjectivities.

Of course, many women, particularly women of color and women of minority cultures, looked at both the huge generalizations of structuralism -- the constructions of a universal Woman -- and the nuclear family-centered categories of psychoanalysis and shouted, "It's not me!" Each "me" had a story to tell. And they took their models from nonacademic writers, like Alice Walker and June Jordan, who have, over the last twenty or so years, turned the personal, autobiographical essay into a compelling and expressive mode of scholarly testimony and inquiry. Today, there are shelves of such narratives, but back in 1977, when Barbara Smith began her essay "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" with "I do not know where to begin" -- infusing the scholarly with the personal was a courageous leap into the unknown. "Long before I tried to write this," Smith wrote, "I realized that I was attempting something unprecedented, something dangerous, merely by writing about Black women writers from a feminist perspective and about Black lesbian writers from any perspective at all."

But no matter what their theoretical orientations, efforts to define an authentic self have been, for many women writers and intellectuals, the most personally gratifying feminist activity of the last decade. For some, the act of writing is virtually synonymous with that engagement. As the English psychoanalyst and feminist Juliet Mitchell writes, "Being a writer is not for me an identity. It is a struggle." These writers almost inevitably employ the vocabulary of Existentialism -- authenticity, engagement -- which underscores the tense relationship that exists between the feminist autobiographical attack on the prose in power and the most influential critical methodologies of the last decade. To deconstructionists and semioticians, the notion that language could be about (or used on behalf of) the self is one of those old-fashioned notions that should be "problematized." The au courant theorist's "I" is not seeking liberation; it sits still as a Cheshire cat, with all but its smile fading away, insisting that it is not a real self at all but only a social construct, a sum of identifications and intertextuality, a nexus of power relations, or a local surge of social energy. But if the hottest contemporary criticism is doctrinally ill-suited to those who want to assert their identities -- gender, ethnic, religious, cultural -- it has nonetheless helped clear a rhetorical space for identity assertion in academia. In deconstructionism's antivaluational view, all cultural products and producers inhabit the same space, without hierarchy, without hegemony. The open-space convention, or supervention, makes all privileging suspect, including the old English department notion that "creative" writers can use "I" as they please while mere exegetes -- scholars and critics -- must walk a humble step behind in the anonymous impersonal.

Such free-form egalitarianism can be exhilarating, particularly for feminists. Frenchwoman Hél'ne Cixous, for example, writes in "The Laugh of the Medusa," "If she's a her/she, it's only in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the 'truth' with laughter." And this unstructured cultural situation arguably encourages the kind of rich, improvisatory conversation between artist and critic that Tzvetan Todorov, in the spirit of the Russian theorist M. M. Bakhtin, calls "dialogic criticism."

While many feminists have allied themselves with deconstructionist criticism, particularly the so-called cultural feminists, who argue for the existence of a specifically "women's writing" and "women's way of knowing," that merger is itself problematized when feminists assert the uniqueness and importance of "the self" and attempt to reevaluate previously devalued communities, cultures, or rhetorical traditions, including autobiographical genres. Deconstructionism is helpful when it is subversive but is limited by its negativism (some would say nihilism) and its antivaluational sweep.

Not surprisingly, the genre in which dialogic interactions are most frequently to be found is that mixture, as Virginia Woolf put it, of "gravity and rainbow," fact and fiction, that is biography. It is now almost conventional for biographers to begin with an autobiographical excursus about their relations with their subjects. Some go further (beyond the bounds of my taste) and weave themselves through their narratives, present themselves wrestling with the angel of their subjects, falling in and out of love with her, attaining not the once-valued "objectivity" but a rich self-consciousness.

Disciplines that have been thought to be composed almost entirely of "gravity" are yielding, too. Minority scholars such as University of Wisconsin law professor Patricia Williams are making trenchant use of what feminists call "the personal narrative" to explore the rough technical terrain of, say, contract law. It is Williams's "On Being the Object of Property" that opens with the arresting sentence "For some time I have been writing about my great-great-grandmother." And it goes on to connect that distant ancestor, who bore the child of the white man whose property she was, to surrogate mothers and others disempowered in the "islands of empowerment" that legal rights are supposed to be. As the formal language of rights, obligations, contracts is woven through Williams's free-associational autobiography, it is demystified, concretized, rescued from those who have traditionally coined and spent it.

Autobiographical academic prose can, of course, serve purposes a good deal less laudable than those flowing from the feminist cultural revolution. Scholars who are a little light on scholarship can cover their ignorance with "I" as well as with fancy neologisms and dancy typography; academics seeking a place in the institutional "star system" package an "I" into a self-aggrandizing self-advertisement. These are perennial irritations, but there is quite another order of danger present. Self-stereotyping and its near neighbor, glamorizing or valorizing difference, also need "I," as when scholars rally 'round "I" to insist that only those who share their identity are qualified to understand their stories.

But identity is not insight. And autobiography that ends where it began, that defensively or offensively armors an identity rather than journeys in search of one, is simply a weapon, not an education. Simone de Beauvoir once issued a warning about such confusions of etre and écrire: "I think one must be able to say 'No: no, that won't do! Write something else, try and do better. Set higher standards for yourselves! Being a woman is not enough!'"

The distinction between exploring differences of experience and culture and becoming immured in those differences is traced in many of the essays of the Nigerian scholar and novelist Chinua Achebe. In "Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South" and "Colonial Criticism," for example, Achebe argues that dialogue between Europeans or Americans and Africans can be opened, but that it requires a step, a relinquishment of rigid identity. A Western critic of African literature "must cultivate the habit of humility appropriate to his limited experience of the African world and [be] purged of the superiority and arrogance which history so insidiously makes him heir to."

On his side of the dialogue, Achebe writes from and about his personal experience, but he also notes clearly the "problems of universality," of extrapolating from his own experiential base. He avoids that temptation to blow an "I" up into a "we" and write essays dominated by the theme of shared historical victimization. Autobiographical self-reflection is his essayistic medium for strengthening his identity, not wallowing in it.

Unfortunately, the "oh, poor me" autobiographical tone that bedeviled American feminism throughout the 1970s -- and that continues on occasion to assert itself -- is not absent from the current trend in academic prose. Very few academic self-chroniclers seem able to summon the kind of maturity of perspective of Achebe, or the kind of laughter, at once richly provocative and poignant, that rolls through Zora Neale Hurston's recently republished autobiographical essays. "Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life," she says, "I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world -- I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

There are, of course, many ways for scholars to think and write weighed down by self-seriousness -- the first person singular has no special claim to distinction in this regard. But, on the positive and preponderant side, good academic writing is, today, much less arch, pseudo-objective, unself-consciously authoritative and impersonal than it used to be. Many of the most interesting scholars now writing in the humanities and social sciences use the personal narrative to tell complicated stories of entangled experiential roots, cross-cultural and intracultural migrations. Like Edward Said, many of these people dismissively label the products of sedentary generic American academese "cultural artifacts." Writing recently in Raritan, Said reviewed four books by Third World intellectuals and noted that their common quality was precisely their passion. "There is an explicit urgency, call it political or human, in the tone and import of these works that contrasts quite noticeably with what in the modern West has come to represent the norm of scholarship. How that norm, with its supposed detachment, its protestations of objectivity and impartiality, its code of politesse and ritual calmness, came about is a problem for the sociology of taste and of knowledge."

Privileging the passion of Third World intellectuals -- or of feminists -- can produce its own form of stereotyping and dismissal. But those scholars, who, writing from multicultural or suppressed cultural perspectives, construct their work around the scrupulous observation of their "I's" are creating the most compelling texts in academia today. These texts place directly and continually before all of us questions about how anyone can understand present forms of sexism or racism or cultural imperialism who has not experienced them. And they remind scholars that the mystery of identity and its relationship to culture can never be banished from scholarship -- no matter how supposedly objective are its procedures and products.

Much of the autobiographical turn in American academic prose flows from the choir of new voices with new purposes now in the academies, but I find that the "I's" among these that touch me, deeply engage me, do so for a not new reason: Those "I's" feel as though they have gotten onto the page only after a long journey, a long private apprenticeship in self-knowledge. I find myself challenged by a remark Walter Benjamin made after he had finally decided to undertake the exquisite and very singular first-person text called "One-Way Street." "If I write better German than most writers of my generation, it is thanks largely to twenty years' observance of one little rule: never use 'I' except in letters."

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl is a professor in The College of Letters at Wesleyan University and the author of Anna Freud: A Biography and Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World.


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