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1. Traversées/Crossings

Introduction: ‘Crossing into Otherness’

Introduction : “Traversées/altération/altérité”
Catherine Bernard


Dans cette première section d’Études britanniques contemporaines 48, nous analysons comment l’expérience du déplacement ou de la traversée implique un processus d’altération par lequel nous devenons étrangers à nous-mêmes et nous réinventons. Les articles réunis couvrent un large spectre de genres et de média, de la poésie au théâtre, de la fiction au cinéma. Ils explorent la façon dont l’expérience de la traversée et de l’altération, qu’elle soit géographique, esthétique ou culturelle, produit une éthique de l’expérience qui nous transforme. Cette expérience peut être de nature intermédiale, lorsque la traversée implique une mutation générique, mais elle peut aussi produire une mutation intérieure dans laquelle le mouvement et le déplacement deviennent des voyages mémoriels par lesquels nous traversons le temps.

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1Études britanniques contemporaines pursues its exploration of the poetics and politics of space already central to issue 47 of the journal which was devoted to ‘The Imaginaries of Space’. The articles here gathered are, for most of them, the result of a collective exploration of the theme of ‘crossing’ during the annual conference of the French Association of English Studies (SAES) that took place at the University of Caen in 2014. They also take up many of the questions and issues recently raised across a vast tract of literary research, from New Modernist studies to Intermediality studies or even recent readings into situationism (see Wark). If, to return to Joseph Frank’s canonical analysis in his 1945 essay ‘Spatial Form in Modern Literature’, modernist form seemed bound to embrace spatiality, the (post)-modern sense of crisis and our poetics of doubt would seem to supersede or reread the modernist condition by emphasizing or foregrounding the dynamics of crossing, passing and change. It seems particularly apposite that this issue of Ebc should also include a special supplement, ‘Outlanding Woolf’, devoted to the way Woolf relentlessly sought ways of ‘outlanding’ the literary medium, whether it be through translation or through an encounter with seemingly alien realms of beings or disciplines.

2Reassessing the relevance of such notion as crossing or passing brings into renewed focus the poetics of transience already so instrumental to the Baudelairien definition of modernity in ‘Le peintre de la vie moderne’. Fully aware of the modernist emphasis on movement and change, contemporary artists—whether writers or artists working in the field of the visual—take up the paradigm and somehow queers that poetics of mutability to hybridize it with a new concern with multiplicity and masquerade also central to Franz Fanon’s and Edouard Glissant’s works (see for instance Glissant’s Introduction à une politique du divers) or to Jean Genet’s 1958 Les Nègres whose dialectics of masquerade and disclosure was lately powerfully dramatized by Bob Wilson’s 2014 production of the play in the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris. Postcolonial studies have, from the start, insisted on the necessity to think such modernist spatiality in terms of instability, mixing, crossing over. Linda Hutcheon fully understood the hermeneutic potential of such a critical queering (54) when she relayed Edward Said’s call for a form of productive ‘crossing over’, beyond boundaries, beyond the ‘epistemology of forcible separation’ (Said 43). Post-colonial thought has thus often crossed over into the Deleuzian dynamics of deterritorialization.

3Defining the self as ‘crossing over’, as trespassing, implies a form of transport, as well as a form of spatial phenomenology of resistance. Soon, such border-crossing proved not only one of the main drives of (post)-modernity; it also produced a paradoxical form of agency. The movement of ‘crossing into/over’ aligned itself with the newly appropriated imagery of mobility and ontological instability, foregrounded in the field of gender studies and best summed up in the notion of ‘performativity’. The self is no longer perceived as immanent, stable and centred, but as fluid, varied, and its states of being as always transient, impermanent and elusive. As we know, for Judith Butler, the self is necessarily performative, often caught in a hall of intangible refractions and in a painful yet necessary interlocution. Here again, passing often implies a ‘passing as’. The transgressive impetus of the Romantic traveller or of the modernist flâneur, is thus caught in a productive tension in which crossing into otherness can also at times be experienced as a paradoxical form of dis/re-empowering. This was one of the most productive propositions of Pamela L. Caughie in her ground-breaking study of ‘Passing as Modernism’ in which she came to rephrase ‘performativity’ as ‘passing’:

[T]he responsibility modernist forms of passing have thrust upon us, the responsibility we abjure through the territorial metaphor, is to understand identity as dynamic, more like a wave, a transfer of energy from point to point, than like the transfer of land. I prefer “passing” to the more common term “performativity” to describe this concept of identity because passing brings out the historical emergence of this concept in actual social practices (not linguistic or philosophical theories) within a specific historical context. That context is late modernity. (401)

4Études britanniques contemporaines’s next issue (issue 49 devoted to ‘State of Britain: Representing / Writing Britain in the 20th and 21st–Centuries’) will give us ample occasion to question the conviction held by some that we have now entered a post-racial society and that we may have moved beyond such ‘passing’ (see Christian B. Sundquist’s rejoinder to the suggestion we have entered a society in which ‘racial passing appears to be fading’ [482]). For those writers and artists forcing the English imagination—whether it be literary of visual—to produce new hybridities addressing identity in ways hitherto ungraspable, the late modernist conception of selfhood as passing is still relevant in order to understand the play of identities and the way post-colonial identities necessarily get impacted by other forms of crossings, of a more sociological nature, when the colour bar and the social divides no longer quite coincide and thus need to be understood anew. In the field of visual arts, Chris Ofili or Steve McQueen, and in that of fiction, authors such as Hari Kunzru, Zadie Smith or Hanif Kureishi, to name but a few, have all placed the experience of paradoxical encounter with a cultural unheimlich at the heart of their works. They all speak to the heart of English society, yet from the heart of English society, from zones of our ‘imagined community’ where the other may cross into the same and vice versa. Such a literary experience is nothing new: before them, George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), had already forced his reader to a destabilizing encounter with the aliens within, i.e. the proletariat of a conflicted and alienated England and one should also remember the way cosmopolitanism displaces the faultlines of belonging and expatriation, and more particularly so, as Anna Snaith recently argued, in an Imperial context (see Snaith).

5The articles here gathered remind us that such a conflicted dialectics is always already phenomenological, sometimes very concretely so, and also, as Julian Wolfreys states here: “ There is no crossing without transformation or ‘translation’”. The experience of literature always entails a displacement of one’s self, of the established boundaries of identity, whether one speaks of class, culture, gender, or literary genres; for form and genre are first and foremost the sites where such aesthetic displacement actually takes place and queers the reading experience.

6The articles grouped under the heading ‘Beyond Genres and Identities’ highlight the productive correlation of generic cross-fertilization, intermediality and what might be rephrased as an ethics of border-crossing. Susana Onega’s opening piece, ‘Pornography and the Crossing of Class, Gender and Moral Boundaries in Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith’ aptly reminds us that playing with genres as Sarah Waters does, points meta-fictionally to other modes of playing, often of a more ethically disturbing kind. Similarly, Solange Ayache’s ‘Traversées en eaux troubles : porosité des frontières, dérives de la langue et croisement des genres dans The Three Birds de Joanna Laurens’ explores the way intertextuality, here with Sophocle’s partly lost play Tereus, as well as generic hybridization produce a form of cathartic hermeneutics of a no less disturbing kind. Both Isabelle Roblin’s ‘Mortelle traversée : The Comfort of Stangers, roman de Ian McEwan (1981), scénario de Harold Pinter (1989) et film de Paul Shrader (1990)’ and Julien Alliot’s ‘De l’Un à l’autre, et d’un autre à l’Autre : le passage de la scène à l’écran chez Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter et Mike Leighprecisely investigate what such genre or media-crossings entail in terms of identity fashioning. Displacement necessarily unhinges selfhood, unmoors it and produces encounters of a troubling kind, through which the self, the text and representation are experienced as estranged, or other, yet also revealed anew for what they are, i.e. an in-between zone of exchange and trans-formation.

7This is also what the articles placed under the heading ‘Crossing into Otherness: of Maps and Paths’ bring to light. For over twenty years research has shown how issues of individual as well as collective identity fashioning and gendering coalesce in the experience of travelling (see Regard, as well as Siegel). Travelling has always, in British culture, generated what might be termed a phenomenological dialectics of othering through which the traveller experiences her/his self as same and other, as well as radically altered by the very experience of travelling. British Land artists such as Richard Long or Hamish Fulton dramatize such a process of alteration in their long walks across desert landscapes or moors. From the Grand Tour to the continental driftings of the modernists (see Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘To Spain’ [1923]) which reveal so much of the cultural logic of Internationalism, and to the more sombre variations of crossings—inherent in the experience of loss and chaos—depicted in Pat Barker’s Border Crossing (2001), the English imagination has repeatedly been fulled by the experience of crossing(s) over into another continent, imaginary world or culture as well by the encounter it/they produce with the other, very often revealed as already there, at home within the self, thus profoundly Unheimlich. The tradition of Channel crossing has offered obvious sources of inspiration and may enlighten E. M. Forster’s or Jean Rhys’ own take on that long tradition and the way they invented themselves as writers, in the wake of that tradition. The memory of the Italian Grand tour is still present in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers (1981) and in such recent works as Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow (2010) and one may also turn to more distant and even more complex crossings, such as David Hockney’s (inner) journey to California or, decades before him, Conrad’s fantasy confrontations with the Empire’s other, confrontations that have, in their turn, become the matrix for other cross-cultural, intertextual confrontations, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

8The experience of travelling entails a voyage in, as well as a voyage out, taking the self beyond the world of appearances to the inner/outer confines of identity and selfhood. Crossing over necessarily unhinges one’s private and collective identity; it forces the artist, the reader, the spectator to question the very foundations of her selfhood. As Christine Regan shows in ‘“Ghosts” and the Haunting of Harrison by Rimbaud’, cross-cultural and cross-poetic encounters are poetic moments of catharsis during which the poet’s voice is also altered and becomes echoic, and an unheimlich voice rifts the page open. Crossing is thus visually materialized on the page. With Iain Sinclair, Simon Armitage and John Burnside, that experience of haunting is materialized and experienced in the flesh. Catherine Lanone’s ‘La traversée fantôme : Ghost Milk de Iain Sinclair’ follows Sinclair’s psychogeographic pilgrimage across a London that only survives its gentrification and disciplining through relics that cut across time and memory. Claire Hélie’s ‘Crossing the Pennines in Simon Armitage’s Walking Home’ offers another poignant variation on the way walking across is more than a variation on the Romantic motif of the literary pilgrimage. It undoes the self, it rewrites the nostalgic motif of the Odyssey for our melancholy times. But such a melancholy crossing may also harbour the promise of a reenchantement. Julian Wolfreys’ ‘“It was suddenly hard winter”: John Burnside’s Crossings’ loops the section’s exploration with a vision of altering and change that is also a gift. In concordance with Derrida’s counter-philosophy of displacement (see also Dutoit and Romanski), it follows the path of an ethics of displacement, according to which the self’s encounter with the other becomes the harbinger of a renewed experience of hospitality, beyond, as much as across borders. The voyage is necessarily only a beginning and the articles of the present volume invite us to reflect on the dialectics of othering entailed in all crossings, when we leave the shore of our well-trodden world and turn to other cultural, mental, aesthetic horizons.

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Caughie, Pamela L., ‘Passing as Modernism’, Modernism/modernity, 12.3 (2005): 385–406.

Dutoit, Thomas and Philippe Romanski, eds., Derrida d’ici, Derrida de Là, Paris: Galilée, 2009.

Frank, Joseph, ‘Spatial Form in Modern Literature: an Essay in Three Parts’, The Sewanee Review 53.4 (1945): 643–653.

Glissant, Édouard, Introduction à une poétique du divers, Paris: Gallimard, 1996.

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge, 1988.

Regard, Frédéric, ed., British Narratives of Exploration: Case Studies of the Self and Other, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009.

———, The Quest for the Northwest Passage: Knowledge, Nation and Empire, 1576-1806, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012.

———, Arctic Exploration in the Nineteenth Century: Discovering the Northwest Passage, London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013.

Said, Edward, ‘An Ideology of Difference,’ Critical Inquiry, 12.1 (1985): 38–58.

Siegel, Kristi, ed., Gender, Genre and Identity in Women's Travel Writing, New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Snaith, Anna, Modernist Voyages. Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945, Cambridge: CUP, 2014.

Sundquist, Christian B., ‘Signifying on Passing: (Post) Post-racialism, (Post) Post-modernism and (Post) Post-marxism’, Columbia Journal of Race and Law 1.3 (2012): 482–489.

Wark, McKenzie, The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages out of the Twentieth Century, London: Verso, 2013.

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction: ‘Crossing into Otherness’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 48 | 2015, mis en ligne le 23 mars 2015, consulté le 20 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at Paris Diderot University. She has published extensively on contemporary art (Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Rachel Whiteread, but also Gillian Wearing and Sam Taylor-Wood). She has also done extensive work on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker or Graham Swift). Her research has also turned to English modernism and more specifically Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. She has co-edited several volumes of articles on Woolf, has published a critical study of Mrs Dalloway (Gallimard, Foliothèque, 2006), as well as a critical edition of Flush, for the Pléiade Edition of Woolf’s works (2012). She is soon to publish a critical edition and translation into French of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Gallimard, Folio classique, 2015). She is currently working on a study of the body politics of contemporary British fiction and visual culture to be published with the Presses de la Sorbonne. She is the President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC)

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