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Introduction: Reading Through / Across Literary Labels

Catherine Bernard


Ce numéro d’Études britanniques contemporaines est issu des travaux de l’atelier de la SEAC (Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines) / « La Nouvelle de langue anglaise » au congrès de Dijon de la Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur en mai 2013. À côté d’articles se penchant sur le sujet de l’« Appellation / Labelling / Naming / Addressing », on y trouvera aussi le résultat d’une table ronde organisée dans ce même atelier sur l’actualité critique récente dans le domaine de la littérature britannique et de la littérature-monde des xxe et xxie siècles.

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1The present issue of Études britanniques contemporaines follows in the steps of issue 45 which had been devoted to the poetics of outrage and the way anger and rebellion have allowed modernist and contemporary British literature to rethink the map of writing and the conditions of possibility of literature itself. Outrage implies that writing rebel against assignations and labels, an act of poetic resistance that has come to be equated with literariness as such. Yet such aestheticization of rebellion requires we return to the labelling process itself, in order to circumscribe more specifically what goes on in labelling. The constitutive act of labelling is somehow coextensive with the act of rebellion that intends to undo labels; yet we tend to ignore the dynamics of assignation that is inherent to categorizing and that thus conditions aesthetic dissent.

  • 1 On Brunetière’s position in a broader redefinition of the remit and logic of literary history in Fr (...)

2The emphasis placed on dissonance, rebelliousness, the capacity to renew the language of art and thus the very categories used to think the new, has tended to suppress the way our understanding of literature has remained profoundly informed, throughout the 20th century and even today, by a critical and theoretical drive to categorize, distribute writing in neat taxonomies closely indebted to a structuralist conception of culture. From René Wellek, following in the wake of German philology, to narratologists like Gérard Genette, or staunch structuralists like the members of Groupe µ, research into the ahistorical dynamics of writing and reading have defended a taxonomic interpretation of literature which has moved towards ever more sophisticated labels and sub-labels. In the French context, it may be contended that this was no new phenomenon. Ferdinand Brunetière’s evolutionist, neo-Darwinian conception of literary history already aimed at labelling literary productions precisely, with a view to forging a reliable, stable science of literature.1 Although their respective perspectives were to be very different, William Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity, Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism, as well as the successive generations of structuralists would also be seeking for the ultimate distribution of categories allowing to grasp the variety of literary phenomena, from genres, to modes or types of narrative enunciation.

3Yet, René Wellek and Austin Warren themselves soon came to acknowledge the difficulty of such a task. In the very last pages of their 1949 Theory of Literature, they came to admit that literary history resists classification and that ‘it seems impossible to make general rules’ (267). The urge to name, categorize, label in order to address a text as accurately as possible was bound to be always exceeded by the capacity of the text to forge its own rules. Structuralism thus came to define that resistance to labelling as the very signature of aesthetic modernity. Barthes would in his own turn define such capacity of dissent as a taxonomic unease—‘un malaise de classification’ (69)—which coincided, according to him with a transformation of ‘works’ into ‘texts’. Far from validating the rules, exceptions came to be the rule, thus invalidating the labelling process itself.

4The taxonomic urge has nevertheless remained powerful; and for all its modern and modernist capacity to disrupt all periodic systems of classification, literature has also entertained a dialectical relation with the process of aesthetic naming. Such dialectics has been specifically complex and foundational in what David James, in a recent essay, has come to define as the ‘artistry of space’, i.e. that powerful bond that relates the literary imagination to a ‘soil’, a cultural habitus and that also forges a powerful, if elusive sense of belonging. Such a bond has, to a great extent, remained overlooked by criticism. Needless to say, cultural studies, under the aegis of Raymond Williams, have paid attention to ‘the dynamic interrelationship between social formation, individual development and cultural creation’ (Milner 35). Exploring such dynamics has also been the very motivation of the sociology of literature or of Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural ‘distinction’. Yet, the more earthy relation between literature and the soil, or scape in which it has its roots has remained obfuscated. The very labels pertaining to such a relation—let us think of such labels as ‘regionalism’—remain partly derogatory or tend to mitigate the scope of the works thus defined.

5The articles grouped in the first section of the present issue show on the contrary how vibrant and complex such dynamics may be. To Wellek and Warren’s contention that ‘speculations about national ethics and national characteristics . . . have little to do with the art of literature’ (268), they offer the rejoinder that thinking this variable artistry of space may, on the contrary, offer alternative ways of naming literature and of reflecting on its modes of identity fashioning. As Claire Hélie’s article ‘La littérature du Nord de l’Angleterre : de l’étiquette au paradigme’, the poet’s relation to her / his native soil offers more than mere biographical insights into the mechanics of writing. In its very resistance to all critical impulse to force it onto the Procrustean bed of a set critical idiom, the poetry coming from the North of England impels readers to rethink their intimate relation to their sense of cultural belonging. The habitus that is here generated, is productive of a multifarious cultural imaginary, as much as it is produced by a pre-existing one. The same unstable ‘artistry of space’ is at work in the works of the London visionaries Tatiana Pogossian turns to in her piece: ‘“London Calling”—appellation en devenir (P. Ackroyd, Gilbert & George, I. Sinclair)’. As Will Self also shows in Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place—although with a different end in mind—they posit a sense of belonging all the better to allow it to unravel, to open lines of flight that invalidate the process of naming meant to root itself in the deep memory of culture. The cultural mapping these emblematic artists produce is also reminiscent of the ‘elusive spatiality’ analysed by Edwar Soja in Postmodern Geographies (126–131). For the likes of Ackroyd, Gilbert & George or Sinclair, London functions like a protean label which produces both identification and infinite slippage. It forces the London visionary into a protracted hermeneutic struggle with a material that escapes understanding and displaces meaning.

6Belonging is, in that respect, as much a historical as a spatial experience. This is also what Marie Laniel and Florence Marie explore in their respective analysis of Virginia Woolf’s and Dorothy Richardson’s sense of historical and spatial relationality. Their sense of spatial belonging dovetails here into an acute sense of historicity. Marie Laniel’s ‘“The name escapes me”: Virginia Woolf’s Dislocation of Patrilineal Memory in A Room of One’s Own’ rereads Woolf’s conflicted relation to that most powerful label—Oxbridge—as the fuel of a historical confrontation with a cultural heritage she needs to address and appropriate, even as she invents new ways of inhabiting it. Florence Marie’s ‘Pilgrimage de Dorothy Richardson ou l’art du dé-place-ment et de la dérive comme réponse à l’appellation’ turns to the way the new urban woman needs to confront the labels imposed on her, in order to fully invent new modalities of belonging to the here and now, modalities that displace labels and assignations.

7The dynamics of modern labelling is the subject of the second section of the issue. Each article takes at its starting point a category that has come to define the modern moment or that has been transformed by it. Elsa Högberg’s ‘Virginia Woolf’s Poetics of Revolt’ focuses on anger and the way it may be read as naming the moment when Woolf turns writing against itself in order to undo all the assignations that were gradually coalescing around her own writing. Modernity becomes thus another name for the capacity to undo all labels. Similarly, Naomi Toth’s ‘Disturbing Epiphany: Rereading Virginia Woolf’s “Moments of Being”’ shows how that most Woolfian of categories—the ‘moment of being’—should in fact be read as rehistoricizing phenomenology and experience. Turning to one of those labels that seem to resist the test of change—the sonnet—Carole Birkan Berz’s ‘Mapping the Contemporary Sonnet in Mainstream and Linguistically Innovative late 20th- and early 21st-Century British Poetry’ shows how in fact the most constrained of forms can estrange and trans-form themselves, thus reinventing the labels that name them. Jean-Marie Schaeffer, even as he was trying to lay down the law of genre, also intuited that the nature of literary genres is precisely to exceed the labels and names that allow us to address them, and that we need to distinguish between two kinds of generic relations: ‘celle existant entre des termes se référant à des relations génériques purement exemplifiantes . . . et ceux se référant à des relations plus complexes qui . . . amènent le texte à modifier les propriétés de la classe générique’ (73). The differential relation existing, according to the Formalists, between genres and literary categories, also exist within genres themselves, which explains why ‘texts’ will always exceed the doxa meant to control and categorize them: ‘Le texte ne s’éprouve que dans un travail, une production . . . [Il] essaie de se placer très exactement derrière la limite de la doxa . . . Le texte est toujours paradoxal’ (Barthes 71).

8Labelling is a powerful cultural machine imposing cultural assignations. It shares with naming the power to construct the other and position her / him on the cultural map. As Judith Butler has amply shown, naming, in its turn, is never far away from interpellation. It must be relentlessly questioned and queered so as to produce a counter-interpellation in which the logic of power relation is overturned and sublated. This is a dynamics central to the third and last section of the issue. Starting with Tina Terradillos’ ‘Les appellations et l’émancipation des étiquettes: Radclyffe Hall et The Well of Loneliness revisités’, subjectivation is analysed as a historical process through which the self is imposed a series of addresses that gender, socialize and ultimately control it. With Judith Butler, all four authors perceive the ‘occupation of the name [to be] that by which one is . . . situated within discourse’ (122). The question central to Michelle Ryan Sautour’s ‘“Am I that Name?”: Authorial Identity in Writing by Contemporary British Women Authors’ is the same haunting question that has occupied literature, since Shakespeare’s harrowing interrogation in Romeo and Juliet, as it confronts itself with the coercive force of symbolical assignation. Pascale Tollance returns to it in ‘“My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate”: nomination et appel(lation) dans Lighthousekeeping et dans la fiction de Jeanette Winterson’, to emphasize the capacity writing has to denaturalize and queer all symbolical assignations so as to reempower the subject of language. Labelling and naming are trans-formed, complexified and exposed as the loci of a cultural negociation in which modes of address can be reappropriated and turned, in Butler’s terms, into ‘a making over which is itself a kind of agency’ (131).

9Cultural globalisation displaces the whole logic of address further and, as Madelena Gonzalez’ ‘United States of Banana (2011), Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Fury (2001): Portrait of the Writer as the “Bad Subject” of Globalisation’ argues, imposes we pluralize our understanding of the matrix of identity-fashioning. If, as suggested by Fredric Jameson in his call for a ‘New Literary History after the End of the New’, ‘any talk about the future must first confront globalization as its absolute horizon’ (375), then this cannot but impact our very cultural habitus, that habitus which has been the very matrix for the labels, names and modes of address which distribute our vision of the world and which literature has relentlessly questioned, displaced and unpicked. The ‘crisis in referentiality’ (Butler 139) which must obtain if we want to address the ideology of naming, must also be thought in cross-cultural terms. The ‘conundrum’ that results from the way today’s world ‘warps the relation between psyche and space’ (Self 11) requires new ways of thinking through / with / against cultural labels. The task will, of necessity, remain tentative. Yet the self-reflexive consciousness that animates such an opening up to multiplicity and to the criticity of naming is bound to open new horizons to reading and interpretation.

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Barthes, Roland, ‘De l’œuvre au texte’, Le bruissement de la langue. Essais critiques IV, Paris: Seuil, 69–77.

Bourdieu, Pierre, La Distinction, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979.

Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter, London: Routledge, 1993.

Compagnon, Antoine, Le démon de la théorie. Littérature et sens commun, Paris: Seuil, 1998.

Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. 1953. London: Polity, 2004.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.

James, James, Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space: Style, Landscape, Perception, London: Continuum, 2011.

Milner, Andrew, Literature, Culture & Society, London: University College P, 1996.

Jameson, Fredric, ‘New Literary History after the End of the New’, New Literary History 39 (2008): 375–387.

Schaeffer, Jean-Marie, Qu’est-ce qu’un genre littéraire ?, Paris: Seuil, 1989.

Self, Will, Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place, London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Soja, Edward, Postmodern Geographies, London: Verso, 1989.

Wellek, René and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (1949), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968.

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1 On Brunetière’s position in a broader redefinition of the remit and logic of literary history in France at the end of the 19th century, see Antoine Compagnon, Le Démon de la théorie (215–216).

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction: Reading Through / Across Literary Labels »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 46 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at the University Paris Diderot—Paris 7. She has published extensively on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker or Graham Swift). Her research has also turned to Virginia Woolf and more widely Modernism. She has co-edited several volumes of articles on Woolf; she has published a critical study of Mrs Dalloway, as well as a critical edition of Flush for the Gallimard Pléiade Edition of Woolf’s works (2012). She is currently working on a critical edition and translation into French of a selection of Woolf’s essays, to be published in 2015. Her recent research has also focused on the Bloomsbury Group and more specifically Roger Fry’s aesthetics. She has also done extensive work on contemporary art (Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Rachael Whiteread, but also Gillian Wearing and Sam Taylor-Wood). She is the President of the Société d’Etudes Anglaises Contemporaines.

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