So this idea’s got hold of me and I can’t leave it alone, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s unsettling my notions of where I thought the final chapters of my dissertation would go. And I think this is what I’m going to have to propose for CCCC because I can’t put it down, can’t let it go unexamined, and so I’ve been following trails of sources at the library and on the Web the past few days, a little apprehensive at where I see it going.
What got me started was Jenny Edbauer’s thoughts on the general equivalency of student essays written in the critical-pedagogical mode. The assignments required by critical pedagogues have become so common that they now show up — in all their generic characteristics — in the online term paper mills. As I tentatively concluded in my notes on Linh’s CCCC presentation, they’ve become our unmasking-hegemony equivalent of the New Critical close reading, only the object is culture rather than literature. And as Jenny points out, they’re so common that they’re easily exchanged, one for another, to the point where — as Doug Hesse suggested with his examples of the Intelligent Essay Assessor and the Essay Generator — no writing needs to be done, because it’s all been said. This is the end to which critical pedagogues have brought Paulo Freire: writing as the regurgitation of lecture, where the ultimate lesson the student takes from the teacher is this: “Do you now see how you’ve been duped by the dominant culture?” And of course the student will answer, outwardly: “Yes, teacher, I see.” And inwardly: “Yeah, sure. Whatever. Just give me the grade.” Because for all their hand-waving and hair-tearing about hegemony and ideology, many of the aging inheritors of Freire often forget that students are powerfully insightful cultural critics with a deep, thoroughgoing, and instinctive awareness of the performativity of culture, and the lessons that these inheritors of Freire would have them absorb about how meaning is constructed become so much lip-service bullshit, not worth writing about and simpler in its generic received-wisdom nature to download from cheathouse.com. Any individuated use value to the student is ignored in favor of exchange value for the grade.
This — Jenny’s “general equivalency” — is shallow writing in that it offers no room for personal inhabitation. We’ve forgotten Freire’s instruction that the subject must be the student’s own experience, not the facile unmasking of the hegemonic functions of assertions about capital punishment or tax reform. But use value subsists in what the writing means, directly, to the student, and that’s where I see an alternative offered by Peter Elbow’s “believing game” and the pedagogical possibilities of personal writing.
And before you jaded cynics roll your eyes and groan, please attend again to Clancy’s reminder to us of the feminist dictum that the personal is political, and that one important aspect of the personal — as Peter Elbow has been trying to tell us for a long, long time — is in the way it offers connections between people, in the way that the inhabitation of multiple possible subjectivities offered by the “believing game” can counter the tendencies towards domination offered by critical pedagogues who want to unmask hegemony in favor of forcing their students to see that it’s simply much more in their own best interests to vote for Nader. We all acknowledge the importance of negotiating between the personal and the communal, but in so many so-called critical pedagogies, the only personal move is in asking students to say, “Yes, I was a dupe to have been fooled by the dominant culture’s ideological commonplaces, but now I know better.” As Peter points out, criticizing one ideology is simply putting one’s faith in another ideology: it’s changing masters.
And this changing masters is an interpretive move; it’s a reading, of which as evidence teachers demand a written paper. But Peter acknowledges that the reading process is itself often quick and hidden, while the writing process is made visible through multiple and recursive drafts. As Mariolina Salvatori urges, there’s a deep need to make reading visible and self-conscious, to turn us towards the deeply personal hermeneusis of the reader aware of herself in the act of reading. Reader-response criticism, now sadly neglected, is a method for the interpreter or critic to give a self-conscious account of what’s actually happening inside her as she reads. After the work of Walter Ong, we’re all well aware that self-consciousness itself is a characteristic of print culture, but what Thomas De Zengotita has lately pointed out is the way in which self-consciousness has moved from an overt and studied phenomenon to a naturalized and internalized phenomenon. We’re used to being flattered by marketing, we expect it, and that expectation of individuated personal attention has become a mark of our contemporary self-production and performative representation of our subjective experience. Furthermore, in this culture of performance, the commodified representation of personal experience becomes political because it’s constructive of and constitutive of reality. Today, De Zengotita points out, being is performing, and political action is the production of representations. The problem is that the old-school conventional critical-pedagogical unmasking-of-ideology move asks students to simply produce remarkably similar impersonal representations of the world. Where, in such a pedagogy, is the personal aspect that was so important to Freire?
Let me change gears for a moment, back to the connection between the personal and the political that Clancy helped me make. Publicly performing a personal self, as we see so spectacularly in Cicero’s Pro Ligario, is highly political in that it places that self in relation to others, and in so doing foregrounds — in different ways to people in different positions — relations of power. Why was Quintilian so keen to talk about the vir bonus under the terrifyingly vicious despot Domitian, even when this good man speaking well and freely was a lie, a sham, an utter impossibility under imperial power? Because such talk reassured the tyrant that subjects thought they could in good conscience speak well and freely while at the same time demonstrating incontrovertibly to others who knew and despised the conditions of despotism that the vir bonus was a lie under those conditions. In other words, character itself — the personal — became not one but multiple political arguments in the Pro Ligario and the Institutio Oratoria. This is why, informed by Clancy’s and Jenny’s work, I’d like to seek a return to Peter Elbow’s work with the personal, because I think James Berlin’s modernist Marxism might not hold the same truths in our age of renewed performativity as it did twenty years ago. Berlin’s Marxism sees agency not in individuals but in classes, and as such doesn’t see the insights offered by Bourdieu and Gibson-Graham concerning what a diverse network of individuals can do. Ultimately, Berlin’s Marxism is rooted in a critique of mass consumption and production, the end of Rostow’s five-stage teleogical model of economic development, an end that’s today been exceeded by the economics of Yochai Benkler and Zuboff & Maxmin, the economics of individuated distributed production and consumption, which — by definition — must operate at least partly on a personal and affectual level. And as Bourdieu hints — and De Zengotita more strongly implies — the dialectical self-production of personal subjectivity is today an act that is not only political but also economic.
Thomas De Zengotita argues that in being ourselves today — in enacting our personal subjectivities — we are deeply aware that we’re producing representations. We’re self-aware method actors in our own lives, and our self-aware performances carry indisputable emotive and affective freight. That freight is where I want to move away from the rational and cognitive emphasis of conventional Freirean critical pedagogy, and into the dangerous sloppiness and dark tides of the personal.
For once, I’ll be up front about this: personal writing scares me. It’s why I love the Romans, with their focus on how the outer public life drives the inner, their privileging of the public over the private. It’s why I so uncomfortably enjoy (with an awareness that I could never do that) the way Michelle writes so close to the bone. It’s why I’d never do the 100 Things About Me meme. I was raised to believe that talking about one’s internal life was somehow pompous, self-aggrandizing, vain, wrong. Which I know is silly, but it’s also why — in the short fiction I’ve written that is so much about my own experience — I’ve taken such pains to make sure that the characters I write about could never be mistaken for me: a heavyset female African-American sergeant, a muscular gay male Korean bruiser, and perhaps most appropriately, a nameless cipher who literally vanishes at the story’s end, leaving behind only his dog tags, which — like the story itself — add up, literally and figuratively, to nothing.
So this — the praxis of personal writing — will likely be uneasy territory for me.