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Volume 4, No. 3 - March/April 1994 FOCUS: Theory and its Discontents   
The I's Have It
Duke's "Moi" Critics Expose Themselves
By Adam Begley

FIVE YEARS AGO when American studies scholar Cathy Davidson negotiated the terms of a new job with the Duke University Department of English, she wanted to be sure that her nonacademic writing would "count" -- that is, ratchet up her sal ary at the appropriate intervals. "I asked to have that in writing," she remembers, "even though Stanley Fish said I was crazy. He said, 'We don't care -- as long as you're good, we don't care.'" Davidson wanted to write for a wide audience, an aspiration never discouraged during Fish's legendary tenure as chairman of Duke's English department, when being "good" meant not just riding the crest of the latest wave but riding it with brio -- getting publicity, getting noticed. In her letter of appointment wa s the clause Davidson had asked for: "These terms will be renewable as long as you remain a productive scholar or writer." That last blessedly vague word assures her that her memoir, 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan (Dutton, 1993) , will count.

Jane Tompkins, another professor in the Duke English department and Fish's wife, has also written a memoir, A Life in School (to be published by Oxford University Press), but Tompkins doesn't care if it counts. She has taken a two-year leave of abs ence, and it's not clear she'll go back. Though her distinguished résumé could land her a job at any university in the country, the fifty-four-year-old Tompkins says she has "grown away" from the academy. She contributes a monthly column on reading and writing to a local newspaper and works on weekends as a breakfast cook in a cafeteria. Being a professor, she says, is no longer her "major source of identity": She doesn't think she will ever write "anything that looks like literary criticism again."

Autobiography is the latest wave, and not just at Duke. The first person singular that Tompkins is dedicated to discovering has become one of the distinguishing marks of current academic writing. Marching under the banner of the naked "I" is an odd assort ment of scholars from all over the country: feminists like Nancy K. Miller in Getting Personal (Routledge, 1991); multiculturalists like Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his forthcoming memoir, Colored People (Knopf); art historians like Eunice Lipt on in Alias Olympia (Scribner's, 1992); critical legal theorists like Patricia Williams in The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Harvard, 1991).

Twenty years of deconstructive self-reflexivity may have made the distinction between criticism and memoir hard to pinpoint, but there's still a long stretch between a scholarly essay spruced up with one or two quick personal anecdotes and a full-blown ac ademic memoir, childhood reminiscence and all. The varieties of academic autobiography have grown too miscellaneous to lump under one catchall "ism," though group tags have surfaced, then sunk from view: new subjectivism (bland), personal criticism (clunk y) and intimate critique (coy).

It's somehow no surprise to find Duke academics leading the rush to confession. It makes a kind of neat dramatic sense that the squad of high-profile, canon-busting, discipline-melding professors Fish recruited in the Eighties and set loose to do what the y wanted -- on the assumption that stars do things to enhance their own prestige and hence the prestige of the department -- have chosen, in the Nineties, to write about themselves. Tompkins and Davidson belong to a four-member writing group along with Al ice Kaplan, a French professor in the literature program who has written French Lessons: A Memoir (University of Chicago Press, 1993), and Marianna Torgovnick, an English professor, whose collection of essays, Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian-American Daughter, will be published later this year, also by Chicago. Unaffiliated with the group, Frank Lentricchia, an English professor in the literature program, has just published The Edge of Night: A Confession (Random House, 1994). Tendencies (Duke University Press, 1993), by queer-theory diva Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an English professor, is studded with autobiographical narrative.

The daring critical stances that were Duke staples in the Eighties may have required a shiver of antiestablishment attitude, but their proponents rarely got worked up enough over their idol-smashing to ditch their tenured posts. Auto biography is differen t: Practiced with rigorous sincerity, it opens the door wide to many troubling discoveries. The self-seeking scholar may even discover a lurking unscholarly identity at war with the constraints of the academy.

Mass resignations are not imminent. But how many professors will find it easy, as Davidson does, to mix memoir and scholarship? Proponents of personal writing claim it can free up the author's voice and purge jargon and obfuscation from academic prose. So me even suggest that the trend will loosen up the whole lit-crit establishment, ridding it of calcifying hierarchy. Can it be true? Someday soon, will English departments everywhere nurture candid self-expression, renounce feuding, backbiting, and petty p osturing? Perhaps not -- or not, anyway, until the memoirists can convince their colleagues that self-expression and self-indulgence are very different. Are they? With high hopes I set off for Durham to see what the auto biographical urge has wrought ther e.

WHEN I MEET TOMPKINS FOR LUNCH -- off-campus, at a bakery café, a natural-wood haven for solitary students hunched over books and espresso -- she tells me right away about her new job as cook in the cafeteria-style restaurant of t he Wellspring Grocery: "I work eight hours on Saturday and eight hours on Sunday." She adds, with a new employee's enthusiasm, "The place has a very upbeat atmosphere, and very enlightened employee policies, and, you know, it's organic, it recycles everyt hing -- they only sell eggs from happy hens, that sort of thing."

Six weeks after starting this job, Tompkins herself looks happy -- upbeat, enlightened, organic. She wears a flowing purple skirt and a sleeveless white blouse; a small silver globe hangs from her necklace. Pale and blonde, she radiates wistful kindness a nd a quiet stubbornness. She is bent on following to the end what she calls a "trajectory of personal development."

How did Tompkins, author of Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, editor of Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, grow so disenchanted with university life? The first sign was her rebellion ag ainst the rigid conventions of scholarly writing. In her 1987 essay "Me and My Shadow," a manifesto for academics who refuse to bind their prose in what she calls the "straitjacket" of impersonal authority and counterfeit objectivity, Tompkins thundered d issent: "The public-private dichoto my, which is to say, the public-private hierarchy, is a founding condition of female oppression. I say to hell with it."

She has yet to say "To hell with Duke," but over lunch she makes no secret of her dissatisfaction with its English department and the profession in general: "Everybody walks around with this huge invisible superstructure around them -- their reputation, t heir ideology, their latest book, their position on this and that. You know, blah, blah, blah." It's not just the faculty that troubles her. "Somehow or other, higher education has evolved so that it puts students in touch neither with the world out there nor with themselves in here" -- she taps her breastbone -- "and I think it needs to move in both directions."

Tompkins has not stood still. As she puts it, "I've been doing a lot of work on myself over the last five or six years." She has changed the way she writes. Her most recent book, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, opens on a decisivel y personal note. "I make no secret of the fact: I love Westerns," she writes. Tompkins remains a vivid presence throughout the book. Some part of this transformation can be traced to "the group," whose members have been singularly successful in pushing on e another to produce personal writing. "What we do," according to Tompkins, "is to encourage each other to be whoever we are, not to be afraid."

She has also changed her classroom behavior. A course she taught in the fall of 1992, American Literature Unbound, involved a field trip to the beach; the catalogue description was mocked in The New Republic. Unabashed, she tells me that in the las t few years her teaching "has not really been about explaining literature, it's really been more about getting people to come out of themselves and find out what they want, who they are, and what their relation to a text is. Literature becomes a kind of o ccasion or excuse for all this."

Despite "all this," her discontent with the academy has only deepened. In a recent essay, "The Way We Live Now" (a preview, she tells me, of her forthcoming memoir), she laments the "competition, hierarchy, busyness, and isolation" that she feels mar facu lty life at major research universities. The essay begins with Tompkins wandering the corridors outside her campus office, feeling lonely, "looking for someone to talk to." What she's missing, she writes, is "emotional or spiritual fulfillment."

THE VILLAGE VOICE, IN A REVIEW of his Criticism and Social Change, forever saddled Frank Lentricchia with the title "the Dirty Harry of contemporary critical theory." A man so burdened might well shrink from the term "self- fulfillment," but Lentricchia knows the value of finding the thing that makes you happy. He believes he has found it in writing. And yet, though his new book, The Edge of Night, is intimate auto biography, self-expression is not his aim. Literary s elf-fashioning is more like it. The fifty-three-year-old Lentricchia has been seized by the urge to create. Having studied literature for several decades, he now wants to write some.

I meet him for dinner at a restaurant down the street from his house in Hillsboro, a sleepy Southern village twenty minutes from the Duke campus. A brooding man in blue jeans, a safari jacket over his black T-shirt, he bears no resemblance to Clint Eastwo od. Under a salt-and-pepper mustache, a heavy lower lip tugs his face into melancholy.

This somber Lentricchia is a character straight out of his memoir. The Edge of Night is a soap opera of the soul -- parts of it have already been adapted for the stage as performance art monologues. The dramatis personae of Lentricchia's meditation on the fragmented "I" include a violently angry Lentricchia, a guilty Lentricchia, a nostalgic Lentricchia, and many others -- all under the tyrannical sway of Lentricchia the writer.

At a remote table in the half-empty restaurant, describes the origins of his book: "For reasons that I do not know I began in the winter of '91 to feel a stirring need to write something in the broad sense personal, that had nothing to do with literary cr iticism. I had no idea how to do it. I had no idea of a form, a subject. I thought that writing about oneself was impossible -- and I still do, by the way." The Edge of Night is the story of that impossible creation, a passionate eighteen-month str uggle with sentences, a struggle that swallows up the more conventional aspects of his autobiography -- portraits of colorful Italian-American grandparents, of his wobbly marriage, of his children. He flirts with the idea of joining a monastery, but settl es for being a "moniac" -- half monk, half maniac. "A sentence, a sentence, my family for a sentence," he writes. He imagines himself the "multicultural avenger, the black Italian-American Othello." He fantasizes about strapping a chain saw to his penis a nd doing grievous bodily harm to a redneck. He thinks ugly thoughts and records them without apology.

I tell Lentricchia he comes off in the book as a seriously nasty person.

"I try to be honest," he replies, understandably testy but restrained. "If this is what you wish to say about me, you will of course say it. I try not to hide anything in this book, and if there are things that frighten people, shock people, horrify peopl e, they're there because I decided not to censor them -- but I would be a little aggrieved to hear myself described as a seriously nasty person." (The next day, in his campus office, he recites in a dutifully professorial tone, "It's not my subjectivity b efore the writing, it's the subjectivity discovered in and as writing that excites me and interests me.")

Over coffee, after dinner -- the restaurant's dining room now wholly deserted -- he tells me how hard it has become to get up from his writing desk and make his way to campus. Like Jane Tompkins, he has given up literary criticism. He is working on fictio n now, trying to balance his writing with his job. "I don't feel the academy nourishes that part of me, nor should it," he says. Unlike Tompkins, he disapproves of mixing criticism and autobiography. "I don't think criticism ought to be about self-expres sion," he declares. "I think criticism ought to be about explanation -- see how unhip I am?"

Though he has no plans to quit teaching, there's very little room in the teeming chamber of Lentricchia's newly liberated self for the humdrum identity of the university professor. "I live in the literary academy," he writes in The Edge of Night, " the Imperial Palace of Explanation, among those-who-already-know, among the Princes and Princesses of Pre-Reading, the executioners of mystery."

WHAT LOOKS TO TOMPKINS like self-expression and to Lentricchia like creativity looks to others like self-indulgence. "It's the ideology of 'Moi,' it's Miss Piggy," says a prominent professor of English familiar with the work of th e Duke memoirists who favors anonymity. "It's not something in the water at Duke, it's something in the water everywhere for the last twenty years. Academics like to think that they're divorced from large cultural processes, that they stand outside and un derstand them. But it may well be that that arrogance makes them a little more vulnerable to the latest social disease. . . . These are people who think they are left wing and yet are pure products of the Reagan era."

Individualism run rampant -- is that the story of the autobiographical itch? Should I quit right here, and steal credit for a new label, "moi criticism"? Alas, the moi decade argument, though compelling, brushes aside too many other possibil ities.

"It's a reaction against theory," says Cathy Davidson. Academics who fought their way to tenure in the Seventies and early Eighties were condemned to demonstrate theo retical competence with every breath; for them, the urge to drop theory entirely must be nearly irresistible. When I ask Tompkins (who once told me she was converted to post structuralism after meeting Stanley Fish in 1976) how she reconciles her autobiographical voice with post modernist notions of the self as a fractured entity composed of socially constructed attitudes, she dismisses the topic out of hand: "Who needs to say that anymore? 'I question the status of my own discourse,' you know, then you go back to your discourse." When I ask about the importance of theory to the writing grou p, she says, "We don't bother about it."

The trend toward autobiography has often been traced back to the Sixties, to early feminist consciousness-raising groups and the succinct feminist motto, "The personal is political." Autobiography has spread in tandem with multiculturalism: News about min ority experience often comes packaged in the first person singular. Ditto for gay studies and queer theory.

To these developments, some say, add a whiff of fin-de-siècle decadence. "This swerve into the autobiographical mode," says Frederick Crews, chairman of the English department at the University of California at Berkeley, "indicates the exhau stion of the dominant critical idiom. We've been living with poststructuralism since the 1970s, and a great weariness has set in, especially in the more rarefied theoretical precinct of the profession. The autobiographical mode is an exit lane from all th at. At the same time it's consistent with poststructuralist epistemology. One just gives up making propositions about literature and the world -- one retreats into a kind of affective reporting."

THEN THERE'S EVE KOSOFSKY SEDGWICK, living proof that autobiography and theory can cohabitate blissfully. The foremost exponent of queer theory, author of Epistemology of the Closet (University of California Press, 1990) and Be tween Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (UC Press, 1985), Sedgwick, with her notorious titles ("Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," or better yet, "Is the Rectum Straight?: Identification and Identity in The Wings of the Dove") an d her bizarre, exquisitely embarrassing autobiographical revelations, seems intent on giving her readers literary shock therapy.

In one Sedgwick essay, "A Poem Is Being Written," the memory of corporal punishment ("When I was a little child the two most rhythmic things that happened to me were spanking and poetry") leads to a bold proposition ("There has been no important and susta ined Western discourse in which women's anal eroticism means"), and then to the admission, at once elliptical and graphic, that anal eroticism is her own particular joy. She concludes with a pornographic poem, written in a man's voice, about the ecstasy o f anal intercourse with a woman (also ecstatic) named Eve.

We speak over the phone. Her voice is cheerful and sweet and hesitant -- nothing like the brash voice in her writing. The "I" of her essays, she explains, is "a working hypothesis. I start as though it were clear what it meant, but the point is actually t o see what new questions it brings up."

In her essay "White Glasses" Sedgwick records her initial reaction to being diagnosed with breast cancer: "Shit, now I must really be a woman." But then she points out that "every aspect of a self comes up for grabs under the pressure of modern medicine" -- the experience of surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy. In the end, the fact of living with a very often fatal disease, combined with the changes wrought in her body by mastectomy and hair loss ("I would warmly encourage anyone interested in the soci al construction of gender to find some way of spending half a year or so as a totally bald woman"), strengthens her sense of her true identity -- as a gay man.

Her "I," Sedgwick writes, is "a heuristic." If you can follow the permutations of her identity, a clear understanding of queer theory is within your grasp. "There are important senses in which 'queer' can signify only when attached to the first person," S edgwick argues. Queer is as queer does, she explains -- it's all about "performative acts."

Sedgwick, who is forty-three years old, tells me that she has no plans to write a memoir but has recently finished putting together a volume of poetry, some of it in the first person, some of it recognizably autobiographical. Fat Art, Thin Art will be out in the fall from Duke University Press, which also publishes her critical and theoretical work. She says she sees her poetry as "importantly part of the same undertaking" as her scholarly writing. "Whether the dean will or not," she adds carelessl y, "I don't know."

AUTOBIOGRAPHY CAN BE A PERFORMATIVE act, or a splendid hook on which to hang a story. And perhaps the most compelling stories academics have to tell are quest narratives, accounts of the strange accidents that may befall a person during an intellectual journey.

That is the kind of story Alice Kaplan tells in parts of French Lessons. Of all the autobiographical writing that has emerged from Duke in recent months, Kaplan's book (excerpted in Lingua Franca, September/October 1993) has received the mos t -- and the most flattering -- critical attention. It was nominated this winter for a National Book Critics Circle Award. According to Cathy Davidson, it was Kaplan who got the writing group started on memoirs.

Kaplan, who politely declined to be interviewed for this article, adeptly accomplishes the difficult task of making a scholar's professional life interesting to the reader. In French Lessons she describes her graduate studies at Yale with Paul de Man, her slippery encounters with French fascists, the adventure of reading Céline. She presents all this with a deadpan intensity that reads like truth -- she's sincere without being earnest. But instead of concentrating on the story of her career, she ge ts personal. The working title of the memoir was once Confessions of a Francophile, and traces of confession remain: intimate revelations about her father, who died when she was eight; about her first menstruation; about a callow French lover.

The layering of public and private adds irony and poignancy. Her father, a Jew, was a prosecution lawyer at the Nuremberg trials; Kaplan herself studied French fascist intellectuals at Yale, before de Man's contributions to a collaborationist newspaper ca me to light, in the days when politics had been banished from literary studies. Unfortunately, the private eventually drowns out the public -- and it is in the confessional passages that Kaplan's steady tone fails her.

De Man's dirty secret leads Kaplan to wonder out loud how she can avoid disappointing her own Ph.D. students "the way that de Man failed me." She asks, "How do I tell them who I am, why I read the way I do?" Her answer to these questions is the memoir its elf -- an oddly self-defeating answer in that Kaplan can't shake her postmodernist skepticism about the possibility of presenting a coherent inner self. "Learning French did me some harm by giving me a place to hide," she writes by way of summary, but the n immediately clouds the issue: "It's not as if there's a straightforward American self lurking under a devious French one, waiting to come out and be authentic. That's nostalgia -- or fiction."

In the end, despite its pleasures, her book points to the "So what?" problem of academic memoirs that stake their success on personal revelation. Whether or not they actually disclose the essence of the author's authentic self, the momentous business of s elf-exhibition risks collapsing into dreary anti-climax, especially since few academics have led lives as historically resonant as Kaplan's and fewer still write well enough to make quiet lives readable.

DAVIDSON HAS A BACKUP theory about academic autobiography: "I also think it's a mid-life thing. Mid-life people tend to be more introspective about why they're doing what they're doing." This makes the autobiographical impulse sound lik e a hazard of the aging process (once the "I" microbe infects your prose, it's only a matter of semesters before you're flipping tofu burgers). So how to explain Marianna Torgovnick? Like Davidson, she's forty-four years old. But she seems too young for a mid-life crisis, too resolutely levelheaded: no Tompkinsesque flights into self-exploration here, no Lentricchiate longings for literariness. Crisp and professional, Torgovnick talks about personal writing with the detachment of a claims adjuster.

"I write autobiographically when I find that I can't help it," she says. We speak in her English department office, a book-lined space large enough to indicate a flourishing academic career. We're interrupted once, by the delivery of a bookcase, which is rejected by Torgovnick on the grounds that it doesn't match the ones she already has.

Using the personal, for Torgovnick, is a way to trigger her critical writing. In our conversation she insists on making a clear distinction between autobiography and cultural criticism "integrated" with occasional autobiographical passages: She tells me s he writes only in the latter mode. And yet her best-known essay, "On Being White, Female, and Born in Bensonhurst" (originally published in Partisan Review and reprinted in Best American Essays of 1991), is mostly reminiscence, lightly weigh ted with general remarks about the Italian-American experience in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The occasion for the essay, she remarks, was the shooting of Yusuf Hawkins: "I really needed that jumping-off point. I sat down to write it thinking I was going to tell the world about Bensonhurst." Along the way she also tells the world about the first boy who asked her on a date, about her progress through junior high school. "I was amazed that all of that was in me. Then I got to the midway point and I said, 'Now what the hell am I going to do with this?' I am a very pragmatic person. I'm busy."

Focused, too. As she talks she stares intently at a spot just over my head, a habit she may have acquired in the lecture hall. She waves aside the idea that she might have any trouble reconciling her brand of autobiographical criticism with her academic l ife: "I'm not sure what it would be like in an institution that told me I had to do an annotated edition in order for it to count as work toward salary increases, but since I'm not at that kind of institution there's no need to worry about it." She's not about to let the muse turn her head. She tells me that the point of the writing group, besides fostering a personal voice, is "to reach more people. Not to shout in their ear, but to create a friendlier mode of criticism."

And yet a wide, receptive audience isn't everything, she confides. "I got a funny phone call from somebody at the Voice Literary Supplement who was asking me about something she was reviewing, and she said something like, 'Did you ever think about not being academic, just being a writer?' I laughed and said, 'Why would I do that? I mean, it's very hard to make a living as a freelance writer, isn't it?' " A little later she cuts short the interview, saying, "So -- I have to get ready for an academic council meeting."

IS IT REALLY IMPORTANT to know that Frank Lentricchia is sometimes very angry, that Cathy Davidson loves Japan, that Marianna Torgovnick has left Brooklyn far behind, or that Jane Tompkins is lonely? The exceptional life is surely worth recording, and we all cherish extraordinary accounts of ordinary lives. But what about the mass of middling lives, ably but not brilliantly exhibited?

Tomorrow's academy will eventually work out a suitable system for the classification and evaluation of each new assertive, vulnerable "I." Reaction will likely split along familiar lines. For scholars who have all along rejected the postmodernist assault on objective standards, the new trend will seem further proof of a sad decline. Academia's obsession with specialization has been attacked from without and bemoaned from within, but this, to the traditionalist, will look like the last straw, the intellect ual equivalent of cocooning.

For the freewheeling theory jock or the casually "postmodern post individual" (to borrow Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's term), trading in the pleasures of high-octane metaphysics for the chance to explore a personal voice will seem a snap -- less disorienting th an any number of the various theoretical and methodological dislocations of the last decade.

And, of course, some scholars will sit on the fence, which is what an eminent literary critic I talked with -- off the record -- wanted to do, until he was humpty-dumptied by a jolt of aesthetic integrity. We were talking about the more extravagantly exhi bitionist practitioners of academic auto biography; he had launched into a sophisticated analysis sprinkled with phrases like, "There has been a perceptible weakening of the autonomy of the object," when suddenly he stopped dead and asked me, "Have they n o shame?"

Adam Begley is a contributing editor of Lingua Franca and the book columnist for Mirabella.


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