There are two schools of thought about the “autobiographical” content of research and writing, or, put differently, two ways of thinking about the distance a scholar or writer should have from the subjects she is writing about. Both of these perspectives have to do with what we think objectivity in scholarship should look like, what it means “to know” something, and what it is that’s worth knowing.
The first perspective is voiced by feminist theorist Inderpal Grewal in the foreword to her canonical work on global American culture and the South Asian diaspora, Transnational America (2005): “[B]ecause there are communities to care about, there is something I care to write about.” For Grewal, her experience with Narika, the Bay Area-based organization that supports victims of domestic violence, exploitation, and trafficking, is as significant for her academic work as her training in literary criticism and cultural theory. Like many other practitioners of what are sometimes called “Identity Studies” (including Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies), Grewal is keenly attuned to the way that our lives shape our standpoint on the world and the posture we assume when engaging in scholarly labor. Working through how “who” we are inflects “what” we study can be a knowledge project in its own right.
Then there is the second viewpoint, i.e., that there can be no true scholarship without distance from one’s objects and that we should each pursue research on things we (at first) know nothing about, for that is the nature of the scholarly enterprise: to discover the unknown, not to recover, re-encounter, and rehash the known quantities of one’s life. My cousin Kanishk has his creative writing students spin a globe, land somewhere, then write about and from it. If it’s a fishing outpost in Iceland and the student is from Queens, all the better. Writing is a journey from non-knowledge into knowledge, from absence to creation, so why limit yourself to your own world as the model for an imagined one or as the object for sustained inquiry—whether sociological, anthropological, philosophical, or literary?
I’m overstating these positions a bit, and conflating scholarship in general with writing in particular, but my point is to draw a distinction between how we choose our objects (what we study) and how they in turn define us (who we are as scholars). I would argue that most writers’ and scholars’ lives and worlds bleed into their work whether they are penning confessional essays or studying algae. The difference is that the memoirist’s identity-driven claims are on the surface, while the biologist gets to duck behind the bulwark of the scientific method.
There are other issues at work, of course. In the decades since the culture wars and the opening of the canon, there has been a tacit, troubling “division of labor” in the humanities in which African Americans often end up in African American Studies, women conduct Women’s Studies, Indians write post-colonial literary criticism, and the immigrants are left to defend Ethnic Studies from the likes of Arizona’s HB-2281. In other words, studying our “own” previously underrepresented communities has led to a kind of self-segregation that may have reinforced instead of combated the unequal valuation of culturally specific knowledge in the university.
I knew all this before I started my Ph.D. in Rhetoric—was determined, for example, not to write about Jhumpa Lahiri or V.S. Naipaul, not to end up studying the Indian Anglophone novel, not to mine my life for content—so how did I end up in a scholarly domain so closely tied to the contours of my own life experience? When did I become an Indian writing on India, Indians, Indian Americans, and Indian English? Am I unconsciously making a claim to authenticity, of an ability to know something about my objects that other scholars can’t? Is this a problem of authority that I have to work through in order to find my authorial voice? Has my research become a kind of catharsis? Is my dissertation going to be one big intertextual “selfie?”
I recently read my friend, anthropologist John L. Jackson, Jr.’s, Thin Description(2014), a brilliant monograph about the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (AHIJ), which is equally about the construction of identities through the assemblage of archives and the desire for knowledge of both the self and the other.
While I was reading John’s book, I kept wondering if I could have been an anthropologist, could have picked some people someplace to live with, talk to, write about … in other words, to study. Would I have had the courage like John to follow the provocations of a man on a subway all the way from Brooklyn, New York to Dimona, Israel? Could I have been an Indian studying someone or something other than India?
But then I reread parts of the book, heard John tell of his “Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing and its reverence for the Sabbath,” his childhood in a neighborhood populated by Jews, his friends teaching him Hebrew as they prepared for their own Bar Mitzvahs. None of these were reasons he ended up writing a book about the AHIJ community, but he acknowledged these biographical fragments as serendipitous parts of his scholarly prehistory.
It’s not always clear why we feel the call of certain objects, the pull to tell this particular story or another. Is the call any less worth answering if it issues from a place that looks like home?
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.