Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Margaret Price - She's Pretty Cool (And by "She" I Could Mean "I" or "We"...)

When I met with my thesis advisor last week, she suggested I read two works - the Butler chapter about which I already wrote and chapter 5 ("Her Pronouns Wax and Wane": Mental Disability, Autobiography, and Counter-Diagnosis) of Margaret Price's Book, Mad At School. Though in my theory-resenting state I, well, resented the fact that I had to read yet another theoretical piece today (you know, when I could have been sleeping or eating), I actually found Price's article to be close to exactly what I'm looking for in a theoretical lens for my thesis. 

Let's face it - I'm some weird mix of psychology student and English major, and my interests usually lie in clinical literature over rhetorical analysis. So imagine my delight when I discovered that disability studies could be applied to mental health issues, which all could then be applied to autobiographical literature. Now that I've shared my (temporary) academic excitement, on to what Price actually says...

The Price chapter focuses on the structure of "disability" autobiographies, claiming that some autobiographies "challenge both existing theories of autobiography and the genre itself thought a strategy [she] call[s] counter-diagnosis" (177). "Counter-diagnosis" refers to an autobiographical work that refuses to embrace the "dominant script of disability as an individual tragedy (and potential source of triumph to "overcome")" (178), and accomplishes this task by distorting many of the structural cues we associate with normative autobiography. For example, Price talks about how linearity, grammatical structures, and pronomial distortions of the "I" all contribute to a narrative that resists the autobiographical genre and the public's tendency to gawk at disability. Counter-diagnostic narratives, then, "claim authority not in spite of, but through and because of, [the narrator's] mental disabilities" (179). These narratives "draw power from the shape-shifting nature of counter-diagnosis, accepting, rejecting, mimicking, and contesting the diagnostic urge in various ways" (179-80). 

Price then goes on to examine, using three autobiographical texts which involve mental disability as examples, how pronoun use specifically contributes to counter-diagnostic narratives. She writes that the conventions of the genre assume that the "I of autobiography is unified, and tends to progress through a linear narrative" (180). By contrast, the "I" of a counter-diagnostic narrative is "essentially disorganized and incoherent" (180), thus causing multiplicity to appear in the "I." In one of the texts which Price analyzes, this multiplicity is evident in "the proliferation of I into we" (182), which indicates "emphasis not on . . . individual experience, but rather on the varied and collected experience of all the persons described and addressed therein" (184). In another text, the presence of a disabled I shows that the "empirical truth is no longer a given feature of diagnosis" (183). Further, the integration of outside voices into the "I" - voices of doctors, family members, friends, etc. - tests the reliability of the "I" as a single, coherent, and trustworthy narrative entity. 

Autobiography assumes the presence of a narrative "I", but as Price points out, this "I" can be fragmented into "you", "s/he", and virtually any other pronoun. Far from claiming that this seeming pronomial confusion results in fragmented identity, Price suggests that the confusion isn't confusion at all and rather reflects a more accurate way of portraying mental disease. The variation of pronouns may instead be "direct expressions of identity" (186). Since "I" situates itself in a normative world, the pronomial fragmentation of the "I" then suggests that "the so-called rational world does not truthfully reflect [the disabled author's] experience" (186). The use of pronouns like "s/he" and "they"resist the "diagnostic urge" (190) to find out "what is really wrong with [the author]" (190) and, I would suggest, extend the author's experience to the general population. In assigning a nondescript "she" or "they" the supposed true-life stories of the author, the author then implicitly claims that any "she" or "he" or "they" could have had the experience. There lies perhaps a furthering of Price's counter-diagnostic argument - that ownership of an experience belongs to a population greater than the author. 

Price closes with an exploration of what it means to use "you" in autobiography and how "you" "disrupts [the] dynamic [between "a normate reader . . . and a "freakish narrator"] and relocates the dominant gaze" (190). "You"forces understanding between the reader and the author and renegotiates the power dynamic between the two. No longer is the reader removed from the text. Instead, the reader becomes part of the text and is asked to experience what the author describes. Further, Price claims, by using "you", the author "play[s] with various possibilities for whom you might be" (193), and in doing so adds to the overall distortion of narrative, thereby resisting "diagnosis." 

What I think is most interesting about Price's chapter, however, lies in her analysis of "Her Reckoning: A Young Interdisciplinary Academic Dissects the Exact Nature of Her Disease" by Wendy Thompson. Near the end of the chapter, Price writes:

. . . [In Thompson's essay,] pronouns do not necessarily denote individuals, but also refer to larger cultural and political forces. "Her Reckoning" repeatedly connects individual experiences of mental disability to cultural experiences of trauma (192). 

I know I'm not supposed to mention Hornbacher, but I just can't resist it here. Within Hornbacher's pronomial un-centeredness in Wasted, she effectively analyzes the sociopolitical forces on the female body that contribute to eating disorders. By using varied pronouns, she constructs eating disorders as reflections of societal pressure on all females - all of the "she-s" and "we-s" and "you-s". I'll stop the Hornbacher analysis here, but I think it's evident through this short example that the Price article might be awesome for my thesis. 

Also, (and this is more of a side note to myself) the Price article kept referencing this guy named Couser. I think I might get some use out of reading the article that was referenced. 

1 comment:

  1. Thesis adviser continuing to cheer, here, from the sidelines...feeling very glad that you may already have found your theoretical frame...

    I'll be interested to hear how Couser fits in here, since one of the moves in Signifying Bodies is a distinction between autobiography (about the self) and memoir (about an other). What happens to that distinction once you buy into Butler and Price's notions about the social self....?

    I'm also curious about how you yourself like the use of "you" in a text.... do you feel invited? or forced into an identification you might not want or welcome?