What is Jane Tompkins saying in "Me and My Shadows"? 

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In short, the theme is to mix personal concerns with professional contexts. Jane shows how objective criticism is elitist, exclusionary to women, impersonal and, (this is my interpretation) practically and humanly speaking; pointless. So, Jane advocates a more personal approach to theory and criticism with good justification.

Jane discusses the two people (same person) of writing: 1)  impersonal, objective, scientific is the critical writer; and the personal, subjective writer.  She suggests that the typical critical writer academically insulates her discourse from feminist theory.  In other words, the increasing trend in objective, highly impersonal, academic (and elitist) discourse rids itself of real human concerns; namely, feminism. Jane would like to include “private” (personal) concerns with the so-called transcendent “public” concerns of academic discourse. She notes that this public-private hierarchy has been a root of female oppression. (Man goes to work in public; female stays home in private.) Women have been historically conditioned to stay at home; academics have been conditioned to keep personal emotions at home because it is weak and illogical. Men have been conditioned to put aside emotion and women to embrace it. Thus, academic discourse is for men and emotion is taboo. Jane says “to hell with that.” She also says, “No wonder I felt so uncomfortable in academic postures” – like wearing men’s jeans. The very practice of academic criticism is exclusionary to women. To bring emotion into academic criticism is to risk being ignored because emotion is not encouraged. Jane would say “to hell with this.”

Jane’s disagreement with Ellen Messer-Davidow: Post-structuralism shows all truth to be subjective to cultural construction, perception, etc. Jane agrees with this. But she disagrees with trying to get away from this subjective interpretation of the objective world (which post-structuralism describes) because it is impossible. (If all truth is subjectively obtained, how could one move to an objective epistemology? Ellen, from a post-structural context, says, “truth is subjective; let’s be more objective.” This is ridiculous.

(The very idea of moving to a more objective epistemology, Ellen’s idea – to make epistemology more logical and objective, is a culturally reinforced idea, a subjective idea, which states that good philosophy is not subjective, not emotional. This brings us back to Jane’s main theme; such cultural reinforcement is 1) culturally reinforce and thereby, subjective!, and 2) exclusionary to women because of the whole “subjectivity and emotion are unprofessional” thing.

Jane notes that she doesn’t know how to make this argument without sounding smug. Maybe Jane would say this kind of debate and this kind of objective criticism, male-dominated, impossible and elitist, “insists upon itself,” exists only for itself, to continue its own elitist debate. (p. griffin).

So, a move to more objective epistemology is impossible; you can’t not think like yourself – you can't not be a subjective human. You can’t “get behind” or beyond “your shadow.” So, maybe a critic could think with their shadow; with emotion and personability.

Jane talks about academic discourse with personal touches, in spite of the intellectual condemnation of pop psychology and sentimentality. "Real critics" are discouraged from using words like "love." Jane says, Literary theory must matter to people and READERS; not just to literary theory/theorists.


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Me and My Shadows

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