'The Full Monty':

Academics, Identity and the 'Personal Mode'

1The 'scholarly striptease', particularly as it is manifested in the United States, has attracted an increasing number of participants during the past decade. Unbeknownst to many, some academics have been getting their gear off in public; that is, publicly and provocatively showcasing their identities in order to promote their politics. While you might imagine that confessions about sexual orientation, ethnicity and pet hates could only serve to undermine academic authority, some American feminists -- and a small number of their male colleagues -- have nevertheless attempted to enhance their authority with such racy revelations.

2Nancy Miller's admission of a strained relationship with her father (Miller 143-147), or Jane Gallop's homage to the three 36-year-old men she had affairs with (Gallop 41), might make interesting reading for the academic voyeur (or the psychoanalyst), but what is their purpose beyond spectacle? The cynic might argue that self-promotion and intellectual celebrity or notoriety are the motivators -- and certainly he or she would have a point -- but within such performances of identity, and the metacriticism that clings to them, other reasons are cited. Apparently it is all to do with identity politics, that is, the use of your personal experience as the basis of your political stance. But while experience and the personal (remember "the personal is the political"?) have been important categories in feminist writing, the identity of the intellectual in academic discourse has traditionally been masked by a requisite objectivity.

3In a very real sense the foregrounding of academic identity by American feminists and those other brave souls who see fit to expose themselves, is a rejection of objectivity as the basis of intellectual authority. In the past, and also contemporaneously, intellectuals have gained and retained authority by subsuming their identity and their biases, and assuming an "objective" position. This new bid for authority, on the other hand, is based on a revelation of identity and biases. An example is Adrienne Rich's confession: "I have been for ten years a very public and visible lesbian. I have been identified as a lesbian in print both by myself and others" (Rich 199). This admission, which is not without risk, reveals possible biases and blindspots, but also allows Rich to speak with an authority which is grounded in experience of, and knowledge about lesbianism.

4 Beyond the epistemological rejection of objectivity there appear to be other reasons for exposing one's "I", and its particular foibles, in scholarly writing. Some of these reasons may be considered a little more altruistic than others. For example, some intellectuals have used this practice, also known as "the personal mode", in a radical attempt to mark their culturally or critically marginal subjectivities. By straddling their vantage points within the marginalised subjectivity with which they identify, and their position in academia, these people can make visible the inequities they, and others like them, experience. Such performances are instances of both identity politics at work and the intellectual as activist.

5 On the other hand, while this politically motivated use of "the personal mode" clearly has merit, cultural critics such as Elspeth Probyn have reminded us that in some cases the risks entailed by self-exposition are minimal (141), and that the discursive striptease is often little more than a vehicle for self-promotion. Certainly there is something of the tabloid in some of this writing, and even a tentative linking of the concepts of "academic" and "celebrity" -- Camille Paglia being the obvious example. While Paglia is among the few academics who are public celebrities, there are plenty of intellectuals who are famous within the academic community. It is often these people who can expose aspects of their identity without risking tenure, and it is often these same individuals who choose to confess what they had for breakfast, rather than their links with or concerns for something like a minority.

6 For some, the advent of "the personal mode" particularly when it appears to contain a bid for academic or public fame signifies the denigration of academic discourse, its slow decline into journalistic gossip and ruin. For others, it is a truly political act allowing the participant to combine their roles as intellectual and activist. For me, it is a critical practice that fascinates and demands consideration in all its incarnations: as a bid for a new basis for academic authority, as a political act, and as a vehicle for self-promotion and fame.