By Lune Ames
May 15, 2021
Last July, a virtual sourdough workshop I took called Fermenting a Revolution led by new media artist Ashley Jane Lewis introduced me to writer, independent curator, and artist Lauren Fournier. Her fermentation-based writing and practice is part of Lewis’s bibliography, which constellates the alternative histories of Black and feminist resistance that have been passed down and retold via folkways, oral histories, and a covert culture of subversion-by-digestion.
In February, Fournier’s monograph Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (MIT Press) was published, and I snagged a copy with fermentation and the body in mind. Fournier situates autotheory as “a self-conscious way of engaging with theory—as a discourse, frame, or mode of thinking and practice—alongside lived experience and subjective embodiment,” especially in feminist, queer, and BIPOC spaces. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Fournier via Google Meet to discuss autotheory, fermentation, and the relationship, and space, between them.
The following transcription has been edited for clarity.
Lune Ames (Degree Critical): While you were at York University, you wrote about autotheory as your dissertation. How did you first hear about autotheory, or when was your first encounter with this term?
Lauren Fournier (LF): I knew I was interested in the relationships between writing and the body, and I had always been interested in feminist practice and experimentation. I found that a lot of the texts and writers I was gravitating toward were in a strange liminal space between literature, visual art, media art, film, and performance, so I was more or less gathering a bunch of observations. I didn’t really know where I was going with my final project. At one point I thought I would write about the history of literature and sex work by sex workers. Then, in 2015, I was doing my PhD comprehensive exams, and I was engaging with books for which there was no clear genre marker—texts that straddled different disciplinary and genre lines. I also saw the term autotheory crop up, and my curiosity was piqued. I’m pretty sure the first time I saw the word was on the book cover of The Argonauts, which is how a lot of folks first came to hear of it. This was a term I hadn’t heard before, but I had a feeling that it wasn’t actually new, that it had a longer history. After my comps, I was like, this is precisely my research question and this is what I want to answer: What is autotheory? What is its history? I decided to locate it specifically within a feminist cross-media history. The book is based on my dissertation, though substantially revised.
DC: There’s this trajectory with the post-1960s framing, where the book highlights figures like Adrian Piper, Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson…
LF: I don’t think anyone was positioning Adrian Piper’s work as autotheoretical until I wrote that chapter. The history that I’m writing is trying to be as inclusive, thorough, and rigorous, while locating it within a specific time and place and body, and with specific points of reference in my realm. I want to emphasize that this is one archive among many others that I’m sure can be written, theorized, and fleshed out. With the Adrian Piper reference, it was beautiful happenstance because I was doing research on the politics of narcissism and going back to [Sigmund] Freud and [Luce] Irigaray. I was in the British Library on a funded research trip and went to the Tate Modern on a break. The Performing for the Camera (2016) exhibition was on, and I spent a lot of time with Piper’s Food for the Spirit (1971). In that moment, I was like, “Holy shit, what’s a clearer view of autotheory than this?”
DC: In the book you describe this as a “critico-synchronistic happenstance,” which led to you to connect with Irigaray shortly after. I’m interested in these gut-based synchronistic moments that you include as part of the archive, like oral histories and embodied histories.
LF: And anecdotes, too. Newer historians like Jennifer Doyle, Amelia Jones, and Claudia Rankine are so grounded in the anecdote, and that’s the site for critical work.
DC: You’ve been working on this for six years now, so how do you think autotheory will show up in institutions going forward? How might you caution against or foresee people seeing this as canon, or engaging with this as a canonical text?
LF: You and I came to each other through fermentation, and in a perverse way I keep these parts of myself separate, even though it’s all part of my work. The impulse behind my ongoing project Fermenting Feminism is that it’s about preservation and transformation. If we ferment feminism, what do we keep or preserve from feminism’s histories, and what do we transform in light of present-day contexts, challenges, urgent needs, etc.? So, it’s maybe a matter of having a healthy skepticism toward canon-making. I don’t necessarily feel like I need to resist the creation of any kind of canon, but when I am teaching first-year art history courses, I’m teaching key, influential texts, while also troubling that as any kind of singular metanarrative. I want to always check the canon and consider whether or not it’s sufficiently inclusive and descriptive.
When it comes to, say, Indigenous approaches to autotheory, I’ve worked with artists like Thirza Cuthand quite a bit in a curatorial capacity, or Lindsay Nixon’s work through peers and shared communities, and even that research is at its early stage. I’m not necessarily the person who can or should do the work as far as an Indigenous history of autotheory, but there are so many threads that others can take up to theorize. Yes, this book does partake in canon-formation in some ways, but doing so in a way, I hope, that remains flexible.
DC: It’s a question of naming in general, I think, and must remain an ongoing conversation. What happens when you name something? Do you contain it, or does it open like a portal? It’s exciting to situate and keep accountable the conversation around autotheory, as you touch on in the book with Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera and other autotheoretical works that emerged from 20th-century conditions of racism, sexism, and classism way before the term began trending in the 2010s.
LF: This is where fermentation comes back in. Rather than being a genealogical line or even a rhizomatic history, autotheory really bubbles up as an impulse at different points in history, and this leads to the proliferation of these practices and the people who can be understood as working in this way. Since the first time I published on autotheory in 2016, a lot of people, primarily visual artists, curators, and critics, have said, “Oh my god, this is the term I need that describes what I’m doing.” What are the conditions of the urgencies and stakes for people writing in this way? I would be remiss to not emphasize that in the 1960s and 1970s, feminist women of color were writing from a place where the personal is political and the personal is philosophical, from a place of urgency. I’m thinking of Audre Lorde’s work on self-care as a survival strategy and her different conception of the self than we get, for example, with movements like sad girl theory and Tumblr theory. Not to disregard them as having no place, but to consider how this tendency bubbles up and what the stakes are for different people, if we approach autotheory intersectionally, and in light of the limits of time and resources one might have access to. What are the problems that autotheory is responding to?
The question of narcissism continues to be a fraught issue. I just finished teaching a grad course on autotheory and autofiction, and I showed the Christine Tien Wang vase [Narcissist (2019)] that’s in the book’s introduction and shared how she made it in response to David Pagel’s review. The class was divided, but the white male students, bless their hearts, agreed with the narcissism critique. The women and women of color did not agree, and my role was just being like, if you look at whose work is called narcissistic, it’s very rarely white men.
DC: You situate autotheory as post-memoir, and the MFA Art Writing Program at SVA studies many of the people you highlight in the book, but without the word autotheory. Before starting the program, I had been doing ekphrastic work, and I remember asking myself, “Is this memoir? Is that even the right word?”
LF: Did you have a story that you felt an urgency to write and tell?
DC: I only had an impulse. I grew up in Indiana and agricultural lore from almanacs began to surface in my grandparents’ stories right before I started the program. The ancestral synchronicity was this beautiful thing, and that land work is what drew me to fermentation. At the end of the book, you mention being drawn next to the land and place, which seems to follow your fermentation practice. I had the opposite thing happen, so I’d love to hear about that.
LF: I grew up similarly rural in Saskatchewan, so I’ve started to do my own place-based research. The land came into autotheory for me while thinking about how we’re embodied, but we’re also in a place and on a land. The politics of decolonization are very much part of these conversations in so-called Canada. My mentor, the Métis painter David Garneau, who I reference in the book and whose paintings conclude the book, led a round table at OBORO, an artist-run center in Montreal, where he asked us, “What is the land to which you have the most relation, and why?” As an Indigenous person, his point was that it’s inconceivable not to have a relationship with the land, and yet so many of us don’t think about place-ness. That was especially true in a pre-pandemic mode, which has shifted a bit. It’s more of a challenge and provocation to bring place into autotheory, which for me is largely through family histories, with my own personal archival materials of being raised as a white, working class settler in an evangelical Christian and uneducated context.
DC: In a way, the question of oral or written histories is not about what gets shared or passed on, as some kind of gossip, but is about what isn’t said. What isn’t said is really important. It goes into the margins. There’s an aspect of marginalia that I don’t really know how to talk about with oral histories, but certainly erasure is a word that does that.
LF: That’s such a good point about what’s unspoken, especially for intergenerational trauma. For settler families and colonizers, there’s so many different forms of intergenerational trauma that are obviously different than Indigenous or Black trauma. But there’s so much unsaid in that realm. With both family sides, there’s a lot of “not-sharing.” Being back on the prairies and theorizing about my family context, I was compelled by their desire not to be tethered to history. There’s almost a sense that we don’t think about history.
DC: It’s like, “We’re past that,” or the act of reminiscing is locked in a certain memory space. Then there are other things where it’s not even that they’re not thought about, but they just don’t come out of their mouths.
LF: Like a pre-utterance.
DC: What isn’t being said is still being felt. And that’s something to do with fermenting. Ashley Jane Lewis’s Fermenting a Revolution sourdough workshop taught how what’s in the air contaminates or gives life, depending on how you want to position it in the culture. One thing that excites me about autotheory is that it picks up on anecdotes cross-pollinating. Since I had been introduced to your work on fermentation, I was secretly hoping that there would be a chapter about that as an autotheoretical practice.
LF: In the last couple months, I’ve been getting a lot of queries about autotheory and curation, and I hadn’t really thought that through. It’s a good question. It goes back to my strange tendency to keep these parts of myself separate. Maybe it goes back to land, ecologies, and fermentation. I’ve been thinking about a book idea around fermentation. Do you know Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s work?
DC: Her show with Jesse Chun at DOOSAN Gallery [stain begins to absorb the material spilled on (2020)] was the last exhibition I saw before lockdown last year, though I didn’t know at the time that it would be the last thing I’d see in that era. Shin made this incredible mugwort scent that diffused from Korean onggi ceramics that are designed for fermentation. You recently wrote about Shin’s show at Recess.
LF: Right before the pandemic, Tiffany brought me out to Brooklyn and we collaborated on fermentation as harm reduction for the Microbial Speculation of Our Gut Feelings exhibition (2020) at Recess. I mention it because the piece I wrote for Cornelia is maybe the closest I’ve come to thinking about autotheory and fermentation, because I’m thinking about it in relation to the microbiome and the ideas of the self and identity.
Tiffany’s work would be a good example of autotheoretical practice of fermenting. She had a big greenhouse in the gallery and engaged the Korean natural farming technique JADAM by fermenting lactic acid. Then she injected it into the soil as a response to the statistic that immigrants lose a massive percent of their native gut bacteria within 6 to 9 months of arriving to the United States. This is an autotheoretical gesture using science and ecology as a way of manipulating the body.
DC: In the book, you discuss fluidity and the time-based nature of identities as it relates to autotheory. You quote the artist José Esteban Muñoz who describes how “queerness isn’t here yet” or is in the future, and I wondered if you could talk a bit about how this time-based nature allows autotheory to speculate into the future. What does autotheory afford us as terms change with society?
LF: The book theorizes autotheoretical texts and, on the other hand, theorizes the auto and theory as well. I’m asking about the parameters of the self or auto and wanting to resist the idea of fixity. For me, it’s about resisting the idea of discursive fashionability. From a theory and auto perspective, it’s part of the academic industrial complex and the treadmill of ideas about what’s hot or new, which then discards what came before. That’s where fermentation comes back in.
DC: The value of the no-discard method, as Ashley taught in the sourdough workshop.
LF: Exactly. I went to this artist talk that Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue gave. As two people who work autotheoretically, they gave this honest, vulnerable talk about the end of the lesbian as a category and their own status as lesbian feminists in their fifties. They’re very aware of their whiteness and respective privileges and have poured so much energy into inclusive queer feminist world-making. But I had a real pathos for them in that moment. What happens when the identity as you’ve known it ends, not necessarily for problematic reasons, though I do mention that in the book. Obviously, it’d be nice if there were no longer Nazis, where certain identities ceased to exist. But are we just disregarding “lesbian” for no longer being as fashionable as “nonbinary”? I say this as someone who identifies as nonbinary.
DC: For me, similarly with being nonbinary, I often think of how this term still centers the binary, and you mention that in the book. What sticks, what’s preserved, and is it okay that we’re working and teasing through things in order to air out some of it? To me it seems like there is this oxidizing or aeration that helps us imagine. Toward the end of one of the chapters, you ask, “How far does the self really go?” The inverse question is, “How close can the other get?” Collaboration is part of that blurry space. And you talk about how the stakes are really about responsibility, a collective responsibility for social transformation.
LF: It comes back to wanting to resist the teleological view of things and a kind of egoism suggesting that right now we’re more woke than those dumbasses in the 1970s. And maybe in some ways, sure, but I’ve also read incredible journals and writing from that period that aspire to antiracism.
DC: It’s easier to point out what isn’t there, or what isn’t or wasn’t popular. There’s so much that future generations will be able to say about what’s going on now.
LF: I want to jump back to the question of where does my “self” end and your “self” begin because in the pandemic era that has taken on a whole new valence. Where my story ends and yours begins is about what do I have a right to tell or not. As embodied beings in our current moment, we’re very much aware of where my microbiome ends and yours begins, with the language of droplets. It’s all showing that we’re always already in access to ourselves.
DC: There’s this interspecies gossip that’s going on inside the gut, though maybe not for you and me right now since we’re more so connected via photons or whatever kind of light happenings in this particular conversation. But what are we being “told” through different modes of connection before we even realize it? This makes me interested in the misuse or abuse of power, which you cover in the book. I’m thinking about your talk of abusive power in feminism, where there’s an informal power of feminists rallying around someone who’s accused of abuse. This informal power acts as an authority, but it’s not institutional. There is an ethical question of power that you’re holding space for.
LF: I’m glad that came through. In those sections of the book, which are the thorniest or most fraught, and the ones that, following the pandemic moment, I would have tonally taken a slightly different approach, since I finished the book in 2019. I’m teasing autotheory as feminism to show generational divides around #MeToo politics and the kind of internal divisions in present-day feminist communities, where metanarratives form without reflection or critique. I was pretty nervous to write about the Maggie Nelson critique, but I really wanted it in there to emphasize what this theory can do at the end of the day. Is this a different kind of space where we’re asking the bigger philosophical questions? Because at the book talk that I attended, that’s not what was happening. It felt like we’re all here to get our copies of The Argonauts signed. I know I’m being a bit cynical or glib, but, in that moment, I realized I have higher aspirations and hopes for what a self-reflective ethical, politically-engaged, rigorous feminist space can and should be. Maggie Nelson’s approach was very grounded in the kind of rhetorical approaches of a philosopher, which struck me because that wasn’t something I was accustomed to seeing very often.
All those things came to converge in the book, and then social media enters in as a sort of decontextualizing or recontextualizing of space. At the core of the book, I see there being an ethical thrust or hope within autotheoretical turn. It did come up when I was doing my dissertation. Is autotheory an ethical or moral mode? Maybe it isn’t. That was something my supervisors put out to me, so I started to think about the aesthetics, politics, and ethics because as far as practice goes, that felt like an important puzzle piece. I should put out there, too, that part of theory or philosophy becomes some sort of fetish object. Is it just about getting copies of The Argonauts and feel like an intelligent person, or is it part of a critical work?
DC: There is this tension with how writers and artists deal with the inevitable fetishizing of the work when it’s out there. In an interview that Chris Kraus did with Jarrett Earnest for What It Means to Write About Art (2018), she describes trying to duck her character that lives in the world but that is perceived—
LF: —As the monster that she’s created.
DC: She says, “I need to live without being locked into that image. Images are antithetical to the present, and what writing does is give you the present.” I was thinking about that in relation to your book’s discussion of the “Bataille Boys,” Kraus’s name in I Love Dick (1997) for the fanboy cult following of her then-husband and culture critic Sylvère Lotringer.
LF: The beautiful thing about that moment in I Love Dick is that it draws attention to the fact that there is power in the formation of those cliques, niches, or scenes, which now may seem sort of obvious or laughable. But in 1997, when all those were very much dude-oriented, Kraus draws attention to that. Power forms in a space without them even being aware that it is a form of power, and I guess that’s the key. Her whole critique of French poststructuralism, whether it’s Guattari or Bataille, is that there is this certain form of power that is enacted through this work and the social scenes that surround the work.
DC: And the assumptions about that. The assumptions are not even engaging the marginal, or what it’s marginalizing.
LF: I’ve spent probably way too much time thinking about Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick admittedly, but the thing with the Bataille Boys is that it’s not just a joke. It’s thinking about what Bataille’s work actually represents. If you read Erotism, his conception of transgression is so impossible to reconcile with the idea of cliques, scenes, or commodified objects. The term itself is this characteristic irony. It gets at this problem of whether or not people are actually reading. There’s one artist in the book, who I won’t name, but was making autotheory without actually reading any of the theory. That’s so dark. It’s about signaling rather than self-branding.
DC: With what’s being asked of students in the arts, there’s this heavy theory push, and this is what that’s creating. Your forthcoming novella through Fiction Advocate parallels I Love Dick. Isn’t that coming out in a few months?
LF: It should be by the end of the year. The Bataille Boys are reconfigured as the Barista Boys.
Lune Ames is a writer based in New Jersey and the Managing Editor of Degree Critical.