Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 16

:KDW&DQ/LWHUDWXUH'R")URP/LWHUDU\6RFLRFULWLFLVP

WRD&ULWLTXHRI6RFLDO'LVFRXUVH
0DUF$QJHQRW5REHUW)%DUVN\

The Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 17, Number 2, Fall 2004, pp.
217-231 (Article)
3XEOLVKHGE\7KH-RKQV+RSNLQV8QLYHUVLW\3UHVV
DOI: 10.1353/yale.2004.0009

For additional information about this article


http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/yale/summary/v017/17.2angenot02.html

Access provided by UNESP-Universidade Estabul Paulista Julio de Mesquita Filho (24 Mar 2015 14:59 GMT)

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 217

Marc Angenot
What Can Literature Do?
From Literary Sociocriticism to a Critique of
Social Discourse
Translated by Robert F. Barsky

What Does Literature Know, and What Can Literature Do?


We need to return to the eternal question concerning the being and
the specificity of literature, but this time we need to recast it. Instead
of What is literature?1 we might ask What does literature do and,
from that moment onward, what can literature do? Ever since the Decadents and the Symbolists of the s, we have been offered the dull
replies of aesthetes, which was:Literature doesnt do anything, and it
cant do anything, thank God! Furthermore, according to the poetry
of Edmond Rostand, which has made a comeback in contemporary
literary commentary in the form of postmodern paraphrases, a thing
is even more beautiful when its useless.2
What does literature do, what does it work on, and, at the end of the
day, given what it does, what does it know? What does it know that is
not known as well, or better, in other knowledge domains?3 Does it
know something about other sectors of language production, but in a
mode that is specific to it, that is, with peculiar cognitive instruments?
For instance, does it know something about knowledge that is permeated with images (Bildhaftigkeit), an idea that Gyrgy Lukcs employs to distinguish literature from scientific knowledge even as he situates both on the same level, thereby rendering one a complement to
the other?
To take on such questions is not the same thing as posing the following, seemingly related question:What can literature be used for?
It is by no means an a priori that this literary knowledge, if there is
such a thing, should be usable in a practical or a positive sense, nor that
it should be redeemable for some purpose or another. With all due respect to Rostand and his Aiglon, such negative determinations are not
to be synonymous with useless.
Text sociocriticism interrogates the work of textualization (the miseen-texte) even as it refuses formal aestheticism and nihilism that conThe Yale Journal of Criticism, volume , number (): 217231
by Yale University and The Johns Hopkins University Press

marc ang e not

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 218

stantly return in contemporary critical discourse; for this reason, one


of the fundamental questions constantly posed by sociocritics is What
does literature know? and, more specifically, What does literature
know that is not known elsewhere, in either public or esoteric discursive fields?
A Second Degree of Knowledge
My own reflection about the sociocritical hypotheses and approach
leads me from the very outset to modify and inflect the question Ive
just formulated.What does literature know? never refers to specific
or first degree knowledge, which leads me to further clarify the question: What does literature know about the manner by which other discursive sectors know the world and legitimize their knowledge thereof? From
this follows a correlative problem that envisages literary form as a
means of undertaking a definite practice: what do stylistic gaps,formal games, intentional cacography, desired and premeditated disfunctioning, and the subversive quality of literary texts have to do
with the work that a particular literary text carries out upon the prevailing social discourse? That is, what role does the literary text play
with respect to the peculiarly social nature of the text, which cannot
be a simple and unaltered retranscription of the social discourse, any
more than the literary form of the text can be an asepsis-like device?
(Recall that certain aesthetic doctrines have suggested a texts form has
a fetishistic character, which allows the text to preserve its purity in
the face of vile contact with utilitarian and philistine languages).
This form of reflection is inscribed in the fundamental logic of sociocritical research, which is the principal object of Claude Duchets
analyses, the so-called mise-en-texte, that describes the novelistic texts
effort to assume responsibility for the prevailing social discourse.
Duchets sociocriticism attempts to ruminate upon the sociogenesis
of the text, which envisions it as a device that is designed to absorb select fragments of the social discourse while maintaining a productive
distance from it.This sociogenesis is the work of the text upon this
con-text, which for Duchet is both outside and inside; the text is
radically permeable to the social discourse that remains present inside
of it like a shadow, like a palimpsest that is abundantly re-etched and
re-written. But Duchet has insisted all along upon the fact that the
polyphonic collage of the text, with all of the exegetic immanent
suggestions that come in its train, is qualitatively and pragmatically different from the very outseteven in the most banal and least elaborate of literary writings.
Sociocriticism claims to hold both ends of a dilemma or paradox.
On the one hand, the literary text is submerged in the social dis-

t h e ya l e j o u r n a l o f c r i t i c i s m

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 219

course, so the very conditions required for the readability of the text
are not immanent, which (at least superficially) deprives it of all autonomy. At the same time, sociocritical attention is devoted to exploiting the particularity of the text as such, to laying bare the procedures that led to the transformation of discourse into text. Drawn
from the social discourse, and produced from its social codes, the
text can certainly go along with the prevailing doxa, the acceptable,
the prefabricated, but it can also transgress, displace, confront through
irony, or exceed the established idea of what is acceptable. In this first
case, the text is assured of an immediate readability, but it is thereby
rendered just another component of the doxa produced elsewhere; so
on account of its immediate readability, it is destined to become unreadable within a short time. Since it accords with the prevailing doxa,
which it carries within it and in turn carries, so too it is susceptible to
becoming obsolete when the doxa to which it is related is dimmed or
worn out.4 On the other hand, texts that alter and displace the dominant
hegemony are those that are inscribed with indetermination, which
makes them difficult to read in the short term, but assures them a potential, which is more or less durable, for an other type of readability.5
Inspired by Mikhal Bakhtin, and by research in the domain of sociocriticism, I have therefore come to the conclusion that literature
has knowledge in the second degree, that it comes always afterward in
a social universe saturated with utterances, debates, language and
rhetorical roles, ideologies and doctrines which have, each and every
one of them, the immanent pretension of serving some kind of role, of
offering up some form of knowledge, of guiding humans in their actions by conferring meaning (signification and direction) to them.
The existence of literature, therefore, is in the work that it does upon
the social discourse, and not in what it offers over and above what is
found in journalism, philosophies, propaganda, doctrines, and sciences,
testimonies which, each in its own way, describe the world or the
soul.
Literature is to be considered as a supplement to the social discourse; its
moment is afterward, which contributes to its trouble-making character.
Such theses exclude a priori all non-temporal or essentialist approaches that attribute to fiction or aesthetic production a permanent
function and efficacyfor purposes of subversion, carnivalization, deconstruction, or satirewhich would make a perpetual alibi for assertive schematic discourses of the world, identity, and power.
If certain texts can be considered literary according to the perspective and with the criteria formulated above, they will not be
deemed so for immanent transhistorical reasons, but according to diverse particularities of the work they undertake, that they were able to
operate upon a specific state of the social discourse, with its hege-

marc ang e not

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 220

monic dominants and its division of labor, its topography and its
specific intertextual devices. In other words, the effect of literature
cannot be judged and measured except in relation to the global sociodiscursive system within which it is engendered.
The particularity of literature and the possibilities it can fulfill are
related to the socio-discursive moment to which it relates. Literature
cannot do anything, or manipulate social discourse, at any given moment, except under the constraints of what the disaggregations and
the resistances of the prevailing social discourse render possible, both
directly and a contrario. Literature runs the risk at every moment of being taken in by suggestive enticements, by outrageous simulacras that
encumber in a banal fashion the marketplace of modern culture.
The heteronomy and heteroglossia cannot be apprehended through
local intuition, or solely through a study of what can be woven in the
canonical literary sector. The heteronomy is not a permanent quality
to be found in certain works that have been classified as eternally dissident and subversive. Rather, they must be apprehended in the global
economy of the social discourse of a given time. It cannot be a transhistorical value. Notions of an other language, the invention of a productive distanciation, the rendering of profound aporias into language,
all of these seem integral to the constitution of grand narratives, and
all of them seem to be far from any idea of individual talent. The literary text is hardly in a commanding position; it effects a significant
rupture only under the constraint of the impossibility of saying, of
aphasia, and of asphyxia. Creative textualization tends to occur in
crises during which literature, or one of its forms, one of its genres,
can no longer persist unless there is some kind of obvious issue that
needs to be addressed. It is not those types of formulas that seem to
offer renewal or which prevail, particularly in the twentieth century.
Rather, what seems increasingly important is the possibility of conquering a space of language, which permits it to be heard within the
hubbub of the social discourse, and in the mercantilization of formal
inventions. This possibility is becoming most tenuous, and most
improbable.
The Critique of Social Discourse
It seems to me that the preceding propositions contain a number of
heuristic consequences. The study of literary texts only has interest,
and is only possible, if this text is not isolated from the very beginning,
not cut off from the socio-discursive network within which, and upon
which, it works.
I have come to this type of consideration in light of a research program I pursued for a number of years, and which necessitates a grand
detour.The study of literature as an interdiscursive labor requires, in my

t h e ya l e j o u r n a l o f c r i t i c i s m

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 221

opinion, a theory and a historical critique of social discourse. Just as


trees hide the forest, past or present versions of the social discourse
dont uniformly correspond to the intuition of a so-called cultured
person. It is necessary to analyze and undertake a hermeneutic study
of this social discourse as a means of (re-)speaking afterwards about literature. Since the methods of literary research, from ancient rhetoric
to contemporary narratology and semiotics, do apply to social discourse as a group, the task I envisage is no stranger to the tactics and
methods of literary criticism.6
Before undertaking the task of interrogating literature, it is necessary to find a way to consider the vast rumor of everything that is
written and uttered in a given society, from political and union propaganda to judicial decisions, from commercial jingles to scholarly or
philosophical texts, from advertising slogans to ritualized discourse,
from conversations in the local pub to debates among university colleagues, because what is said is never arbitrary or innocent. Even a
domestic quarrel has its rules and its roles, its topics, its rhetoric and
its pragmatics, and these rules are never those of an Episcopal pastoral
letter, a political editorial, or a Deputys political platform. Such rules
dont emanate from the linguistic code as such, they form a particular
and fully autonomous object that is essential to the study of people in
society and their culture.7 This object, which is fundamentally sociological and therefore historical, is affected by the manner in which societies know each other and speak among themselves and, through
writing, the manner in which people in society make utterances and
argue among themselves. This object is a science of the global social
discourse.This science doesnt disregard or scorn the study of the aesthetic function undertaken in regard to its cultural relativity by
Mukarovsk; it simply doesnt have to fetishize it by isolating and, from
the very outset,asepticizing it.8
The object of this study is the social discourse as a whole, in all of
the complexity of its topology, its division of labor, which, on account
of its relative autonomy in culture, forms its own entity and a system
of global interaction. It is in the framework of an analysis and a theory
of social discourse that we are able to isolate certain writings, which
in certain cases belong to the literary domain, for which the work
on intertexts is revelatory, interesting, innovating, and significant. Such
work helps uncover motives that are contingent upon the global ordering of discourses that prevail at a given moment, as well as the effects of occultation and cloistering, which reveal in a contradictory
fashion the anaphors, the discordance, and the paradoxical elements
inscribed within the text in question.
Social discourses are not juxtaposed one to the other as genres and
independent sectors, and they are not random or contingent at specific moments of communication. They form in a given state of somarc ang e not

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 222

ciety a composite and interactive system that contains strong hegemonic tendencies that regulate migrations. Once methodologies of
literary studies have shed their formalist and fetishist elements, they
can be applied to the social discourse and to all the cacophonic complexity of its languages, its cognitive schemes, and its thematic migrations. It is only in the global social discourse that we can reconcile
with a certain degree of objectivity and demonstrability the three traditional stages of description, interpretation, and evaluation of texts,
works, and speech genres that co-exist and interfere in a given culture.
The Literary Text and Its Work in the Social Discourse
The literary text inscribes and reworks the social discourse, but it remains an entelechy (Aristotle). The work that it effects upon the social
discourse is not a transhistorical task that can be taken for granted. It
is always problematic, and strategies for its undertaking are multiple,
constrained, and, even in the same society, divergent according to
means and functions. The social discourse appears from the perspective of
literature as a problematical device made up of lures, enigmas, dilemmas, and questionings. If texts, literary or not, make reference to the
real, then this reference operates upon the mediation of languages and
discourses which, in a given society know differently, or even antagonistically, the real, of which I cannot really say anything except in
terms of the diverse manners according to which it is known.9
Without a theory and a practice of social discourse, which is much
more, and much different, from the intuition that we might have
about it, it is impossible to even take on issues of literature without
falling into problems of the a priori, uncontrolled intuition, and imputations about the formal characteristics and the objectives of the interdiscursive functions of the text. What is missing today, over and
above the elitist constructions of the history of ideas and the mechanistic interpretations of so-called ideological criticisms, is a theory
and history of social discourse.
By tracing a program of social discourse research that would in my
sense precede an interdiscursive critique of texts, I am not trying to
displace literature, any more than to suggest that we examine poetry
as though it were a cookbook, or vice-versa. I am trying to defetishize it, by asking it the following question: What can you accomplish by working on the prevailing social discourse, what can you express that is not said better elsewhere, what do you reinforce and, by
your adventures, what do you defeat, what do you problematize in the
realm of social representations? This is a generalized intertextual and
interdiscursive approach for which the work of Mikhal Bakhtin, interpreted in ways that may be less than faithful to the letter of his own
writings, were especially important. There are those who inveigh

t h e ya l e j o u r n a l o f c r i t i c i s m

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 223

against such a project of integration and confrontation, those for


whom the literary text is a pure and autotlique production; their
approach should not be the pretext for infinite marginalia, efforts that
serve but as an alibi, a banal dream of escaping the weight of the social world.
The work of literature as a practice that redirects and reproduces,
disarticulates and recomposes the social discoursesin each case disconnected from a functional raison dtrecan of course take many
forms, both in terms of objectives and results: to contribute to the social production of the sublime, to establish or provide comfort to a
means of commemoration and legitimation, of edification and teaching (in the sense that what the moderns called literature conserves
residual functions and maintains its ancient usages), or else as a practice that is ludic and ironic, a collection of polyphonic organizations,
an enterprise aimed at conscious obfuscation, neologies, that is, efforts
to put into language the unsayable, and so forth.
A Social Discourse Practice That Comes Afterward
Literature is not opposed to the multiple activities of discourse, which
divides amongst its various strands the works of the cultural topography, as though it simply sits in its own corner, or its ivory tower,
lending itself for no reason and at no cost, to deconstruct meaning,
remaining as it does so gloriously private, alone, devoid of a practical
finality and telos. Literature is precisely not alone in its corner, nor
does it stand outside of the century, whether it takes the form of the
realistic or the modernist novel, cubist or surrealist poetry. Literature is
that discourse which, present in the world, comes and speaks with the words
of the tribe after all other discourses have said what theyd had to say, especially those discourses about certitude and identity; literature seems to have
the mandate to listen to them, to return their echoes, even as it interrogates and confronts them.
For the sole reason that literature comes afterward, it is not going to
patch up civic actualities, or add practical functionality or imperative
certitude, because there is enough of all that in the rest of the social
discourse, enough certitudes that are openly antagonistic with one another, or woven one with the other into a tissue of contradictions.The
modern novel, for example, is a device that is filled with collages, dialogic effects, semantic ambiguities; it is polysemic and polyphonic not
on account of any formal idiosyncrasy or through obedience to a
transcendental aesthetic, but because, even in the most boring or formulaic novels, there is in the text a reflection or recording of the cacophonic noise of the global social discourse, with its discordant
voices, its unregulated legitimations, its echoes and its parodies. Literature is situated at a distance, from whence it hears the different, conmarc ang e not

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 224

current thematizations of the same things; it hears what murmurs and


thunders, it perceives and transcribes the slippery meanings of language, and it records the antinomies, the aporias of global explanations, and the constitutive incoherent doctrines elaborated by its partisans and its martyrs.
Ambiguity, polysemy, non-teleology, non-finality, surreptitious leaps,
double meanings, hidden figures, stratifications and potential meanings: taken together this is not the list of distinctive characteristics of
literature, these are the fundamental, but not the up-to-date, nor the recognized, features of the global social discourse, that is, of the global
products of different ways in which a society and its mouth-pieces
endeavor to know the world and to establish it through languages, arguments, and stories.
Literature knows how to do only that: to bring to a second degree
this interdiscursive cacophony, full of detours and slippages of meanings and of aporias that are more or less successfully filled-in. Literature can but manifest that which is dissimulated according to the apparent logic of the social discourse, that is, the ontological incapacity
to know the historical reality in a stable and consistent fashion, without irreducible affronts between different worldviews that inhabit,
without hidden vices, the systems and explanations, and without incurring the mishaps of the real.
Literature is, in fact, polysemic, and devoid of satisfactory semantic summations, not by contrast with what is outside of the text, nonliterature, which would be mono-semically and consensually capable of knowing an intelligible and transparent world, but precisely
because literature can but reflect in a synecdotal fashion not the real,
as we had suggested earlier, but the social discourse, in its confused
movement and its essential incapacity to even know the real, which is
by no means resolved by enigma.
Reflecting upon Bouvard et Pcuchet, Claude Duchet has suggested
that we cannot really think about history except through the imaginary.10 From this I deduce that the multiple public and scholarly discourses that think about history do not in fact really think it, even
though they make pronouncements about it as though it were something that we could narrate, something that is intelligible, a source of
teachings and moral examples, teleological demonstrations, civic and
mobilizing interpolations; fiction, which thinks about, or does not
think about, history as a hubbub of specious and exclusive explanations, as the ultimate ironic obscurity, is in fact right. In other words,
there is a fictional-literary reason that ironically occupies the throne of
Thought after the defeat of civic and learned reason.
It is in the end very simple: if we believe the discourses that speak
assertively about the world know it sufficiently, or have the potential
under ideal conditions to know it, then literature would be, in fact,

t h e ya l e j o u r n a l o f c r i t i c i s m

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 225

useless. But literature doesnt know the world any better than other
discourses do; it simply knows, or it shows, that the discourses that
claim to know it, and the humans who either humbly or ostentatiously claim to know it, in fact dont know it at all.11
It is only when this type of hypothesis is offered up that we find
ourselves in a position of affirming that literature in fact serves some
kind of purpose. Literature says, or ends up saying: This doesnt make
any sense, this is not the whole story, it is not just that,there are more
things on Heaven and Earth . . . (Hamlet), or it aint necessarily so . . .
(Gershwins Porgy and Bess). In this sense literature is neither constructive nor fortifying, as all of the doctrinaires and statesmen ever since
the Renaissance have suggested when they have tried to put it to
work in the name of something or other. We can only make something useful, have it fulfill a specific cognitive function, if it can undertake the task of intertextual confrontation and obfuscation, which
would obviously be rather negative, if not vain, if the social discourse
was filled with definitive clarity, irrevocable teachings, sober and pertinent identities, confirmed and fortifying worldviews, or if it at least
offered some real existential moments of clarity.
It is thus not literature as such, as a singular phenomenon that would
in fact be rather gratuitous in a coherent and intelligible world, a
world that is in fact opaque, cryptosemic, ambiguous, and evanescent:
rather, it is the social discourse, the discourse of the world, that it tirelessly
transcribes, just as Flauberts writing does. From this standpoint, Bouvard et Pcuchet is a novel that, despite superficially obvious observations it makes about hegemony and legitimacy, is but a history that is
filled with sound and fury which, in the end,signifies nothing.
The overreaching ideology-doctrines, which can appear to form the
most solid sectors of the social discourse, and which appear to systematically oppose literary textuality, are nothing more than bricolage,
in the radical sense of the word.They are ad hoc arrangements of things
selected according to certain constraints that were not made to work together,
bricolages that are entangled in traditions we cannot succeed in liquidating by sleight of hand, and which they are forced to renovate by
conserving what in them is most essential. These doctrines cannot
know, however, how to fulfill their synchronic role of preserving established powers, or dissimulating social interests. These ideologydoctrines wish to offer some global understanding while mobilizing
people by providing some meaning (significance and direction) to a social and historical universe that constantly reveals itself to be devoid of
univocality, of any overall coherence, or indeed of any clear set of imperatives. Grand narratives arent systems (in the sense that Althusser
suggested in , and which others at that time abundantly endorsed), or are only so by the appearance of their auto-legitimizing
rhetoric. They are, necessarily, heterogeneous collages for which, once
marc ang e not

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 226

again, superficial rhetoric acts to hide the stitches and the missing
links. Ideologies have neither logic nor particular rigor; they are but
local productions of this synchronic ensemble, filled with affronts,
with shifts and with surreptitious repairs that could as a whole be
called the total social discourse. Although they can be isolated for reasons
of analysis, the great ideological groupings are unavoidably heteronymous and interdiscursive. Ideologies are not systems because when
scrutinized they appear as Gordian knots of contradictions and aporias that are more or less successfully dissimulated. The antinomies and
aporias to which I refer are not contingent insufficiencies for which
certain ideologies would be encumbered; they are the fatal result of all
research aimed at axiological coherence, and all attempts at making
collective interpretation, and mobilizing of the people. And finally,
ideologies are not systems because they are confrontational spaces for antagonistic doctrinal variants, tendencies, and sects; they are the space
for internal struggles amongst orthodoxies for which the confrontation itself produces the reciprocal destruction of the logic and argumentation of each participant. As soon as an ideology develops, it sustains not only opposition and resistance from the outside but, in the
very domain that it has in its development established, immanent heterodoxies that corrode their logic and, in many cases, create contiguous
dissidence. So in the name of these sacred principles, this dissidence
comes to oppose the argumentative and narrative constructions that
have been proposed, eventually resembling the very contrary of the
dominant version in the domain. This hypothesis applies as much to
religious ideologies as to political or civic ones.
A great deal of modern literature shows that the king is naked, that
these overriding explanations and the small-scale alibis are but bricolages filled with antinomies, and in fact dont hold up to scrutiny. Literature is certainly not a discipline, nor a domain of the cultural system that has a local mandate different in nature from, but nevertheless
analogous to, the role that positivism played for the sciences. It is but
a certain (and uncertain) type of work on the social discourse that
happens after the fact, and that draws its peculiar character from the
fact that it comes after everything else has already been said. This is why
there is something of literature that remains when the hegemonic devices begin to show their age, indicating that they are obsolete, often
odious, and retroactively recognized as fallacious and lacking in vision.
The work of literature never consists of revealing falsity or of proving something right; rather, it attracts attention to the strangeness, to
the additional meanings, to the consequences and to the contradictions that have been dissimulated. Literature is not a critique, and it
never undertakes critical work in the sense that it doesnt act as a corrective, and it doesnt replace the progressive and Voltairian propositions put forth by M. Homais with propositions deemed more true,

t h e ya l e j o u r n a l o f c r i t i c i s m

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 227

or more adequate, to the real:12 literature shows how strange they


are, it defamiliarizes them, but does so without pretending to possess
the instruments of knowledge needed to oppose them.
I could very well have been wrong in what I proposed earlier concerning the absence of a methodological mandate of literature. For a
long time, that is, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century,
literature has recognized that it has a mandate, and even an ideology
typical of the literary practice, but it tends toward a radical cognitive
skepticism, in the sense of the capacity of social language and of its own
language work, to positively know and to be heard, a skepticism about
fixed meanings of the real, the world,history, or of being known,
in whatever irrefutable manner one might imagine.13
If it is not like this, if things dont unravel as Ive suggested, then there
is no literature, there are only writers who recount more or less vain fictive biographies, using words and images to describe their inner feelings. There are those who observe the life of the salon and there are
those who meditate upon the lives of characters, which are activities
analogous to efforts undertaken by writers who offer narratives about
the reign of a monarch, or about the great deeds, present or future, of
some politician or another. Literary efforts, when placed upon the same
level as these tributes, would obviously be a bit vain and inconsequential. It is necessary in this counter-hypothesis to hope that literature be
placed in the service of good doctrines, those which would confer
some utility through their procurement.
Typico-Ideal Literature and Empirical Literature
By proposing these theses, we obviously gave the word literature an
a priori axiological meaning; we have constructed the ideal-type of a
cognitive potential which, in the empirical reality, is realized but very
rarely or, if you wish, only in exceptional circumstances.
In fact, literature, as a mass of texts and as a domain of sociological
production that can be circumscribed and objectified, produced beforehand and to a massive degree in all stages of modernity in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is a simple stylistic and imagistic
renewal of dominant topics, it is a renovation of formulas deemed
culturally useful, a reassessment, more or less spiritual, of what has already been said, and of propaganda for the prevailing social order that
is often camouflaged under fallacious appearances of creativity and
originality.
Ill introduce here the idea of the fool to describe the status of functional ambiguity in modern literary work as deviance and subversion
that is tolerated, as an ostentatious language expenditure, a satire that is
protected by the powers that be. For a text that comes from the literary domain to escape from this ambiguous status of what is funcmarc ang e not

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 228

tionally semi-exterior, it is necessary to re-stitch this degree of semilegitimacy wherein literature (even in its avant-gardes, from romanticism to the present day) benefits from a magnanimous toleration with
certain conditions, which makes of literature, despite its appearances, the
efficient complicit being of hegemonies, of the doxa and the canonical and official discourses.
The literary text is always to some degree indebted to the hegemonic order. Regardless of the occasional intrusion by logothetics
bearing heretofore unheard utterances, the emergence of a new language in an authors mind is improbable. When we look closely, there
are no aesthetic ruptures, any more than there are localized, abrupt
and irreversible epistemological breaks. On account of the very nature
of things and the entropy of cultures, all ruptures first produce slippages of meaning that are hard to perceive, erosions of paradigms, or
cognitive or aesthetic stutterings, each with its effects. So there are two
possibilities: either the cultural innovation in question is glaring, and
recognized as such because it is illusory, that is, because it shows off
even as it remains completely intelligible, which means that the stage
for its appearance had been subtly set previously in the theatre of ideas
and culture, or, the innovation is clumsy and partial, which means that
it has to grope along in order to trace out a pathway for itself in the
sociological network. It has to give the impression of being an other
language which the heterodoxy, the heteronomy, will not formulate
except at the risk of blindness to the potential of new logic, and by
frequently resorting to preconstructed ideas and norms that are already admitted, or already-there.
Aesthetic work consists in part of choking-off the internal conflict
engendered by the coexistence of the banal, the conventional, and the
outrageous. Changes of language and form dont operate in a punctual fashion; they are most often the result of a crisis, a disorganization
of a breakdown in the discursive system that compels (say) a literary
genre to abandon what it takes for granted without first offering a
way out or a new formula it can follow. In the course of this crisis,
during which there will be frequent recourse to recycling of obsolete
formulas, borrowings from neighboring sectors and renovations, a
new language may perhaps break through the surface. Such hypotheses are at least suggestive, because they fly in the face of myths describing creative innovation and glaring ruptures, both of which clutter literary history and the history of philosophy.
Here again we can reclaim with great benefit the ideas of Claude
Duchet, notably those made regarding La Peau de chagrin, since they
suggest that the literary text is not, on account of some essential quality, both autonomous and supremely defended in the face of insidious
pressures from the discursive hegemony with regards to which it operates, but within which it finds itself integrally submerged.The social

t h e ya l e j o u r n a l o f c r i t i c i s m

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 229

utterance criticizes and eats away at the novelistic utterance, writes


Duchet.14 A literary critic (who would not speak only of mediocre
works or of successes of circumstance) has to show how literary textualization operates first, and fatally, in the service of the social discourse, of its myths, its pre-fabrications, its languages and its axiological characteristics, and that, except for the case of blind spots that the
text dissolves or renders ironic, there exist numerous passages wherein
even the newest text renews the doxa, re-stitches the threads of specious and obvious ideas, and makes play of paradoxismes that reside in
the shifting landscape of the commonplace. To the bravado of most
modernist works we could reply with but a single line from Corbires
Les amours jaunes:He saw too much, and to see is a blindness.15
It is because literary texts, in the current sense of the term, have the
potential to be others, elsewhere, excessive, as regards what is said
elsewhere, that they touch the aesthetic domain, and it is because,
moreover, they have the role of regurgitating, illustrating, relaying
what is already there, that they emerge from the domain of social
reproduction.
The literary text, as an essence, doesnt therefore exist. What we can
occasionally find in a state of culture are a few writings, classified as
literature or not, that shake up the entropy of accepted ideas, or hold
up to them a mirror that deforms them. Certain texts attempt to give
language to these things that the canonical discourse does not verbalize, according to the profoundly social principle that what isnt said
doesnt exist. These texts are obviously of interest not only to the literary critic, but to the sociologist and the historian as well, if in fact
the discursive has to be analyzed as repetition, redundancy, compulsion for re-telling the already said, as prejudice and misunderstanding,
and as shifts, surreptitious slippages, the rendering ironic, the emergence of ulterior logic, the emergence of the nocht-nicht-Gesagtes, the
not-yet-said. The essential for a cultural hermeneutics is not to confound these novelties and these authentic ruptures with what is offered in great abundance at any given moment in the banal marketplace of cultural and literary novelties, with its lures, its renovations,
its ostentatious revolutions, its fashions, its conformist or anti-conformist brummagem goods, its resentment and its hand-me-downs
of ethnic, social, and sexual identity that sell in such abundance of late.
In developing a theoretical reflection, sociocriticism contributed to
rejecting a simplistic sociological paradigm according to which there
is in the social world, reproduction, social imposition, the readable, and
literally that which is outside of the social (and thus outside of all objective analysis), notably the novum, the imaginary, the creative.The social (and thus the very object of socio-logical and historical reflection)
is also that which institutes, the novum, the image (as opposed to the
picturesque), the dreamed, the imaginary, the innovating, the sacred; it
marc ang e not

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 230

is what emerges as much as what resists; it is what tears away as much


as what adheres and persists by imposition; it is what happens as much
as what is lost; it is interpretation as much as dogma; it is the liberating speech as much as the authoritarian.
Notes
Cf. Jean-Paul Sartre, Quest-ce que la littrature? (Paris: Gallimard, ).
Edmond Rostand (), was a poet and playwright whose works include Cyrano de
Bergerac, Les Romanesques, and Laiglon.
Im picking up and developing some proposals formulated previously in an article I wrote
with Rgine Robin called Linscription du discours social dans le texte littraire, in Theories and Perspectives, a special issue of Sociocriticism edited by Edmund Cros [. ():
]. It is further developed in 1889: un tat du discours social (Montral: Le Prambule,
).
This has been clearly shown by Rgine Robin in Socialist Realism: An Impossible Aesthetic,
trans. Lon Robel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, ).
Im recalling considerations developed in a short study by Rgine Robin and myself called
La Sociologie de la littrature, une historique (Montral: CIADEST, ).
Such a critique is not absolutely necessary, and I dont envisage imposing it upon anybody;
it is a program that flows from the twenty-year period during which sociocriticism was
developed.
The analysis of social discourse is to some degree antagonistic to the linguistic conception
of language (la langue) as a system for which the social functions have to be neutralized.
Discourse analysis works directly on the division of symbolic work and, depending upon
the approach, there are no speaking subjects who are socially abstract, and who speak
English, for example, with negligible heuristic variations. There are instead people who,
according to predetermined pragmatics, speak in Episcopal pastoral letters, in homilies, in
day-to-day tabloid discourse, in union propaganda, in bar room lingo, in judicial language,
and so forth.
Most contemporary researchers seem to be in accord with the fact that social discourses,
things said, arent neutral or innocent, that The Marquis went out at five oclock is not
any less ideological than France for the French; there is, therefore, no utterance (symbol,
order, socially-regulated gesture) for which we cant show the cultural arbitrariness that
stands behind and that we cannot therefore relate to stakes and interests, to values that are
related to the society to which they belong, and for that reason that we cannot renounce
as functioning with an eye toward the imposition of some kind of power.
There are many reasons to complain about the abundance of reflections made about language in the last thirty years. We nevertheless need for all researchers in literary studies and
social sciences to become sensitive to the particularity and the materiality of discourse,
to what is considered, by those who are concerned with the social and the historical, its
literally unavoidable nature. Many researchers examine discursive exchanges, or the pages
upon which they work, in order to find information, data about the empirical world,
about the world of which the text speaks, without realizing that the text (or the recording)
in question is a tapestry of words, expressions, manners of saying things, jargons, styles, and
strategies designed to convince or narrate what is not evident, what is not either universal nor natural, what is, in short, typical of a given institution, culture, social, or socio-sexual
identity, for which the speaker or writer is at a given moment a representative. Few researchers grasp the degree to which we can uncover, in the manner of saying, an order
of socio-historical facts from which information and data are in fact inseparable.
See Angenot and Robin,Linscription du discours social.
Claude Duchet, criture et dscriture de lhistoire dans Bouvard et Pcuchet, in Flaubert
loeuvre (Paris: Flammarian, ), .
In response to the question What does literature know?, we can ask a more troubling
question: Why does literary criticism in most of its manifestations seem to be organized

t h e ya l e j o u r n a l o f c r i t i c i s m

04.angenot

11/10/04

12:08 PM

Page 231

so as not to know that it fetishises the pure text, that it is hypnotized by the frme
(Bridoison), that it demands of literature that it be placed in the service of true ideas or
civic programs? In these extremes, by default or by excess, it is always what literature can
do and what it knows (and by extension what it cannot do and what it doesnt know) that
is denied, blotted out, or underestimated.
I refer to the the simplistic anti-clerical philosophy of the pharmacist M. Homais in
Flauberts Madame Bovary.
The word skepticism may displease some people, depending upon how it is interpreted.
Duchet, .
Tristan Corbire, Les amours jaunes (Paris: Gallimard, ), .

marc ang e not