Literature is an important part of French national identity and cultural patrimony, as seen in the hype around the literary rentrée each year and the prestige economy that continues to mark French literature with its prize system. However, French literature, particularly those works that are canonical or on track to being canonized, is full of excrement. I examine this literature's excrementality to argue that the shit in this valued literature allows us to think literature not in canonical terms but in ecological ones. Shit serves as the ground for conceptualizing what kind of material literature is; it is the material by which canonical texts break down the very idea of the canon that would contain them, thereby returning culture to its early, non-industrial, agricultural roots, where culture and cultivation converge as a material, human encounter with the environment marked by a cycle of exchange and reciprocity. Despite the seeming health of an elitist and canon-driven model of literary production, these works’ scatological quality acts at cross purposes with the canon to allow the shit-culture it contains to circulate and return to an environment where it can be mobilized to enrich and produce new forms of culture.
Citation is at the heart of the academic enterprise as what enables us to interface with others and take our place in a delicate and complicated ecology of knowledge production. It is intimately bound up with the treatment of ideas as property, with the dynamic of exchange turning that property into capital, into a vector for intellectual value. This intellectual economy, which citation upholds and founds, has its politics—a politics that is most often submerged, obscured by the reproductive quality of citation, which compels individuals to reproduce a certain set of citations, a certain model of reference, in order to be allowed to pass through the gates of intellectual legitimacy and be recognized in turn as someone who is citable. Citation incites citation, which incites citation, which incites citation. The politics of citation, if it is to be discerned, requires the suspension of this reproductive citational incitation so that the structures of citation might be examined and critiqued: citation must be turned away from its usual function as a practice to serve instead as the object of inquiry.
Marie Darrieussecq’s Truismes and Notre vie dans les forêts, as texts that take up the non-human and environmental collapse, have lent themselves to robust ecocritical and posthumanist readings. I turn away from such readings to attend instead to the forest, the setting of both novels, as a space where Darrieussecq articulates and calls for a reinvestment in humanism: far from being a “wild” space, the forest is the origin of a humanism Darrieussecq cannot let go of. Rather than treat Darrieussecq as a posthuman writer, I show how Darrieussecq decenters the human while staying within a resolutely human frame.
Contemporary novelist Anne Garréta’s latest novel, Dans l’béton (2017), a playful récit d’enfance, would appear to be a marked departure from the rest of her corpus, which is marked by a sustained and focused political project of writing against difference. Despite this apparent divergence, Dans l’béton remains as politically driven as the works that precede it, as indicated by Monique Wittig’s own récit d’enfance, L’opoponax,serving as an explicit intertext—a fact that was completely occluded in Dans l’béton’s reception, which privileged comparisons with Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro instead, Garréta’s linguistic playfulness converging with Queneau’s néofrançais. The novel’s political force obtains from Garréta’s deployment of the two principal materials it foregrounds: the béton from which the title derives and the merde that is paired with it throughout the text. I show how these two materials are weaponized to attack the social structures of the heterosexual nuclear family and of race, their intractable materiality reflecting the intractable materiality of language itself. Language, in Dans l’béton, stands in for both shit and concrete as a material that, once we are in it, demands action if we are to build something other than broken social structures that continue to be reproduced, as seemingly endless as the narrator’s father’s unending supply of concrete, or cows’ continual production of excrement.
Winner of the Malcolm Bowie Prize for the best article in any area of French Studies by an early career researcher
The critical reception of Daniel Pennac’s novel of 2012, Journal d’un corps, has displayed a surprising blindness to the faecal nature of the text’s originary scene, omitting it in accounts of the work to attend instead to other corporeal phenomena and frame the work as a meditation on mortality. In this article, I examine the disavowed faeces of this originary scene. This faecal matter, rather than something to be sanitized, should be treated as the site of a clear articulation of an excremental poetics, which, in positing writing as excrement, takes up the question of literary representation, informed by the paradoxical relationship of faeces to the propre, in the sense both of cleanliness (propreté) and of property (propriété). Through attending to the significant scatological dimension of Journal d’un corps, I show how Pennac’s work acts as a call to democratize literature: the universal nature of faecality models the way literature can be transformed from a site of propriété and propreté into something impropre that belongs to all.
In Unbecoming Language, Annabel L. Kim examines a corpus of French writing against difference. Inaugurated by Nathalie Sarraute and sustained in the work of Monique Wittig and Anne Garréta, this corpus highlights three generations of the twentieth and recent twenty-first centuries and the direct chain of influence between them. Kim considers these writers, and the story of literature’s political potential, as a way of rereading and reinterpreting each writer’s individual corpus—rearticulating the strain of anti-difference feminist thought that has been largely forgotten in our (Anglo-American) histories of French feminisms.
Kim’s close readings ultimately enliven the current conversation in French studies by serving as a provocation to return to reading literary texts deeply and closely, without subordinating literature to a pre-existing ideological framework—to let literature speak, to let it theorize. Tracking the influence of these writers on each other, Kim provides a new, original French feminist poetics and demonstrates that Sarraute, Wittig, and Garréta’s work allows for a hollowing out of difference from within, allowing writers and readers to unbecome—to break free of identity and exist as subjectivities without subjecthood. In looking at these writers together, Kim provides a defense of literature as liberatory— capable of effecting personal and political change—and gives readers an experience of literature’s revolutionary possibilities.
Pas un jour, the 2002 novel by the French writer Anne Garréta, is a polemic against autofiction, the popular contemporary genre that experiments with the boundaries between autobiography and fiction. Garréta lures the reader with the promise of access to some part of her real self and her lived experience by mimicking the conventions and tone of autofiction, only to reveal that the auto in autofiction is an empty concept and to insist that there is no real subject to be found in the fiction. Pas un jour’s infiltration of autofiction puts this subject into crisis and challenges readers to consider that who we think we are is as fictive as the novels that we read.
This article examines Sphinx, the debut novel of the French novelist Anne Garréta, which was recently published in English translation in 2015.The reception of Sphinx in both French and English has focused primarily on Garréta’s virtuosic removal of gender from a love story, passing over a caricatural and crude rendering of racial difference that is at odds with the novel’s impelling ethos of “Fuck difference.” By attending to what Garréta describes as her debt to Monique Wittig, I show that Sphinx, far from being an exemplar of a second-wave feminism marked by a blindness to or instrumentalization of race, actually builds up racial difference as a Trojan Horse to combat difference in all its identitarian forms. Sphinx, in its radical anti-identitarianism, demonstrates the political potentiality of the novel form and challenges its readers to imagine an indeterminate existence outside all identity categories.
Marie Darrieussecq's Clèves (2011) shocked readers with the vulgarity of its language and spurred controversy over its status as a literary text. In this article, I show how the novel's "bad" language is a foil for Darrieussecq's larger project of rewriting the adolescent female body, removing it from the sexualized and objectified optic through which it is usually viewed in order to stage it instead as a body in process, as a situation. For this body in process, gender and sexuality are not givens, but deeply unfamiliar experiences that resist the social order’s dominant framing narratives, its scripts for normal and normative subjectivation. The novel, through a Wittigian universalization of the particular point of view of the female adolescent, gives readers access to the experience and the knowledge provided by her body in process.