Conversations of Thought

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Conversations of Thought


There are written and read conversations taking place this very moment. The written conversation is one that happens between me (ongoing thought- conversation) and what is written onto paper. The read conversation takes place when a person, other than me, picks up what I’ve written and reads it. Thought-conversation is going on in my writing to you today; there are some going on in collegiate assembly halls, and in the conscious minds of many. However, I cannot—nor can you at the moment—read (make believe you’re not reading this right now---oops, I’ve just Ong’ed you) or hear most of these arguments, debates, agreements, disagreements, assertions that carry on. If that is true we are fine for the moment. Granted, one is standing adjacent to and overhearing an English seminar that is discussing and synthesizing the views and works of a range of the most influential modern theorists of the humanities and social sciences. This confined seminar (audience) is expected to interact with, value, debate, and/ or construct opinions for or against a text—thus leading some to new thought-conversational thought processes. This, however, excludes the standby-audience member, the reader-listener, as an active participant of the dominant- authoritative discourse from that seminar. Hence, the author’s (the professor) methodology creates a specific, yet unrestrained, “aimed-towards them” discourse and not for the standby reader-listener. “His” audience (who says that an audience is his anyway?) will have to later “write”, “talk” and “think” about texts.

This notion does not stand alone—paradoxically speaking of the standby reader-listener who is standing alone and adjacent to the seminar. These “standby” reader-listeners aren’t “intentionally” or even, in this case, “fictionally” given the right to speak in this confined pre-registered, fore-planned discourse. Likewise, they aren’t fictionally thought of as potential readers.

With this analogy, I find confluence in central arguments made by Ong, Bartholomae and Foucault that are worth mentioning. I am not disputing the rhetoric of these three great thinkers/ readers. I am simply attempting to “define a position of privilege, a position that sets [me] against a ‘common’ discourse…” working “self-consciously, critically, against not only the ‘common’ code but [my] own” (Bartholomae 644). However, for now, I am suggesting that a reader doesn’t “have to play the role in which the author has cast him” (Ong 60), but that there is more to it.

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I have chosen three texts to rely on for this discussion: The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction by Walter J. Ong (bottom of page 60), Inventing the University by David Bartholomae (mid page 628), and What is an Author by Michael Foucault.

For Ong, reader-audiences are a fiction. They are literally given the right, by the writer, to “conform themselves to the projections of the writers [professors] they read” (60). I find corroboration in Ong’s notion of readers “playing a role demanded of him…“(60). This, however, might be true for the “confined” audience—the audience fictionalized, forethought or thought of to suit his own desires. He states that readers (standbys) “have to know how to play the game of being a member of an audience that ‘really’ does not exist” (60). The writer’s audience, in this case, is a fiction because the writer doesn’t have the standby reader-listener—a random, skeptical, optimistic, “happened to pick up a book” reader—in mind. The ones he does have in mind are real—people who exist, not literally, but ideally. In order for them to exist in his mind, he has to first consider them—the potential readers, the created, “fictionalized” readers. That in itself is tangible, self-evident. Ong seemingly, inadvertently doesn’t classify the standby reader-listener and upholds the manipulation of writer intentions on reader audiences and reader thought.

I see an oddly similar, contrasting concept in Bartholomae’s Investing the University. Bartholomae would agree that because the standby reader-listener has “imagined himself in that discourse” (Bartholomae 639) he/she has every right to “construct an audience” (Ong 60) but not an audience cast in some categorized role. In addition, Bartholomae cannot imagine how “writers can have a purpose before the are located in a discourse, since it is the discourse with its projects and agendas that determines what writers will and can do” (60). It is his view that suggests that the reader-listeners (standby readers) are intentionally left out or just carelessly not thought of as being part of the big picture. So it all goes round in a circle. Because the reader is not “thought of” by the writer, he is indeed fictionalized because he’s not “real”. However, on Ongs’ part he’s not consciously, “fictitiously” thought of.

It is at this point where Ong and Bartholomae connect and clash. For Ong, writers must think of or fictionalize an audience to conform to their expectations. For Bartholomae, writers who “successfully manipulate an audience… who can accommodate her motives to her reader’s expectations is a writer who can both imagine and write form a position of privilege” (Bartholomae 628). This is why I must argue that the standby listener-reader is not yet in a position of privilege (according to Bartholomae), nor is he/she in a seat of manipulation. He/she is free from writer/reader intentions, free from the ideals of “writer-projections” and ultimately free from thought. Regardless of whether or not the original writer (professor) has the standby reader-listener (audience) in mind, the standby, unintentional reader-listener must work their way (or register their way) into specialized discourse.

Foucault is our savior temporarily. In his essay What is an Author he sort of meshes the author-function into perspective for us to at least think our way through understanding the reader/ writer’s purpose. In a way, he validates giving the author (standby reader-listener) credit for his work. He poses the question: “If an individual were not an author, could we say that what he wrote, said, left behind in his papers, or what has been collected of his remarks, could be called a ‘work’? (Foucault 103). Later, however, Foucault asks us to still question the “work” of an accepted author. How then is the standby accepted, and by who? He’s certainly not part of the confined discourse. So all we’re left with, according to Foucault, is “the work” itself. Most of us have been bought by Bartholomae and Ong’s notion of emphasis placed on the writer vs. reader/listener/audience. Seldom is the “work” itself, as a center point of argument, mentioned. Where Bartholomae and Ong put the reader/writer (in front of the text/work), Foucault suggests that author is merely a product of the text. In essence the standby is labeled “standby” because of his role outside of the confined discourse. This complicated analogy suggest that the course itself is the “text”—the context in which he/she dwells or could have dwelled.

So, how then do we validate the author-function? Foucault states, “The author-function is therefore characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society” (108). Therefore, the standby reader-listener becomes radically changed, mentally, and transformable because of the context he is in—not because of his own conscious audience-awareness. This impartial standpoint doesn’t refute Bartholomae’s and Ong’s argument, rather, it suggests an alternative view or compelling stand on the astronomical neutrality of “non-fictionalized” or non-intended readers—you and I.

The rhetoric which I have proposed here, I believe, is not mentioned—or at least I haven’t read about it. It is too often ignored. Bartholomae and Ong present valid cases in that writers and reader-listeners do function in some “defined way” (i.e. a conscripted role—some sort of position; a position that gives them a defined or constrained purpose). Foucault’s assertion would defend this defined role or constrained purpose within the very posture of its being. That in itself is why we cannot define interpretation. Interpretation will always remain a universal entity. What separates writer-intentions and reader-interpretations are those microscopic fragments that reader-listeners intrude upon themselves.

Unintended words, voices and readers are therefore not fictionalized because they are simply not defined according the assertions made by Bartholomae and Ong. I am writing this paper to potential readers, including Professor Jamie B. of English 703. Am I therefore internalizing make belief characters, whose intentions are manipulated by me, the writer? Am I simply writing “for the occasion”? or Do I anticipate “unexpected”, standby reader-listeners? Certainly, I do and in most cases—which I may not be able to identify here— I do not. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that our fictionalized audience or standby readers stand alone. In a way, they relate but are distant in interpretation, in thought, in purpose and in conversation.


Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, A Reader. 2nd Ed. Victor Villanueva. Washington State University, 2003. 623-653.

Foucault, Micheal. “What is an Author?” Excerpt from Truth and Method.
HUP 1977

Ong, Walter J. “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction.” Cross-Talk in Comp
Theory, A Reader. 2nd Ed. Victor Villanueva. Washington State University,
2003. 55- 76.


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