Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1993
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Ian Angus

What was then, this is now: writing and teaching in the 1990s

Noel King

We can no longer assume that what we are in our present, in our actuality, is given to us either through tradition or through transcendence of our capacities of our faculties with respect to tradition. (Michel Foucault 1)

I can't help thinking of a critic who would not try to judge, but bring into existence a work, a book, a phrase, an idea. He would light the fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, snatch the passing dregs in order to scatter them. He would multiply, not the number of judgements, but the signs of existence; he would call out to them, he would draw them from their sleep. Would he sometimes invent them? So much the better. The sententious critics puts me to sleep. I would prefer a critic of imaginative scintillations. He would not be sovereign, nor dressed in red. He would bear the lightning flashes of possible storms. (Michel Foucault 2)

In the period from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s it was possible to oppose an allegedly moribund discipline - English - to an emergent, energised, interdisciplinary field - communication studies or media studies. The gradual transformation of a rather conservative literary-critical domain was achieved by way of a renewed interest in marxist literary theory, together with an intensification of work in the areas of popular culture, psychoanalysis, film and literary theory, feminism, cultural studies and multiculturalism. All of this indicated the extent to which a discipline was opening itself up to contributions from points of view which hitherto would have been regarded as falling outside its disciplinary brief, thereby effecting a renovation of traditional forms of literary study.

Just how decisive that transformation has been is attested to by the fact that John Frow, trained in Comparative Literary Studies at Cornell University, a teacher for a decade of various interdisciplinary courses at Murdoch University, and a contributor to Southern Review, The Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Cultural Studies throughout the 1980s (with a series of articles on literary-theoretical, comparative literary and cultural studies topics) is now Professor of English at the University of Queensland. 3 And a rather different juxtaposition also helps make the same point about the extent to which circumstances have changed over the last decade. In 1980 the first Australian Communication and Cultural Studies conference was held at the then SACAE, Magill Campus, organised by Jill Brewster, myself, Gunther Kress, and Stephen Muecke. The conference was organised, in part, to promote the BA in Communication Studies that had just been set up at Magill by Gunther Kress. The key-note speaker was Tony Bennett (who eventually was to return to Australia to teach at Griffith University, where he is now a Professor of Cultural Studies), and other speakers and attenders included Ian Hunter, Meaghan Morris, Bill Bonney, Noel Sanders, Dugald Williamson, Mick and Terry Counihan, Bob Hodge, Cathy Greenfield, Lesley Stern, Marie Curnik, Peter Williams, and a host of students from Communication and Media studies courses in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. That was 1980. In 1992 Melbourne University, principally through its Department of English, hosted an international Cultural Studies conference. "That was then, this is now". For me, those sorts of shifts indicate the extent to which it is no longer possible to claim that a sharp distinction exists between the current constitution of various disciplines and the various interdisciplinary configurations which once challenged them so polemically. To now give these remarks a more personal inflection, I will say that, having taught, from the late 1970s, at one of the newer universities (Griffith University), in the CAE sector (Magill) and at the more recent Universities of Technology (Curtin, UTS) I find that these shifts have had a sharp impact in the way I try to conceive of teaching and writing in the 1990s.

The presence of the word "technology" in the title of some tertiary institutions is a happy coincidence, given the extent to which "technology" has become a contemporary theoretical buzzword. Where once one heard of "cultural industries" one now hears of "cultural technologies" and "moral technologies", which could describe anything from the daily functioning of a museum to the activity of reading a novel. This particular shift in terms of critical terminology and forms of critical attention has come from the work of Michel Foucault. More specifically it derives from Foucault's move from discussing the governmentality of populations to discussing self-government and technologies/techniques of the self. 4 In terms of my own teaching and writing emphases, this shift had quite particular consequences. Having taught for so long at tertiary institutions which stress some sort of link between theory and practice - once called "praxis" but now more likely to be described as "trainings in audio-visual literacy" or "compositional rhetorics" - I've been obliged to rethink certain notions of subjectivity as they relate to pedagogical trainings in particular discursive/compositional forms. It's now much clearer to me that one should insist that students are always involved in practices of reading and writing, and I now prefer to talk about "textual assemblages" as a way of trying to indicate that texts are assemblages (of various kinds) which also work to "assemble" their different composers and consumers. For example, a practice of editing or framing is a calculated soliciting of a certain kind of reading. Knowing and using a certain kind of film editing or framing is an attempt to assemble a viewer at the same time as knowing how to deploy the particular technique assembles the person who is utilising that particular stylistic choice. The same thing applies to critical writing. Cultural criticism is an assemblage where what is assembled is a cluster of discourses and a subject of some kind, one who becomes evident in an achieved practice of composing a textual form. So I now find myself, somewhat weirdly, running together post-structuralist critiques of subjectivity with a pre-structuralist humanism. In pragmatic terms, I want students to be aware of genres, discourses, the many kinds of compositional forms or rhetorics which clearly pre-exist their own compositional efforts. But I also want them to think there is some point or significance attaching to the particularity of their contributions. It seems to me a very "necessary fiction" to say that innovation within a received system is possible, and to say that, if there is no new thing under the sun, then at least there is an art of rearrangement and realignment. Consequently I try to tread a delicate line between urging them towards the creative and the passional while also urging them towards the archival and the already-said. For me, it is a question of urging them to be innovative within the terms of a received body of knowledge rather than suggesting (in some libertarian or utopian way) that their spontaneous thoughts will, in and of themselves, be of immediate interest to us all. I teach at an institution which has courses in film, video and audio production, and which also teaches creative writing at an undergraduate and post-graduate level. But I'm never keen to encounter someone who regards themselves as a creative creature waiting to happen in their chosen medium of film, the novel or the short story. Rather I want students to have an equal interest in gaining a critical knowledge of the medium in which they are electing to do their creative work. Scorsese, Godard, Spielberg and Schraeder are all (differently) vastly knowledgeable about the history of film. So in teaching film courses, I want my students to become critical cineastes of this kind.

To give a rather grandiose justification for these comments, I would say that I'm trying to work "diagnostically", in Foucault's sense of that word. For Foucault, the "diagnostic" was opposed to the "archive" and described the opening up of a space in which we try to depart from the things we've been doing and saying for so long. It is a fragile space of freedom from, and transformation of, what used to be. 5 This part of Foucault's thought, displaying as it does a slightly utopian aspect, might embarrass some of his sterner followers. But for me, it resonates with Roland Barthes' description of his desire to "think differently" and also relates to Deleuze/Guattari's notion of "becoming other". As Foucault puts it: "The main interest in life is to become someone else than you were at the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think you would have the courage to write it? What is true for a love relationship is also true for life. The game is worthwhile only insofar as we don't know what will be at the end." 6

Since I've chosen to inflect my remarks in the direction of teaching, the curriculum and writing, I'll close by referring to some comments of Barthes'.

The first comes from his inaugural lecture on his election to a Chair of Literary Semiology at the College of France (an election secured by Foucault). Barthes there warns us that "what can become oppressive in our teaching is not, finally, the knowledge or culture it conveys but the discursive forms through which we propose them". 7 In quoting this here I don't mean that we abandon all meta-theoretical work (which is after all, before all else, writing) but rather that, in these times of scrabbling to define ourselves as the sort of "centre of excellence" that would be likely to attract appropriate levels of funding, we work to maintain spaces for eccentric practices of writing and research. This would be writing which "drifts" and "hesitates", as Barthes put it. 8 It would be writing which refused the easy confidence of "rhetorical clausule", by which he means writing that refuses the comfort of having "the last word". 9 (Barthes by Barthes, 94). Which is my last word.


1. Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst, Mass: University of Massacussets, 1988), p.9.

2. Foucault, "The Masked Philosopher", in Foucault Live: Interviews: 1966-84 trans. John Johnston Semiotext(e) (1989), ed. Sylvere Lotringer.

3. Frow's Inaugural lecture appeared in Meanjin.

4. See Michel Foucault, "On Governmentality", in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds The Foucault-Effect: Studies in Governmental Rationality (Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf 1991).

5. John Rajchman discusses this aspect of Foucault's work in his article, "Crisis", in Representations 28 (1989), pp.90-98.

6. Foucault, "Interview", in Technologies of the Self, 10.

7. Barthes, "Lecture, In Inauguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, College de France, January 7, 1977", trans. Richard Howard Oxford Literary Review 4, 1 (1979), p.42.

8. See Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p.106.

9. Ibid, p.94.

New: 3 December, 1995 | Now: 23 March, 2015