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Jan 1 2000

The so-called conventional genres have come under attack from the critical theories of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction. The best example, for my purposes, of canon and genre experimentation, is Derrida's The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1987) in which he deliberately appropriates the briefest epistolary form of communication as the title and basis of his text and, ironically, builds it into a compendium (521 pages) so varied that it confounds genre classification. It is neither criticism nor literature, yet it is both. Implicit in his title, which encompasses and reaches "beyond" philosophy and psychology, is that it would be impossible to confine this text to one genre. Derrida admits its satirical thrust in his signed and dated post card message to the reader which forms the back cover of the book. Linda Hutcheon in The Canadian Postmodern (1988) comments on Derrida's deliberate manipulation of form so that "classifications of genres are paradoxically built upon the impossibility of firmly defining genre boundaries" (22). Derrida, deliberately, valorizes and subverts genre classification at the same time.

Linda Kauffman, in Special Delivery (1992), analyzes Jacques Derrida's The Post Card and Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1978) for their significance to epistolary theory and postmodernism (xxiii). While it is beyond the scope of my research to undertake the complicated analysis necessary to interpret these two theoretical philosophers, it is significant to my study that each has chosen the post card or the letter to demonstrate that the attempt to communicate between writer and reader, even in the simplest possible written form, is a futile endeavour to bridge the gulf between the signifier and the signified. Kauffman states that "Derrida implies . . . the fiction of the entire epistolary tradition--which posits an authentic signature and an intrinsic correspondence between signifier and signified" (84). Derrida and Barthes posit many questions which frustrate and destabilize the reader's expectations, such as, "how is one to judge the sincerity and authenticity of the letter?" (85). Further, and specific to my work of collection and revision, Kauffman notes a fundamental futility: "These fragments of discourse cannot be resolved into a unitary, organic whole. Similarly, Derrida rigorously disapproves of the economy of sorting and the principle of selection that destines works for the archive" (85). Thus, Derrida negates any possibility of final genre classification. However, Kauffman argues on the basis of form that Derrida and Barthes engage in a kind of double-speak. That is, in deliberately selecting and using the epistolary genre in their criticism of it, they actually valorize the medium at the same time that they exploit it for deconstruction. Both theorists "consciously represent the medium as the message" (83). Kauffman concludes that

While thus proclaiming the end of the postal epoch, The Post Card meticulously reinscribes all the traits that have marked it. Oscillating between valediction and performance, Derrida effectively defers its demise. The Post Card sets a death sentence for epistolarity, but is composed of sentences that delay its execution, thus demonstrating that it is both paradigm and exception to the rule (law). Like set theory, which is folded into Derrida's theory of Genre, epistolarity is a destabilized and destabilizing concept. Insofar as set theory 'governs,' it is a contract obeying certain rules of production. 'Contract' signifies constriction, containment, legalities that bind. But set theory enlarges as well as contracts by enabling us to observe the law of the supplement at work. (90-91)

I would suggest that life writing is well-situated within the "supplement."

Derrida further reinscribes the letter (the "epistle") as literature in "The Law of Genre" (1980) which, significantly, also defies genre classification. It forms part of the narrative of The Post Card since it is one of the papers that he is in the process of writing and delivering as he travels between conferences, mailing postcards wherever he goes. In "Law" Derrida reaffirms the fundamental generic character of the letter: "Epistolarity has certain definable traits, but 'the epistle' . . . is not a genre but all genres, literature itself" (90). "The epistle" suggests that it is the letter's very fluidity, its unfinished nature, its lack of closure, that makes it difficult to classify. The letter is always incomplete--it anticipates a further response and promise which is always deferred but never terminated. The epistolary mode is process. There exists in the very form, or performance, itself, a dialogic exchange between the partners (writer and reader) which is pleasurable and which wills subjectivity in self and other. It holds out the promise of satisfaction even as it is post-poned and incapable of delivering Truth (224).

The Post Card intentionally subverts classification, and by doing so, opens up generic classification to experimentation and the integration of previously excluded texts. This is an example of Derrida's "criture double" or "double-speak" in which he generates an expectation of order and then undermines it. This post-deconstruction agenda creates (or clears) a kind of tabula rasa, and simultaneously, paradoxically, reinscribes that which it has denied. In doing so, it enables, encourages, and even necessitates, a postmodern discourse of experimentation, revision and recovery. Hence, it valorizes process.

Derrida's theory is also important for cultural studies, and the subversive nature of his work provides a destabilizing critique of all forms, interpretations and disciplines. His is a largely text-based critique, and the marking principle of the text side of cultural studies is that its "textual base . . . is very wide and far reaching." It includes "literature, film, media, fashion, language, the body, gender, architecture and sport," and I would add personal letters to the list (Fuery Cultural Studies and the New Humanities [1997] 23).

Derrida's more recent work is relevant to the social base of cultural studies in its "ethical shift" to an "increasing engagement of social, political, and ethical issues," and he acknowledges an "unlimited responsibility that exceeds and precedes my freedom." A similar ethical shift has taken place within deconstruction in the work of Michel Foucault which has led to "a critical vocabulary of 'ethics' in rivalry to 'politics' as a way of theorizing principled social engagement" (Buell "In Pursuit of Ethics" PMLA 114.1 [January 1999]: 9-10). Lawrence Buell concludes that a "reactivation of conscience" has taken place "as a revival of a once distinguished humanistic sensibility unfairly stigmatized in recent years" (11). This "humanistic sensibility" is present in the Victorian ideal presented by Matthew Arnold and is reflected in the McQuesten letters.

Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse: Fragments is also a deliberately fragmented and experimental text. Kauffman notes that it foregrounds the ideas of desire, pleasure and satisfaction in the emphasis on the "lover as a writing subject." He attempts to capture the seminal moment of writing as an act of love and the "fragments of discourse are figures" of the lover's production. He states that the product "the word . . . is the body's gesture caught in action. . . . The figure is the lover at work" (Kauffman 91). In Barthes' analysis the very product of the intention and desire to communicate is defined as love, in spite of the fact of its futility. On this note, Roland Barthes states an indebtedness to Julia Kristeva for helping him to shift from "a semiology of products to a semiology of production" (Kristeva Revolution in Poetic Language [1984] 10). This suggests a greater emphasis on the process, and on the intentionality and desire of the individual writing subject in the production of the text, which must be taken into account for its social implications in any analysis. Barthes' emphasis on "intertextuality" calls for the analysis of various texts as vital to a network of "understanding of literary and cultural studies, [and] also our relationship to the world" (Fuery 56-57). For this reason, the simple and seminal act of personal letter writing becomes a rich form and forum for analysis. It embodies the individual and the social in desire-a desire to communicate.

Julia Kristeva's theories about literature and genre and interdisciplinary studies are useful to my project. In the introduction to Julia Kristeva's Revolution, Leon S. Roudiez notes that Kristeva's work is very challenging but never loses sight of the fact that literary scholars deal with the "'simple' acts of human existence--reading and writing" (10). Kristeva comments on the limitations of canon and genre analysis in literary studies, and advocates the need for a broader view. She has "provided a conceptual foundation for significantly changing one's approach to whatever he or she chooses to include under that vague heading [of literary]" (6).

Two of Kristeva's concepts are relevant to my analysis and both are contained in the following quotation: "On the one hand, no text signifies without its context--its total context, be it conscious, unconscious, preconscious, linguistic, cultural, political, literary; on the other, it is the text alone that leads one to the various areas of that total context (9). The first concept, "its total context," leads to the need for broad interdisciplinary research such as is found in life writing and cultural studies. Kristeva stresses that we must take into account not only the "consciousness of the writer but also his or her unconscious," which would include the dominant ideology of the era. Therefore, the writer is a complex entity even to himself and will remain inexplicable even to a psychoanalytic critic, or to a so-called factual biographer whose product must necessarily remain a fiction. Since the "textual scholar . . . cannot be a universal expert," a need for collaboration is essential. As different disciplines intervene, the text reflects a state of flux which moves history, deepens knowledge, "breaking down the barriers that isolate related disciplines" (9, 5). Therefore, in my selection and analysis of the McQuesten life writings, I have sought to feature both text and context in presenting both the letters and their annotations.

Kristeva's second concept in the above quotation, "the text alone" suggests the need for a process between the two concepts. For Kristeva, the textual presence of language stands as a liberating, anarchic, and even revolutionary force--an instrument of discovery and change. She argues that since the term "literary" is fuzzy "all we can conclude is that literature is whatever is called literature in a given society at a given moment in history" (7). In her view the "literary corpus" that functions as an ideology of rigid canon and genre classifications represents a "text alone" stasis.

This danger of stasis leads to Kristeva's perception that we tend to view "literature" as an object for consumption rather than a process:

It is viewed as a finished product and the process of its productivity is usually ignored. When this process is taken into consideration, however, one realizes that what makes a work interesting or significant does not depend on its having been accepted in (or rejected from) the 'literary corpus'; that latter judgment is both ethical and esthetic, hence a function of dominant ideology. What makes the work significant is a textual presence--poetic language. . . . poetic language bears a more basic significance that has to do with our individual and collective being-in-the-world. (7)

Kristeva's definition of "poetic language" carries within it a strong sense of flux. It stands for the infinite possibilities in all language acts, and in literary practice and linguistics, which are seen as the "exploration and discovery of the possibilities of language" including the study of its "becoming" (2-3). It is in the "becoming" that the "human being constitutes himself as signifying and/or social. . . . the textual experience reaches the very foundation of the social," and can either destroy it or transform it (67). The ethical dimension is obvious in Kristeva's work and the sense of collectivity argues for a cultural analysis on the basis of text and social political considerations. We can note here that the idea of "becoming" encompasses both the "process," and the "writing subject" as a "social" entity, which are all emblematized in letter writing.

Linda Hutcheon, in The Canadian Postmodern, posits a similarly open process and suggests that we need help to "stop talking about writing and the written text as fixed and dead products; we are urged to 'ing'--to see that reading and interpreting are processes in which we too participate as, equally, makers of our culture" (183). The term "life writing" is apt since it suggests an open process and does not imply closure as in articled genres, such as, "The Novel." In the second part of the quotation, Hutcheon implies an ethical element of responsibility in cultural interpretation. She applauds the use of alternative texts, devices and documents in writing and analysis, and states: "we can know [the past] today only through its documents" which provide "a potential for change" (Hutcheon Canadian 22). Hutcheon's postmodern analysis of Canadian writings provides a cultural critique that is based in both text and society and has a strong moral, political thrust. For instance she analyzes Ruby Wiebe's The Temptations of Big Bear (1973) and Timothy Findley's The Wars (1977) and Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) (210, 216) for their "political and moral retelling" of events (Hutcheon Politics 1-2; Canadian 3, 11).

The use of alternative texts in postmodern literary analysis has provided a liberating sense of "exploration and discovery" that has encouraged the recovery and analysis of a large variety of textual material that had previously been excluded from the canon (Kristeva 7). These alternative texts include court testimonies, oral and video tape recordings, photographs, diaries, journals, and the personal letters of "ordinary" people. William Ashcroft, in The Empire Writes Back (1989), notes that many post-colonial texts include "alter/native" combinations of oral or indigenous forms which require adjustments to "what is admitted to the category of 'literature'"(181-83). A post-colonial analysis of the McQuestens' writings reveals their colonial attitudes in their Presbyterian missionary zeal to impose their ideal of British cultural superiority on the "heathen" of distant lands, on immigrants, or on native Canadians. For this reason, the letters provide valuable material for the study of the Victorian colonial attitudes that formed our culture, both its positive and its negative aspects.

As fundamental a text as The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory (1993) (ECLT) also outlines the "New Directions" in genre theory. For instance, the seventeenth-century specialist and feminist theorist, Barbara Lewalski, points out that the "recognition that generic codes change over time has engaged modern genre critics with issues of history, politics, gender, and audience expectation, as well as with complex literary historical issues of mixed genre and generic transformations" (83). Also, the feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that "traditional genres are the historical product of a patriarchal social order" (83). Therefore, the recovery of women's life writing is vital to a full analysis of literature and culture.

Finally, Willie van Peer applauds the inevitability of canon penetration and its benefits. In his "Two Laws of Literary History: Growth and Predictability in Canon Formation," he argues that the "law" that seeks to preserve the canon and the "law" that seeks to challenge the canon are constructive dynamisms: "Thus the processes of selection and preservation, of canonization and de-canonization, work in all directions, and--provided that one token of a work remains--all kinds of movements are open in principle" (Mosaic [June 1997] 126). Van Peer's view is that literary studies have become needlessly "impoverished" and he encourages "interdisciplinary relations" so that the literature and theories of the lives of individuals and societies can be "tested by Experience. . . . the humble task." I posit that the kind of "experience" recorded in personal letters is valuable to a variety of disciplines in "the formulation and testing of our theories" (129-30). In accordance with van Peer's analysis, the personal "experience[s]" in the McQuesten letters are the "token" writings of an earlier canon and of a previous literary history.

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
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