Blog Post

The Place of the Personal in Interdisciplinary Scholarship

As an artist/theorist, I find myself thinking a lot lately about the place of the personal in my work, and I wonder how other HASTAC scholars and readers think about these issues. 

A major part of my aesthetic as a performance artist has been a choice to place personal risk and intimacy at the core of my art practice. This choice is inspired by artists such as Carollee Schneeman, Sophie Calle, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Linda Montano and Hannah Wilke, who have chosen to make their personal lives and the intimate relationships the subject of their work. Often, this is a feminist strategy of making the personal political. As Chris Kraus writes in I Love Dick, an intensely personal and theoretical book of memoir/fiction:

Let a girl choose death -- Janis Joplin, Simone Weil-- and death becomes her definition, the outcome of her "problems." To be female till means beng trapped within the purely psychological. No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope's turned back on her. (196)

In another part of the book, on the work of Hannah Wilke, Kraus says that Wilke's work was focused on the question "If women have failed to make 'universal' art because we're trapped within the 'personal,' why not universalize the 'personal' and make it the subject of our art?" (211)

I am very seriously interested in these questions as they pertain to scholarship and in my role as, or performance of, an artist/theorist. As I write my essay the upcoming Marxism and New Media conference at Duke, I am not sure how much, if any at all, personal experience to include. Does my role as a performance artist stop when I am writing academic papers, in the drive for legitimacy? Does personal experience and emotion somehow necessarily devalue scholarly work? As a performance artist, I am not sure if the personal cost of using my life in my work is worth the outcome, or if I would be satisfied not including my personal experience in my work. 

These questions also apply to other people who create personal artwork as part of their scholarship, including poets and writers. Here I am thinking of Jeanne Jo in the iMAP PhD program at USC as well as Margaret Rhee and her current project on queer love poems. It seems queer theory in general, as well as feminist theory, has a major stake in one's personal relationship to one's material, as much as many scholars attempt to have an "objective" approach. How are reviewers, for journals or for tenure, supposed to be "objective" when evaluating work of mine that deals with intimate details of my life?

I find that academic frequently supports and perhaps encourages certain categories of people to do certain categories of work, like the queer people doing queer theory, indigenous people writing indigenous theory, mixed race people studying critical mixed race theory, the list goes on. What are the implications and limitations of this? Is it something we should support with our own scholarship or break away from?

Additionally, as digital media scholars and artists, the lines between personal and scholarly are often blurred in online contexts. While I could choose to do things differently, and visitor to my Flickr page may see images of my artwork or images of my personal life, and similarly with Facebook. How do you deal with these issues?




Thanks for this post and for asking this open question, Micha.  The place of the personal in scholarship has been a vexing one for a long time and I am not sure there is a right answer.   Of course, in the second paragraph of Now You See It, I come clean as a dyslexic.   That's not just personal but, as your post suggests, political and a political vision:  that is, since disability and the very category "disability" is, in a sense, the real subject of my book--how we have inherited a set of principles about what counts, what is of value, what we measure, and how we count, value, and measure human productivity at work, school, and in our lives--I wanted to be very clear, from the beginning, that I was writing from the perspective of the "disabled."   BUT . . . I would be very naive and callous if I didn't also admit that the dyslexic label is offset in my case by the big job, distinguished chairs, list of books, etc.   


Here's the deal though:  even with the mitigation of a whole career offsetting and, to my mind, undercutting the label "disabled," I've had some readers and reviewers feel almost shame for me for being dyslexic.  In one sense, that's their problem.  However, as a junior scholar/artist/theory it is a very different problem for you than it is for me.   And queer scholars and artist and people of color operate under far more scrutiny, censorship, and censoriousness than others--I know that's not news to anyone, simply a caution, a reminder. 


And having said that, here's another "now you see it" turn:  on the other hand, there may be greater--far greater--personal, intrinsic, self-destructive, and deep liabilities in the long run from hiding and shame (i.e. the closet, in any of its manifestations) than the liability of prejudice as imposed externally.   In a sense that is govermentality, when we impose on ourselves others definitions of us.   


Does that mean every writer has to define personal qualities all the time?  Of course not.   But I'm just reworking the smart and provocative and meaningful ideas in your post from my own personal point of view.   I was, in effect, fired from my first teaching job for speaking out on a political issue that was against the policy of the university where I was teaching.   That was a choice.   I recovered from the consequences.   I was darn lucky.   And, on the other hand, if I had not made the choice I did, the consequences, for my spirit, might have been destructive thereafter.   If I hadn't made my way in this profession as an iconoclast, from the beginning, there is simply no way I would have stayed in the profession.   That's the bottom line for me.   In other words, there were negative consequences to my politics.   For me, personally, there would have been far greater negative consequences in not forcefully speaking up for my political beliefs.    That's not an answer, but I hope it serves as an honest personal response to a deeply personal, political, theoretical question. 


This post about whether the personal can be scholarly and vice versa by Micah, along with Cathy's comment, have given me, and no doubt a lot of other people, much to think about. As you say, Micah, for "digital media scholars and artists, the lines between personal and scholarly are often blurred in online contexts." Blurred: yes, the categories can seem blurry in the online contexts you mention, and everyone has different idea of how blurred they should be.  The personal and the academic can seemed blurred when the setting is more academic, and I'd argue that the challenge is to bring those categories into sharper focus so you are clear about which is which and then blur them. Including personal experience in academic papers works well if it's relevant and contributes to your argument or project, as it is in Cathy's case when she talks about her personal experience with dyslexia in her book or lectures. The challenge is knowing just how much of yourself to expose--how much is too much. As for knowing that, and knowing whether or not using your life in your work is worth it, you'll only know when you try it. Joan Didion says (I'm paraphrasing her), "I write my way to understanding." If you don't perform your way to understanding, I sense you already know you'll end up regretting it. 

As for myself, just posting and responding to posts feels terrifying (including revealing that tidbit about myself), even though I rarely reveal much about myself in them. I post as way to understand blogging, to learn how to open up conversation, and how to enter into a conversation with other people, (though it can seem one-sided). What I'm doing is quite mild compared to you, Micah. I admire your work and the very public way you are thinking through these questions and acting on and acting out the answers.


Thank you so much for your responses!

Cathy, I appreciate your story so much. I think you raise some very interesting points about the many, many different kinds of "personal" information that may be involved in scholarship and art making and the very different ways in which they operate. I also think you raise a good example of being motivated by a personal experience and mentioning it but letting it be a small part of a much larger project. And it was so nice to see you today at Duke!

Elizabeth, thank you so much for your comment. I've heard from many people about the feeling that posting on a blog or commenting is intimidating for them, so I think it's important to consider the vey wide variety of feelings have about sharing information and the huge degrees of intensity in the kinds of information that can be shared.