Monash University
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This someone: on uniqueness and self-writing

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posted on 2017-02-23, 00:46 authored by Meenahan, Samuel
In this dissertation, staging an encounter between the philosophy of unique selfhood proposed by the Italian sexual difference feminist, Adriana Cavarero, and currently predominant Anglo-American theories of subjectivity, I claim a model of selfhood in which self-writing makes what is general about socially- and discursively-constituted identity unique and material. I ground a critique of Cavarero’s development of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between the who and the what of the self through analysis of several self-writings or ‘autographies’, a term H. Porter Abbott advances in order to accommodate readers’ responses to the narrative action that is peculiar to the formal variety of autobiography. Through my discussion of Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, Fausta Cialente’s Le quattro ragazze Wieselberger, Gabriella Ghermandi’s Regina di fiori e di perle, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Joan Didion’s Magical Thinking, Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo, Brett Shapiro’s L’intruso, and Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man – I claim the significance of reading the who-ness of what-ness, the ways in which selves invest themselves in socially determined categories of identity, uniquely. For Cavarero, ‘postmodernism’ recuperates the metaphysical universalism it criticises by privileging the general ways in which a decentred subject is constituted by her/his membership of shared identity determinants: by what s/he is. Cavarero argues that ‘postmodern’ preference for, and over-determination of, what-ness negates the uniqueness of the self, who s/he is, for who-ness designates what is unrepeatable about the self, what escapes the generality of what-ness. My being Australian, white, gay, middle-class, tertiary-educated, etc. is, for Cavarero, an inventory of things I share with other people, an enumeration of what is general about me. None of these identities is reducible to me, however; none of them, because they can describe many people generally, accounts for my uniqueness. Cavarero’s claim to a philosophy that avoids generality of this kind offers an ontology in which the self is necessarily, dependently, related to others by her/his ‘appearance’ before them, and, importantly, by an altruistic ethic that structures the shared narration of life-stories, the narration of the self by the other. Hers is an invaluable provocation, indebted to the history of il pensiero della differenza sessuale [sexual difference thought] to think the self beyond socially general categories of identity. It is a philosophy that privileges the particularity of the self’s difference, through narration. I argue over the course of my dissertation, however, that Cavarero ignores the unique ways in which selves make particular what she argues is only ever general, irreducible, about them. I claim that Cavarero’s deprioritisation of the what of the self in favour of the who of the self, as well as the autobiographical in favour of the biographical, fails to recognise the significance of ways in which minority identities are invested in their what-ness and its representation and reception; for not having to account for oneself, for one’s what-ness, is a privilege enjoyed only, perhaps, by selves related to what is ideologically of the ‘majority’. Through the questions posed by the texts I discuss, questions of sexual difference and motherhood, ethnicity and belonging, trauma and memory, illness, and sexuality, I formulate a model of selfhood that bridges the who-ness Cavarero so importantly demands philosophical recognition of, and the what-ness she accuses ‘postmodern’ theories of over-determining. I emphasise the common ground between a philosophy rooted in the philosophical practice of il pensiero della differenza sessuale and the fragmented identity of ‘postmodernism’ in order to deepen Cavarero’s provocation to think the uniqueness of the self.


Principal supervisor

Christopher Worth

Additional supervisor 1

Susanna Scarparo

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics / Program for Literary and Cultural Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Arts

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