Post-Officism: An Introduction



by D. Joyce-Ahearne

What is Post-Officism?

Post-Officism, at its simplest and as its name would suggest, is a reaction to Officism. To begin to understand the former one must first discuss the latter and the aspects of the latter that meant the former was necessary, namely its shortcomings.

For the Post-Officists, Officism’s emphasis on the text as a unified whole and its position in the canon is too broad and uninspired a line of study, that fails to take into account the detailed specifics of an individual work. The bureaucracy of working within the layered and tiered system of relating texts to texts and not allowing for divergence within a single work means that the finer points of a text are lost.

Post-Officism is principally concerned with the most individual parts of a work, the real building blocks of a text, of language itself: letters. To speak of an author’s “work”, “oeuvre” or “books” is to clumsily trip over the minutiae worth studying, the atoms of literature that make up each of these words, what the author really works with: letters.

The project of Post-Officism is a two-pronged one. While studying the individual it hopes to understand the “system of letters” that facilitates language and the written word, the “system of letters” within which we all operate.

Unlike the inadequate and gross study performed by Officists, Post-Officism studies the bigger picture while focusing on the fragments of which it is composed.

Post-Officism then, could be said to be the study of the “system of letters”, how we choose to package our letters and by what means they are delivered into the public consciousness.

Post-Officism at Work: A Look at Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

If we take a specific text, that of “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville, and look at it though the microscope of both Officism and Post-Officism we will see all the details and nuances of the text that Officism is liable, indeed, bound to miss.

An Officist reading would focus on the novella’s unnamed narrator, investigating his narrative very much within the confines of the plot as it is presented to us on the page. The narrative is taken at face value and is subjected to questioning in relation to the position narrative holds within the canon.

The narrative unfolds within the setting of the narrator’s office. Officism will only judge the situation based on the structures inherent to the immediate setting of the action i.e. said office.  The narrator is granted the office of Master of Chancery, he hires Bartleby, who then begins to copy and then refuses to copy or indeed do anything else, such as deliver letters. The Officist investigates the work-centric proffered narrative, without digging deeper.

Post-Officism, however, looks beyond these limits. Why did the narrator want Bartleby to deliver the letters? Where did he go to deliver the letters? Who did he give them to? Who paid for the stamps?

Take the following line from the text: “In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer.”

Now the Officist would begin his dissection of the plot based on Bartleby’s arriving into the office, his arrival into the narrative. The Post-Officist, however, asks where did the narrator post the advertisement?

Officists ask: Why did Bartleby stop writing? Post-Officists ask: How was his handwriting? What do his letters look like? When Bartleby’s refuses to go to the Post Office, the Officist asks why did he refuse, as opposed to the critical question of where was the Post-Office? What services did it offer other than letter collection?

Bartleby’s occupation of the office is of concern to the Officist rather than details such as, given his residence there, had he informed his correspondents that his mail was to be delivered to his squat or to a P.O. Box perhaps?

When Bartleby refuses to deliver the narrator’s letters the narrator must go himself. This occurs outside the narrative as the narrator’s experience of delivering them is not recounted. As it occurs outside the narrative, the Officist asks no questions. To the Post-Officist this minor detail is of huge interest.

It quickly becomes apparent that Post-Officism asks the crucial questions that the Officism, by its very nature, will not and cannot ask.

The Death of the Author & The Arrival of the Post-Officist

How meaning is “delivered” is a key concern of Post-Officism and one inextricably linked to the “system of letters”.Post-Officists build on Roland Barthes idea of “the Death of the Author”. If the author is dead, then who is responsible for conveying his meaning, or in Post-Officist terms, who is responsible for “delivering his letters”?

Post-Officists believe that through the understanding of the “system of letters” in which everyone operates as users of language, the learned Post-Officist takes on the job of delivering an author’s letters in the wake of the author’s metaphorical death.

This, however, has been contested by some who disagree with the role of theorist as arbiter.

The French School & The Facteur Factor

This question of who “delivers the author’s letters” is considered the main point of difference between what are broadly called the French School of Post-Officism and the Anglo-American School.

Following Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of language being divided between “langue” and “parole”, the French Post-Officists argue that truly then, all written work is “parole”. The author, who “builds using letters”, creates a work. Following his “death” as supplier of meaning, the work as a concrete instance of parole still reaches us. How?

It is the “death of the author”, argue the French School, which leads to the arrival of the “facteur”. The author may be “dead”, but through the role of “facteur” (loosely translated as “maker”) of their work, they deliver meaning. In this way, one could say, the author always speaks twice.This is the “Facteur Factor”.

The French School believe that author as “facteur” is responsible for the “delivery of the work as parole”, which the reader then interprets themselves via the “system of letters” in which we all exist, de Saussure’s “langue”.  Thus the Post-Officist as interpreter of a text is superfluous, this being the main point of difference between the schools.

Indeed the Anglo-American School itself has by no means a united project. From the outset of Post-Officism, the American line, even preceding the first wave of Post-Officist Feminism, was hugely concerned with “the Male” in a way that the British School was not.

This has led to some feeling that Post-Officist Feminist theory is an exclusively American concern, though the idea of “the Male” soon became the basis for Post-Officist Feminism both sides of the Atlantic.

Feminist Post-Officism – The Question of “the Male”

As previously stated, the question of “the Male” within Post-Officism began as an American concern. American theorists, both male and female, believed that British Post-Officism, then the dominant hub in the Anglophone Post-Officist world, neglected “the Male”. The American School saw “the Male” as key to Post-Officism, believing that one could not possibly be a Post-Officist without any male.

The importance of “the Male”, first championed by both genders in America, quickly became the basis for the first wave of Feminist Post-Officist thinking. On both sides of the Atlantic, as had occurred in France, Feminist theorists began to question the role of the Post-Officist and his self-appointed position as deliverer of meaning. The French facteur was also repudiated (though recent second wave French Feminist Post-Officist thought has at times considered the idea of the “facteuse”).

Heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, the idea of the “Post-Woman” soon emerged as the central tenet of Feminist Post-Officism.

The “Post-Woman” transcended gender-assigned identity and having overcome the patriarchal structure into which she was born becomes the single able interpreter of the world. For the Feminist School, it is the “Post-Woman”, and neither the Post-Officist (considered a patriarchal and turgid figure) nor the “facteur” who is the credible “deliverer of an author’s letters”.

Post-Officism in Art: Post-Boxism

The influence of Post-Officism has exceeded the realm of critical theory and created quite a stir in the art world. Manifesting itself in a quasi-NeoCubism or Post-Boxism as its proponents call it, Post-Officism has split opinion among art critics.

Some admire the primarily installation focused movement, championing the move from its Boxist predecessor to 3D. Detractors have focused on the tediousness of the movement’s patterns for installations, citing that nearly every piece to come out of Britain is red, all the French yellow, and all American pieces blue.

Post-Manism – Second Generation Post-Officists & The Legacy of Paul de Man

In recent months, a new wave of young Post-Officist theorists has begun to call the very basis of Post-Officism into question. Heavily influenced by the ideas of Paul de Man and the drastic changes in how we interpret the world in the Internet age, they believe that any attempt at “deducing or projecting meaning onto an author’s letters is futile”.

Given the sheer bombardment of information we face everyday online, they argue the value we place on the written word, on letters, is decreasing. Coupled with de Man’s ideas that we stabilize language as we read it, assigning our own preconceived meanings to the author’s words, they believe that we can never truly understand an author’s letters and that, truly, the Post-Officist (indeed, any kind of critical theorist) has become redundant.

Although the old guard accuse the younger generation of “deconstructing themselves out of existence”, the Post-Manists, as they have been labelled, believe that, in fact, these ideas open up boundless possibilities for new thought and play.


About the Author:

D. Joyce-Ahearne is considered to be the leading figure of the second wave of Post-Officist theorists. His soon to be published collection of essays “Stamp and Deliver: Questioning Post-Officism” has been hailed by his peers as “marking the beginning of twenty-first century criticism”.