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International conference: “Challenging Categories”

Université Bordeaux – Montaigne, October 12-13, 2023
Rose Borel

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1The international conference “Challenging Categories” was held on October 12th and 13th, 2023 at Université Bordeaux Montaigne. The organising committee included four members of the research team CLIMAS, Pascale Antolin, Mathilde Bertrand, Pierre Habasque, and Yanis Ben Hammouda. The event consisted of five panels and three keynote addresses which explored the topic from a plurality of perspectives, challenging disciplinary categories. Creating categories is one of the most fundamental human needs; it is essential in order to think and communicate about the world. However, imposing categories is rarely an innocent operation, as taxonomies and classifications entail power relations and hierarchies. The conference aimed at studying how categories take up the challenges of organising different aspects of life, and how they are themselves challenged as a form of limitation. The dual meaning of the title allowed for a variety of approaches focusing on the area of the English-speaking world, without limitations of time. In the field of civilisation, the call for papers invited participants to discuss the limits, pertinence, and effects of historical, geographical, political, and socio-cultural categories. Researchers could also explore how, as a site of experiment and investigation, literature constantly challenges categories, such as generic labels or conventional binaries (for instance between men and women or the body and the mind). The subject of this conference could also apply to linguistics and phonetics, as those disciplines make an extensive use of categories to distinguish typical from unusual linguistic phenomena.

2After introductory words by Lionel Larré (president of Université Bordeaux Montaigne and member of CLIMAS) and Pascale Antolin (head of CLIMAS), the conference opened with a keynote address by Shomit Dutta, entitled “Problems with Genres: Unhelpful Differences between Theorists and Practitioners, with Particular reference to Ancient and Modern Drama.” Dutta used his experience as an academic and a playwright to explore the role of generic labels in drama, both in theory and practice. He contrasted his theoretical study of genres in ancient drama with his own practice, using the example of his recent play, Stumped, inspired by Aristophanes’s The Frogs. Before writing Stumped, he imagined it as a tragicomedy, but the clarity of genre dissolved in the process of writing. No critic used that generic label to review the play, raising questions about the relevance of that category nowadays, when audiences and critics are used to generic fluidity. Several playwrights and philosophers in ancient Greece expressed their views about generic labels. Plato, for instance, lamented the fact that practitioners kept mixing generic characteristics in their works. He held that theorists had a better apprehension of genre. However, Plato himself used generic hybridity in his writing, notably in the Symposium, thus making a productive use of the mismatch between theory and practice. In modern drama, the generic label of tragicomedy seems to possess no distinctive element of its own. Many plays are first described as tragedies or comedies only to be relabeled tragicomedies later, which was the case with plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekov. According to Dutta, the generic category of the tragicomedy proves to be a floating one, as it is unanchored in the performative context of the play. On the contrary, the categories of tragedies and comedies have been solid enough to be challenged by tragicomedies without being destabilised. Dutta concluded that tragicomedies remain fundamentally elusive.

3The first panel on Gender opened with a paper by Alice Bonzom (Université Lumière Lyon 2), under the title “‘Most Unwomanly and Criminal’: Female Defendants and Their Historians Challenging Gendered Categories in the British Criminal Justice System (1870s-1910s).” Bonzom showed how the categories of “womanly” and “unwomanly woman” were created in the Victorian era, leading to the stigmatisation of female defendants, portrayed as wild, unnatural women in the popular press. However, some female defendants challenged those popular preconceptions, sometimes using them to their own advantage. The redefinition of categories of oppression (due to the intersection between gender, race, and social class) now enables historians to have a better understanding of those female defendants and their strategies. Églantine Zatout (Université Lyon 3) then examined how American transgender people challenge gender categories. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of categories available to describe one’s identity (according to the axes of trans/cis, male/female, or both). Zatout conducted research in an American LGBTQ+ organisation in 2019, to assess whether people actually use those multiple categories to describe themselves. The surveys she collected showed that most transgender people self-identify as female or male, and rarely as trans. However, in more intimate interviews, participants were more likely to identify both on the trans/cis axis and on the male/female ones. The reality of gender categorisation is more complex than the male/female binary: many trans people do not want to emigrate from one gender to another, but instead want to evolve on a continuum from masculine to feminine. Eleonora Federici (University of Ferrara, Italy) studied how the representations of trans people in recent advertising challenge gender categories. As the visibility of trans people has dramatically increased over the last twenty years, from TV commercials to magazine covers, former stereotypes about trans people have gradually disappeared. Recent campaigns often rely on narratives about finding one’s true self. Advertising has made the trans issue more visible, running the risk of being accused of rainbow-washing.

4The second keynote address was delivered by Kim Sang Ong-Van-Cung (Université Bordeaux Montaigne), under the title “The Category of Woman. Sex / Gender or how to orient oneself in feminist debates.” Current feminist debates are marked by a plurality of voices that often seem irreconcilable. Republican feminists and post-colonial feminists, for instance, share different positions on the promotion of universality. Focusing on the category of woman, Ong-Van-Cung went back to Simone de Beauvoir, for whom one gradually becomes a woman, using the body as a grasp upon the world. Judith Butler wrote that Beauvoir’s conception of gender as a historical construct paved the way for the challenging of natural sex, notably by Monique Wittig and Michel Foucault, who both showed how the demarcation of anatomical differences was in itself an interpretative act. Gender is a process of giving cultural form to the body, not a fixed, close identity. Faced with the current conservative turn and the attack on “woke” culture, the logic of gender as a category of analysis in social sciences needs to be protected. According to Butler, because the category of woman has been historically built on the exclusion of other beings, we need to rethink it, so as to embrace those who have been excluded. The category of the universal needs to be challenged from the outside, by people claiming their rights as universal, even if universality in its existing form prevents it. Ong-Van-Cung concluded that we need to keep questioning the category of woman as the subject of feminism, using the tools of intersectionality.

5The second panel on Literature opened with an intervention by Beatriz Marques Gonçalves (University of Coimbra, Portugal) about M. NourbeSe Philip’s and Una Marson’s poetic challenges to categories. Both authors were born in former British colonies and evolved between two cultures: Marson (1905-1965) was born in Jamaica and moved to the UK, Philip (b. 1947) was born in Trinidad and moved to Canada. They both used their works to create representations of black beauty, so as to challenge the Western categories of beauty. They also subverted the categories of good and/or poetic languages by integrating Caribbean demotic in their poetry. Patrycja Kurjatto-Renar (Université Littoral Côte d’Opale) then explored how heroes of speculative fiction challenge categories by crossing physical and symbolic barriers. Afro-futurists contemporary writers Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin both represent experiences of border crossings in their novels. Their female protagonists cross physical barriers and subvert boundaries between species, races, and social classes. Hajer Elarem (University of Monastir, Tunisia) examined how Doris Lessing’s autobiography, Under My Skin, challenged categories of literary genres. Autobiography is an unstable genre resisting definition, as the author’s memories cannot be separated from fiction. In Under My Skin, a postmodern, reflexive text, Lessing wrote against the idea of a close, coherent category of the self. Even in non-autobiographical works, Lessing often used characters as her doubles. The panel ended with a zoom presentation given by Carra Glatt (Bar-Ilan University, Israel), entitled “Literary Realisms: Refining the Genres of the Novel.” She argued for a better categorisation of the literary realisms which emerged in the nineteenth century. She offered to use a distinction between mimetic realism (based on the realist description of everyday life) and narrative realism (brought about by the deflation of ideals such as those of the romance). She then examined examples of both categories.

6On the second day, the third keynote address of the conference was delivered by Jean-François Zamora, a Lacanian psychoanalyst, on the theme of diagnoses in psychoanalysis. Analysts deal with language, both as practitioners and as theorists. According to Lacan, believing that words are what they signify is a common illusion. On the contrary, the unconscious speaks through words, and analysts are interested in how signifiers can be interpreted. As language is always insufficient, Lacan tried to transmit the knowledge of psychoanalytical theory through mathematical formalisation. But psychoanalytical practice needs to be elaborated outside of theory, through a dialogue between patient and analyst. Nowadays, the official nosology (as exemplified by the DSM) has come to include a large number of categories, as people feel the need to identify their symptoms with a quick and definite diagnosis. However, a diagnosis is not a cold and theoretical categorisation, but the result of a dialogue between a patient and an analyst, who therefore has a role to play in its elaboration. Zamora described how Lacan democratised the practice that consists in showing patients to an audience of analysts. This enables them to collectively discuss the patient’s diagnosis, which appears more as a dialogue than as a categorising gesture.

7Helena Lamouliatte-Schmitt (Université de Bordeaux) opened the panel on Visual Arts with a paper entitled “Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009): Deconstructing the Art of Self-Portraiture.” Over the course of his career, Wyeth produced four self-portraits which were increasingly less traditional. Like other contemporary artists, Wyeth seemed interested not in constructing his social persona through self-portrait, but in expressing his inner psychological tensions. Wyeth also challenged the category of self-representation by conveying his sense of a fragmented self in three covert self-portraits, representing his fears and fantasies. Nicolas Labarre (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) then presented his paper “Virtuoso, Master, Genius? Transcultural Discourses on Giraud-Moebius.” Moebius emerged first as a professional having learnt his craft, therefore belonging to the category of the virtuoso and not to that of the transcendental genius. In the 70s, a series of specific moves coupled with particular historical circumstances helped to categorise him as a genius—showing how this prestigious category had become more inclusive. Marek Paryz (University of Warsaw, Poland) elaborated on the reinvention of the genre of the western film through transnational uses. The western appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe, and European westerns are still produced nowadays. Across cultures, westerns seem to bring together different sets of references and archetypes—mixing elements of the western with the samurai film for instance. Laurence Machet (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) ended the panel with her talk on “Native Filmmakers and the Subversion of Imposed Categorization.” Early nineteenth-century naturalists contributed to the creation of the American Indian type, which then led to stereotypes. The scholar showed how two native film productions, Smoke Signals (1998) by Chris Eyre and Reservation Dogs (2021-23) by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, debunk the stereotypes of the Noble Warrior and the Vanishing Indian.

8Hélène Margerie and Philippe Muller (Université Bordeaux Montaigne) then gave an intervention on the linguistic analysis of the name “excuse” for the Linguistics panel. A semantic analysis shows that the name “excuse” designates both the action of the person asking for forgiveness and that of the person forgiving them. This coexistence is a defining feature of “excuse.” Margerie and Muller then turned to the analysis of the atypical uses of that term, concluding that the semantics of “not really” is not sufficient to explain them. Their hypothesis is that an interlocutive approach is needed to make sense of the duality of “excuse” (as it allows to hear both a link between X and Y that a speaker seeks to invalidate, “X is an excuse for/to Y,” and a link between X and Y that a speaker seeks to validate, “X is not an excuse for/to Y”).

9The last panel of the conference, on Anglo-American Culture, opened with Jessica Jacquel (Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3), with a presentation entitled “Challenging Categories at Sea in Cooper’s Nautical Fiction.” The space of the ship is a “heterotopia par excellence” according to Foucault; it is a transitional space questioning the established order. In The Red Rover (1827) James Fenimore Cooper challenges categories of race and class. The sailors form a community moving the ship forward; they are not defined by the categories at work on land. The closing paper was given by Ronald Shusterman (Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour) under the title “‘All thought is sorting’: From Positivism to ‘Dizziness,’ (I.A. Richards, Monty Python, James Turrell).” The scholar introduced I.A Richards’s move away from positivism to relativism. Richards—who wrote that “all thought is sorting”—came to recognise the conventional nature of categories, particularly in his work on metaphors. Shusterman then added that humour can be used to underline this arbitrariness: with their incongruity, the Monty Python played with expected categories. Eventually, Shusterman explored how the artist James Turrell creates a sense of perceptual confusion and dizziness in his work, challenging our fundamental categories such as space and matter. However, the speaker concluded that blurring categories should not lead to a total deconstruction of our shared experience of the world.

10This two-day conference on “Challenging Categories” explored a wide range of geographical and historical subjects through different disciplinary lenses. The richness of the presentations allowed the audience to engage with the subject of the conference from a variety of angles.

11For more information about this event, go to​colloques/​611-colloque-international-challenging-categories-12-et-13-otobre-2023.

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Rose Borel, « International conference: “Challenging Categories” »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Rose Borel

Université Bordeaux-Montaigne, CLIMAS

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