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Introduction: Trying to Define Literature’s Confluences

Confluences littéraires: tentatives de définition
Catherine Bernard


De récents numéros d’Études britanniques contemporaines se sont intéressés à la dynamique agonistique de la littérature et des arts britanniques. Le présent numéro explore un paradigme qui a jusqu’à présent suscité peu d’intérêt critique. La notion de ‘confluence’ implique une forme de coalescence géologique et organique. Elle met ainsi en question les paradigmes dominants hérités du modernisme et de son esthétique de la fracture et du déplacement. Les articles réunis ici ne proposent pas tant d’élaborer une poétique systématique de la ‘confluence’ que de mettre en travail ce paradigme alternatif. S’intéressant autant au modernisme et à son invention du ‘courant de conscience’ qu’à la littérature britannique la plus récente, Ebc 52 vise à tester une métaphore du travail de la littérature qui est restée largement négligée ou dissimulée, et offre ainsi une perspective métathéorique sur notre pratique critique.

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  • 1 One should mention here the analyses developed by Martine Beugnet on the convergence of the visual (...)
  • 2 One must also mention the review Confluences created in 1941 by Jacques Aubenque.

1A quick search on any database will show that literary theory and criticism have so far overlooked the metaphorical and hermeneutic potential of the word ‘confluence’. Recent developments in the field of visual and film studies have appropriated the word ‘convergence’, under the influence of media convergence (Cartwright) and the urgency to understand how the ubiquity of visual experience, in our digital era, may impact visual language.1 The term ‘confluence’ remains, for its part, absent from our collective exploration of the dynamics of art or literature. It might however foster a different hermeneutics of the way texts emerge through an organic process of coalescence with coexisting cultural phenomena and trends, whether they be linguistic, aesthetic, or political. The journal Confluences published by the faculty of English and American studies of the university of Paris Ouest-Nanterre develops an exploration of the liminal nature of literary experience, emphasizing the way texts posit themselves at the point of encounter with otherness, or at the precise fold of intermediality. But such an interest in the image of literary confluence remains exceptional.2

2No doubt this may be explained by the lasting impact the related categories of dialogism and intertextuality have exerted on our understanding of literariness. The obvious link of Bakhtin’s dialogism with the tradition of enlightened, if at times agonistic, conversation and dispute places dialogism firmly in the sphere of anthropocentric interaction. Dialogism remains firmly anchored in a humanistic conception of cultural memory (Bakhtin 122-151). What Julia Kristeva was later to label as ‘intertextuality’, in her 1966 essay ‘Word, Dialogue and the Novel’ which she was to include in Semiotike (1969), posits a cultural and social dynamics which seems to deliberately distance itself from the semantics of nature and life. Dialogism and intertextuality are, in that sense, the offshoots of linguistics and of structuralism. In Esthétique et théorie du roman—the French translation of Bakhtin’s Questions of Literature and Aesthetics—, the expression ‘construction hybride’ does feature to define utterances in which two modes of enunciation, two styles, two languages blend together (Bakhtin 125-126). The biological root of the metaphor remains however unacknowledged in the structuralist subsumption of life by discourse.

  • 3 See also her article ‘Spatial Poetics and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things’ (196), in which (...)

3Recent developments in the field of literary geographies have allowed the term ‘confluence’ to appear as a potential hermeneutic instrument to allow us to grasp how cultures, forms, influences map out a space in which texts, styles, images do not so much enter in a ‘dialogue’, as yield to organic pressures that result in their invisible coalescence. The spatial and geographical turn of literary interpretation, as embodied for instance by Susan Stanford Friedman’s spatial reading of both modernism and feminism. Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter, as well as her far more recent Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time aim at displacing the temporal paradigm which has informed our understanding of the development of forms and, even more broadly, ‘a diffusionist, linear human history’ (Stanford Friedman 2015, ‘Introduction’, ebook). Her insistence on the necessity to move from a temporal, linear conception of cultural dynamics to a geographical and planetary one remains, however, informed by a cartographic imagination which interestingly refrains from taking the geological turn we might expect.3 The metaphor of ‘confluence’ is rarely exploited and when it features in her essays, it is as a synonym for convergence. Anna Snaith’s enlightening Modernist Voyages. Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945 also rereads modernism from a geographical perspective to underline how the cultural dynamics of influence might be far more complex and entangled than the traditional centre/periphery binarism implies. Yet, once again, the vision is indeed that of a new perspective, correlated with a geography of culture.

4The metaphor of ‘confluence’ is not entirely absent from recent studies on the dynamics of creativeness. Social robotics and artificial intelligence specialist Johan F. Hoorn has borrowed from the fields of experimental sciences, as well as cultural history to understand the creative effect of complex phenomena—ranging from the neurological to the economic and cultural—, in the production of new life and cultural forms. His Creative Confluence tries to heed the metaphorical potential of the ‘confluence’ image to highlight the complexity and unpredictability of any creative process and the radical possibility for the unheard and unseen it harbours. Even more recently, Marjorie Garber has revisited Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’ paradigm to try and fathom how Bloom’s ‘melancholy’ (Garber 735) reading of literary creativeness may in fact conceal an ‘anxiety of confluence’ and a conflicted relation to the language of criticism itself. Garber thus reads The Anxiety of Influence, and Bloom’s pronouncement that he will no longer read criticism but only poetry, as also symptomatic of his refusal to acknowledge the fact that criticism and poetry may also bring language into creative confluence (Garber 737), thus jeopardizing the very status of poetic language. From ‘influence’ to ‘confluence’, a more organic, less agonistic poetics of creation may be in the making, on the verge of conceptualisation.

5Yet, ‘confluence’ resists any conceptualisation. The articles gathered here all offer circumnavigations of the term while self-reflexively acknowledging the difficulty of precisely capturing what happens in the ‘confluences’ of minds, styles, media so often produced by literary texts. Yet, as we know, such difficulty and circumnavigations are also the ferment of research and collective explorations into the entangled dynamics of creation.

6The first section—‘Historical confluence(s)’—brings together articles turning to the legacy of modernism’s spatial poetics. Florence Marie’s ‘Au confluent exactement : Deadlock (1921), Revolving Lights (1923) et The Trap (1925) de Dorothy Richardson’ rereads Richardson’s experimental creation of the stream of consciousness technique as also symbolical of her cultural and geographical understanding of modern identity, an identity that has become increasingly cosmopolitan. Frédéric Regard’s ‘Sans bords : distance et démocratie dans Letters from Iceland de W.H. Auden et Louis MacNeice’ turns to the late-modernist experimentations of Letters from Iceland to reflect on the complex spatial politics of this hybrid work and to show how text and history may merge in agonistic, yet critically productive ways. Christian Gutleben’s ‘“Urban Palimpsests”: When novelistic and architectural languages merge in Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind’ brings us closer to present times, but also tries to understand what is at stake in the spatial poetics of texts which stand at the confluence of historical time and palimpsestuous space.

7The second section—‘States of flux/states of conflict’—focuses more specifically on the impact of confluence or convergence on identity fashioning and subjectivity. Mark Davies’ ‘Contingency and Avatarization in the Narrative Worlds of Wyndham Lewis and Will Self’ explores how remediation and intermediality give both Lewis and Self purchase over the fragmentation of identity. Adeline Arniac’s ‘“Where are the boys? Have you found them?” : La confluence comme rencontre manquée dans Moonlight de Harold Pinter’ turns to Pinter’s staging of failed encounters. There is, for Pinter, no confluence of selves without a radical questioning of selfhood. Diane Gagneret’s ‘“The Tangled Confluence” : Folie et hybridité du récit dans The Quantity Theory of Insanity, de Will Self et Enduring Love, de Ian McEwan’ returns to epistemological confluence in its analysis of what has been defined as McEwan’s ‘neuro-novel’.

8The third section—‘Hybridity/adaptation/convergence’—focuses more specifically on formal and media confluence. Émilie Walezac’s ‘The Confluence of Naturalism and Postmodernism in Rose Tremain’s The Swimming Pool Season: a Post-War Feminist Approach to Realism’ takes Tremain’s little-researched novel as an emblematic example of fiction’s use of formal hybridization as an instrument of self-reflexiveness allowing writers to ponder on their relation to the doxa. Isabelle Roblin’s ‘Idiomatic Confluences: Xenisms in Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Kamila Shamsie's In the City by the Sea (1998)’ takes up the argument to show how such a confluence works at the level of language itself in the zones of linguistic contact where a new language may be born. Moving from the linguistic fabric of fiction to its meta-cultural structure, Armelle Parey’s ‘Confluence and the Neo-victorian in Dickensian’ revisits the economy of adaptation to analyze the paradoxical logic of Dickensian, a TV series which she reads as characteristic of the new visual and spatial confluence underlying adaptation’s exploitation of cultural memory. Also taking the language of emergent media as its central focus, Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès’ ‘Confluence du corps et des signes dans 253 de Geoff Ryman’ turns to hypertextuality to highlight the new phenomenological confluence at work in digital literature.

9From the modernist stream of consciousness to hypertextuality, the range of the articles here gathered testifies to the relevance of the notion of ‘confluence’. Paradoxically, one may argue that the very evasiveness of ‘confluence’, as a metaphor for literary dynamics, gives us renewed purchase on texts and literary phenomena which still require critical attention. Confluence may work at the level of form, genre, technique, format. By implicitly conjuring images of fluidity and instability, it may offer us a different paradigm to account for the unaccountable logic of creativeness.

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Aubenque, Jacques, and René Tavernier, eds., Confluences. Revue de la Renaissance française, 1941-1950, last accessed at on February 2, 2017.

Bakhtin, Mikhail, Ethétique et théorie du roman, trad. Daria Olivier, Paris: Gallimard, coll. Tel, 1978.

Beugnet, Martine, ‘Firing at the Clocks: Cinema, Sampling, and the Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Artwork’, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 54.2 (2013): 192-207.

Cartwright, Lisa, ‘Film and the Digital in Visual Studies: Film Studies in the Era of Convergence’, Journal of Visual Culture 1.1 (2002): 7-23.

Confluences, journal of the department of English and American studies, Paris Ouest- Nanterre University, last accessed at on January 25, 2017.

Garber, Marjorie, ‘Over the Influence’, Critical Inquiry 42 (2016): 731-759.

Hoorn, Johan F. Creative Confluence, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, Linguistic Approaches to Literature Series, 2014.

Kristeva, Julia, Semiotiké. Recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris: Le Seuil, 1969.

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

Stanford Friedman, Susan, Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Stanford Friedman, ‘Spatial Poetics and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things’, A Companion to Narrative Theory, eds. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz, Oxford: Wiley, 2005, 192-205.

Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time, New York: Columbia UP, 2015.

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1 One should mention here the analyses developed by Martine Beugnet on the convergence of the visual languages of video and cinema: ‘Firing at the Clocks: Cinema, Sampling, and the Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Artwork’, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 54.2 (2013), 192-207.

2 One must also mention the review Confluences created in 1941 by Jacques Aubenque.

3 See also her article ‘Spatial Poetics and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things’ (196), in which she also explores Franco Moretti’s spatial literary hermeneutics.

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction: Trying to Define Literature’s Confluences »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 52 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, 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-Johnson). She has also done extensive work on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker or John Lanchester). 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 Virginia Woolf, has published a critical study of Mrs Dalloway (Gallimard, Foliothèque, 2006), a critical edition of Flush, for the Pléiade Edition of Woolf’s works (2012), as well as 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 politic 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 (SÉAC).

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