In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Introduction:Autotheory Theory
  • Robyn Wiegman (bio)

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...