This article explores the critical tensions between the valorisation of “personal” registers in feminist and queer writing since the mid-1980s—including my own—and cultural theories of the “impersonal” subjects of memoir, family history and photography. Starting with Lauren Berlant’s reading of femininity as generic, the article seeks to situate feminist uses of the “I” within what Denise Riley calls the “outward unconscious, which hovers between people”. To articulate subjectivity not in the first person—or not necessarily—the argument follows Carolyn Laubender’s critique of the “plural self “of recent autotheory, pursuing instead the elusive psychic dynamics of historical and cultural formations in the writing of Gail Lewis and Janet Wolff. Looking at the sense of “wrongful narration” from the point of view of both the subject and the object of a story, the affective investment in personalised accounts is read alongside an intellectual affiliation to the impersonality of language.
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The essay is based on my inaugural online lecture for the Coventry Cultural Theory series in the Centre for Postdigital Cultures at the University of Coventry, 7 March 2022. I am grateful to all the organisers for discussions of the ideas in this talk before, during and after the event; my thanks go to Adrienne Evans, Lindsay Balfour, Gary Hall and Angela McRobbie.
This term, ‘object cathexis’, refers to that mental object which becomes the focus of a kind of a preoccupation charged with affect.
In the North American context, Hortense Spillers names her use of the “I” in her extraordinary essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” thus: “The use of personal pronouns are offered in the service of a collective function” (1987 p. 65).
Saidiya Hartman’s method of ‘critical fabulation’ (2008) might be related to this method but works very differently in the context of writing about the violence of slavery in the absence of historical archival material about those whose lives were eradicated by its brutalities.
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