For my good and kind friend P., and a cheat sheet for me

My good and kind friend P. read my August 7 post, and left me a comment on FB.  He said, “Liz, I’m going to “Like” this but it went right over my head.”

I said, “Oh my god. Every morning I sit down at 9 am sharp to write. It takes me until about 10 am to get straight in my head again what post-structuralism is and what I’m doing with it. Then, I’m able to hold that in my head for only about two hours before I start getting confused again, and I start doubting my understanding, and losing hold of little threads and connections. Then I watch the Olympics until my brain recovers. And I’ve been doing this for a long time. Why, I don’t know.”

So, what follows is a sort of cheat sheet–for anyone reading, and for me to consult daily to get my bearings.

I’m going to start with a quotation from Cloud Atlas, which I just finished reading. The post-structuralists would have a bit of a problem with it, but it’s a good jumping off point. It’s something a minor character is writing in his notebook just before his plane crashes; more context than that isn’t particularly necessary:

  • Exposition: the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction–in short, belief–grows ever “truer.” The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct; in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
  • The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. Power seeks + is the right to “landscape” the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.) (p. 392-3)

Keep this in the back of your mind, and read on.

Here goes:

The post-structuralists believe a few key things:

  1. Language is not transparent. It’s not a direct representation of the world. It’s all metaphor. The symbols “t-r-e-e”  have nothing to do with the shady object outside your front door except that culturally, and arbitrarily, we’ve made one signify the other. So, language is never a direct representation of the world. It’s a metaphor, an interpretation.  But we all use it and agree on it, so it seems natural and we forget that it’s something we made up. And so:
  2. Reality is discoursive, constituted by discourse, or language. Reality as we know it, perceive it, is constructed by language. There is no reality outside of language, at least not for us human beings. Everything we perceive is always and already interpreted and language is the medium. And remember that language is not transparent. We don’t remember or experience anything directly, objectively, truly. We always experience and remember from a perspective–and then we use language, which is not transparent, to describe it. Any experience or memory of an experience is, for all of these reasons, an interpretation. This is where the  Titanic illustration comes in. The post-structuralists would say that the Titanic illustration is wrong because it assumes that an actual, objective, knowable past exists. But the rest of it is pretty close.
  3. The self (which the post-structuralists call the subject) exists only in language. It didn’t exist before language and it doesn’t exist after language. (Don’t ask me what I mean by “after language.”) By the “self” I mean, like, “who you are.” Sort of, but not quite, your soul. Those other than the post-structuralists–the humanists, for example–would say it was that thing inside you that makes you who you are, different from everyone else. The “nature” half of “nature vs. nurture.” Kind of.  But the post-structuralists say that this self, or subject, is created by, and exists only, in language. Before language, no self. This part is a bit weak, I know.
  4. Because the self, or subject, exists only in language, it is constantly changing and shifting and it’s never coherent. That’s because there is no one thing inside you that is just you, never changing. It’s effected by all the cultural and religious and community and political discourses and ideologies, and so on and so forth, all around you. These are systems of ideas, and these systems–like social mores–privilege certain discourses, and silence other discourses. (You can see this in politics and religion especially easily!) “He who pays the historian. . .” or as we know it better, “History is written by the victors.” But we’re talking about something more subtle here; ideology is a more subtle kind of manipulation, a kind of thought control–the practice of making values, beliefs, morals that are not universal seems universal, nature, inevitable. (Remember reading “Body Ritual Among the Nacerima” in Social Studies class in 9th grade? Along those lines.) (
  5. And anyway, even if the self weren’t constantly changing and shifting and contradictory, the post-structuralists believe you can never know the self, or the subject. You just can’t access it.
  6. And then of course, you can’t represent it in language, which brings us back around to #1.

And all of this is why, then, post-structural autobiography can’t exist. And yet, I’m writing one. Or trying to.


One Response to “For my good and kind friend P., and a cheat sheet for me”

  1. Perhaps writing concisely would help “P” out. Just a small thought.

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