Friday Feminist – Jane Tompkins

Cross post

These beings exist separately but not apart. One writes for professional journals, the other in diaries, late at night. One uses words like ‘context’ and ‘intelligibility’, likes to win arguments, see her name in print, and give graduate students hardheaded advice. The other has hardly even been heard from. She had a short story published once in a university literary magazine, but her works exist chiefly in notebooks and manila folders labelled ‘Journal’ and ‘Private’. This person talks on the telephone a lot to her friends, has seen psychiatrists, likes cappuccino, worries about the state of her soul. Her father is ill right now, and one of her friends recently committed suicide.

The dichotomy drawn here is false – and not false. I mean in reality there’s no split. It’s the same person who feels and who discourses about epistemology. The problem is that you can’t talk about your private life in the course of doing your professional work. You have to pretend that epistemology, or whatever you’re writing about, has nothing to do with your life, that it’s more exalted, more important, because it (supposedly) transcends the merely personal. Well, I’m tired of the conventions that keep discussions of epistemology, or James Joyce, segregated from meditations on what is happening outside my window or inside my heart. The public-private dichotomy, which is to say, the public-private hierarchy is a founding condition of female oppression. I say to hell with it. The reason I feel embarrassed at my own attempts to speak personally in a professional context is that I have been conditioned to feel that way. That’s all there is to it.

I think people are scared to talk about themselves, that they haven’t got the guts to do it. I think readers want to know about each other. Sometimes, when a writer introduces some personal bit of story into an essay, I can hardly contain my pleasure. I love writers who write about their own experience. I feel I’m being nourished by them, that I’m being allowed to enter into a personal relationship with them. That I can match my own experience up with theirs, feel cousin to them, and say, yes, that’s how it is.

Jane Tompkins, “Me and My Shadow”, in Linda Kauffmann (ed.), Gender and Theory, Blackwell:1989, reprinted in Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (eds.), Feminisms, OUP:1997

2 responses to “Friday Feminist – Jane Tompkins

  1. During my undergraduate philosophy days I was constantly getting into trouble for using real life examples in essays rather than, say, tables, chairs and red spots on the wall.

    I refused to stop. I will continue to do it throughout my PhD. Philosophy does not transcend the personal, it is the fundamental stuff from which the personal arrises. An important distinction, often glossed over by pompous prats who believe that if a reader hasn’t fallen asleep by page three they haven’t written anything of substance. Bring on the personal I say.

  2. Stumbled across this as I’m also writing a paper in which i’m using a personal voice.