Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Caught Between a Cliche and Some Jargon

This started out as a couple of postings and comments on Facebook.

Let's play a game. Translate the passage: "The theoretical problem in enjoining the phenomenology of daily life with the political history that periodizes the past and macro social structures is that it requires a structural analysis, yet one which while not being deterministic retains the activity and intentionality of women as a historical subject." (from "The New Historical Syntheses: Women's Biography," a 1990 article in the Journal of Women's History, by Kathleen Barry)

I honestly don't mean to be bitchy -- ok, not too bitchy -- because this is an interesting study in an attempt to convey a complex idea. You want specific language in order to explain this idea, but you also want to actually communicate that idea to other people. People who went to more theoretically based graduate programs than mine -- or who didn't curl up into the fetal position and whimper at their own inadequacies when faced with such passages -- might have no problem understanding this. Me? I had to pretty much sound this out, and I think it comes down to saying that the biographer should attempt to explain how their subject understood their own life in the context of the Big Picture events of their time without assuming that all women responded in the same way to something like, for example, the suffrage movement or abolition, simply because they were all women. In other words, all women are not from Venus, all women do not like shopping, nor have a shoe fetish, nor are dying to get married and have babies.

This is related to a problem that I am puzzling through with Douglass. I struggle in comprehending the emotional lives of my subjects in order to explain those lives in a way that a modern audience will understand without falling into cliché or platitudes. The moment a cliché or platitude appears in the work, you know a writer has hit the limit of their ability to express a particular idea. I’m trying very hard not to do that. The clichés and platitudes are of the same sort of creature as the highly academic language, except that clichés overgeneralize while the academic language attempts to be overly specific. They still end up saying very little to most people because they are overly general or are understandable to only a select few who are willing to put in the work of reading past the first paragraph. Even then, I'm not certain that the actual idea is still being expressed with any clarity, even to those steeped in the language (and I wouldn't be surprised if people who write like that are still frustrated at their inability to completely explain exactly what they mean).

To be more specific about some of the writing problems that I am having, I am working on Chapter 1, which deals with Douglass's mother, grandmother, and slave mistresses. In the absence of documentation from the hand of any of these women, I have to piece together their lives relying upon plantation and state records, and Douglass's accounts, which were written at a remove of over a decade for a predominantly northern, white, middle class audience. In other words, I have to muck through a lot of contingencies to get to the real woman.

Now, an easy way to get around some of the problems that I am facing with these women would be to say something like, "well, all women would love their babies, so Harriet Bailey loved hers." What if those babies were conceived in rape? What if she hated their father? What if she loved them but knowing that they would be taken away from her meant that she had to steel herself against any affection? What if she was just a nasty person like the "Aunt Katy" whom Douglass despised and who attacked her own son with a knife?

Yet, I am also highly aware that, in going into the meaner, harder possibilities, as a white woman I can also run into my own unexamined racism. I don't want to sound like I am going to the other extreme by saying that "all enslaved women rejected their children" or "black women cannot be good mothers" because that is not it at all. I am trying to understand the behavior of Harriet Bailey, mother of Frederick, who probably had some complicated and conflicting emotions about her children that defy the stereotypes of good or bad mothers.

I think Douglass himself was guilty, although perhaps intentionally guilty, of using the stereotypes of a good mother about his own and about the women that appear in my chapter. Not really knowing his mother, wanting to portray her to this audience who still had much unexamined racism in their midst, and perhaps also wanting to understand his own abandonment, he relied upon stock characters of mothers. The same with Sophia Auld, his "tender-hearted" mistress, before she turned on him.

What I think I'm getting at here is that, as I read and re-read and ultimately Zapruder things written about Douglass's life, I become frustrated at this assumption that emotions have always been the same across time (tell tale by such phrases as "as any child would" or "typical of any young man"); and I am struggling to write around that place in the story in the absence of declarations. I fear that I am stripping my story of its emotional component, which is dishonest, but not as dishonest as relying upon a sort of flattening of all experience into some sort of ahistorical Hallmark card.

As I struggle to write around the emotions, I also struggle with the words. What words are best and in what order to explain something so slippery and ephemeral as the emotional life of a stranger in a different time and in circumstances that are wholly alien to myself? What words are original and also comprehensible and will in some way convey as precisely as possible the place in the world that these women occupied?

Alas, that is probably why that passage from that article preoccupied me.


  1. I think part of the problem with the passage by Barry is that "enjoin" =/= a fancier way of saying "join," but that's how she's trying to use it. But I'm not the best person to ask, since I tend to be a bit theory-phobic (though not quite to the fetal-position point), and more than a bit theory-questioning (I tend to move fairly quickly to questions like "so what does it help us say about the primary text?," or, more suspicously "does it simply reproduce itself through pre-determined readings of primary texts?"

    But I think you've parsed the actual issue correctly, and it is, indeed, an interesting one, with those who see human character, thoughts, actions, and understandings of those actions as entirely culturally determined/contextualized at one pole, and those who see all of the above as universal (the "as any"/"typical of" school) at the other. As in many things, the truth (to the extent we can know it) probably lies somewhere in between, with the additional difficulties, in the case you're studying, that children can be both frighteningly accurate and notoriously biased/unreliable observers of their parents as people (and vice versa), and that Douglass was, indeed, writing for an audience that included potentially hostile readers. I think that might lead me to list several possible interpretations of a situation without coming to a conclusion about which one is correct, or at least list possibilities before explaining which one I favor, and why. But whether that would meet with approval from editors and/or more historically-minded readers (I'm a a lit type), I don't know.

  2. Cassandra -- I apologize that you comment got caught in moderation. I have no idea why that is happening since Blogger should know you!

    I think I will probably have to go the very route that you describe -- which seems to be the style that this book is taking and seems to also be the most honest in showing my work and in letting the readers see the evidence -- much like a jury -- and decide if my interpretation does, in fact, hold water. Keep your fingers crossed that the editor goes with it!

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