Jacques Rancière believes that the genre of fiction encompasses more than just stories conjured up by novelists and sold along the shelves of bookstores. For him, fiction represents “a practice of presentation that makes things, situations and events perceptible,” a combination of sensory imagery and action that creates a dynamic story.
A renowned French philosopher, Rancière — whose work with literary analysis, aesthetic theory and philosophy have received critical acclaim — lectured on “Telling, Showing, Doing: The Poetics and Politics of Fiction” Wednesday evening. He spoke on the evolution of fiction writing and its implication for both novels and other modes of discourse, such as political or social dialogue.
The Department of French and Italian sponsored the event, which was free and open to the public.
Following an introduction by Claire Nouvet, an associate professor of French who spearheaded efforts to coordinate the event along with Professor of French, Philipe Bonnefis, Rancière began to discuss the rise of what he called the “modern novel,” drawing examples from various writers, such as Virginia Woolf, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert.
In order to construct a novel that does not fall flat as merely the description of a series of events, a novelist must incorporate sensory imagery that reflect the “perceptions and affections which are the real form of manifestation of life,” Rancière said.
“The problem is to reconcile the luminous halo of life and the organic link of the fiction with a beginning, a development and an end,” Rancière said. “This also means a story of wills, actions, successes and failures.”
According to Rancière, when writing fiction, novelists must pay close attention to detail — particularly to the physical and emotional sensations that each character experiences — in order to drive the plot forward successfully.
“Such is the essence of ‘modern fiction’,” he remarked. “It is an arrangement of the relationships between the perceptible and the sayable [sic] — a rearrangement that entails a jump between heterogeneous regimes of the sensible.”
Rancière cited Flaubert as having mastered this technique of fiction writing, which uses seemingly innocuous sensory details to make any action or story progression seem more realistic, in certain scenes of his novel, Madame Bovary. He recounted one scene in particular, during which the female protagonist smells “a perfume of vanilla and citron” which evokes “memories of old desires.”
“Like grains of sand, [the memories] get mixed with the sweetness of the perfume,” Rancière commented during the event. “This is how a continuum of sensations is turned into a cause and makes for the success of the causal chain.”
In an April 23 University press release, Elissa Marder, the chair of the Department of French and Italian as well as an associate professor of French, cites Rancière’s work as revolutionary in that it “crosses the boundaries” of several different disciplines of contemporary thought such as “history, psychoanalysis, cinema and contemporary art.”
According to Nouvet, Rancière’s works show that he possesses “the acute vigilance of someone who refuses to be reconciled with the state of things,” mentioning that his work in literature — whereby he has found innovative methods of writing and interpretation — especially reflects this vigilance.
“[He contributes] to the possibility of what is thinkable, perceptible and therefore possible,” Nouvet said. “He has, quite simply, reconfigured the theoretical landscape.”
Rancière, who serves as a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris at St. Denis, has authored several books on philosophy, literature and politics.
His most recent works include “The Politics of Literature” and “Staging the People: The Proletarian and His Double.”
— Contact Stephanie Fang