Fear and Honesty: On Reconciling Theory and Voice, in Two Parts

Kate DaleyThe second post in our guest series on critical methodology and narrative, this time from Kate M. Daley. Kate is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto, Ontario. Her doctoral research in feminist political theory explores responses to privilege in the context of feminist relationships and her current research interests include narrative research methods, social science education, indigenous methodologies, and anti-oppression knowledges and discourses. She lives in Waterloo, Ontario, where she advocates for projects and policies that support transportation choice, environmental protection, and vibrant public spaces.


Part I: Fear

I am lucky in this room, among my colleagues. I am working in feminist political theory, not international relations, and my discipline has been advocating for and responding to feminist work that is in one’s own voice and that tells one’s own story for decades. Still, I feel a sense of paralysis. I am 27 years old. I have passed my qualifying exams. I have written dozens of graduate papers. My work is starting to get published. I am now starting to stare down my dissertation. And I am not sure that my work has ever been truly honest.

It was my Master’s supervisor who graciously began to break my training. She encouraged me to write in the first person. In her class, I had argued passionately with some of my more conventional colleagues. I had defended the overt positionality of narrative political theory, and valorized those who had the courage to write in their own voice. And yet I most often continued to write as though I was not there at all.

So I started to use first-person pronouns in my academic writing. Sometimes I even included a personal anecdote to make my writing more compelling, more convincing. I believe firmly in the importance of personal narrative for political theory, and for social sciences scholarship. I have thrown in the occasional story to illustrate a point. But I have never really, truly, made myself visible and vulnerable in my theory.

I am afraid. I have come to a place where I can no longer only speak an I that serves as nothing more than a grammatical device between abstract ideas, or a persuasive tactic to convince others of a conclusion I have already drawn. But I cannot wholeheartedly embrace autoethnography and my own narrative, either. I am afraid.

I fear that I will learn that I can write as a faceless academic, but not as a whole person. I fear that I will write a self-indulgent mess that will say much more about me than about the state of the world. Most of all, I fear that the abstract language I have used to protect myself will no longer be there to protect me from the pain of criticism, and the criticism will not be of my ideas. It will be of me. Irish novelist Frank Delaney has said that:

The telling of your story to someone else, you telling me your story, for example, is an act of trust by you that I will accept your story, that I won’t despise it or trash it in any way. So therefore the very act itself, the story telling, becomes an emotional transaction.

I have written and spoken of my ideas for many years. In the beginning, I did it to protect myself. I was a strange and bullied child. I hid myself and my ideas behind formal structures and the rules of essays, speeches, and debating tournaments as soon as I could learn how. This protectiveness served me well. I have settled into my own skin, and those early strategies have become my career. So re-learning to write and theorise is dangerous. I can never be sure what wrong move or next happening will leave me naked. I do not know when my writing will bring the fingernails of a tiny but menacing girl to scratch across my five-year-old eyes. Again.

Critique is a central part of academic work, and one that I have long valued beyond measure. It would thus seem easier to write in the abstract, to speak in the authoritative and unquestionable voice of my profession. But it no longer feels honest, and I crave honesty. In speaking of the fear he has of writing about his relationship with his abusive father, due to the effects that the act of writing will have on him, Delaney concludes that if he is “to have any honesty from now on, those are the things I have to look at.” If my work is not honest, if I am not honest, it is because I have not followed through with the implications of my own philosophical commitments. Because I have tried to obscure and eliminate my vulnerability with rhetorical tactics. Because I have not let my work implicate me.

There is some discussion at the workshop about whether graduate students should engage in narrative writing at all. Some fear punitive consequences for our careers. Others argue that such strategies must be learned somewhere, and that our needs as whole people must also be served in our academic training. As I listen to this debate, I finally come to terms with what I already knew: that I am unable to reconcile my philosophical commitments with the way I have been trained to write about them. That if my doctorate is going to mean anything, I must use it to learn to write differently. That I must allow myself to become someone different in the process. I had known this for some time, but I was, I am, afraid of it. It would be easier to not know.

But in this workshop, I am bolstered, elated, and encouraged by this group of adventurous academics. I am still afraid, but I am not alone in my uncertainty and my vulnerability. I know not that there is nothing to fear, but rather that it is better to be afraid and to do something valuable than to be confident and to do something meaningless. And most significantly, I know that the difference between the two is the support of others. What follows, for me, will be messy and uncomfortable. I am afraid, but I am relieved. I know that if I learn to be honest, I will not be alone.

Part II: Honesty

I have written my post, but I am far from finished. I am once again lucky: my supervisor is always gentle while being firm in her direction. She wants to push me on my use of the concept of honesty, and its connection to authenticity. And so I pull myself back to October 2012, to the workshop, at the same time as I try to pull myself forward, through the weeds. I intend to spread myself as I reach in both directions.

She is right, of course. What is honesty in a context of non-fiction, first-person narrative writing? Why does it matter? And does it rely on authenticity? The hole is gaping. My initial attempts to fill it are mostly noise: a little tweak here, a rhetorical device there. Plugging the holes is consistent with my training. I barely spread myself at all. She nudges again. It is certainly easy to slip into a convenient catch basin of authenticity: to assume that pouring out my soul on paper is somehow more authentic than my abstract writing. If I am not careful, my attempts at honesty will be nothing more than a cathartic pastime validated by unexamined assumptions that I would not accept if they were laid out for me.

So I must once again find a way to reconcile my instinct (for that is what it is) with both my practice and my philosophical commitments. What do I mean by honesty, and what is authenticity? Can I satisfy my craving for honesty without accepting all that comes with claims to authenticity? My training tells me that I should do a review of the literature. Authenticity is big. Whole books have been written, some by great names in my field. I want to cover it as I try to reach forward and back, but I can’t. It is too big, and I do not know enough. Even worse, in the context of this short post, it would serve primarily as an attempt to defer to big names and ongoing, unsolved debates. I could comfortably lose myself in there. That could fill at least four pages, and no one would look at me too closely.

There will be a time and a place for that in my work, I know. But for now, I will resist the urge to let myself off the hook.

I am actually struggling with the notion of authenticity as it is used in the vernacular, without long philosophical expositions. We make short and unthinking assumptions about what is authentic. With a rough glance, I can make out four different facets of the authentic in the vernacular. First, the authentic can be tied to concepts of truth. We see something as authentic if someone has actually, in fact, experienced it. It is tied to a state of the world; it has actually occurred. It is, objectively and subjectively, true.

Second, the authentic can be tied to concepts of credibility. We see someone as credible because they have personal experience of the topic at hand, and thus their knowledge of the topic takes precedence. In strands of feminist theory in which I engage, this takes the form of demands that we do not speak of the experiences of those who are oppressed in ways that we are not. In my supervisor’s context of international relations scholarship, and as she writes, the relevant question is often seen to be: “Have you been there?”. Authenticity is part of a claim to be taken seriously, and more seriously than others who are seen as inauthentic.

Third, the authentic can be tied to concepts of nature and, particularly, of the natural as opposed to the artificial. That which is authentic, in this sense, is either primordial or spontaneously generated. This relies on the premise that the authentic is distinct from the artificial.

Fourth, the authentic can be tied to concepts of quality of life. To live authentically is often seen as a qualitative measure of the value of one’s way of being in the world over the course of one’s life cycle. In existentialist terms, “the norm of authenticity refers to … a recognition that I am a being who can be responsible for who I am.” One’s choices are authentic, in an existentialist sense, if they are consistent with that which one chooses to do for oneself, rather than simply to meet social rules or expectations.

There is a lot within authenticity that I cannot accept as a goal of my narrative writing. I can’t look for truth. I do not expect my work to be seen as an objectively more accurate account of the state of the world than academic work that does not use narrative methods. I expect that it allows us to see different things, and to see things differently, but this is not a hierarchy of accuracy. I do not believe narrative methods expose more truth, or something that is more true.

I can’t look for credibility. Credibility, in the context of non-fiction narrative and autoethnography, means too much shelter from criticism, critique, and engagement. My supervisor rightly describes “Have you been there?” as a question that is “asked to dismiss and to silence”. Moreover, seeking credibility through narrative writing would mean using it as a shield once again; I would be replacing the shield of abstract writing with the shield of narrative writing, and in many ways, the narrative shield is a much tougher one to penetrate. I must avoid looking for credibility with my stories. I would be lying if I said that I did not want to protect my story, in Delaney’s sense. But I do not accept that this is an acceptable goal of my work. I feel a responsibility to actively wrestle with that desire, and constantly renegotiate where the border of my self-protection lies.

I can’t look for naturalness. I find much of Donna Haraway’s varied work to be extraordinarily compelling; I believe the borders between the natural and artificial are much more a product of mediated, discursive, and historically particular happenings than they are a reflection of some objective state of the world. There is no natural, authentic me to expose. There is only a particular, always shifting, incoherent sense of self. There may, at times, be value in exposing those particulars through narrative methods, but this value is not dependent on it being natural to do so.

So perhaps all I can look for is to improve the quality of my life. I am a poor fit with existentialism. I do not rationally accept the existence of an authentic me beyond history, discourse, and circumstances. But I cannot say I am free from a sense that I have a role “in making myself.” I am looking to write in a way that I can look back on and feel okay about: to write in a way that subjectively feels like “me.” I can no longer write in a way that is disconnected from what I believe, because it is too painful for me. What’s more, it is boring. It feels disingenuous to the way I wish to be in the world. In this way, only, it is inauthentic.

This is the honesty I want. It is hard to defend; it seems I have written myself into a corner. My need for honesty is entirely subjective. It’s not about me being more truthful, more credible, or more natural than my writing previously allowed. Indeed, I hope to use narrative writing to destabilise these three facets of authenticity in my work. It is simply because I cannot stand the disjuncture I perceive between what I believe and how I express myself in my work. What’s more, I cannot find means of justifying this need that I could reasonably expect anyone else to accept.

So it seems I cannot use my own search for honesty to make any claims about why autobiographical narrative writing is valuable in and of itself, or why others should do it. I could perhaps suggest to a colleague that they might find their own sense of dishonesty piqued if they were to examine the disjuncture between the way they write and their epistemological beliefs. I could abandon this question of honesty and write a very different post about why narrative methods are generally valuable, and what they might bring to our disciplines. I believe I could make good arguments for this position. From the workshop, I know that I would be in very good company. But my need for honesty is then incredibly limited in its application. I am unsettled to have written and examined so much, only to learn more about myself than about my method. This, too, goes against my training. Perhaps it is time for me to say that my own needs and desires are necessarily relevant to my work, and are relevant, period.

This is where it is helpful to not be alone. Consistent with his remarks in the workshop, Naeem Inayatullah has written, “We can hypothesize that no matter how and what we compose, writing emerges from our needs and wounds”. Perhaps there is no escaping my own needs and feelings in my narrative writing. I am making a choice to exchange one form of authorial discomfort for another, and I am doing so, at least in part, for my own reasons. Inayatullah’s insights further encourage me when he suggests that “exposure and disclosure of the self/selves, rather than locating some idiosyncratic ‘n of 1’ or some sui generis entity, instead uncovers events, histories, cultures, and worlds”. I want to believe, and I do believe, that I can reconcile my voice and my theory, and feel more honest as an academic, without accepting the multifaceted burden of authenticity. I want to believe that I can do so in a way that will help both me and the quality and colour of my work. I need to believe I can meet my needs while uncovering worlds.

So perhaps, as I struggle to reconcile my theory and my voice, my craving for this particular type of honesty is one over which I do not need to feel guilt. Maybe it is enough to be wary of, and to grapple with, truth, credibility, and naturalness in my narrative work. Maybe I can give myself permission to acknowledge my needs as only one of several valid considerations in my work, even if they are not abstractly justifiable. Time will tell whether there is space in my discipline, or space within me, to stop apologising for them.

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