The Wind in the Wallows: Literary Theory, Autobiographical Criticism and Subjective Personal Introspection

Stephen Brown, University of Ulster
ABSTRACT - In recent years, consumer research has been enlivened by the advent of perspectives drawn from the humanities in general and literary theory in particular. This paper introduces a comparatively recent development in contemporary literary theory-autobiographical criticism-and notes its relevance to the on-going debate surrounding 'subjective personal introspection’, a controversial technique espoused by several leading consumer researchers. The paper contends that, instead of trying to establish its 'scientific’ credentials, the champions of subjective personal introspection might be better served by considering the procedure’s predominantly aesthetic character. Just because introspection fails to meet the formal criteria for scientific acceptability, does not mean that the technique is uninsightful.
[ to cite ]:
Stephen Brown (1998) ,"The Wind in the Wallows: Literary Theory, Autobiographical Criticism and Subjective Personal Introspection", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 25-30.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 25-30


Stephen Brown, University of Ulster


In recent years, consumer research has been enlivened by the advent of perspectives drawn from the humanities in general and literary theory in particular. This paper introduces a comparatively recent development in contemporary literary theory-autobiographical criticism-and notes its relevance to the on-going debate surrounding 'subjective personal introspection’, a controversial technique espoused by several leading consumer researchers. The paper contends that, instead of trying to establish its 'scientific’ credentials, the champions of subjective personal introspection might be better served by considering the procedure’s predominantly aesthetic character. Just because introspection fails to meet the formal criteria for scientific acceptability, does not mean that the technique is uninsightful.


In recent years, consumer research has been enlivened, some would say revolutionized, by the emergence of perspectives predicated upon the liberal arts in general and literary theory in particular. Thanks to the pioneering endeavors of Belk, Hirschman, Holbrook, Scott and Stern amongst others, it is now widely acknowledged that significant insights into marketing and consumption phenomena can be obtained by means of the tools and techniques of literary criticism. Substantial though these achievements have been, however, there remains ample scope for additional research activity. As a long-established, exceptionally rich and remarkably disparate academic discipline, Literary Studies is literally replete with theoretical approaches and schools of thought tha have not, as yet, been brought to the attention of the consumer research community.

The objective of the present paper is to contribute to the burgeoning conversation between lit-crit. and consumption by introducing a comparatively recent development in contemporary literary theory-autobiographical criticism-and noting its implications for the controversial subjective personal introspection technique espoused by several prominent consumer researchers. The paper commences with a necessarily truncated summary of the literary literature in consumer behavior; continues with a consideration of the character, and academic context, of autobiographical criticism; culminates in an synopsis of the heated debate surrounding subjective personal introspection; and concludes with an attempt to draw some lessons from the autobiographical turn that is apparent among post-postmodern literary theorists. This paper, it must be emphasized, does not seek to offer the last word on introspection, merely the first and admittedly hesitant word on the relationship between autobiographical criticism and consumer research.


It is now over a decade since Russell Belk (1986: 25) suggested 'one can learn more...from a reasonably good novel than from a "solid" piece of social science research’ and in that time copious lit-crit analyses of marketing and consumer phenomena have been conducted. At the risk of oversimplifying an intricate and mutli-faceted subfield of scholarship, this body of published research can be divided into two broad categories: marketing in literature and literature in marketing. The former, as its appellation implies, involves analyses of the marketing artifacts portrayed in works of high- and low-brow literature (e.g. Belk 1986; Friedman 1991; Holbrook and Hirschman 1993; McCreery 1995; Spiggle 1986), whereas the latter essentially applies the tools and techniques of literary criticism to marketplace phenomena, advertising and promotion in particular (e.g. Levy 1981, 1994; Scott 1992, 1994a, b; Stern 1988, 1989, 1995).

Despite the undoubted achievements of the marketing literati, it is not unreasonable to suggest that much work remains to be done. As the merest fraction of the western literary canon has been culled by consumer researchers hitherto-world literature, in fact, is almost totally untouched-there are ample opportunities to extend the marketing in literature perspective (Sherry 1991, 1995). The apparatus of literary criticism, what is more, has yet to be extensively applied outside the advertising arena, though some encouraging investigations are in train. Hence, the future of literature in marketing looks bright (Brown 1995, 1997).

Another possibility involves extending the repertoire of consumer research by examining schools of literary theory that have been overlooked thus far. Although many of the most illuminating lit-crit positions have already been highlighted-New Criticism, Structuralism, Marxist, Feminist, Psychoanalytical, Myth-crit, Reception Theory, Deconstruction, Narratology et alia-many more remain hidden in the scholarly shadows. This dark continent of literary theory includes such prominent latter-day positions as New Historicism, Post-colonialism, the highly influential 'dialogism’ of the Bakhtin Circle and what has come to be known as 'autobiographical criticism’.


Compared to some contemporary schools of literary theory, autobiographical criticism is astonishingly straightforward-the terminology almost says it all (Freedman et al 1993; Olson 1994; Simpson 1995; Veeser 1996a). As the appellation implies, it simply involves academics reflecting on their own prsonal, lived experiences with literary texts or, in some cases, literary contexts. This autobiographical departure, it must be stressed, does not comprise highly individual and hence idiosyncratic attempts to identify the 'meaning’ of the text or texts in question (a la New Criticism), though that may form part of the expository process. On the contrary, it requires the critic to develop a revelatory account of their own, often very personal, para-existential, sometimes deeply moving experiences with works of literature. Autobiographical criticism, in other words, doesn’t so much concern the meaning of the text in itself as the meaning of the text for the critic, for the living, breathing, aspiring, desiring person behind the words on the critical page.

By their very nature, of course, such accounts, admissions, testimonies, exposTs, reminiscences, soul-barings, morality tales, textual acts, textual intercourses-call them what you will-tend towards the unique, the disparate, the eclectic, the idiographic. As a rule, however, works of autobiographical criticism concentrate on how the critic’s engagement with a specific text, or texts, helped shape their personal, professional, intellectual and, as often as not, sexual identity, as well as the memories both happy and sad that inhere in individual works for the essayists concerned. To cite but a few illustrative examples: Sprengnether (1996) describes how her reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is indelibly associated with the untimely death of her father, accidentally drowned in full view of the stricken family; Smith (1995) writes of her educational encounters with New Criticism in general and the thrilling yet ultimately poignant pedagogic experience of working alongside an aging, intellectually deteriorating William Wimsatt; Thompkins (1993) expatiates on her unhappy personal relationship with literary 'theory’, albeit her ruminations on going to the bathroom have become something of a minor cause celebre; and, the coiner of the 'autobiographical criticism’ phraseology, Diane Freedman (1996), has recently written an autobiographical account about writing autobiographical accounts. Indeed, given the tenor of the compositions that characterize this literary genre, it is not surprising that the principal volume devoted to the autobiographical school of thought is entitled The Confessions of the Critics (Veeser 1996a).

From a consumer research perspective, perhaps the best way of comprehending this seemingly bizarre confessional turn is in terms of the intellectual context from which it emerged. It is important to appreciate that although terms like 'deconstruction’, 'post-structuralism’ and 'postmodernism’ are comparatively recent additions to the marketing lexicon, they are very old hat, almost arcane, in field of literary criticism. The deconstructive 'invasion’ of lit-crit took place over thirty years ago when Jacques Derrida made his celebrated 1966 presentation at Yale, 'Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. More to the point, it was largely due to the proselytizing endeavors of the so-called Yale School, who utilized Derrida’s approach as a sort of intellectual battering ram against the then hegemonic New Critics (internal power politics may have played a part since Yale was also the cockpit of New Criticism), that deconstruction managed to sweep all before it in the 1970s and by the mid-80s had successfully established itself as the dominant theoretical force in literary criticism. While it is widely considered to be a marginal, some would say eccentric, position within the marketing/consumer research milieu, deconstruction is generally regarded as a mainstream or fairly orthodox stance in literary circles-even today.

Breathtakingly brilliant though they often are, deconstructive analyses can be fiendishly difficult, highly allusive and, in the hands of someone like Paul de Man, incredibly forbidding and austere. According to several of the autobiographical critics, this is particularly true of the classroom situation, where students often lack the depth of reading necessry to appreciate the literary gyrations of the aptly named boa-deconstructors. So much so, that when the instructors introduced their analyses with some prefatory personal remarks, it was invariably the autobiographical comments that attracted most of the subsequent questioning and formed the basis of the class discussion (the same, they claim, is true of the conference circuit). In certain respects, then, the autobiographical impulse represents an attempt by latter-day literary critics to resurrect the author, the subject, the self that had been so comprehensively interred by the deconstructionists. Indeed, the rise of confessional criticism cannot be divorced from the notorious Paul de Man affair of 1987, when the arch-deconstructionist was exposed as the author of numerous anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi newspaper articles during the Second World War. Although his behavior was no more reprehensible than many other war-torn intellectuals (e.g. Heidegger, Pound, Wodehouse), the ensuing 'debate’-where de Man, one of lord high executioners of the 'author’, was variously pilloried and praised by leading poststructuralists-was conducted in predominantly autobiographical terms! The depersonalization of deconstruction was thereby undermined-de-de-personalized, so to speak-and the procedure lost much of the intellectual authority it had hitherto enjoyed. By the mid-1980s, in point of fact, deconstruction had also started to lose some of its radical insouciance, its transgressive, anti-authoritarian appeal. As Stern (1996) has recently and rightly noted, deconstruction is now a decidedly routine, increasingly mechanical and, frankly, somewhat uninspired technique for interrogating texts, even though Derrida himself remains as inventive as ever.

It is from within this post-poststructuralist literary soil that dragon’s teeth of autobiographical criticism have latterly sprung and, as might be expected, this efflorescence of scholarly solipsism is not without its critics. There have been accusations of narcissism, exhibitionism and self-indulgence, to which Thompkins (1993: 25) has combatively replied, 'people are scared to talk about themselves...they haven’t got the guts to do it.’ Simpson (1995), however, counters with the contention that comparatively few literary critics appear to lack the courage of their confessions, since the academy is in the throes of a veritable 'epidemic of storytelling’. Autobiographical criticism has become so ubiquitous that 'the award of tenure now seems to bring with it a contract for one’s autobiography’ (Simpson 1995: 24). He notes, moreover, that this remarkable 'stampede into autobiography’ has been repeated throughout the humanities, in so far as the ostentatious postmodern eschewal of 'grand narratives’ has been superseded by the recrudescence of 'petit narratives’, by anecdote, by vignette, by aphorism, by conversation, by local knowledge, by Benjamin-style illuminatory fragments rather than all-encompassing conceptualizations. Although, he goes on, 'the storytelling mode is still rare in the natural sciences, and perhaps still radical in the social sciences, where the objectivist models drawn from the natural sciences continue to have a strong hold on the disciplines, it has become a commonplace in the humanities’ (Simpson 1995: 25).


The autobiographical impulse that is transforming the liberal arts cannot fail to strike a chord with students of consumer behavior. Apart from the proliferation of 'storytelling’ that is apparent in, for example, the growing use of projective techniques and analyses of consumer narratives (e.g. Sherry et al 1993, 1995; Hassay and Smith 1996), it is strikingly reminiscent of 'subjective personal introspection’, the much-debated procedure whereby researchers ponder their own consumption experiences and attempt to bring them together in the form of an extended autobiographical essay. Although 'autoethnographies’, as they are sometimes known, remain comparatively few in number, the technique has been applied to the study of pastimes, collecting activities, sporting achievements, aesthetic appreciation, sexual proclivities, near-death experiences and shopping behaviors for both convenience and comparison goods (Holbrook 1985, 1986, 1995; Lehmann 1987; Pollay 1987; Hirschman 1991, 1992; Gould 1991; Rose 1995; Reid and Brown 1996).

Despite the evangelical endeavors of several prominent introspectionists, Holbrook in particular, it is fair to say that the advent of subjective personal introspection has proved highly controversial within consumer research. So much so, it appears to have precipitated a deep schism within the ranks of the interpretive research community, a community that has only just succeeded in establishing itself as a credible counterweight to the positivistic orthodoxy. Although a number of voices have been raised in opposition (O’Guinn 1996; Uusitalo 1996; Campbell 1996), the foremost critics of introspection are Wallendorf and Brucks (1993). In a wide-ranging, not to say devastating, assessment, they distinguish between several different types of introspection and contend that 'researcher introspection’, as practiced by Gould, Holbrook, Lehmann and others, suffers from severe methodological shortcomings. These pertain to: the time period concerned (i.e. the temporal relationship between the experiences being reported and the time of report); data specificity (the danger of generalized inferences rather than reports of specific instances); documentation (the extent to which introspections are recorded in a form accessible to others); sampling (how 'representative’ is the introspector?); analysis (impossibility of establishing the necessary di-stance between informant and researcher); and the overall appropriateness of the procedure (why use introspection when other, less controversial, options are available?). For Wallendorf and Brucks, at least, the inadequacies of researcher introspection are so profound that the technique has little to recommend it, except as a means of accomplishing other, non-scholarly, essentially narcissistic, lamentably exhibitionist ends. Such studies, they conclude 'make for fun reading but may mislead readers if not based on sound, carefully thought-out and articulated methods’ (Wallendorf and Brucks 1993: 356).

Needless to say, the champions of introspective approaches to consumer and marketing research have responded robustly to this challenge. Drawing upon an impressive body of supporting literature, ranging from rhetoric and romanticism to neo-pragmatist philosophy, Holbrook (1995, 1996) posits that personal introspection comprises nothing less than the ultimate form of participant observation. While it is not without weaknesses, like all research methods, introspection provides a number of practical advantages in relation to fieldwork (easy), access (unrestricted), ethics (no formal accountability) and so on. In a similar vein, Gould (1995) contends that Wallendorf and Brucks’ attempt to discredit introspection is both premature and unnecessarily restrictive. The technique offers depths of insight that are simply unobtainable from more established research methods. It focuses on rich and specific aspects of one particular consumer’s life, benefits from the informant’s incomparable self-awareness and is thus capable of contributing significantly to the theory building process.

Levy (1996), likewise, has latterly unleashed the tu quoque showstopper; the contention that introspection is an integral part of the research process, practiced by positivists and interpretivists alike. Others have had the temerity to suggest that as Wallendorf and Brucks’ critique is itself predicated on introspection, their paper must be deemed unacceptable according to its own evaluative criteria (Brown and Reid 1997). Indeed, in an otherwise critical assessment of subjective personal introspection, as promulgated by Holbrook in particular, Campbell (1996: 100) concedes that 'introspection is a legitimate method of inquiry open for use by any researcher or scholarly invstigator, no matter what their discipline. To reject it out of hand on the pretext that it is "unscientific" strikes me a particularly churlish if only because it should be obvious that the study of a wide range of phenomena is necessarily dependent on such an activity. Those who wish to investigate topics as various as backache, daydreaming, nostalgia, creativity and mystic enlightenment are all in the first instance dependent on reports that derive from introspection. To accept that such data are indispensable when originating from "subjects" but to deny it any value when it originates from "researcher as subject" has always seemed to me to be a peculiarly inconsistent standpoint.’

Yet notwithstanding the energetic, articulate and intellectually sophisticated rearguard action mounted by the introspectionists, it is arguable that they have only succeeded in holding the line at best and preventing a rout at worst. According to a recent assessment by Sherry (1996: 108), someone who has expressed sympathy for subjective personal introspection in the past, it remains within 'perilous proximity to self-indulgence’ and, thus, languishes as procedure non grata in consumer research. If, however, there is a single lesson to be learned from the autobiographical propensity that has latterly transpired in the liberal arts in general and literary criticism in particular, it is that the consumer introspectionists’ attempt to defend the technique on 'scientific’ grounds was a strategic mistake, a somewhat romantic attempt to overcome superior and better equipped forces on their own intellectual territory. The tu quoque argument, furthermore, is comparatively easily deflected, insofar as the opponents of introspection can reasonably contend that there is a world of difference between using the procedure to develop hypotheses, which are subsequently subject to 'rigorous’ testing, and employing it as the principal means of information gathering.

An alternative, and in certain respects much more convincing, defense of introspection involves abandoning any aspiration to scientific status. As a consequence of its acknowledged lack of reliability, validity, objectivity and suchlike, subjective personal introspection simply cannot qualify as a scientific method. However, this does not mean that the procedure is uninsightful. Quite the reverse. When judged by appropriately aesthetic criteria, such as those outlined in Table 1, the introspective essay comes into its own. Like the works of art that they undoubtedly are, well-written introspective accounts succeed in capturing the world in a grain of sand. They reverberate. They dazzle. They evoke an epiphanic 'A-ha, that rings true, that’s the way it is’ response in the reader (Calvino 1986; Kundera 1988; Bachelard 1994). Introspections, in other words, do not represent the 'truth’ in any absolute, neo-positivistic sense (an ambition that is unattainable in any event), but they are not necessarily unreliable, invalid or untrue either, at least not in aesthetic terms. If they were, creative writers-not to mention autobiographical literary critics-would be in very serious trouble, because introspection is an integral part of literary insight and expression. As the commanding cultural critic and polymath about town, George Steiner (1989:12), magisterially observes, 'More than ordinary men and women, the significant painter, sculptor, musician or poet relates the raw material, the anarchic prodigalities of consciousness and sub-consciousness to the latencies, often unperceived, untapped before him, of articulation. This translation out of the inarticulate and the private into the general matter of human recognition requires the utmost crystallization and investment of introspection and control.’

The key point, then, is that although subjective personal introspection can be justified on 'scientific’ grounds, the very act of doing so is not only unconvincing (no matter how much supporting evidence is assembled, what social 'scientist’ will uncritically accept the evidence-the highly subjective evidence-of a sample of one?) but it also concedes too much to the opposition. It presupposes that scientific criteria are the most appropriate-in fact the only-criteria that can be applied or brought to bear upon the subject. This is simply not the case. More impressive still is the simple, incontrovertible fact that consumer introspectionists are only doing what is now the norm in the humanities and literary criticism. Indeed, Veeser (1996b) goes so far as to suggest that 'autocritography’ has taken over from deconstruction as the lit-crit orthodoxy. Autobiographical criticism, admittedly, is not without its detractors and, as with all dominant schools of critical expression, there are some indications of an impending 'back to books’ backlash. Nevertheless, the very existence of confessional criticism enables consumer introspectionists to challenge Wallendorf and Brucks’ (1993) contention that since researcher introspection is not employed in cognate academic disciplines, it has no place in consumer research. To do so, of course, begs the question of whether literary criticism is in fact a cognate field and, moreover, raises the moldering specter of marketing’s infamous 'art or science?’ debate. But that, as they say, is another story....




In recent years a number of prominent consumer researchers have championed subjective personal introspection, a technique which requires the researcher to reflect on their own consuming experiences and explicate them in the form of an autobiographical essay. Although they are often accused of wallowing in self-indulgence-unscientific self-indulgence-the introspectionists are merely employing a procedure which is well established in the humanities in general and literary criticism in particular. Within the consumer research community, it is widely accepted that the zeyphr, the Santa Ana, the chinook of literary theory has invigorated the discipline. It remains to be seen however whether the autobiographical twister that is sweeping through the lit-crit prairie will succeed in raising a storm in the increasingly dessicated, some say barren, field of interpretive consumer research. At the very least, however, it may serve to rustle a few, perhaps many, prosaic petticoats and aerate the stuffed shirts of pseudo-, all-too-pseudo-science.


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