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Against Personal Testimony

Notes towards Day 5 of Critical Feminist Studies
Against Personal Testimony

--Linda Kauffman, "The Long Good-bye: Against Personal Testimony"

I. Coursekeeping:
paying for packets/attending class
logging in to post--> later tracking your postings
negotiating Exchange in general: managable?
righthand column of new topics/new forum topics useful?
taking into account/responding to alums' contributions?
(a 'buddy' system?)
Mary Belle Frey '57, "Three Guineas": " taking every one of us on the roster seriously and has thus made us recognizable in the world world, even Guatemala..."

II. Where We Left Off/What We Found Useable in Sosnoski...
concept of falsifiability (=refutability/testability)

The Black Swan --> all are not white!
...and proofs are not possible

Mary Clurman '63, "What is a Feminist?": "I have not tested 10,000 complete with controls so as to know....But I do know my way of life is a good one..."

Stepping off from Karl Popper to argue
against the social consequences
of assuming that truth can be known:
professional life becomes rule-governed striving/
a contest for a prize ("the right answer").

Cf. Sarah, "Before I took this class...": "I still have a lingering habit to question...any theory that interprets with a political end in mind."

& Jessy, "Myth with Footnotes" (quoting a footnote): "Far more important than the deconstruction of literary texs is the politicizaiton of literary study."

Sosnoski opposes
  • "appropriation" (arrogation, confiscation, seizure of concepts;
    ideas owned and sold at will, are proper-ties) with
  • "intuition" (in-appropriate, not appropriable,
    nothing gets accumulated, diverse, diffuse).

His argument:
that our work life less competitive, and
knowledge-making more generative,
if we chose the latter alternative.

The work of two Bryn Mawr alums provide two test cases:

Nadia Abu El-Haj's work on Facts on the Ground:
Archaeological Practice and Territorial
Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society

"Serious people are outraged when people who are rank amateurs come in....It’s insulting. Brain surgeons would be offended if a medical technician criticized their work....The problem, of course, is that she is politically driven"....But Dr. Abu El-Haj also has many supporters...who say her book is solid, even brilliant, and part of an innovative trend of looking at how disciplines function....

Jane Tompkins' work on Sensational Designs:
The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860

What makes a literary classic? not the intrinsic merit of a text, but rather the circumstances of its writing. Against the modernist belief that art, in order to be art, must be free from propaganda, Tompkins contends that writers like Brockden Brown, Cooper, Stowe, and Warner wrote in order to alter the face of the social world, not to elicit aesthetic appreciation.Thus, the value and significance of the novels, for readers of their time, depended on precisely those characteristics that formalist criticism has taught us to deplore: stereotyped characters, sensational plots, and cliched language....This challenging book works towards a redefinition of literature and literary study. The texts the author examines are viewed not as works of art embodying enduring themes, but as attempts to redefine the social order.

Sosnoski's own work is a third example:
there's a clear trajectory from his 1989 theorizing to
his current work on constructing alternative realities....

now involved in projects such as

Distance Learning Classroom Using Virtual Harlem

Virtual Harlem Main Page

Electronic Visualization Laboratory

(For more on alternative reality games, see on-line conversation
with Brian Clark, an experimental narrativist,
on Narrative, Science and Unpredictability)

More reactions here?
Gail Chavenelle '67,
"Sosnoski": I found it interesting that Sosnoski's article was organized and presented in exactly the male classic falsification style which he is exposing...

III. Turning Today to Someone Else
who wants her "work to be a
counterfriction to the machine..."

Linda Kauffman

Kauffman is quite conscious that she is challenging
some of "our" deepest held beliefs, and is
convinced of importance of her doing so:

"Feminism is far more than the effort to express women's personal experience...I want continually to cast doubt on the status of knowledge---even as we are in the process of constructing it...

Continually exposing and undermining the construction of knowledge is vital to every project of redefining feminism. That project is perpetual....

Feminism's greatest strength has always been its capacity for self-critique. I think we still have the most to learn from the ruptures, limitations, and contradictions in our thinking....
[remember Sosnoski on "error as heuristic?]

I enact a conscious strategy of "infidelity" can show how one's own arguments may...become inadequate...confess how one's desires may be in conflict with the theoretical stances one endorses....

[Sandra Harding's similar argument, to] "engage in tratorious readings of the assumptions we make."

The central infidelity, the core tratorious reading here is the
challenge to the authority of personal experience.

Mary Clurman '63, "What is a Feminist?": Va. Woolf "is arguing...for the ideals of individualism..."

Nora on "Reading as a Feminist":
"feminism should be personal first in order to know what to build upon."

What are Kauffman's reasons for "going against the grain" of individualism? Let's see if we can find out, first, by

doing something experiential: tell us a fact about your self.

According to Kauffman, the problem with personal testimony is that
*it stops conversation
"how cheap and easy personal testimony is....By insisting on the authority of my personal experience, I effectively muzzle dissent....

* it falsifies the randomness of the world (in general)
"The facts of my life...rearrange themselves generically into one of several novelistic lines....The lie of the American dream disguises the randomness of existence...."

* it falsifies the randomness of our life experiences (in particular)

"difficult to resist is the temptation to view the personal as inherently paradigmatic, the individual life story as coherent, unified, orally inspiring. It makes us see similarity where in fact there are only differences...."

* it falsifies our understanding of the self on two counts
--the nature of the unconscious
"we are always besides ourselves in multiple senses. Striving for integration through self-expression can only be viewed as a quixotic enterprise when one considers the structure of the unconscious" [remember last week's discussion about "trust": can we trust our unruly selves, much less those of others?]

--the social construction of internal experience
"what we call the psyche is influenced by social, political, and economic traumas....'what one comprehends as subjective are in fact material, economic, and interpersonal social and historical relations' (Teresa de Lauretis)"

* it redirects attention from what is important

"Personal testimony...reinforces the...belief that we are all intrinsically interesting, unique, that we deserve to be happy. My not very important in the grand scheme of things. I never though feminism was about happiness. I thought it was about justice..."

"feminism has become another product, and
we are implicated in its commodification"

"One strain of feminism that has been commodified most successfully is the therapeutic model...the individual--removed from history, economics, and even from the unconscious--is depicted as someone who always has choices, and whose choices are always 'free.'"

"Feminism operates in promoting that ideology through literature,
in its
*search for a "qualitative response to 'felt life'"
*nostalgia for a clear, transparent language
Cf. Mary Clurman '63, "What is a Feminist?": "This does not seem like feminism, it seems more like honesty."

*ideology of freedom through self-expression
*the relentless rhetoric of familialism ("our mothers," "sisterhood").

Bringing it Home:
Rachel Donadio's "Revisiting the Canon Wars," NYTimes
'On campus today, the emphasis is very much on studying literature through the lens of “identity” — ethnic, gender, class....You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves....identity-based thinking is at odds with the true purpose of education..."What Americans yearn for in literature is self-recognition".... Wrestling with difficult, often inaccessible works is "the most alienating experience possible" should be transformative ...should remove students from the confines of their own backgrounds to engage with books that open up new realms of meaning..."rid themselves of the opinions of their parents"....[but] whether students today see college as a time of freedom or a compulsory phase of credentialing is an open question.'

Discussion continues in the Course Forum Area....
go there and add your thoughts!