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The possibilities of autotheory between theory and life writing

Keywords: life writing, embodied theory, affect theory

The article focuses on texts that can be classified as autotheoretical, that is, they are autobiographical texts that simultaneously interrogate theoretical issues and, by their genre liminality, seek to articulate otherwise muted phenomena. The autotheoretical practice of the 2000s can be seen as a continuation of feminist personal criticism of the 1970s–1980s, such as the work of Jane Tompkins and Nancy K. Miller, and an attempt to develop forms of writing outside the prevalent academic hermeneutics of suspicion. Proceeding from the work of Mieke Bal, Roland Barthes and Adriana Cavarero, the article aims to show the productivity of this movement between embodied experience, autobiography, fiction and theoretical reflection.  As such, it is also a reflection on the political and affective affordances of different genres, as well as the promise of reparative reading suggested by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

The theoretical discussion is illustrated with examples from two hybrid texts dedicated to an honest and at times discomforting discussion of reproduction, maternity, and the family: Maggie Nelson’s critically acclaimed „The Argonauts” (2015) and Maarja Kangro’s „Klaaslaps” („Glass Child”) (2016), an equally celebrated Estonian text. Both texts emerge as good examples of autotheoretical writing that evoke a series of political and theoretical reflections, expanding the pragmatic and affective range of autobiographical writing and exploring its aesthetic possibilities. Autotheory is micro-political, but it is precisely because of this subjective focus that it compels its readers to engage with their own experience and opinions. As such, these texts and others following their practice can contribute to enlivening today’s feminist and gender theory.

Raili Marling (b. 1973), PhD (English language and literature), College of Foreign Languages and Cultures, University of Tartu, Associate Professor,



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