Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 6, 2022
Lauren Fournier Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021. 48 color ills.; 6 b/w ills. Hardcover $35.00 (9780262045568)

The term “autotheory” first caught my eye in late 2019, if I am remembering pre-pandemic time correctly. I had just finished Heather Christle’s lyrical The Crying Book (Catapult, 2019) during a particularly rough and emotional period in my life, when I often found myself weeping or full-on crying in the kitchen, what Christle named “the best—I mean the saddest—room for tears.” At the time, I was a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, simultaneously working through personal loss while generating new words around Hannah Wilke’s performance art from the 1970s. Working on Wilke necessitates recognition of the deep impact her life had on her art and vice versa; as she said: “art is for life’s sake.” It is this entwining of Wilke’s art and life that I find most captivating in deeply intellectual and psychological ways. But I did not know how to see my own desires as part of this woven narrative of art history, personal history, and collective histories I was constructing. Where did my experiences of Wilke’s work fit into my writing? And were my experiences valid measures for art historical analysis?

Lauren Fournier, in the introduction to Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism, writes that her relationship to the works and practices cited throughout the book “arose from the specificities of my own lived, embodied experience in a particular place and time” (4). That Fournier cried in her kitchen, too, is how I understand this best. But it is her description of how she approached her subjects of study that sharply resonated with me: “My methodological approach is grounded in the personal-theoretical, incidental, gut-centered nature of autotheoretical research” (5). I know this “gut-centered” place well; even now, my body seizes with the sharp memory of watching Wilke’s final work, Intra-Venus (1993), curled up on a Los Angeles couch next to her sister and nephew.

The first epigraph in Autotheory as Feminist Practice is a quote from Sarah Ahmed: “Theory itself is often assumed to be abstract . . . to abstract is to drag away, detach, pull away, or divert. We might then have to drag theory back, to bring theory back to life” (1). And this is clearly Fournier’s intention throughout the book, as she modifies the essential feminist mantra “the personal is political” through a contemporary lens that extends autotheory into “post-1960s practices, including conceptual art, video art, body art, film, and performance, along with experimental writing, literary art, and criticism” (2). Fournier devotes a good portion of the hefty introduction to defining the term autotheory, which, at its core, “is the integration of the auto or “self” with philosophy or theory, often in ways that are direct, performative, or self-aware” (6). It is also “theory and performance, autobiography and philosophy, research and creation, knowledge that emerges from lived experience and material-conceptual experiments in the studio and the classroom” (29)—not so much a theory of the self, but a theory that emerges from the self. As autotheory is a relatively new term, this section is particularly valuable in its connection of terminology to contemporary artistic practices, as well as its interrogation of the gender coding of autotheory as feminine due to its association with personal narratives. (You’re such a narcissist, Marissa! Why would anyone want to read about you crying in the kitchen?) An image of Christine Tien Wang’s Narcissist (2019), with its bubbly proclamation “I AM TOO SELF-AWARE TO BE A NARCISSIST,” sits as a welcome “post-confessional” wink to the concluding pages of the introduction (63).

And now my own post-confession (as if crying in my kitchen did not already qualify): After reading the introduction, I skipped to the fifth chapter, which focuses on Chris Kraus and her autotheoretical text I Love Dick (1997). The chapter begins with a quote by Wilke on her experiences with sexual harassment in the art world, a recounting Fournier names a “politics of disclosure” (221). Kraus described Wilke—whose “genius” she pointedly defends in Part 2 of I Love Dick—and her “talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public” as “the most revolutionary thing in the world.” Fournier, in turn, recognizes the revolutionary nature of Kraus’s autotheoretical writing, deftly connecting Kraus’s “disclosures of the bad behavior of known, named men in the worlds of contemporary theory, art, and academia” to the contemporary use of social media to expose systemic abuses of power (222). Disclosure is here understood as fundamental to feminist practice—Fournier cites Ahmed’s “feminist killjoy” and Kraus’s “bitches, libellers, and whores” (242). But so is exposure, and Fournier’s divulgence of Kraus as a signatory to a 2018 letter of support for philosopher Avital Ronell raises a fundamental challenge to autotheory at large: Is it “boundary-breaking that we are interested in or another mode tied less to macho, avant-gardist histories that veer towards cruelty” (250)? Disclosure and exposure don’t have to be cruel; they can be provocatively feminist in their agitation of who and what constitutes “theory” and “philosophy,” and who has access to such spaces.

I know Fournier carefully constructed the layout of chapters, but truthfully, I preferred reading the chapter on Kraus first, as it both reinforced autotheory as a bridge between the worlds of literature and performance/conceptual art, and inserted uncertainty into the applicability and desirability of autotheory to all feminist practice. Flipping pages back to the first chapter, which considers “phenomenological, embodied, and poststructuralist feminist modes of philosophizing” in Adrian Piper’s Food for the Spirit (1971), activated my awareness of the provocative aspects of disclosure and exposure in Piper’s decades-long interrogation of Kantian philosophy (40). Piper and Wilke are, in large part, known names in the history of contemporary conceptual and performance art. Less known are the “right now” contemporary artists whose biting and often humorous work scaffolds Fournier’s text in the remaining chapters. Most are based in eastern Canada, and while this is more observation than critique, Fournier’s project would be well-served by recognizing the strong ties between autotheory and feminist practice in contemporary Australian art as well (see Jacqueline Millner and Catriona Moore, Contemporary Art and Feminism [Routledge, 2022]). But overall, the wide range of artistic approaches cited by Fournier, from Madelyne Beckles’s performances and videos that skeptically critique feminist theory to the “queer possibility and futurity” embedded in the collaborative work of Allyson Mitchell and Deidre Logue, diversify our understanding of autotheory and its possibilities in deeply transformative ways (178).

Reading Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism is, in Ahmed’s words, a form of feminist “homework” and Fautrier’s labor in writing this book a form of “feminist housework” in its aim “to transform the house.” And while I acknowledge the tremendous labor involved in Fournier’s drive to transform and even dismantle the house—she asks, “how can we understand autotheory as a means of resistance, transgression, or dissent?” (4)—the revolutionary words of Audre Lorde remind us that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” For this reason, it is surprising to encounter Fournier’s writing as a philosophy-heavy 320-page academic tome rather than a tighter and more personal (autotheoretical) accounting of the subjects under study. Some of the best passages in the book occur when she inserts her own experiences and acknowledgment of position: “a writer, a researcher, a self-taught curator, and an artist, as well as a working-class, first-generation student from a settler-colonial, white family context in the Canadian prairies of Treaty 4 lands” (65). But this is a critique easier said than done. Fournier had to play the academic game, first in writing the dissertation that formed the basis of the book and second in publishing with MIT Press; neither of these institutional spaces leave much room for experimental prose filled with a resoundingly feminist embrace of lived experiences while simultaneously asking “how this thing called theory might be decolonized” (6).

Fournier consistently reminds us that autotheory as a contemporary practice is deeply indebted to earlier feminist writings and activism from the 1970s and 1980s. Lorde delivered her revelatory comments at “The Second Sex Conference” in 1979, in which she, fittingly, cited Simone de Beauvoir: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.” And this is where Fournier’s book is so well positioned and much needed, as a collection of embodied knowledge by a wide range of feminist-minded creators whose “reasons for acting” (and here I read acting as “feminist housework”) lie at the core of their artistic production. What Fournier’s book does for me—to me—is give name to those artistic works and processes that have always produced a gut-level feeling in me, be it pleasurable or discomforting or downright repulsive. It is here, in the provocative space of the repellent and alluring that autotheory, as both transmedial and transdisciplinary, can trouble existing narratives and hierarchies, and open pathways for new modes of engagement with feminisms and their affiliate histories of art making, writing, and political activism.