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Introduction: Invisible Lives, Silent Voices in the British Literature, Arts and Culture of the 20th and 21st Centuries

Alice Borrego et Héloïse Lecomte


Ce numéro est issu des travaux du colloque international “Invisibles Lives, Silent Voices in the British Culture, Literature and Arts of the 20th and 21st Centuries”, qui s’est tenu en ligne les 15 et 16 octobre 2020 et a été organisé par Alice Borrego (université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, EMMA) et Héloïse Lecomte (ENS de Lyon, IRHIM). Les articles rassemblés ici explorent les représentations complexes de l’invisibilité et du silence dans les œuvres artistiques et littéraires des xxe et xxie siècles. Du modernisme à la période contemporaine, les formes diverses d’expression (nouvelles, romans, récits autobiographiques et documentaires musicaux) qui font l’objet de ces études interrogent la possibilité de (re)donner une voix aux populations invisibilisées dans la société britannique.

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  • 1 It appears that Brittany and her work epitomise a narrow definition of Great Britain, one that find (...)

1In the Spring instalment of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet (2019), Florence, a mysterious and insightful twelve-year-old, shares her experience with Brittany, an aptly-named woman working in a detention centre for migrants:1

Sometimes I am invisible, the girl says. In certain shops or restaurants or ticket queues or supermarkets, or even places when I’m actually speaking out loud, like asking for information in a station or something. People can look right through me. Certain white people in particular can look right through young people and also black and mixed race people like we aren’t here. (2019, 192–193)

2Florence’s shift from the first person of the singular to the plural at the end of this passage transforms her individual experience into a collective one, thereby creating a community of invisibility. In addition, the use of the expression ‘look through’ instead of its near-counterpart ‘look at’ lets a sense of ghostliness seep through the description of the girl’s experience. Smith also represents in this short—yet dense—excerpt the difference between the perceptual act of looking and actually seeing, or acknowledging the existence of what one is looking at. This anecdotal tale of inaudibility and invisibility paints a divided picture of contemporary Britain, split between those who can be seen and heard and those who are deprived of that privilege. By giving the little girl a space for direct speech in the novel, Smith’s narrative strategy of voice retrieval forces Brittany (and the reader) to listen, counteracting the ways in which the anonymous crowd of people engulfs and dismisses Florence (as the erasure of the pronoun ‘I’ at the end of the excerpt suggests). Her account also exposes the power relations at the heart of Britain: ‘white people’ take over her agency as a subject, as Florence’s voice and body both retreat into the shadows.

3In his ground-breaking work, L’Invisibilité sociale (2009), French philosopher Guillaume Le Blanc contends that ‘the different forms of invisibility are rooted in a monopoly of voices whose narrative effects strongly contribute to invisibilise certain lives. Invisibility is widened by the refraction of narratives which contributes to dehumanisation’ (41, translation ours). Invisibility is the result of power dynamics wherein dominant ideologies, groups or individuals silence precarious and vulnerable ones to political, economic or social ends—as Ali Smith’s Florence perceptively underlines. The voices of the precarious, who ‘remain outside of power’ (Le Blanc 2007, 16, translation ours) are undermined by those of the majority, and sink into deeper and deeper silence, resulting in social, political and even psychological dispossession. As Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou claim in Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, ‘the logic of dispossession is interminably mapped onto our bodies, onto particular bodies-in-place, through normative matrices but also through situated practices of raciality, gender, sexuality, intimacy, able-bodiedness, economy, and citizenship’ (2013, 18). Normative discourses and practices thus give way to asymmetrical relationships which deny vulnerable populations the ability to speak up and fully exist. Figures of non-conformity such as minorities, immigrants, women, along with the disabled and the poor are all in dissonance with such oppressive and normative dynamics, raising the question of political and social representation in our contemporary societies.

4If the development of postmodern theories—led partly by Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) and Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition (1979)—called for the suspicion and deconstruction of grand and totalising narratives such as history and science, Homi Bhabha sees such an enterprise as ‘parochial’ and considers that ‘The wider significance of the postmodern condition lies in the awareness that the epistemological “limits” of those ethnocentric ideas are also the enunciative boundaries of a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices—women, the colonized, minority groups, the bearers of policed sexualities’ (1994, 6). Bhabha’s inquiry into the politics of voice is of course reminiscent of Gayatri C. Spivak’s 1988 essay, which famously asks the question ‘Can the subaltern speak?’. Spivak’s own dialogue with Judith Butler in Who Sings the Nation-State? (2007) furthers the critical analysis and condemnation of state and ideological apparatuses which define who qualifies for ‘national belonging’ (31) and who is ‘cast out’ (39). It is precisely this rigid segmentarity which our current neoliberal system heightens, as its political rationality ‘[intensifies] inequalities’ (Brown 2015, 28). As power and capital remain in the hands of the few, the realms of invisibility and silence expand, raising the question of ‘the agency of spectrality’, as Esther Peeren proposes to do in The Spectral Metaphor (2014). Indeed, Peeren correlates invisibility with metaphors of spectrality in her work on Britain’s ‘living ghosts’, i.e. ‘undocumented migrants, servants or domestic workers, mediums and missing persons. These groups were chosen because all are frequently—sometimes to the point of cliché—likened to ghosts or related figures, on the basis of their lack of social visibility, unobtrusiveness, enigmatic abilities or uncertain status between life and death’ (2014, 5). The in-between status of invisible lives and silent voices, who are neither fully integrated in society nor fully excluded from it, raises the question of the geography of the invisible, which resonates in contemporary British literature, suggesting a possible repossession of lives and voices through fiction.

  • 2 We are extremely grateful to Vanessa Guignery and Christine Reynier for their helpful observations, (...)

5It is in this particular context that we chose to hold the ‘Invisible Lives, Silent Voices in British Arts and Literature of the 20th and 21st centuries’ conference in October 2020.2 Focusing on a former imperial power, whose contemporary multicultural ties have been undone and whose ‘dependence upon a hierarchical and élite social formation [has] been modified but never abolished’ (Nairn 1982, 298), it seemed only fitting to lead an inquiry on the representation (or non-representation) of invisibility and silence. The conference aimed to explore the ambivalent ways in which artistic works represent the voices (or silence) of the voiceless and characterize the invisible on the page or onscreen, in visual art. The narrative or visual articulation of a language of invisibility can be perceived as an empowering strategy or as an act that further robs marginalized people of their voice and agency. What defines the processes of invisibilisation and silencing? Who decides who is to be visible or not? Can silence and invisibility be a conscious choice, an act of resistance? The process of claiming back their voices leads silent and invisible lives to a tentative reconfiguration of their identities, as Vanessa Guignery argues in Voices and Silence in the Contemporary Novel in English: ‘by articulating their suffering, by speaking out and speaking back, the unsung and unheard fight to come to terms with the traumas they have experienced and to reconstitute a sense of self, identity, memory and history’ (2009, 6). But what happens when someone else speaks for them/in their name? The potential for misrepresentation and appropriation needs to be fully appreciated. Are literature and the arts a way to give a new voice and a new visibility to the left-behinds? Or do they also fall prey to the power dynamics responsible for invisibility?

  • 3 ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ is an umbrella term, whose use originated in the UK to describe (...)

6In this volume, Guillaume Le Blanc examines the strictures of our neoliberal system as a catalyst for ethical violence. Invisibilisation, for Le Blanc, is far from accidental, but stems from a political rationality that excludes, rejects, silences and unsees the precarious. Expanding on his work in Vies ordinaires, vies précaires (2007) and L’invisibilité sociale, Le Blanc advocates the need for a ‘minimal ethical attitude’ towards the invisibilised other. His article is instrumental in exposing and reconsidering the value our society grants to the precarious and the vulnerable. In his text, he invites us to ‘ponder on the ethical resources with which we can criticize the fact that some lives are perceived more than others’ and to envisage alternatives to the ‘unlivable lives’ fashioned by neoliberalism. As Le Blanc invites us to enlarge the ‘circle of audition’, Esther Peeren insightfully captures the perceptual distinction between ghosts and effective haunting: ‘If a ghost is present without seizing the interest and attention of the haunted (as opposed to that of other ghosts), without inciting some sort of a response, whether to flee, to exorcize or to engage, no haunting occurs’. Le Blanc and Peeren emphasise the need for heightened attention and responsiveness. Peeren rightly points out that the BAME community3, for instance, cannot ‘edit’ itself back in the rural idealisation of the British series Midsomer Murders: through her analysis of the ‘spectralization’ of the rural as the forgotten front of globalization, Peeren explores the representational limitations and dangers of a ‘romanticization’ of the rural in such contemporary revivals of the pastoral idyll. The exclusion of rural others (the poor, criminals, farm workers and animals) from the illusory homogeneity of the idyll is a form of ethical violence, which recalls Le Blanc’s plea. Peeren suggests that a potential solution could be found in the emergence of a posthuman idyll, similar to the one she identifies in Cynan Jones’s novel The Long Dry (2006). Peeren’s and Le Blanc’s contributions—both in this volume and in their respective keynote addresses—call for the exposure of oppressive, invisibilising and silencing processes, so as to re-empower the marginalised.

7Drawing from Gayatri C. Spivak’s reflection on the voices of the subaltern, Gero Guttzeit’s preliminary remarks clarify both the grammatical and sociological differences between invisibility and silence, as he retraces the ‘trajectory’ of the two phenomena. Discussing H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Guttzeit analyses how invisibility and silence are articulated through narrative techniques by focusing on three main dimensions: the opposition between power and powerlessness, the continuum of realist and non-realist genres, and the choice of focalisation. The inevitable connection between literary narratives and processes of invisibilisation raise, according to Guttzeit, the possibility of emancipation through fiction, a question which Jaine Chemmachery addresses as well in her article that focuses on the double bind of the ghost trope, which can be seen as an between ‘empowering metaphor, pregnant with subversive power’ but may also stand for a powerless victim. Chemmachery studies more specifically the precarious figures of the ‘living ghosts’ of refugees and migrants in the UK in Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015) and Deepak Unnikrishnan’s collection of stories Temporary People (2017). Turning our attention to the modalities of reception, she invites us to rethink and question our definition of empathy. For Chemmachery, the act of reading can uncover the multilayered agency of living ghosts as literary narratives of invisible lives and silent voices raise the issue of performance and performativity. As Derek Attridge argues, reading has to be understood ‘in the sense of a performance, a putting-into-action or putting-into-play that involves both active engagement and a letting-go, a hospitable embrace of the other’ (2004, 130). Reading allows one to reconfigure the ‘dialectic of seeing and unseeing’ (Guttzeit) through the active engagement of the recipient. 

8It is in this regard that Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz analyses the embedded narratives of Sebastian Faulks’s Paris Echo (2018), which calls for a new ethics of narration and attentiveness as the unlikely-paired protagonists (the young Tariq and the scholar Hannah) come to grips with the disregarded, unheard, and invisibilised testimonies of women living in Occupied France. Puschamnn-Nalenz emphasises how the visibilisation of testimony, albeit a source of indeterminacy and discomfort, is absolutely and ethically necessary. Her study underlines the necessity of ‘bearing witness’ (Felman and Laub 1992, 57), as Faulks’s novel superbly illustrates how ‘trauma narratives privilege an ethics that defines humanity as inherently relational’ (Onega and Ganteau 2014, 12). The encounter between social classes (as Tariq and Hannah come from different backgrounds) brings to light an ethics of witnessing and testimony, which reaches beyond categoric norms. Through her analysis of Rosamond Lehmann’s ‘The Gipsy’s Baby’ (1946), Florence Marie also explores an encounter between social classes which creates a new outlet for the audibility of the precarious. This modernist short story was Lehmann’s first foray into short fiction writing and literary description of working-class people. Confronting the works of Esther Peeren and Stephen Ross, Marie raises questions of agency and haunting, and presents one of the story’s characters, young Chrissie Wyatt, as a soundbox of local and national histories in the wake of WWI. Focusing on the ‘odd one out’ (Marie), Lehmann’s short story suggests that ‘[h]umility as a modality of invisibility is the condition of a “precarious witness”’ (Le Blanc 2014, 137) whose function is to account for the other’s—and the world’s—neediness and precariousness’ (Brasme, Ganteau and Reynier 2017, 20). Marie also pinpoints the ambiguity of a short story whose depiction of the working-class also risks essentialising them—a precaution which Letissier invites us to consider as well in his analysis of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van (1989). In Bennett’s memoir (which then became a play and a film), Letissier identifies the paradox of giving a ‘spectacular presence’ to the real tramp woman who parked her van in the author’s driveway for years. By transforming a social testimony into an aesthetic creation, the fashioning of a flamboyant, thespian character indeed might silence her truth and voice, for ‘turning a socially invisible woman into a spectacle entails some form of stylization and reification’. Letissier addresses this tension between spectacularisation and invisibility so as to offer an insight into the question of performativity when it comes to the representation of invisible lives and silent voices. The paradoxical forms of hypervisibility emerging in both Lehmann’s short-story and Bennett’s memoir question the possibility of enabling a ‘decentred perspective’ of the ethics of witnessing. According to Linda Hutcheon, ‘the “ex-centric” (be it in class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity) take on new significance in the light of the implied recognition that our culture is not really the homogeneous monolith (that is middleclass, male, heterosexual, white, western) we might have assumed’ (1988, 12). The works analysed by Puschmann-Nalenz, Marie and Letissier hinge on the creation of discomfort, through a shift in perspective which engages with the viewer’s unconscious and normative assumptions. This destabilisation of narrative modes shapes in turn a new ethical outlet for (re)consideration of our perceptive frames.

9Though Hutcheon considers postmodern fiction to be the locus of such a decentred perspective, Lehmann’s work certainly suggests that modernist fiction’s representation of invisibilised figures already addressed the problematic hegemony of gender and class discourses. Maryam Thirriard’s article on Virginia Woolf’s fictional biographies, Orlando (1928) and Flush (1933), reminds us of the liberating power of writing. Rightly pointing out that Woolf’s Roger Fry (1940) was not fictionalised, Thirriard contends that the narrative freedom Woolf took with her two subsequent biographies aimed at giving a politicised representation of women, who were thereby offered new visibility through fiction. As she quotes Woolf and her love for fiction as ‘the easiest thing for a woman to write’ (2009, 30), Thirriard sees writing as a political tool which gives visibility to women and their expression. Offering to analyse the other end of the spectrum on a further deconstruction of gender norms, Diane Gagneret discusses Ian McEwan’s tale of erotomania Enduring Love (1997). She examines McEwan’s double narrative exposure, by exploring the destabilising structure of Enduring Love, which ‘sheds light on what often remains invisible behind the façade of hegemonic and/or complicit masculinities.’ Gagneret focuses indeed on the paradoxical invisibility of individual male vulnerability and mental illness in patriarchal societies where a certain vision of masculinity is the norm. Challenging accepted notions of gender and sanity, Gagneret’s analysis invites us to reconsider our apprehension and perception of the other’s body and mind. The hidden strictures of one’s mental state can paradoxically lead to their social relegation outside of ‘the normal’, as ‘There seems to be a general feeling it’s the place where they ought to be’ (West 2004, 72).

10Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly opened up the discussion on the relative value of life, and more importantly, on certain forms of invisibilised lives. Magdalena Flores Quesada’s study is crucial for the comprehension and deconstruction of the mechanisms of invisibilisation operated on the elderly. The topical dimension of her analysis hinges on a reconsideration of illness and ageing as sites of vulnerability and depreciation. Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie (2018) dives into the private thoughts of eighty-four-year-old Florence, as she lays on the ground waiting for help after a bad fall. This internal tale of vulnerability creates an interesting contrast between private thoughts and public interaction: Florence’s self-awareness about her degenerating body and mind brushes against society’s ‘tendency to patronise, infantilise, silence, or directly ignore the old as effective mechanisms for their marginalisation’, as Flores Quesada contends. The concomitant reading of Flores Quesada’s and Pascale Tollance’s studies actually leads to a reconfiguration of visibility, which relies on a structural reversal of accepted norms: the elderly step into the light by taking back control of language, and therefore, of representation. In her analysis of Ali Smith’s There but for the (2011), Tollance invites us to witness a critical encounter between proliferation and silence through Ali Smith’s dual impulse, which strives to ‘rescue the invisible’ while offering alternative schemes of vision to the reader. There but for the indeed stages the encounter between the aptly-named May Young and the chattery child Brooke Bayoude. This ethical connection with the other across the generational spectrum allows for a shift of perspective on the infantilisation of the elderly, also evoked by Flores Quesada. Tollance contends that by ‘subverting the topos of “second childhood”, May [. . .] invites us to imagine infancy as being involved in a form of resistance to death rather than a sign of regression or decline.’ Flores Quesada’s and Tollance’s works underline the necessity for a reconsideration of all lives, as the figure of the child (and therefore of the infantilised elderly) becomes the prism through which the paradigms of invisibility and silence need to be deconstructed, as in another of Ali Smith’s novels, which was quoted at the beginning of this very introduction: Spring

11In Spring, the protagonists (Florence, Brittany and Richard), spirited off to Scotland, meet a woman called Alda, a member of the Auld Alliance, a sort of Underground Railroad organization for refugees, whose role is to ‘[disappear] people from a system that’s already disappeared them’ (2019, 272). By staging this possibility to ‘move from one invisibility to the other’ (271–72), Ali Smith ingeniously carves a narrative path for a shift from the debilitating invisibility of hellish detention centres to a liberating paradigm of invisibility—it is this very paradigm that we hope to bring to light in this volume.

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1 It appears that Brittany and her work epitomise a narrow definition of Great Britain, one that finds issue with immigration and locks refugees in, removing them from public sight. By having the little girl voice her experience to a character called Brittany, a blatant onomastic reference to Great Britain, Smith anchors her story in a British context and retrieves a voice from social oblivion.

2 We are extremely grateful to Vanessa Guignery and Christine Reynier for their helpful observations, as well as for their guidance and support, without which this project could not have come to fruition.

3 ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ is an umbrella term, whose use originated in the UK to describe non-white ethnicities. It has come to the forefront of some anti-racist movements such as Black Lives Matter, but remains controversial to this day and is sometimes seen as too broad a term that runs the risk of invisibilising the specificities of each community (Fakim and Macaulay 2020).

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Alice Borrego et Héloïse Lecomte, « Introduction: Invisible Lives, Silent Voices in the British Literature, Arts and Culture of the 20th and 21st Centuries »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Alice Borrego

Alice Borrego is a PhD candidate at Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier 3 under the supervision of Professor Christine Reynier. Her research focuses on the correlation between the aesthetics of fragmentation and the notion of responsibility in state-of-the-nation novels of the 20th and 21st centuries. She recently co-organised the international conference “Invisible Lives, Silent Voices in the British Literature, Arts and Culture of the 20th and 21st centuries” with Héloise Lecomte. She has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals, such as Etudes britanniques contemporaines, E-Rea and Otherness Studies and her latest article, “Precarity and Privilege in State-of-the-Nation Novels. Anatomy of a Fragmented Body Politic”, is to be published by Palgrave later this year.

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Héloïse Lecomte

Héloïse Lecomte is an alumna of the ENS de Lyon and a PhD candidate at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, under the supervision of Vanessa Guignery. Her research focuses on the narrative poetics of mourning in contemporary British and Irish fiction, and more particularly in the novels of Ian McEwan, Ali Smith, Penelope Lively, Graham Swift, Anne Enright and John Banville. Together with Alice Borrego, she was the co-organizer of an online international conference “Invisible Lives, Silent Voices in the British Literature, Arts and Culture of the 20th and 21st Centuries” in October 2020. She will be spearheading the transdisciplinary seminar “Invisible Lives Silent Voices” with Alice Borrego and philosopher Guillaume Le Blanc, starting in October 2021. She has published articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Estudios Irlandeses and Études britanniques contemporaines.

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