Archive for persuasion

My 18-Year-Old Self Writes Autobiography: Or, How (Not) To Drag Poststructural Thought, Kicking and Screaming, into the Classroom

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 14

During my dissertation defense, I was asked to consider the ways in which breaking the narrative–learning to tell stories about our own lives in different ways–could be disempowering, instead of empowering, as I had been claiming, in a rather Pollyanna-ish way, for 375 pages.

The thing is, I don’t know. By which I mean, I can’t think of any specific examples. I can only use, as I have been for 375 pages, myself and my own experiences. And I can tell you this–that if some English professor had asked me to rewrite, or even reconsider, one of the ways in which I described/defined/narrated my life at that point, I would have said that there was nothing to rewrite, nothing to change. It was all good.

And if that professor had pushed me to write about being adopted, I would have resisted mightily. Or, I’d have written some beautiful (by which I mean trite and sappy) ode to adoption as the most wonderful, uncomplicated practice in the world.

It wouldn’t have been disempowering so much as un-empowering. Lost on me. Thumbs parallel.

Of this I can be fairly sure, vague and indistinct though my 18-year-old self is. People have reacted with fascination to the news that I was adopted all my life. And I have reacted with something like fascination to their fascination. Why were they so fascinated? I was adopted. Big deal. No, I’m not curious about my birth parents. I have parents. No, I’m not searching. No, I don’t have abandonment issues. No, no, no to most of their questions.

But I often said no to those questions with a vague sense of guilt, as though I should have more to say, since the people asking were so obviously invested in hearing more. But to me, there was no story. There was no narrative to break. There were no holes in our adoption story. It was all there. My parents told us everything. What else could I possibly need to know?

(Of course since then I’ve spent years in therapy rewriting stories, learning to think in different ways about issues and experiences. But that’s another blog post.)

Interestingly, it was my 18-, 19- and 20-year-old selves that were writing journalism stories, reading Hunter Thompson, Michael Herr, Truman Capote and George Orwell, and Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism, and wondering about truth in writing, truth in reporting. It was those selves who took a course called “Phenomenology” as a junior and learned about how we perceive and experience reality, and who took, for six credits,  “Propaganda,” and learned all about manipulation and persuasion and ideology, and argued at some point that all writing was propaganda because it was always trying to persuade, always coming from a specific viewpoint–and that it wasn’t all evil. Those selves wrote about the connections between phenomenology and journalism and how no writer can objectively reproduce an experience in language; no writer can represent the essence of anything.

And so the seeds of poststructural thought were being planted–the idea that Truth and the subject are contingent, partial, multiple, fragmented. unstable, shifting and contradictory. I could see it in other writers’ work, in all communication. But it never occurred to me, I never took it so far as to reread the adoption story, to start to rewrite it.

Had some well-meaning, all-fired-up English professor attempted to help me to see that the my subjectivity and my stories are discursive, and that certain discourses dominate certain communities, and that maybe there were other ways, even innocuous, tame, safe, ways, to talk about being adopted, I would have resisted. I would have said, politely, “No, really, there’s nothing to talk about.” Because I didn’t think there was.

So, I don’t know. Is the lesson here to start outside the self, the subject? To introduce students to these ideas in ways that do not ask them to step outside of the safe zone and to break the constructed narratives of their lives that are at best unnoticed, invisible, and at worst, harmful? And what would that mean?

I had all kinds of fun in college writing about the atrocities of mainstream news coverage of the Vietnam War and our protests of it, and even, sometimes, the circumstances, the dominant discourses, the unexamined ideologies and political realities that prevented THE TRUTH from being told. I had fun thinking about how objectivity can’t exist. I had fun thinking about how we can never know the truth of any experience, how democracy was its own form of indoctrination, and how power shaped everything.

I never extended any of that thought to myself and my own stories, though, which remained whole and complete and pretty and unexamined until a catalyst in my own life forced me to reexamine them. Was it enough that the seeds of the idea that stories might be told in different ways, from different perspectives, was there when I needed it?

Is there some college professor of mine out there now, reading this, saying, “Oh. My. God. She finally got it!”?

And would that be considered success?