On being my own research subject

By | August 29, 2019

Guest post by Angelika Bammer

Born After

My undergraduate students still regularly ask me if it’s ok to use “I” in their essays. When I assure them that it’s not just ok, but a way of acknowledging their own stakes in their argument or the questions they set out to explore, it’s like giving thirsty hikers water. The relief is palpable. They proceed with more energy, more confidence, more joy.

But when I decided to adapt the same principle to my own work and include myself as a subject in my own scholarship, the response was decidedly more ambivalent. What I was proposing, an offended colleague sniffed, was “unprofessional and self-indulgent.” It was no longer legitimate scholarship. It was too personal.

Yet, the book I wanted to write was personal. It was about the ways in which the past we inherit from the families, communities, and cultures we are born into frame the world in which our sense of self is shaped, in which we understand what it means to be a human in history. For me, these weren’t abstract issues. Born to German parents in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi years, I had always felt the presence of a past that I hadn’t actually known, because I hadn’t experienced it myself. I had inherited it from the previous generation. What we do with such a past—ethically, politically, emotionally—had become the question I always carried with me, to my scholarship, my teaching, my personal life. How do we remember things that we didn’t ourselves experience? How do we own a past that wasn’t, strictly speaking, ours? How do we unshackle the future from the resentments and shame of unresolved histories? These questions took me far afield, past my institutional home in literary studies to the neighboring fields of philosophy, history, and psychoanalysis all the way to neuroscience and the vagaries of memory. But no matter where I went, the path led through my family history: my parents who met in the course of World War II, when my father was a soldier in Hitler’s Wehrmacht and my mother a Westfalian schoolgirl; my grandparents, three of whom were members of the Nazi party; and my children, born in America in 1985, yet still called Nazis because of their German mother.

Including this personal history in a scholarly inquiry into the enduring presence of the past seemed not only justified, but warranted. I took my cue, among other instances, from the German-Jewish philosopher and social theorist, T.W. Adorno. In 1966, addressing both the generation of Germans that had lived through the Nazi years and the generation (mine) that had come of age in their aftermath, he advocated for the importance of a personal approach. For those who bore the burden of guilt for the Nazi genocide, whether as perpetrators or their descendants, “Education after Auschwitz,” as he titled his radio address, should take the form of “critical self-reflection” (kritische Selbstreflexion).

My own academic formation in feminist theory and practice reinforced the form of approach that Adorno proposed. Arguing that our lived experience as women was a source of meaningful knowledge about women, feminists had included attention to what we called “the personal” in our analytical toolkit, as part of the evidence undergirding our argument. So, with Adorno’s essay as my point of departure and feminist practice as my guide, I started writing the book that became Born After.

There were times when the accusation of “unprofessional and self-indulgent” crept through my mind, turning the specters of self-doubt into full-on anxiety. The countless revisions, the multiple drafts, the rearranged and discarded chapters that preceded my ability to say, this book is done, evidence the challenge that the accusation presented.

But in the end, I prevailed. I wrote the book I had wanted to write: a personal narrative that tested the principle of memory work and presented a scholarly inquiry into the transmutation of historical memory across generations. And as I measured it against the professional standards of my field, I realized that including the personal had not detracted, but added an additional level of rigor to the work. For it not only had to be accurate factually, persuasive intellectually, and logical analytically. It had to be honest emotionally as well. And that is a dimension of rigor that conventional scholarship unfortunately all too seldom lacks.


Born After

Angelika Bammer is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Emory University, USA. She is the author of Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970s (revised edition, 2015; 1st edition, 1991), and the editor of The Future of Scholarly Writing: Critical Interventions (2015) and Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question (1994). Her book Born After: Reckoning with the German Past is now available from Bloomsbury.

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