since its publication in 2015, much attention has been given to the genre-bending conventions of Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, a book that experiments with the protocols of traditional autobiography by conjoining descriptions of daily life with philosophical reflection and debates in both art criticism and critical theory. Celebrated on its back cover as writing of a new kind, called "autotheory," The Argonauts introduces readers to its hybridity at the outset, juxtaposing love and anal sex with Wittgenstein and a meditation on the limits of language on its very first page. The book's title is drawn from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, that well-known anti-autobiography crafted by the author whose manifesto, "The Death of the Author," is required reading for students tracing the history of the humanities as it was reshaped by the trans-Atlantic influence of critical theory last century. Whether figured as the "linguistic turn," the "cultural turn," or simply "poststructuralism," the ongoing implications of the broad critique of humanism's epistemological and aesthetic legacies are clearly written into The Argonauts's citational universe, while its personal narrative combines elements of the traditional marriage plot (sex, love, and baby, but not divorce) with the familiar confessional voice of the autobiographer. When read as paradigmatic for the new genre it is said to found, The Argonauts stages autotheory as an encounter between first person narration and theory as an established body of contemporary academic thought.
Other experiments in self-narration that now travel under the moniker of autotheory have significantly different aesthetic approaches and theoretical dimensions, making it important to resist the lure to position The Argonauts as the genre's north star. Even Nelson points out that autotheory as the name for a contemporary mode of textual performance was not her invention. "I flat out stole this term from Paul [End Page 1] Preciado's amazing Testo Junkie," she says in an interview with Micha McCrary. "I'm always looking for terms that are not 'memoir' to describe autobiographical writing that exceeds the boundaries of the 'personal.'" But while Preciado opens his book with the declaration, "This is not a memoir" before defining its practice as "a somato-political fiction, a theory of the self, or self-theory," Testo Junkie's scope includes an extensive and intensively academic foray into the intertwined histories of sexuality, pharmaceuticals, and pornography—an emphasis underscored by the academic enunciation of the subtitle, Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (11). Reading self-theory in the context of its academic commitments positions Preciado's use of the first person less as a rendering of critical theory as part of the worlding of everyday life, a la Nelson, than as a virtuoso intrusion of autobiographical confession into the conventions of academic writing itself. To be sure, there is a deep kinship between these works, especially their interest in gender's queer compositions, but the differences they evoke in critical intervention and aesthetic form demonstrate the need not for a standardizing taxonomy of a new genre (an impossible task anyway) but for collective curiosity about the many ways that an autotheoretical impulse can be found not only in contemporary literature and academic criticism but in the traditions of writing and thinking that pollinate each.
This special issue of Arizona Quarterly seeks to orient the conversation about autotheory around this pollination, which entails both disentangling and engaging the concept's combination of two highly embattled terms: autobiography and theory. Thought to be a distinct genre of writing since the eighteenth century, autobiography conventionally refers to practices of self-narration that nurture and celebrate the individual life story through the confessional modality of first person address. Linda Anderson traces its literary genealogy to Augustine's Confessions in which the mastery of the self has a religious import whereas its later flourishing is indebted to the secular humanist priority given to the individual in modernity. In its modern self-centered posture, autobiography has a decidedly contentious reputation. On the one hand, its claims to truthfulness and facticity have been sullied by the imprecision that accompanies human memory and by the psychoanalytically inflected suspicion that its devotees are willing to engage fabrication for their own narcissistic fulfillment, delivered under the cover of personal experience and subjective knowledge. On the other hand, [End Page 2] autobiography has been defined and defended as the genre most able to revise the hierarchical predilections of dominant history-making by giving detailed accounts of the daily life and historical presence of the socially forgotten or marginalized. In the first case, autobiography is a difficult genre that affords no resolution in the war between fact and fiction, experience and its fabrication, ego and the unconscious; in the second, it serves a vital function as evidence in projects aimed at closing the gap between the disembodied man of universal western reason and the reality of the unaccounted or purposely subordinated living person. Unsurprisingly, then, autobiography has been critically approached in both reparative and paranoid terms, leading Anderson to claim, rightly, that it has been "an important testing ground for critical controversies about a range of ideas including authorship, selfhood, representation and the division between fact and fiction" (1).
In addition to all this, autobiography bears a literary legacy of increasing diversification, naming both a particular genre of personal writing and the general term for any writing purporting to privilege the perspective and preoccupations of the personal. Much ink has been spilled on debating the nuances of intra-genre distinctions: what distinguishes autobiography from memoir? autobiography from testimonial? autobiography from diary? autobiography from life writing? autobiography from autobiographical fiction? In many cases, the procedure for answering these questions arises from the specificities of the texts under discussion, making it a bit too easy to cast the entire effort at differentiation as an exercise borne of the academic's penchant for authoritative hairsplitting. But these attempts at discernment tell us volumes about the leaky boundaries of autobiography as well as the problem of critical credibility attached to its study. Raising the critical ante further on the study of autobiography as a genre is the insistence—both academic and populist—that all writing is in the end autobiographical, which leads to various accusations about its inability to yield anything of authoritative value beyond opinion, partiality, and in our own time, partisanship.1 In this context as in the others outlined above, it is not difficult to see why the autobiographical inflection of the "auto" of autotheory is no transparently knowable or stable thing.
Much the same is true of "theory," a term that now circulates in academic discourse as a general referent for the transatlantic migration of continental philosophy and the traditions of thought that have engaged [End Page 3] and revised it across the twentieth century, including psychoanalysis, Marxism, deconstruction, and poststructuralism and the various challenges waged against all of these entities by postcolonial studies, cultural studies, feminism, black studies, and queer theory. As this description makes clear, theory today has an enormously broad range even as, arguably, it never travels far without raising the ghost of its most important work: to reorient the way the humanities understands the politics, ideologies, and epistemological priorities of the West's Enlightenment project. Often specified as "critical theory," this work has entailed both a radical critique of the individual, that figure of self-authorization that has been central to the historical advance of both liberal democracy and capitalism, and a complex retooling of the role that language, discourse, and representation play in the study of literature and culture. By challenging humanism's faith in individual agency and autonomy, critical theory has insisted on analyzing "the subject," not "the self," and has approached this figure not only as a historical invention but as the most powerful of all modern fictions. Today, one would be hard pressed to find a practicing humanist unfamiliar with the story of the intellectual upheaval wrought by these transformations, even as the pitched battles over the ensuing priority given to language and discourse are increasingly muted, if not at times wholly unstudied, in the proliferation of affect studies and a range of distinctly post-humanist projects: machine learning, artificial intelligence, animals, climate, the ontology of things, no less than chaos itself.
These emergent theoretical projects have turned up the heat on the poststructuralist presumptions of critical theory by pointing out a number of contradictions, leading to nearly a quarter of a century of debates about the purported death and afterlife of theory.2 One obvious contradiction is the sheer fact that the critique of the individual's centrality has done little to impair the installation of the critical theorist as the figure around which a highly privileged canon in the humanities has formed. Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Foucault, along with all those who inspire and engage them, Marx, Freud, Said, Spivak, Butler, Sedgwick, Hall: these figures require no first names as they stand in patronymic formation for entire traditions of thought, from deconstruction and psychoanalysis to postcolonial theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and cultural studies. At the same time, and in contradiction to this contradiction, the project of undoing the political and epistemological [End Page 4] hegemony of the self-knowing individual has risked inscribing an agent-less world governed by the impersonality of language as a disembodied realm. Here critics of critical theory have noted a distinct tendency toward an unacknowledged universalism that ensues from the emphasis on language as the home base of the subject's fraught historical and social emergence and a dismissal of materialities that cannot be ascribed to a human frame, even if that frame is itself the key object of critical theory's anti-humanist concerns. Add to this the ongoing perception that even within the field of proper names the hierarchies and economic thefts that undergird the history of western "man" are simultaneously duplicated and disavowed and it becomes apparent that theory shares with autobiography a contentious reputation. It is both the referent for an intellectual tradition that explores and explodes the fantasies of authority and self-knowing that accompany the modern conception of the person and with it the violence and hypocrisy of the political order of western liberalism and something akin, in its canonical formation, to institutionalized business as usual.
To be sure, none of this has been lost on some practitioners of critical theory, especially those that work within it to historicize its concerns and attend to its blind spots. Gayatri Spivak, for instance, quite famously challenged Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in her foundational essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" by reading between the lines of a conversation between the two "activist philosophers of history" (272). For Spivak, the personal and informal structure of a published conversation made it possible to "glimpse the track of ideology" because of the way a "friendly exchange … undoes the opposition between authoritative theoretical production and the unguarded practice of conversation" (272). Spivak's analysis punctures the "much-publicized critique of the sovereign subject" by demonstrating how it "actually inaugurates a Subject," one dense to the implications of its own historical and geopolitical position (272). Other theorists, most notably Judith Butler, have taken up what else we learn by questioning what travels under cover of the seeming impersonality of critical theory. In the 1999 preface to the tenth-anniversary edition of Gender Trouble, she took aim at a frequent critique of her work: that in its allegiance to poststructuralism's subjectless critique it trafficked in the fantasy that there were no flesh and blood persons authoring the declaration that the sovereign author was now dead. "Despite the dislocation of the subject that the [End Page 5] text performs," she wrote, "there is a person here" (xvi).3 This person, she tells us, worked in the academy but had a life outside it. "I went to many meetings, bars, and marches, and saw many kinds of genders," she explains as she casts the relationship between "the different sides of my life" as the everyday context that generated her critique of feminism's axiomatic hold on dimorphic gender in Gender Trouble, a work now considered the most important feminist theoretical take down of the self-authorizing humanist subject in the poststructuralist canon (xvi).
For both Butler and Spivak, then, there are theoretical opportunities in turning to what we might think of as idioms of the ordinary even as neither is prone to foregrounding those idioms in their body of writing as a whole. That work has been taken up directly and quite fulsomely by other scholars, often those with stronger interdisciplinary ties to cultural studies and ethnography, two fields well known for their theoretically informed analyses of everyday life. One thinks here especially of the affect oriented work of Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, both of whom have been producing precedent-setting scholarship that creatively explores the aesthetics no less than the ethics of academic writing for the past three decades. In a new collaboration, The Hundreds, they demonstrate that it is possible to think and write in ways that bypass the more familiar conventions of academic prose without losing a grip on the constructivist work of language and the problems of the sovereign subject and the liberal humanism that has engendered it.4 Many other scholars, working across a range of fields, are likewise engaged in rethinking the idiom, form, and politics of academic criticism in ways distinctly influenced by the tropes and sensibilities of literary writing. In US black studies in particular, an intimate poetics that links the personal to the impersonality of social forces and modern histories has come to characterize the speculative hermeneutics of the field's most important feminist and queer thinkers, including Saidiya Hartman, Tina Campt, Stephen Best, and Christina Sharpe. While the contribution of these scholars to contemporary theory is vast, their ability to demonstrate the epistemological and psychic effects of modernity's racializing ontologies through experiments in academic form has profound implications for the way the autotheoretical impulse is understood to operate within the province of academic criticism itself.
In the context of such upheavals and revisions, it is important to say that what has been routinely cited as a widespread exhaustion with [End Page 6] poststructuralism—sometimes called "post-poststructuralism"—is not a collective academic warrant against it.5 To be sure, some scholars (along with a legion of non-academic pundits) take claims of exhaustion as a thrilling, if long awaited, acknowledgment of the seeming damage poststructuralism has done to the disciplinary reputation of the humanities as a whole. But for others, many of whom have already been cited, such disciplinary exhaustion has functioned more productively as an invitation, prompting new efforts of writing and thinking that stand in the wake of poststructuralism's foundational lessons. When positioned to connect affect to everyday life or to attend to the resonant landscape between the personal and the historical, these efforts are especially good at demonstrating not only how much more remains to be said about modern fictions of self-knowing but also why scholars continue to underscore the distinctly theoretical matters at stake in their attempts to revise the conventions of academic criticism.
Given the itineraries described above about contemporary understandings of both autobiography and critical theory, it is not surprising that the burgeoning attention to autotheory carries no collectively assumed aesthetic, historical, or theoretical definition. On the contrary, the picture that is emerging—through dissertations, undergraduate and MA theses, conference sessions, blogs, author interviews, marketing material, and a handful of published essays—demonstrates a variety of critical investments in the concept as commentators emphasize different aspects of the term's hybridity. In some conversations, autotheory's genealogy is forged in collaboration with transgender studies as both modes of address rupture the normativities safeguarded by traditional conventions drawn around genre and disciplinarity alike. This critical itinerary runs through books reviews and analyses of Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts and has so far been tied quite closely to Preciado's Testo Junkie as the citational resource for Nelson's much cited use of the term. In other itineraries, autotheory is read in relation to its closest literary cousin, autofiction, or discussed in literary critical terms as a departure from a proliferating list of literary forms, including traditional autobiography, the postmodern novel, and the theory novel.
In its most developed line of thinking to date, autotheory is positioned as a distinctly feminist practice, extending second wave feminism's commitment to putting "flesh" on the universalist pretensions of established theoretical traditions by situating the story of lived [End Page 7] experience in politically consequential terms.6 Here, as both Lauren Fournier and Arianne Zwartjes describe it, autotheory regenerates the famous feminist mantra, the personal is political, by drawing on the first person innovations of such second wave writers as Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldúa.7 Considered in this ways, autotheory evinces a feminist practice that matches Sara Ahmed's recent insistence in Living a Feminist Life that "Theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin" (10).8
In each of these formulations, the critic is interested in deciphering the conceptual implications of autotheory along with exploring specific texts that evoke its practice as a literary or performance art form. As might be expected, when it comes to the literature that has been designated autotheory, there is no formal or aesthetic unity. Various contemporary writers—including Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, Dionne Brand, J. M. Coetzee, Anne Garréta, Sheila Heti, Bhanu Kapil, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Chris Kraus, Claudia Rankine, Jess Stoner, and Kate Zambreno—have been grappling with the challenge of writing about selves and personal life in ways that reveal a wide range of strategies for undermining the long standing assumption that the conventional practices of autobiography are where life and writing most hospitably meet. Kraus's I Love Dick for instance takes up the epistolary form in order to write her way out of the fabrication of personal intimacy it performs while Knausgaard engages with what Fredric Jameson calls in a review of My Struggle: Book 6, The End "itemisation," a mode of endless description that challenges not just narrative expectations but the novelesque temporality that accompanies the traditional autobiographical form. In Rankine's Citizen, the lyric "you" is both a mode of audience address and a performative engagement with the asymmetrical racial predicates attending the self-knowing "I" of traditional autobiography. These autotheoretical grammars are compelling in their ability to challenge the expectations not only of autobiographical convention but of characterizations of autotheory that stress its commitment to the intimacies of first-person address.
Collectively the essays gathered in this special issue contribute to ongoing conversations about both the promise of autotheory and the difficulties that accompany its academic study. In this double gesture, the volume proceeds as a series of meditations that are more curious than formulaic about the histories, aspirations, and innovations of what [End Page 8] might better be approached in broad terms as autotheoretical writing. This designation is meant to honor the multiple traditions that inform autotheory as a practice of creative and critical invention while justifying our interest in staging a few experiments of our own. What happens to our understanding of the literary legacy of autotheory, for instance, when we begin our efforts not with matters of its contemporary formation but with investigations that generate new ways to consider its past? The two opening essays proceed along this path. Ryan Tracy's essay follows the citational collision between Jacques Derrida, one of critical theory's most important thinkers, and Gertrude Stein, the doyen of literary modernism, to draw out the philosophical and biographical commonalities between two writers whose well-known challenges to the authority of autobiography share important resonances with autotheory's growing reputation. In a similar vein but with different theoretical stakes, Carolyn Laubender turns to the autotheoretical impulses of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, where the contradictions of modern entitlements to self-knowing enable a broad consideration of the relationship between theories of the split subject and the ethically oriented emphasis in contemporary autotheory on what she calls the "plural self." In putting autotheory on the couch, Laubender productively connects Freud's ambivalence about the coherence of the self to the methodological problems of humanist knowledge that continue to haunt modernity itself.
The second set of essays in the issue share a common concern with the relationship between autotheory and autofiction, but each is oriented toward a different geopolitical conjuncture. Émile Lévesque-Jalbert's essay addresses the distinctly French origins of autofiction in order to propose a genealogy of autotheory that highlights the contribution of French feminism to the deconstruction of literary genres. His essay turns to the work of Paul B. Preciado and Anne Garréta to demonstrate the long-standing influence of feminist critiques of both the phallocentric subject of continental philosophy and the psychoanalytic commitments of autofiction. Ralph Clare focuses on the transatlantic migration of autofiction to situate its relation to autotheory in the context of the rise of autofictional writing in the United States and the institutionalization, and so-called death, of theory in the US academy. His essay uses Chris Kraus's I Love Dick and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts to trace the way writers of different generations draw upon the importance of feeling, [End Page 9] affect, and emotion to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction, and experience and its creative documentation. Taken together, these two essays offer different but interestingly overlapping histories for autotheory by situating works that are often cited as axiomatic autotheoretical texts in their specific contexts.
In the penultimate set of essay, contributors explore the complexities of autotheoretical grammar as a way to challenge the critical frameworks that have begun to form around the genre. For Annamarie Jagose and Lee Wallace, definitions of autotheory that consign it to first person address are upended by studying the influence, in both literary and academic practice, of what they call the "coupled voice." Using the famous cowboy Dick in Chris Kraus's iconically named novel and the photographer-husband Dick who contributes in non-authorial ways to Jane Gallop's work, Jagose and Wallace explore what it means to read autotheory as belonging to a tradition of prose fiction, not to autobiography or feminist art. In the essay that follows, Kyle C. Frisina extends the issue's interest in autotheoretical grammar by considering the performative politics of "you" as it is deployed in Claudia Rankine's award winning book Citizen: An American Lyric. Here, Frisina connects the book's use of second-person address to both the embodied performances of race and racism it portrays and the scenes of readerly encounter it stages before moving extra textually to the performative dimensions of Rankine's frequent, highly-staged public lectures. In the end, Frisina suggests that Citizen's ethical work—and by extension autotheory more generally—might lie in the civic posture it takes in its commitment to the intersubjective and interpersonal.
The final two essays return the volume's discussion to the political, ethical, and affective capacity of the first person as author and subject. Lynne Huffer explores various forms of self-writing in the long duree of modernity's compact with Anthropocentic destruction by mobilizing her own authorial "I" to "unsay myself" as a project of political and epistemological refusal. As she tells it, this refusal is meant to model resistance to the solace offered by both the ideals and cruel optimisms that have served historically to mask the overlooked realities of life's annihilation, with the disasters of genocide and the Atlantic slave trade at the forefront. Her paper's ultimate purpose is to consider how we might cultivate autotheoretical writing as a practice of the self that works to undo it: to write an ethics of self-unsaying in the end times generated by the [End Page 10] Anthropocene. In the final piece of the volume, Irving Goh meditates as well on the ethical necessity of refusing repair by pointing to what he calls the dark narcissism of autotheoretical writing, but his point is not refracted through the "restless craving," in Huffer's poetic terms, "for the never-enough heat of being alive." Instead, he looks to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's A Dialogue on Love (1999) and Kate Zambreno's Appendix Project (2019) to explore their desire for self-extinguishment. In doing so, Goh unearths a much different project for autotheory than those that identify and celebrate its affective destination as a necessary practice of political and psychic repair. Recasting Foucault's care of the self as care "for" the self, he points toward autotheory's as yet unexplored auto-thanto dispositions.
If the closing essay risks shifting the mood that has accompanied our critical engagement with autotheory, the point is not to undermine anyone's affection for the kind of world-building it has been taken to assemble or the truth claims it purports to offer through its generative interruption of the personal/impersonal divide. On the contrary, the aim of opening the space of this volume to autotheory and its critical reflection is to lessen the burden that it might otherwise be asked to bear as it becomes the object of greater critical scrutiny. This special issue, then, is no manifesto or blueprint. If the essays evoke a shared mission it is simply to illuminate some of the reasons that autotheory is generating both popular and critical attention.
robyn wiegman is Professor of the Programs in Literature and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her editorial work includes a recent volume of differences on "Sexual Politics, Sexual Panics," which won the Council of Editors of Learned Journals 2019 prize for best special issue.
1. In academic criticism the claim that all writing is in some sense autobiographical is simultaneously asserted and reconfigured in Paul de Man's "Autobiography as De-facement," one of the most important essays to use poststructuralist hermeneutics on autobiography and its critical delineation. "The interest of autobiography," he writes, "is not that it reveals reliable self-knowledge—it does not—but that it demonstrates in a striking way the impossibility of closure" (922).
2. A comprehensive bibliography on scholarship and punditry on the death of theory would require more pages than this entire volume, but one interesting recent discussion comes by way of a review of Laurent Binet's novel, The Seventh Function of Language, which, Anna Kornbluh writes in disgust, "spins a detective story from the banal traffic collision that ultimately claimed Barthes's life, pitting a hard-boiled right-wing gumshoe against the namby-pamby antics of semioticians and queers." See also Brown.
3. This quote is also productively used in the title of a 2001 interview with Butler. See Breen et al.
4. Explaining the project of the book in the idiom they cultivate, Berlant and Stewart write: "We write to what's becoming palpable in sidelong looks or a consistency of rhythm or tone. Not to drag things back to the land of the little judges but to push the slow-mo button, to wait for what's starting up, to listen up for what's wearing out. We're tripwired by a tendency dilating" (4).
5. There is a long list of work that frames, defines, and defends against the moniker postpostructuralism. See Braidotti; Davis; Easterlin and Riebling; Howarth; Schechner; Rajan and O'Driscoll; and Zavarzadeh and Morton.
6. In much of the published work on autotheory as a continuation of feminist practice, Stacey Young is given credit for coining the term. But a close look at the relevant chapter of her 1997 study of the discourses of the women's movement, titled "The Autotheoretical Texts," demonstrates that she cast the concept in adjectival, not noun form. For her, autotheoretical texts combine "autobiography with theoretical reflection and with the authors' insistence on situating themselves within histories of oppression and resistance. … They undermine the traditional autobiographical impulse to depict a life as unique and individual. Instead, they present the lives they chronicle as deeply enmeshed in other lives, and in history, in power relations that operate on multiple levels simultaneously" (69).
7. Both Fournier and Zwartjes define autotheory as a feminist rejection of the masculinist mind-body split that falsely segregates embodiment from knowledge. As Zwartjes puts it, autotheoretical writing insists that "we are body as much as we are brain." See also Bell and Kaufmann.
8. Fournier is especially interested in delineating the aesthetic and political consequences of this genealogy for third and fourth wave feminists. In her recent essay on the topic, she seeks to extend considerations of the autobiographical beyond the literary to explore autotheory as "a renewed aesthetic practice that spans intermedial art, art writing and criticism, conceptualism, performativity, comedy, new media, sound, postinternet spaces, manifestos, and other experimental writing and art practice, all resonant with the twenty-first-century context of pervasive social media" (643).