Foucault, writing, collectivity

Yesterday on Facebook a scholar/writer I love asked for examples of ‘live’ academic writing to share with students, and a whole thread emerged with a range of wonderful practices that appear self-conscious of writing and how this form stimulates readerly movement outside the dull calculations of academic evaluation. It’s a particularly pertinent discussion as I confront a year of writing ahead, having opted out of work on both the Unimelb ARC postdoc (though I still hope to stay with the unit) and running the front end of my brother’s business, two forms of more institutional work which I also consider writing in the broad sense, that have held me in place during the move to Australia. I have about about 150K words of unpublished material on my hard drive, at least some of it good but many parts starting to go stale as my own interests keep moving, and I’ve learned the hard way that working on one’s own old project is no easier than working on someone else’s. Our cheap semi-rural living arrangements mean that I can live off meagre savings for this year at least, and so I should see if I can rearrange the best of what’s there into some kind of platform for future activity that complements the ongoing collective work with Local Time and the Old Folks Association.

Everyone I’ve talked to seems enthusiastic about this plan, even envious (those in tenured positions perhaps the most), but for me the prospect is less enjoyable than terrifying and a little bleak. Writing, in the practical experience of individually authoring a world at the keyboard, is not my vocation, and it is unclear to me whether I can do anything useful with it. Yes, I have done more of it than most people, but I have also spent a lot of my professional life not doing it, and I think I am generally better at it when I understand how it sits within larger and more collective projects. For me the question of ‘liveness’ in writing is also a question of genre and how genre is institutionalised. Working in the fine arts I understand that the historical role of the avant-garde artist is to contribute to collectivity through their own uniquely innovative movement (production) that is read by the critical community into possible institutional transformation. But I also sense among students from the last few years that this model is worn out, if it was ever available to many anyway, and that fulfilling one’s responsibility to the conditions under which work is understood requires a more explicitly social mode of practice. This is easier in collective work, however demanding the behind the scenes interactions of this can be.

The critical brain advises that writing is of course already social by definition, but the way in which that sociality is foregrounded or not has a lot to do with ‘liveness’ and through that liveness to questions of audience, distribution, and the institutional effect of work. I was put in mind of that by the Focuault interview that did the rounds of my Facebook yesterday. Foucault is totally in his element here, escaping the constraints of a boring and skeptical interviewer, consolidating his methods epigrammatically: “refusal, curiosity, innovation.” But it reminded again how little interest Foucault shows in presenting the supports of his own practice, such as his comment on Heidegger that it is important to him to have authors “with whom one thinks, with whom one works, but about whom one does not write.”  This dynamic mirrors the practice that of many artists, where keeping influences undercover (consciously or unconsciously) is integral to work’s readability as world-making, where one can gain pleasure in giving oneself over to the work. It also perhaps accounts for how Foucault’s name/works can be used to bracket a methodology, as it did in my own doctoral work, and how Foucault can generate a mountain of secondary literature, almost none of it matching the subtlety of Foucault’s own output (Butler and Spivak being the exceptions that I know best).

Foucault’s suppression of his sources makes his work highly “readable” in contrast to my other critical guides: reading Spivak or Derrida for example, is to be constantly drawn outside the text and into the world, these authors prevent the reader from giving to the author the responsibility of narration that Foucault is happy to take on. In other words, Foucault’s way to pull apart the author-function is to describe how it doesn’t matter who is speaking, whereas Derrida’s very form makes untenable the enclosure of a text that could be considered authored in a traditional way. Foucault is “right”, as he almost always is, and a certain conservatism in his voice, in the architecture of his position (though not his analysis itself) ultimately makes the work more “effective” in the realm of political necessity which was always his target. Foucault is my favourite teacher of the need to strategically escape diagnosis, but from Spivak I’ve learned that if we paid more attention we could discover that this is a collective activity that has already happened to us without trying, a much more rewarding position and I think a more formally effective one when the care of the self is continually stimulated in a very different way to Foucault’s era.

I admire Foucault’s old-school public voice of authorship – the English language version is both a form in which I was trained and one in which the larger-scale dissemination of productive ideas happens still. But unless one is committing oneself to that scale of authorship institutionally, (for example to describe The Order of Things, The Archaeology of Knowledge, or The History of Sexuality), one’s writing will have a much more intimate set of relationships, particularly in the context of the Internet’s rupture of institutional knowledge, where an author is a click away. My own goal with writing has been less to affectively shift around the conceptual apparatus of the political body (as if I could) than to find and deepen relationships with particular others whose own projects I can continue to work with and for, without having to not talk about those writers or to those writers. Citation practices as demonstrated in feminist work are fairly central here, and there is also a generational aspect of the invention of the WWW during my early 20s. My own form of writing is really more a form of reading, as those who receive my Facebook links probably know all too well. The intuition underpinning my work at the moment is that reading/viewing/listening communities are less lonely than communities of entrepreneurial producers stimulated by academic or commercial markets. Bringing about these readerly communities is the function of critical writing as I understand it. So this year will not be measured on the autonomy of my writerly self through strategic deinstitutionalisation as Foucault seems to advocate, but through the autonomy and resilience of the bonds of critical intimacy forged through work. That will involve some new habits and practices, this series of notes may continue to be one of them.