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The Personal Echoes. Will you Respond?

samuel.terry's picture

I have throughout my education questioned the productivity of inserting the personal, the narrative, the emotion in classrooms and academia as a whole.  In a world populated by so many social ills it seems extraordinarily selfish to be obsessed with the self. In “The Long Goodbye: Against Personal Testimony, or An Infant Grifter Grows Up” Linda S Kauffman echoes this thought and asserts, “writing about yourself does not liberate you, it just shows how ingrained the ideology of freedom through self-expression is in our thinking” (269).  This is the same issue that Wendy Brown explores in her essay “Freedom’s Silences” in her analysis of “compulsory discursivity” as it relates to the current cultural obsession with persona testimonies. This “compulsory discursivity” has an amazing ability to co-opt and appropriate narratives of victimization. Brown wisely warns against casting silence as the opposite of speech, and uses Foucault’s insight into the paradoxical and ambiguous workings of silence to show how silence can be a barrier against power and a vehicle of power. The vehicle of power is potentially making the political personal, which is what Kauffman concludes when she writes,

 “my happiness, frankly, is not very important in the grand scheme of things. I never thought feminism was about happiness. I thought it was about justice. The times demand a frontal attack on the complex political alliences—civil legal, economic, educational, religious—that are acting in conspiracy, explicitly and implicitly to boil us alive” (274). It was this conception of feminism that I espoused in my last paper when I wrote:

 This, I think, is feminism unbound—the creation of a space where a woman who engages in tactical sex can be more than the tropes: immoral prostitute or passive victim. A feminism that moves beyond androcentric western, classist, racialized ideologies fighting for liberal-democratic rights characteristic of European Enlightenment that are far removed from the lived experiences of women around the world. A feminism that acknowledges global apartheid—“the racialized division and stratification of resources, wealth and power that separates Europe, North America and Japan from the billions of mostly black, brown, indigenous and poor people across the planet” (Manning,3 ). One that realizes that women are the shock absorbers of such apartheid/ structural adjustment policies. Wherein poverty itself is gendered; labor market discrimination combined with geographic and occupational constraints as a result of child rearing mean women have less access to land, credit, capital, and social mobility. One that recognizes that while globalization has exacerbated economic and social inequalities it offers feminism an opportunity to combat this through the widening of communication, information networks, and authentic cultural exchange. Thus, feminism unbound, far from casting off the importance of sex and gender altogether, realizes its project ito dismantle sexism is intrinsically connected-- even mutually constitutive-- to deconstructing racism, classism, neoliberalism, colonialism, hegemonic capitalism and all forms of oppression.”

 And indeed it would be with this purely political conception of feminism that I could continue analyzing the value of the personal narrative. Surrounded by the texts of Foucault, Brown, Kauffman and Felman indeed I’m tempted to continue in detached  linear prose. I could construct a logical argument that while running the risk of being pedantic would demonstrate my competency as an intellectual (or maybe not?).  In doing this I would never have to locate my own personal investment in the debate. I could ignore your critique of my last paper about my aversion to locate myself, to be an agent. I could refuse to question my relation to academia and academic discourse.  But that’s, in fact, what this paper is about.

 Academia for me is synonymous with deliverance, which is really just another word for escape. Quite literally, I entered this institution of higher learning to extricate myself from some pretty tough situations. However, more than that, the acquisition of knowledge became akin to devotion even while I confronted the paradoxical postmodern space wherein epistemology does not exist outside of discourse, that there is and can be no secure representation of the world. Though I understand Knowledge is socially and historically constituted. I still had blind faith in it. What I sought was an entrance into that academic discourse. I recognize academic discourse as unitary or disciplinary—one that regulates and colonizes, enacting and constructing the hegemonic ideal that objectivity is preferable, while ignoring that objectivity is impossible. Still, I thought it would be my salvation. Salvation from what? From myself. Thus, what is perhaps more formative to this essay is a wholly different quote from Kauffman: “one of the most exhilarating facets of re-conceptualizing academic study today is the opportunity to help students comprehend the process and demystify its operation. Continually exposing and undermining the construction of knowledge is vital to every project of redefining feminism” (265).

 I have immersed myself in this “process”—the operations of academic study—as an institutional practice at Bryn Mawr. In it I have recognized and condemned the production of power and sought to understand it by drawing on Foucault. Foucaldian power designates a technique or action that is exercised by individuals, not a thing that someone possesses. Power is constantly produced among and between people, institutions, things, and groups of people. It is mobile, local, heterogeneous, and unstable. Specific instruments and procedures of power keep knowledge located in certain positions. Within a traditional discourse of pedagogy, teachers are the keepers of knowledge and students are the receivers of knowledge, thus keeping the power located within the teacher. Teaching as a discursive activity positions those who take part as teachers (social identity) and students (social identity). Implicit in this is the notion that, not only does this activity position the subjects performing it, but it also positions the subjects on whom it is being performed. A liberal arts education often attempts to renegotiate that power, but rarely renegotiates those identities. Indeed, the defense of liberal arts is that this education won’t teach you what to think, but how to think. Teachers are tasked with imbibing students with the analytic skills so that they may arrive rationally at a pre-determined particular conclusion. However, the dialogues remain prescribed through the maintenance of separate positions between student and teacher, and the agenda is always clearly within the teachers’ control. What Critical Feminist Studies has done in turn is (re)mystified this operation of study entirely. And what I want to know is why and how? And in what way does that relate to my feminism?

 I turned to Elizabeth Ellsworth’s “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering” and Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedegogy, and the Power of Address for answers. In the former essay I found all of the workings of my education thus far. As a political science major with a focus on social justice I have been a student of critical pedagogy. My courses and the professors who taught them have focused on understanding and deconstructing oppression. What I failed to realize is that in many ways they have perpetuated oppressive modalities. Ellsworth’s identifies two rather important paradoxes in the liberation that is supposed to be critical pedagogy. The first is the enforcement of rationalism, an appeal to reason, in the attempted creation of the critical consciousness as a sociopolitical educative tool that engages learners in questioning the nature of their historical and social situation, which Freire addressed as "reading the world."  Even as the teacher displaces themselves as the inoculator of knowledge, they insert reason and analytical deliberation in their place.  But the problem with this, as Ellsworth contends, is that rationalism itself is an oppressive force. It is a methodology created by wealthy, white, straight, able-bodied men as an exclusionary theory to contrasted an undermining the validity of the “baseless” thinking of the “Other.”  To forces students, specifically ones who do not fit within that socially constructed identity, to submit themselves to its logic is to continue to subject them to a disciplinary task and to condemn them to failure. For as Audrey Lorde powerfully states, and Ellsworth aptly quotes, “the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house” (305).

 Furthermore, the renegotiation of the power dynamic and disciplinary nature of academia for the sake of empowerment has been superficial in its reformulated “progressive” techniques. Often times the strategies employed remain predicated on problematic assumptions. Not only does it demand rationality of students but assumes the objectivity of teachers. A particularly prevalent strategy that Ellsworth critiques is the one called for by Shor and Friere in “A Pedagogy for Liberation.” In this strategy, a teacher is also a student—one invested in learning about the experiences of the student. While this is fairly unproblematic so far, the issue is that the experience is violated because it becomes a simple tool to use in making the material, which the teacher obviously has superior knowledge of, more relevant and empowering to the student. It is not a real of particular value itself. Additionally unquestioned is this concept of empowerment. Teachers tasked with empowering their students do so often in a way that assumes universality to empowerment. Advocacy is seen as equally accessible to all, when in reality it is not. But if not this way then what?

 Ellsworth offers an alternative conception of teaching and thus learning (mutually constituitive processes) in Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedegogy, and the Power of Address.  She argues that there will always be a gap between the knowledge, (which itself is partial because the teacher is just as much implicated in the slippages as the student) that the teacher wishes to impart and what the student absorbs. The unconscious knowledge—the personal histories, horrors, and desires of the student make the rational subject impossible. What can be collectively explored in a classroom is the ways that we all construct meaning, the narratives that inform a student’s wholly unique interpretation of texts, and socially constructed phenomena. In repressing this knowledge, which could be partially accessible to all students, we perpetuate social reppression. An extraordinarily powerful metaphor for the experience of teaching and learning as a suspended performance is that of the shaky bridge. Ellsworth writes,

 “we pitch our teaching into an abyss between self and self, self and other. And yet something, and hopefully not a repetitive echo, but an inquisitive, ironic echo—a difference that makes a difference—returns […] On this bridge, teaching might come to mean something more that standing nearby another as we both face the abyss, and getting curious about what suspended performance each of us might make so that each of our passions for learning might be entertained here” (159).


An unconscious detour: a return to echoes

 We’re driving to “the mountains” on an early Friday morning, just my dad and me.  (my sister has school so my mom and her will meet us there later).  I feel so special because it’s just us and he let me sit in the front seat. He seems so reachable in this moment—a rarity for this mysterious man who lived a hard life and became hard in the process. Then again, he always was more relaxed when we left the city behind us and returned to “the mountains” for the summer. My mother liked to say that instead of blood the Delaware River ran in my father’s veins. She also liked to say that he wasted every dollar they saved to buy this run-down trailer in the middle of nowhere, New York and why couldn’t we just go down the shore like normal people. We turn off the road into a gravel driveway leading to the old church that looks more like a barn and has always marked the almost-but-not-quite-there-please-stop-asking point. He says the church, which has been abandoned for as long as I can remember, has finally been condemned which means it’s so broken they’re going to knock it down. I wonder why God left. I follow him inside quietly. The barn-church gives me the creeps all shadows and dust and scars on the floor from where they must have ripped up the pews. There’s one lone bench in the front facing the only sign of religious ornament left--a stained glass window of a cross.  He just sits there and I know I’m not supposed to say anything, know that if I do I’ll ruin it so I just wait. But I can’t help thinking how weird it is to see my father in a church. Fishing was my father’s religion and as such he preferred to spend his Sunday’s alone on the river. He yells “hello.” Just “hello.” I think maybe he’s wondering why God left too. Eventually, he says, “this place has great acoustics.” I don’t understand the revelation. I realize in despair that despite my growing vocabulary I don’t know this word, “acoustics.”   Tentatively, I ask him what it means, ready for my father’s ever-simple explanations. He replies, “it means everything echoes.” I understand this but I can’t resist questioning further—wanting something more. “What’s an echo?”  He replies, “it’s your voice searching all the empty space for a way back home.”


 It is only through our self-referential, irreconcilable differences that we learn from each other. It is only when we recognize that a classroom is a place where learning is a collaborative effort that can we deconstruct authoritative regimes. That is what Critical Feminist studies has taught me. The ground may be shaky, foundations are illusory, knowledge may always be incomplete, language will always be inadequate, but that just might be ok. Because what it allows is an acceptance of agency, a facilitation of creativity, and an embrace of the wholly unknowable self and other. There can be room to articulate the trauma that lies behind the intellectual. Academic study cannot be demystified because it is supposed to be esoteric—that is how learning happens.

 Thus, I return to Brown. She references an excerpt from an Adrianne Rich poem ”Twenty-One Love Poems.” She centers her interpretation of the excerpt on the first line “your silence today is a pond where drowned things live;” believing this to be a call to speak or die; that we recover silence to save ourselves. However, there is danger in looking at only one line of poem, just as there is danger in honoring one part of the self. The whole poem goes:

 Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live

I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun.

It's not my own face I see there, but other faces, 

even your face at another age.
Whatever's lost there is needed by both of us -
a watch of old gold, a water-blurred fever chart,
a key...Even the silt and pebbles of the bottom
deserve their glint of recognition. I fear this silence,
this inarticulate life. I'm waiting
for a wind that will gently open this sheeted water
for once and show me what I can do
for you, who have often made the unnamable
nameable for others, even for me.

 It is not just to save ourselves that we articulate this life, but to rescue each other from oblivion. To connect on the rickety bridge.The teacher that allows-- even celebrates that in a classroom-- makes the unnamable nameable. She declares there is value in those stories that most deem an intrusion to academia. She says that the personal that informs the political is important too. Thus, to return to Kauffman’s assertion that feminism is about justice, I have come to the conclusion that we cannot do justice to the world by abstracting ourselves. That might just be the ultimate injustice-- to ourselves and others.


Works Cited


Brown, Wendy. Edgework critical essays on knowledge and politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. Print.

Ellsworth, Elizabeth Ann. Teaching positions: difference, pedagogy, and the power of address. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997. Print.

 Ellsworth, Elizabeth. "Why Doesn't This Feel Empowering." Feminisms and critical pedagogy. New York: Routledge, 1992. 297-324. Print.

 Kauffman, Linda S. "The Long Goodbye: Against Personal Testimony, or An Infant Grifter Grows Up." American Feminist Thought at Century's End: A Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993. 258-79. Print.