Theory is dead, but we still love him. Theory is dead, that’s why we hate him. Theory isn’t dead—theory is very much alive, that’s why he’s literally so annoying. Theory thinks he can solve everyone’s problems all by himself, and when we tell him he can’t, he just gets mad. He doesn’t want to talk about anyone other than himself. When I talk about me, he says I’m vain.
This is one way of describing the situation that Laura Fournier explores in Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (MIT Press). Theory is in crisis, but don’t worry—Fournier has the solution, and it’s autotheory, which takes up theory’s concerns while rupturing its claims to objectivity by framing matters in a personal perspective. Fournier’s book provides a useful intellectual history of the “autotheoretical impulse,” which emerged in the first two decades of the twenty-first century alongside the concomitant rise of genres like autofiction. But her universalization of autotheory’s efficacy misunderstands how and why writing about yourself might not feel good for everyone.
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In her introduction, Fournier clarifies autotheory’s relationship to theory by going back to theory’s origins. Following Frederic Jameson, Fournier argues that theory begins not in the thirties with the Frankfurt School, but in the mid-twentieth century with the “death” of philosophy. Theory combined methods of Marxism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis to form a genre that aimed to descriptively and prescriptively assess the world without restricting itself to a particular discipline or set of cultural objects. And yet theory still relied on cultural objects, setting it apart from philosophy, which purported to generate objective truths from the power of reason alone. For Jameson, Jean-Paul Sartre was the last major philosopher, whose existential works were so powerful that they spawned their own oedipal murderer: structuralism. Playing in philosophy’s corpse, the emerging genre of theory absorbed the linguistic turn and the ideas put forth by Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” to form a distinctive way of thinking and writing as the sixties came to a close.
But Jameson was not the only one annoyed by the shift from authorship to the infinite play of signifiers. “Women and artists of color resisted the poststructuralist notion of the death of the author that began to circulate post 1968, just as they were beginning to gain entrance to these scenes,” Fournier notes. New gates were keeping the same people out. Of course they were right, as Fournier tracks through the split between high theory—the works of white men like Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Bourdieu, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and of course Jameson himself—and low theory, or cultural studies, which included critical race studies, feminism, and the nascent field of queer theory. The high/low theory split became another reification of the line separating those who could produce expert knowledge—still the cogito, still the same white straight cisgender man—from those who were limited to writing inherently autobiographical work as a result of their identity category.
Fournier writes extensively on contemporary art, because—as she helpfully points out—the growth of the contemporary art market facilitated a codependent relationship between art and theory. They needed each other in order to exist. “In conceptual art,” Fournier writes, “it is the framework that the artist establishes for the work rather than any particular formal style or set of materials that in many ways defines the piece as a work of art. Through being framed as art, it becomes art.” In other words, art isn’t art because of the art object. Art is art because of theory.
The market for conceptual art boosted the market for theory by generating demand for experts in theory-production who could make art seem important and meaningful. One of the book’s highlights is Fournier’s deep dive into contemporary art’s theory addiction: how theory becomes another gatekeeping mechanism (artists must have a PhD-level knowledge of theory) that benefits institutions (schools can offer expensive new degrees in theory). She discusses Sona Safaei-Sooreh’s sculpture Swift Memorial (2016), for which the artist turned theorists’ names into logos and printed them on a handbag. “The cultural capital to be derived from possessing a Louis Vuitton bag and flaunting it on your arm as you walk around is not unlike the cultural capital to be derived from possessing knowledge of theorists and notable contemporary artists and flaunting that knowledge by waxing lyrical about Deleuzoguattarian rhizomes,” Fournier writes. The bag is cute, for what it’s worth. It looks like something that people would actually wear.
Fournier argues that, with the 1997 publication of Chris Kraus’s experimental memoir I Love Dick, low theory merged with the tail end of New Narrative—another genre obsessed with subjective authorship that developed in California in the 1970s—to create autotheory. The further development of this kind of writing was supported by Semiotext(e), the press that published Kraus’s book among many other key autotheoretical texts. Founded in 1974 by Sylvère Lotringer, a student of Roland Barthes, Semiotext(e) was an effort to bring French post-structuralism to the United States. Fournier notes the misogyny of the imprint: only men were allowed to publish theory, which was edited by Lotringer; autotheoretical books produced by women and queer people were edited by Kraus and published under an imprint called Native Agents. (It goes without saying that the majority of writers on both ends were white.) Lotringer dismissed the significance of autotheory, which he called “useless.”
If Lotringer was being rude, he was also just parroting the still-dominant critique of autotheory: that it’s an inherently narcissistic genre. Fournier pushes back against this appraisal. The narcissism critique, she writes, makes it seem like marginalized people are given the option to do “real” theory but decide not to, because of traits (laziness, selfishness, stupidity) that conveniently dovetail with stereotypes about their respective identities. In reality, of course, marginalized people have been excluded from theory-production. It’s not that they choose to engage in more “personal” genres so much their work is seen as inherently personal even when they are abstracting, because everything they say is perceived through a first-person lens due to their subject positions. It’s hard to choose not to do something that you weren’t allowed to do in the first place. When the genre is done well, autotheory cultivates not narcissism, but self-awareness, Fournier says; the latter makes the former much more difficult. Autotheory is thus the art form of our era. It’s not overshare gone amok, but an attempt to reflect oversharing back at itself.
But what if not everyone responds to that demand for interiority by wanting to produce more interiority for public consumption? The problem with Fournier’s argument is not the lineage she traces through theory and philosophy, but her belief in autotheory’s scalability as a solution. “The tendency toward working autotheoretically emerges out of and crystallizes through women (and others, including nonbinary and gender-nonconforming) and women’s bodies as living and thinking in a world that, given patriarchal and colonial structures, might be hostile to them,” Fournier writes by way of summary in her conclusion. “But the work that autotheory does in breaking down hierarchies and systemic oppression (even within ourselves) makes it, by those very characteristics, an apt model for all of us […] no matter one’s class, race, gender, or background.” For all of us?
A counter-claim might go as follows: if details of your personal life are constantly required (by doctors, by administrators, by the internet) and if performing your life is a form of labor, then refusing to grant access to your interiority might be more effective than sharing. Of course, this claim is hardly new; Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, in which he argued for the “right to opacity for everybody,” came out in 1990. As Glissant wrote, not everyone’s interiority is received with the same candor, and Fournier’s assumption to the contrary feels like a false aggrandizement of the white feminist legacy that her book is rooted in, even if she does qualify and hedge to account for more diverse perspectives. To point this out is not to delegitimize autotheory as a genre; only to argue that it should be seen as one genre among many others that we use to describe the contemporary.
Here’s a thought experiment: What would art and literature rooted in the refusal to produce interiority look like? Perhaps such works would acknowledge that the personal is still political (of course), but that writing about it for Twitter pays quite poorly in this media economy. Perhaps such cultural workers should respond by refusing to disclose at all, deflecting the demand for commodified interiority by instead doing comedy bits, playing with genre, or turning attention toward the extraterrestrial, the spiritual, or the impersonal. In short, the alternative to autotheory is the creation of proxy selves, so that the self can go somewhere else and chill.