Friday, December 2, 2011

New Women's Autobiography and the First Time I Have Said "Fuck" in an Academic Setting (Enjoy)

I'm sitting in front of my laptop, consuming Hershey kisses to stay awake, thinking about more feminist theory than I ever thought I would for this thesis. In my initial post on this blog, I mentioned that I would write about the Butler and Price articles and would then perhaps consider an article by Ochs and Capps or something out of the Twohig work that's been serving as an ample paperweight on my desk for a month now. As should be expected of me, I've decided to completely forget about Ochs and Capps and Twohig (for now) and will instead talk about a chapter called, "Political and Personal Autobiography Integrated: The Fusion of Kate Millett"in Estelle C. Jelinek's book, The Tradition of Women's Autobiography. As an English major writing (what is supposedly) an English thesis, I have been instructed to consider (among other things) historical context and genre as I explore the great literary depths of Marya Hornbacher's memoirs. So the key words "tradition" and "autobiography"  in the title of Jelinek's work made me think that this book would be something like hitting two birds with one stone. As per usual, my attempt to do less actually resulted in me having to read more, but luckily this time the extra work was beneficial. I plan to look deeper into this work some other time when it's not finals and I'm not eating Hershey kisses in an effort to keep myself awake after a track meet that went later than expected, but for now I'll settle for talking about the last chapter about Kate Millett and Flying. 

As the title of the chapter would suggest, this section of Jelinek's book focused on how the tradition of women's writing paved the way for politics and personal experience to be integrated within the genre of autobiography. Jelinek writes that whereas autobiography was largely a reflective, retrospective genre, as works like Kate Millett's Flying appeared on shelves, women's autobiography because a "process engaged in as one lived one's life" (168). Women's autobiography (heretofore called "WA" because I am too lazy to type "women's autobiography" a billion times) became a present, developing genre - one that embraced a rich political history that incorporated the civil rights and women's lib movements into both personal and political struggles of the female writer as she constructed her narrative. WA had traditionally concentrated "on areas outside the mainstream of society" (171). This new form of WA had "most of the disjunctive stylistic features we have come to associate with the women's autobiographical tradition" (171), but used this disjunctiveness in a novel way, namely a way that "gave . . . context for writing about [one]self as a multidimmensional woman" (183).

So, what are some hallmarks of the disjunctive WA tradition? In bullet form (bullets mine, ideas Jelinek's), Jelinek lists them as (all found on 171):

  • writing seems "a jungle of fragments"
  • truncated sentences
    • often without proper subjects 
    • perhaps made only of a phrase, dependent clause, or isolated word
  • "may resemble the kind of shorthand writing characteristic of diaries and notebooks"
  • "[p]eriodically . . . passages that are chronological, progressive, and strictly grammatical 
Millett and others after her used these fragmented structures as a way of marrying their personal selves - their emotional selves - with the politics of being a women. Of Millett's work, Jelinek writes, "Flying is all heart and soul, her affirmation of women's strength" (172). Jelinek contrasts Millett's autobiography to typical male autobiographical narratives, in which "political figures usually protect their cause or constituency by hiding any weaknesses or factionalism" (172). It is in these areas of weakness and factionalism, Jelinek claims, that new WA tradition finds its strength. Because Millett's work can negotiate her personal, emotional life and her greater political agenda, she "demonstrates a positive fustion or synthesis of the 'fragments' of her life" (173) and by extension, effectively synthesizes "three genre traditions: the historical, the literary/fictional, and the autobiographical" (173).

What is most interesting about Jelinek's argument, though, is her idea that this new form of WA describes women's personal and political lives as "unformed and unresolved." Unlike the linear structures associated with men's autobiography that beg for resolution, the female autobiography is brave enough to stand without that resolution. The stories told by WA are problematic. They are fragmented, fucked-up chronologically, refusing to draw conclusions when there are no satisfactory conclusions to be drawn. They give us the "multidimmensional woman" (183) in the context of a fragmented political world and ask readers to figure out the "now what?" of it all.

1 comment:

  1. So a first comment here would be how compelling do you find the gender break? Jelinek writes from a particular era of feminist studies (one I recognize well because, well, I was there/then), which valorized female experience as unique, distinctive (not to mention superior....) from male. To what degree does your disability studies lens--or the even larger lens that Butler offers, of all of us living precarious lives (though some are truly more precarious than others!) --trump the gender studies lens? Or polish it to more clarity? How does the "multi-dimensional woman" relate (for example) to the the "I" of a counter-diagnostic narrative Price describes as "essentially disorganized and incoherent"?