Autotheory as Rebellion: On Research, Embodiment, and Imagination in Creative Nonfiction – Michigan Quarterly Review

Autotheory as Rebellion: On Research, Embodiment, and Imagination in Creative Nonfiction

“I don’t even believe in objective fact,” says my friend L., lying in her hotel bed with sunshine streaming across her, afternoon-napping her way to recovery the day after AWP ends. She is referring to a request from some other friends that she act as arbiter in their accounts of a dispute, but her words strike me because I have been thinking about fact and truth and ways of knowing what we know. 

I have been thinking about this because I am grappling with the balance between journalistic nonfiction and personal narrative, between research and imagination. The works of creative nonfiction I find most intriguing are less interested in what is “real”—the kind of narrative that expresses confident authority in the nature of a singular reality—than in what is “true,” and true is usually fragmentary, overlapping, retreating, dissenting. It rarely fits into boxes. 

Nevertheless, I often find myself drawn to both reading and producing work that mixes research or theory with personal narrative, or mixes narrative with language from a different discipline (such as medicine), or mixes fragmentary lyric with reportage—all of which are types of writing that call for some degree of research. And research, ostensibly, is very interested in what is real

But research, after all, is a slippery word. I think most of us, when we hear it, think of academic research, a kind of research which can be lacking in imaginative aspects, or can at least be approached as though it is lacking in spark and inspiration. Taken generally, “Research” tends to imply a sort of heavy, ponderous expertise in a subject matter, and there is a certain pressure in this “post-truth,” technologically-mediated world to have that kind of expertise before we speak. 

Additionally, as Sarah Menkedick points out, “There has long been an assumed dichotomy between research-driven and personal writing, with the former [construed as] rigorous and intellectual and male, and the latter frivolous and easy and female.” There can thus be an added pressure on women and non-binary writers, whose writing has often been lumped indiscriminately into the Memoir category and disregarded, to be taken more seriously by “wielding research . . . as a ‘scientific,’ intellectual, professional tool.” 

Recently I underwent several procedures as part of what the medical world calls a “fertility assessment.” The process was medicalized and clinical and dry; it felt almost exactly as heavy, in relation to my body and the possibility of pregnancy, as academic research can often feel in relation to the poetry of language and the creative sparks and fusion I want to feel when working on a project.

My wife wasn’t able to be there that day, and I sat by myself wearing a paper gown in a cool clinic room—dark in a way that was probably meant to be soothing, but instead just made me feel like I was sitting in a dimly-lit room surrounded by inscrutable medical equipment—not even certain who would be walking into the room, what the procedure would feel like, what it would tell me. I knew it would be expensive. I knew the whole process was overwhelming. The clinic represented a whole lot of things I feel deeply conflicted about—the medicalization of childbirth, the immense economic privilege of mostly-white women in accessing fertility services when so many women in this country can’t even access good prenatal care—and I felt uncomfortable even being assessed. Eventually someone—a young PA, not the doctor—came in and inserted dye into my uterus and fallopian tubes and then used an ultrasound probe to “look around in there.” 

This year I have taught several classes on autotheory, whose imaginative act is putting body on the same plane as intellect. What the term autotheory describes are ways of mixing “high theory” with our panting, sweating physicality, the embodied experience. 

In one way, autotheory is the chimera of research and imagination. It brings together autobiography with theory and a focus on situating oneself inside a larger world, and it melds these different ways of thinking in creative, unexpected ways. Commonly, this is hybrid work: it transgresses not only the borders around disciplines, but also those around genres and mediums. Autotheory operates interstitially, in that intergenre space the nonfiction field has slowly opened up to.  

Recent works of autotheory include Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieu, and Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, as well as work by Claudia Rankine, Wayne Koestenbaum, Hilton Als, Sara Ahmed, Fred Moten, Kathy Acker, Dionne Brand, Ann Cvetkovich, Paul Preciado, and numerous others. But in any discussion of autotheory, it is critical to acknowledge that, like the lyric essay and like hybridity, this is not a new literary practice, and it is one whose roots are in the intersectional writing and performance art of many Black feminists and women of color, including Audre Lorde, Adrian Piper, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Ana Mendieta, and others. 

The rootedness in embodiment drives the thinking and research in these pieces. And all of it contains some mixture of theory and narrative, in wildly different structures and approaches. 

In 1910, Dr. Kleiweg de Zwaan went to Sumatra to take facial casts of Nias Islanders. He covered their faces with plaster and brought the masks home. Now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam you can see a wall lined with the plaster casts of these men’s faces, eyes squinted, mouths shut against the intrusion. This is one kind of research. De Zwaan lacked the imagination to see that Nias Islanders were also people, just like him.

At its worst, heavily researched nonfiction risks becoming not only anti-feminist, but also inherently western and White, in privileging disembodied intellect—the clinical voice, the pretext of objectivity, as well as outside authority—over one’s own lived experience, body, and imagination (though as Toni Morrison has pointed out, imagination itself can be conscripted or constrained by the same biases that drive such clinical research). 

In contrast, one of the powers of autotheory is its push toward embodiment and invention. It refuses the objective voice, the pretense of neutrality, the fabrication that we can be all brain and no body, with body’s accompanying pleasures, embarrassments, and disappointments. It brings in the vulnerable elements of personal narrative and of one’s own body.

One reason Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts has been so popular, and that other works of autotheory including Cvetkovich’s book Depression: A Public Feeling have been so powerful, is that they are vulnerable books, divulging very personal details in ways that are neither confessional nor egoistic, but are instead an offering to readers: here is mine. In this way, they have the power of giving voice to experiences and lives that are more often sidelined, discounted, silenced, marginalized. 

In this way, autotheory comes out of feminist studies, Black and post-colonial studies, queer studies, as well as what’s been called the “affective turn” in cultural criticism. And at its best, autotheory is highly intersectional—it functions similarly to what Jen Soriano, in her important essay “Multiplicity from the Margins,” calls intersectional form, or “writing that breaks away from the confines of traditional narrative arc and instead moves through fragments and strands and strips, conveying multiple viewpoints to reject homogenous truth in favor of a more complex reality.”  Autotheory can work in a comparable manner, by claiming multiple ways of thinking and truth-telling; by refusing to be boxed in; and by insisting not only on embodiment and imagination, but also on situatedness within larger contexts of power and identity.  

None of this is new, but I believe there is a new appetite for it from an audience shaped by the technological, political, and economic era in which we live.

Autotheory is a mode of writing which is willing to show up, to be physically present and be vulnerable, in this heightened moment of online trolling, fake news, and fast-paced turmoil. It is a mode of writing that disregards the barriers between disciplines and genres, that willfully and joyfully trespasses them. It is a writing form that transgresses and transcends boundaries of all kinds and that theorizes the plurality of self, making it the kind of intelligent rebellion—intellectual and embodied—that is exactly what we hunger for in this fractious, siloed moment.  

Exploring autotheory has helped me foreground the value of situatedness—placing myself and my perspective into the historical, political, economic, and social contexts of the topics I’m exploring—as I write.  

It has also helped me see the need for direct physical presence in my writing, a kind of embodiment I often shy away from in my enthusiasm to curate various ideas, facts, and other bits of information, and in my desire to avoid feeling vulnerable. 

On that day in the clinic, my body felt exposed, scrutinized and subject to a set of expectations about femininity, womanhood, and mothering that I have mixed feelings about to begin with. My body felt cold: my skin against the cool metal of the exam table, wearing a rough paper gown. And, in the waiting area before entering that exam room, my body felt both conspicuously queer and almost unbearably privileged. All of those are as much a part of the story as anything else it might have occurred to me to recount from that experience. Where is your body in all of this? is now a question I regularly ask myself as I write.

My current book project, set during a year I spent living in the Netherlands, is not so much a piece of autotheory as a work of autopolitics: it mixes personal narrative with thinking and research on constructions of identity, race, power, migration, and violence. It required an immense amount of academic research, and I’ve had to cut each essay by half, and then by half again to get back to a semi-lyric form—a muddy, at-times overwhelming process. But as I began to cut more and more of the heavy material away, I realized that I had been trying to wrestle it into the narrow form of a singular reality, felt the pressure of making it reflect a kind of journalistic realism instead of foregrounding the fragment and overlap of what is true. 

My engagement with autotheory this year—reading and having thought-provoking discussions with my students—has taught me a lot about moving away from the conceptual binary of research versus imagination, of real versus true. It has offered an important reminder to approach the thinking and research as both playful and rebellious elements. And it has prompted me to think about the ways in which “research” can also be a physically-embodied practice, a mode of information-gathering rooted in and through the body. 

After all, “research” can be just walking around in the world with your eyes open. Collecting snippets of the world—or interviews, photos, art—and putting them together in ways that mean. Looking for sparky connections or interesting bits to bring together, and allowing them to refract off of each other at angles that create new ways of seeing. Gathering information about how your body feels in a given moment, and taking that as a starting place to think more deeply about the complex realities reflected there.

Shilo Shiv Suleman’s artwork, “Fertile,” as photographed by Natasha Patidar.
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