Outskirts online journal

Gareth S. Jenkins

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About the author

Dr Gareth S. Jenkins is a writer, performer and digital media artist. He teaches experimental writing practices at the University of Technology, Sydney and was awarded his PhD, which explored Outsider writing, in 2008. His theoretical work focuses on avant-garde literature and art-makers that have experienced schizophrenia – he has presented his research in Australia, Europe and the U.S.A. Gareth’s creative work includes poetry, prose, digital media and performance. He has performed, exhibited and published in Australia and internationally.

Publication details

Volume 20, May 2009

Teaching fictocriticism

The first-person stands: Admitting unknowing into the discourse of instruction

The first lecture is a short story – a circular one, a feedback loop that, once enacted, will take on a life of its own and resonate through the entire semester. I have prepared an image – something to depart from and return to – something personal, but with an invasive psychological aspect I hope capable of breaking through the inhibitions of Week One.

By way of introduction I speak about hybridity, the transgression of stable boundaries, self-reflexivity and the myth of objectivity. As a creative writer and theorist whose research focuses on the experimental output of authors who have experienced schizophrenia, hybridity and the instability of the object are at the (unstable) core of my practice. I regularly draw my own experience into the class room but fictocriticism seems to demand of me more transparency in this respect, a more subjective approach – yet how much of the authority inherent in the myth of my own objectivity am I willing to relinquish as I stand before the class of twenty, pens in hand?

The students stare back.

I proceed to a more concrete illustration: an honours project flawed by an overly rigid adherence to the organising schema of Deleuze and Guattari’s State space / nomad space. This project gave the impression of objectively and coherently communicating the position of two literary writers. The work was received very positively by academia but, on reflection, did little more than display the capacity of the author to create internally consistent illusions.

The third-person speaking pauses before the students. What is gained and lost in the choice of a particular narrative point of view? The third person takes a seat, down the front – wants to keep a sceptical eye on proceedings.

The first-person stands: ‘My honours project was flawed by an overly rigid adherence to the organising schema of the relation between Deleuze and Guattari’s State space / nomad space. My project gave the impression of objectively and coherently communicating the position of two literary writers. My project was received very positively by academia but, on reflection, I feel it did little more than display my capacity to create internally consistent illusions.’

The students stare back.

‘In what feels like a past life,’ I continue, ‘I did a Masters degree in Psychology (am I just trying to reassert my authority here?) in which I studied the brain wave patterns of human subjects as they used a variety of memory techniques. I wanted to see if the amplitude of the Frontal Positive Slow Wave was indicative of memory retention – I was searching for an objective measure of memory.’ This is my circular image. I depart in order to return. ‘This type of scientific research seems to have little to do with literature but fictocriticism encourages me to perforate the boundaries between my separate fields of study, and thus affords me a bridge between past and present lives. The resulting hybridity can lead to thought-provoking connections.’

From a past life: The standard hypothesise regarding the schizophrenic’s difficulty in facial recognition suggests that, due to an unspecified cognitive deficit, they avoid the important markers of identity, the eyes, nose and mouth of individuals whose faces they are trying to scan.

From a present life: In my study of writers who have experienced schizophrenia I have come across a number of instances of authors who have expressed a reluctance to look into the orifices of a person’s face, the eyes, nose or mouth for fear that their own fragile ontology could be further destabilised by such openings.

‘A thought-provoking connection?’ The students stare back, everyone tries to avoid eyes, noses and mouths, engagement becomes more difficult. Time slows, pens record, notes are sifted through: we exchange brainwaves in this small space. A question comes, regarding assessment. I concede, after some diversionary qualifications, that, yes, ultimately my marking of submitted fictocritical texts will be subjective. The myth of my own objectivity, fractured by my own hand, reveals itself as an internally inconsistent illusion.

‘The recognition of ones own subjective stance, yours and mine, is, after all, essential to fictocriticism,’ I suggest whilst simultaneously reaching outward to an objective point of relative stability: ‘Self-reflexivity, Anne Brewster suggests, is central to an individual’s capacity to “reject the fictions of completeness and resolution that academic discourses often rehearse” (30). Perhaps then, my marking too must concede its fiction of resolved completeness.’

The students stare back.

‘My task is to admit my own unknowing into the discourse of instruction. Your task is to revision theory through the personal, personal through theory, in order to create “a literature of intellection, a writing that mobilises fictional (ie story-making) and poetic discursivities in projects of the intellect” (Brewster 31). Intellectual projections that seek not to seamlessly marry the many beings of its being but expose the connective stitches with which fictocriticism signals “its nonobservance of generic unity and coherence, [here] and [in] its tolerance of narrative and structural discontinuity, fictocriticism would appear [as amorphous as the figure that presented itself to me in the WWII bunker chambers overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Port Kembla just south of Sydney. It was late at night and cold. The cliff trail was illuminated by a scratched-out moon. There were three of us. We called ourselves The Hub. The Hub would splinter and disintegrate along lines of disagreement regarding what would be seen this night. So there were three of us – for now. We left the computer and projector in the mouth of the chambers, between thin, drawn lips. The final piece of equipment, the generator, was a heavy, awkward load and each step lurched one of us towards the shear rock edge. The noise of the generator as it started pulsed into the bunker – visible sonar etching out a multi-roomed landscape through sound-wave reverberation. It was there to power the projector which was to cast pre-recorded pictures from the computer onto walls covered thick with years of graffiti. However, no matter the configuration of connective wires from computer to projector the light cast remained bright white and unadorned. The anticipated subject remained absent, and yet from within this absence of preconceived constraint an object presented: 60 years of scrawl became an animated palimpsest. A figure appeared, hands constructed from layers of variously highlighted text, forming and reforming letter configurations. In its interconnected movements it seemed, pictorially] to be attempting to enact the actual process of thought or narrative, that is, of meaning-making” (Brewster 31). Specific cognitive understandings eluded me but the figure’s illuminated presence continues to surface in my texts.’

The students stare back.

‘Thought is tangential. Obscure associations can draw diverse ideas, memories, hallucinations from numerous submerged regions of the mind. Multiple figures fluctuate in and out of the conscious stream, thought is not always unified or coherent – it is often a swarm that we give form through narrative. For example how many things have you thought about in the last forty-five minutes? What aspects of your personal life have intruded into the text of the class? What is it that you remember from our time together? In thinking of these recollections the issue is not, “Have I missed something important?” but rather, “I have retained what is important to me”. What has travelled from short-term into long-term memory? What is your consciousness capable of excavating from its unconscious places? Now, I could go up to the floor above us and check the amplitude of the Frontal Positive Slow Wave on each of the twenty machines mounted in the sealing above your head but volume is not the issue here – content is. It is not an objective measure that I am interested in but a subjective one.’

The students smile, some even laugh.

‘How then might you make sense of the mass of mental activity going on inside you over the last forty-five minutes?’ The question opens out into the class: a pale unblinking eye drawing us all towards its silence. The third-person sniggers, prepares finally to stand and reassert itself until, blink – blink – blink, a voice is heard:

‘Write a story about it?’

I smile. The third-person sags, picks at a loose strand of fingernail. ‘Yes. We could write a story about it. And now. One that includes any critical ideas you have retained from the class, interjecting the seemingly unrelated thoughts you had during this time, or that occur to you now as you write. All ideas must be admissible if fictocritical writing does indeed “enact the actual process of thought or narrative, that is, meaning-making” (Brewster 31). And let’s be clear, as we generate our textual narratives, that meaning is indeed being made, constructed; that the architecture of language builds illusions whose fragile, porous state should be everywhere signalled, explored, celebrated.’

I turn and edge my way towards the door at the back of the class, ‘You all get started with that. I just have to go upstairs and check on a few things.’

Works Cited

Brewster, A. (1996) ‘Fictocriticism: Undisciplined Writing’ in (Ed Hutchison and Williams), Writing-Teaching, Teaching Writing, Conference Proceedings, UTS, pp 29-32.

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