Four years after I left graduate school, a friend introduced me to Susan Neiman, who observes, “Like many others, I came to philosophy to study matters of life and death, and was taught that professionalization required forgetting them. The more I learned, the more I grew convinced of the opposite: the history of philosophy was indeed animated by the questions that drew us there.”
How true this is, and how often we are told to leave that personalization when walking through the door of academia (or entering the polling booth or engaging in political discussion). This is an old saw for me as a political theorist. I have found the personal so important that I chose to begin my master’s thesis with a confession. I confessed all of the personal bullshit that led me to choose the path of a theorist, the main one having an emotionally abusive father who used religion and conservative politics as a tool for shame. With more reading and some adjustment to my perspective by the blogosphere (hat tip to MizJenkins), I must also confess to being white and privileged, though at times have been faced head-on with my position as a woman (misogynistic work environments, a sexual assault).
I confess because I think it is complete and utter bullshit to come to a study of politics without any recognition of how you got there or why. Augustine recognized this more than any because he comes from a Christian tradition in which confession is necessary for honest faith, “For neither do I utter anything right unto men, which thou has not before heard from me; nor dost thou hear any such thing from me, which though hast not first said unto me.” (Confessions X (II)) Replace God with politics and nothing that we do politically is not informed by our life and our life is informed at all points by politics.
With my use of personal confession you might think I am embracing a subject, a defined person within politics, but my confession (and yours) is only part of the story. Confession cannot happen without memory, and memory is tricky, at once personal and collective and always open for refutation.
As Paul Ricouer notes, individual memory is owned by you and others. You remember the time such and such happened, but your friend fills in the name or the place. Collectively, this becomes a definition of national tragedy, triumph, or identity. My experience as a white, privileged woman is in part my personal memory and in part the definition supplied by the collective cultural understanding of what I ought to be. But these definitions are never set in stone. Perhaps I remembered incorrectly the exact sequence of events. Perhaps my friend remembers better. Perhaps she doesn’t remember at all and I have invented something without knowing it to have been invented. Tricky memories, tricky confessions.
The best discussion I’ve ever read on the trickiness and importance of confession and memory is by Peter Dimock in A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family. Like Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Dimock’s book is about creating speech for persuasion and discussions of both national and personal tragedy. His main character remarks, “There are two kinds of memory, the natural and the artificial. The natural memory is that memory which is embedded in our minds and is born simultaneously with thought. The artificial memory is that memory which is developed and strengthened by a kind of training and by discipline.” (47)
Memory is at once natural, automatic, and defined but also something you train and invent. So it is with the subject. As I write this, I am easily identifiable as female, straight, white, and privileged. But there are more subtle practices that require me to rethink my memory and train it differently. This is demonstrated in how my confession has changed. When I first got into this political theory business, I was desperate to find my own voice. Now I’m more interested in discovering the voices of others and so what I confess before I write now is quite different from what I confessed at 24.
This is all to say, quite pretentiously, that as you enter into political discussion, whether as a theorist or a blogger or a Facebook status updater, remember that your personal experience exists within your position but that position is never entirely complete and is always ready to be interpreted as a new memory and a new confession. Confess your identity, admit your sins, but know these change, that they can be false, and that in that falseness, we can trouble our collective memories and our confessions.
The Confessions of St. Augustine (mainly book X)
Memory, History, Forgetting by Paul Ricouer
Evil in Modern Thought by Susan Neiman
A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family by Peter Dimock