Being, Experience, the 'Self,' and other things I still don't understand

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Back in February when I was imagining what my research experience might look like, I was intimidated by the idea of doing a text-based study. When I told people I would be doing research this summer, they usually assumed it would take place in a lab or in the field, rather than behind a stack of books. The study I’ve taken on, that of recent developments in women’s autobiographical works, is semantically difficult – what do the words woman and autobiography mean? When reading something like Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, it becomes clear that the writing (graphy) of the life (bio) of one’s self (auto) is not such a clear cut thing in the 20th and 21st centuries – is it possible to write someone else’s autobiography? Is it possible, even, to write your own? What is the ‘self’? Meta, right?

But there is so much more to the study of women’s autobiography. In fact, the development of the genre has really been more of a subversion of the traditionally conceived genre - a political act. My research, then, must ultimately face the greater issues of our society which these philosophical questions and underpinnings relate to. This summer has been a unique one in American, and global, history. My concerns regarding my research undertakings were no longer over whether or not I would be working at home in Virginia or with the Tufts cohort in Boston, but how I could read Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name in dialogue with the reality of racial struggle that was taking place a few miles from where I live, in Washington, D.C., or what the post-colonial inequalities Jamaica Kincaid tells of in A Small Place meant about the nation I belonged to and the reverberations of its structural flaws.

These issues have been hard to face – reading the personal accounts of oppression and hurt is not an easy thing, and I’ve realized that it can take over my mind even when I’m not working. It’s not a comfortable thing, but maybe it is good – I don’t want to lapse into ignorance the minute I close my books and turn off my computer. The research I am doing, and the report I’ll ultimately write, are a form of activism in the same way that these autobiographies I’m reading are types of activism, by engaging with the political systems I live within and interpreting my experiences of them in dialogue with those of other women. I’m not writing an autobiography, per se, but I am investigating, exploring, and filtering knowledge to tell a story that I feel must be told, or at least elaborated upon. Their stories already exist, but how do they speak to each other? How can their dialogue be directed towards political change?

If I had an answer, I would tell you, but right now I am still trying to understand experiences I have never, and will never, truly and deeply internalize. The not-knowing is always at the back of my mind, threatening to be an insuperable obstacle to any progress I can make in my research. Over the past four weeks, I have learned so much and metabolized so much, sorting through and connecting various literary and theoretical landscapes, but I still have many questions that I am grappling with, such as what place I have to be engaging with this scholarship – what does my voice contribute? Or, conversely, what does it silence? A researcher must always be aware of these things and taking action by questioning assumptions that have permeated our ethics, communicating with other researchers, and reading diversely. 

I’m now returning to my original research question, which has changed so much since I started out, and I’m trying to reframe that question in the light of what I have learned and what needs to be addressed in my society. My supervisor at Tufts University, Professor Hofkosh, has been incredibly supportive of my endeavors, and luckily been open to flexibility with my ever-changing research plan. I am so incredibly grateful for her support and knowledge, and to have a supervisor who understands the importance of reading widely. It means a lot to have come to feel that the research I am doing is valuable even in a small way. Seeing how I can play a part in a necessary movement in scholarship and society makes this internship so much more meaningful.

I'm looking forward to having something concrete to share at the end of the summer, as well as having a new way of looking at learning and living in this complex world. Reading the accounts of other women's experiences has given me some insight into the value of thinking critically about what it means to be, and how our experiences are always and inevitably tied to the events and people around us. Recognizing that these things form us, as well as how they form us, is the initial step towards a redirecting the course of the history which we will leave behind, and the future which is to come of that.

Alex and theory - what more do I need?