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From: "Jonathan Laidlow" <LAIDLOJM@hhs.bham.ac.uk>
Subject: (urth) Readerly/writerly
Date: Mon, 13 Dec 1999 10:30:01 GMT

Hello folks,

just dropped in with some semi-random thoughts inspired by Jim 
and Jeremy's recent discussion of readerly/writerly text and that 
whole lit crit theory thing.

> > Writerly text: is ourselves writing (eg., surfing the Web, the narrative
> > that is created). Self-consciously aware of its own artifice and its
> > (failed) attempts at realism.
> >
> > Readerly text: meaning is stable, transmitted to the reader, dominating
> First off, repeat after me:
> 	"Il y a _beaucoup_ de merde dehors le texte."
> Second, "dominating" is precisely what we readers want a lot of the time.
> As Dana Gioia once said introducing the poet Nina Cassian, "What we really
> want to do when we read a new poet is _surrender_."

One thing that always bothers me about Foucault (and out of all the 
post-structuralist types he's my favourite) is that his history is a little, 
er, vague. There's a line in his 'What is an Author?' which basically 
states that 'around about the Enlightenment X happened' - when 
exactly? (and by the by, Barthes wrote 'Death of the Author'). So our 
first step is putting the post-structuralists into context. Foucault is 
trying to articulate what he wants from a new late-C20 form of 
writing, and thus he must differentiate it from the 'old' - hence the 
binary oppositions . Both Barthes and Foucault are usually read as 
criticising the old restricted, dominating forms of writing against the 
new pluralist 'writerly' forms which they envisage. While I'm unsure 
about Barthes, I think its a disservice to read Foucault like this - yes 
there is an almost utopian desire to liberate texts from the old 
strictures but there is also an acceptance that these will merely be 
replaced by new and different kinds of strictures ('tho hopefully 
more honest).

> > If we approach a text as a writerly text it is not
> > possible or desirable to start identifying fixed
> > meanings or metanarratives ("Wolfe just does track
> > the gospels"). In a writerly text, the reader is
> > in control.

No - I can't agree - the fixed meanings and metanarratives can be 
found they just cannot necessarily be merged into one over-riding 
'meaning' for the entire text. The meanings co-exist, complementing 
and contradicting themselves, but leaving it for the reader to put 
them together how she sees fit.

> >
> > --Is it possible to achieve the writerly text or is
> > it dependent on the prevailing social relations?
> > Barthes is supposed to have identified the
> > readerly text as the dominant mode under capital.
> Cause readerly texts are bad and capital(ism) is bad. If one comes out of
> the Stalin-besotted milieu that gave us Barthes' generation of French
> intellectuals, that is. But I think the real problem with this particular
> theory is that poststructuralists don't really get the texture of pleasure.
> To wit:
> Wolfe compares the writer/reader relationship to the torturer/client
> relationship, perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek. I would offer a different
> comparison: bondage of the sexual kind. Meaning the consensual practices
> that dominants and submissives get up to when they find each other,
> including the whole apparatus of safe words and trust-building measures
> that take place before and/or outside "the game." The dominant is
> certainly, um, dominant. And the submissive is dominated. That's what the
> submissive wants. That is what the submissive _permits_. It is, moreover,
> the dominant's _duty_.

Nice description. I think this ties in well with all that we've said about 
Wolfe and Modernism. I don't believe that Wolfe abdicates control 
of his texts to the reader in any complete sense. Sure, he sets up 
dummy levels of narrative to distance the reader from any secure 
narrative centre, but there are ways through the narrative. Not sure 
that Wolfe's narrators are strong enough to be described as the 
dominant partners though - they are peculiarly slippery.

> What poststructuralists decry as the "authority" of a text is precisely
> what most of us want most of the time.

I always thought that the point was not to accept authority blindly, but 
to analyse the way authority is constructed before accepting it (even 
if only tentatively. Post-structuralism does not necessarily condemn 
the notion of authority, merely contextualise it, and accept that a text 
(I prefer the concrete term 'book' to this work/text confusion - it 
allows covers, introductions, footnotes, and artwork to have an 
authority that co-exists with the linguistic units) may have multiple 
authorities. What is the authority of Severian for example? Does he 
possess the same kind of narrative authority that Gene Wolfe does?

 We want a sense that the writer
> knows what the hell he or she is talking about. Indeed, textual authority
> tends to vary inversely as the number of books thrown across the room in
> disgust. 

Well yes, but what about the narrator? True to his torturer 
profession, Sev is a very controlling narrator, who sometimes 
misleads us. But he makes mistakes. He may not know what the 
hell he is talking about, but I'm sure GW does. There are always 
extra levels of authority - no text contains just one dominant mode of 
authority, although the narrative structure may try to convince you 
that it is otherwise. You can read all of Long Sun as straight 
objective third person narrative, and then be blown away when you 
find out that it is actually Horn's literary construction of Silk.

> > According to Foucault ("The death of the author," 1969):
Barthes wrote 'Death'. Foucault wrote the far more interesting 'What 
is an author?'

> > ..implies that the notion of the author is a historical
> > construct (prior, we looked at heroes, presumably actors
> > in Greek myth and tragedy)

Of course it is! Despite everything that's been drawn from 
Foucault's words I maintain that his essay does not (unlike Barthes) 
destroy the need for authors. He expects us to understand the 
origins of the concept, and show how the 'author' of a text works to 
guarantee the authority of the book. What kind of authority would 
Kilgore Trout's 'The Shadow of the Torturer' possess?
> BTW, in a trivial sense, the notion of the author _is_ a historical
> construct - used to be there were no authors (no writing frex), then there
> were. But what have we really said when we say something is a historical
> construct? I think the answer is, Sometimes a lot; Sometimes not much. In
> the case of the notion of the author, I favor the latter.

Disagree here - perhaps from having done too much boring literary 
research, but the nature of authors and their authority has changed 
many times. In medieval times an author was a quite different thing -
 he could be someone who has rewritten or annotated a prior text, 
he could be an 'auctor' referred to as a guarantee of the veracity of 
certain statements, scientific, religious or otherwise. This guarantee 
was contained in the *name* of the auctor, not in his words. 
Nowadays we cite authorities and the name marks the place where 
we can find objective proof for our assertions, especially in 
scientific debates. In the eighteenth century there was a distinction 
between authors who wrote for the greater good and were real 
literary craftsmen (Pope's saving his work for seven years) and the 
commercial Grub Street 'hacks' who in many cases did not have 
the inherited fortunes which allowed them to concentrate on small 
circulation poetery and instead had to write for money in the forms 
that would generate the most sales.

> > ..efforts to contain a text are problematic..

This assumes you want to contain a text. Why do we reread 
favourite texts? We read them because we constantly find new 
things in them alongside the familiar. Reading is always a 
problematic experience, but we create a dominate reading which is 
the least contradictive. This is containment, of a sort, and I believe 
we do it all the time. The point is that our containment is not 
permanent, merely a device of reading which allows us to construct 
a coherent narrative.

[wasn't too sure about the whole weasel thing, but liked this bit:] 
> Weasels can even give us a handle on the textual property of multiplicity -
> there may be a bunch of cages suitable for any given weasel. But there will
> be a lot more where the weasel doesn't fit, or fits poorly, or gets lost in
> all that room.

Yes - the problem with simple post-modern pluralism is that we 
cannot read BotNS as a cookbook, or a treatise on shelving. The 
reason for this is that the text possesses certain qualities which 
limit the plural possibilities - one of these is the author. What 
Foucault does is to try to make clear the way the author limits the 
possible significations of a book. I maintain that this isn't a bad 
thing - it is neither good nor bad. Our knowledge that GW wrote 
BotNS produces a very different reading (partly because of the 
stature of our author) to the same book as written by Kilgore Trout.

> > ..historically, authors emerged as a category when
> > they became subject to punishment for their work.

I think this is an example of Foucault flipping the familiar argument 
on its head for us (cf his arguments in 'A History of Sexuality' where 
he flips the trad Victorian repressive hypothesis on its head). 
Whether historical evidence supports this discursive trick is another 

 > > ..relevant to today's efforts at erasing the author
> > (double blind peer review) which is actually just an
> > acknowledgement of the power of the author (and
> > the author always sneaks back in anyway).
> Hey, good point! But if the author sneaks back in, does that mean the
> author isn't dead after all?

I think the utopian/socialist goal of a new kind of writing in post-
structuralist theory was always the weakest point. What intrigues 
me is the scope for questioning concepts of authorship and 
authority which are too often taken for granted. That doesn't mean 
we must erase their existence, merely understand the way we read 
the 'new Gene Wolfe novel' in different ways to the 'new Jeffery 
Archer novel', and the way the presence of the author has a bearing 
on our reading of their narrators.

> > For Foucault, neither texts (discourses) nor authors
> > are "unitary"--neither the subject nor discourse is stable.

But they can be stabilised in the reading process. One of my 
favourite bits of post-modern theoretical writing is a little comment 
by Frederic Jameson about the way late 20th century conspiracy 
theories are the last gasp of those who cannot accept pluralism. 
Instead they manage to construct a narrative out of disparate and 
contradictory evidence to make the chaotic events of the twentieth 
century make sense.

But this is what we always do - we construct narratives out of the 
material at hand, guided by the author/obstructed by the author. 

Just because we can't  quantifiably have a 'correct' reading, it 
doesn't necessarily  follow that we can't distinguish between 'good' 
and 'bad' readings. 

At this juncture we probably need a quote from Whitman's 'Song of 
Myself'. Anyone got it to hand?

Visit Ultan's Library - A Gene Wolfe web resource
Jonathan Laidlow
University of Birmingham, UK

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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