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The Many Revolutions of Literariness
Catherine Bernard


Ce numéro d’Études britanniques contemporaines s’interroge sur la pertinence qu’il y aurait encore à penser la littérarité sous les auspices de l’impératif révolutionnaire. Si les avant-gardes littéraires du début du xxe siècle ont contribué à légitimer la rupture révolutionnaire et en ont fait un impératif esthétique, les articles ici réunis décalent et remettent cet impératif sur le métier critique. Couvrant un large spectre historique, du modernisme à la période contemporaine, les lectures proposées démontrent que la révolution peut adopter bien des formes ; si, pour les écrivains modernistes, la révolution formelle ordonne l’écriture en désinstituant l’ordre du langage, pour d’autres auteurs la révolution est aussi politique, historique, sujet de l’écriture, matière à penser et à écrire.

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1The revolution metaphor has been one of the most lastingly influential ones in modernist and contemporary literature and visual arts. It has informed the history of aesthetics and its periodization, the modernist revolution unfolding in a succession of sub-revolutions captured in the ‘-isms’ that, in the arts, came in quick succession from Post-Impressionism to Dadaism, from Vorticism to Surrealism. Formal experimentation and an agonistic relation to the dominant aesthetics inherited from the 19th century were central to the modernist revolution and the narrative has remained till today the dominant one, with its emphasis on literature and art as revolutionary events, always in excess of the known.

2Whether defined as revolutionary or more often, in Anglo-American criticism, as avant-garde, literature and the arts radically redefined their relation to society and history. Form has lastingly been endowed with utopian agency. In his early study of the relation of literature to ideology, Criticism and Ideology, Terry Eagleton stresses the radical shift 19th century revolutions imposed on literary vision and on form. Returning, in his concluding chapter, to Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851), he underlines Marx’s revolutionary unhinging of the very language of artistic revolutions. For Marx, if the English and the French revolutions drew their ‘poetry from the past’, the ‘social revolution of the 19th century’ could not ‘begin with itself before it had stripped off all superstition in regard to the past’, adding ‘earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content’ (quoted in Eagleton 183). As Eagleton underlines, Marx’s call for a forward-looking invention of a poetry of the future is premised on the belief that a new language is needed in order to come to terms with the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism: ‘The “poetry” of previous revolutions, the symbologies by which they lived themselves, was opiate and inauthentic—an artificial engraftment of past forms onto historical circumstances too constricted to produce their own adequate significations’ (183).

3A radically new contract between world and word needs to be established in which literature’s capacity to interpret its context no longer inheres in its relation to the tradition that ratifies it, but in its capacity to be visionary and invent a transgressive idiom that is self-grounding. Only when it looks to the future may literature be able to speak of the present. As such the paradox revolutionizes literature’s relation to history, and that revolution in turn reworks the mimetic contract: ‘The “poetics” of previous revolutions have been of an “expressive” or “representational” kind: it was a matter of the content discovering a form’ (184). The new dynamics of production can only be made sense of via forms that achieve ‘a ceaseless self-surpassment’ (184). Thus is the relation of content and form itself unhinged; and thus can poetry work against the reification of form:

It is a question of rethinking that opposition–of grasping form no longer as the symbolic mould into which content is poured, but as the ‘form of the content’: which is to say, grasping form as the structure of a ceaseless self-production, and so not as ‘structure’ but as ‘structuration’. It is this process of continual self-excess—of the ‘content go[ing] beyong the phrase’—which is for Marx the poetry of the future . . . . (184)

4Fredric Jameson was to take up a similarly revolutionary perspective on the task of literature and, more broadly, of theory. In the conclusion to A Singular Modernity, he argues for a rearming of Utopia in lieu of Modernity. Because it violently undoes the linearity of causal forces, Utopia may be up to the measureless task of confronting a rudderless present. Calling both on modernist poetry and on philosophy, Jameson advocates an ontology whose hermeneutic power would lie in its revolutionary logic:

What we really need is a wholesale displacement of the thematics of modernity by the desire called Utopia. We need to combine a Poundian mission to identify Utopian tendencies with a Benjaminian geography of their sources and a gauging of their pressure at what are now multiple sea levels. Ontologies of the present demand archeologies of the future, not forecasts of the past. (215)

  • 1 My translation. Julia Kristeva is here focusing on Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique (1909), (...)

5The effectiveness of modernism and the avant-gardes in achieving what Marx defined as the ‘structuration’ of a utopian future has been the object of ongoing debates. Before concluding on his Poundian conjuring of the vibrant spectre of Utopia, Jameson also insists on the canonisation of modernism, the transformation of autonomy into aesthetic ideology and ‘the failure of autonomy to go all the way and fulfil its aesthetic programme’ (209). Peter Bürger, in Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) had already paved the way for such a critical inventory of the reification of revolutionary literary forms. Yet the revolutionary paradigm was to exert a lasting influence on our conception of literariness as ‘self-surpassment of “content”’ (Eagleton 184). Julia Kristeva was, in Desire in Language (initially published in French as Sèméiotikè. Recherches pour une sémanalyse), to develop a poetics of textual productiveness that intimately borrows from such a politics/poetics of excess, according to which ‘the text is also a movement of reconfiguration, a “feverish traffic” that destroys as it produces’ (Kristeva 1969, 176).1 In 1974, Kristeva revisited her ‘sémanalyse’ as a revolutionary poetics in which literature, or even more specifically the ‘text’, might function as the equivalent to the members of the body politic of political revolution, i.e. by undermining the reified ‘The archivistic, archeological, and necrophilic methods’ (12) which ground our understanding of literariness. Reading literature as a dialectical force she opposes it to dead ‘discourse’:

If there is a ‘discourse’ which is not a mere depository of thin linguistic layers, an archive of structures, or the testimony of a withdrawn body, and is, instead, the essential element of a practice involving the sum of unconscious, subjective, and social relations in gestures of confrontation and appropriation, destruction and construction—productive violence, in short—it is ‘literature’, or, more specifically, the text . . . . (16)

  • 2 Section 2 of the book’s introduction is entitle ‘Silent Oracles’.

6For all its being adjacent to the social and political sphere, the text is, according to Kristeva an agent of change. Meanwhile, Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970) and Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-garde bemoaned the failure of agonistic art and of the avant-gardes to confront the reification of art in the form of a demeaned culture industry; Adorno’s defense of art’s autonomy remains powerful and has somewhat obfuscated the complex, indirect, agonistic interaction of politics and poetics that Kristeva defends. Gabriel Josipovici’s melancholy essay on modernism’s legacy, What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010) is yet another instance of the current disenchantment with literature’s revolutionary promise. For Josipovici ‘oracles’ have fallen ‘silent’,2 and contemporary literature can only tell of its own waning.

7Recent reworkings of the debate have amply shown how vibrant and relevant that debate still is. Jacques Rancière’s exploration of ‘the politics of aesthetics’ has, needless to say, gone a long way to rethink the relation between art and politics and to highlight art’s critical take on power relations. Here, once again, form acts as an agent of ‘structuration’ of, to borrow Rancière’s now famous words, the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Rancière 2000), an expression he was to rephrase as the ‘partition of the perceptible’ (Rancière 2011, 7). Literature is that ‘structuration’ that makes us see ‘politics as an “aesthetic affair”’ (Rancière 2011, 7):

What I mean is that politics, rather than the exercise of power or the struggle for power, is the configuration of a specific world, a specific form of experience in which some things appear to be political objects, some questions political issues or argumentations and some agents political subjects. (Rancière 2011, 7)

8Rancière’s ‘aesthetics of politics’ (Rancière 2011, 7) may help us understand the very many forms literature’s reading and writing the revolution may take. For all its dominance, the avant-garde paradigm, or the dialectics of autonomy and commitment are not the only options available to understand literature’s relation to radical change and political disruption. The late modernism of George Orwell has shed a very different light on the revolutionary impact of literature, with its paradoxical and counter-intuitive defense of ‘quietism’ (Orwell 43) in ‘Inside the Whale’ (1940). The experimental novelists of the 1960s—B.S. Johnson, Alan Burns or Christine Brooke-Rose—were, one again, to rework that dialectics by defending the revolutionary impact of formal experimentation and thus the possibility for the writer to be an agent of change.

9The articles here gathered offer a wide spectrum of the various ways writers may engage with revolution(s) as form, theme, object. Opening with studies of modernist experimentation, they then turn to analyses of contemporary fiction’s readings of historical revolutions. Common to all these articles is the conviction that form may offer some critical purchase on our experience of the present. Playing on the ambiguity of the term ‘revolution’, they also show that the new may also return as the same and thus harbour a covert or even ironical sense of nostalgia. Far from being a depleted concept, ‘revolution’ is thus once again shown to be a working concept to understand our relation to literature’s work and our (post)modernist grasp of its historicity.

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Bürger, Peter, Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), trans. Michael Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Eagleton, Terry, Criticism and Ideology. A Study in Marxist Literary Theory (1976), London: Verso, 1998.

Jameson, Fredric, A Singular Modernity. Essay on the Ontology of the Present, London: Verso, 2002.

Josipovici, Gabriel, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, New Haven and London, Yale UP, 2010.

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

Kristeva, Julia, Revolution in Poetic Language (1974); trans. Margaret Waller, New York; Columbia UP, 1984.

Orwell, George, ‘Inside the Whale’, Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957.

Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible (2000), trans. Gabriel Rockhill, London: Continuum, 2004.

Rancière, Jacques, ‘The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics’, ed. Paul Bowman and Richard Stamp, Reading Rancière, London: Continuum, 2011, 1–17.

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1 My translation. Julia Kristeva is here focusing on Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique (1909), itself a key reference in French modernism. The novel was adapted to the stage by Roussel himself in 1912, after a first unsuccessful adaptation had failed to attract attention. The 1912 production drew prominent figures of French modernism, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia or Marcel Duchamp.

2 Section 2 of the book’s introduction is entitle ‘Silent Oracles’.

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 56 | 2019, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2019, consulté le 30 janvier 2023. 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 (Rachel Whiteread, Gillian Wearing, Mark Wallinger among others) and 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 published a critical edition and translation of Flush into French (Gallimard, Bibliothèque La Pléiade, 2012), and a critical edition and translation of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Essais choisis, Gallimard, Folio classique, 2015). She is also the author of a monograph on contemporary British fiction and contemporary art: Matière à réflexion. Du corps politique dans la littérature et les arts visuels britanniques contemporains (Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2018). She is the President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC).

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