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«Soi-disant: Writing, Screening, Theorizing the Self in French JULIANA DE NOOY, JOE HARDWICK AND BARBARA E. HANNA I believe that at a certain level ...»

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Soi-disant: Writing, Screening, Theorizing the Self in French


I believe that at a certain level both of experience and of philosophical

and scientific discourse, one cannot get along without the notion of the

subject. It is a question of knowing where it comes from and how it functions.

(Jacques Derrida, 15 July 1930-9 October 2004)1 For all it may be older than Martin Guerre2 identity theft is the crime of the moment.

As this issue goes to press, government agencies describe identity theft as the fastest growing criminal activity,3 our in-boxes are besieged with spam apparently attempting some form of it, and a public lecture discusses the way it redefines identity as something external to the self.4 At the same time, no television channel’s evening schedule seems complete without some foray into forensic science, fictional or otherwise, where investigators try to pin down selves who would rather leave no trace.

And a proliferation of reality television programmes encourages participants to construct selves for public consumption, and to become truer to themselves through From the discussion following the 1966 presentation at Johns Hopkins University of “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences”, in Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (eds), The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man (Baltimore;

London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), p.271.

The biblical narrative of Jacob and Esau gives one of the earliest instances of the crime. Furthermore, Jacob, who poses as his brother to steal his birthright, goes on to be a victim of a similar substitution when he unknowingly marries his betrothed’s sister.

Statements to this effect have been made by The US Federal Trade Commission, the Australasian Centre for Policing Research, and the Australian Government Information Management Office, while L’Expansion comments on government response to the rise in identity theft in France (Thomas Huchon, “Cybercriminalité: la riposte française arrive”, L’Expansion, 27 August 2004, http://www.lexpansion.com/art/32.0.77751.0.html, accessed 18 October 2004).

Mark Poster, “Identity Theft, or What’s the Use of Having an Identity”, public lecture at University of Queensland, 7 October 2004.

self-transformation.5 The enthusiastic re-fashioning of the self sits oddly with the simultaneous disquiet at the notion of identity as transferable or detachable, but both tendencies suggest a current preoccupation with the plasticity of individual identity running deeper even than matters of national security or unauthorized credit card use.

Whether moulded by circumstance or subject to fraud, either way the self is seen as forged.

Popular expressions of the instability of identity are supported by developments in theory, similarly drawn toward an interrogation of selfhood. The fortunes of the concept of the self in the twentieth century are typically recounted as a slide from unity to dispersal, a shift from a given aspect of what it is to be human to an unending process of construction, a transformation viewed variously with anxiety, jubilation, or a combination of the two. The role of theorists writing in French is understood to have provided key moments in this narrative, during which the self has been seen as constructed to a greater or lesser degree through the work of language (Saussure), ideology (Althusser), identifications (Lacan), discourse and “technologies of the self” (Foucault), called into question by the Other (Lévinas), and further deand reterritorialized (Deleuze and Guattari), liberated through pleasure (Barthes), pulverized as the sujet en procès (Kristeva), and disseminated through text in the broadest sense of the word (Derrida) without ever being entirely liquidated.

Such a biography, however, paints a paradoxically unified picture of the fluid and pluralized subject, suggesting not only that the shift in conceptualization of the self has been universally accepted, but that the outworkings of its acceptance in various contexts are identical. Yet, discourses of self-transformation often co-exist – A sample of French reality programmes screened over the past year includes: Le Pensionnat de Chavagnes, Star Academy, Queer: cinq experts dans le vent, La Ferme célébrités and Loft Story, in which participants respectively, are reincarnated as 1950s school pupils, blossom (or do not) into and almost comfortably – with a persistent belief in the self as a unique and enduring interior consciousness, for example when the renovation of the self is seen to lead to the discovery of the “real me”. Furthermore, while the constructedness of identity is widely accepted, its uptake varies: the narrative of dispersal may have been privileged in theoretical discourses but the identity-formation narrative remains the reference point of choice in many other places. As we shall see, rare are the instances where no tension between these impulses, between scattering and solidifying, between shifting and sustaining, can be found. That tension, however, is played out in diverse ways.

For versions of the self are dispersed across multiple sites, discourses and disciplines, and articulated in the most unlikely places. They appear not only in primetime television, avant-garde and theoretical texts, but in self-help groups, election campaigns, fantasy role-plays and financial databases. They are as pervasive in discourses of political emancipation, education, fashion and cosmetic surgery as they are in psychoanalysis. If autobiography flaunts its subject, even science – “une idéologie de la suppression du sujet” in Lacan’s view6 – camouflages a writing subject among impersonal grammatical constructions. The articles in the present volume indicate that selves can be traced in diary entries, with their rhythmic and iterative production of an avowed self, but also in lyric poetry, no less subjective for not declaring the self as its subject, in philosophical treatises, where the instance of writing cannot avoid producing a subject, and in cinema, where the authorial subject is diffused through multiple sites of writing-direction-production. And each of these textual forms provides poles of identification – whether a character, a speaking position, or a refrain – whereby a reader/viewer may invest a certain self in another.

Whilst the self may be understood to be produced rather than a given in each case, the singing stars, undergo the transformations wrought by a flying squad of style gurus and survive closed means of its production in such forms as the sonnet, the seven-volume semiautobiographical roman à clef, and the road movie cannot coincide. Neither can the purpose of that production or its effect. The stakes of selfhood are different in each case.

Such non-coincidences – disciplinary and generic – can be revealing. An opportunity to explore them was provided by the 11th Annual International Conference of the Australian Society of French Studies, held in Brisbane and Ipswich in July 2003.7 The conference theme – “Soi-disant: Writing, Screening, Theorizing the Self in French” – brought together work from the broad range of disciplinary approaches available in French studies (literary, linguistic, historical, philosophical, postcolonial, visual arts, cultural studies, cinema studies, queer studies, translation studies). The present volume is drawn from these offerings at what turned out to be the largest ASFS gathering to date, attracting a broad range of international and Australian-based scholars.

Now it was evident from the outset – indeed it was our purpose as convenors – that there would be quite different responses to the theme, different takes on what “soi-disant” might represent. Clearly, in some quarters, autobiography was seen as central to the conference, to the extent of glossing the event as an “autobiography conference”. Life-writing was seen as the template for the writing of the self. Others saw the relationship between self and discourse as the linchpin, while still others anticipated that theorizations of identity and difference would be pivotal. The worlds (a farm, an apartment) and popularity contests while remaining true to themselves.

Jacques Lacan, “Radiophonie”, Scilicet, 2-3 (1970), 55-99, p. 89.

Together with Anne Freadman, our co-convenor, we gratefully acknowledge the financial support for the conference from the University of Queensland (School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies, Contemporary Studies Program, Ipswich Campus, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research) and Queensland University of Technology (Centre for Social Change Research). We also thank Carmen McNaught for all her contributions to the success of the conference.

mismatches in expectations turned out to be productive, dislodging any one focus from a position of centrality.

Having cast our net widely, we were delighted by the variety of papers offered, and then by the ways in which delegates made the papers work together. The level of interest and the quality of contributions have resulted in two collections of papers. The practicalities of publishing mean that, despite the felicities of crossfertilization enacted at the conference, as editors we have been obliged to produce a thematic division between the two volumes. Those papers engaging explicitly with the notions of autobiography and life-writing as they are conventionally understood are scheduled to appear as a Monash Romance Studies monograph in 2005. Focusing on texts by Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Jeanne Hyvrard, Jean Genet, Yves Navarre, Catherine Pozzi, Marie Bashkirtseff and Amélie Nothomb, and on literary criticism by Annie Devergnas-Dieumegard and Abdallah Bounfour, they range from a refutation of the myth that Maghreb literature lacks an autobiographical tradition to an analysis of the role of intertexuality in diary-writing to the pursuit of autobiographical clues playfully hidden in formally constrained texts.

None of the texts analyzed in the present issue of AJFS, on the other hand, would fit Philippe Lejeune’s landmark definition of l’autobiographie – “le récit rétrospectif en prose que quelqu’un fait de sa propre existence, en particulier sur l’histoire de sa personnalité”8 – and most not even remotely. Nonetheless, whether lyric poetry, fictional diaries, literary criticism, road movies or contributions to internet debate, they each articulate a self or selves. And taken together they make a persuasive argument for being attentive to the ways in which over-arching discourses of the self are inflected by localized questions of genre and purpose. This introduction Philippe Lejeune, L’Autobiographie en France (Paris: Armand Colin, 1998), p. 10.

plots that argument as it plots a path through the articles. And it draws on the work of Anne Freadman, our fellow conference organizer, to understand genre. Writing with Amanda Macdonald, she states that “rather than ‘rules’ [...], genres are sets of regularities of practice, subject to deliberate modification on occasion, and displaying the relative inertia that Charles Peirce calls ‘habit’”.9 The papers presented here will show the effects on the reading of the self both of inertia and of deliberate modification. In publishing them as a collection, we make no claims to be unveiling here a theoretization of the self, c. 2003, which would rise from the ashes of its predecessors. Rather, and despite the recurrence of certain patterns and concerns, we present a corpus that nuances the story of the fragmentation of the coherent self. What emerges from the juxtaposition of these texts is the importance of genre in determining the version of identity presented. That is to say, the instance of the subject, whether the “je” of the text or the focus of narrative identification, is largely determined by generic conventions for writing/producing the self and for formulating identity. For example, the possibilities of creating a “je” through the constraints of a metro poem – where that “je” is determined as one in transit through the Parisian underground – mean that such a “je” cannot coincide with the “je” of a personal diary, even if both texts present apparently mundane details of their narrators’ everyday lives.

Rather than “deliberate modification” – the term used by Freadman and Macdonald, quoted above – “meddling” is the word Ross Chambers uses to describe the processes by which the self is “ex-centred” in lyric poetry. Meddling with the conventions of verse creates the space between the writing subject, producer of the poem, and the written subject, a “je” displacing the poet, a meddled-with self. Such a

Anne Freadman and Amanda Macdonald, What Is This Thing Called “Genre”? (Mt Nebo:

mediated subject is not restricted to poetry, but is evident in the various genres studied in this collection of essays. Chambers equally points to the reading self as split and transformed in this process: as readers we are othered through poetry, through fiction, if we are made to think as we have not thought before. If each of the four poems studied by Chambers interferes with genre conventions so as to ex-centre the subject, his point is equally that they do not do so in the same way. He distinguishes between inversion in Verlaine (inversion of metrical and rhyming constraints contributing to the instability of the subject), extension in de Noailles (both self and lines of verse extended in time), intersection in Baudelaire (chiasmic lines, selves fusing as they cross) and even evacuation in the metro poems of Jouet (a trajectory of the self just traceable in an inventory of impressions). Anne-Christine Royère adds “délocution” to this list in her analysis of Henri Michaux’s poetry: a voice, at first affirmed by repetition (rhyme, metre, punctuation), lapses, dissolves into visual and aural rhythms.

If the subject appears absent, however, it nonetheless appears. Here we see the impossibility of eliminating the self, when that self is interpreted as the subject of enunciation: I enunciate therefore I am. Chambers notes an “evacuation of subjectivity that doesn’t go unsigned”, tracking Jouet’s “je” through the metro as he reacts to his fellow passengers and notes down the stations through which he passes;

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