Archive for the ‘Reader, Meet Author’ Category

I have just joined a Foucault Discussion Group in which we are going to read and discuss, aided by the joys of Google Groups, Foucault’s 1983 Lectures. Entitled The Government of Self And Others, this collection is particularly poignant to me because it represents some of Foucault’s last public work before he died in 1984. The original transcripts are owned by his ‘widow’, Daniel Defert. I still can’t quite get my head round what it must have been like, what it still is like (Defert is now  75) to have been the lover and life partner of such a man as Michel Foucault.
Even a casual observer can’t help but convey some of the electrifying moments when seeing Foucault, Live! Journalist Gerard Petitjean wrote in 1975: 

‘When Foucault enters the amphitheater, brisk and dynamic like<

someone who plunges into the water, he steps over bodies to

reach his chair, pushes away the cassette recorders so he can put

down his papers, removes his jacket, lights a lamp and sets off at

full speed. His voice is strong and effective, amplified by the

loudspeakers that are the only concession to modernism in a hall

that is barely lit by light spread from stucco bowls. The hall has

three hundred places and there are five hundred people packed

together, filling the smallest free space . . . There is no oratorical

effect. It is clear and terribly effective. There is absolutely no

concession to improvisation. Foucault has twelve hours each year

to explain in a public course the direction taken by his research

in the year just ended. So everything is concentrated and he fills

the margins like correspondents who have too much to say for the

space available to them. At 19.15 Foucault stops. The students

rush towards his desk; not to speak to him, but to stop their cassette

recorders. There are no questions. In the pushing and shoving

Foucault is alone. Foucault remarks: “It should be possible to

discuss what I have put forward. Sometimes, when it has not

been a good lecture, it would need very little, just one question,

to put everything straight. However, this question never comes.

The group effect in France makes any genuine discussion

impossible. And as there is no feedback, the course is theatricalized.

My relationship with the people there is like that of an actor

or an acrobat. And when I have finished speaking, a sensation of

total solitude . . .’

– Gérard Petitjean, “Les Grands Prêtres de l’université française,” Le Nouvel Observateur

1983 and 1975 are a long time ago now.   When Foucault was giving his last lectures before his death, I was too busy trying on ra-ra skirts and buying Howard Jones records to notice. But since I first read Foucault in the early 1990s, I have been quite overwhelmed by the clarity and incisive force of his ‘voice’.  So I strongly disagree with philosopher John Searle, who, like many, describes Foucault’s writing style as ‘obtuse’:


‘Philosopher John Searle once asked Foucault why his writing was so obtuse when he was easily understandable in conversation. Foucault told Searle that 25% of one’s writing needs to be incomprehensible nonsense to be taken seriously by French philosophers.’

I think these lectures show that actually Foucault’s speaking and writing styles were quite similar, and his urgency to illuminate and interact with his audience/readers was as strong in both arenas. Beginning to read the transcripts I am already reminded of Freud, and how it is quite easy to switch between his written work and representations of his speeches/lectures. I am also pleased to see that whilst I’ve struggled to find in Michel’s oeuvre, any direct challenge to or description of the function of ‘power’ in academia, the comments on Foucault’s lectures do show he had some issues with the conventions of the university, and the problems of actually having a dialogue between lecturers and students. If I’d been there I have no doubt I’d have been one of the keen young things arranging to meet Michel for coffee off campus to get down to discussing the nitty gritty of his ideas.

The journalist who wrote the evocative passage above called his article ‘Les Grands Pretres de l’universite francaise’ – The High Priests of The University of France. Now I am a critic of the ‘Great Men Theory’ of history which holds up individuals as demigods. But as my novella Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls reveals, I am guilty of embodying it too.

At the risk of completely going into religious mode, a radio four programme last night called  The Voice Of God also seems relevant here.  Participants in the show talk about how, despite all the texts and rituals people use to ‘find God’, the voice of God is actually pretty difficult to hear. In order to get the full benefit of God’s message, you have to put yourself somewhere very quiet and still, you have to meditate and open yourself up to what He might want to say to you.

And it’s the same with Foucault – for me, at least. I think there’s an interesting dissonance between how his work is all about the ‘modern’ (or postmodern, or post-postmodern) age, with its institutions, discourse, power relations and ‘noise’, but the only way to really ‘get it’ is to sit back and stop, to read, to listen, to think.

That’s what I’m going to be doing over the next few weeks. But as my long suffering readers/friends know, I might find it hard to keep my meditations to myself!

And when you slam
Down the hammer
Can you see it in your heart ?
All of the rumours
Keeping me grounded
I never said, I never said that they were
Completely unfounded

So when you slam
Down the hammer
Can you see it in your heart ?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Can you delve so low ?
And when you’re standing
On my fingers
Can you see it in your heart ? … ah …
And when you try
To break my spirit
It won’t work
Because there’s nothing left to break
All of the rumours
Keeping me grounded
I never said, I never said that they were
Completely unfounded

You won’t sleep
Until the earth that wants me
Finally has me
Oh you’ve done it now
You won’t rest
Until the hearse that becomes me
Finally takes me
Oh you’ve done it now
And you won’t smile
Until my loving mouth
Is shut good and proper

All of the rumours
Keeping me grounded
I never said, I never said that they were
Completely unfounded
And all those lies
Written lies, twisted lies
Well, they weren’t lies
They weren’t lies
They weren’t lies

I never said
I never said
I could have mentioned your name
I could have dragged you in
Guilt by implication
By association
I’ve always been true to you
In my own strange way
I’ve always been true to you
In my own sick way
I’ll always stay true to you

You are my secret coat. You’re never dry.
You wear the weight and stink of black canals.

I don’t feel the cold. Marching through the park my padded jacket keeps out the world. My crimes are not visible, but hidden under layers of quilt. This is how I deal with guilt, wrap it up, keep it covered, just walk.

But you don’t talk, historical bespoke.
You must be worn, be intimate as skin,
And though I never lived what you invoke,
At birth I was already buttoned in.

Cousin coat can hold many secrets. I have mastered the art of picking up pain, putting it inside, zipping it up. It’s just that after a certain number of years, the weight of my sins my unspoken desires the things I wanted to say but didn’t my mother crippled in the residential home that place in the pit of my stomach where the earth opens up and I have to hold my breath to stop myself from falling in has grown unbearable. This coat drags me down into the dark water. It reeks of regret.

And what you are is what I tried to shed
In libraries with Donne and Henry James.
You’re here to bear a message from the dead
Whose history’s dishonoured with their names.

Whenever I enter the university library, to keep warm mainly, and hoping youth’s brazen face might rub against mine, I think of my stepfather. Our house of books that’s become his mausoleum. Raymond Williams, Walt Whitman, Jake Arnott, Paul Scott, Madhur Jaffrey, Elizabeth David, Alice Oswald, Stuart Hall. A year after he died my sister received a letter from his university library, requesting  his overdue books. The letter informed my dead stepfather that he would not be allowed on the premises, until he returned them.  Which made us laugh with hollow gallows humour. But now it’s just the sadness and the feeling of all the shelves of books that I grew up surrounded by, falling on my head, burying me alive.  

Be with me when they cauterise the facts.
Be with me to the bottom of the page,
Insisting on what history exacts.
Be memory, be conscience, will and rage,

I keep walking. The paths criss cross over each other and I sometimes abandon them and stride over the grass sinking into the mud into my past that keeps accosting me in the dark.  One of these days I will take off this coat and everything I collected in every crevice all the bits of tissue I shoved in my pockets with my grief and dust that accumulated the piles of lust and anger and the words that were always forming on the tip of my tongue but fell silently into the folds of the garment before they were uttered will escape.  This coat has not let me forget anything. I flinch at the thought of what will be unleashed when the stories are no longer kept in. I know it will happen soon. I don’t stop.

And keep me cold and honest, cousin coat,
So if I lie, I’ll know you’re at my throat.

Cousin coat by Sean O’brien:
Picture from this collection of vintage mug shots of women:

The illuminous Dan Holloway of eight cuts publishers recently enlisted some talented people to help him paint Oxford with poetry

I contributed one of my poems and didn’t think much more of it. Then after the event, where some intrepid writers went round the famous university city attaching poems to anything that would take them, I got a message from Dan. He told me that someone had read my poem, Mr Sunshine Man, and contacted him via the information on the sheet of paper that she found. The person in question said how much she liked my poem.

I was pretty amazed, as I am a VERY part-time poet, and really don’t have a huge amount of confidence in my work. As someone on twitter said not so long ago, ‘life is hard; poetry is harder’.  But I don’t turn down a compliment so here is my poem, and some photos of the amazing night time poetry raid on Oxford.

Mr Sunshine Man

You                                                                                                                                                            are                                                                                                                                                               the                                                                                                                                                                         bright                                                                                                                                                             rays                                                                                                                                                         of                                                                                                                                                                    sunlight                                                                                                                                                      crashing                                                                                                                                                 through                                                                                                                                                         the                                                                                                                                                                      bars                                                                                                                                                         of                                                                                                                                                                     your                                                                                                                                                                own                                                                                                                                                                   prison                                                                                                                                                     cell                                                                                                                                                           breaking                                                                                                                                                        their                                                                                                                                                                 way                                                                                                                                                                  out                                                                                                                                                           and                                                                                                                                                           into                                                                                                                                                                  the                                                                                                                                                                      free                                                                                                                                                                    world                                                                                                                                                                  finding                                                                                                                                                             me                                                                                                                                                                      so                                                                                                                                                                      in                                                                                                                                                                         need                                                                                                                                                                  of                                                                                                                                                                            illumination



OK It wasn’t supposed to come out like that but I am going to leave it. For poetry’s sake.


In a previous post of mine about ‘subjectivity’ ‘objectification’ and narcissism, a frighteningly astute commenter likened me to Morrissey. He quoted me:

“He [Roland Barthes] positioned himself as the ‘amorous subject’ and that seemed to me like the font of his creativity and knowledge and writing and work. If you are always the ‘object’ of someone else’s affections, it is a very passive role. What do you actually do?”

And then said, damningly:

‘This is Morrissey in a nutshell. A continually fascinating aspect of his work is how melancholic longing is always a form of activity, even attack. Always pursuing, its unimaginable that the “amorous subject” of a Morrissey lyric could ever be the pursued. You are the quarry.

His work is constantly recriminating the loved object for its passivity. And here there is a secret collusion between lovers and enemies: “And what do you do? You just sit there”.’


I hate Morrissey because 1984. Because he gave us no choice. He took all the boys I knew and turned them into versions of him.

I hate Morrissey because you can’t be a girl and a bona fide Smiths Fan. Don’t tell me I’m wrong. I read it in NME, and in Saint Morrissey

I hate Morrissey because he made hating Thatcher trendy. And I hate to be part of the in-crowd.

I hate Morrissey because he killed poetry. He was the ‘sociopath who annihilated Plath’ and he can’t even write poems .

I hate Morrissey because Manchester was already self-important enough.

I hate Morrissey because 1993. He tricked us into thinking we had something in common apart from him, and our suicide friend.

I hate Morrissey because Vauxhall and I was a warning sign. Because I didn’t listen, even though I knew it off by heart.

I hate Morrissey because my England never has been white.

I hate Morrissey because ‘John Major sings Morrissey sings Girlfriend In A Coma’ is only funny the first 10 times.

I hate Morrissey because listening to middle class white men analysing pop music was already boring enough

I hate Morrissey because I had to know a real Bengali in Platforms. And I hated him too.

I hate Morrissey because 2011.  Because he makes the heterosexual, bearded Jarvis look like a sissy.

I hate Morrissey because Mark Simpson. I hate Mark Simpson because Morrissey. I hate both of them because I can’t tell the difference.

I hate Morrissey because


Penny pink smaller 

photo: Jasmine Hirst 

In her book, Bad Reputation, performance artist, playwright, and one-time citizen of the world of Andy Warhol and his Factory (even appearing in Warhol’s and Paul Morissey’s film, Women in Revolt), Penny Arcade (born Susana Ventura) has collected three of her foundational performance pieces for the first time.

In the “disenfranchised world of queers, junkies, whores, stars, stalkers and geniuses,” that forms Arcade’s interior life, we find her commentary on sexuality and censorship, Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!, her take on growing up in a working class Italian-American family, La Miseria, and her portrayal of teen life on the streets, Bad Reputation

All three of these works are informed by her passage through the schools of Italian-American identity, avant-garde theater and hard knocks. At 17, Arcade became involved with the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, absorbing its queer, camp, and surrealist tendencies that she would carry on in her own work. 

Bookended by thoughtful essays and interviews, Bad Reputation‘s accompanying material is quite sharp. Commenting on Arcade with wit and precision are playwright Ken Bernard; writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus; novelist and playwright Sarah Schulman; self-professed “independent video producer/freelance architect/New York City cab driver,” Steve Zehentner; and professor of drama and theater studies, Stephen Bottoms.

Although her audience may be more struck by the role of the body in Arcade’s pieces (onstage she swears by the presence of slinky neo-burlesque dancers and her own nakedness), at the core of Penny’s performances is the issue, not of body, but of voice–how she uses it and how she has paid for it. Interestingly, Arcade is both a monologist and a dialogist, at once self-focused and an activist for her society. 

She often follows up extended monologues by addressing her audience directly; she confides in Bad Reputation, “I started doing it because I was so ignored by the press and the art scene!” When I spoke with her, she stressed that “Curiosity about my place in society and the world is at the heart of my work. The need to communicate is what has sustained my work for over 25 years. My work is about breaking down isolation and assuaging sorrow, sharing the absurdities of life.”

The book has received less coverage than one would expect, and even the coverage it has received is at times puzzling, as in the case of Hilton Als’ oddly dismissive New Yorker review. Perhaps Als was hesitant to discuss the book in too much depth because it contains an analysis of his own strange reaction to it. Stephen Bottoms notes, “How does one account for this blind spot around Arcade’s work? It’s easy enough to see that her voice is too explicitly confrontational to have been welcomed by the American media mainstream.” 

Bottoms also adds that perhaps the public can handle figures such as pornographic performer Annie Sprinkle more readily than Arcade because “we can read into Sprinkle, but don’t ask her to speak for herself.” In a sense, Penny presents her public with that most frightening thing–a sexualized but not objectified woman with a voice, who can talk back to her viewers.

Caroline Hagood is a poet, writer, and Professor of writing and English living in New York City. She has written on books, film and culture for Salon, the Huffington Post, the Guardian,  and in her own blog, Culture Sandwich (, among others. She has also written a collection of poetry and a novel.