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International Conference “American Literature and Therapeutic Cultures”

Université Grenoble Alpes, June 14-16, 2023
Juliette Bouanani et Samantha Lemeunier

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1The International conference “American Literature and Therapeutic Cultures” was organized by Nicholas Manning (UGA-IUF) from June 14 to June 16 at the Université Grenoble Alpes with the support of the Institut Universitaire de France. Interns Lauren Fabrizio, Clémence Ogier and Dorian Sifaoui provided logistical support. The conference was aimed at countering two primary problems in the relationship between literature and therapeutics. The first issue at stake was utilitarianism, or, in other words, the controversial conception of literature as a tool achieving specific aims. This perception of literature underlies a second problem, namely the blind optimism of such projects depriving literary texts of their aesthetic specificity. Since the concept of therapeutics was defined in its broad sense, the various papers that were presented considered not only psychological therapeutics but also the treatment of the body in the works under study.

2The first panel on literary criticism and the limits of therapeutic knowledge was chaired by Nicholas Manning (Université Grenoble Alpes) and opened by Beth Blum (Harvard University) with a talk entitled “‘Unlearning’: The Rise of an Aesthetic-Therapeutic Imperative.” She explained that since the 1960s, the notion of “unlearning” has become a tool deconstructing the image of the miserable scholar as illustrated by Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) in which the protagonist who is forced to unlearn reconnects with the present. This “unlearning” becomes an aesthetic as well as therapeutic ideal. In the continuity of Beth Blum’s talk, the intervention of Adam Frank (University of British Columbia) entitled “A Survey of Motives for Criticism” also tackled the notion of knowledge. Adam Frank elaborated on his theory of a poetics of scholarship that theorizes the subjectivity of literary criticism. According to the speaker, and following a Kleinian principle of countertransference, critics of modernist literature resort to interpretive techniques centered on affect. Peter Boxall (University of Sussex) subsequently delivered a paper entitled “‘I Was the Prosthesis’: Philip Roth and Therapeutic Fiction” during the second panel on “The State of Fiction: From Alienation to Detachment” that was moderated by Marie Mianowski (Université Grenoble Alpes). Boxall showed that Philip Roth’s later novels not only register the failures of American power but overcome them as fiction works as a prosthetic which fashions a new relation between language and the real world.

3The third panel was focused on therapeutic feminisms and chaired by Véronique Molinari (Université Grenoble Alpes). Aubrey Jones (Weber State University) offered a talk entitled “Toward Transformative Readings of ‘Madwomen’ in American Literature” in which she compared women’s writings from the first and second halves of the 20th century to show that the fictional figure of the madwoman and psycho-therapeutic culture have not stopped influencing each other while transforming gender ideologies. Echoing Aubrey Jones’s arguments, Juliette Bouanani (Université Paris Nanterre) delivered the paper “Confessions, Shame and Bravery: the Feminine Lyric and Therapeutic Cultures.” As they were notably read as proof of women’s so-called insanity or mere self-indulgence, post-war lyric poems written by women were pathologized. On the other hand, a rising feminist critique often ascribed a cathartic value to first person poems written by marginalized subjects, which relied on the referentiality of the text. Such perceptions of the lyric influenced its history and evolution as it became tied with the fraught value attributed to self-expression.

4Labeled “Catharsis or Anti-Catharsis,” the fourth panel chaired by Estelle Rivier Arnaud (Université Grenoble Alpes) was opened by the talk of Julie Vatain (Sorbonne Université) entitled “From Catharsis to Resilience? Contemporary Reconfigurations in American Theater.” She used Tisseron’s concepts of resilience and co-resilience as a frame to analyze 21st-century-theater therapeutic themes and healing images. She notably studied the therapeutic plot of Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone (2015) (in which the protagonist’s burnt skin is cured by singular techniques) and the therapeutic experience of Alesha Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down (2015), a play in which the history of the violence against African Americans is collectively healed by self-exorcizing songs or liberative gestures and dances for instance. Michaëla Cogan (Université de Franche-Comté) explored catharsis in another genre in “Mythopsychosis, or Catharsis Unbound in Jerome Charyn’s Autofictions.” She showed that if the writer makes the cathartic choice of getting rid of his toxic past in his autofictions, the resulting fictionalization of life that the text constitutes also has a compulsive and thus pathological aspect, which reveals the paradoxical dimensions of catharsis and therapy.

5The fifth session of the conference consisted in a roundtable on the following theme: “What Future for Therapeutic Cultures? Rethinking Literature’s Relationship to Psychology and Psy Discourses.” The discussion between Timothy Aubry, Beth Blum, Adam Frank and Trysh Travis started with a questioning of the efficiency of the positive affirmations sometimes displayed in arts and literature. Can they heal or are they an inefficient fantasy inspired from the therapeutic language of modernity? The speakers argued that affirmation had to be differentiated from counsel. The first is the tool used by life coaches while the second corresponds to the role of the therapist. Moreover, an affirmation relies on a normative, if not dogmatic, approach whereas the poetic approach of therapeutics conveys an opening of meaning, a space of self-expression and healing.

6The representation of psychotherapy and behavioral health was discussed during the sixth panel of the conference which was chaired by Catherine Bortolon (Université Grenoble Alpes) on the next day. Yasna Bozhkova (Université Paris Nanterre) offered a paper on “Psychotherapy and its Limits in Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School.” She not only demonstrated that Lerner’s ironic emphasis on failure was related to psychoanalysis in The Topeka School (2019) but she also suggested that the Bakhtinian carnivalesque at stake in the work transcended the binary opposition between patient and therapist. Then, in “The Depiction of Psychotherapy in Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads (2021): the ‘Depressed’ Wallace Effect,” Béatrice Pire (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle) studied the composition of Wallace’s short story “The Depressed Person” (1998) and compared it with a therapeutic session as the two interwoven discourses respectively involve clinical distance (the therapist’s viewpoint) and subjective interiority (the patient’s perspective). She identified a sense of satire in the depiction of psychotherapy in Wallace’s work, and a similar relation between laughter and therapy appears in Franzen’s Crossroads, allowing Beatrice Pire to elaborate on Wallace’s spectral presence in Franzen’s last novel. Finally, after retracing the history of psychotherapy and the genres associated with the different therapeutic eras, Trysh Travis (University of Florida) analyzed the relation between “Behavioral Health and the Narrative Arts” and wondered if the mundanity of therapy as described in cognitive therapy manuals had prevented writers from taking up behavioral health as a serious object generating narrative art.

7Jean-Paul Rocchi (Université Gustave Eiffel) started the seventh session entitled “Pathogenic and Postgenomic Cultures: Utopian and Dystopian Worlds.” It was moderated by Jean-Daniel Collomb (Université Grenoble Alpes). In “‘Save My Mind – and Yours’: Pathogenic Culture and Psychoanalysis in Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and African-American literature,” Jean-Paul Rocchi suggested that Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (2019) depicted an eroticized hatred towards black people, which symptomatized a social psychosis characteristic of a pathogenic culture. In the novel, therapy is thus not curative but prescriptive while empathy is consequently politicized. Martin Halliwell (University of Leicester) continued this reflection in “Embryonic Entanglements: Postgenomic Life Cultures in the United States.” By comparing premillennial visions of reproductive technologies with more recent ones, he revealed that genetic replication and fetal design were artistically represented within a bioethical framework but lacked a therapeutic dimension, notably regarding mental health.

8Mark Niemeyer (Université de Bourgogne) introduced the speakers of the eighth session called “‘Physical’ or ‘Mental’ Health: Medical Sciences in the Nineteenth Century.” Thomas Constantinesco (Sorbonne Université) studied the “social life of sugar” in nineteenth-century literary texts from the United States. Commenting on works written by Henry James and Sara Orne Jewett, Constantinesco highlighted the connections between race, health, food, and literature. He noted that the “munching” of the crowds described by James in The American Scene (1907), for instance, carried a strong racial subtext that could be linked to the author’s nativist views. In “‘To restore your lost energy”: Medical Science and Vitalism in Herman Melville’s The Confidence ManMichael Jonik (University of Sussex) focused on the ubiquitous persona of the “Herb-Doctor” in Melville’s 1857 novel. Jonik showed that this satirical character’s monologue addresses medical debates around physiology and vitalism, mentioning controversial figures like Charles Caldwell, a proponent of the “vital principle.” Under the guise of selling an “Omni Balsamic Reinvigorator,” the conman’s speech reveals Melville’s interest for medical scientific discourse. Closing the day, Julie Vatain hosted a theatrical workshop.

9On the next day, the ninth session (“The Critique of Therapeutic Categories”) was chaired by Samuel Lézé (ENS Lyon). Timothy Aubry’s paper (Baruch College, CUNY), entitled “Therapy in Public: Lionel Trilling and the Power of Neurosis” explored Trilling’s vision of neurosis as a potentially generative condition, entailing work rather than passivity. Aubry addressed the belief that the focus on the individual’s psychic health is detrimental to collective political action. Trilling’s rather positive vision of neurosis, Aubry argues, is to be understood in conjunction with his Jewish identity. In “Against a Diagnostic Criticism? On the “Pathologizing” of Fictional Characters,” conference organizer Nicholas Manning (Université Grenoble Alpes / IUF) investigated the contemporary tendency to diagnose literary beings. He argued that unspoken assumptions about literature and its current value in society have shaped this trend, and commented on critical texts affirming that Melville’s Bartleby might be autistic. Manning identified an important methodological issue : the diagnoses ascribed to literary characters are reductive and do not recognize the specificity of literature.

10The tenth session, entitled “Therapeutics of Reception: Reading, Talking, Translating” was chaired by Sébastien Scarpa (Université Grenoble Alpes) and opened by Isabelle Blondiaux’s (LIPHA / Paris Est) paper: “Pratiques de la lecture et culture thérapeutique.” Blondiaux’s presentation explored the relations between reading and therapeutic cultures, challenging their ideological undertones and epistemological status. Blondiaux questioned the way literature is appropriated and sometimes instrumentalized, showing that “psy discourses” are political. This discussion was followed by Jean-Christophe Cloutier’s (University of Pennsylvania) paper, entitled “The Therapeutics of Self-Translation: The Case of Jean-Louis ‘Jack’ Kerouac.” Cloutier focused on Kerouac’s struggle to make sense of his identity: that of a French-Canadian speaker living in the United States. Even though Kerouac is now celebrated as the “King of the Beats” and a quintessential American writer, Cloutier showed that his archives reveal a fraught relationship with assimilation.

11The eleventh session titled “Modernist Poetics of Therapeutics” was chaired by Vincent Bucher (Université Grenoble Alpes). Célia Galey (Université Gustave Eiffel) delivered the first paper: “What’s Happening? Poetry Performance as Social Therapy.” Galey investigated the flourishment of experimental performance poetics in post-war US society, contending that these reactions to social conformism could be a literary response to “therapeutic capitalism,” as coined by Josep Rafanell I Orra in 2011. Samantha Lemeunier (ENS-Ulm) offered a talk entitled “‘Art was Williams’s Therapy’: William Carlos Williams’s Maieutic Process.” Samantha Lemeunier tied Williams’s ob-gyn practice to the philosophical notion of maieutics as embodied in his poetry. Commenting on different passages taken from Paterson (1946), she showed that Williams’s use of poetic language can be linked to the four stages of childbirth (namely fertilization, gestation, delivery, and separation from the origin).

12The final session of the conference, entitled “From Vulnerability to Influence,” was chaired by Christine Vandamme (Université Grenoble Alpes). Alwena Queillé (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle) discussed Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) through the prism of vulnerability and therapeutic imaginations. Queillé commented on the novel’s satire of therapeutic cultures, most notably through the character of “Dr. Tuttle,” a mediocre psychiatrist blending cryptic self-help advice with a reliance on the pharmaceutical industry. Queillé also noted that the sleep and drug-induced huis-clos torpor depicted in the novel eventually lead to a form of awakening, thus providing a new model for self-discovery. The last paper of the day was offered by Victoria Robert (Sorbonne Université) and entitled “Self-Help, New Religions, Cults: Therapeutic Cultures of Influence in Coming-of-Age.” Robert brought up a selection of recent fictional works in which young women enter cults and remarked that self-help tropes such as “finding one’s true self’ abound in such environments. Highlighting the links between therapeutic cultures, spirituality, and cults, Robert showed that the protagonists’ desire to escape institutionalized religions eventually leads them to fall into patterns of influence which are far from the initially sought experience of “breaking free.”

13The three-day conference offered a great diversity of perspectives on the notion of therapeutic cultures. The focus of presentations ranged from theater to film, poetry, and contemporary novels by way of 19th century literature and therapy manuals, showcasing a variety of methodical approaches. The discussions following the papers raised questions which often addressed not only literary theory but pedagogy: course building, in-class conversations, and syllabi. Presenters got longer timeslots to present their papers (30 minutes rather than the common 20 minutes format), which generated structured and engaging papers supported by more close readings. This cross-genre examination of the entanglement of therapeutic cultures and American literature proved dynamic and generative.

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Aubry, Timothy, Trysh Travis. Rethinking Therapeutic Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Ferrentino, Lindsey. Ugly Lies the Bone. New York: Samuel French, 2015.

Franzen, Jonathan. Crossroads. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Harris, Alesha. What to Send Up When It Goes Down. New York: Samuel French, 2015.

James, Henry. The American Scene. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907.

‎Lerner, Ben. The Topeka School. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man [1857]. Northwestern: Northwestern University Press, 1984.

Moshfegh, Ottessa. My Year of Rest and Relaxation. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Rafanell i Orra, Josep. En finir avec le capitalisme thérapeutique. Soin, politique et communauté. Paris : La Découverte, 2011.

Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005.

Whitehead, Colson. The Nickel Boys. New York: Doubleday, 2019.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1946.

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Juliette Bouanani et Samantha Lemeunier, « International Conference “American Literature and Therapeutic Cultures” »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Juliette Bouanani

Université Paris Nanterre, CREA

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Samantha Lemeunier

ENS Ulm, ED540, République des Savoirs, équipe CRRLPM

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