Dennis Schep’s new book The Autobiography Effect: Writing the Self in Post-Structuralist Theory has recently been published by Routledge. We spoke to the author.
So, what’s the book about?
In my book I discuss autobiographical texts and fragments in the corpus of authors that are associated with post-structuralism, or that were recruited into the prehistory of this somewhat nebulous school of thought. Traditionally, philosophy (or theory, as some like to call it) is not really a discipline in which people like to talk about themselves. But starting in the 1970s, many French thinkers do precisely that: they write autobiographical texts, or interrupt their philosophical texts to talk about their personal lives. I decided to investigate these autobiographical works and fragments.
How did you come up with this topic?
I have always been interested in rhetoric, in the widest sense of the term. As Nietzsche already claimed, every linguistic utterance is rhetorical; there is simply no unrhetorical, pure language. But at the same time, there’s something subversive about rhetoric, in the sense that texts tend to lose some of their authority when you closely analyze their rhetorical texture. This is perhaps the main insight of deconstruction, but I think it is also what distinguishes literary studies from philosophy: for the latter, the text is secondary to its meaning; for the former, meaning is an effect of the text.
Naturally, this interest in the moment where truth is undone by its own presentation drew me to French theory and post-structuralism, which is basically a way of doing philosophy and literature at the same time. But looking at the ways in which this vaguely defined corpus straddles the boundary between literature and philosophy, one thing stood out: many so-called French theorists write about themselves, while also making the act of writing about oneself – autobiography – into a theoretical problem. Roland Barthes is perhaps the most flagrant example: in 1967 he proclaims the death of the author, but eight years later he writes an autobiography. And what can autobiography possibly be when the author is dead, or when we dismiss a strong notion of authorship?
Barthes may be emblematic, but many authors of his generation were both uncomfortable with autobiography and unable to get away from it. In the work of someone like Hélène Cixous, you’ll find utterances like “autobiography does not exist,” but you’ll also find a book filled with childhood memories. Some people in philosophy departments have dismissed post-structuralism because of its supposed relativism or subjectivism, and the autobiographical elements in many texts associated with this term seem to confirm this reading; but my wager is that more is at stake here, that autobiography is not merely the result of an inflated ego, that there is a serious theoretical problem being articulated in these autobiographical works and fragments.
What problem is that?
I believe the paradox outlined above (people who problematized autobiography often wrote about themselves) was particularly present among authors influenced by structuralism, as structuralism problematized the constellation that had given birth to modern autobiography. To put it very simply: before structuralism, there were words that referred to things. Then Saussure came along, and he replaced this dyadic relation between language and reality with a triad: there is the word, or signifier, that refers to a concept, or signified, which corresponds to something in the world: the referent. The signifier has a materiality (a sound, a word on the page), and so does the referent, but the signified does not; the term that binds the whole system together is basically immaterial. So after Saussure, words no longer refer to reality, but to immaterial concepts, and reality moves into the background. This dereferentialization of language was emphasized by people like Barthes and Derrida, but it is already there, in the signifier-signified-referent triad (where the sign is composed of only the first two elements).
But if language does not simply depict reality, then what about autobiography? After all, autobiography is nothing if not a referential genre: it only functions if we believe the author is telling us something about his or her real life, if we believe there is an extra-textual author, not just an intra-textual subject of enunciation. Of course this is a somewhat simple understanding of autobiography – as I said before, there is no unrhetorical naturalness of language, and I’m sure the early modern autobiographers (people like Goethe and Rousseau) were aware of this. Perhaps this is precisely why they insisted on the candor and veracity of their texts: they knew that language plays tricks on us, but they needed to downplay these tricks to make sure that the self was being presented in language.
With people like Barthes and Cixous, and even with Nietzsche, these gestures of candor and veracity are no longer there (except occasionally in ironic form), and the tricks of language are fully embraced. Most autobiographers write their lives chronologically, but Barthes structures his autobiography alphabetically, with lemmas. Most write in the first person, but Cixous switches between different pronominal forms in the space of a single paragraph. There are many more examples, but in short, I think we can say that where rhetoric was a threat for earlier writers, for this generation it becomes a space of possibility, of play, of freedom.
What consequences does that have for autobiography?
It completely changes the function of self-writing. Where Rousseau wanted to show the world who he really was, Derrida et al. don’t really care about that; they use autobiography to interrupt their texts, to situate their subject position, and to undermine their own authority. Structuralism made the Rousseauist type of autobiography impossible, but precisely this impossibility made it take on a different role: freed from the requirement of honest and complete self-disclosure, it becomes a strategically employed element in a field of language that is conceived as all-encompassing.
This brings us to the literature / philosophy divide, and to the ways in which these authors rhetorically undermine any straightforward separation between the two. Badiou once said that French theory has striven for a place where literature and philosophy would be indistinguishable. I tend to agree with him, but I would add that rather than establishing a zone of indiscernability or making all genre distinctions fade in a larger field of arche-writing, the authors I worked on often make use of the tensions between literature and philosophy, mobilizing the free play of the signifier against the work of the concept. They will interrupt a philosophical argument to talk about their eye problems (Derrida in Memoirs of the Blind) or stop reading a text by Musil to confess they made a mistake and they are talking about the wrong text (Ronell in Stupidity). Autobiographical intrusions upset the rhetorical conventions that have traditionally produced effects of truth and meaning in works of philosophy. Where philosophy harbors a predilection for universality, autobiography is rooted in the particularity of an author’s life. Philosophy traditionally downplays the significance of particularity (in his Meditations, Descartes begins with his life, only to conclude that he’s not sure he even has a body), so when the life of the author appears at such a key moment, it undercuts a text’s authority. This is what I called the autobiography effect.
How the authors I wrote about make use of the autobiography effect differs from text to text. Because of the different uses of autobiography in my corpus, I have chosen not to give each author his or her own chapter, but to structure my book around certain thematic clusters that come up time and again and seem to have some kind of philosophical salience. The sick body, for example: the autobiographical texts by Nietzsche, Jean-Luc Nancy and Avital Ronell are populated by a host of sick bodies that articulate certain philosophical tensions – especially eye problems are a popular topic by means of which the authors of my corpus navigate ethical and epistemological concerns. Another topic is Algeria: a number of people now associated with “French theory” were actually born in Africa, and others did their military or civil service in Algeria during the war, which many described as a formative influence. Especially in their later work, Derrida and Cixous frequently draw on the vicissitudes of colonial history to present themselves as outsiders to the French philosophical establishment. I close the book with a chapter on the refusal of autobiography; indeed, some authors (Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paul de Man) simply chose not to write about themselves, but the rhetorical gestures framing that refusal can be as interesting as the way in which the self is framed.
How would you contextualize the results of your investigation historically?
To fully grasp the importance of Barthes’ alphabetical order, the pronominal politics of Hélène Cixous, or the fragmentary writing of a work like Derrida’s Glas, we have to understand what these people were writing against. The so-called French theorists constantly emphasize that their autobiographical texts are not really autobiographical texts; they wanted to distance themselves from autobiography as a form of subjective self-exposure. Of course, autobiography was never that simple, and one could say that people like Rousseau functioned like straw men for the likes of Derrida. Even so, the 18th century universe of hermeneutics is the context against which the French revolted. Where hermeneutics posits language as an imperfect medium that always fails at transporting the authorial soul, post-structuralism sees the soul as an effect of language. Instead of authenticity, there is a jubilant assumption of the contingency of writing. The theoretical groundwork for this liberation of language from the constraints of hermeneutics was laid in the early 19th century, but starting in the 1970s, we see a proliferation of texts that put these theories to work in more experimental forms, enacting or performing arguments rather than making them.
Today, this revolt against hermeneutics feels a bit pointless. Hermeneutics à la Schleiermacher is no longer en vogue (except in some feuilletons), but more importantly, our media environment has deconstructed the “discourse network 1800” (as Friedrich Kittler famously called it) much more effectively than Derrida and Cixous could have ever hoped for. Where the authors I worked on fictionalized and fragmented the self using complex rhetorical strategies, today we have Facebook and Instagram to do it for us. Autobiography has lost some of its urgency: recent literature on the subject tends to take a more phenomenological approach (see the work of Arnaud Schmitt), sidestepping precisely what made it a problem during the 1970s. So in the end, my book is also a work of intellectual history, and perhaps we are in a better position to understand post-structuralism now that its era is no longer ours.
Dennis Schep is the author of Drugs; Rhetoric of Fantasy, Addiction to Truth (Atropos Press, 2011). He received his PhD in literary studies from the Humboldt University of Berlin in 2017.
Titelbild: Roland Barthes; © Wikimedia Commons