Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros28ÉtudesFor Sale: The Personal is Political

Études

For Sale: The Personal is Political

Annabel L. Kim

Résumés

La montée de l’autofiction dans le paysage littéraire français contemporain coïncide avec une évacuation générale de la fiction en tant que mode dominant de création littéraire. Christine Angot et Édouard Louis, tous deux associés à l’autofiction malgré leur désidentification avec le genre, dévoilent le traumatisme qu’ils ont vécu, opérant ainsi, comme le fait l’écriture de soi en général, dans un mode confessionnel. Cependant, Angot et Louis transforment la confession en plainte, où ils prennent la position de plaignants portant des accusations contre une société jugée pour son hypocrisie et la violence structurelle qui caractérise les expériences traumatisantes des auteurs en matière de violence de classe, sexuelle et de genre. Cet article montre comment cette transformation de la confession en plainte, qui confère à leurs textes une dimension politique, les rend également susceptibles d’être cooptés par le capitalisme tardif, qui a transformé le soi en une marchandise, dépourvue de potentiel politique.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 An originary moment that is identified with Doubrovsky’s coining the term autofiction on the cove (...)
  • 2 Indeed, this impersonal stance tips over into the aggressively anti-personal, if we take seriousl (...)
  • 3 François Dosse describes transitive writing as responding to a writerly “désir d’être-au-monde”. (...)

1Contemporary French literature is marked by a dramatic turn away from fictionality, which we can trace back to the 1970s, to Serge Doubrovsky’s inauguration of autofiction as a mode of writing1, and to the waning of the New Novel’s revolt against conventional Balzacian realism. The New Novel can be considered the apogee of the twentieth-century literary quest for the impersonal with its systematic evacuation of the reassuringly solid narrators and characters that give literary personhood its most legible and familiar form2. Indeed, the New Novel can be seen as the last concerted effort in French literature to expand the boundaries of fictionality from within the fictional in a project that could not but pass through the impersonal. While impersonality and fictionality are not synonymous with each other, they are tethered insofar as the adoption of an impersonal stance takes the author more outside of themself than is the case with personal modes of writing such as autofiction, where it is the self that serves as the interface between the author and the “real” world, the nonfictional world. The self opens onto the referential, such that the personal is more closely tethered to the referential than the impersonal is, where the referential is closely tied to factuality (that is, to the nonfictional), as a fact is necessarily something that can be referred to as something that can be confirmed. Since the 1970s, the post-New Novel moment has seen French literature, under the auspices of fiction, become increasingly dominated by a writing of the real (i.e. the referential), which responds to a both writerly and readerly desire for what has been referred to as a “transitive” writing – a writing that has purchase on a world outside the text, taking the real world, real experience, as its object3. There is, however, a specificity to the referentiality toward which contemporary French literature has turned in its move away from fictionality, insofar as the referentiality that contemporary authors, operating in the age of the Internet, have dipped into continuously is largely auto/biographical – the author’s (or someone else’s) self serving as a concrete repertoire of experience that has occurred IRL, “in real life,” which can be mined for its literary potential.

  • 4 Some notable examples are Yannick Haenel’s Jan Karski (Gallimard, 2009), Laurent Binet’s HHhH (Gr (...)
  • 5 The manifesto minces no words, starting off with a searing critique: “Depuis plusieurs années, et (...)

2This self-writing has proliferated like an algal bloom over the decades following Doubrovsky’s incursion, producing a contemporary literary field that is dominated by autofiction – by a tricked out literary display of some kind of self – and, more recently in the twenty-first century, by exofiction, which, like autofiction, blurs the boundary between the fictional and the factual, while taking not the autos as the site of such blurring, but rather real historical persons who are then transformed into characters4. If autofiction can be crudely described as fictionalized autobiography, then exofiction is fictionalized biography. As a 2018 manifesto signed by 16 authors and published in Le Monde bemoaned, contemporary French literature has authors suffocating between autofiction and exofiction, the lucrative nature of selling either narratives of oneself or of History via others’ selves taking up all the air in the literary room and preventing writers from inventing new forms and expressing a contemporary sensibility5.

  • 6 Toril Moi, “It Isn’t Your Home”, London Review of Books, vol. 42, n° 7, 10 September 2020, URL: h (...)
  • 7 Here, we can look to Michel Foucault’s work in the first volume of his Histoire de la sexualité, (...)

3This turn toward the real has given rise to scholarly work that has attempted to elucidate the elusive boundary between fact and fiction, as with Françoise Lavocat’s magistral work of the same name, Fait et fiction: pour une frontière (Seuil, 2016), or work that has explored the relation between archive and literature, Histoire with a capital H – history – and histoire with a lowercase h – story – as with Alison James’s The Documentary Imagination in Twentieth-Century French Literature: Writing with Facts (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Ivan Jablonka’s manifesto, L’histoire est une littérature contemporaine (Seuil, 2014). What this essay takes up is not these big definitional questions, which grapple with the vexed boundary between fiction and the real, but rather the self that is the site in which this negotiation between fact and fiction occurs for the reader, who consumes these autofictional texts because of “a new craving for reality in literature, a new demand for emotional identification and an immersion in the world proposed by a novel”6, as Toril Moi has described it. In particular, I want to focus on Christine Angot and Édouard Louis – two of the most prominent contemporary authors associated with autofiction in France today – for the way they deploy confession, the mode of self-revelation and the dominant mode of autofictional writing, as complaint. Both confession and complaint are forms of discourse closely associated with the real in its form as “truth” – the truth of the self7but Angot and Louis have, in ways that distinguish them from other autofictional practitioners, systematically adopted confession-complaint as a discursive mode that gives their work a sharp political edge that is not a given in autofiction. Complaint assumes an adversarial stance. Their work’s adversarial force, however, itself becomes commodified, co-opted by the very machine Angot and Louis see their writing working against.

4Before examining Angot and Louis’s confession-complaints, I want to make one thing clear: autofiction is not new in its incorporation of non-fictional forms of discourse such as the confession and it is not this incorporation that is responsible for autofiction’s seemingly exceptional capacity to blur the boundary between fiction and reality. This boundary-blurring capacity is a built-in feature of the novel as a mode of writing that swallows up all other forms of writing, as Mikhail Bakhtin theorized well before the emergence of autofiction as a concept and practice:

  • 8 Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel”, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson, M (...)

the novel often crosses the boundary of what we strictly call fictional literature – making use first of a moral confession, then of a philosophical tract, then of manifestos that are openly political, then degenerating into the spirituality of a confession, a “cry of the soul” that has not yet found its formal contours. These phenomena are precisely what characterize the novel as a developing genre. After all, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between literature and nonliterature and so forth are not laid up in heaven. Every specific situation is historical. And the growth of literature is not merely development and change within the fixed boundaries of any given definition; the boundaries themselves are constantly changing.8

  • 9 For a compelling discussion of autofiction that treats it not as a new genre but rather an extens (...)
  • 10 See Philippe Vilain, L’autofiction en théorie, Paris, Éditions de la Transparence, 2009. Arnaud S (...)

5Building off Bakhtin’s observation, we can treat autofiction as the contemporary exemplar of the novel’s specificity as a mode of writing, as the sharpest manifestation of le propre du roman9. What makes autofiction seem new, then, is not particularly its much-vaunted hybridity10, but rather its capitalization on the capacity for representations of the self to bring said hybridity into relief as a primary selling point of the text. In other words, the novel has always been hybrid, always blurring boundaries and combining and integrating all kinds of discourses, but it’s in autofiction that we get a kind of breaking of the fourth wall, where the text signals, very self-consciously, that this is what it is doing, and that this is something that the reader should be drawn to.

  • 11 This quote is taken from Édouard Louis’s no longer updated blog, from an entry entitled “La vérit (...)
  • 12 Louis is a verified Instagram user with nearly 66K followers and a regular guest on radio and tel (...)

6Angot and Louis participate in this from opposite directions, with Angot insisting on sowing doubt in her autofictions, her narrators announcing their own unreliability, and Louis insisting on the veracity of his writing, which he describes as animated by “cette volonté de dire le vrai”11, a position he has reinforced through publishing his later works – Qui a tué mon père (2018), Combats et métamorphoses d’une femme (2021), Changer: méthode (2021) – without the generic label of roman which was affixed to his first two works, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (2014) and Histoire de la violence (2016). But despite antipodal positions vis-à-vis veracity and fiction, both authors turn to confession as a discursive form in order to turn it into another kind of discourse, the complaint, which is itself also non-fictional and veridical, and, like confession, also embedded in the juridical. As mentioned earlier, this intersection with the juridical is what gives their work such a political edge, as Angot and Louis occupy the position of not just victim, but plaintiff, in order to hold society accountable. They combine textual performances of victimhood – aiming to transcend the personal by transforming individual experience into a kind of agora of collective, shared grievance – with the crafting of highly mediatized personae12, which has proven to be a formula for commercial success and an extraordinary amount of visibility in the contemporary French literary scene (rare is the reader who is not familiar with either Angot or Louis). In examining Angot and Louis’s mobilization of confession-complaint, I am not trying to claim that they are representative of autofiction, which is incredibly heterogeneous and comprises a diversity of forms, styles, and intentions. Instead, I am taking them as case studies that allow for us to bring into clearer focus the way autofiction commodifies the self, the autos transformed into a brand, a product to be consumed, just as the political has itself become commodified in the age of social media, the increasingly compulsory staking out of political positions uncannily resembling brand loyalty (it is not a coincidence that the contemporary dynamic of so-called cancel culture is effectively modeled on the economic action of boycott). In a moment where our individual identities are bound up intimately with the compulsory announcement and performance of the “truth” of our political positions, looking to Angot and Louis’s confession-complaints, I cannot help but think that autofiction, in this particular vein at least, might be in fact the most accurate expression of our contemporary sensibility, if only as a symptom.

The Edges of Confession, The Crosshairs of Complaint

  • 13 For an examination of the way contemporary authors such as Angot and Louis have used autofiction (...)

7Both Angot and Louis are authors who come from humble backgrounds in Northern France (that part of France associated with white trash, with Louis coming from more abject poverty than Angot) and scrabbled their way into the Parisian literary and cultural scene through the publication of confessional, intimate autofictional texts that reveal to the reader the author/narrator’s traumatic past – the trauma of father-daughter incest in Angot’s case, and the trauma of growing up homosexual and poor in Louis’s case13. As persons who came from the have-nots even though they are now bourgeois Parisians, who identify with the dominated rather than with the dominators, their oeuvres roil with anger against the ruling class, against a social order that allowed them to be victimized in the ways they were. Even as their texts operate confessionally, their self-revelations have an edge – they are confessions that are turned against the assumed bourgeois readership, the horrific nature of their experiences evidence of the comfortable reader’s complicity in sustaining a rotten social order that produces the kind of victims of which Angot and Louis are but two named and notable examples against the backdrop of the countless nameless victims who suffer from incest, misogyny, poverty, homophobia etc.:

  • 14 Christine Angot, Quitter la ville, Paris, Stock, 2000, p. 161-162.

Angot: Je ne RACONTE pas. Je ne raconte pas MON histoire. Je ne raconte pas une HISTOIRE. Je ne débrouille pas MON affaire. Je ne lave pas MON linge sale. Mais le drap social.14

  • 15 Édouard Louis, Combats et métamorphoses d’une femme, Paris, Seuil, 2021, p. 19.

Louis: On m’a dit que la littérature ne devait jamais ressembler à un manifeste politique et déjà j’aiguise chacune de mes phrases comme on aiguiserait la lame d’un couteau.15

  • 16 Alison James, in a personal communication, has incisively commented on the question of positional (...)

8Their writing is political, and it is pointed, meant to draw blood on behalf of the victimized and the oppressed with whom they identify and make common cause. Their works say, effectively, in joining confession to complaint, that if the reader is to satisfy their desire for access to an author’s intimate past and self, to be able to become a consumer of trauma porn, that said reader must be forced to pay the price, to be held accountable as a representative of a culpable social order. The work becomes a kind of tribunal, where the reader is called on to assume a position, be it that of defendant/accomplice, witness, or plaintiff – neutrality is off the table, and one is interpellated in terms either of solidarity or of complicity16.

9In Angot’s case, the work that catapulted her into literary stardom was her eighth novel, L’inceste, and it is for this text that she is best known. She has subsequently reworked it, renarrating her being a victim of father-daughter incest, turning it, in essence, into her literary brand (one that has been successful, if we are to judge from her last novel, Le voyage dans l’Est (2021), which rewrites L’inceste, winning the Prix Médicis). The convergence of confession with complaint is apparent from the very beginning of the text, which opens with an explicit reference to the opening of Hervé Guibert’s À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (1990), itself an autofictional confession-complaint that details Guibert’s diagnosis with AIDS and that serves as an indictment of Bill, the friend targeted in the title, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, who did not supply Guibert with access to an experimental vaccine that he thinks might have saved him, and who stands in more broadly for a society indifferent to the loss of gay life. Guibert opens the text as follows:

  • 17 Hervé Guibert, À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie, Paris, Gallimard, 1990, <Folio>, p. 9.

J’ai eu le sida pendant trois mois. Plus exactement, j’ai cru pendant trois mois que j’étais condamné par cette maladie mortelle, qu’on appelle le sida. Or je ne me faisais pas d’idées, j’étais réellement atteint, le test qui s’était avéré positif en témoignait, ainsi que des analyses qui avaient démontré que mon sang amorçait un processus de faillite.17

10And Angot begins L’inceste with:

  • 18 Christine Angot, L’inceste, Paris, Stock, 1998, <J’ai lu>, p. 11.

J’ai été homosexuelle pendant trois mois. Plus exactement, trois mois, j’ai cru que j’y étais condamnée. J’étais réellement atteinte, je ne me faisais pas d’illusions. Le test s’avérait positif. J’étais devenu attachée.18

  • 19 The name Marie-Christine obviously embeds Angot’s own name, so that the lover is a kind of narcis (...)

11Some have viewed the acerbity and self-loathing with which Angot recounts her three-month love affair with Marie-Christine19 as internalized homophobia and have been troubled by the parallel drawn between homosexuality and AIDS, with homosexuality being treated as a mortal, pathological illness. I think the Guibertian framing is getting at something else, which has to do with why Angot chooses to defer the narrative of incest to the last forty pages, the first hundred-forty pages or so dedicated instead to narrating this brief homosexual relationship. AIDS is a differed disease, appearing years after the acute infection with HIV, and the way the incest narrative is differed establishes a direct parallel between AIDS and incest, with the explicit narrative only able to appear after an earlier acute infection with… what?

12According to the structural logic of the text, homosexuality precedes incest the way HIV precedes AIDs, which would make homosexuality the acute infection. I would argue that homosexuality isn’t homosexuality in Angot’s text, but rather stands in for something else. Angot peppers the text throughout with definitions from a dictionary of psychoanalysis, and under that psychoanalytic sign, Freud’s definition of homosexuality as the incapacity to accept difference, that is, sexual difference, comes to mind. Incest is itself also an incapacity to accept difference, to assume exogamy, as it is instead a seeking out of the same for sexual encounters, the narrator Christine’s father, Pierre, treating his daughter as a narcissistic extension, where the parallel between the Christine-Marie-Christine pairing and the Pierre-Christine pairing becomes that much more evident when we replace Christine with Angot’s given name so that it is Pierre-Pierrette, the father taking a derivation of himself as the object of his desire.

  • 20 Elise Bidoit, the ex-wife of Angot’s ex, Charly Clovis, who twice sued Angot for violation of her (...)
  • 21 bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Boston, South End Press, 1984, p. 36.

13Angot is deeply critical of the social order as a manifestation of patriarchy and her critique of patriarchal violence, the violence that allows for the young girl that Christine was to be victimized by her father, extends to a critique of the institution of the nuclear family as is evident in the betrayal Angot experiences when her lover, Marie-Christine, chooses to spend Christmas with her nuclear family rather than with Christine and Christine’s daughter, Léonore, valorizing the so-called natural family over the queer form of kinship Angot proposes in its stead. What Angot puts on trial, then, is, as with Guibert, the social order, but it is an accusation that targets the structure of the family that makes possible incest to begin with. Part of Angot’s strategy for airing out not her dirty laundry but society’s dirty laundry looks a lot like airing out not just her dirty laundry but that of her family members and various social relations: her partners (ex and current) figure extensively in her work, and by extension, so do the people who are close to them20. To turn literature into a tribunal, to weaponize confession, comes at the expense of the family, which, as bell hooks has argued, is the first line for the reproduction of patriarchal social norms, and is where domination is taught21.

14In Louis’s case, we also get a condemnation of the normative family insofar as the family, Louis’s family, or rather, the Bellegueule family, is depicted as a microcosm of a homophobic social order, unable to accept Louis’s difference even as the family itself was victimized and oppressed by a society unwilling to let go of its class privilege. The story of Louis’s transfuge trajectory from white trash to a leading French intellectual and cultural figure, the story of Louis’s escape from his class of origin, is the story of Louis’s escape from and disavowal of his family. Incidentally, Louis’s second novel, Histoire de la violence, which is the text by Louis that I want to discuss here, like Angot’s L’inceste, takes place during a Christmas in Paris that is distinctly non-familial. In the context of a complaint against society, this rejection of the family makes perfect sense, given the way the nuclear family is the core unit by which the social order is reproduced, as encapsulated explicitly in Vichy France’s slogan of “Travail, Famille, Patrie.” The family, then, itself carries fascist undertones, and is emblematic of precisely the political position that Louis opposes.

15Histoire de la violence is a text that operates as a complaint in various registers. As an account of Louis’s rape by a Kabyle man he calls Reda, the text delivers a meta-discursive narrative of Louis’s passage through the various sites of the French medico-legal system, and his narration of the rape is actually a metanarrative description of him overhearing his sister Clara narrating the events to her husband. The latter is a description which Louis interrupts at various points to disagree with Clara or to narrate his aversion to being back in a familial space (an aversion that connects the familial space to the police space that is the other primary space featured in the text, which, like the familial space here, is where discourse is produced). The primary drama of the novel is not so much the rape in and of itself, but that of what to do in response to the rape, and Louis goes to great pains to communicate to the reader how averse he is to delivering up his experience to the legal system by going to the police to file a complaint against Reda and going to the hospital to get a medicolegal report filed. The violence alluded to in the title is the violence of the rape, yes, but it is just as much a reference to the violence of the police as an organ of coercive speech that compels victims like Louis to speak while using its own speech to reduce persons to labels that are themselves often incorrect: Louis is reduced in the eyes of the police to victim, homosexual; Reda, a Kabyle man, is reduced incorrectly to Arab male.

16Louis hates himself for going to the police, and yet, there is a recognition of – almost a sense of gratitude for – the way it is the very violence of the police that enables Louis to begin to put his rape into words and hence to begin to overcome and work through it. In recounting the violence of being forced to continue to speak even after telling the police officers in front of him that he had changed his mind, that he wanted to go home, Louis writes:

  • 22 Édouard Louis, Histoire de la violence, Paris, Seuil, 2016, p. 54. Henceforth HV.

Le policier avait ricané. Son rire n’était pas malveillant, c’était plutôt cette espèce de rire qu’on oppose à un enfant qui dit une aberration. Il s’était calmé, s’était éclairci la gorge et avait déclaré : “Mais ça ne dépend plus de vous monsieur, je suis désolé. C’est à la justice maintenant que ça appartient.” Je ne comprenais pas ce soir-là comment mon récit pouvait ne plus m’appartenir (c’est-à-dire qu’à la fois j’étais exclu de ma propre histoire et que j’y étais inclus de force puisqu’on me forçait d’en parler, continuellement, c’est-à-dire que l’inclusion est la condition de l’exclusion, qu’elles sont une seule et même chose, et que même, peut-être, l’exclusion précède l’inclusion, du moins que l’exclusion me révélait à elle seule, et la première dans l’ordre de ma conscience, le destin dans lequel j’étais inclus, l’histoire de laquelle je n’avais plus de droit de m’extraire.22

  • 23 Louis describes his compulsion to repeat the same story as follows: “On m’a dit que la littératur (...)
  • 24 For more on the real world consequences of Histoire de la violence, see Cécile Bouanchaud, “Affai (...)

17Given that Louis’s whole oeuvre charges the social order for the way it is founded on exclusion – the exclusion of persons such as himself (the economically marginalized, the sexually marginalized) and persons such as Reda (the racially and sexually marginalized) – we can read this passage as a description of Louis’s entire literary project: to reclaim, from the ruling class and state structures of domination, his right to narrate himself while narrating against these violent entities – a narrative imperative from which Louis cannot withdraw, as is evident in the way he produces text after text compulsively revisiting the originary violence of his exclusion from the world of the bourgeois haves23. But this passage is more than a description of Louis’s literary project, it is the troubling metaleptic hinge that connects the extratextual world of the police and the law to the textual world of this rape and its consequences, which are the stuff of a text explicitly identified as a novel. In the real, extratextual world, this story did indeed become the property of the law: Riadh, the real person for whom Reda was an alias, was arrested for a different crime than the rape and robbery of Louis, but because Louis had filed a police report that launched an investigation in which Riadh’s DNA had been sampled and entered into the system, Riadh was brought to trial for the charges Louis was making against him. And in the court proceedings, the distinction between fact and fiction was further blurred when Louis’s lawyer tried to have the novel, Histoire de la violence, admitted as evidence, stripping it of whatever fictionality the generic status of novel accorded to it. Riadh was imprisoned for nearly a year leading up to the trial and was found guilty of aggravated robbery but not of rape, and, following Louis’s appeal, was retried, at which point he was further disculpated, his guilty charge being demoted from that of aggravated robbery to simple, non-violent robbery. Riadh left France, in part, according to his lawyers at least, because of the way the success of the novel and the mediatization of the trial had led to his being deprived of the presumption of innocence so that he would always be unable to rid himself of the stigma of guilt for the rape Louis accused him of, despite being officially exonerated by the law. For Riadh and his lawyers, Louis’s novel-as-complaint, then, was responsible for the ruining of his life24.

  • 25 For an interesting discussion of the way Angot’s continued writing of the real exposes her juridi (...)
  • 26 We can see in the court’s decision a different convergence of the literary with the juridical than (...)

18That there is collateral damage to real persons is of little consequence to either Angot or Louis. Angot, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t content with being sued once by Élise Bidoit (her ex’s ex) and paying damages; she went on to do it again, showing absolutely no remorse25. Louis, after decrying the violence of the carceral system, appealed the court’s decision to find Riadh not guilty of rape, demanding that the very system that he has built a career repudiating punish, which is to say, imprison, Riadh. The eventual double-exculpation of Riadh, which effectively rejected Louis’s Histoire de la violence to claim that it was in fact an histoire de la non-violence26, casts this sentence by Louis in a different light: “Ma guérison est venue de cette possibilité de nier la réalité” (HV 209). The context of this sentence is one where Louis cites Hannah Arendt as asserting that “la négation délibérée de la réalité – la capacité de mentir – et la possibilité de nier les faits – celle d’agir – sont intimement liées” (HV 209), so that Louis is casting his denying the reality of his rape as the means to act, to retain agency. The intertwining of healing and the denial of reality is provocative: if the publication of Histoire de la violence constituted a kind of talking cure for Louis, one that allowed him to reintegrate a shattered world, was it at the price of passing off as real something that wasn’t? Did the capacity to act become elided with the capacity to lie?

  • 27 Michel Foucault, op. cit., p. 81.

19Angot and Louis’s autofictions shift from confession – from the position of being coerced into speech (by the law, by a psychoanalyst, by what Foucault refers to as “cette ruse interne de l’aveu”27 – that illusory belief that confession is a source of freedom) – to that of complaint (not being coerced into speech but coercing others to listen by leveraging the weight of the factual and the real). By producing confessions that double as complaints, they effectively invert the logic of confession, which, as Foucault has demonstrated in La volonté de savoir, is at the core of external validation. The complaint flips the script so that the complainant is no longer looking for external validation but rather claims for themselves that power to validate. How are Angot and Louis, in the position of complainant or plaintiff, able to seize this power for themselves?

Totalitarian Confession, Totalitarian Complaint

  • 28 Rey Chow, A Face Drawn in the Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present, New York, Col (...)

20Here, Rey Chow’s reading of Foucault against the backdrop of (social) media and the contemporary attention economy in her latest book, A Face Drawn in the Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present (2020), is instructive. Chow underlines the ecclesiastical framework of Foucault’s theorization of confession and looks to the Chinese cultural revolution as a moment that effectively secularized confession, so that it is no longer to God that one confesses for that external validation, but, in the case of China, the Communist party, which instated a regime of totalitarian confession. Chow describes the effect of this totalitarian confession in China as one where Chinese peasants quickly learned that “one can top from the bottom, seizing the moral high ground by occupying the downtrodden position”28 and Chow goes on to suggest that “some of these totalitarian confessional dynamics have long found their way into late capitalist society” by means of a

  • 29 We can see then Louis writing Histoire de la violence as a response to the way the police forced (...)
  • 30 Rey Chow, op. cit., p. 149, p. 150. Original emphases. The shift in confession Chow describes her (...)

major shift from Foucault’s confessional model [which] lies, to wit, in the value ascribed to the self. Whereas for Foucault truth production is a rationalization process, an introspective gaze forcibly imposed on the self, in more contemporary confessional discourse that rationalization process has become increasingly voluntary. If giving an account of oneself (to the authorities) in Foucault’s narrative is synonymous with self-devaluation and self-destruction, in late capitalist society giving an account of oneself (in public)29 promises rather a way out of self-devaluation and self-destruction. If the confessing self in Foucault’s narrative is regarded as the source of trouble and the limit to be transcended metaphysically, the source of trouble is now consistently externalized, deflected onto a culprit. In brief, confession has turned into a means of outsourcing blame. What this shift advances is a concept of the self that is, first and foremost, a discursive capacity: a verbal ability to allege that something injurious has happened to me (or us).30

  • 31 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–1979, ed. Michel Senel (...)
  • 32 Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Louise Colet (9 December 1852), Préface à la vie d’écrivain, ou E (...)

21Chow describes this shift in Foucault’s terms as one in which the late capitalist subject has become “an entrepreneur of himself” – “being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings”31. This is a rather canny description of Angot and Louis, whose literary projects can be described in effect as a means of casting blame on a society that they have been able to profit from quite literally through the commodification of their selves and their injuries: Angot and Louis are both spectacularly mediatized authors and seemingly at ease in those mediatic spaces, which reinforce the link between their biographical selves and their narrative selves by making it easier for readers/viewers to tether the experiences they recount in their texts to the person on the screen. And indeed, it is of vital importance that the injuries, the complaints, that they write are theirs, as it is that one-to-one correspondence between extratextual and textual reality that compels readers to buy and consume their writing. Angot and Louis are authors who understand that in a secular moment such as ours, which is dominated by a profane mass media that routinely transforms reality and suffering into clickbait, ratings, and profit, that the recipe for literary success lies not in a Flaubertian quest for impersonality, as embodied in his ideal narrator who would be “comme Dieu dans l’univers, présent partout et visible nulle part”32, but rather in its opposite: a compulsive, compulsory personality embodied in a narrator who is hypervisible, hyperpresent. Who needs a God-like literary presence when you can have the self – Angot’s self, Louis’s self?

  • 33 Thangam Ravindranathan, “House of Reading”, Romanic Review, vol. 114, n° 3, 2023, p. 594.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 594.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 597.

22I’m not saying that fiction shouldn’t be the site of complaint, but that things get messy when the kind of “real” fiction that Angot and Louis produce, anchored in the confessional mode that puts forward the self as an anchor in the real, becomes the site of complaint. Fiction, when it is operating in an impersonal mode, is better able to operate that critique, than when it is passing through a personal writing where the author and the narrator align. This is because a more impersonal fiction, a non-self writing (what Thangam Ravindranathan refers to as “self-difference”33), is free from the self-commodifying logic that inheres in autofiction and able to avoid the conflicts of self-interest to present us with an outward-turned, more universal and portable critique. Ravindranathan puts it eloquently: “For me, however unfashionably, reading as an experience of strangeness and self-difference continues to be – is more urgently than ever – the most vital capacity and commitment that we should transmit”34. Her call for a selfdifferent reading is “no more and no less than a call to read, to undertake difficult – but also imaginative, solidary, reclamatory, emancipatory, expansive, utopian – readings and rereadings, which alone will allow us to live in this world rather than destroy it or flee from it”35. It is, in short, in a literary experience that deviates or departs from the self, that we can find literature’s political purchase.

23I would argue that this kind of selfdifferent reading can only occur when the writer also produces a text that is not personal, that seeks instead to be selfdifferent. One can certainly argue for taking autofiction as a form of impersonal writing, as the site of such self-difference and Philippe Vilain forcefully makes the case for such a view:

  • 36 Philippe Vilain, “L’autofiction, exception théorique”, in Marc Dambre and Richard J Golsan (eds), (...)

L’autofiction est-elle trop intimiste ? Il convient de dépasser le rapport à soi dans un rapport à autrui. “Si un individu s’expose avec sincérité, tout le monde, plus ou moins, se trouve mis en jeu”, explique Simone de Beauvoir dans La Force de l’âge. Possédons-nous une vie propre ? Parler de soi, n’est-ce pas parler des autres ? Écrire sur soi peut devenir une façon plus subtile de s’impersonnaliser à la manière de Blanchot ou de “priver le je de soi” selon la belle formule de Louis-René des Forêts, de “s’autruifier” selon celle de Pessoa, qui parlait à travers ses hétéronymes, de se “transpersonnaliser” comme le dit Annie Ernaux ; il s’agit toujours pour celui qui écrit à la première personne de trouver l’“universel singulier” sartrien.36

  • 37 For examples of contemporary French authors who operate in this more impersonal vein, we can look (...)

24This aspiration to transform the autofictional self into a site of alterity collapses when the authorial self finds themself in an actual courtroom, required by law to accept their identification with their narrative self. But even if we assent to autofiction as a form of writing that reveals the ways in which the self is a construction, a fiction, and thus makes the self strange, a site of alterity for the author, this authorial alterity is still undone in the way the vast majority of readers read autofiction, which, as Moi had argued, is in order to immerse oneself in the real and to identify with the author. Identification effectively annuls the distancing work of alterity that might be effected by the textual construction of an autos, as identification consolidates the narrative self to make it possible for the reader to immerse oneself in the emotions that derive from the authorial self, which animates the narrative self. To speak of the self can certainly be a way of speaking of others, but it’s a way of speaking of selves that are selfsame, rather than selfdifferent. Identification stabilizes; impersonality ruptures, opening up the “imaginative, solidary, reclamatory, emancipatory, expansive, utopian” spaces in which our relation to the real can be questioned and refashioned37.

25Returning to the question of confession, which, as we can see in the cases of Angot and Louis, are turned into complaint because of the political ambitions that the authors have for their texts, it is when confession turns to complaint that literature becomes totalitarian, with the kind of compulsory identification that is at work in totalitarianism. In the kind of secularized confession and complaint that Angot and Louis produce, the framework for this totalitarianism moves away from the initial framework of the Church and the Party as the primary (read, only) sites of identification, to that of a self that seeks to be the opposite of the Flaubertian ideal: present everywhere, visible everywhere, turning introspection into a self-directed and self-conducted panopticality – the all-seeing eye transformed into an all-seeing and seen-by-all I.

26Through their confession-complaints, Angot and Louis can be seen as replacing the novel with the self when it comes to the most ubiquitous and important fiction of our day. The idea that the self is a fiction is nothing new; the narrative framework of psychoanalysis as well as the poststructuralist assertion that nothing is outside language, has made the notion something of a given. But what is new is that we have moved from being artisans of subjectivity, crafters of selves, to entrepreneurs of the self. To sell the self, which is something that authors have always done, now means something else in a contemporary moment where that transaction is literalized, where media and, in particular, social media, have turned authors into purveyors of selves that are seductively immediate, immersive, identifiable – closer and more accessible than ever before.

SELFTM 2.0

27Angot and Louis have thus successfully turned the self into a brand that sells a certain type of literary politicality, since complaint, even more so than confession, allows readers to tap into collective affects such as outrage and grievance, so that their reading comes to feel like political action in and of itself (a political cherry on top of the sensationalism of reading about crimes such as incest and rape). However, as Chow demonstrates, the self cannot do the work of critique that it used to be able to do before it became completely absorbed by late capitalism in the age of the entrepreneur of selfhood coupled with the media ecology of the Internet. To put it bluntly: the self used to have political potential, but no longer. No matter how sincere Angot and Louis might be in their political beliefs and desires, structurally, capitalism has taken hold of literary production such that it coopts even the most sincere or “real” representation.

  • 38 One notable exception is Anne Garréta’s “Autofiction: la Ford intérieure et le self roman”, in Je (...)

28My critique of the political potential of the autofictional self thus has nothing to do with the common critique of autofiction as navel-gazing, narcissistic. The “narcissism” that autofiction is charged with is distinct from the critique I am making here. Self-celebration, self-investment, self-love, self-obsession: I do not find these things inherently problematic when they are attributed to a third-person or a fictive first-person self-absorbed narrator. It is the correspondence between narrator and author that poses a problem in the way it invites readerly identification – identifying the author as well as identifying with the author – even as it is the reason why autofiction is celebrated. However, the critical and scholarly accounts of autofiction do not reflect the fundamental change in the self that has taken place38.

  • 39 I would like to thank Margaret Cohen for her invitation to present an early version of this artic (...)

29Twenty-first-century discussions of autofiction continue to treat the autos behind autofiction as if it were the same self of the pre-Internet age, when we were not compelled to inhabit the world as packets of data to be mined by voracious companies, as entrepreneurs of the self exquisitely attuned to our existence as virtual representations that are tied up in a 24/7 market (even, or perhaps especially in the so-called marketplace of ideas). Just as we can’t operate in the Anthropocene as if climate collapse hasn’t already arrived, we cannot operate literarily as if the internet hasn’t melded with late capitalism in such a way as to fundamentally alter our conception of the self. Just as there is no way, barring sudden and massive extinction, that we are going to return to sub-400 ppm levels of CO2, we aren’t able to go back to a pre-social media experience of the self, which has been completely coopted by a logic of consumption. In our monstrous epoch, there is no ethical way to be perceived anymore as a self. While we cannot avoid being entrepreneurs of the self in our day to day lives under late capitalism – confessing and complaining autofictionalists, all of us – there is no reason we need to cede literature to that traffic in the self as yet another thing to be extracted and traded, mined and discarded. Autofiction’s displacement of fiction has revealed the way in which literature has become extractivist and consumerist, suggesting that rather than continuing to feed our resources into the incredibly productive and still-growing autofictional factory, we might be better off recycling older modes of creating and inhabiting fiction instead.39

Haut de page

Note de fin

1 An originary moment that is identified with Doubrovsky’s coining the term autofiction on the cover of his 1977 novel, Fils, in which he famously describes autofiction: “Fiction, d’événements et de faits strictement réels; si l’on veut autofiction, d’avoir confié le langage d'une aventure à l'aventure du langage, hors sagesse et hors syntaxe du roman, traditionnel ou nouveau.”

2 Indeed, this impersonal stance tips over into the aggressively anti-personal, if we take seriously language such as that used by the critic Michel Cournot when he describes Nathalie Sarraute, doyenne of the New Novel, as engaging in a “génocide des personnages”. Michel Cournot, “Qui dit ça?,” Le Monde, 23 April 1993, URL: https://www.lemonde.fr/archives/article/1993/04/23/theatre-qui-dit-ca-deux-chefs-d-oeuvre-de-nathalie-sarraute-inaugurent-la-nouvelle-salle-de-la-comedie-francaise-le-silence-elle-est-la-au-vieux-colombier_3919973_1819218.html.

3 François Dosse describes transitive writing as responding to a writerly “désir d’être-au-monde”. François Dosse, Les vérités du roman. Une histoire du temps présent, Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 2023.

4 Some notable examples are Yannick Haenel’s Jan Karski (Gallimard, 2009), Laurent Binet’s HHhH (Grasset, 2010), Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov (P.O.L., 2011), and David Diop’s La porte du voyage sans retour (Seuil, 2021). The term exofiction was itself coined by the author Philippe Vasset in 2011. Philippe Vasset, “L’exofictif”, Vacarme, n° 54, 2011, p. 29.

5 The manifesto minces no words, starting off with a searing critique: “Depuis plusieurs années, et de manière croissante, deux phénomènes inquiétants s’abattent sur les romanciers français : d’un côté les romans reality-show, forme dégradée d’une autofiction réduite à des témoignages narcissiques qui comblent le voyeurisme des lecteurs et le portefeuille des éditeurs. De l’autre, des romans en costumes qui répondent de manière simpliste et passéiste à notre besoin de fiction en se bornant à une Histoire déjà comprise, sans regarder celle qui est, celle qui vient – assurément effrayante, insaisissable mais non indicible”. Aurélien Delsaux, Sophie Divry et al., “Pour dire notre époque monstrueuse, il faut des romans monstrueux,Le Monde, 3 November 2018, URL: https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2018/11/03/pour-dire-notre-epoque-monstrueuse-il-faut-des-romans-monstrueux_5378351_3232.html

6 Toril Moi, “It Isn’t Your Home”, London Review of Books, vol. 42, n° 7, 10 September 2020, URL: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n17/toril-moi/it-isn-t-your-home. It is no coincidence that the majority of the authors Moi names as responding to this craving are associated with autofiction: Karl Ove Knausgaard, W.G. Sebald, Rachel Cusk.

7 Here, we can look to Michel Foucault’s work in the first volume of his Histoire de la sexualité, La volonté de savoir (Paris, Gallimard, 1976), in which he lays out clearly the way confession became, in the nineteenth century, secularized through becoming alloyed with scientific discourse and served as an instrument by which sexuality could be made intelligible as an identity, could be made real, as confession brought out the “truth” of a person’s sexuality and made it available for biopolitical control.

8 Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel”, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson, Michael Holquist, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981, p. 33.

9 For a compelling discussion of autofiction that treats it not as a new genre but rather an extension or manifestation of the novel’s heteronomy, as theorized by Bakhtin, see Timothy Bewes, “The Novel as a Challenge to the Concept of Literature,” Der Roman als Probe für den Literaturbegriff, n° 97, 2023, p. 917–26, URL: https://doi.org/10.1007/s41245-023-00235-4.

10 See Philippe Vilain, L’autofiction en théorie, Paris, Éditions de la Transparence, 2009. Arnaud Schmitt insists, however, on autofiction’s non-hybridity in Je réel/je fictif: au-delà d’une confusion postmoderne, Toulouse, Presses universitaires du Mirail, 2010.

11 This quote is taken from Édouard Louis’s no longer updated blog, from an entry entitled “La vérité en littérature”, URL: https://edouardlouis.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/la-verite-en-litterature/. For an incisive discussion of Christine Angot’s relation to authenticity and truth, see Marion Sadoux, “Christine Angot’s autofictions: literature and/or reality?”, in Gill Rye and Michael Worton (eds), Women’s Writing in Contemporary France, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2003, p. 171–81. Neither Angot nor Louis identify with autofiction, but they are both widely read and taken as autofictional authors, justifiably so, given Angot’s grounding her literary work in the promise of some kind of lived experience, with her paratextual media appearances and metafictional productions only serving to stoke the kind of expectations and desires that readers come to autofiction with. And Louis, despite distancing himself from autofiction as a label, nonetheless sets himself up to be read as autofictional for the way he claims for his texts both veridical and aesthetic, literary status.

12 Louis is a verified Instagram user with nearly 66K followers and a regular guest on radio and television programs. Angot is a columnist for Libération, a regular contributor to Le Nouvel Observateur, and she is known for her explosive media encounters when invited to participate in TV programs, and was a panelist for France 2’s talk show, On n’est pas couché, from 2017–2019.

13 For an examination of the way contemporary authors such as Angot and Louis have used autofiction as a vehicle for social mobility, see Morgane Cadieu, On Both Sides of the Tracks: Social Mobility in Contemporary French Literature, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2024, which takes up the figure of the transfuge author.

14 Christine Angot, Quitter la ville, Paris, Stock, 2000, p. 161-162.

15 Édouard Louis, Combats et métamorphoses d’une femme, Paris, Seuil, 2021, p. 19.

16 Alison James, in a personal communication, has incisively commented on the question of positionality, pointing out that “it seems to entail a stance that is also often mobilized against fiction: it is only on the basis of a personal experience that one has the right to represent the social and interpellate the reader. Representing experiences one has not had is seen to have no legitimacy”. Of course, the notion of legitimacy is precisely what undergirds all speech acts in the juridical context, as witnesses’ and experts’ testimonies are evaluated by judge and/or jury on the basis of how legitimate the speakers are perceived to be. The juridical authorial position that both Angot and Louis assume is thus one in which they act as both first-person witness and expert on the question of their traumatic experiences, where it is the fact of having lived through something that confers to them the legitimacy associated with expertise.

17 Hervé Guibert, À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie, Paris, Gallimard, 1990, <Folio>, p. 9.

18 Christine Angot, L’inceste, Paris, Stock, 1998, <J’ai lu>, p. 11.

19 The name Marie-Christine obviously embeds Angot’s own name, so that the lover is a kind of narcissistic extension of Christine, made all the more striking when we take into consideration that Angot’s given name is Pierrette Marie-Clotilde. Indeed, Marie-Christine can then be seen as an alternate figuration of Angot herself, Angot taking her given name and embedding her literary name (her chosen, crafted name) into the name she bore when she was being sexually abused by her father, so that Marie-Christine, the object of the narrator’s desire and repulsion, is the fusion of lived and literary experience – in other words, the boundary at which Angot works.

20 Elise Bidoit, the ex-wife of Angot’s ex, Charly Clovis, who twice sued Angot for violation of her privacy and twice won.

21 bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Boston, South End Press, 1984, p. 36.

22 Édouard Louis, Histoire de la violence, Paris, Seuil, 2016, p. 54. Henceforth HV.

23 Louis describes his compulsion to repeat the same story as follows: “On m’a dit que la littérature ne devait jamais se répéter et je ne veux écrire que la même histoire, encore et encore, y revenir jusqu’à ce qu’elle laisse apercevoir des fragments de sa vérité, y creuser un trou après l’autre jusqu’au moment où ce qui se cache derrière commencera à suinter”. Louis, Combats et métamorphoses, op. cit., p. 19.

24 For more on the real world consequences of Histoire de la violence, see Cécile Bouanchaud, “Affaire Édouard Louis: Riadh B. relaxé, quand la verité judiciaire s’impose à la littérature”, Le Monde, 9 December 2020, URL: https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2020/12/09/quand-la-verite-judiciaire-s-impose-a-la-litterature-riadh-b-relaxe-dans-l-affaire-edouard-louis_6062813_3224.html and Marc Weitzmann, “Le récit de violence chez Édouard Louis: histoire d’un brouillage entre fiction et non-fiction et de ses conséquences”, Signes des temps, France Culture, 09 February 2020, URL: https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceculture/podcasts/signes-des-temps/le-recit-de-la-violence-chez-edouard-louis-histoire-d-un-brouillage-entre-fiction-et-non-fiction-et-de-ses-consequences-5775403.

25 For an interesting discussion of the way Angot’s continued writing of the real exposes her juridically but is vital to her project of exposing society, see Eftihia Mihelakis, “Marie Darrieussecq et Christine Angot, récidivistes du réel”, Dossier “Paroles diffamantes, images infamantes”, Captures, vol. 4, n° 1, 2019, URL: https://revuecaptures.org/node/3638.

26 We can see in the court’s decision a different convergence of the literary with the juridical than the one I’ve discussed thus far. The decision to reject the novel as evidence casts the narrated events under the light of fictionality, treating them as a textual fabrication. In this regard, the court treats the text more like a novel more than does its author, Louis, who has claimed truth status for all of his works: that is, the court’s decision allows Histoire de la violence to be true even as it’s untrue, to be untrue even as it’s true.

27 Michel Foucault, op. cit., p. 81.

28 Rey Chow, A Face Drawn in the Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present, New York, Columbia University Press, 2020, p. 149. Original emphases.

29 We can see then Louis writing Histoire de la violence as a response to the way the police forced a private confession out of him. He reappropriates his story to tell it to a public.

30 Rey Chow, op. cit., p. 149, p. 150. Original emphases. The shift in confession Chow describes here is interesting for the way it clearly points to how confession has turned its original function – the acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the part of the confessor – on its head, so that the value of confession lies in its capacity to serve as testimony of a wrong done to the confessing subject, bringing us back into a juridical (and adversarial) discursive space.

31 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–1979, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell, New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, p. 226. Cited in Rey Chow, op. cit., p. 151.

32 Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Louise Colet (9 December 1852), Préface à la vie d’écrivain, ou Extraits de la correspondence, ed. Geneviève Bollème, Paris, Seuil, 1963, p. 95.

33 Thangam Ravindranathan, “House of Reading”, Romanic Review, vol. 114, n° 3, 2023, p. 594.

34 Ibid., p. 594.

35 Ibid., p. 597.

36 Philippe Vilain, “L’autofiction, exception théorique”, in Marc Dambre and Richard J Golsan (eds), L’exception et la France contemporaine: Histoire, imaginaire et littérature, Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010, p. 161-168, URL: https://doi.org/10.4000/books.psn.339.

37 For examples of contemporary French authors who operate in this more impersonal vein, we can look to Céline Minard, who explodes the usual bounded nature of times, places, bodies, and literary form, to Antoine Volodine, one of several heteronyms of an author whose “post-exotic” texts transpose realism into oneiric settings that are both uncannily familiar and unimaginable, or to Anne Garréta, who takes on an Oulipian commitment to placing pressure on form and insists that “nul sujet ne s’exprime jamais dans nulle narration”. Anne Garréta, Pas un jour, Paris, Grasset, 2001, p. 9.

38 One notable exception is Anne Garréta’s “Autofiction: la Ford intérieure et le self roman”, in Jean-Louis Jeanelle and Catherine Viollet (eds), Genèse et autofiction, Louvain-la-Neuve, Bruylant-Academia, 2007, p. 229-239, in which Garréta historicizes the development of the notion of the self by mapping it onto the development of technologies of transportation, seeing the modern notion of the autos as inextricably tied to the rise of the personal auto(mobile), which turns the for intérieur into a Ford intérieure.

39 I would like to thank Margaret Cohen for her invitation to present an early version of this article at the Turn Against Fictionality conference that took place at the Center for the Study of the Novel at Stanford University in May 2022. My deepest thanks to Hannah Frydman who read multiple drafts with an unerring eye and an ever-generous critical edge.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Annabel L. Kim, « For Sale: The Personal is Political »Revue critique de fixxion française contemporaine [En ligne], 28 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/fixxion/13677 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11u03

Haut de page

Auteur

Annabel L. Kim

Harvard University

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0

Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search