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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Serious Play: Formal Innovation and Politics in French Literature from the 1950s to the Present

  • Author(s): Gabel, Aubrey Ann
  • Advisor(s): Lucey, Michael
  • et al.

Serious Play: Formal Innovation and Politics in French literature from the 1950s to the present investigates how 20th- and 21st-century French authors play with literary form as a means of engaging with contemporary history and politics. Authors like Georges Perec, Monique Wittig, and Jacques Jouet often treat the practice of writing like a game with fixed rules, imposing constraints on when, where, or how they write. They play with literary form by eliminating letters and pronouns; by using only certain genders, or by writing in specific times and spaces. While such alterations of the French language may appear strange or even trivial, by experimenting with new language systems, these authors probe into how political subjects—both individual and collective—are formed in language. The meticulous way in which they approach form challenges unspoken assumptions about which cultural practices are granted political authority and by whom. This investigation is grounded in specific historical circumstances: the student worker-strike of May ’68 and the Algerian War, the rise of and competition between early feminist collectives, and the failure of communism and the rise of the right-wing extremism in 21st-century France. Analysis of pronominal subjects in Perec and Wittig shows how they interrogate power struggles during May ’68; both authors imagine shared textual production as the bedrock of new political communities. Moving into the 21st century, Jouet stages various “bad” communists, in order to pay tribute to dying communist communities and to unpack the ongoing legacy of communism’s collapse. In the end, formal play offers an antidote to 20th- and 21st-century crises of community by creating virtual communities through the text itself.

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