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Conversations about how to decolonize academia often pretzel into well-intentioned handwringing about diversifying faculty hires, or navigating its “publish or perish” tenure track. And theory, widely understood within academia as a well-substantiated, but also systematic explanation of facts and observations, often perpetuates its vertical pipelines of colonial thinking. This approach, which values above all logic, hegemony, and the still-frequent citation of works written by white men, isn’t necessarily for everyone.

Autotheory, then, has been regarded as a way of dismantling these barriers, and is more horizontal. It centers and legitimizes individual, bodily experiences as a means of processing knowledge production — basically, a way of thinking through “high” cultural theory via our physical, embodied selves. Popularized in Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie (2013) and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), autotheory gained traction in the 2010s when writing about one’s own experiences using testosterone or becoming a mother enabled a queer and feminist engagement with theory. Its emergence coincided with the decade’s zeitgeist of identity politics and hashtagged hyper-authenticity. In Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism, Lauren Fournier positions autotheory as an interdisciplinary approach to history, weighing in on the politics of access surrounding knowledge production and what it means, in the bell hooks sense, to bring everyday life to theory.

The cover of Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (MIT Press, 2021) by Lauren Fournier (image courtesy the publisher)

A writer, curator and artist, Fournier brings an adept eye to this history: Nelson, alongside fellow autotheory titan Chris Kraus, gets her own chapter; the thinkers and writers of color (Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and the aforementioned hooks) that came before them also get their shine. Autotheory as Feminist Practice, then, excels as a “here we are now” grounding; a nervy, contemporary feminist art history syllabus. There’s Black feminist performance artist Gabrielle Civil, Plains Cree/Scots experimental film and video artist Thirza Cuthand, and the high priestess of dank memery,” Goth Shakira, among others. Fournier maps autotheory’s radical potential — the ways all this self-imaging circulates discursive knowledge — and risks. “Excessive methodological individualism,” she warns, “can become that unproductive form of narcissism.”

Unfortunately, Autotheory as Feminist Practice get tripped by the “reflexivity trap,” Katy Waldman’s term for describing the excessive, late-capitalist self-consciousness of contemporary fiction. Missteps include Fournier’s preemptive apologetic awareness for choosing the academic monograph as the main mode of delivery for her history of autotheory, which inescapably upholds hierarchies of ideas. One wishes she would’ve been more brazen and adventurous in taking a cue from her predecessors, by leaning more into memoir in order to cut through academia’s structures of thought.

Indeed, because of its initial tome-like nature, the text overloads on the histories of theory and philosophy. The 68-page introduction, while handy as the book’s TL;DR version, could have been edited down. The first chapter — assessing Adrian Piper’s proto-selfie mirroring of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in her Food for the Spirit series (1971) — feels too earnest in its attempts to establish a decolonial academic rigor. Kantian philosophy makes sense as a starting point — autotheory enabled her to critique the white male entitlement of early conceptualism — but it’s weighed down by Fournier’s conference paper-like denseness.

Meanwhile, as I scribbled in my margins, I wished fellow Black feminist writer-thinkers Dionne Brand and Christina Sharpe had more of a presence beyond their one or two paged mentions in Fournier’s concluding chapter; both, especially in recent years, have contributed greatly to the ways autotheory can think through the “afterlives” of Black diasporic ruptures, like the Middle Passage.

Fournier’s close reading of Nelson’s The Argonauts, and its debt to Roland Barthes and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, likewise has its problems. It’s too rote in its citations and short shrifts Fournier’s more compelling argument: how Nelson’s queering of the pregnant bodily experience is reliant on documenting the concurrent gender transition journey of her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, who is frequently “cited” throughout as Nelson’s lover, but not necessarily acknowledged as a fully-fledged collaborator. “Dodge himself remains strangely silent in the text — arguably, in ways, even exploited,” notes Fournier. While Nelson is self-aware enough to own up to her inabilities to share authorship, this doesn’t necessarily take in account, in Fournier’s view, how “trans subjectivities were [historically] often precluded from writing themselves in philosophy.” (It’s worth noting that in 2020, Dodge would publish his own experimental memoir, My Meteorite.)

Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, “I’m Not Myself At All” (2015). Multi-media art exhibition at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (photographic documentation of the exhibition). Photo credit: Agnes Etherington Art Centre (courtesy the artists)

Bumpy start aside, Autotheory as Feminist Practice succeeds when Fournier ends her academic lecturing, and metabolizes her own personal anecdotes. She grew up in a working class, white settler family and blames these “uneducated” roots for her imposter syndrome. By complicating her boundaries of “self” — and speaking directly of the ways, as an artist and writer who was also a first-generation student, she has a personal stake in making theory more accessible — Fournier is able to let go of the unnecessary, and at time, alienating, academic stance.

In examining the autotheoretical practice of citation, Fournier is exceedingly nuanced in unpacking the fragility of historicized queer identities, especially when those self-definitions, which may have once buttressed artistic strategies, depreciate in value. She thoroughly engages with the collaborative work of Canadian artists/partners Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell, and their current concern with “identity death.” Long celebrated for their engagement with lesbian feminism, the duo faced criticism for the 2013 Toronto iteration of their touring “Killjoy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House,” which some found trans-exclusionary. In addressing these critiques, the artists, now middle-aged lesbians, contend with lesbianism’s passé queer identification. “Is there a time-based nature to certain identities?” Fournier asks, hopeful the practice of autotheory can “make space for the mourning of those identities that cease to discursively and maybe even materially exist.”

Cauleen Smith, “Human_3.0 Reading List (Angela Y Davis)” (2015), drawing (courtesy the artist)

Autotheory as Feminist Practice, then, isn’t afraid to engage with these messy realities, especially in the face of ongoing inequities within academia. Rather than wallow in suffering, Fournier delivers solutions. “Intertextual kinship,” a term coined by academic Alex Brostoff that attempts to bring community-building and collaboration into literary discourse, is recognized by Fournier as a potential feminist survival strategy in response to scholarly disillusionment and burnout. You see this in Mitchell and Logue’s giant paperback and green-screen video performances of feminist and queer texts, the hand-drawn, “afro-nihilist” book jackets from Cauleen Smith’s Human_3.0 Reading List (2015) project. In these auto-critical visualizations, theorizing becomes about feeling and hand-made sensibilities, more approachable. As Fournier continues to wrestle further with autotheory and “uneducated knowledges” in her postdoctoral work, I’m curious to see where she’ll literally land: if she’ll give herself permission to allow more of her own voice, and lived experience, to slip through. After all, the more she speaks for herself, the more she is actually putting into practice what autotheory truly means.

Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (MIT Press, 2021) by Lauren Fournier, is now available on Bookshop.

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Rea McNamara

Rea McNamara is a writer, curator, and public programmer based in Toronto. She has written extensively on art, culture and the internet for frieze, Art in America, The Globe and Mail, VICE, Art F City,...

One reply on “A Deep, Feminist Dive Into Autotheory”

  1. Thanks for this story.
    And in case anyone is interested: It looks like the opening photo is inspired in part by “Meshes of the Afternoon” by the great Maya Deren, a film that has inspired so many women artists since then. The correct version (with a soundtrack by Teiji Ito) can be seen here:

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