Thirza Cuthland, from Less Lethal Fetishes, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.
Fusing self-representation with philosophy and critical theory, autotheory moves between “theory” and “practice.” It is critical and it is creative; it is experiential and experimental; it is scholarly and it is popular. It brings theory to life and life to theory. It plays with personal polemic, positing a speaking self in the act of writing “I,” and then, self-reflectively and self-reflexively, it deconstructs itself. Autotheory’s genealogies spring from the institutions it seeks to critique. It privileges thinking with over thinking against; its politics of citation unveil its relations. From social media technologies to the publishing industry, from live performance to visual art, autotheory’s escalating ubiquity in cultural production serves as a provocation: why autotheory and why now? What motivates the methodological melding of an autobiographical “I” with academic scholarship? What implications does theorizing the self have for the politics of knowledge production?
A digital companion to the special issue of ASAP/Journal, this cluster animates the autotheoretical intersections of art and art writing in time-based media. Transmedial in form and provocative by design, these works appear accompanied by autotheory’s telltale synthesis of critical-creative writing. The cluster includes film and video by Maider Fortune, Annie Macdonell, and Ree Botts; performance for the camera and documentation of live performances by Ceylan Öztürk, Calla Durose-Moya, lo bil, and Mel Keiser; web-based work, including memes, by Simon Evnine and Piper Curtis; other moving-images, including GIFs, by Migueltzinta C. Solis, and sound-based work by Arezu Salamzadeh. Off the page and on the screen, these autotheories invite as much as they imagine, contest as much as they contrive, and exude as much as they include.
— Lauren Fournier and Alex Brostoff
In this video, I perform a half serious, half ironic persona that represents myself during a moment of stasis in terms of my personal and professional goals. This is including but not limited to: 1. mental health, during a time without stable psychiatric supervision and frequent visits to the psychiatric emergency room; 2. career, working from job to job in the service industry; 3. living situation, going through a year of being homeless, getting kicked out of homes, and barely making rent; and 4. a general sense of meaning in my life, as a person with a French existentialist affectation. It’s an accurate depiction of how I felt about myself as a precarious worker having just moved to Toronto after leaving university in Peterborough. I was actually set to go straight into my Master’s of Library Information Science at Western, but due to an unfair five year restriction from loan funding imposed by the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), I could not return to academia.
I lost a sense of direction in my life, as I felt I had a clear understanding of what I was to pursue after my Bachelor’s degree that was suddenly swept away after the OSAP restriction, leaving school sucks is a very direct document of this precise moment of time when I was feeling this loss, in the middle of working precarious jobs and living in precarious housing situations.
Similar to my past performance-for-camera work, the way I approached making this video was by writing a script that draws a lot from more academic foundational texts and injecting my own sense of personality and lived experience into the text. I wrote this particular script as an essay in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that the only real skill I learned from higher education was simply writing exegetical academic essays and précis. I wanted to demonstrate that I’ve learned, by living in the real world of labour designated for kids with BAs in humanities, that these skills are rendered completely useless. But without creating an artistic piece with these skills, I felt like I was mostly and realistically like screaming into the void.
At the beginning of the video, I preface that this is, “a personal/academic essay about the precarity of labour, ways I’ve learned to perform, and living up to being an ‘independent woman’”. I drew from de Beauvoir’s independent woman trope in The Second Sex, Sartre’s concept of bad faith in Being and Nothingness, Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Mulvey’s response on the concept of the gaze, and most importantly, Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism in Das Kapital in order to argue that my lived experience after leaving school was an existential and exploitative nightmare. I found that my thesis was especially grounded through using de Beauvoir’s writing about the ‘independent woman’ at 11min50sec. Here, I define the concept as it ‘directly applies to me and the complex issues of my experience’ because de Beauvoir posits “It is through work that women have been able to close, to a large extent, the gaps separating her from the male. Work alone can guarantee her concrete freedom.”
I disclose after this quote that being an independent woman means ‘living on my own’ and how this freedom ‘requires having a proper job and my education affords me none of that.’ I further quote the writer who explains that there’s a risk to becoming an independent woman, as she may ‘settle for a mediocre success’ based on the fact of having a ‘superficial education.’ I go on to discuss de Beauvoir’s paradox of being independent yet being unfree due to economic exploitation, versus the potential of a happier life owed to a man, shattering the illusion of feminine independence. I relate these concepts to my personal experience, explaining that my pursuance of an independent, free existence is still impossibly trapped in a neoliberal capitalist context without hope for liberation.
In approaching my life towards achieving those goals I had in 2018 that I wrote about at the beginning of this piece of writing, and working for this over a long period of time, I was able to find a more stable lifestyle. With stable housing, healthcare, and better self-advocacy skills, I’ve been finding it easier to have the capacity to focus on caring for the world outside me, through mutual aid, plus collective work and organizing. In my work, I put an emphasis on Toronto youth harm reduction, working in tandem with local agencies, as well as housing rights, by doing ongoing frontline outreach work in my community of the Downtown East through the Encampment Support Network of Toronto.
With having exactly three years passed between the date of creating leaving school sucks, I can now take a look at this work in 2021, carefully remembering and sympathizing with my very real struggles as a younger person, freshly graduated from undergrad, and as someone feeling a lot more pissed off and victimized by the world than I am today. I think about this time, when I was hopelessly disappointed with what the world had to offer me at that point, and I tell my younger self that this disappointment was so valid. And today, I know that these resentful feelings from the past have been a motivator to realize my current place in the world more slowly and with more intention.
This is one of twelve contributions from the ASAP/J cluster of Transmedial Autotheories. Read the other pieces here.
Read the Autotheory special issue (6.2) of the print journal ASAP/Journal here.