Narrative Democracy in 20th– and 21st-Century British Literature and Visual Arts”

SEAC 2018 conference

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès

October 18-19, 2018



“[A] democratic society […] feels that it needs its intellectuals and artists precisely for the dissident functions they are often apt to pursue”

(Bradbury 119)


This conference will consider the aesthetic and literary significance of one of the most recent and challenging concepts that have emerged in this theoretical frame: narrative democracy. Many recent works have examined the interactions between art and democracy, be it the way the latter sheds light on the fictitious component of politics (Badiou 1985, 17), or its pivotal role in Jacques Rancière’s régime esthétique (Rancière 2000, 15) and the structural similarities between its littérarité and the disruptive agenda of democracy (Rancière 1998, 126). In Modernism and Democracy, Rachel Potter looks at the cultural context of democracy so as to suggest innovative critical frameworks to assess the ideological and political links between democracy and literature. Nelly Wolf’s seminal work in Le Roman de la démocratie distinguishes between “la démocratie du roman” and “la démocratie de roman” (Wolf 42), and argues that the links between democracy and the novel form pertain to modernity: the novel, as the “egalitarian genre” (23), reorders the world and language itself (47), reinvents realism and becomes democratic when blurring the lines between individual and collective choices (75). Wolf analyses Flaubert’s writing but also Virginia Woolf’s (154), and concludes: “Or un livre est voué au malentendu, puisqu’il est voué à l’interprétation. Ce retour du malentendu, c’est le retour d’une certaine démocratie interne au roman. C’est la littérature qui insiste, contre l’idéologie” (195). The 2016 issue of Communications, entitled “Démocratie et littérature”, is another invaluable source for this conference, particularly when the authors view “l’individualisation de la parole et du discours littéraires comme symbole de l’autonomie de l’individu démocratique” (Communications 7).

Once again, Rancière paved the way for this reflection with his work on Flaubert’s obliteration of any literary message and opening onto democratic equality (Rancière 2000, 16). In Le Spectateur émancipé, he writes: “Le roman moderne a ainsi pratiqué une certaine démocratisation de l’expérience”, and connects this to his redefinition of fiction (Rancière 2008, 72). In the wake of Paul Ricœur’s notion of “narrative identity”, and Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s arguments in Multitude, Pierre Rosanvallon has coined the phrase “narrative democracy” in order to better understand the political and sociological contradiction of democracy as “a society of individuals” (Rosanvallon 26; Boxall 2013, 191). In our new era based on “an individualism of singularity” (Rosanvallon 21), individual experiences matter more than ever and lead to new “democratic expectations” (22). This is when narration comes forth so as to validate individual experiences and build up new forms of commonality thereon. Narrating one’s singularity renews democracy. In the last pages of Le Parlement des invisibles, Rosanvallon explores the democratic function of literature, as one individual medium among others, in reinventing a plurality of voices and experiences (50)—another cogent premise to this conference. To Guillaume Le Blanc, though there must be such a democracy of voices (Le Blanc 2011, 206), it should be supplemented by what he calls the “democratic hypothesis”, “qui affirme le commun malgré tout” (Le Blanc 2014, 8): “Je nomme hypothèse démocratique l’idée que la contestation des normes du commun est justement ce qui rend le monde encore plus commun” (27). Le Blanc advocates a democratic practice of conflict so as to make hitherto meaningless voices, gestures and bodies mean and matter much more (115). Both cinema and the novel must perform such conflict in their respective forms of narrative democracy (22)—which is precisely what this conference will investigate.

We will analyse the concept of narrative democracy around three main axes: what are its formal and aesthetic potentialities and meanings? Can it turn into an innovative critical tool? (How) Is it tailored for the study of 20th– and 21st-century British literature and visual arts? Le Blanc reminds us of the American origin (among others) of narrative democracy (Le Blanc 2014, 23)—are there special forms of British narrative democracy? Must we try to further define the concept when discussing British works? Should it be the case, it may for instance be worth returning to the initial meanings and aesthetic implications of democracy. In Styles, Marielle Macé offers a fresh perspective on the semantic but also theoretical connections of the word with the ideas of conflict, contact, visibility, uncertainty, anxiety and plurality. Thomas Docherty’s Aesthetic Democracy analyses how democracy is both founded and conditioned by aesthetics: “it is in art and in aesthetics that we find a privileged site or a paradigm of the very potentiality of selfhood that establishes this democratic condition” (Docherty xviii). How does individualism collide with the democratic challenges but also limitations? How does the literary form perform these ambiguities of democracy?

Other recent theoretical concepts may be investigated, such as Anthony Giddens’s “pure relationship” as “the promise of democracy” (Giddens 188), Judith Butler’s ethics of cohabitation and coalition, Cynthia Fleury’s emphasis on subjectivation (Fleury 13), Michaël Fœssel’s philosophical interrogation of contemporary democracy, and Pierre Zaoui’s work on discretion as “the most accomplished form of democracy” (Zaoui 30): “Une société vivante et démocratique est une société où chacun peutdevenir visible, être reconnu dans ses droits et sa dignité, et où chacun doit se garder régulièrement de l’être pour laisser un peu de place aux autres et au monde” (119). Rancière’s writings on democracy as both politics and aesthetics will undoubtedly be another fruitful starting point, for instance when he writes: “La démocratie fictionnelle met alors en œuvre une forme bien spécifique d’égalité : l’égalité des phrases dont chacune porte le pouvoir de liaison du tout, le pouvoir égalitaire de la respiration commune qui anime la multitude des événements sensibles” (Rancière 2014, 34).

To study “democracy as an essentially textual and symbolic creation” (Gustafson 604) in a British context, participants may for instance develop new perspectives on naturalist novelists and their work on the ordinary; on the supposedly apolitical and antidemocratic modernist novel; on the democratising process perhaps at work in the anger of the 1950s novel; on postmodernist playfulness as challenging democratic aesthetics; on the humanist celebration of the individual in contemporary fiction as a democratic enterprise. In the wake of Richard Dellamora’s study of democracy in the Victorian novel, Janice Ho’s work in Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel offers many insightful such examples (particularly on Forster, Woolf and Bowen) which could help us question narrative democracy. Others can be found in Against Democracy, in which Simon During writes that democracy in Howards End emerges through its formal and narrative “resistance to interpretation” (During 120). In Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story, Christine Reynier investigates the democratic quality of the short story in its conversation with other narrative forms (Reynier 133). Her claim that “conversation is a democratic form, a political as well as an ethical and aesthetic space” (89) will help us analyse the short story as a specific form of narrative democracy. For those working on photography, film or TV series, it will be worth remembering Auden’s assertion that “[photography] is the democratic art” (Auden 135), as well as Badiou’s conviction that cinema is the most democratic form of art, allowing for “la popularisation de tous les arts […] la démocratisation en acte des six autres” (Badiou 2010, 383), but also Rancière’s words: “[le cinéma] s’est voulu l’art vivant de l’âge démocratique, l’art qui s’est constitué entièrement dans le contexte de la démocratie du XXe siècle, donc la nouvelle forme esthético/politique par excellence” (Rancière 2009, 104). Finally, we could explore seminal British essays on democracy (Lawrence, Eliot, Forster, for instance) and their relevance when working on aesthetic and narrative forms of democracy.

With a view to unveiling the critical significance of narrative democracy, we will endeavour to further Derrida’s famous assumption, “[p]as de démocratie sans littérature, pas de littérature sans démocratie” (Derrida 1993, 65). “[L]a démocratie reste à venir” (Derrida 1994, 339), and the role of literature is here central to Derrida’s philosophy (Derrida 1972, 166; Communications 129), but also to Rancière’s latest work on democratic aesthetics and its implied redefinition of narrative democracy, precisely as a critical tool: “La révolution démocratique de la fiction n’est pas le grand surgissement des masses sur la scène de l’Histoire. Elle n’en est pas moins fidèle à la définition moderne de la révolution : celle-ci est le processus par lequel ceux qui n’étaient rien deviennent tout. Mais devenir tout, dans l’ordre fictionnel, ce n’est pas devenir le personnage principal de l’histoire. C’est devenir le tissu même au sein duquel—par les mailles duquel—des événements tiennent les uns aux autres” (Rancière 2017b, 152).


In the wake of the latest SEAC conferences, and more particularly of the 2016 conference “Bare Lives: Dispossession and Exposure” (Ganteau 142), the 2018 annual conference will look at “Narrative Democracy in 20th– and 21st-Century British Literature and Visual Arts”. The conference will be convened by the research team CAS (EA 801) and the members of its programme “Constructing the individual and the collective” and of the research group ARTLab (Atelier de Recherche Toulousain sur la Littérature et les Arts Britanniques) working on “Stratégies de l’intime: objets, enjeux, politiques”.

It will be held at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (Toulouse, France), on October 18-19, 2018.


Proposals will be examined by a scientific committee.

A selection of contributions will be published in the peer-reviewed online journal Études britanniques contemporaines(

SEAC website:

CAS website:

Scientific committee: Isabelle Keller-Privat, Sylvie Maurel, Laurent Mellet.

Organising committee: Laura Benoit, Anasthasia Castelbou, Laurent Mellet, Jean-François Tuffier.


Abstracts (300 words + short biographical note) should be sent to Laurent Mellet ( by May 31, 2018.




ARENDT Hannah, De la révolution (1963-1965), in L’Humaine Condition, Paris : Gallimard, 2012, 325-584.  

ATTRIDGE Derek, ed., Jacques Derrida. Acts of Literature, New York/London: Routledge, 1992.

AUDEN W. H., and Louis MACNEICE, Letters from Iceland (1937), London: Faber and Faber, 1966.

BADIOU Alain, Peut-on penser la politique ?, Paris : Seuil, 1985.

—, « Du cinéma comme emblème démocratique » (2005), in Cinéma, Paris : Nova, 2010, 375-388.

BOXALL Peter, Twenty-First-Century Fiction. A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: CUP, 2013.

—, The Value of the Novel, Cambridge: CUP, 2015.

BRADBURY Malcolm, The Social Context of Modern English Literature, Oxford: Blackwell, 1971.

BUTLER Judith, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Harvard: HUP, 2015.

COLLIOT-THÉLÈNE Catherine, La Démocratie sans demos, Paris : PUF, 2011.

Communications 99, « Démocratie et littérature. Expériences quotidiennes, espaces publics, régimes politiques », 2016.

DELEIXHE Martin, Aux bords de la démocratie. Contrôle des frontières et politique de l’hospitalité, Paris : Classiques Garnier, 2016.

DELLAMORA Richard, Friendship’s Bonds. Democracy and the Novel in Victorian England, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

DERRIDA Jacques, La Dissémination, Paris : Seuil, 1972.

—, Passions, Paris : Galilée, 1993.

—, Politiques de l’amitié, Paris : Galilée, 1994.

DOCHERTY Thomas, Aesthetic Democracy, Stanford: SUP, 2006.

DURING Simon, Against Democracy. Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations, New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.

ELIOT T. S., Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948), London: Faber and Faber, 1962.

ELLISON Ralph, “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy” (1967), in John F. Callahan, ed., The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, New York: Modern Library, 1995, 755-765.

FLEURY Cynthia, Les Irremplaçables, Paris : Gallimard, 2015.

FOESSEL Michaël, Le Temps de la consolation, Paris : Seuil, 2015.

—, La Nuit. Vivre sans témoin, Paris : Autrement, 2017.

FORSTER E. M., “What I Believe” (1939), in Two Cheers for Democracy, London: Edward Arnold, 1951, 77-85.

GANTEAU Jean-Michel, The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction, New York: Routledge, 2015.

GIDDENS Anthony, The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies, Cambridge: Polity, 1992.

GUSTAFSON Sandra M., “Equality as Singularity: Rethinking Literature and Democracy”, New Literary History 45:4, “Political Theory”, Autumn 2014, 595-614.

HARDT Michael and Antonio Negri, Multitude. War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), London: Penguin, 2006.

HO Janice, Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel, Cambridge: CUP, 2015.

HONNETH Axel, Le Droit de la liberté. Esquisse d’une éthicité démocratique (2011), Paris : Gallimard, 2015.

LAWRENCE D. H., “Democracy”, in Selected Essays, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950, 73-95.

LE BLANC Guillaume, Que faire de notre vulnérabilité ?, Montrouge : Bayard, 2011.

—, L’Insurrection des vies minuscules, Montrouge : Bayard, 2014.

MACÉ Marielle, Styles. Critique de nos formes de vie, Paris : Gallimard, 2016.

MALLET Marie-Louise, dir., La Démocratie à venir. Autour de Jacques Derrida, Paris : Galilée, 2004.

NANCY Jean-Luc, La Communauté désœuvrée, Paris : Christian Bourgois, 1986.

—, La Communauté affrontée, Paris : Galilée, 2001.

—, Vérité de la démocratie, Paris : Galilée, 2008.

—, Être singulier pluriel (1996), Paris : Galilée, 2013.

—, La Communauté désavouée, Paris : Galilée, 2014.

OZOUF Mona, La Muse démocratique. Henry James et les pouvoirs du roman, Paris : Calmann-Lévy, 1998.

POTTER Rachel, Modernism and Democracy, Oxford: OUP, 2006.

RANCIÈRE Jacques, La Chair des mots. Politiques de l’écriture, Paris : Galilée, 1998.

—, Le Partage du sensible. Esthétique et politique, Paris : La Fabrique, 2000.

—, La Haine de la démocratie, Paris : La Fabrique, 2005.

—, Politique de la littérature, Paris : Galilée, 2007.

—, Le Spectateur émancipé, Paris : La Fabrique, 2008.

—, Et tant pis pour les gens fatigués. Entretiens, Paris : Amsterdam, 2009.

—, Le Fil perdu. Essais sur la fiction moderne, Paris : La Fabrique, 2014.

—, En quel temps vivons-nous ?, Paris : La Fabrique, 2017a.

—, Les Bords de la fiction, Paris : Seuil, 2017b.

—, et al.Démocratie, dans quel état ?, Paris : La Fabrique, 2009.

REYNIER Christine, Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

RICŒUR Paul, Temps et récit 3. Le temps raconté, Paris : Seuil, 1985.

ROSANVALLON Pierre, Le Parlement des invisibles, Paris : Seuil, 2014.

SAID Edward W., Humanism and Democratic, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

SCHNAPPER Dominique, La Démocratie providentielle, Paris : Gallimard, 2002.

—, L’Esprit démocratique des lois, Paris : Gallimard, 2014.

WOLF Nelly, Le Roman de la démocratie, Saint-Denis : Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 2003.

ZAOUI Pierre, La Discrétion. Ou l’art de disparaître, Paris : Autrement, 2013.