‘The truth is out there…’

by Meaghan Morris

© all rights reserved

On the possibility of free will and choice, Foucault explicitly tells us that they are mere illusions, and that the individual is merely the vehicle of whatever ideologies are controlling the unconscious.
David Willamson

My role — and that is too emphatic a word — is to show people that they are much freer than they feel …
Michel Foucault 1

I’ve made a humiliating discovery. The world is full of people who believe in alien abductions, Satanic conspiracies, and the ineffable evil of government; people who believe that Aborigines are privileged in our society, and that minorities have too much power; people who believe that deconstruction caused ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ to be banned in English schools, and that Geoffrey Blainey and Leonie Kramer are “victims” of political correctness. Some people believe all of these things. I believe none of them. It’s an X-Files world — and, goddammit, I’m with Agent Scully.

In an X-Files world, the tiniest thing can push a seemingly normal person over the edge. Having watched with bemusement the sprouting of a thicket of screamingly weird propositions around my part of the academy — “deconstruction junks truth!”; “literary theory kills author!”; “cultural studies smashes canon!”; “post-structuralists were Nazis!” and (a favourite) “postmoderns deny Holocaust!” — my Agent Scully bullshit-alarm finally went off at the sight of a Sydney Morning Herald editorial (10/4/96) suggesting that “the structuralists” might have had a hand in Wayne Harrison’s Sydney Theatre Company production of Heretic that so greatly displeased David Williamson.

That’s right, structuralism — the attempt in the 1950s and 1960s to develop a unified method for the humanities and social sciences by working out the implications for each discipline of a Saussurean model of language as rule-governed and profoundly social. The great structuralists — Levi-Strauss, Greimas, Genette, the early Barthes — saw themselves as scientists. They believed that society is intelligible, but they wanted to know how; they asked how we understand each other and ourselves. Taken up in the 1970s by the English-speaking world, French structuralism overlaps historically with existentialism; it peaked between 1960 and 1962, with a great debate about history between Sartre and Levi-Strauss.

While structuralism was as important for what it enabled as for what its exponents achieved, it has to be said that this particular bird is a very dead parrot. Yet there it is, flapping around in the Sydney Morning Herald, playing tricks with Margaret Mead (turning earnest anthropologists into blonde bombshells is a classic body-snatcher move), killing the author (again), and — large as life, present tense — promoting a “gospel” that the work of interpreters is “more important and creative than the text itself”

May I propose a brief reality check? For the moment, I leave aside the grossly silly polemics (“post-structuralists read Heidegger, Heidegger was a Nazi, therefore, post-structuralists are Nazis”). More interesting are those penned by Williamson himself, in articles as well as in Dead White Males and Heretic. His polemics have a serious intent, and they do try to engage with what academics are saying. Let me share that sense of engagement. To commit the sin of comparing apples and oranges (a critical activity that often offends Australian artists): I admire Williamson’s plays as I admire the novels of Eleanor Dark and Sumner Locke Elliott — they imaginatively enhance Australian life. I also enjoy his plays of ideas as I enjoy Michael Crichton’s novels (Rising Sun, Disclosure). They bring out people’s anxieties about social and cultural change, and encourage us all to talk about them. I even agree with Williamson that the “recriminations of identity politics” (The Weekend Australian 11-12/5/96) do little to combat poverty and social inequity, and may well do harm.

However, many “post-structuralists” would agree with him about that. There’s the rub.

In Dead White Males, William Shakespeare says of the “feminist multiculturalist” villain, “that prattling knave Swain speaks through his fundament”. Shakespeare is not wrong. Grant Swain talks a lot about “Foucault”, but he has Foucault confused with Barthes, Barthes confused with British “cultural materialism” (the real source of his jargon, as the book of the play makes clear), and Foucault himself back to front.

For example, Swain has Foucault exposing “the way in which concepts of liberal humanist ‘ethical responsibility’ are used to prevent the expression of jouissance in every structured organisation”. On the contrary; insofar as he talked about jouissance at all (that’s Barthes on the thrill of reading, not Foucault on libido, as Swain does remember at one point), Foucault asked why we say we are prevented from expressing sexuality when institutions have invited us to talk about sex for centuries.

Foucault did not sneer at ethical responsibility. His last two books were on ethics. Foucault did not wage war on “liberal humanism”, that’s largely a British thing. He was sympathetic to the reinvention of liberalism, and outraged the PC forces of his day by taking seriously the neo-liberal critique of the welfare state. He was “anti-humanist”, but that means that he rejected Descartes as a useful point of departure for thought in the modern world; he did not despise sociality or hold human initiative in contempt. And, unlike Swain, Foucault never ranted against “patriarchal corporate ideology”. For one thing, he was a happily Eurocentric white male who was uneasy with women and ambivalent about feminism. For another, he did not believe in the existence of ideology.

There’s something po-faced about arguing with a fictional character; I feel like Dan Quayle reproving Murphy Brown. I’ve heard it said that because Swain is a comic creation, clearly intended to come across as a charlatan, we can’t attribute his views to Williamson. The difficulty is that nothing whatsoever in the play suggests that we can’t attribute Swain’s views to Foucault. The vast majority of Williamson’s audience do not have Foucault at their fingertips, and I’d bet that Swain’s is the only version that many will encounter.

Does this matter? I think so, if the play is to be taken seriously as part of a debate. The problem of its accuracy is compounded by Williamson’s own recent claims. In the Bulletinarticle (2/4/96) from which I quoted at the beginning, he attributes to Foucault the very determinism, “ideologies … controlling the unconscious”, that Foucault spent his whole life fighting. In fact, one way of understanding post- structuralism is as a renewed insistence on the role of agency — freedom, responsibility and creativity — in “structuring” social life. Like Derek Freeman in Heretic, post-structuralism assumes that human beings are not blank slates or endlessly malleable plasticine; that is Saussure’s legacy. Like Margaret Mead, however, it also cares about how sociable human beings can act to better their lives.

Williamson makes his “Foucault” do a lot of work. Most recently (The Weekend Australian 11-12/5/96) he turns up as an exponent of US-style identity politics, not only declaring truth a white male myth (when the truth is that Foucault wrote copiously about what makes truths true) but now declaring that politics can only be small-scale and “local”when the truth is that Foucault, angered by exactly this misreading of his History of Sexuality, spent years lecturing on the history and the efficacy of modern “governmentality”.

In media contexts where academic evidence — extensive quotations and footnotes — is out of the question, this kind of tit-for-tat, ’tis/’tisn’t, exchange can go on indefinitely. The trickiest issues arise, therefore, when a polemicist wants to admit the grain of truth in what their opponent says. This is often Williamson’s stated desire, and here it’s mine. In his pieces around Heretic, Williamson seems to suggest that post-structuralism is a form of social constructivism. He uses the tag “there is no human nature” to convert the claim that social conventions vary from culture to culture (a mundane belief shared by post-structuralism with a dozen other philosophies) into a claim that biology plays no role in human life.

A few of the innumerable bad cribs on post-structuralism do say something like this, and it’s silly on at least three scores. First, from the proposition that many things we take to be natural are, in fact, historical, it concludes that there is no such thing as nature; this is a non sequitur. Second, it forgets the crucial role that psychoanalysis plays in post-structuralist thought; the work of Lacan, for example, is all about what happens when the biological is forced to become the social. Third, it ignores the fact that “post-structuralist” feminism emphasises sexual difference, not the sameness of the sexes. That’s why equality-oriented feminists don’t like it very much (neither do I, but that’s another story) and why academic bookshops are bursting with feminist books about the body.

Mostly, primers on post-structuralism make none of these mistakes; they simply overwork the word “construct”, along with other Latinisms inherited from the translation-ese of the 1970s. French is a Romance language; construire usually just means “to make”. From which I derive Scully’s First Law of Interpretation: saying “construction” does not make you a constructivist, any more than talking about “structure” makes you a structuralist.

Why is there so much exaggeration, hyperbole and panic around these once esoteric debates? There are many hypotheses in the air, some of them remarking that most (but not all) of the extremism in Australia is coming from “1960s people”, the 50-somethings of today, who dismissed critical theory twenty years ago as a passing fad, and who are finding — more thanks to John Dawkins than Michel Foucault — that the intellectual world they grew up in has vanished

I’ve heard that in the US there is a Society for the Abolition of The 1960s In Our Lifetime. As for me, I’m founding the Agent Scully League For the Defence of Reasonable Argument. I haven’t written a manifesto yet, but I’m working on the following protocol for the guidance of people who’d like to join:

1. When asked “have you stopped beating your wife?”, on no account reply, “you mean, ‘your spouse”‘. The best response for men as well as women is, “hey! I am a wife!”
2. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
3. It is unfair to compare apples and oranges if the topic of discussion is “apples”, and you attack an orange for failing to be an apple, or an orange-grower for denying the reality of apples. However, it is perfectly reasonable to compare apples and oranges when your topic of discussion is “fruit”.


Meaghan Morris is currently an ARC Senior Fellow at University of Technology, Sydney. She is the author of Ecstasy and Economics and The Pirate’s Fiancée, and co-editor (with John Frow) of Australian Cultural Studies: A Reader. This piece is extracted with permission from the June issue of Australian Book Review.

Notes and References

1. Technologies of the Self, eds Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick H.Hutton

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]