"It is a tenet of feminist rhetoric that the personal is political, but who in the academy acts on this where language is concerned? We all speak the father tongue, which is impersonal, while decrying the fathers' ideas," argues Jane Tompkins, a feminist critic in the literary academy ("Me and My Shadow," 1084). Postponing for a moment a discussion of the distinctions between the high and cold delivery of the father tongue and the low and warm conversation of the mother tongue, I would mark a change in th e current status of the personal narrative in a women's studies context. Since the late eighties when Tompkins made the issue of the personal a public one in a deliberate and angry resistance to what she believed was the alienating and masculinist vocabul ary of poststructuralist theory (a characterization I have some reservations about but will return to later), the personal narrative is not as invisible in the academy as it used to be.
Coming from an educational background in which one apologized for using a personal anecdote in the classroom, and having painfully forced myself to learn the value of arguments such as the one made by Tompkins, I now find myself trying to maintain some k ind of middle ground between Tompkins's apotheosis of the personal and a complete rejection of it. While Tompkins's case for the cognitive and political value of the personal seems almost unarguable today, the proliferating public stagings of the personal not just in the North American media but in the contemporary literary academy invites a critical reconsideration of the status of the personal in any classroom, and particularly in the women's studies classroom.
The problem with Tompkins's formulation (which she borrows from Ursula LeGuin), however enabling it is initially, is that the personal is foregrounded as the special terrain of the woman and of the domestic. If, as she complains, academic prose made her feel that she was being forced to wear "men's jeans," it is rather discomfiting to make the inverse connection to personal narrative and being forced to wear dresses. Yet Tompkins makes the move to a supposedly more feminine use of the personal voice will ingly. Hence, using her examples, philosopher Felix Guattari and literary critic Harold Bloom propose their claims in abstract generalizations, even when using a personal voice, while she writes not just about the intellectual issues at stake but about he r stockinged feet, about her chilly room and her desire to go to the bathroom. There is a definite challenge to disembodied academic prose in the defiant weight she gives to crude bodily needs which keep company with high-brow cerebral pursuits in spite o f the seeming irrelevance of the former to the latter. The point to keep in mind, of course, is that such details here are not irrelevant entirely since the author wishes to dramatize the impossibly of ever completely separating the personal from the publ ic. But the patent absurdity of mentioning that one wants to go to the bathroom - or anywhere else - while writing an essay only opens up the debate about the limits of the personal. Where does one draw the line? And what is specifically feminist about th e personal voice or in telling one's story? With the pop psychology transformation of every occasion into group therapy, the personal narrative seems to be everywhere in a self-obsessed consumer culture. Its appearance ranges from the self-important memoi rs of star figures in political, film, and academic circles to the everyday commodification of talk show theatrics.
I realize I am treading on dangerous ground here in appearing to dismiss popular culture, especially a culture trying to get in touch with its "repressed feminine side." And it is true that the use of the personal in much feminist theory does not echo th e solipsistic concerns of the personal narrative that fails to transcend the self. Nevertheless it bears stressing that while the personal narrative can and ought to be a useful pedagogical tool, its importance in the women's studies context has been over stated in disturbingly gendered terms. To return to the notion of the father tongue and the mother tongue, the alignment of the personal with women is usually made through a whole host of stereotypical mother metaphors, indicating a biological impulse to listen uncritically. Tompkins herself acknowledges the assumptions that are accepted in valuing the personal. "The ridiculing of the 'touchy-feely,' of the 'Mickey Mouse,' of the sentimental (often associated with teaching that takes students' concerns in to account), belongs to the tradition...[of] the denial of emotion. It is looking down on women, with whom feelings are associated, and on the activities with which women are identified: mother, nurse, teacher, social worker, volunteer" (1092). But as som e one who is already triply feminized as a woman, as a teacher, and as a teacher literature, my problem has been battling the overly high expectations of emotion and feeling on the part of colleagues and students! The general assumption is that I ought to operate in class as I would at home with my children, merging the roles of mother and teacher, both apparently seamlessly caring and considerate. Too often the demands placed on a female professor of literature are not related to a supposedly cold intell ectual rigor over warm nurturing skills, but rather the reverse. Unfortunately, since intellectual rigor then plays the masculine role to sympathetic, womanly touchy-feeliness, the entire debate continues to be played out in gendered Manichean binaries.
I want to question Tompkins's assumption that critics of an unreflective deployment of the personal run the risk of wanting to play the game like our male colleagues. Surely there are plenty of male professors around who have no problems talking about th eir personal lives, listening to those of their students, and decrying poststructural theory in the academy. Rather than praise this unreservedly, should we not also ask ourselves why this in itself is seen as a necessarily feminist position? What is so t ransparent about the use of the personal that makes it essentially a terrain of women? Instead of making the history of this particular conflation visible, we accept this construction of our subjectivity and continue to freeze the personal-maternal in tra ditional patterns that cannot always be carried over in cross-cultural and cross-racial contexts. Is it not one of the projects of feminism to challenge the ways in which women are already constituted as emotional, nurturing subjects while at the same tim e disrupting bankrupt binaries about thought versus emotion, head versus heart, theory versus practice?
However, disruption of such binaries does not mean that the divided categories are therefore one and the same: one cannot read the radical slogan that the personal is political too literally. Simplistic interpretations of the political force of personal narrative reinstate the traditional domestic role of the woman with which she resists the impersonal, unemotional male. Just how are we resisting, though, when all that seems to be happening is that we valorize a position that has been demeaned, rather th an reject the inevitability of this position in the first place? Let me emphasize once again that I am not calling for a wholesale rejection of personal narratives in the classroom. I am suggesting, instead, that we be cautions about their use in women's studies and refuse to see them as inherently feminist. Politics does not just lie in appropriating "womanly" characteristics once deemed inferior, but also in contesting the self-evident nature of these characteristics.
I would like to thank Professor Amy Koritz for her assistance with this piece.
Tompkins, Jane. "Me and my Shadow." In Feminisms: An Anthology of
Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn. R. Warhol and Diane Price
Herndl. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993. 1079-1092.
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