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.