Subject Formation In Alasdair Gray

alasdair-grayAfter focusing on Scottish literature over on the Twitter’s a few weeks back I found one of the recurring theme was the notion of how Scottish identity was formed. That in turn collided with me re-reading Alasdair Gray’s fantastic political, fantasy novel ‘Poor Things.’ Here are the thoughts that followed…


On first reading it may well be easy to dismiss Alasdair Gray’s novel as nothing more in-depth than a gothic drama stitched together with the old technique of the ‘found manuscript.’ However as Will Self articulates it Grey is ‘a creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision’[1] and thus deserving of closer attention. The quote from Self will form the starting point for this essay focussing on the theoretical underpinnings for Gray’s political and philosophical ideas at play in the text. Key will be examining how these ideas function in action upon the characters themselves – in essence, how Grey forms and shapes characters and what ideological point this formation illuminates. Also worthy of consideration is how the book itself functions as an ideological tool in relation to the reader, the author and the politics inherent within those positions as Gray exposes how completely the self is constructed by forces outside of itself and how these forces discipline and control the self as a subject – both within the text and external to it. Gray uses the diversity of voices and perspectives to expose the ideologies of the time as well as the gap between the actions of individual and the values and institutions that shape their choices and how they behave.

As a post-modern novel the book is riven by the ‘fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents’[2] allowing Gray to expose the ideological thought of the time without any sense of retrospective analysis. Here, throughout the differing portions of the text the reader is invited to observe the ideological formation of the individual within the characters own historical present. In short the novel invites the reader to participate in the polyphony of discourses contained within the narrative though the text itself avoids passing an explicit value judgement on any particular perspective. The book is riven with issues of politics, economics and morality usually dictated and inserted into the text by controlling or surveilling authoritative institutions. By examining how this is achieved the role of the characters becomes less down to individual agency and a more made up of responses to external sources. This does not merely apply to the characters however as the reader themselves is brought into this forming role from the opening of the book’s first section.

The book is divisible into two distinct sections both of which deserve closer critical attention. Firstly comes the introduction from a fictionalised Alasdair Gray detailing the ‘discovery’   of the manuscript and claiming an authoritative factual power for what it describes. The opening sentence sets the tone of the ‘authorial voice’, ‘readers who know nothing of the daringly experimental history of Scottish medicine will perhaps mistake it for a work of grotesque fiction.’[3] Gray is not merely exercising authorial authority but is appropriating other power sources too – a degree of historical knowledge is assumed on his own part as the words ‘those not familiar’ implicitly argues that Gray is familiar with Scottish history. He follows this with providing historical proofs for his argument that ‘a surgical genius used human remains to create a twenty five year old woman.’[4] From the very beginning Gray consciously inserts himself into the text as a source of authority and the mediator of the reader’s access to the narrative. Without accepting what Gray presents in the introduction – him as the source of authority and the one in possession of factual evidence –readers have no way of engaging with the text. The rest of the introduction continues privileging Gray – his connections with civic intuitions such as Glasgow University and the People’s Palace grants him yet more implicit authority in relation to the reader.  Finally there comes this important section to the introduction where Gray nullifies an explicit claim of historical inauthenticity. Quoting at length shows the point:

‘I fear Michael Donnelly and I disagree about this book. He thinks it a blackly humorous fiction…like…Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I told Donnelly I had written enough fiction to know history…He said he had written enough history to recognise fiction. To this there was only one reply – I had to become a historian.’[5]

Over the course of the introduction to the narrative Gray moves from the position of relating details to determining the truth of what is presented. Thus there is no way for a reader to engage with the text that is not in some form subservient to Gray’s position as author and historian. Those two roles both carry a great deal of ideological weight to them – Gray does not just assume the title but uses the authority intrinsic to those positions to grant credence to the narrative of Doctor McCandless. The ultimate point is that Gray’s constant insertion into the text casts ‘the volume’s contents into a radical indeterminacy.’[6] As the superior to the reader Gray ensures we are made to follow his reasoning and argumentation. To put this in Foucauldian terms Gray possesses a certain degree of power/knowledge that expressed in the introduction that validates the contents of the narrative and forces the reader to ignore questions of truth and focus instead on the polyphony of discourses contained within instead.

At the opening to the section narrated by McCandless there is a similarity in the appropriations of varying institutions in the formation of the narrative voice. Whereas Gray assumes the positions that grant him authority as an artist and historian, McCandless is actually portrayed as being subservient to a variety of powerful external forces.

‘Like most farm workers in those days, my mother mistrusted banks. When death drew near she told me her life savings were in a tin trunk…she said “make something of yourself with it.” I told her I would make myself a doctor.’[7]

Whereas Gray could assume an authoritative position thanks to his connections with institutions and a measure of academic education McCandless is placed in a much more inferior position. His actions, and thus his future choices are dictated by the influences of more powerful formative forces. His family’s position is rural, and implied by the life savings under the bed, economically independent from financial systems but also more vulnerable and inferior in terms of economic worth. That vulnerability and inferiority combined with the desire to become a doctor implies that McCandless is economically vulnerable and educationally disadvantaged. The constructive connotations of ‘making’ also imply a certain degree of social exclusion – McCandless is yet to be made into anything before his pledge to his dying mother.

As a rural, economically disadvantaged and socially excluded individual McCandless is at the beginning of his narrative rather vulnerable and his ‘making’ is a process of being made part of the very systems that he was initially outside of. The process happens in the space of a few pages. Following his enrolment in university we see the process of subject formation as it occurs to the character. Initially, there is resistance on his own part and a measure of individualism as ‘at university my clothes and manners announced my farm servant origins and as I would let nobody sneer at me…I was usually alone outside the lecture theatres.’[8] An important point here is that a university is not simply an academic institution that dispenses ideology free education. The exclusion McCandless experiences is indicative of a wider point, namely that universities function as a method of arranging individuals into power binaries – student/teacher, doctor/patient relationships are one that depend upon not just impartial knowledge but upon social power an as students pay for the education a degree of economic power too. It is the economic power of the university that is crucial in bringing McCandless a degree of acceptance as well as bringing him more fully under the disciplinary gaze of the medical profession. The text even tacitly acknowledges that McCandless has to change or have his behaviour changed if he is to succeed as a doctor, ‘in a just world I could predict a brilliant future for you’[9] yet McCandless is not lacking in academic knowledge but rather he lacks ‘a touch of smooth lordliness or easy-going humour.’[10] His social behaviour is not yet suitable for the ideological advantages conferred by the position of being a doctor. McCandless is then subtly disciplined by his superiors within the university who instruct him in how he should behave, ‘Don’t scorn a polite appearances…attend conversaziones and smoking concerts – you will not find us a bad set of people and will fit in by a process of instinctive imitation.’[11] Once again, it is not the academic knowledge that is so vital to the formation of McCandless but rather the ideological practises that are associated with the medical profession. After exposing the problem, the disciplinary procedure is enacted – not in a way of obvious violence but rather through the promise of economic reward:

‘I told him my money could pay for no more than my fees, books, instruments and keep. “I knew that was your trouble!” Cried he triumphantly. “But our senate handles bequests for deserving cases like yours”[12]

This subtly embedded power mechanism[13], in effect punishes McCandlessIt is this conversation that forms the crux of the chapter ‘Making Me’ and it is here that McCandless is given the economic impetus to be constructed into a suitable doctor. It’s telling that this occurs in the confines as a university and reinforces the point the university is fundamentally an ideological apparatus. The money given to McCandless functions as the means of ‘the reproduction of relations of production’[14] as Althusser puts it as well as ensuring his compliance with the social and performative roles he had previously resisted. The ‘judge of normality’[15] has passed sentence (despite being seemingly corrective in nature) and McCandless becomes part of the ‘carcerel network’[16] of the university. The end result is that ‘I could now dress less like a ploughman and more like an indigent bookseller. My fellow students thought this an improvement…telling me the current gossip.’[17] McCandless is then accepted into the society of his peers and the ‘normalising power’[18] of both economics and knowledge has begun to shape him.

The novel continues with the process of forming individuals most obviously and immediately with the character of Bella/Victoria and it is in the forming of her that Gray raises the most important questions that he wishes to explore, rather than question of textual veracity Gray uses the character to ‘involve numerous debates about how humans should live’[19] as well as the ideological background that shapes these debates. From the moment that the character is introduced the people around here begin the process of shaping her. Having created her Godwin places her in social situations as ‘human engagement is the sine qua non of learning.’[20] Placing her in social situations also allows Godwin an opportunity to maintain his access to her intellectual development, ‘I judge her mental age by the age of children she can play with’[21] giving her not only education but also introducing her into a version of ‘that small hierarchized group…that of the family.’[22] Godwin’s action in socialising and education Bella form an excellent example of the simultaneous ‘training…accompanied by permanent observation…a body of knowledge…constantly built up from the everyday behaviour.’[23] It is McCandless himself that notices the proscriptive and potentially dangerous implications of Godwin’s actions, ‘she will be wholly at your mercy…you think you are about to possess what men have hopelessly yearned for…the soul of a child…inside the opulent body of a radiantly lovely woman.’[24]McCandless implies there, somewhat unfairly as the book later reveals, that Godwin’s scientific work is nothing more than a ‘coded fantasy of control.’[25]

Through McCandless we see a critique of the normative Victorian values of the ‘institution of the child bride’[26] as Gray refuses to let Bella marry until she has achieved a measure of education. In the course of her education and further insertion into a kind of subject formation the novel uses three figures as examples of different types of certain ideological positions that Bella engages with. The first serves as an opportunity for Bella to oppose the normative ideologies of the historical period – her elopement with the almost stereotypical Victorian cad of Douglas Wedderburn. It is Wedderburn that exposes the ideological gap between espoused belief and actual actions. He is ‘the worst man possible a smooth, handsome, well groomed…lawyer who specialised…in seducing women of the servant class.’[27] Wedderburn is part of the apparently moral professional class, but one who indulges libertine appetites in private, or towards those who are socially inferior to him. Despite the immediate moral concerns of both Godwin and McCandless it is Victoria who sums him up as a ‘conventional soul,’[28] in a somewhat initially counter-intuitive statement. However, when details of Bella and Wedderburn’s travels are explained, he becomes increasingly narrow-minded when confronted by the relatively liberated (sexually, educationally and financially) Bella retreating into a religious mania and eventual madness.

In terms of forming the character of Bella, her journey with Wedderburn is useful only in expressing the limitations of the ‘conventional souls’ of the time. When confronted by a force superior to his own Wedderburn clings to the moral dependency that his earlier behaviour and reputation expose as hypocrisy. Bella’s sexual appetites outstrip his so ‘he retreats into a stereotypically feminine dependency,’[29]as Wedderburn puts it ‘Tears of gratitude rolled down my cheeks. I was so dependent and dilapidated that I still kept begging her hopelessly to marry me.’[30] Once his sexual power is taken away from him Wedderburn begins to cling to the idea of greater external force – the surveilling institution of marriage, and when this proves to be something Bella is resistant to, he turns to a devout religious mania – that ends up with him being committed as a lunatic.[31] In short the character of Wedderburn shows the failure of the conventional subject forming techniques deployed against Bella, that of gender roles, which she refuses and reverses as well as economic dependency, (at one point Wedderburn ends up begging her for money to support him.) However, Grey does not go so fa as to claim that these things are irrelevant – indeed Bella proves to be so traumatic to the conventional Wedderburn and his ideological worldview that he retreats into such non-normative behaviour as to be absorbed into a correctional institution.

Gray continues to explore the ideological constructs of the nineteenth century in the section that details the conversations between Bella, Hooker and Astley. Both of the two men represent two distinct ideological constructions of society and it is Bella’s engagement with them and what they represent that forms the basis of the evolution of her own political ideas and practises. Hooker, as both a doctor and theological minister offers ideological defences of the imperial mission whilst the more cynical Astley ‘is able to see the world as a protracted struggle, those in power justified by their position.’[32] Both represent opposite views on the organisation of the world and the conversations that Bella has with them prior to the incident in Alexandria will prove to be vitally important to Bella being made subject to ideological forces of her own. Hooker represents, as Wedderburn did, an example of stereotypical Victorian imperialism. His argument is a theologically justified ‘white man’s burden,’ as ‘we are the cleverest and kindest…most truly Christian…people who have ever existed.’[33] Astley’s ideology that he espouses is infinitely more cynical[34] but emphasises the political reality of the masse, ‘he says cruelty to the helpless will never end because the healthy live by trampling them down.’[35] Though the language might differ it is easily imaginable that Marxists would accept Astley’s analysis of the politics of the time, though were Astley differs is in the appeal to cynicism rather than action. Astley’s philosophy inevitable ends with dehumanization of the individual and an extremely through defence of selfishness – culminating in ‘one of the oddest marriage proposals in print’[36] that Bella and he belong together as equally cynical jaded spirits.

The two different world views form bookends in the order of the text to the episode in Alexandria and Bella’s first direct encounter with something that cannot be easily explained away. Telling is the fact that documenting what she sees is a task too great for standard orthography as even her tears become incorporated into the text. The pen strokes, broadly indecipherable words and tear marks show this portion of the text as a moment of ideological attack – for the first time Bella is brought violently into contact with the system that constructs the world she lives in. What she witnesses is the end result of the ideologies that have brought here to this point – the capitalist system enables her to live in comfort, travel the world and experience as much gratification as she wants. Here in Alexandria she encounters the ultimate conclusion and, more pressingly, she encounters her own ideological naivety in close detail. The scrawl of letters begins with her admitting her own ignorance, ‘I thot evray wun I met woz part ov the saym frendlay family…whi did yoo not teech mee politics God?’[37] Interestingly after dismissing the cynical acceptance of the status quo she aligns herself with a specific ideological perspective: ‘Everyone should have a cosy shell round them, a good coat with money in their pockets. I must be a Socialist.’[38]

From this point forward Bella is being shaped not only by her own choices but by her own acceptance of a political ideology and her conception of what this ideology means in practise. She begins to train as a doctor, enrolling in the same style of institution that was so instrumental in shaping McCandless. The best textual evidence comes from her letter at the conclusion to the section written by McCandless in which can be seen her own ideological forming. It is her analysis of the text and it’s flaws which reveals her own ideological condition and how she too is not immune to the process of formed as a subject. At points her letter reads like poorly thought out socialist literary criticism – the character of McCandless is dismissed as man obsessed with his mother’s dying wish and ‘having fulfilled his mother’s ambition in joining the middle class he had no wish to reform it from the inside,’[39] despite McCandless every making political statements that expressed such strong convictions. She is witheringly dismissive of the man, labelling him as a ‘decent general practitioner had he not used…money to buy the idleness he mistook for freedom’[40] and perhaps most harshly arguing that ‘as locomotive engines are driven by pressurised steam so the mind of Archibald McCandless was driven by a carefully hidden envy.’[41] These claims are constitutive of her politics over-riding the evidence as this carefully hidden envy that she refers to is not supported by textual proof from McCandless’s narrative.

As her letter goes on the connection to the section of the narrative written by McCandless grows more and more tangential. Instead the letter turns into a series of speculations about the future success of Socialism and the possibility of war. Her conclusion shows the relative lack of sophistication in her analysis and understanding and the extent to which her behaviour and beliefs has been shaped by socialist ideologies:

‘I almost hope our military and capitalistic leaders DO declare war! If the working classes immediately halt it by peaceful means then the moral and practical control of the great industrial nations will have passed from the owners to the makers of what we need.’[42]

Her failure to question not simply the mechanics of economic and political realities but the ideology that underpins them leaves her isolated. It transpires that she understand the world but her rigid adherence to the socialist ideology that has shaped her does not allow her the flexibility of thought to question why the capitalist system enjoys so much support. Her letters when it is revealed that her son join the army during the way highlight her problem and in the introduction to her pamphlet her inability to think outside of herself is clear: ‘Yet when war was declared my three boys AT ONCE behaved like sons of an English fox-hunting Tory…Why did they feel it was right?’[43] The solution she proposes though she ‘tries to hide it under prim language’ only serves to show ‘she is still, at heart, a subject of Queen Victoria’[44] Her adherence to the formative socialist has made her, as history advanced, another conventional soul – just as she once dismissed Duncan Wedderburn. Just as she dismisses McCandless as being trapped in the middle class bourgeois lifestyle she herself is trapped in the role of the campaigning Socialist

To conclude Gray shows how insidious and how difficult it is to escape the effects of ideological formation. From his own fictionalised self that he inserts into the introduction the reader is unmoored from any direct connection to reliable truth. The book is a rich tapestry of convergent discourses ‘a site of radical challenge…a substantive questioning of the means through which reality can be conveniently moulded.’[45] Gray proves here that the past is not simply a dead country, left behind for a new progressive future. Rather Poor Things stages the past as ‘the site of forgotten struggle’[46] that must necessarily be understood and engaged with if the future is to be an optimistic one. Gray doesn’t resolve this tension between the formative ideologies of the past and the historical reality of the text’s production but rather exposes ‘the inner truth of the…social order of late capitalism’[47] by highlighting it’s historical roots.

[1] Will Self, ‘Introduction’ in Alasdair Grey, Critical Appreciation and Bibliography  ed. Phil Moores , (London, British Library, 2002) pg. 4

[2] Frederic Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition,  editors William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Jeffrey J Williams, (London, W.W Norton and Co,  2010) pg. 1860

[3] Alasdair Gray, ‘Poor Things,’ (London, Bloomsbury Publishing,  1992) pg. VII

[4] ibid

[5] Gray, ‘Poor Things’ pg. XI

[6] Stephen Bernstein, ‘Alasdair Gray,’ (London, Associated University Press, 1999) pg. 106

[7] Gray, ‘Poor Things,’ pg. 9

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Gray, ‘Poor Things,’ pg. 10

[11] Ibid

[12] Gray, ‘Poor Things,’ Pg. 10

[13] Michel Foucault, ‘Discipline  and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition,  editors William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Jeffrey J Williams, (London, W.W Norton and Co,  2010) pg. 1497

[14] Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition,  editors William E. Cain et al (London, W.W Norton and Co,  2010) pg. 1346

[15] Foucault, ‘Discipline and Punish’, pg. 1499

[16] ibid

[17] Gray, ‘Poor Things,’ pg. 11

[18] Foucault, ‘Discipline and Punish,’ pg. 1499

[19] Bernstein, ‘Alasdair Gray,’ pg. 119

[20] Ibid pg. 120

[21] Grayy, ‘Poor Things’ pg. 35

[22] Michel Foucault ‘Discipline and Punish, The Birth of The Prison’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd edition, ed Cain et al, (London, W.W Norton and CO 2010) pg. 1490

[23] Ibid pg. 1491

[24] Gray, ‘Poor Things,’ pg. 36

[25] Bernstein, ‘Alasdair Gray,’ pg. 119

[26] Ibid

[27] Gray, ‘Poor Things’ pg. 57

[28] Ibid pg 270

[29] Bernstein, ‘Alasdair Gray’ pg. 121

[30] Gray, ‘Poor Things,’ pg. 87

[31] Gray, Poor Things,’ pg XII

[32] Bernstein, ‘Alasdair Gray,’ pg. 122

[33] Gray, ‘Poor Things’ pg. 139

[34] Detailed over pgs. 153-164

[35] Gray, ‘Poor Things ‘pg. 152

[36] Bernstein, ‘Alasdair Grey’ pg 125

[37] Gray, ‘Poor Things’ pg. 145

[38] Ibid pg. 164

[39] Ibid pg. 254

[40] ibid

[41] Ibid pg. 273

[42] Ibid pg. 276

[43] Ibid pg. 307

[44] Ibid pg 308

[45] Randall Stevenson, ‘Alasdair Gray and the post-modern’ in The Arts of Alasdair Gray edited by Robert Crawford and Thom Nairn, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1991) pg. 60

[46] Bernstein, ‘Alasdair Grey,’ pg. 133

[47] Frederic Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society,’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd edition, ed Cain et al, (London, W.W Norton and CO 2010) pg. 1848


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