The post-title puns are rapidly declining in quality. I fear for my sanity and the safety of my loved ones.
In Ruth Ray’s 7064, we’re reading Richard Miller’s Writing at the End of the World, a book that, for me, starts off with a great series of questions:
Can writers learn a different sets of desires? Can writing itself be made to serve some other function besides aiding in the search for fame and immortality? Can secular institutions of higher education be taught to use writing to foster a kind of critical optimism that is able to transform idle feelings of hope into viable plans for sustainable action? (26-7)
Miller attempts to answer these questions in light of cataclysmic challenges to the ideals of liberation, discourse, and democracy that humanities work (esp. English studies) ostensibly serve to forward. The challenges start high and compelling–9/11, Columbine, the Unabomber, the first Gulf War (and shades of the second)–but, to me, falter somewhat in the latter chapters–the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, fraudulent admissions scams of the 1990s. It’s not that I think the concerns raised in the latter chapters aren’t worth considering, but they seem rather quiescent and anticlimactic after the “big ticket” crises of the earlier chapters. While I want to give Miller the benefit of the doubt by suggesting that his move here is purposefully from the overwhelming to the intimate (he discusses his father’s suicide attempts and fatal stroke in the last chapter), I still feel like the wind is let out of the book’s sails toward the end. I’m frustrated by the book because of this: while I think that Miller does a sharper job bridging the theoretical and the personal than Rose does in Lives on the Boundary (and, interestingly, Miller addresses several similar statements by his former students about Rose), the shift in register from the cataclysmic to the (merely) problematic remains sort of jarring.
I may return to Miller in a later post–it’s a very complex book, and I’d like to puzzle out some of his questions a bit more. Today, though, I want to raise some questions about what Miller’s method, what he describes as an “institutional autobiography.” The goal of such writing, argues Miller, is to elaborate “the felt experience of the impersonal”:
The course of any given individual life cuts through or around a set of institutions charged with responsibility for nurturing both a sense of self and a sense of connection between self and society—the family, the school, and, for some, the church or the house of worship. It goes without saying that the relative influence each of these institutions has on any given individual depends on a number of variables, including race, class, and gender. By linking the institutional with the autobiographic, my goal is not to draw attention away from our individual differences, but rather to show that we all internalize institutional influences in ways that are both idiosyncratic and historically situated, open-ended and over-determined, liberating and confining. We all go to school, bringing both our minds and our embodied histories: what happens there is both utterly predictable and utterly mysterious, the circumscribed movement of a statistical norm and the free flight of aberrant data. (26)
Later in the book, Miller clarifies the goals of this writing practice. The institutional autobiography, he writes,
unites the seemingly opposed worlds of the personal—where one is free, unique, and outside of history—and the institutional—where one is constrained, anonymous, and imprisoned by the accretion of past practices. In this genre, one still considers the conventional questions that reside at the heart of the autobiographical enterprise: questions about how one has become the person one has, overcome the obstacles one has, achieved what one has. The overriding goal, though, is to locate one’s evolving narrative within a specific range of institutional contexts, shifting attention from the self to the nexus where self and institution meet. So inflected, the questions that drive the institutional autobiography become: What experiences have led you to teach, study, read, and write in the ways you do? What institutional policies have promoted or inhibited your success? What shape and texture has your life in the institutions given to your dreams of release?
I’m not really convinced that Miller’s generic experiment is as innovative as he seems to argue. When has autobiography not been concerned with the intersections of the personal and the institutional? Certainly someone like Frederick Douglass or Richard Rodriguez is very conscious of the institutional barriers and obstacles to his literate practices, to cite an obvious example, but Mike Rose’s work in Lives does much the same thing. I think I am resistant to Miller’s institutional autobiography because I see it as sort of redundant–or, at least, I don’t see what it achieves that a regular autobio does not. Granted, the genre of autobio accommodates many different approaches, but the various narratives about literacy and schooling that are part of the English studies canon all seem to fit the goals Miller’s i.a. approach.
Since I am drawn to postmodern and poststructuralist theory, I’d also question the way Miller posits a self that seemingly exists apart from institutional engagement; the “nexus where self and institution meet” can only bear validity if the two are distinct in the first place. So while I understand that Miller might not share the understanding of the self’s ontology that I find interesting, his inst. autobio. is doubly redundant for my interests: the self is always already the nexus where the subject and institution meet.
On a more practical level, I find the inst. autobio. a limited compositional practice. Or, rather, I think it’s a good starting point but a poor product. Miller notes that he often assigns this genre to grads who arrive in his writing pedagogy seminar with their own educational histories unblemished by critique; this assignment, he argues, works to lay bare some of the forces that they must account for in their own writing and teaching but also in that of their students. As Miller observes, many grads are reluctant to write about the personal, they’re been socialized through their studies to disparage the value of the personal in academic discourse. Okay … I can sympathize and recognize that aversion to the personal in my own writing (outside of the blog).
While Miller doesn’t reveal whether he’s ever assigned this to undergrads, I see no reason it couldn’t be–and that becomes my next observation. For many of my readers, I’m sure the first excerpt above sounded very familiar, sort of like . . . a mystory? That was my first reaction as well. But that comparison reveals what might be another shortcoming of Miller’s inst. autobio.—it seems to rest firmly in the space of personal narrative: “Here’s how school/church/family impacted my life.” Miller’s own practice does work to create some juxtaposition across those registers, but it doesn’t have the sense of interconnection and cross-referentiality that mystory can create–nor does it serve to connect the process of composition and research to the self: Miller’s genre, as noted, takes it for granted that the self exists and confronts these institutions, while the mystory seeks to draw at least implicit comparisons btw the composition of the mystory and of the writing subject.
Which brings me to my final observation about Miller here: why just these institutions? Miller makes a point elsewhere in Writing about the goals of his pedagogy (which I will write about at a later date). But these institutions are all institutions, for lack of a better word, of power or order. Why not an institute of pleasure (pop culture) or community (the street)? Granted, this might not mesh with the “felt experience of the impersonal,” but as I’ve already made clear, I don’t think the institutional is impersonal.
Hmm. Comments, as always, are welcome.