The Official Blog for ENGL 41416.

By Frank Miller

In “Getting Personal: Autobiography as Cultural Criticism,” Nancy K. Miller first poses a question to her audience: “What’s personal criticism?” She herself defines it as “an explicitly autobiographical performance within the act of criticism” which “involves a deliberate move toward self-figuration” (1). Miller highlights that personal criticism may come in the form of high-brow academic analysis or a heartfelt personal account; yet, ultimately ponders: “are autobiographical and personal criticism the same thing?” (1). Miller states that distinguishing a difference between the two is important; however, concludes that “the effects” that autobiographical and personal criticism have on “the constitution of critical authority and the production of theory” (2) is truly what is relevant.

Miller invokes the works of several prominent feminists writers who cross the “autobiographical” and the “personal.” While reading, I couldn’t help but think of Martha Moulsworth, a British widow living in the post-Elizabethan era who seemed to interwine the personal with the autobiographical. Moulsworth’s “Memorandum,” a 55-couplet testament to her 55 years of life in 1632 has been recorded “as one of the first autobiographical English poems“; however, “the fact that it is by a woman, of course, adds to its importance.” It includes “one of the most sweeping and radical claims for the right to equal education ever issued in the Renaissance.” Yet, for the fact that the claim is made so early, only propels the significance of her statement. She writes: “Two universities we have of men, / O that we had but one of women then! / O then that would in wit, and tongues surpass / All art of men that is, or ever was” (33-36). Though the lines following these deal more with Moulsworth’s autobiographical story, these lines specifically portray her attack of “the constitution of critical authority” which in this case are Oxford and Cambridge, divine enforcers of constitutional patriarchy. Jointly, her assertion that women would “in wit, and tongues surpass, all art of men that is, or ever was” demonstrate her attempt to empower women, designating them to positions other than banal housework. Though Moulsworth’s voice might have been irrelevant at the time, I’m sure Miller would agree that incendiary works like these are indeed what is “truly relevant” to the production of future theory.

Here is the link to her work:

http://www.digital.library.upenn.edu/women/moulsworth/name/name.html

I had difficulty understanding and finding a connection between For Etruscans: Sexual Difference and Artistic Production- The Debate over a female Aesthetic and Getting Personal: Autobiography as Cultural Criticism there is one common idea I stumbled upon…

 

“Writers know their text as a form of intimacy, of personal contact, whether conversations with the reader or with the self. Letters, journals, voices are sources for this element.”

 

This statement by Hester Eisenstein and Alicie Jardin from For Etruscans: Sexual Difference and Artistic Production- The Debate over a female Aesthetic summarizes what I found to be a common threat between Getting Personal: Autobiography as Cultural Criticism by Nancy K. Miller.

 

The connection between a writer and a reader is hard to produce but seems to be especially hard for the female writer. In For the Etruscans Sara Lenox presents the idea that woman and writer have “to find a language for intuition, feelings, instincts which are, in themselves, elusive, subtle and wordless.”

 

Both writing also mention journal writing as an important source of material and connection between writer and reader. Nancy Miller says, “feminist teaching tends to produce a great deal of personal testimony”, and “Feminist theory has always built out from the personal: the witness “I” of subjective experience. The notion of the “authority of experience”

In her piece “Getting Personal: Autobiography as Cultural Criticism,” nancy K. Miller discusses the emergence of personal writing as a new genre of feminist theory and cultural criticism. Miller discusses the new genre, which emerged among scholars and academics int he 1970s and 1980s, as a means by which to deconstruct the cultural hierarchy and dichotomy between public and private, and the gender implications of this. Feminists whom we have read, like Spivak, Anzaldua and Lorde, have used personal and autobiographical subject matter to discuss throry, like how Anzaldua discusses her writing process, being nude and on her porch while the contemplates the experience of women of color. Miller asks “What is personal?” and when discussing personal, which is read sometimes as uncomfortable, “Who is uncomfortable?”. Miller also discusses how incoportating personal experience in academic theory has in the past been perceived as discrediting women’s work, like in the case of the Ph.D. candidates who have been conscious of the “profound consequences of taking the personal as a category of though and gender as a category of analysis,” (14).

Throughout the piece, I couldn’t help but question Miller’s assertion that personal experience as a genre of feminist theory and cultural critique as a new concept. I immediately thought of Virginia Woolf, particularly in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is undoubtedly drawing from personal experience, and even creates an intimate scene (though perhaps not as intimate as discussing having to go to the bathroom) a Tompkin’s talking about her thinking in her stockinged feet, when she describes the scene where she takes in lunch by the OxBridge campus. Although Woolf is meant to be writing in her own genre – stream of consciousness – for which she is so famous, the discussion of the lunch, of her wandering through the library (which even resembles Foucault’s discussion of the man int he library who cannot find books to relate to), or being shooed off the grass and on to the hard gravel are all deeply personal. Though perhaps not explicitly personal, there is no doubt that Woolf experienced at least parts of the scenes she created, and that she critiques the dichotomy of public/private in her work. And though the women of the 1970s and 1980s were absolutely expanding, through honesty and their “personal” and acknowledging that their work is partially autobiographical, I would argue that Woolf contributed to this genre long before it was an acceptable means of presenting theory.

Adrienne Rich essay on “compulsory heterosexual and lesbian existence” truly made me take a closer look at what I believed towards assumptions on sexuality.  I can see why she would ask the question that she does. It is true that as babies the first bond we ever make is with our mothers who happens to be a women so why not as women be able to better identify  ourselves with such.

Rich ideas of ” lesbian continuum” and the question that arises whether lesbianism is truly defined by all the possible interactions among women or is it by erotic choice that this interactions are made. I don’t agree with society idea that the only normal relationship is between a man and a women. I have led relationship with women that are much alike to a relationship with a man.  The idea that men see any other type of relationship as deviant is ridiculous. the fact that men have had or have such power over women as Rich clearly states denying women their sexuality, or to force it upon them, command or exploit their labour etc makes me ask who are they (man) to define what a deviant or not relationship is? .

As I read Femmes Fatales,Mary Ann Doane I couldn’t helpbut think of what a femme fatale is or the role that it’s suppose to play . Immediately my mind travels to an HBO movies of a women who is desired by every man she encounters. Plays the role of the ultimate sex figure yet is also strong and able to defend herself. To summarize the movie every man she sleeps with she ends up killing and this caused for a question to arise;  is a femme fatale a super sexy murder?

” The woman’s relation to the camera and the scopic regime is quite different from that of the male”(19) I would have to agree with this idea. The role of women on camera is one that is far from the truth and times ridiculous from real world. I find that the role of woman hasn’t changed that much through history. Almost in every movie the woman is docile and nurturing and will stand by her man no matter what. Not long ago I saw a movie in which women were portrayed as this weak beings who depended on man to be happy and I feel that it’s wrong because we are so much more than that.

As I continue to read, the author states that “woman is frequently the object of the voyeuristic or fetishistic gaze in the cinema” I can’t help but ask why is this? When did women become just an object to be looked at and nothing else.

“womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed”(25) Itotally agree with this idea, woman have to wear a mask at times in order to be able to survive and to cope with the image that we must try to fit into. I can’t help but complain that man have it to easy. The author claims that it isn’t that man can’t use their body but that he doesn’t have too while woman use their sex for gains. The feminist in me screams  ” oh the injustice”

By MaryKate Schwerdt

When Miller quotes Tompkins as saying the personal is the category that intrigues and satisfies woman, my inner voice immediately said …well, duh. The reaction didn’t come from a place of snobbery but one of confusion of how anyone could think otherwise. After an entire recorded history, and surely prehistory as well, of exclusion, denial, marginalization, subversion, and a bunch of other nasty verbs, how could women exist freely anywhere but inside the mind of their own person? With miniscule involvement in public politics, economics, art, religion, or the academics to even learn about them, is it really any wonder that women naturally respond to what tries to connect with and stimulate most private part of them? This isn’t Orwellian world of thought police (yet) so the mind and imagination were the only domains safe from institutionalized male agenda for women.

Miller quotes Sedgwick saying, “every mind has a body.” This brought me back towards the beginning of the semester to the Anzaldua and Cixous pieces we read. Every living woman has a mind and a body that cannot NOT experience through its senses; the experience and reaction were denied exodus into any public realm, so they remained private. The theory we have read concerns implications of that very implosion of experience. Although the bondage of women has somewhat loosened in recent years, it is just as tight for most and the conditioning for private existence is still there for the rest. Miller illustrates this perfectly when references Mary Russo’s recollection of nameless female voices saying, “She’s making a spectacle of herself,” to any woman entering the public sphere by attracting the attention of others.

Whether personal experience belongs in a critique is tough to answer. I’ve practically been indoctrinated to say “no” and have any claims I make and the evidence to prove them be independent of me. The more I think about what’s appropriate, the more I side with the personal. In my humble opinion, language is an art that can never be truly objective, and the purpose of art is to evoke feeling. In the high academia of universities where this debate is taking place, the type of writing that is being critiqued is written to be read. I don’t mean to taint or dismiss the intentions of the writer, but theory sets out to prove something and convince the reader of it. I think it’s a little hypocritical to exclusively expect objectivity in a critique when the piece itself is attempting to change the person/mind concerning things as fluid literature and human behavior. In a literary theoretical context, the personal is acceptable if it has been provoked by the author of what is being critiqued. A critique is meant to evaluate and respond, so the inclusion of genuine responses doesn’t seem so sacrilege. However, I must join Miller in her fear of the personal becoming trendy and resulting in a complete loss of objectivity and a “chummy” world of professors who in the worst case scenario incorporate re-tellings of their wild nights in college (I kid).

Nancy K. Miller in her essay, “Getting Personal: Autobiography as Cultural Criticism,” seeks to radically problematize  a notion that perhaps has served as the gold standard for writing in humanities classes from grade school to college. that is, when writing an essay, one should be objective. Feminist theory, though, seeks to destabilize the notion of subject in order to situate it in a locale that is supremely social and also marked by the body which it inhabits. Adrienne Rich exemplifies such a stance with her statement quoted in this essay: “Every mind resides in a body.” Miller then in turn elaborates on this quote, “Personal criticism, as we will see, is often located in a specified body (or voice) marked by gender, color, and national origin: a little passport.”

With a mind so firmly and resolutely inhabiting a body, this mode of criticism seems to disallow the possibility for someone to write without being affected by his or her social milieu, social standing and ethnic heritage. This certainly strikes an intuitive chord: I would not be I unless I were I. Where Miller begins her shift is to suggest that critical and theoretical writing, long seen as an off-shoot of a scientific and logical based method, should allow for personal biography in its dealings.

The impetus for such a stance seems to stem from a fundamental binary of feminist theory: the relation between proximity and distance. This division shows that the feminine is associated with the close and the personal; children associate their mother with immediate care and emotional support. On the other hand boys learn masculinity in negative relation to how their mothers act. Therefore if this distinction is then translated in multifarious modes of culture, it would stand as such: the abstract and the objective is masculine, and the close and the personal is feminine.

Thus one could see how feminist theory would take issue with such critical schools as the New Critics, who, taking a nod from Barthes, deemed the author to be dead, and the text to exist completely disembodied as if it were an autonomous object. Of course, other criticism has rejected the anti-intentionalism stance, and today it seems that, for the most part, the author’s intent is allowed, just not as the text’s supreme authority.

What is strange about such a rejection of  anti-intentionalism is that so much of feminist criticism is founded upon it. I am fairly certain that Nathaniel Hawthorne when writing  “The Birthmark” did not set himself to the task of writing an allegory for the patriarchal oppression of women, yet the story has served as text par excellence for feminist criticism. Therefore if the mind is to fully inhabit the body, the writer needs his or her intentions restored to him or herself just as much as his or her racial, class, and gender markings need to be restored. In other words, if one’s body is to count, one’s intentions should count too.

Perhaps the above rebuttal is making a straw man out of Miller’s argument, for certainly one can have a bodily reaction to reading regardless of what the author intended or did not intend. We can certainly position the proposition “All ways of knowing are personal” within an empiricist framework without a debate on authorial intention.

Intention aside, the most pressing issue of Miller’s essay is what it means for the practice of theory and criticism. It introduces a question with which all writers have certainly struggled: How much of myself should I put on the page? Miller herself proffers a continuum of possibility; the personal has become the theoretical. This concept is readily available, for as I write this as I am sitting listening to construction and worrying about my finals, and I can I certainly see myself on this page.

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