Thinking Through the (M)other: Reading Women's Memoirs of Learning
Harrison, Mary Joyce
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In this dissertation I examine the dilemma that for a girl to become a separate and thinking self she must at once identify with and repudiate her mother. Reading closely psychoanalytic theories of learning, language, gender, and subjectivity, I demonstrate that a girl’s capacity to think and symbolize begins in an infantile and conflicted relation to her mother. I inquire into how this dilemma complicates the affective stakes of the intellectual life for women, arguing that this conflict at the origin of thinking and symbolization puts the intellectual woman at risk of estrangement from her own gendered identifications. To study the dimensions of this problem, and to consider how it haunts the conflicts women confront in their work in the university, I examine academic women’s memoirs published in and around the “Memoir Boom” of the 1990s (Gilmore, 2001; Miller, 1997). I employ psychoanalytic and symptomatic reading to notice how each memoir I’ve chosen tells a story about the ambivalence at the heart of a woman’s commitment to a life of the mind (Britzman, 2009; Gallop, 1992). Psychoanalytic theories of matricide, reparation, and entrance into language organize my readings of the memoirs. I argue that the memoirs both describe and enact the academic woman’s gendered dilemma, the paradox of identification and repudiation that structures a woman’s capacity to think, read, and write. With this study I contribute to feminist conversations about women in higher education by insisting that the vicissitudes of the inner life affect women’s sense of belonging and ‘at-home-ness’ in the academy. I argue that since the capacity to think is haunted by the first conflict that the mother’s otherness poses for the self, women – including, or even especially, feminist scholars – cannot solve the problem of conflict through thinking. Instead, we must examine how the conflicts originating in the inner life organize our objects of intellectual inquiry. To demonstrate this point, I consider how my own subjective history of aggression and gratitude inform the dissertation itself.