Stars Need Counting: Essays on Suicide. Gordon Hill Press
Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism. MIT Press
Where does personal reflection stop, and scholarly investigation begin? To even ask this question might appear clichéd or outdated; and yet, critical writing about art, theory, and literature often stops short of inviting in the personal, the reflective, or it does so only with much conspicuous and self-conscious hedging. So here’s my own disclosure: it’s not only a scholarly interest in auto-genres that impels me to write this review; it’s also a desire to better understand myself—I lost a friend to suicide two years ago, and some of my own writing (the writing which means the most to me) might be lumped under the umbrella of autotheory.
Engaging in overt disclosure in writing meant for a scholarly audience often invites the charge of narcissism, a topic that Lauren Fournier addresses at length in Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism. Wide-ranging in its research of the roots of self-writing in theory (from Gloria Anzaldúa to bell hooks to Andrea Long Chu), Fournier traces the term autotheory to the early twenty-first century, and then considers how it might be used to understand a transdisciplinary body of work emerging from feminist and queer writers and artists from the 1960s to the present. Fournier addresses the work of Adrian Piper, Hazel Meyer, Sona Safaei-Sooreh, Maggie Nelson, and Chris Kraus, as well as other notable figures aligned with transnational feminisms, Black feminisms, queer performance art, and trans and critical disability art and writing. Fournier delimits the space of autotheory as performative and self-aware, highlighting the ways in which autotheory’s intentionally counter-hegemonic praxis propels it outside previously established categories of conceptual art, critical memoir, life-writing, or creative non-fiction.
Written with meticulous sensitivity, Fournier’s text explores (and sometimes performs) the ways in which the auto of autotheory reanimates and engages “theory with a capital T” from the position of a self often absented from it: the self that is raced, disabled, queer, trans, feminized, colonized, or poor (46). Fournier gives the example of a talk given by one of her mentors, David Chariandy, at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2019. In his talk “Theory: A Footnote” (a “footnote” to Dionne Brand’s 2019 novel Theory), Chariandy addressed anti-Black racism in the academy and Canadian society, recounting his experiences of reading and studying theory as both generative and “emmeshed in pain,” as Fournier describes it (267). Fournier also contextualizes this pain via reference to the incident of egregious anti-Black racism that occurred at the very same conference (269). As Fournier recalls, Chariandy memorably said in his talk that “‘[t]heory, real theory, will appear to be white,’ and the more opaque it is, the better: ‘like being an asshole’” (53). The figure of real theory as a white asshole is poignant (and of course, bitterly funny) because it (re)animates capital-T theory with its writerly (white) body attached, when normally it might (want to) appear as the “opaque” cardboard corpse of whiteness. Of course, the capacity to disarm theory and shed it of its supposed objectivity exists within what many consider capital-T theory today, as Chariandy notes in his talk and Fournier acknowledges in various ways throughout her text via her engagement with feminist, queer, Black, and decolonial theorists, amongst others. The focus of Fournier’s text, though, is on the capacities inherent to the autotheoretical form, and its tactic of putting a spotlight on the “vacuumed rigor” of “theoretical abstraction” by way of its self-consciously embodied and reanimating engagement with theory (47).
Though profoundly different in tone, Principe does something similar in her work on suicide, which re-embodies and reanimates the seemingly frozen-off topic of suicide by bringing it closer, making it more visceral, while also treating it with the tenderness and empathy that this topic deserves. Someone once told me that “death is among us,” and one of the many gripping aspects of Stars Need Counting is the way in which its poetic refrains, motifs, and images—the unsettling taste in one’s mouth, an uncanny glass of water, “observable stars that are already dead” (89)—bring what the writer Al Alvarez famously describes as “the closed world of suicide” into the phenomenal world of the living. With its refrains, Principe offers a lattice of associations that ripple through the book, bringing an underlying logic to the text in much the same way as the manifest content of the dream (one of Principe’s intertexts is The Interpretation of Dreams) draws the interpreter to the latent meaning. In this way, Principe uses images, anecdotes, and lyrical references to pick away at the many unknowns encasing the hard shell of suicide, providing clarity and relief by delivering fleeting openings into its “closed world.”
When you lose someone to suicide, the question of determining if the person intended to take their life, and of course why, haunts and torments. Shirking (with grace and care) the task of digging into the rabbit hole of intention, Principe’s preface delineates exactly what this book will not provide, including “any categorical claims,” and “a definitive definition of suicide” (2-3). She instead traces suicide’s black hole of intention across several evocative “case studies,” wherein acts of murder-suicide, suicide in war, and “unsolved cases,” such as that of Merriweather Lewis, are intertwined with personal stories and experiences with suicide from the author’s life, as well as quotes and conversations with big-T theory from the likes of Lacan, Blanchot, Malabou, and many others. To use nomenclature from Fournier, Principe uses “lateral citation” to reanimate theory as yet another “life-text” to draw from, which has the obvious levelling effect of bringing down theory while also raising up experiential accounts of suicide, and in so doing providing new prisms for thinking as a result. This, in conjunction with the author’s lyrical prose and occasions of literary critical analysis (ranging from Sylvia Plath to Daniel MacIvor), evokes fresh, revelatory, and at times disarming insights into an act that can feel devastatingly elusive in its aftermath.
Alvarez, Al. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. Random House, 1972.
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