theory/language/power

‘There was until recently in Paris, on Rue Pavée in the Quatrième, a decrepit looking language school which displayed in its window, in English (on a dusty cloth banner, in fifties–style white on red lettering) this injunction: “don’t let the English language beat you—master it before it masters you”‘ – Denise Riley

Although Michel Foucault recognises the power that literature, as part of a wider discourse, can have over societies, he gives little indication as to the kinds of resistance that literary studies can make to such power. His description of the ‘author-function’ demonstrates how powerful institutions insist upon the importance of authors, not texts themselves, as a means of narrowing the responses that critics and readers make to texts, resulting in a discourse of ‘repetition’ that only echoes authors’ biographies and their implications, rather than forming original and creative responses, which could destabilise the discourse. Postcolonial theory explains the vast and damaging extent to which literature can be used as part of this Foucauldian power dynamic if left unchecked. Chinua Achebe and Edward Said believe literature can proliferate the ideals of the colonising power, altering how the colonised perceive themselves – typically by redefining them as ‘other’ – placing the colonised in negative-association to the coloniser who takes on a sovereignty equal to Foucault’s author-figure. Moreover, Homi Bhabha suggests colonising discourse can be so powerful that colonised populations begin ‘mimicking’ their colonisers, paralleling the ‘repetition’ and ‘sameness’ of response that Foucault suggests author-centric discourse creates. However, queer theory, responding to oppressive heteronormativity, offers a means of literary resistance to controlling discourses. By queering the literary canon, Foucault’s author-function can be self-consciously interrupted. Introducing contemporary queer ideas into a text that were likely never intended by their authors resists biography-centric interpretation and creates a space for genuinely original responses to works, that do not simply ‘repeat’ the author’s initial intentions or contexts, and thus destabilise the discourse.

Foucault supposes that in ‘every society the production of discourse is at once controlled […] and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures’, which exist for the purpose of averting ‘chance events’ and maintaining its ‘awesome materiality’ – to uphold a status quo that suits institutions of power, such as the religious, educational, and medical establishments. Literature and its criticism forms one part of this controlled discourse, and Foucault suggests that the forces of power have, since the 17th century, placed emphasis on the author, what he calls the ‘author function’, as a means of limiting the breadth and variation of responses criticism can make to texts, by emphasising the sovereignty of the author and their biography. The author is no longer simply ‘the individual who […] wrote the text in question’ but is made into ‘a unifying principle in a particular group of writings’, they ‘lie at the origins of their significance, the seat of their coherence’. This leads to readers looking for authors to ‘display the hidden sense pervading their work’, to ‘reveal their personal lives’ so that the reader might understand ‘what gave birth to their writings’; all meaning within a text, whatever truth it may contain, is linked to, and entirely dependent upon, its author.

However, according to Foucault this is not the truth at all, but rather the ‘result from a complex operation whose purpose it is to construct the rational entity we call an author’, an operation run by those controlling the discourse. This ‘author principle’ is created because it ‘limits this same chance element’ that poses such risk to a stable discourse – this element that, I argue, is genuinely original interpretation of a text – by creating an ‘identity whose form is that is individuality and I’. In other words, by giving the author-figure absolute sovereignty over the meaning of their texts or by suggesting that all texts by the same author will in some way be internally linked due to their secondary position to the author’s biography, powerful institutions are able to cultivate a discourse that is obliged to check all of its responses to literature against the author and their life, thereby limiting the kinds of responses that readers feel are valid to make, and thus reducing the chance of a subversive interpretation that could destabilise the discourse and the institutions that created it.

When literature becomes ‘acceptable only if it carries an author’s name’, and that its ‘meaning and value […] depends on this information’, not only is the variation of critical responses limited, but responses come to repeat each other, therefore compounding the stability of the discourse, and making resistance through originality even more unlikely. Foucault points out that ‘a single work of literature can give rise […] to several distinct types of discourse’, and uses the example of the Odyssey, saying that it is ‘repeated in the same epoch’ by ‘Berand’s translation’, ‘Joyce’s Ulysses’, and ‘infinite textual explanations’. Despite this, however, whatever ‘techniques employed’ in these resulting discourses, their role is only to say ‘finally what has silently been articulated deep down’. The illusion of commentary is that ‘it gives us the opportunity to say something other than the text itself’, but due to the author-function, it actually operates on the ‘condition that it is the text itself which is uttered and, in some ways, finalised’. Institutions of power have made the identification of an author so central to texts, that responses are always looking to a affirm a meaning already present inside the text, rather than using texts as inspiring sources to develop new meanings; ‘the novelty is no longer in what is said, but in its reappearance’. Thus, commentary comes to ‘limit the hazards of discourse’, comes to unknowingly stabilise it and support powerful institutions, by crafting responses to works of literature that ‘take the form of repetition and sameness’, as they are all looking to affirm the same fabricated truth – the sovereignty of the author-figure.

Foucault offers little suggestion as to the kind of resistance that literary studies could or make to such paralysing discourses, and postcolonial theory demonstrates the vast scale on which these power dynamics can have devastating effect if unresisted, and the part that literature can play in this. Namely, that entire populations of colonised peoples come to regard their colonisers in the same way readers are conditioned to regard author-figures. Chinua Achebe suggests that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one such text that contributes to this effect, saying that it affirms ‘the need in Western Psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe’, as a place ‘at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest’. Though many have argued that Conrad actually condemns Western ideals in his novel, attempting to show Western and African values as fundamentally alike, Achebe argues that ‘Conrad saw the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its tooth’.  

In being so unaware, Conrad contributes to the transformation of colonised peoples into an ‘other’, a process that Edward Said describes in Orientalism. Said describes how, through ‘a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient [or colonies more generally] into western learning’ – in discourse, in literature – the coloniser presents the colonised as being essentially different to the coloniser, as an ‘other’: ‘variously designated backward, degenerate, uncivilised, and retarded […] they were seen through, analysed, not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved and confined’. By turning ‘the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationships between geography on the one hand and civilised or uncivilised people on the other’, the coloniser is able to transform the colonised into a branch of knowledge and subsequently master them through categorisation via discourse.

This creates a strikingly similar power dynamic to Foucault’s theorised ‘author-function’: the coloniser comes to have total sovereignty in the discourse, he is the seat of truth and meaning, the ‘unifying principle’. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that responses made by the colonised to the colonisers can be strikingly similar to the way readers and critics come to respond to authors. Homi Bhabha theorises that in the same way Foucauldian responses to authors are based on ‘sameness’, colonised people come to ‘mimic’ their colonisers; due to representations in discourse, they believe their colonisers are centres of truth and righteousness, themselves lesser, and that therefore they should behave like their oppressors. Bhabha states that ‘the desire for a reformed, recognisable other’, a colonised person that wishes to become recognisable as the type of goodness that discourse alerts them to – the coloniser – ‘often produces a text rich in the traditions of trompe lo’oeil, irony, mimicry, and repetition’. In response to an all-powerful figure presented in the discourse by powerful institutions – the coloniser, as with the author – colonised peoples look to verify and then repeat a truth and meaning that they believe lies within, and only within, the aforementioned all-powerful figure. This comes not just at the expense of original literary interpretation, but at the possible loss of colonised peoples’ self-image, identities, and cultures. If left unchecked, literature, as part of a wider discourse, can be used to immensely powerful political ends.

Queer theory, however, responding to oppressive heteronormative societal values and literature, offers a literary means of resistance that can destabilise pervasive and self-perpetuating discourses.  Through the transformation of sex as act into sexuality as discourse – through ‘sex having to be put into words’, as Foucault terms it in his History of Sexuality – powerful institutions are able to create normative sexual frameworks which come to be recognised, as did the author and the coloniser, as the standard against which all other things must be measured or defined as deviating. Accordingly, literature has historically played a part in creating and maintaining such norms, with many critics pointing to the Medieval Romance tradition as one example of literature seemingly advocating heteronormative values and, in doing so, stabilising heterocentric discourses.

Despite this, literary queer theory has found a means of resisting these values, and therefore, of destabilising the discourse, through queering the literary canon. ‘To queer the canon’, posit Christoph Lorey and John Plews, is an opportunity to ‘exceed the material limits of the canon’s own historical position’. It is this ‘exceeding’, not just of the canon, but of discourse’s ‘awesome materiality’ that Foucault described, that makes queering so powerful. By crafting a queer counter canon, as texts like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America do, by writing queer commentary on canonically respected authors such as Dickens, or, especially, by creating new adaptions of canonical works with overt queer themes added into them, such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho which adapts several of Shakespeare’s history plays into queer cinema, queer theory can destabilise discourses. Instead of attempting to verify what an author meant, instead of repeating other critical interpretations, queering self-consciously applies intensely contemporary themes to works of literature that likely never intended to encompass such issues. In doing so, queer theory bypasses the author-function by forming new creative and critical spaces outside of author and biography centred readings that powerful institutions deem valid, and, through its originality, is able to destabilise an inward-looking discourse that feeds on ‘repetition’ and ‘sameness’. As Berlant and Warner state, it is this refusal of queer theory to ‘be assimilated into a single discourse’, and its insistence on ‘creating new contexts’, that makes it capable of ‘transforming both the object and practice of criticism’ to such an extent.

As Foucault described, and of which postcolonial theory demonstrated the extreme possibilities, discourses attempt to stabilise and perpetuate themselves by assigning importance to certain figures or groups – authors and colonisers respectively – so that others, rather than question these figures or attempt to make original material of their own, become obliged to lionise and echo them ad nauseam. Queer theory, however, through a continued resistance to categorisation, coupled with a commitment to newness, and the self-conscious insertion of contemporary queer issues into historic and canonised works of literature, is able to create a material space outside of that which the discourse anticipates or allows, and in doing so begins to destabilise it.  The principles of queer theory are the literary ‘chance elements’ that can resist power.

Achebe, Chinua, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Gen. ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd ed., (New York: Norton, 2010), pp. 1612-1623.

Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner, ‘What does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?’, PMLA, No. 110, (New Haven, CT: Modern Languages Assosication, 1995, pp. 343-349.

Bhabha, Homi, ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’, October, Vol. 28, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), pp. 125-133.

Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge: and The Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith, (New York: Pantheon, 1971).

  • ‘What is an Author?’, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Gen. ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd ed., (New York: Norton, 2010), pp. 1475-1490.

Kruger, Christine L., ‘The Queer Herosim of a Man of Law in “A Tale of Two Cities”’, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, No. 8.2, (Milwaukee WI: Marquette University Press, 2012), last accessed 8 March 2018, <www.ncgsjournal.com>.

Said, Edward, Orientalism, (London: Penguin Classics, 2003).

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