Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ouch My Head Hurts From Thinking, but I Think This is Productive

A couple of months ago (before break), I examined a chapter in Jelinek's book, Women's Autobiography, which explored the idea that nonlinear, fragmented narratives give a more accurate picture of a progressive, multidimensional woman "in the context of a fragmented political world" (source: Me, about two months ago). Thus, following Jelinek's logic, the "we" - a pronoun that I took, in the context of Hornbacher's work, to reflect dis-ownership of one's experience and an overall unhealthy, un-recovered worldview - could actually accurately represent the female condition, and could allow a woman using the pronoun "we" to describe her own unique experience to explore all of the facets of her multidimensional self. This would seem a productive lens through which to examine Hornbacher - she has a distinctly feminist bend in her memoir, and memoir, as Jelinek pointed out, is the way in which women's autobiography is headed (it tells one's story as it progresses; it doesn't tell a narrative in retrospect) - but given that Hornbacher's memoir cannot be examined without an eye to the psychiatric condition with which she wrestles (or, at least I'm not keen on ignoring the clinical lens through which her memoir can be interpreted), I'm not sure that labeling her "we" as productive and healthy is something I'm willing to do. 

On the flip side of Jelinek's "we" is the "we" delineated by my abnormal psychology professor, Amy Nereen. Nereen's "we" is totally clinical and totally non-positive. Here, the "we" more closely resembles what I initially thought when I came across it when first reading Hornbacher's memoir - that "we" represents an unhealthy way of pushing other people out, closing oneself to empathy, resisting developing an integrated, functional personal identity. Nereen pointed out that "we" may be representative of an ingrained behavior (in this case, an eating disorder) that the individual validates through a collective community and that, because it is validated, is not open to outside change. Thus, the feminist "we" of Jelinek's female autobiographers may instead, in the context of mental illness memoir, be a pathological "we", evidencing not multidimensionality, but pathology. 

I'm wondering if it would be useful to take a step away from the memoir itself now - get a little "meta" as us liberal arts students love to do - and put the work in context with the facts of Hornbacher's life. Hornbacher is an author, successful journalist, (at the time) married to her first husband, and prone to relapse and dysfunctional thinking as a result of years of battling mental illness. When viewing her life in its whole (as presented with the memoir, but not the focus of the memoir), it seems that Jelinek's multidimensional "we" might be an accurate way of describing Hornbacher, and that in constructing herself as a "we", Hornbacher creates the space in which she might extend discrete attributes of her person. (Because the "we" implies fracture, there may be room to stretch Jelinek's "we" by stating that a fractured "I' ("we") may represent separate characteristics or opportunities which can  be pursued independent of one another and none of which claim a total forefront in defining a woman.) So Hornbacher's "we", in context with her diverse attributes, talents, and interests, may be a liberating move away from characterizing and defining herself as an eating-disordered "I". The "we" may be a way of pushing against definition by illness. 

But then again, the fact that Hornbacher's "we" almost exclusively focuses on her eating disorder and does not, in fact, describe other areas of her life is where Jelinek's "we" falls out of place and Nereen's "we" gains credibility. Hornbacher's "we" is focused on cultivating a sense of community in which eating-disordered individuals exist and are validated by other eating-disordered individuals (sounds like Butler's idea precarity - that all personal identities are interdependent and derived from a greater collective). Because her "we" is so focused on eating disorders to the neglect of every other facet of her life, Nereen's "we", which denotes pathology, may be more useful for interpreting Hornbacher than Jelinek's. 

However, can I really say that Hornbacher's we is totally exclusive? Hornbacher makes it clear that every facet of her life - interpersonal, educational, romantic, professional, medical, etc. - was affected by her eating disorder. Her eating disorder became a predominant self-definition - she "became an anoretic" (not "anorexic"; she was the noun - she didn't have the adjective) - on which all other self-definitions relied. So perhaps hybridizing Jelinek's and Nereen's seemingly antithetical "we"s may be beneficial (perhaps with Butler as a higher theoretical framework). Let me see if I can lay this out: Butler says all identities are interdependent and do not exist on their own. Jelinek says that nonlinear, fragmented narratives evidence a multidimensional self. What if these multidimensional selves were dependent on each other, much like Butler's discrete selves in other people are interdependent? Further, in the context of Hornbacher's eating disorder, what if the "we" as proposed by Nereen created the space for other aspects of the self to exist within it. In that case, what would happen in the absence of the integrated, yet pathological "we"? 

1 comment:

  1. Spell out what distinguishes the "pathological" we from the "adaptive" we? And explain why these must be non-overlapping magisteria? Why they can't function as something more, oh, venn-diagram-ish?