The Personal

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.

The Personal

15 thoughts on “The Personal

  • March 31, 2005 at 11:00 am
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    And I think you’ve articulated why I don’t gravitate towards the Romans but adore the Sophists, who do not talk about the personal per se, but who highlight many of the ideals that scholars of the personal want to see highlighted, like situatedness and such (alas, the essay I wrote that raises this point is being reviewed by the second journal on my list since reviewers from the first said “We know this already,” so maybe I’m not saying anything new). I’ve been told my blog makes some uncomfortable because it’s too personal. Frankly, I thought that’s what can make it rather boring and mundane.

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  • March 31, 2005 at 12:50 pm
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    Well, it’s not like the Romans aren’t concerned about situatedness: I don’t know of a single classical text that’s more about situatedness than the Pro Ligario, and that’s the point I was trying to make.

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  • March 31, 2005 at 1:21 pm
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    You said: “We’re self-aware method actors in our own lives, and our self-aware performances carry indisputable emotive and affective freight.”

    Ha! Yes. It reminds me of my narrator, that person inside my mind who was always watching me and telling me a story about myself. I was pleasantly surprised at the response I got in the comments to that post and at Wolfangel’s.

    But seriously: Can you reconcile your take on the personal with Joan Scott’s critique of experience as evidence? I said something about this over at Comp Southeast too. Scott and other poststructuralist feminists such as Judith Butler and Wendy Brown have noted the tendency for accounts of personal experience (which are always interpretations of the experience) to become texts that are, for lack of a better term, above reproach: not to be questioned or critiqued, sacred. I lived this, and you’ll never possibly know what it’s like, so you can’t say shit to me, that kind of thing. Students need to step back and look at the frameworks that cause them to interpret their experiences the various ways they do (might be a good way to explore free-market individualist ideas, mass-media “political correctness,” etc.).

    Also, can’t most pedagogical theories result in generic assignments? How are you planning on avoiding problems like these, off the top of my head: 1) “just write some sob story” type consciousness-raising-group testimony (the student’s offering up of his or her experience to be simply affirmed, not criticized), 2) the “money shot” problem of evaluating the self presented on the page, rather than the writing, as you’ve mentioned here before, and 3) students’ privacy? What if they truly feel that being required to write this way violates their privacy (whether they are required to put this writing on a weblog or not)?

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  • March 31, 2005 at 2:18 pm
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    I was thinking you might respond to this, Clancy, and I had your responses about the personal essay as well as Sharon Gerald’s post in mind. Two quick answers: one, I’m not talking about personal experience as evidence. I’m talking about personal experience as personal experience. This is personal experience as he complicated inhabiting of a perspective that Peter Elbow so struggles with in much of his fine and complex work, but beyond that, the willing deeply personal inhabiting of a multiplicity of perspectives that he calls “the believing game.” (See his recent CE symposium with Wayne Booth.) Two, your assertion that “students need to step back and look at the frameworks” is the target I’m squarely aiming at when I blast critical pedagogy’s insistence on students’ declaring that they’re dupes: those looks at those frameworks are now a genre, as Jenny describes, the general-equivalency unmasking-ideology rhetorical commonplace that students would rather download from the term paper mills rather than be bothered paying lip service to for their teachers.

    But I’m working on a longer post on this topic right now, so I’ll have more to say — and answers for the questions you raise in your final paragraph — later on today.

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  • March 31, 2005 at 2:31 pm
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    Yeah, I wondered about the frameworks part. I agree with your criticisms the critical pedagogy advertisement-analysis type assignment. It’s a problem though, for sure, because, when writing about (interpreting) personal experience, you can’t really go about it as though the frameworks don’t exist.

    I realize I could be completely misunderstanding you and that you’re talking about something else entirely. I’ll check out that CE symposium. Without an example, I’m not sure what you’re talking about when you say “personal experience as personal experience.” Putting it that way sounds like the personal experience isn’t transformed in any way in the act of writing about it (sort of like “a memorable experience I had while participating in a sport,” personal for personal’s sake). Neither of those things sounds at all like your thinking, though, so I’ll just check back and read the longer post.

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  • March 31, 2005 at 4:51 pm
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    Ah, yes, you’re certainly right about situatedness, which was not clear in my rushed comment. I guess I was making a distinction between the starting point of situatedness, whether it’s the self or audience or context or whatever, a point we actually covered today in my writing-across-the-curriculum course.

    I have to say, I’m really jealous of you and Clancy and others at the dissertation stage. I remember a prof telling us that we would never have the time to think and reflect that we do when we’re dissertating, and though I was working fulltime then, he was so right.

    Okay, I’m not that jealous. It’s good to be done! But keep all this writing because you will use it again. In the rush of the tenure track, the writing you have like this will sometimes save you. I certainly love reading it.

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  • March 31, 2005 at 7:24 pm
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    Thanks, Nels!

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  • March 31, 2005 at 8:20 pm
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    Mike, I just finished a chapter in my dissertation that began with the heading, “Just Personal.” I’m probably too close to it right now to say more, but there’s a reason my web space is called techsophist. If students are unable to situate their thoughts in some kind of context that connects to them personally, to their lives, then there should be no surprise when the resulting texts seem vacant and interchangeable. Of course they do. No one’s home.

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  • March 31, 2005 at 9:41 pm
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    I agree with Nels! My first reaction was “only a person writing a dissertation would have time to think about this in so much detail.” 🙂

    You’ve brought up some interesting points. As soon as I have time to follow your links and mull them over a little, I’ll get back to you on them.

    I will say, though, that I don’t think any writing is above reproach. Even the most emotional of the personal memory narratives are ultimately crafted through words, and words can always be critiqued even when the life they describe cannot.

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  • April 1, 2005 at 6:46 pm
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    I was certainly surprised to find my name in this post! As usual, I cannot follow your work. I have decided to be complimented that you enjoy my writing, uncomfortably or not. All this time, I thought it was my clever titles.

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  • April 3, 2005 at 9:38 am
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    Feel like an aged graduate, who has seen better days, slipping somehow past the security guards at the front gate of the university, and now sitting hunched down in my chair at your lectures on writing, and following you into the teacher’s lounge afterwards to listen in on the conversation. I am learning a great deal and am grateful that the doors are open.

    What has changed on this site in the last 3 years is the “conversational density,” or disciplinary density. Now it not just Mike, but many others in the “same field,” who have read the same bibliography, speak at the same conferences, aim for the same jobs, read the same journals, and know one another face to face, within a disciplinary hierarchy of publications and status.

    The selves are now professional selves, as well as personal, situated in a shared “university life world,” and on the verge of being inducted into the profession. Given the shared density of readings, vocbulary, prior conversations, the writing becomes thicker, weightier, and more imposing, even in it is informality.

    So the system is producing those who reproduce it, again. As a nonacademic friend, I somehow feel lonesome, seeing the people many of whose blogs I have followed, taking on the professional stamp, absorbed in their common enterprise, talking to one another.

    Two audiences, as you said in an earlier post, Mike. You also have auditors. Hope you keep us in mind too, and remember the world into which your students will graduate, a world in which almost no one has read James Britten, Cicero, Quintillian, Peter Elbow. Can we get the voices to carry, the selves created, the selves peformed to do it with the props available outside the school? Can you prepare kids to do what is so hard, to carry forward the critical readings of popular culture even as they are hired to produce and consume that culture?

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  • April 3, 2005 at 10:12 am
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    Uh, yeah– what the Tutor said. I don’t know how it happened but two years ago when I first began blogging, I gradually built a base of blogs I read no matter what and although some come and go, the base itself wound up comprising rhetoric students or teachers and the further we go, the more clueless I am as to what everyone is talking about. (Guess I’m thinking specifically about you, Krista, Clancy.)

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  • April 3, 2005 at 11:45 am
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    Michelle, I’m a teacher and I feel clueless sometimes! I read Mike, Clancy and a few others knowing that I will feel clueless and confused, but I also feel like I’m getting a free course in theories that have been growing since I was in grad school in 1990. Since I’m planning to do doctoral work in a few years, I read (and reread slowly, while misunderstanding half of it)their writing to get back into the swing, so to speak.
    But your point made me wonder about audiences and blog focus. As Mike and Clancy get further into their dissertations, maybe some of their readership will change. In terms of blog focus, I’ve noticed that some bloggers have different blogs for the different parts of their lives, which has made me appreciate the sorting function that blogs facilitate, something I knew but which didn’t hit me until a few days ago. So whether I’m saying that Clancy and Mike need to have personal blogs (yup, Mike. personal)so that we can all stay in touch, or whether I’m asking if blogging doesn’t encourage a specific intellectual function, well, I dunno. I need to chew on it for awhile.
    And Happy Tutor, your comments about being an auditor interest me as well, and I’ll be chewing on that for a while, too. Regarding the change in voice and commenters, all I can say is that blogging has made it more possible for someone like Mike (or me or you) to communicate ideas at all levels of academe whenever we want. And yes, I sometimes wish I had a crib sheet of theorists alongside the computer when I read the posts!
    So, what I think I’m saying here is that all of this discussion has pushed me towards thinking more directly about blog audience than I have.

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  • April 3, 2005 at 7:36 pm
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    Joanna, thanks! Encouraging to know that even people in their field are confused by some of the posts! (I can sometimes recognize a kernel of something I may have understood at one time but the “work” posts are just too far over my head for any level of comprehension.)

    Blogs do evolve and readership inevitably will change. However, I find that even though topics (at times or eventually) become more esoteric as they’re making such headway in their work, I continue to read people I blogged with early on.

    I’ve considered multiple blogs for different formats before but ultimately, I blog the personal more than the professional because while Mike’s struggling with the personal writing aspect, for me it’s an outlet and is as natural as drinking water. It’s probably a sign of my priorities and the purpose for blogging in my life that I’ve failed to build up a network of readers and bloggers I hit regularly who really are in my field (such as it is, fledgling that I am).

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  • April 3, 2005 at 8:59 pm
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    Tutor, Michelle, Joanna — yeah, the density of the language is tough. And for me, and others who are dissertating or moving towards dissertating, it’s a natural consequence, as the Tutor notes; it’s the way I’m getting closer and closer to the issues that concern me, inhabiting their vocabulary, requiring finer distinctions and nuances and a more specialized lexicon, and the deeper in I get, the harder it is to see a way out. Which is why I need to read your writing and comments, to remind myself that there’s an immense plain of discourse beyond the narrow chasm I’ve dug myself into. A professor described to me what she called the “first book” problem: after a PhD candidate has completed her dissertation, it’s incredibly difficult to lose that habit of thought that requires her to support every assertion (no matter how tiny) and lose that hyper-specialized vocabulary that allowed her to come to her conclusions, and to back-translate those conclusions into the broader language required for a first book with a more generalized audience.

    I’m hoping that the focus on audience that keeping a weblog requires might make the first book problem a little easier for me.

    And so, indeed, audiences and auditors. Of course, the discourse flows in multiple directions, as I’ve tried to acknowledge in recent posts re what I’ve learned from you — Tutor, Michelle, Joanna, and others — and how it’s informed my thinking. One observation that might be of interest: in my posts, I’m often trying to draw together multiple perspectives, to make connections between multiple ideas, which I think makes for a more complex language (almost like factoring for a lowest common denominator when adding fractions) than the straightforward expression of a single idea. Which (as I hint at in this recent post) connects in interesting ways to what the Tutor’s had to say about language and power in this post and its follow-ups. In some ways, Tutor, it seems like it’s carnival season again, with the teacher seated in the front row and the student behind the lectern.

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