Reader! Reader!

by Damien Broderick

© all rights reserved

I have been much influenced by Foucault’s work,
but most people find it very hard to follow.
Ian Hacking, Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy? (1975, p. 190)

The great French philosopher Foucault offers many penetrating insights. I only wish I understood him well enough to say something about him here.
Barry Barnes, About Science (1985, P. 155)

Paul-Michel Foucault, premier theorist of postmodernism, died in 1984 of that postmodern scourge, AIDS. His privileged childhood and youth were tormented by his unacceptable sexuality, to the point of cheating at school and suicide attempts. ‘He was a solitary, unsociable boy,’ one biographer, Didier Eribon, tells us, ‘whose relationships with others were very complex and often conflict-ridden.’ At the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he ‘withdrew into his solitude, leaving it only to scoff at the others with a ferocity that soon became notorious’ (Eribon 1993, pp. 25-6). In his maturity, while this gift for venom remained, he became transformed into the soul of hilarity, good manners, bureaucratic dedication, post-Marxist social conscience, with a vigorous though hidden taste for gay sadomasochism.1

The sullen youth, who could not bear collective living, grew up to travel and teach in Uppsala, Warsaw, Hamburg, Brazil, Tunis, the Zen hot-tubs of California. Fellow teachers on a regular train to Stockholm recall their boozy, hilarious trips. During the 1968 May student/worker revolt, Foucault was not at the barricades. ‘He was in the offices of a Gaullist minister,’ Eribon notes, ‘discussing the future Of secondary and higher education in France’ (p. 136).

Of such apparent paradox was Foucault’s life woven, apparently confirming his opinion that there is no ‘unitary self’. Yet in hindsight that life can indeed be seen as all of a piece, a complex tale written by a single complex and maddeningly opaque author. As a young philosophy student he was evaluated thus: ‘Is much better than his grades — will have to free himself from a tendency to be obscure …’ (p. 22). Years later, working on Madness and Civilisation, he replied to a friendly adviser:

‘I willingly concede that the style is unbearable (one of my flaws is not being naturally clear). Of course, I intend to get rid of all the “convoluted” expressions that managed to escape me’ (P. 84).

It is a signal mark of his writing that he never did.

One wonders if his fame would have existed at all had he learned to write with the brilliant clarity of a Peter Medawar. Certainly his gnomic style, jewel-bright but impossibly enigmatic, adds more to his reputation as a kind of necromancer of the word than to any immediate utility most readers are likely to derive from the challenge of his thought. Many of Foucault’s contorted avowals resemble the obiter dicta of a Martian anthropologist: ‘the living night,’ for example, ‘is dissipated in the brightness of death’ (cited p. 153). Perhaps it partakes of the necessary disguise of a man assailed by bigotry in the very definition of his sexual being — a final paradox, for the postulate of ‘essential self’ is one of the key concepts Foucault’s philosophy set out to disqualify.

From early training in mental clinics administering Rorschach tests, a surprisingly ‘scientistic’ skill Foucault would later teach his own psychology students, through relentlessly detailed and punishing archival research into psychiatric and penal history, discourse theory in fields ranging from linguistics to economics, and his final transgressive work on the grounds of sexuality, a filigree of recurrent motifs has been traced by his biographers.

‘Do you know why one writes?’ he asked an assistant. ‘To be loved’ (p. 276). It is a strikingly candid declaration from a theorist who helped abolish the author as a source of value. There can be no doubt, though, that his contributions to hegemonic theory were altogether pivotal, perhaps as much for their magical incoherence as for their boldness and political audacity.

Author no! Reader yes!

It is this species of theory that Dugald Williamson (1989) conveniently distils and advocates. In a series of moves revealingly confessed at the outset to be ‘speculations’ (P. I) — though such appropriate modesty is abandoned immediately — Williamson contests the pretheoretical ‘orthodoxy that texts have a point of origin in the author’. While everyone agrees that all texts involve conventional techniques and social expectations of writing and reading, such techniques ought not to be seen as expressing ‘some prelinguistic experience. Rather, they are practices whose operation makes textual meaning possible’ (ibid.). No text ‘is ever “authored” in the sense of flowing autonomously from a subject’s consciousness’. However, the social mythology that texts do emerge from subjectivity (via, admittedly, certain available compositional techniques and within certain social conditions) is not without its effect: the author is real, ‘not in the sense of an ontological origin of writing, but in the sense of a social artefact’ (ibid.).

Thus, unlike the Barthesian abolition, the discovery ‘should not lead us to overlook (as does the utopian, poststructuralist claim that the author is dead) the historical and discursive complex in which the author has been produced. [… A] uthorship involves a number of social statuses … which are not about to vanish in the face of a critique of the idea of authorship, mounted within literary criticism’ (p. 2). The Foucauldian author, like the Foucauldian subject, is a discursive construct with some staying power. The task is to replace the mistaken Cartesian model of inner-driven authorship with one of discourse-driven composition.

The patent fallacy in this vitiation of the authorial subject is that another subjectivity, no less individuated, must be smuggled elsewhere into the circuit. Otherwise we are left with a vision akin to some post-catastrophe cyberspace network endlessly shunting meaningless financial signifiers back and forth after the extermination of its human programmers and operators. In his urge to void any prospect of a ‘unifying principle already at work inside the text’ (p. 46)– presumably set in place by an authorial artistic intention-Williamson reveals, as Catherine Belsey did, that this illusion is created by the critic or theorist:

The critic performs a certain kind of work on the text, spelling out thematic, narrative, characterological or stylistic patterns, and then treats these as manifestations of some prior creative purpose. The effects of meaning produced by using particular techniques of reading and writing are retroactively attributed to an individual origin: this is how author criticism generates textual evidence for the idea of individual vision.

Techniques of reading and writing, one notes, not only Barthesian reading-as- writing. But the presence of the critic’s subjectivity, no matter that she is employing a battery of pre-existent codes and protocols, is enough to demonstrate that discourse is not sufficient unto itself. Indeed, as Freadman and Miller (1992) stingingly remark of Catherine Belsey’s similar manoeuvres: ‘by a series of Houdini- like escapes and transformations the reader [or critic] manages to elude the constraints that claim all other selves’ (p. 30).

Williamson’s case, finally, is that ‘meanings’ do not precede their textual construction:

If textual meanings are treated as a network of effects produced by the operation of representational techniques, then it no longer makes sense to say that those meanings are somehow already waiting to be ‘expressed’, or that they are the source of the work and so give techniques an essential form and goal …
(Williamson 1989, p. 59)

Like much of his argument, this disposes of straw opponents only. I cannot imagine any sophisticated humanist positing a pure ‘essential’ prelinguistic meaning which is transmitted noiselessly through linguistic channels to equally pure spiritual receivers (certainly my own Jakobsonian model, to be deployed shortly, insists on quite a contrary position). No writer — endlessly, apodictically aware that sentences and groups of sentences, in all their botched first-pass clumsiness, generate themselves at the fingertips with little conscious deliberation but only after intense inner struggle utterly unlike the flow of social speech-could make that angelic error.

Meanings and recipes

But Williamson’s case is too one-dimensional even to serve his own purposes. Against theory’s express instruction, if only as a reductio ad absurdum, let us attend to the realm of intrasubjective meanings (a realm once laughably denied existence by behaviourism) and its contributions to the creative act. These are the contents — whether conscious or unconscious — of that mental factory-floor where the act of intentionality engages, by interactive codetermination, with our linguistic codes and generative protocols to yield, with whatever measure of ease or groaning effort, a text to be decoded by others. Call its semantic contents ‘Meanings0‘. These must have some non-trivial overlap with the many public Meanings1 constructed by the text’s creative readers. A model can be drawn [NB: V = downwards arrow]:







‘Representational’ Techniques




‘Production of Text’ by Reader


Textual Meanings1 (= effects on Reader)

Note that the antihumanist doctrine here summarised by Williamson need not actually deny that, behind the barrier which starts this chain, there are latent or inner Meanings0 prior to technique combinations and reception. Rather, there is no point in positing them, since they are deemed to be inaccessible and unrecoverable, like the universe before the Big Bang. If the author exists, it is as a functional construct, so to speak, invoked in the reading protocols used by the reader in ‘producing’ the text: narratology’s ‘implied author’.

This seems momentarily compelling (as surely it must, given that very many intelligent people have subscribed to it during the hegemony of theory). It is, however, simply mistaken. The denial of the salience of Meanings0 can be seen in a homely analogy.

Suppose out of fondness I cook you a birthday cake, which we eat ceremoniously. What are the necessary ingredients to this act? Well, first, as is often quaintly overlooked in a doctrine supposedly materialist, we require a pre- existing ‘real world’ containing stable food chemistry and the physics which permits controlled heat exchanges, the ceramics and metallurgy of ovens, crockery, etc., and bodies that both need and enjoy food. Within that empirical frame and the astonishingly diverse human histories it supports, the social construction of a cake necessitates a pre-existing discursive field containing recipes and standardised cooking techniques. Only after the cake has been intended by a person, and produced, are we ready to test its ‘taste-effects’, which exist only in the mouth (and the decoding/evaluating brain and subjectivity) of us cake-eaters.

The fallacy of the Foucauldian position is that the reductio ad absurdum fails to reduce to absurdity. The Meaning0 of my intentional gift to you, this friendly ‘birthday cake’, simply does not equal the cultural constituents of its preparation, the nutritive value of the cake, or even its taste (some of its Meanings1). Nor can it be ignored as irrelevant and irretrievable. Granted, sometimes the motive for making a cake is, impersonally, just to satisfy someone’s desire to enjoy eating it, and in such cases Meanings0 and Meanings1draw nearer to merging — as with writing or reading formulaic airport novels.

In other cases, the motive is predominantly socially coded: birthdays are only significant, even emotionally charged, because our cultural discourses ordain that they are so encoded. Yet even when a generous motive is feigned out of self-interest, we do wish the recipient to conjecture a loving Meaning0 although it does not exist within us. An informed semiotic reading of the most generically mechanical entertainments or phatic acts can always unmask many hidden Meanings0, in both text- or cake-maker and consumer. A Freudian, a Marxist, a Muslim will undoubtedly assert that subtexts (like blushes) do indeed ‘express’ Meanings0 arisen in the personal, political or religious unconscious of their author’s subjectivity, despite a sometimes quite desperate wish to conceal them. The Foucauldian hypothesis bypasses these loci, or attempts to replace them by impersonal systems of data and grammar. That move, in my view, abstracts fatally from their instantiation inside individuals. Williamson observes:

Foucault does not … criticise author-centered practices for being based on the ideological illusion of a constitutive subject [as Barthes does] … Foucault’s main proposition is that the author is not an origin but a function of discourse. [ … T]he possibility of treating texts as authored arises only under certain discursive and historical conditions.
(p. 34)

Amputating the self

I must yet again make clear that I have no fundamental objection to much of what Barthes, Foucault and other theorists hold in common. Much of the cast of their various analyses, however they might dispute with each another, is woven into the current episteme (to whatever degree that overarching continuum is seamed and riddled with inconsistencies). My complaint is with a dangerous and symptomatic denigration of the person, of the self however decentred, in this discussion.

A physician may bracket the personhood of a patient while cutting through human flesh, but always with the accompanying risk of dehumanisation to which observers such as Foucault have been caustic witnesses. A literary theorist may, for a number of motives, bracket out reference and consciousness and focus on legal status in a given historically contingent domain of writing and reading, but the risk remains that this practice will tend to an entrained obliteration of the bracketed realities. No doubt it is perfectly feasible that we might have occasion to reduce the human, individually situated author of a novel to the work’s ‘author-function’, as it is possible to regard one’s lover as a ‘bed-partner-function’ or a ‘significant-other-function’. Such descriptions are plausible in sociology, but psychotically unliveable.

But this sort of reification persists throughout Williamson’s quite fair summary of the poststructuralist doctrine of author and reader:

A discourse may be defined as a group of statements (about objects, persons, situations, even texts) which display a certain regularity that is traceable to some public or institutional deployment of knowledge (p. 34)

But who is making these statements? Whom is this definition suppressing, and why? Nor is it a slip of the pen. Like Barthes, as we saw earlier, Williamson urges a theoretical transition from ‘author’ to ‘composer’:

composition is a process of using representational techniques to arrange signs into readable textual forms … The individual who tells a story, its composer, is one who acquires skill in using these principles to organise a particular set of materials within some medium.
(P. 51)

Skinner’s new box

How like behaviourism this is! I am uncertain whether my disagreement with this program can be rationally adjudicated; it seems to be almost a paradigmatic instance of one discourse meeting an incommensurable alternative. An example which strongly supports this view is Williamson’s argument by ridicule:

The point of distinguishing between ‘technical’ and ‘inspirational’ composition is not to suggest that some texts are merely technical compilations while some others really do express an ideal, mysterious process of thought. (ibid.)

The phrase ‘ideal, mysterious process of thought’ is meant to discourage the reader from adopting any such embarrassingly ‘idealist’ conjecture. To fall in with it might seem, to the sophisticate, transparently natural. But one can readily imagine a situation where the complete contrary seems just as self-evidently valid.

Suppose one were confronted by a dissociated psychiatric patient who really does ‘compose’ instead of ‘authoring’. That is, she engages in ‘automatic writing’, perhaps in a ‘trance state’ or after brain damage to the corpus callosum which co-ordinates right and left cerebral hemispheres. Consciously, such a writer might watch her scribbling hand with astonishment, but it is unlikely that we will most fruitfully regard this writing as sourceless, or as ‘sourced’ in ‘discourse’. Rather, we might well summarise our experience as follows, inverting the force of Williamson’s distinction above:

The point of distinguishing between authorship and ‘automatic writing’ is not to suggest that most texts are ordinary expressions of thought and intention, while some others are really a mysterious, mechanical process.

Is this ‘Idealist’ rather than ‘materialist’? Of course not. The sight of a hand writing intelligibly in a trance leads us to the surmise that certain brain and peripheral nervous and muscular processes are functioning semi-independently of conscious deliberation. The source of the writing is for the moment inaccessible to the person writing, rather as the control of her respiration usually is. There is nothing ‘mysterious’ in either case, although there is much we cannot explain in detail.

A modest test

But while I suggest that the difference between my briefly outlined view and theory’s is perhaps not to be bridged by appeals to either logic or ridicule, I cannot help feeling that what is conspicuously missing from Williamson’s case is a sense of reality, in fact common-sense. How else could a literary critic propose the following legalistic piety?

The author’s name … provides a means of linking a text to the individual whose signature it bears … The author-function can operate effectively whether or not it refers accurately to an historical individual who writes the text: as for instance when authorial readings are performed on a text which carries a pseudonym or the name of someone who never existed. (pp. 34-5, 50)

There is, again, some legal truth in this characterisation at that level of analysis. The fact remains that dogs still have four legs even if the law defines them as parrots. Even more to the point, the notion that an ‘author-function’ is a kind of bolt for pinning together a number of texts is plausible only for the most degraded forms of writing (formula romances, committee reports) which are often the single place where the author’s name is either absent or not taken seriously. The Foucauldian process Williamson describes is notably not compelling if the ascription is random. It is only effective, to the trained ear and eye, if the severally authored texts brought together under a single ‘author-function’ name are carefully plagiarised to resemble the originary source.

Theory’s project, then, begins to resemble a human simulating a machine, in a strange reversal of the Turing test for genuine artificial intelligence. William Barrett, in a humanist-existential attack on such paradoxically positivistic appeals, is worth citing at some length. He speaks of:

a sense of time and history that cannot be achieved by the addition of units of information, otherwise every encyclopedic pedant would be able to qualify as a creative historian … ‘The poet changes, ages, matures — and sometimes ripens into wisdom … How much of our consciousness is embedded in and inseparable from this fleshly envelope that we are? Certainly it is not the poet’s business to write as a disembodied spirit.[… A] great deal is lost from our appreciation of poetry if we lose the sense of the poet as a continuing presence and voice in his work. If we are not always priggishly academic in our responses, then we may even experience the poet in his poem as one human soul speaking to another, to ourself … Without a reference to this human base, deconstructionism becomes merely another manifestation of … nihilism.
(Barrett 1986, pp. 1 59-60, 1 30- 1)

Barrett here too easily scamps certain intractable problems concerning intention and reception, and I remain uneasy about a certain religiose note. For all that, his view seems to me a clear advance on the tone-deaf absurdity which Williamson proposes below. Adverting to the unusual case where ‘a text first circulates anonymously and is then re-classified as an authored work’:

The fact that the text becomes authored helps to prove the point that the prestige and unity of authorial work in areas such as literature and cinema are not inherent properties of texts … It is this selective application of critical procedures, rather than any property of the so-called authored text, which supports the distinction between creative and technical texts … (pp. 44-5; my italics)

Granted that a given writer can utter more than one kind of statement, will age and ripen (or sour), may pen hack work under pseudonyms — still, is Williamson really telling us that there is not any property in the works which allow the informed ear and eye to discriminate fragments of, say, Patrick White from Mickey Spillane? Let me put this to the test. I take a passage quite at random from each of the two ‘author-functions’ mentioned:

I felt the muscular tic run across her shoulders and the fingers at my belt twitched slightly and became motionless. I patted her cheek gently and put my hand back under my head. The fingers started in again. This time the snap popped loose and she pulled the zipper down halfway, then started rubbing soft circles into my belly.For a moment [she] suspected herself of having committed an indecency, and her expression in the dressing-table glass looked pained — then worse: it was that of a flogged and panting horse, nostrils pinched, veins in relief on the saturated skin.

The germ of truth in the Foucauldian position is found in the remote possibility that Patrick White, down on his luck or up to no good, was actually the writer of the Spillane book. Would we read it differently if this remarkable possibility were confirmed? No doubt, on one level, But our interest would surely be in part to trace links between the two texts: to look for continuities, gaps, eruptions in one suppressed in the other, and so on.

‘The critic’s construction of the author is frequently naturalised by speaking of some unifying principle already at work inside the text’, states Williamson (P. 46). Well, a unifying principle previously at work, undoubtedly, prior to completion of the text and its publication. We assuredly would be alert for just such indices. Interestingly, Williamson’s own avowedly anti-idealist account of this impulse deconstructs itself in the very words he is obliged to use in expressing it. He writes variously of ‘the idea of aesthetic delight’ (p. 6), ‘the idea of original composition (p. 8), ‘Barthes’s idea’ (p. 40), ‘other archetypal images’ (p. 46), ‘the idea of authorial inspiration’ (ibid.), and so on.

Yet, of course, these are common-sense, motivated usages grounded in subjective states (‘ideas’, ‘images’). Not that I have any objection to his employing them, although presumably he should be horrified to find them written in his own handwriting. Nothing interesting can be said about writing and reading — including the most technical discussions of tropes, constitutive themes and conventions, semantic and syntactical patterns — which does not have as its background the inward, mutually entangled experiences (ideas and images) of writer and readers. 2

Damien Broderick is an associate of the Department of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. He is an award-winning novelist as well as a theorist and critic. This piece is extracted with permission from Theory and its discontents, Deakin University Press, 1997.


1. These suppressed aspects of his biography (Foucault’s daimons, as he called them) were made public in two subsequent biographies: James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993) and David Macey’s The Lives of Michel Foucault (1993).

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