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Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 317-321

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Social Thought and Commentary

Writing the Self

Dennis Altman
Latrobe University, Australia

At some level all writing is both autobiographical and therapeutic. This is clearly not true for writing which is incidental to other tasks (such as writing reports or taking minutes) and it is an unexceptional claim when made of fiction. This claim is perhaps most controversial when advanced as a proposition about academic writing, and indeed much of the impenetrable jargon of certain sorts of social science and literary criticism may well stem from a desire to disguise the personal.

Anthropologists, like historians, have long debated the position(ality) of the writer in her or his work, and some of the most bitter controversies in recent years have revolved around these debates. Ironically, I am, at least in formal terms, a political scientist, a discipline which has been far less engaged in these debates, as the sterility of most political science prose attests. Perhaps luckily, I work in a University where we term our discipline politics, have no interest in reducing the complexities of social behavior to mathematical formulae, and are situated within a larger grouping of disciplines which includes anthropology and sociology. For those of us engaged in that broad range of disciplines usually summarized as encompassing humanities and social sciences, the claim to objectivity and science too often becomes, as I shall argue, a form of intellectual dishonesty. [End Page 317]

Given my own personal itinerary, it is hardly surprising that I have been attracted to the idea of "writing the self." Indeed my own writings suggest a number of different ways this might be done. (I plead guilty to a certain degree of egoism in this piece, but the line between the confessional and straight self-promotion is a hazy one.) My first book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1972) was both a coming out narrative and an attempt to analyse the embryonic gay liberation movement through the radical amalgam of Marxist-Freudian ideas briefly popular in the early 1970s. Since then, I have written both academic articles, complete with the standard apparatus of copious endnotes and appropriate data, as well as a novel (The Comfort of Men) and an autobiographical memoir (DefyingGravity).

Against this background, it is not surprising that when I began to think seriously about the academic and political debates around globalization, and in particular how they might relate to contemporary debates around sexuality, I wondered how far this was an exercise in autobiographical hubris. I was quickly struck by the extent to which those scholars writing about globalization drew on serendipity as much as on scholarship for their examples. The very nature of writing about "the global" means we must appear at home everywhere, yet at the same time none of us can know more than a small fragment of the world. Thus, Thomas Friedman took the metaphor which gave him the title for his book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, from the contrast between a newspaper story from Palestine and the Japanese bullet train in which he was travelling when reading that story, while Salman Rushdie, unsurprisingly, set The Ground Beneath her Feet, his novel of the global, in Bombay, London and New York. Another version of that story could just as easily move from Teheran to Berlin and Tokyo.

The same seems true of more academic studies. Inevitably, anyone writing about "the global" writes from a particular viewpoint, and in so doing ignores—and is ignorant of—the great bulk of alternate positions. This is apparent in most post-colonial theorising, which stems largely from authors' need to reconcile their own ambivalent identities and positions just as feminist and gay theorists in the heady days of the early 1970s sought to do so in a rather different political context. Of course, it would be absurd to reduce post-colonialism to a collective autobiographical undertaking of predominantly south Asian academics, but it is equally impossible to avoid the extent to which its project is directly related to their experience of balancing their sense of being outsiders at the same time...


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