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N° 27, 2024 – Literary Commitment and the Politics of Gender, edited by Barbara Havercroft and Pascal Michelucci

Proposal deadline: December 1, 2022

This issue of Fixxion is located at the crossroads between theories of literary commitment (engagement) – the focus of renewed critical interest in the contemporary French literary and critical field – and English-language theories of agency, developed mainly by feminist researchers from and after the 1990s. We will examine a body of recent French-language works written by women authors and gay authors – novels, autofictions, autobiographies, and essays – where commitment and agency play a leading role in the articulation of gender identity. What are the different forms of commitment and agency in contemporary texts where questions of sexual identity are explicitly deployed (tackling sexual abuse, discrimination, physical and symbolic violence, exposing the patriarchal heritage, etc.)? This issue aims at a careful analysis of the textual inscription of these issues in order to identify the specific discursive strategies that operate in literary texts of the “extreme contemporary” period.

In its broad sense, literary commitment has encapsulated the social role and responsibilities of writers since at least the 17th century (Denis 2000). In its narrow sense in the French domain, it is epitomized by Sartre's view of a “total presence” through which the philosopher advocated for the role of the committed writer in the aftermath of the Second World War (1948). Under that single term, Sartre brought together the manifold modes of participation available to writers and intellectuals in the social and societal struggles of their time. In the French field, this model became obsolete after Malraux and Sartre (Servoise 2011; Laurent 2015) and it was already challenged by the notion of disengagement/dégagement proposed by writers and artists as a form of resistance to all too powerful ideologies (Étiemble 1955; Caron 2015). Foucault and his critique of the intellectual's spheres of competence (1994 [1981]) put this conception to rest as a withering model that would be unhelpful to writers at the time of the so-called “textual” writing of the 1970s. However, contemporary critics have highlighted several contemporary forms of commitment which are finding renewed relevance today, in line with the way they afford the expression of “type ideals” (Vander Gucht 2014), particularly through the inherent power of denunciation without which contemporary commitment would be politically hollow. While “new forms of social intervention in literature” (Viart & Vercier 2005: 252) emerge as markers of the contemporary, major forms of active speech can also be earmarked as properly contemporary modalities, such as indictment, ironic shift, or polemical testimony (Chaudet 2014). In a less forceful understanding of the polemical effect of literary works, critics engage with the “responsibility of form” (Gefen 2005; Meizoz 1996) and with the social issues inherent in speaking out as a constructive gesture (Wolf 2014; Maingueneau 2016; Loach & Louis 2021), even with the posture assumed and crafted by authors (Meizoz 2007). Finally, in a critical approach designed to grasp the particularities of contemporary works, Blanckeman develops “implication” as a way of a thinking about the relationship between the individual writer and the social context (Blanckeman 2015a).

Although the notion of literary commitment, in the broad sense, has raised renewed interest among French literary critics since the 2000s, the fact remains that several theorists and philosophers working mainly in North America had already studied the issue of agency since the end of the 1980s, delving both into the conditions of its emergence and into its effects and forms and the limits of its deployment. These feminist researchers – Judith Butler (1990, 1993, 1997a, 1997b, 2004), Helga Druxes (1996), Rita Felski (1989), Susan Hekman (1995a, 1995b) and Patricia Mann (1994), among others – proposed new conceptions of commitment, using expressions such as “agency” or “the power to act”. Their main objective has been to develop theories of agency that can explain the possibilities of action in the present era, where the subject seems ascribed to a state of subjection (Butler 1997b), entangled in institutions and external discourses which imprison and yet create it. In order to achieve this goal, these theorists questioned the power and means required to bring about social changes which they saw as urgently needed, given the perpetuation of the injustices caused by patriarchy, which retains its power of control to this day. According to them, the important thing is not to be satisfied with the mere awareness of inequities, but to act significantly afterwards despite the obstacles and limitations inherent in one's situation. Hence Mann's definition of the concept of agency: the term “refers to those individual or group actions deemed significant within a particular social or institutional setting” (1994: 14). Conceived as the modus operandi of the subject (Druxes 1996: 9), agency presupposes an interaction between society and the subject, in which the latter aims to provoke changes in terms of norms and constraints.

What about the deployment and representation of commitment and agency in recent French-language literary texts? First of all, the very act of writing in order to highlight injustices or to claim social change is in itself a form of scriptural agency, which is evident in some contemporary accounts of personal trauma (domestic violence in works by C. Delaume and É. Louis; rape in D. Sallenave’s eponymous text; illness in G. Brisac’s and A. Ernaux’s autobiographical writings). These literary representations provide an opportunity for authors to challenge societal norms, including those relating to gender, that govern their lives. Indeed, literary discourse is a powerful form of agency insofar as it enables the critique of embedded constraints and prevalent mentalities, acting on both the attitudes of the readership and on social norms. In addition, commitment and agency are textually manifested through the use of specific discursive strategies and forms, beyond the mere representation of characters and their actions. According to Butler (1990: 143), for example, agency consists in the variation of a critical repetition of norms and discourses that subjugate the subject, in order to question them or shift them to another context, thus investing them with new meanings. When we apply this notion of critical repetition to literary discourse (Havercroft 2015; 2017), we see that iterative discursive processes – such as intertextuality, quotation, cliché, commonplaces, metatextuality, and stereotyping, to name but a few – prove to be drivers, even “tools” (Butler 1990: 145) of scriptural agency and commitment among female and gay authors.

Proposed avenues of research

— The textual recording of forms of literary commitment and agency and the impact of sexual identity in a variety of recent works written by female and gay writers will be explored. Whether it is the recycling of gender stereotypes for critical purposes (A. Ernaux, L'événement; Mémoire de fille), the use of significant intertexts (C. Laurens, Philippe; C. Delaume, Dans ma maison sous terre), the use of metatextual discourse (A. Dreyfus, Histoire de ma sexualité; M. Bermann, Un coup d'un soir), the use of popular French (É. Louis, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule ) or other textual processes, the discursive strategies used to bring gender issues into play will be closely examined.

— At the theoretical level, we will probe the points of convergence and complementarity between the most recent theories of French-language commitment (B. Blanckeman, E. Bouju, C. Chaudet, B. Denis, J.-F. Hamel et al., J. Huppe et al., etc.) and those based on agency in English (J. Butler, H. Druxes, R. Felski, J.K. Gardiner, S. Hekman, etc.).

— We will examine the articulation between the societal and the literary: how do authors position themselves in relation to events, demonstrations, and the political demands of groups or human rights associations? Let us think, among other things, of the involvement of C. Honoré in the “Mariage pour tous” movement, that of A. Ernaux concerning abortion or breast cancer, or that of A. Dreyfus advocating for the new left or against anti-Semitism. Alongside their literary activity, some authors also develop a mediatic or essayistic presence that embraces and defends their position or claim.

— We will analyze the manifestations of literary commitment in texts of the “extreme contemporary” in an array of genres, mainly narrative ones: fictional narratives (C. Delaume, Les sorcières de la République), novels based on sensational current affairs (G. Aubry, L'isolée; M. Mbougar Sarr, De purs hommes), autofictions (C. Laurens, Dans ces bras-là), autobiographical texts (A. Ernaux and Marc Marie , L'usage de la photo; A. Ernaux, Le jeune homme; C. Debré, Play Boy), essays (B. Cannone, L'écriture du désir; C. Delaume, Mes bien chères sœurs; D. Éribon, Réflexions sur la question gay). What relationships do the various genres and the forms of textual engagement establish within the authors’ works?

— The submissions could also probe the impact of family relationships on textual forms of agency and commitment. Some recent autobiographical texts consist of a reflection on the family and on the condition of women and homosexuals in this context, as does L'autre fille by A. Ernaux, which deals with reconstructing the ghostly traces of a deceased sister from maternal speech and other sources: Ernaux demonstrates scriptural agency as a way of mourning a family member. The figure of the father haunts many of these autobiographical accounts, as in works by C. Angot (L'inceste; Une semaine de vacances; Le voyage dans l'Est), É. Louis (Qui a tué mon père), M. Riboulet (Les âmes inachevées), O. Charneux (L'enfant de la pluie; Être un homme) or C. Honoré (Ton père).

Deadline: December 1, 2022. Proposals for contributions (approximately 300 words), covering French-language literatures, must be sent in French or English to (an assistant will register you as the author and send you the journal's MSWord template).

After notification of the acceptance of the abstract, the text of the final article (entered in the Word template and respecting the styles and instructions of the Editorial Protocol) must be sent to before June 15, 2023 for evaluation and proofreading by the members of the Revue critique de fixxion française contemporaine/Critical Review of Contemporary French Fixxion.

Selective bibliography

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BLANCKEMAN, Bruno, « Annie Ernaux : une écriture impliquée », dans Annie Ernaux : un engagement d’écriture, sous la dir. de Pierre-Louis FORT et Violaine HOUDART-MÉROT, Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2015b, p. 125-131.

BOUJU, Emmanuel (dir.), L’engagement littéraire, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2005.

BUTLER, Judith, Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York, Routledge, 1990.

BUTLER, Judith, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of « Sex », New York, Routledge, 1993.

BUTLER, Judith, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, New York, Routledge, 1997a.

BUTLER, Judith, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997b.

BUTLER, Judith. Undoing Gender, New York, Routledge, 2004.

CARON, Maxence, De l'art comme résistance à l'implication politique. Situation et principe de l'art, Paris, Séguier, 2015.

CHAUDET, Chloë, L’engagement littéraire contemporain ou la dénonciation d’un inacceptable : éléments pour une poétique transculturelle, Thèse de doctorat, Paris IV, 2014. [Écritures de l’engagement par temps de mondialisation, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2016].

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DRUXES, Helga, Resisting Bodies : The Negotiation of Female Agency in Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1996.

ÉTIEMBLE, René, Hygiène des lettres II. Littérature dégagée 1942-1953, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.

FELSKI, Rita, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics : Feminist Literature and Social Change, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1989.

FOUCAULT, Michel, « L’intellectuel et les pouvoirs [mai 1981] », dans Dits et écrits II, sous la dir. de Daniel DEFERT, François EWALD et Jacques LAGRANGE, Paris, Gallimard, 1994, p. 1566-1571.

GARDINER, Judith Kegan (dir.), Provoking Agents : Theorizing Gender and Agency, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1995.

GEFEN, Alexandre, « Responsabilités de la forme. Voies et détours de l’engagement littéraire contemporain », dans L’engagement littéraire, sous la dir. d’Emmanuel BOUJU, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2005, p. 75-84.

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HAVERCROFT, Barbara, « Autobiographie et agentivité : répétition et variation au féminin », dans Politique de l’autobiographie : engagements et subjectivités, sous la dir. de Jean-François HAMEL, Barbara HAVERCROFT et Julien LEFORT-FAVREAU, Montréal, Nota bene, 2017, p. 265-284.

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KAEMPFER, Jean, Sonya FLEURY et Jérôme MEIZOZ (dir.), Formes de l’engagement littéraire (XVe-XXIe siècles), Lausanne, Antipodes, 2006.

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LOACH, Ken et Édouard LOUIS, Dialogue sur l'art et la politique, Paris, PUF, coll. « Des mots », 2021.

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SERVOISE, Sylvie, Le roman face à l’histoire. La littérature engagée en France et en Italie dans la seconde moitié du XXe siècle, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2011.

VANDER GUCHT, Daniel, L’expérience politique de l’art : retour sur la définition de l’art engagé, Bruxelles, Impressions nouvelles, 2014.

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VIART, Dominique, « Fictions critiques : la littérature contemporaine et la question du politique », dans Formes de l’engagement littéraire (XVe-XXIe siècles), sous la dir. de Jean KAEMPFER, Sonya FLOREY et Jérôme MEIZOZ, Lausanne, Antipodes, 2006, p. 185-204.

WOLF, Nelly, Proses du monde. Les enjeux sociaux des styles littéraires, Lille, Septentrion, 2014.

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