I think, therefore I theorise: An introduction to first-person academia in feminist and queer literature

By Caiti Galwey, Queer Portfolio co-director 

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

MLS lecturer and Torts royalty, Brad Jessup, facilitates a book club, Queer Reading of the Law, which meets several times a semester to “explore queer, sexuality, desire, feminist and intersectional politics and theories in the law.” The texts assigned last semester (a chapter from ‘Covering’ and Danish Sheikh’s article) seemed perfectly paired. Both looked to themes of marginalisation, intersectionality, racial sensitivity and the cultural nuances in the queer experience. Notably, the texts also frequently used recitations of the author’s personal experiences from a first-person perspective. 

A question was posed to the reading group: was this necessary? Did the authors of the individual pieces need to bare their souls in constructing their arguments? Did it add to the texts? Did it detract from them?

I became curious about where first-person academia originated, how it’s employed and why it endures. This piece seeks to provide some surface-level insight into these questions

Where does first-person academia originate?

The better question is, why did first-person academia stop being the norm? As positivists started setting objectivity as the standard, academic voice was repressed to detach authors’ subjective experiences from their work. Prior to this change, academic voice had pervaded historically. Many of the greatest philosophers, from Zhuang Zi to Plato, wrote in first-person and wove subjectivity into their literature and theorisations on perception and the human experience.1 

The rise of feminist literature took a contrary position on objectivity. From the feminist perspective, “voice is a socially constructed concept that cannot be separated from the experiences, emotions and identity of the writer”.2 After all, an author’s work is inherently a reflection of themselves, and academic voice merely makes this explicitly known to the reader. Authors who operate under the guise of objectivity arguably fail to interrogate their own biases.

Why is it employed mostly in feminist and queer theory?

Feminist and queer theories often rely as much on personal experience as they do on statistics and analytical facts. The notion of the self as an authority gained popularity in feminist literature in particular. The “consciousness-sharing” that took place in 1970s feminism led to the reconceptualisation, questioning and challenging of traditionally objective notions; women realised that their individual experiences were part of larger societal patterns.3 As such, the weaving of personal experiences into pieces of critical thought and academic critique became essential in the fight against these patterns. 

The inclusion of personal narrative into legal theory is most commonly justified in in the following way.4 There is the belief that legal theory is penurious; it is based upon the experience of dominant groups who have traditionally had the power and the privilege to dictate this field of academia. The theory follows that the present legal landscape can only be improved if those outside such dominant groups publicise their experiences. 

Queer theory, for example, often uses academic voice to speak to experiences non-queer readers may not be able to imagine or comprehend otherwise. Arguably, the law, in particular, is based on “pre-understandings” or stereotypes. In this way, speaking to personal experience forms an effective method of combating these institutions.5 By extension, academic voice provides insight into the practical ramifications of being queer, and the unique experience queer people have with constructs such as the legal system. Arguably, it is an instance of forced empathy so that people from “dominant” groups can step into the authors’ shoes and hear voices that have traditionally been suppressed. 

An exploration into academic voice would not be complete without acknowledging the importance of life-writing and testimony in contemporary cultural theory, particularly as it is seen in Aboriginal testimonial life-writing. It is theorised that testimonial literature has both political and therapeutic dimensions in relation to the reclamation of Aboriginal identity.6 It can be both a form of “resistance” and a form of working through trauma. Aboriginal academia, particularly articles that write to a white audience, employs testimony and story in an effort to deconstruct colonial mindsets and enlighten readers to the significant connection to land that Indigenous Australians hold. These are only examples, and this area is growing, so I would encourage readers to look further into this. 

How, then, does academic voice benefit examinations of the law?

In a literal legal context, narrativity is a technique the advocate employs as trials function through “the framework of storytelling”.7 The utilisation of voice is instrumental in bringing nuance and insight to the usual objectivity seen in the many fields of academia. However, when it comes to the formation and implementation of law, objectivity still sits highest on the hierarchy of evidentiary bases. 

As the feminist approach argues, how can one be truly objective? Even judges, when applying the law, do so in accordance with their interpretation of the law, which is intrinsically linked to their personal experience and self. In many cases, the law benefits from the integration of the personal with the practical. The law, after all, has effects peculiar to individuals, and the amplification of personal experience has resulted in reform and progress throughout history. 

There are many arguments raised against narrative legal scholarship.8 There are arguments raised against the inclusion of sexuality and gender in first-person academia more specifically.9  I will not be going into more detail than that, as these are vast areas of discourse, but I encourage you to look into them further if you’re interested. 

Ultimately, academic voice serves to assert the writer as occupying a particular space in society and uses their position as a lens through which to analyse, critique and deconstruct other legal issues. Academic voice is an ever-changing concept that reflects modern theories and the unique experiences of particular demographics. Academic voice helps authors challenge normality and have their voices heard. 

Queer Reading of The Law is back! Join MULSS Queer as we watch The Archivettes, a critically-acclaimed 1-hour documentary about the Lesbian History Archives that is almost drowning in awards. Then, at lunchtime Monday, August 30th, join Dr Brad Jessup will be discussing the film in the Queer Reading of the Law Group!!

  1. Robson, R., 1996. Beginning from (My) Experience: The Paradoxes of Lesbian/Queer Narrativites. Hastings LJ, 48, p.1387.
  2. Mitchell, K.M., 2017. Academic voice: On feminism, presence, and objectivity in writing. Nursing inquiry, 24(4), p.e12200.
  3. Grant, J., 2013. Fundamental feminism: Contesting the core concepts of feminist theory. Routledge.
  4. Robson, R., 1996. Beginning from (My) Experience: The Paradoxes of Lesbian/Queer Narrativites. Hastings LJ, 48, p.1387 (‘Beginning’)
  5. Fajer, M.A., 1991. Can Two Real Men Eat Quiche Together-Storytelling, Gender-Role Stereotypes, and Legal Protection for Lesbians and Gay Men. U. Miami L. Rev., 46, p.511.
  6. Gibbons, S.R., 2005. Aboriginal testimonial life-writing and contemporary cultural theory. Diss. U of Queensland, Godard, B.
  7. Ferguson, R.A., 2008. Untold stories in the law. In Law’s Stories (pp. 84-98). Yale University Press.
  8. The accuracy argument, the representative argument, the special voice argument, the non-objective argument, and the evaluative argument are all examples. Robson, Ruthann, Beginning, n 4.
  9. Sholock, A., 2007. Queer Theory in the First Person Academic Autobiography and the Authoritative Contingencies of Visibility. Cultural Critique, pp.127-152.

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