Feminist theory · Theory and practice · Uncategorized

The Personal is Political: On the relationship between biography, theory and practice (Part 1)

Last year I spent a week in a psychiatric hospital. My electrical cords and anything I might conceivably fashion into a noose were confiscated; my medication was administered to me at precisely scheduled times from a window at the nurses’ station and my movements were restricted. In between substandard meals at the cafeteria,  attendance at support groups and visits from my mother I read Mary MacLane’s 1902 memoir I Await the Devil’s Coming in my room and filled my moleskine diary with notes.

MacLane was a teenager living in Butte, Montana when she burst onto the literary scene, sensationalising the public and becoming an instant celebrity. Her diary is at once a paean to her own brilliance, a Nietzschean repudiation of conscience (which, to me, echoes Mary Daly’s work in its recognition of the uneven ways Judeo-Christian morality impacts the sexes), and a complaint against the drudgery of domestic life. A woman, MacLane writes, is “born out of her mother’s fair body, branded with a strange, plague-tainted name, and let go… [but] before she dies she awakes. There is a pain that goes with it.”In my hospital room, I made the decision to start writing again, explicitly as a feminist. I was energised not only by MacLane’s writing and its relationship to Daly, but by the testimonies of trauma and fractured lives given by women in my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) support group and the strong links I made between them. BPD is predominantly diagnosed in women and strongly linked to trauma, including sexual abuse. In my fellow patients I saw both incredible potential and powers thwarted and misdirected. It was an incredible experience.

I recently posted a defense of feminist theory. In this post I want to connect my continuing, complicated engagement with feminist theory with the biographical facts of my own life and to ask ‘what next?’ In my opinion, what underpins the best feminist theory and guarantees women’s engagement in the movement  is the collective process of aggregating and analysing the raw material of our lives. This post is conceived as part of this process of  women confronting their private experiences of trauma, dissatisfaction and so on as something systemic and organised, with its own internal logic. In the 1960s and 70s this was called ‘consciousness raising’: women formed groups to talk about their lives and this talk became bedrock of their resistance, the springboard for their imagined liberation.  Today consciousness raising is more likely to happen by tweeting or reposting Tumblr blogs, or perhaps taking a course in women’s studies but it is still incredibly vital.

Traditionally  captured under the slogan “the personal is political”, coined by Carol Hanisch in her eponymous 1969 essay, this is the process socialising of women’s grievances, of, in the words of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual.” It does not mean that all that constitutes women’s lives is political, nor does it positively endorse  women’s choices by virtue of them being women or claiming the label ‘feminist’. It is, in practice, much more than that, dragging the private into the public sphere and involving a complex but dynamic theory of the interplay between individuals and broader social structures.

However, opening my life up to examination with respect to my feminism may invite criticism. According to these critics, feminism at present is  in the best of health and talking about the biography-theory nexus risks endorsing a kind of identity politics that stifles collective engagement or reduces critique to a kind of abject feeling, with all the discrediting insinuations the term has in politics.

Women artists have long laboured under the yoke of biographical criticism. That is, a form of literary or aesthetic criticism that concentrates on relationship between the artist’s life and works. Biographical criticism, it has been argued, stresses the peculiarities of individual genius (or banalities of everyday life, as the case may be) to the detriment of art’s imaginative, transcendent qualities.  There is a similar concern here that, by emphasising the connections between my life and my theoretical commitments, the theory loses its explanatory purchase for other women. I reject this view, based in part on my  dialectical conception of relationship between theory and practice and my discussions with other women. Nonetheless the criticism remains. Some would argue that there is no way to address it without launching a surfeit of empirical studies but I think what we need is a robust theory of the relationship between agency and structure- something a little bit beyond the scope of this blog post!

Similarly, some feminist readers will complain that my appeal to biography presents an impediment to the feminist project, insofar as it focuses on the self at the expense of an analysis of the structures and  mechanisms that ensure the reproduction of male dominance. This is nothing new. the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz has, for instance, argued in Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help that second-wave feminism “drew heavily on some of the basic cultural schemes of psychology to help devise strategies for women’s struggles, while simultaneously disavowing psychoanalysis and psychology.” One instance of this is ‘consciousness raising’,  which is essentially what I describe above: the process by which the private is transformed into a object of political scrutiny and a site for social change. But more pernicious is what Illouz calls “intense forms of reflexivity,” a kind of self-scrutiny which underwrites the failure of the feminist project.  Situating her theory in reference to John Berger’s landmark text.  Ways of Seeing she writes:

“The therapeutic discourse grafted itself onto this particular form of female subjectivity, a subjectivity in which a woman can never become a subject because she is to herself an object and therefore takes herself and her inner life as objects of study. The feminist discourse similarly invited women to contemplate the basis of their consciousness and to transform it. In that way, it solicited the very kind of reflexivity that had been an attribute of women’s consciousness.”

This critique needs to be taken seriously. How much is the subjecting of women’s private lives to political scrutiny  predicated on therapeutic discourses antithetical to solidarity and systemic change? Does writing about one’s own life in the context of feminism reopen the door to a kind of ‘purity politics’ where women’s decisions are subject to critiques which are experienced as accusatory and divisive? If not in substance then in spirit? I think this is a potential problem but not one that can’t be circumvented. Let’s not throw the baby out of the bathwater; our lives can not be thought of apart from social structures and vice versa. Instead we need to imagine political praxis in light of a more sophisticated and nuanced theory of the relationship between agency, structure and what Iris Marion Young calls “responsibility for justice.”   I hope this post and the one that follows will answer this critique to some extent.

In the next post I will talk about the relationship between my own life and lesbian feminism. In particular I will compare and contrast Sara Ahmed’s injunction to reappraise lesbian feminism in Living a Feminist Life with my own relationship to lesbian feminism. In doing so I will stress the disjuncture between  my sexuality and the explanatory force lesbian feminism has for my life, as well as the radical political strategy it suggests, including its relevance to the upcoming International Women’s Strike. Here I re-read lesbian separatist texts  as being underwritten by a theory of emotion as a question of distributive justice and affective bonds as the glue holding patriarchy together.

Thanks for reading!






One thought on “The Personal is Political: On the relationship between biography, theory and practice (Part 1)

  1. Thinking about a good feminist mentors comments on this post. and other women who have decried contemporary feminism as almost totally subsumed by the therapeutic discourse. I think the therapeutic element of feminism has from very early on been repudiated with one hand and embraced by the other. I think the standard critique, in which feminists are not alone, is that therapy encourages a kind of atomistic individualism. We oppose therapeutic approaches to a model of civic virtue or political engagement. This seems to me like a seductive position and not one without explanatory power but it also seems a little simplistic. Why is the therapeutic ethos so attractive to women? What does it offer? Is there something particular about modern selfhood that therapy captures, articulates or produces? I don’t think it’s wrong. I just don’t think you can re-erect the dividing line between the public and private, the personal now that it’s been made porous.
    Maybe the problem is the flow between the two has become increasingly unidirectional: the self’s traumas and particularities are privileged in analyses of structures- we talk about oppression as a kind of ‘feeling’ and privilege as something passive and inert which inheres within the self (as opposed to power which is more obviously relational, contestable and actively won and maintained). On the other hand there’s less talk about the flow of institutional and social arrangements constraining and at least partially determining individual ways of being. One is easily collapsed into postmodern voluntarism and choice feminism, the other is more amenable to a kind of communitarianism which proscribes collective action for change to occur but I think both need to be taken seriously. I don’t think we can put the cat back in the bag. We have to look at why this stuff appeals alongside the elements which make movements fail.


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