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Theorising Democracy and Fiction

‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again’: Representing the Body Politic after Brexit

« It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again » : la représentation du corps politique après le Brexit
Catherine Bernard


Autumn, publié par Ali Smith en 2016, inaugura ce que la critique définit bientôt sous le terme « Brexlit. » Se penchant sur le texte d’Ali Smith ainsi que sur d’autres productions littéraires, parmi lesquelles la pièce de Carol Ann Duffy My Country: A Work in Progress (2017) ou encore la série de courtes pièces Brexit Shorts: Dramas from a Divided Nation (2017), cet article examine comment la fiction et le théâtre sondent, parfois sur le mode de l’expérimentation, la crise intérieure d’une nation. Au cœur de ces textes se lit la capacité de la littérature à œuvrer comme un médium démotique, qui penserait une identité collective clivée. Certains des concepts clés à la pensée de la démocratie — le peuple, la communauté, communitas — sont ici mis à l’épreuve du présent. L’heure est venue, semblent aussi nous dire ces œuvres, de repenser l’une des plus puissantes allégories du commun que l’histoire britannique ait produite : celle du body politic. Nous montrons donc comment en se réappropriant cette allégorie en ce temps de crise, ces fictions interrogent l’empirisme de la notion et comment cette allégorie incarnée interroge en retour le pacte mimétique.

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Texte intégral

Of representation/representativeness (yet again…)

  • 1 On the mythologising of England, see also Sara Upstone (46–47 ebook).

1In a July 2018 piece for the Financial Times entitled ‘BrexLit: the New Landscape of British Fiction’, literary critic Jon Day insisted that ‘as a form, the novel has always had an uneasy relationship with the granular reality of the news cycle’ and his conclusion was that somehow the ‘fledgling sub-genre’ of BrexLit failed to truly come to terms with the rifts and tensions opened by the 2016 referendum, or, even more crucially the ‘littleness of Britain’ and its incapacity to look beyond a fantasy grandeur that haunted the present as a ghostly trace. In a similar vein, former Booker Prize chair John Sutherland was, in the 2018 September issue of The Literary Review, precisely to read the referendum against the literary tradition of a mythical England as imagined by Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur or Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Harold: The Last of the Saxon Kings (1848).1 Brexit, Sutherland also insisted, ‘is an idea without political apparatus, without a long history, without field-tested theory, without obvious creative writers to put living flesh on its bones’. He went on to lament the illiteracy of a whole generation of Tory leaders and members deprived of the political acumen a greater intimacy with that literary history would have given them; it needs, he suggested, a Disraeli to give a body to Britain’s two (or more) nations, but ‘not one in a hundred attending the Tory Party conference this month (September 2018) will have read Sybil’, although ‘Disraeli’s novel will be spiritually there, reverberating like a silent heartbeat’.

2And yet, one wonders, is the capacity of literature to act as a symbolical form but a memory that only returns on our political horizon as a fantasy trace? Is literature truly incapable of confronting the full magnitude of the identity crisis the Brexit referendum has precipitated and come to crystallize, in a dizzying conflation of political agency and symptomatology? Is literary representation so depleted and historically impotent that it can only address the sense of crisis negatively, by reneging on its historical responsibility? That one should feel the urgency to raise such questions already testifies to the persistent relevance of literature to our history in the making. The five opening chapters of the recently published volume, Brexit and Literature. Critical and Cultural Responses, opens precisely on an exploration of ‘the powers of literature’ (2). The chapters specifically turn to the way literature opens spaces in which to articulate the acute sense of anxiety that brought on Brexit; and just as, John Sutherland might argue, the great 19th-century novelists had to forge forms of narratives that might represent the unstable times of the industrial revolution, contemporary literature needs to rethink its hermeneutic and cognitive economy to invent a mimetic contract that might put words on the current sense of collective anomia.

3Central to such a political rearming of literature is of course the highly contested notion of Britishness. Like other moments of crisis in post-consensus Britain—from the ousting of the Labour Party by the conservatives in 1979, to the Miners’ strike in 1984 or the liberal turn taken by Blair’s New Labour in 1994—the Brexit crisis has laid bare the political, social and cultural fault lines of Britishness. As Kristian Shaw argues in the collective volume Brexit and Literature ‘literature has always been a significant influence on the perception of Britishness (or a narrower Englishness), shaping the identifiers of national identity in the popular cultural imagination’ (Shaw 2018, 17) and the referendum vote provides the best and most complex testing ground of such an essentialising and prescriptive concept as Britishness.

4More importantly for what interests us here, it has put the concept to the ultimate test of representativeness. The double meaning of the term ‘representation’ proves once more key to our understanding of literature’s political task, representation being that inherently symbolical process through which a community manifests itself to itself through a political/poetic process that is a moment of embodiment and of reflexive distancing. The immediacy of the referendum, its by-passing of all intermediary bodies and its short-cutting of democratic representation, all give the impression of a direct acting out of political intentionality. French constitutionalist Dominique Rousseau has repeatedly insisted on the deceptive nature of the referendum process (Rousseau 2015 and 2019), posturing as it does as the instrument of direct democracy, while in actual fact it functions as a covert and always misdirected form of plebiscite. It is in turn such misprision—the illusion of direct expression inherent in referendums—that has forced writers and artists to reflect back on the very function of representation, thus foregrounding the powerful articulation of symbolical and political representation. If, as philosopher Myriam Revault d’Allonnes insists, representation sustains itself of the paradoxical possibility to (re)present what is absent through the fiction of an ‘as if’ (19), then the Brexit referendum seemed to rescind that illusion and to tear the veil of parliamentary democracy. Citizens seemed to claim for themselves the ‘capacity’ (Revault d’Allonnes 179) to represent themselves directly, dismissing as a fallacy the delegation of power and presence inherent in modern representation. Suddenly the community, the demos gave itself the impression it was—at last?—at one with itself, fully present to itself. It paradoxically spoke as one body, beyond its unrepresentable multiplicity.

5Central to the challenge posed to literature and art in this instance is the category of a/the people, a category as contested of course as the concept of ‘Britishness’. The reappearance of ‘the people’ in recent years on the theoretical horizon proves the necessity to rethink such a powerful identity-formation and, with it, its articulation to democracy. Finding the proper form to say the Brexit crisis implies for instance we question the opposition introduced by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri between the people and the multitude:

Political action aimed at transformation and liberation today can only be conducted on the basis of the multitude. To understand the concept of the multitude in its most general and abstract form, let us contrast it first with that of the people. The people is one. The population, of course, is composed of numerous different individuals and classes, but the people synthesizes or reduces these social differences into one identity. The multitude, by contrast, is not unified but remains plural and multiple. [. . .] The multitude is composed of a set of singularities. (Hardt and Negri 2004, 99)

6In the already mentioned collective volume Brexit and Literature, Simon Glendinning and Thomas Docherty underline the tactical harnessing of ‘the people’ by the leave campaign leaders to the enticing lure of the unmediated expression of ‘the people’ (173, 191). Most chapters in the same book return to the collective fantasy of an unmediated voice supposedly bypassing all media and speaking back to a collective identity untrammelled by the injunctions of experts, the same experts denounced by Nigel Farage during the campaign (Docherty in Eaglestone 192). The dangers of such populist essentialising are well known. To counter them, Simon Glendinning contends, one should on the contrary reclaim ‘the people’ as a non exclusionary category that might be the true expression of that same model of liberty confiscated by the likes of Johnson and Nigel Farage:

One might wonder if the modern ‘English’ model of liberty, of freedom as a political concept, has its own corresponding and commendable form: not as ‘sovereignty’ (of ‘the people’) and not a fantasy of ‘autochtony’ (of ‘the people’) either but as ‘non-domination’ (of whoever). (Glendinning in Eaglestone 173)

7That the British ‘people’ is a far more multiple and contradictory body than the nationalist rhetoric of the leave campaign made it out to be, and that this complexity in part explains the vote has been amply documented by sociologists and cultural critics. John Clarke and Janet Newman read the fractures revealed by the results as testifying to such multiplicity, a multiplicity that has never been fully acknowledged and politically mediated and represented. They also read them as lines of emergence along which the body politic manifests itself to itself as complex and contradictory:

The divisions then were not just between Leavers and Remainers. The referendum brought to the surface, condensed and amplified deep-seated fissures—of class, of gender, of race, of age, and of place—as well as producing new antagonisms. Here, then, Brexit acts as signifier of ‘emergent politics’: new fractures, new alignments, and new identifications. (68)

8Like other observers of the emergent subject articulated by the Brexit vote, Clarke and Newman—who tellingly for us, open their article on a quotation from Ali Smith’s novel Autumn—insist centrally on the necessity to de-categorise ‘the people’ and make its complexity visible again. Making the Brexit ‘people’ visible—again—implies attending to the insidious othering from within at work in cultural disenfranchisement. Many commentaries have focused on ‘the anger and apathy’ underlying the vote, but also on the gradual invisibility to which the ‘left out’ have been relegated (McKenzie). Dramatising, understanding and reading such an insidious process has once again become the task of literature and art, if only to make visible the disjunction of the body politic, the fractures opened at the very heart of representation.

9My purpose here is not to try and unravel the complex rationale of the Brexit vote, but to briefly examine how writers and artists have precisely tried to re-consider the political repressed that to a great extent explains the vote, and that—pace Hardt and Negri—must be acknowledged as the ‘people’. In her reading of ‘the politics of the cultural imaginaries’ that may have paved the way for a Brexit vote, Sara Upstone also turns to the fashioning of that cultural other within. Focusing on Nicola Barker’s satirical vision of middle-class Luton in The Yips (2012), and its scathing vision of this ‘epicentre of emptiness’, she wonders what it does to the fabric of the collective to be represented precisely as exceeding the ‘normal realms of realism’ and representation, as a ‘holding space for the intangible, unruly, and ultimately inconsequential’ (50). An insidious process of othering is, according to her, at work here, at the very heart of the literary, that should bring us to read the vote ‘as a protest against a broader feeling of exclusion and disenfranchisement’, including the one engineered at times by literature:

What does it mean, we can ask, to live in a place that is always the other to a larger space and to one which is the seat of government? What does it mean to live in a place that is never taken seriously? What does it mean for one’s sense of identity? For one’s sense of entitlement? For one’s sense of political enfranchisement? (Upstone 51)

  • 2 A similar sense of ‘hermeneutic injustice’ has been expressed in France through the ‘yellow jackets (...)

10What ‘being written of from outside’ induces, Upstone goes on to argue, is a feeling of ‘hermeneutical injustice’ and a desire to ‘correct’ it. Being ‘written of from outside’ implies one feels written off, expandable. At stake, once again, is representation as ‘political agency . . . political visibility’ and, ultimately, ‘political acknowledgement’ (Upstone 52).2 That ‘ultimately inconsequential’ England, with its malls and Ikea sofas, its pernicious and contradictory exclusionary dynamics that pits the othered against each other—the white disenfranchised working-class, against the east-European helpers—lies at the heart of Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. Choosing, for his part, to turn his back on the satirical mode of What a Carve Up! (1994), The Rotters’ Club (2001) or even The Closed Circle (2004), while nevertheless returning to his familiar cast of middle-class characters, Coe re-turns to an England that has been written off and in which divided cultural allegiances can no longer be subsumed under a common narrative.

11In that sense, and quite paradoxically, Brexit addresses political utopias and ‘cultural texts’ (Upstone 48) in unprecedented ways and maybe puts paid to what now may strike us as a simplifying dichotomy at the heart of Hardt and Negri’s dismissal of the people as a reductive identity-formation. My purpose cannot be here to understand to what extent Brexit offers a humbling—if frightening—refutation of some of the most influential models defining our political modernity, from Habermas’s ‘communicative rationality’ to Chantal Mouffe’s radical enlisting of the forces of dissensus to an ethics of collective change. One should however mention that Chantal Mouffe herself has recently addressed radicalism’s failure to heed the voice of those for whom ‘the people’ still remains a valid identifying concept. She devotes the concluding chapter of her 2018 essay For a Left Populism to the urgent project of ‘the construction of a people’. Crucial to the articulation of what she defines as a ‘left populist strategy’ is the necessity to grasp the discursiveness of our body politic. Our capacity to address and rethink the discursive formations, the narratives buttressing collective identity-fashioning will thus determine our capacity to expand ‘the range of a radical democratic will’:

[An] objection to a left populist strategy . . . is that ‘the people’ as conceived by populism is from the start envisaged as being homogeneous and that this perspective is incompatible with democratic pluralism.
Such objections stem from the failure (or refusal?) to grasp that a left populist strategy is informed by an anti-essentialist approach according to which ‘the people’ is not an empirical referent but a discursive political construction. It does not exist previously to its performative articulation . . . . (Mouffe)

The Artist/Writer as ‘Ethnographer’ of the Present

12Understanding the mechanism of such ‘performative articulation’, and the narrativity underlying the making of ‘the people’ is what many artists and writers have been concerned with. So doing, they have once again addressed the contested issue of art’s commitment to the present and the legacy of modernist autonomy. Implicitly rebutting Orwell’s defense of literature’s passive autonomy in ‘Inside the Whale’, they object to the notion that art should claim for itself a ‘species of quietism’—the words are Orwell’s—granting it a liberating form of ‘irresponsibility’ (43, 41). They claim for art and writing a form of ‘performative articulation’ that may rearm representation for a critical understanding of the present in all its contradictions. Borrowing from art historian Hal Foster’s reading of the ‘siting of contemporary art’ (184), of its place and function within the discursive system, we might thus define these writers and artists as ‘ethnographers’, who try both to invent a form of field writing and to map out (184) the body politic. And just as, for Foster, ‘it is the cultural and/or ethnic other in whose name the committed artist most often struggles’ (173), art and literature engaging with Brexit have repeatedly addressed the othering from within that fuelled the (cultural politics) of the leave campaign.

13Very early on, confronting such a cultural othering meant to turn the body politic and democratic representation into both the matter and the channel of artistic intervention. Wolfgang Tillmans’ intervention in the campaign is no doubt one of the best cases in point. Literalising the grammar of participatory art and thus further blurring the frontiers of post-medium art, Tillmans—2000 Turner Prize winner and staunch remainer—launched a campaign in April 2016, targetting Britain’s youth, knowing that the ‘remain’ vote was to be dominant among the young.3

14The campaign consisted in posters directly addressing the potential voters through simple slogans: ‘It’s a question of where you feel you belong. We are the European family’; ‘Say you’re in if you’re in’; ‘Democracy, peace and human rights have many enemies. Brexit will make them stronger. Only a united Europe can stand in their way. Have your say. Vote remain on 23rd June’, etc. The campaign appropriates Tillmans’s signature visual language, endlessly reworking the motif of the shoreline, and of the horizon that seems to borrow from the Instagram moodboard vernacular and that should also be read allegorically as gesturing to narratives of collective destiny. He also taps into the participatory economy of site-specific art, a form of aesthetic interaction conducive to the critical exploration of art’s accountability. The campaign was to be found on billboards across the country, and meant to compete for visibility with the other campaigns, thus being sighted and siting at the heart of the polis.

  • 4 The same question is central to activist and writer Lara Pawson’s contribution to The Brexit Crisis (...)

15Central to Tillmans’s campaign was the pronominal grammar of the collective—you, we, they—and its articulation of political responsibility in the face of history. And no less central of course, was the way it revealed the cultural narrative of belonging underpinning democratic expression.4 ‘No man is an island. No country by itself’, Tillmans reminded the passers by, quoting from John Donne’s famous 17th meditation of his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624). Brexit may have been an emergent occasion indeed, but its stakes were anything but circumstantial, Tillmans implied. Its topicality reached back to a long and intimate memory of solidarity allegorised in the geography of Englishness, the very lie of the land.

16Unpicking the fabric of collective narratives also implies an unpicking of the performativity of national allegories, of the way they have become the very metaphors a fractured nation lives by, or what Raymond Williams also defined as ‘structures of feeling’ in Marxism and Literature (1977). Commentators have also recently turned to the affects of Brexit and the necessity to understand how they were ‘organised’ and channelled, or, in Jacques Rancière’s words, what ‘distribution of the sensible’ they made visible. Paying attention to these emotions, refusing to dismiss them as false, might be the only way to reclaim them for a politics of consideration. This has led psychologist John Cromby to argue ‘we should . . . strive to better understand how feeling and fact are always already conjoined, in lived experience as in political debate, and deploy that understanding to pursue a politics where hope can become more than merely mythical’ (65).

  • 5 On the Shakespearen hypotext also see Sutherland.

17The lie of the land metaphor, so central to Tillmans’s political vision, is in that respect enlighteningly ambiguous: influenced by lies and myth-making, the lie of the voters’ emotions makes for an unstable cultural topography. Writers and scriptwriters have been quick to grasp the critical potential of the metaphor; it has been appropriated by novelist Amanda Craig in her 2017 novel—The Lie of the Land—and by scriptwriter Toby Whithouse for the title of Doctor Who’s season 10, episode 8 (2017), both Craig and Whithouse of course fully exploiting the ambiguity of the metaphor to describe a country in crisis. Britain, with its contested political geography, its regional fractures, its fragile acts of union and its no less powerful nationalistic imagery of a sceptred isle,5 is here read as a cultural narrative that is also a collective experience, both allegory and lived reality.

18Such ambivalence is of the essence of political representation and this is what Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Rufus Norris, the Director of the National Theatre, also captured in My Country: a Work in Progress, the participatory work they initiated just after the referendum and that premiered in 2017 at the National Theatre.6 Subtitled ‘in the words of people across the UK and Carol Ann Duffy’, My Country is dedicated to the memory of Jo Cox, the Labour MP assassinated in June 2016. Created in collaboration with theatres across the UK, from Glasgow, to Leicester, from Derry to Gateshead and Salisbury, it is a hybrid montage of verbatim sections transcribing the immediate, raw testimonies of the Britons met by the National Theatre researchers as they crisscrossed the country, embedded in a dramatic structure in the style of agit-prop theatre. ‘It felt like the most important thing was to listen, in the first instance’, Rufus Norris explains (Norris). Grounding the experiment in the archaic and immemorial idiom of the chorus, My Country indeed heeds the cacophony of voices failing to cohere into a meaningful narrative. The broken, imperfect form of the play itself enacts the ‘representation of capacities’ Myriam Revault d’Allonnes considers to be the essence of political representation (179). Both immediate and mediated, the voices give us to hear and see the very distribution and withholding of these capacities. Carol Ann Duffy acts literally as the national poet, assigning herself the mission of finding a demotic language conversant with the lie of the land, its illusions and the contradictory leanings of its people, its wounds and its hopes. Another collective endeavour had probably served as a blueprint for My Country, when Carol Ann Duffy had, from 20/06/16 to 07/07/16, embarked on a poetry tour of bookshops around Britain, along with three fellow poets: Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker and Jackie Kay, the ‘Shore to Shore tour’ being frontally impacted by the results of the referendum.7

19In his recent exploration of what he defines as the ‘chronic illnesses’ of democracy, Frédéric Worms insists on the political urgency to think the crisis from within our historicity, so as to reject the temptation to abstract ourselves from the present:

Whatever one’s approach might be, the question of the ‘chronic’ is at the heart of our lives and of political life. But . . . it is not only in a negative way and by invading the ‘whole of time’, but on the contrary by obliging us to renounce our external relation to time—including the time of promises and illusions it will eventually betray—, in order to return to a living relation to human beings, in the time and space of our lives, now. (125, my translation)

20Needless to say, drama is probably the ultimate form to both represent and enact that ‘living relation’, now. Confronting the democratic deficit and sense of political foreclusion rampant across the UK, My Country—in its broken form—achieves something of Habermas’s communicative rationality with its reliance on inter-personal understanding and on the ‘performative stance adopted by those taking part in an interaction’ (Habermas 1988, 351, my translation). Premised on what we might define with French philosopher Corine Pelluchon as an ‘ethics of consideration’ (Pelluchon), the performativity of My Country lies in its conviction that political writing must be organically immanent to the body politic, the task of theatre being to perform the body politic even as it represents it.

21Central to this sense of necessary immanence, has the been the conviction that literature could no longer retreat into the indifferent, passive ‘quietism’ advocated by Orwell. Embracing one’s historicity has implied exploring the accented chorus of a people whose voice speaks back at us of symbolical and political foreclusion. In the series Brexit Shorts: Dramas from a Divided Nation, initiated by The Guardian, in partnership with the touring theatre company Headlong, playwrights such as David Hare, James Graham, Charlene James or Stacey Gregg imagine short monologues each working as vocal synecdoches for a segment of the divided nation of the title. In these monologues, language performs identity; an identity speaking in the tongues of the other from within: Welsh in Gary Owen’s short, and Glaswegian, in A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Permanent Sunshine’.

22Emotions, affects and feelings are inscribed in the fabric of Kennedy’s inflected idiom. The authenticity of the language is reclaimed for an agonistic counter-interpellation that reaffects a disaffected language through its political power of empathy: ‘[. . .] Course you dinnae know what I am talking about, you’re not me. And you think empathy’s optional’,8 A.L. Kennedy’s character replies to the likes of Nigel Farage, or Jeremy Corbyn. For writers and playwrights trying to understand the slow process of disenfranchisement that eventually led to the Brexit vote, empathy is not optional. It needs to be fully historicised again, so that the lives of the obscure are read and narrativised not only to produce counter-narratives, but to represent the fully embodied, experiential reality of those existing in the shadow of the demos.

23Renarrativising and rehistoricising the demos under erasure implies for literature to site itself at the heart of the fracture itself. Sean O’Brien’s poetry collection Europa also returns, in a post-Larkinian vernacular, to the rift that has cut across the body politic and relentlessly marginalised what, in ‘The Chase’, he defines as ‘Albion’s excluded middle’:

            . . . To say it takes
All sorts may be a fallacy, but here they are
And here you are again. . . .
            You are confused
By a persistent disbelief that this
Can be the case, this levee of Poujadists
Dawdling by their cars till those with homes
To go to go there, and those with holes
Hole up to count the days till their black sun
Rises on this honest plain of Midland
Ash and spoil and their inheritance is saved
From everyone, including you.
Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think
These people do not matter. Then they do. (‘The Chase’, 8)

24O’Brien’s language is deliberately wanting and its paucity speaks of the symbolical and political deficit gnawing at the body politic. The grammar of social relegation can only be tautological—‘till those with home/To go to go there’—; and agency can only be reclaimed by upsetting the bland sense of democratic continuum: ‘Then they do’. There is a before and an after of the vote, and the two moments cannot be rearticulated. There is no room any more for concessions, as might have been implied in a concessive clause: ‘these people do not matter. But they do’. The poem is no plea. It ends on a form of syntactic snapping that also captures the violence of the event. ‘These people’ intrude suddenly; their presence, their obscene materiality cannot be accommodated by the dominant narrative.

25‘The fractious social divide at the core of the nation’ (Shaw 2019, 33) has become a haunting motif of Brexit fiction, and artists like Grayson Perry have also tried to ponder that rift; if only to show that the same collective mythologising is claimed by leavers and remainers alike, as he does in his ‘Matching Pair’ vases (2017), each featuring respectively ‘the images and choices’ of those that voted to leave or to remain: ‘The two pots [Perry admits semi-candidly] have come out looking remarkably similar, which is a good result, for we all have much more in common than what separates us’ (Morrineau et Pesapane 94).

  • 9 Interestingly, in the conclusion to his review of the novella for the Guardian, Jude Cook conjures (...)

26Finding modes of re-presenting that divide is thus anything but optional, if only to expose its constructedness as well as tentative bridging. In Anthony Cartwright’s experimental novella, The Cut, the impotence felt by the invisible ‘people’ is voiced through the most radical and extreme of political gesture: self-immolation.9 Cairo Jukes, a zero-hour contracts labourer finds no other option, in order to reclaim visibility, but to immolate himself on that most English of sites: a market-square. The evening after the tragedy, a makeshift wake is improvised on the market square. An allegorical light seems to shine from the candles the anonymous mourners bring to the spot of Cairo’s self-immolation. In the last words of the novella, the wake turns into a form of peaceful occupation, the ‘people’ convening silently, their aimlessness spelling a form of subdued and inchoate resistance as well as the possible rebirth of a ‘people’, of an empathic body politic:

There are flowers and flags of different territories laid on the first night. . . . Hunched figures stand and guard the darkness. People are told gently to go home, ignore the request, and no one is quite sure what to do. The numbers build, the flowers, the candles, the cards, the flags, the people. To be here, just to be here, is what people answer when asked why they are here at all. (Cartwright)

27Ali Smith has also tried to turn dereliction and symbolical relegation into a narrative, in what is to be a tetralogy, inaugurated by Autumn, deemed now to be the first Brexit novel to have been published after the referendum. Finding a narrative for such an embattled sense of identity is for Smith in itself a political gesture. Sideration and resentment cannot be the only options. Empathy is the only option. It means reinventing a shared narrative inscribed in history. Only then can the devious and powerful mechanisms of othering and political relegation be made sense of. Ali Smith, as Coe does in Middle England, or Cartwright in The Cut, roots that experience of disenfranchisement in the liberalism first implemented by the successive Thatcher governments. Her sense of historical causality also includes the failed utopias of the 1980s, among which CND and the Greenham Common peace campaign. With Autumn and Winter, and the next two instalments of her tetralogy to come, she believes in the possibility for the novel to be fully accountable to our shared present and to produce not so much a coherent narrative for our troubled times, as a narrative that will confront the breakdown of collective intelligence. Often bridging the gap between historical realism and vision, in a vein reminiscent of Artful (2012), the novels unpick the fabric of collective narratives. Autumn maps the lie of the land and the inexorable process of appropriation of what is left of the commons at the hands of land-developers. The commons function both as a historical reference and allegory. Its critical purchase resides in its speaking both to a specific history—the history of the commons in England—and, in a broader acceptation of the concept, to an alternative democratic contract. With Hardt and Negri, Smith seems to believe that ‘a democracy of the multitude is imaginable and possible only because we all share in the common’ (Hardt and Negri 2011, viii). Yet the common is here anything but a utopian abstraction. It has a material reality and comes with its history of destitution and exclusion. It thus addresses the English people as it has been also fashioned by its history of loss and relegation.

28Similarly, in Winter, Smith does conjure the context of global war, and of general anomia, but the context becomes intelligible only as it echoes in the here and now of England’s cultural memory:

Sophia [one of the protagonists] had been feeling nothing for some time now. Refugees in the sea. Children in ambulances. Blood-soaked men running to hospitals or away from burning hospitals carrying blood-covered children. Dust-covered dead people by the sides of roads. Atrocities. People beaten up and tortured in cells.
Also, just, you know, ordinary everyday terribleness, ordinary people just walking around on the streets of the country she’d grown up in, who looked ruined, Dickensian, like poverty ghosts from a hundred and fifty years ago.
Nothing. (Smith 2017, 29–30)

29The cultural memory survives as a ghostly presence, in the form of ‘ruined’ cultural echoes. Already, in Autumn, the famous incipit to A Tale of Two Cities acts as a melancholy and ironical matrix for the dereliction of utopia: ‘It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times. Again’ (Smith 2016, 3) laments one of the protagonists at the beginning of the novel.

30Only what has been defined as Smith’s ‘democracy of voice’ (E. Smith) may capture the hurt of the land, as much as its lie. Only a re-affected, empathic language may heed the broken, inflected language of a political body that has for so long been alienated. Sophia’s hallucination in the opening pages of Winter leads to the most simple and most urgent of political questions to be asked any body politic in our ‘worst of times’. In one of the most dreamlike moments of the novel, Sophie finds herself faced with a strange bodyless head that has invited itself in her home, and only then does Sophia at last realise: ‘. . . Now she felt pain play through her like a fine-tuned many-stringed music and her the instrument. Because how could losing so much of a self not hurt?’ (Smith 2017, 30). For Smith, the novel is that instrument played by the ‘many-stringed music’ of collective hurt. Empathy is thus not merely an option. It is the very tongue of democratic narrativity through which radical political loss and want may at last be articulated and felt. It is the tongue of the re-affected body politic.

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Balibar, Étienne, et al., The Brexit Crisis. A Verso Report, London: Verso, 2016 (ebook).

Cartwright, Anthony, The Cut, London: Peirene Press, 2017.

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1 On the mythologising of England, see also Sara Upstone (46–47 ebook).

2 A similar sense of ‘hermeneutic injustice’ has been expressed in France through the ‘yellow jackets’ or ‘yellow vests’ (gilets jaunes) movement that started in November 2018 and is still slowly unravelling as I am completing this piece. Upstone adapts the notion of ‘hermenueutic injustice’ from Miranda Fricker’s work on justice and especially her essay Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.

3 See Tillmans’s website: last accessed at, on February 28, 2019.

4 The same question is central to activist and writer Lara Pawson’s contribution to The Brexit Crisis. A Verso Report, entitled ‘Can This Really Be us?’. The volume was initiated by the Verso editors and included contributions, among others, by Étienne Balibar and sociologist and gender studies specialist Akwuga Emejulu.

5 On the Shakespearen hypotext also see Sutherland.

6 See the trailer: last accessed at on February 28, 2019. The play was broadcasted on BBC 2 on November 13, 2017: last accessed at on February 28, 2019.

7 The four poets kept a diary. It was published by The Guardian, last accessed at on February 28, 2019.

8 A.L. Kennedy’s script can be found on The Guardian’s website: last accessed at on February 28, 2019.

9 Interestingly, in the conclusion to his review of the novella for the Guardian, Jude Cook conjures Disraeli’s Sybil in tones reminiscent of John Sutherland’s reading of the mythical subtext of Brexit: ‘In certain respects, The Cut recalls the social problem novels of the 19th century, such as Dickens’s Hard Times or Disraeli’s Sybil. Interesting times, to invoke the fabled curse, demand that novelists address them urgently, and Cartwright has risen to the challenge’ (Cook).

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Catherine Bernard, « ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again’: Representing the Body Politic after Brexit »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 57 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 01 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of British literature and art history at Paris Diderot University (UMR CNRS 8225 LARCA). Her research has focused both on Modernism and on contemporary English fiction (Graham Swift, Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Pat Barker, John Lanchester). Her research hinges on the history of forms and aesthetics as well as the politics of form. She is the author of critical editions and translations into French of Flush (Paris: Gallimard, coll. La Pléiade, 2012) and of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Paris: Gallimard, 2015). As running president of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines, she has also edited several volumes of Études britanniques contemporaines: “State of Britain”, Études britanniques contemporaines, n°49, 2015,, as well as “Reassessing Literary Commitment (Anew)”, “Commitment/L’engagement”, Études britanniques contemporaines, n°50, 2016. She is the author of the recently published monograph: Matière à réflexion. Du corps politique dans la littérature et les arts visuels britanniques contemporains (Presses de l’Université Paris Sorbonne, 2018).

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