Gannon, S.  (2006)  'The (Im)Possibilities of Writing the Self-Writing: French Poststructural Theory and Autoethnography', in Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies, 6 (4): 474 - 95.

[An excellent post structuralist critique, with the main points summarized, and with some real useful summary of autobiographical writing by an number of French Great Persons, which I'd never met before].

One impact of poststructural theorizing has been to raise serious doubts about the usual notions of the human subject as a unified self  'capable of self knowledge and self articulation' (474). Although this raised serious issues for positivism, it has left an ambiguous legacy for the role of the personal in work such as autoethnography. In particular, the self-conscious writing self is equally criticised, despite the general support for non-positivist understanding and a detached stance. What might Foucault, Barthes, Derrida and Cixous offer instead?

Autoethnography has risen in popularity and has produced a number of different writing practices, from personal recollection to polyvocal multi-media writings as in Denzin. However, for poststructuralists, the  'I' of discourse is not a simple empirical person. Although autoethnography recaptures subjectivity in collapsing self and other, it is still an uncriticized humanist self.

Evocative autoethnography such as that performed by Ellis and Bochner also cut itself off from theoretical sophistication. It can slip into therapy, as Clough suggests, a response to  'postmodern " trauma culture"' (476). It adopts 'standpoint epistemologies... identity politics and a politics of location', assumption that there is some original experience somehow unconstructed and unconstituted. It can come to rely on  'the  "validity of tears"  (Lather, 2000... ) and the  "epistemology of emotion"' (476). Gannon suggests that this slippage is  'necessary', given this limited rejection of realism (476). The entire stance is based on the notion that bodies are simply present  [and the same thing as an empirical or biological object], but it is impossible to isolate bodies like this for post-structuralism.

Autoethnography, and much conventional ethnography, is like fiction, and aims at  'emotional verisimilitude' for people like Denzin  (477), but what is needed is a far more deconstructive writing, as in the autobiographical writings of post structuralists. What is needed is to  'destabilize the authority of the self who writes and knows himself or herself as a discrete and autonomous subject' (477). This is done by threading theoretical argument through personal writing, and by using different writing techniques --'genre and speaking positions proliferate. Texts foreground the dialogic relationship between the self and... particular social/cultural/historical locations' (477). The idea is to avoid slippage back to a simple notion of the self. Post-structuralist autobiographical writing raise new possibilities for autoethnography.


The emergence of the self as something to be written about and thought about is a major theme. There are two  'imperatives: to "care of the self"  and to  "know the self."' (478). Writing itself produces particular subjects, including  'the self writing' (478). Writing was once intended to care for the self, to train oneself by meditating upon the various rules of conduct, and to develop rational thinking. We might develop this classical idea to uncover the repressive nature of everyday life, as Denzin suggests.

Later on, for Foucault, an ethical imperative developed, to know the self, to interrogate it, to confess. This imperative might inform some of the evocative autoethnography as a response to trauma culture. It is the modern humanist rational self, attempting to know itself and thus heal itself which is being developed here.

However, an implication from Foucault is that this self needs to be criticised as a form of individualism which ignores social practices. Denzin does argue that the autoethnographic writing needs to be connected far more to such practices. However, these practices disrupt the self: selves are being reconstituted by these practices. Thus what is really required [also?] is writing that  'would emphasise discontinuities, search for disjunctures and jarring moments... and its tune seamless linear stories of coming to "know" our hidden selves' (480).


Barthes has written some rather peculiar autobiographical material, but it is far from offering a unified self-knowing self. We get fragments of text,' "biographemes"' (481), including photographs and fiction. The book he has written about himself is deliberately intended not to reveal biographical details, and the process of writing, including the pleasures of writing, is foregrounded the book is  'simultaneously named, authored, and denied by Roland Barthes' (481), and  'Roland Barthes 'is not the usual concrete familiar individual, but a signifier. The text describes social situations, the family photographs are seen as symbolizing the various pleasures and thus become  'discursive spaces... provocations for traces of embodied sensory memories' (482). Barthes is not interested in reconstructing himself but in writing a text. He writes in the first person, third person and as a conventional realist author. There is no chronology. There is no attempt to gain empathy from the reader when describing his own troubled past. Barthes describes himself as having several quite distinct bodies, in different states of health, and with different instances, including public or mythological bodies, and even local and Parisian ones.

There is thus no privileged origin for memories or knowledge. Writing does not try to create verisimilitude, since it is always constituted in particular circumstances. Barthes uses 'strategies of estrangement', including interrogating the writing self as to its reality  (483), in order to raise doubts about a unified subject.  'he uses a series of displacing strategies that keep author, writer, present, and past in play' (484).


Is obvious that there is no coherent writing self in Derrida, and that personal narratives are ripe for deconstruction. However, he has written some material about his personal life, in the form of dialogues  'between Derrida and the other author' (484). In Jacques Derrida, there are several photographs indicating something about the man called Jacques Derrida, but constant attempt to disengage from a simple identity. For Derrida  '"The self does not exist... it exists through writing"' [citing an interview, 484]. Another piece Circumfession, is partly autobiographical, but again a fragmented text, written as parallel accounts on a split page. One account has '59 periods and periphrases' of his life, and 59 is also used to replace the conventional narrative  [so Derrida has 59 years, 59 pressures, 59 episodes and so on]  (485). The other text is a more technical account of Derrida's thought, written by another author. Both circumcision and confession are used to generate materials about himself and his relation to his family, and he occasionally interrogates the other author in order to understand himself. He confesses to guilt about his relationship with his mother and takes his own circumcision as a moment of establishing difference and the effects of being inscribed in culture. The intention is to demonstrate vulnerability and responsibility towards others (487). Derrida describes his own work as situating a subject rather than simply destroying the conventional ones, and rejects any simple discourse '"for ethical and political reasons"' (487).

There are many implications for Gannon. At one level, autoethnographers might develop some of these writing techniques and tricks, and pick up on the specific arguments about identity. Generally though it is the complete opposite of writing like that of Ellis. Her accounts of family relations 'are more or less realist tales that leave much less space for the play of différance'. Despite being detailed they 'leave less space for the other' (488). Ellis deliberately simplifies rather than writing more difficult texts that provokes thought about complexity.


Cixous also writes complex and contradictory fragmented texts. All of her work is infused by her personal history, and she openly traces her particular perspective to early myopia. Veils is written with Derrida, who writes as a reader of her text, both deconstructing her text and producing himself as a particular person. The book is  'a sort of autobiographical - critical - deconstructive double act' (489). Both have some shared experiences of being outsiders in France, but neither would see these experiences as some sort of key to their identity. Cixous links her own survivor's story to more general issues -- she  'enters into the imaginary to speak these others to life.... there is an incessant slippage between her voice and the voice of the other' (490). She refuses to see herself as an 'I' separate from these others:  'autobiography is both impossible and inevitable' (490).

Thus for Cixous, one's personal past is always relevant,  'in zones of the unconscious and interconscious that structure all writing' (490). Memories are stored in the body, but there is no logical simple connection to writing. In particular, the  'interconscious is the scene of the body, the self, the other, and of writing all at the same time... writing... is ir/rational, embodied... with the voices of others wound about the voice of the author' (491).

Overall,  'it is clear that just  "being there"  is insufficient is any guarantee of truth' (491), since these terms need to be deconstructed and destabilized. For post structuralism, in particular, there is no simple self that has experiences, but rather a complex source of discourses structured by desires and problems and by discourses themselves. French post structuralists theorist' own writing try to grapple with these themes, and offer critical commentary on autoethnography. They raise possibilities for autoethnography to write about  'performance of the self in its embodied social spaces in (con)texts the promote an ethics of care... and that foreground the limits and fragilities of self-knowledge' (492).

Selected References
(they look fun)

Barthes R ( 1977) Roland Barthes, Berkeley, University of California Press.
Benington G and Derrida J (1993) Jaques Derrida, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Cixous H and Derrida J (2001) Veils: Cultural memory in the present, Stanford C.A.: Stanford University Press.
Clough P  (1997) ' Autoelecommunication and autoethnography: A reading of Carolyn Ellis's "final negotiations"', The Sociological Quarterly 38(1): 95--111.
Lather P (2000) 'Against empathy, voice and authenticity', in Kvinder, Kon and Forskning, 4 : 16--25

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