The essay is not dead, but it is certainly disabled — maimed by much in contemporary theory, perhaps, but also handicapped at last by a bias it has carried since the Renaissance. It may be time that it and its closest ally, the thesis, were challenged, de-throned, even unhouseled, at least in the forms in which we currently find them. (I was about to qualify this statement with ‘in certain contexts’ and/or ‘from certain subject positions’, but no. As if theories of reading, production, language, reality, could graciously exclude those not inclined to accept them!) And certainly as pedagogical tools — as things demanded of students in some non-negotiable manner, without alternatives — they (and such demands for them) are inconsistent, acts of bad faith, even, in some circumstances, bizarre. I mean ‘essays’ as things of a certain length — somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 words (that these limits are to some extent arbitrary and flexible hardly undermines the point) — ‘with beginning, middle and end’, seeking to demonstrate a particular proposition or survey a designated area through logical and coherent argument, adhering to a normative grammar and orthography, a number of presentational conventions, etc.: the rules remain the rules, streamlined or complicated as they may variously be; borders remain borders regardless of the presence of walls. These are, after all, only the more obvious and superficial of the conventions. There is also a firm if implicit understanding concerning the relation of subject to object (or, within the essay’s own terms, author/observer to ‘subject’/observed). There are fundamental assumptions as to the nature of meaning, the boundaries of pertinence, etc.. The essay has a history. It is coeval with a certain attitude toward the world, a certain set of ideas as to the nature of reality, and serves to support and propagate them. These things are embedded in its poetics and inflect any employment of such poetics. It may be that pedagogical exigencies do not, eventually, allow us many alternatives, but let us at least attempt to think our way out. It is best, in any case, to be aware.


Nietzsche had it, or one part of it, when like Blake, Schopenhauer and many before them, he resorted to aphorism, quick sallies, the discontinuous meditation: not only are there certain things which cannot be thought in a straight line, but the pressure to elaborate — the implication that a thought cannot really make the distance into recognisable idea if it cannot be presented in an essay, thesis or book — can ensure that many thoughts of such and other kinds are never expressed, since to insist upon their elaboration is to insist that they negotiate with, take aboard, and so become to some extent infected by, many of those very things they might be attempting to stand against. Insistence upon a countervailing mode of discourse is an insistence that ideas either compromise or remain outside, in the silence, illicit, marginal. And the greater the pressure to cohere, and the longer the distance over which an idea or insight must do so, the more the marginal is relegated, since cohesion is a property of the centre, not of the margin where the possible positions or points of difference are infinite, and which, if it/they did or could cohere, would not be margin after all, but centre (a centre containing the centre). ‘Incoherence’ — coherence after great difficulty, great effort from the reader, with much doubt and surmise entering his/her own calculations — may be a sign, a confirmation of one’s position. (Can I make any of this ‘cohere’? If I could, would it be what it is?)


Montaigne, Michel (Eyquem) de (1533-1592), French writer who by the exploration of his own nature held up a mirror to mankind and created a new literary form; the essay.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Montaigne (1533-1592), Descartes (1596-1650), Diderot (1713-1784). Can it be merely coincidence that the modern essay, purported offspring of Montaigne, was born of the Renaissance and has been virtually coeval with the rise of empiricism, modern imperialism, capital and that phenomenon T.S. Eliot once described as ‘the dissociation of sensibility’? And is there anything to my suspicion that it entered its floreat with the Encyclopédie, and that perhaps the greatest evidence of its power and definitive pre-eminence can be traced through the first fourteen editions of Encyclopedia Britannica: the whole Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment taxonomic attempt to catalogue, describe, classify and ultimately reduce the world to bite-sized — essay-sized — pieces? Can there be any doubt (or any real surprise) that, as a form, the essay sustains the same logic, perpetuates the same ethic of acquisition and taxonomy?

‘Who by the exploration of his own nature held up a mirror.’ The Essay is part of the Mirror (Lacan) or what Luce Irigaray, amongst others, calls the Scopic Economy. The Child, in the Mirror Phase, recognises itself in its mirror image, begins to understand that it has edges, identity. But the Mirror is only, or especially, a metaphor. All cultural forms and codes — language, dress, gesture, not to mention our manifold metaphysical and phenomenological presumptions and the manner in which they predetermine the poetics of our artefacts — are forms or aspects of the Mirror. It (/they) make or embody assumptions about what we are, and in employing them we take aboard and are in-formed by those assumptions. Even the essay, then — perhaps especially the essay, since it occupies so much of the Child’s later (high school, university) development — reflects a ‘self’ image back upon those who construct it, thereby helping to construct them. It assumes — depends upon? — a clear subject/object relation, between the writer and the (ironically misnamed) ‘subject’ which that writer surveys: a relationship between present observer and present observed which mutes or masks their contingency and is surely questionable at this time of the critique of presence itself. It maintains the illusory integrity of both by ignoring/muting the traces of their structuration (all of those things which, bearing upon and away from them, indicate what we might variously describe as their fragility, dependency, or arbitrariness). Its mode, appropriately, is one of exclusion; one could even say that this, along with its concomitant (i.e. definition, from which it is barely distinguishable) is its principal function.

But that is History 2. The essay is itself a branch of something far more deeply rooted. History 1 might tell the story of Iphigenia, whose death is certainly a faithful enough representation of the eclipse of a ‘female’ (inclusive) thinking by a ‘male’, exclusive and expedient. The ships are becalmed in Aulis. Agamemnon, war-bound, is told that the only way he can overcome the poor weather and hasten his way to Troy is to sacrifice his daughter. Woman, and whatever it is that Woman may be taken to represent, is set aside in order to get the more effectively from A to B.


A beginning: a place where something that has been going on encounters rhetoric, and with some violence to itself and this process stages a mock and self-effacing reversal, to ‘commence’ in some manner that is marked ‘commencement’. (And as for conclusion, should we think to reach it (?): who has the courage to write a book of unfinished pieces, or even only the one piece incomplete, never to be completed, with the intention at the outset not to complete? (Can a piece be intentionally so? What will the intention do to the progress of the piece, the collection itself? Will the intention somehow infold, so as to make of the incompleteness a completion itself? Will the intention not to complete relieve, or add a pressure to the work? Will the reader(s) complete anyway — such has been their conditioning, their training-in-reading — what the writer has not, themselves making a completion of the incompletion? Will sentences, parts of the narrative, knowing they do not have to resolve, find a new freedom? How will it manifest itself? Should they display thus their awareness of their eventual endlessness? Or should knowledge of their eventual completion — could it? — be somehow kept from them?


Isn’t it about time we admitted and tried to do something to address the fact that increasingly, and especially for those of them who are or would make themselves more theoretically informed, we are placing our students in an almost untenable position, asked to prove themselves and their arguments within modes and frameworks of discourse that, often at the very same time, the courses we teach them and the reading we encourage them to do are showing to be unstable, outmoded, restrictive, inherently false or falsifying? At one and the same time asking them to read ‘slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers’ (Nietzsche, Preface to Daybreak[1881/1982]), and to discount half their findings in the interests of those which ‘cohere’; at one and the same time tutoring them in what Ricoeur calls a hermeneutic of suspicion — teaching them to live in this time of tentativeness, of the trembling — and asking them to conduct their meditations or present their findings in forms that in themselves reaffirm the opposite? The teaching of theory either counts or it does not. It is not, should not be, a game with the die loaded, a cynical exercise in repressive tolerance, yet surely a system which consciously (for if nothing else contemporary theory has offered us such consciousness) expects all things thought or examined to be brought back to the arena of the long-tried and long-‘proven’ may be justly accused of stacking the deck.


It comes with an attendant diction — however, yet, indeed, of course, certainly, nonetheless, on the other hand, not only (but also), that is to say, perhaps — which, essentially phatic, registers less the contours of the subject than the grid or structure into which it has been forced, and which, like polyfilla on cracked plaster, is likely to be the more evident the more violent and distorting that imposition has been.


One speaks of ‘structuring’ an essay or a thesis, into chapters, sections, areas of argument, in accordance with numerous inherited conventions of the form, yes, and perhaps far beyond them with a number of deeply-held but little examined predilections for symmetry, balance, things thought in threes, etc.. To what extent can we think that structure? To what extent (to borrow Derrida’s formulation, from ‘Structure, Sign and Play’) can we (re-)think the structuring of that structure? It may or may not be more than a popular myth, for example, that the scientific method was held to be ‘objective’ until narratology entered the equation. But clearly the essay is implicated in something similar? To what extent must a good essay, a good thesis, be first of all a successful story? (And story is us: it is not something out there, inherent in the ‘subject’.)


How often have we heard it said, or ourselves felt, that the writing of a piece has gone in a direction other than that planned or expected: that, once begun, certain thoughts, tropes, textual/ rhetorical structures or gambits seem to have had a purpose of their own; that what has seemed the best essay has somehow not at the same time been the best account of the subject, let alone the most faithful representation of our own often far more complicated and more tentative ideas? If only the first thought — or, rather, sentence, the channel through the thought — were not so often to determine so much of the thought/sentence following. But a sentence is, after all, a sentence. Subject, verb, object. Something doing something to something else. That is our way. And the second sentence has even less choice than the first. 

Disrupting the larger rhetoric, a mode of disjunction, discontinuity, alters the economy of the text. Always, in some measure, writing selects its own material. The direction in which the mind would take the text and the direction in which the desire of the writing would seem to take it are not always in full accord. And for ‘desire of the writing’ here we might to some extent read ‘desire of the form’.


To what extent can we say that ideas exist, for any other than the person who has them, until they have conformed to modes of discourse, of presentation, which themselves alter and/or infect them, ensuring that those ideas do not remain as they were — or, since such identity of idea and presentation is itself impossible within language, at least ensure that they are even further from what they were than they might otherwise have been?

The watershed of contemporary theory has convinced us, if of nothing else, of the arbitrariness and exigency of order, the violence(s) of exclusion and so of the inherent violences of discourse (the simulacrum of reason) pre-eminently. What is it that we ask ideas to be — and the discourse by which we would have them filtered, the essays into which we would have them corralled —  if not simulacra of the order and reason by which we believe we live?

Whatever else it is, the essay is also a ritual and a rehearsal, an induction and an affirmation and, through this (/these), a continual suborning of the world to a particular ideology. (Hardly surprising then that it should be made such a rite, an obstacle, a test, before the student is at last unleashed upon the world.)


Is this a small matter? A passing problem? Will it go away? Somehow I doubt it. It is a crime of sorts, and of very long standing: it is not just a problem in the negotiation of contemporary theory, although contemporary theory (and much of it that is perhaps old enough now to be called something else) may have done a great deal to make us conscious of it. Vast economies of human experience are excluded from conventional argument, as much by violences of choice and exclusion, assumptions of logic and causality as by any explicit proscriptions of subject.


‘Writer’s block?’ How much of it, when the more evident causes (laziness or lack of self-discipline, inadequacy of preparation, etc.) have been ruled out and proven remedies failed, remains unexplained and unaddressed. (And don’t some of those ‘proven remedies’ — when they do work — ironically confirm this or other aspects of my argument? That which encourages the student to start not at the prescribed beginning, but at any point at which he/she feels confident, has anything to say, on the partial assumption that writing, once it begins, breeds, yes, confidence, but also writing. [‘How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?’ Exactly.])

To what extent is writer’s block an exacerbation of any individual’s collision with language? And in how many cases — the majority? for certainly in my experience the women suffering from writer’s block have greatly outnumbered the men — does it result from the particularly gendered nature of this collision[ii]: the possibility that, while it may not be entirely unproblematic for the male writer, he is likely to experience less resistance from within himself than may the female in entering a patriarchally-inflected medium and/or channelling his (her) thoughts to its demands. How far can the essay and its related modes tolerate Cixous’ injunction to woman to forge her writing as ‘the anti-logos weapon’, and that mode of écriture feminine which she describes as ‘precisely working (in) the in-between, inspecting the process of the same and of the other without which nothing can live, undoing the work of death’? How far is it possible, within the confines of the essay as it presently stands, to be that woman Luce Irigaray (‘This Sex Which Is Not One’) describes as ‘indefinitely other in herself’?:

This is doubtless why she is said to be whimsical, incomprehensible, agitated, capricious … not to mention her language, in which ‘she’ sets off in all directions leaving ‘him’ unable to discern the coherence of any meaning. Hers are contradictory words, somewhat mad from the standpoint of reason, inaudible for whoever listens to them with ready-made grids, with a fully elaborated code in hand. For in what she says, too, at least in what she dares, woman is constantly touching herself. She steps ever so slightly aside from herself with a murmur, an exclamation, a whisper, a sentence left unfinished … When she returns, it is to set off again from elsewhere….

One need hardly bear in mind Kristeva’s proposition (‘Women’s Time’ and elsewhere) that there is no such thing as woman — that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ should assume the abstraction of metaphysical entities — to realise this is not a matter of woman alone. I doubt that I am alone amongst ‘teachers’ of literature in this country in my memories of very creditable and sometimes almost brilliant ideas and observations marked down and effectively shut out because of departures from normative syntax, grammar or form — departures as often deliberate and highly conscious as they were or might have been instinctive. Such ideas — such resistance — must be taken to the Heart of the Beast, and for some time now, since theory began to dredge the epistemes and propose recuperative strategies, people (usually but hardly exclusively women) have been doing so, and sacrificing themselves. But how far must such sacrifice go?


What, in the unlikely event that many people accepted such reservations and began rethinking such structurings, would we be left with? In what form or forms other than the essay would we present our findings? Are fragmentation, marginalia, our only alternatives? It may be that, for the time being, there are not other forms, or at least insufficient of them, and that we must to a great extent be content with a kind of writing under erasure. None of this is to say that what was/has been a building block of, an agency of, mantling cannot in turn serve as one of dismantling, or to deny the present irony that this ‘essay’ is itself perforce briccolage, a probing through, and amplified by, the very form it would question and/or undermine (using the very words that it condemns). The poetics, after all, might be — perhaps they must be — re-thought within the shell of the same. Ezra Pound proposed the ideogrammatic method, a presentation of blocks of related material (these blocks often themselves composed similarly) ‘with the links left out’, that the reader might enter and negotiate the play between them. But there are also the parenthetic, the inclusive (extrapolations of Woolf’s ‘female’ sentence), and the trophic, the essay conscious of and playing upon its own assumptions, rhetoric and metaphors (some of the best essays now bearing, as they do, an almost erotic relation to the form itself, oblique to or seemingly turning their backs upon it until, in their final moments, facing, clinching, revealing their desire for or allegiance to it).

But all of these (with the possible exception of the parenthetic, which while at the same time as it allows parentheses within parentheses [within parentheses], does not disallow that any or all of these might be left open) still imply closure. When it may be that a revivification of one of the oldest conceptions of essay — that which sees in it a walking around one’s subject, a dispersed and not necessarily integrated meditation — might help to free up the territory, and when instead of essay or thesis we might be considering more open forms, such as the projective(that which launches itself, follows a trace, not necessarily knowing where it is going or intending to go) or what we might simply call tract: that which provides a passage and/or example of engagement. Assumptions of closure — demands for conclusion inherent in the very idea of thesis (that proposition which must be found to have been addressed if not actually proven) — are demands ultimately that examination should be purpose-oriented: that is, not only that all its materials should be herded toward a final gate or corral, but that in effect this gate or corral should be held in mind throughout, repeatedly if not consistently directing selection and determining deployment of materials. Entering into  (whether or not this is entering into the discourse of) — engaging with — need not necessarily imply such interested manipulation. Examination, engagement, can never be completely disinterested — Heisenberg can never be entirely discounted — but they might be less brutal, more (self-)conscious, and so much more attent.

[i]  That is, I think that this is the year in which the essay was written. A great many of my early computer files have died with their superceded technology. I do remember, however – how could I forget? – that I submitted the essay to a journal called Literature and Philosophy at around that time, and that while one of its editors thought it brilliant and was very keen to accept it, the other thought it a piece of rubbish and refused to publish it. It was subsequently published in Hermes, the University of Sydney’s literary journal, in 1994.

[ii] ‘Every woman has known the torment of getting up to speak. Her heart racing, at times entirely lost for words, ground and language slipping away — that’s how daring a feat, how great a transgression it is for a woman to speak — even just to open her mouth — in public. A double distress, for even if she transgresses, her words fall almost always upon the deaf male ear, which hears in language only that which speaks in the masculine.’ — Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’.