The Ethics and Poetics of Genre Literature

The ethics and poetics of genre literature
Université Paul Valéry- Montpellier 3, France  –  15-16 March 2013
Deadline for proposals: 15 September 2012
(Source: The European Society for the Study of English)

An international conference organized by EMMA (Etudes Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone) with the support of the Société de Stylistique Anglaise (SSA)
This interdisciplinary international conference, the second  section of the project ‘Ethics & Rhetoric’ within EMMA’s line of research ‘Ethics of Alterity’, will focus on language and ethics in literary genres that depict encounters with alterity.
The situations in which the subject is faced with different or alien beings will be studied namely in novels belonging to the genre of utopia/dystopia, science fiction, fantasy, etc., as the so-called ‘genre literature’ embodies a heuristic model that dramatises and exacerbates encounters with alterity, featuring exotic, subhuman or posthuman beings that defy human knowledge (in SF and fantasy especially). Genre literature has often been regarded as an entertaining or escapist field that does not lend itself to ethical and poetical reflections, limiting itself to a hollow and servile repetition of the genre codes.
Nevertheless, theoreticians of these genres that have not been sufficiently studied highlight their defamiliarizing power through which things can be ‘seen’. This process of defamiliarization is often associated with the stylistic, poetic and ethical force inherent in fiction, but in its attempt at meta-conceptualizing the relationship between language and reality, genre literature seems to problematize and enhance these phenomena by making them more easily perceivable. Thus not resting content with merely questioning the mechanism of estrangement, genre literature explores the confines of readability and the break-point between the readerly and the writerly.
In their desire to represent the Other in all its complexity, writers are indeed confronted with an ethical and poetical aporia: how to describe what escapes Humanity in Human language? In the eyes of its critics, Science Fiction (SF) seems to lean towards the side of the readerly. On the border between total defamiliarization and cognition (Darko Suvin speaks of ‘cognitive estrangement’), SF seems to embody a genre that cannot afford to lose its readers. That may be the reason why extra-terrestrial languages are often filtered by English — crushing down linguistic difference under the weight of a single language that everybody can understand — as in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in which the creole form of English is ironed out through translation. How to represent a world in which the classical pronominal references (she/he) are not relevant anymore since ontology no longer relies on binary distinctions (as in The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin)? Yet certain SF or dystopia writers do manage to stretch out language and readability in their description of an alien situation (Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker might be the best example here). But fantasy can perhaps be construed as the most subversive genre in that matter as it wallows in undecidability and interpretative wavering. In its attempt to reconcile the inexpressible, what is without a name, and the speakable or visible, according to Rosemary Jackson, fantasy delimits a zone of non-signification where the Other cannot be reduced to the self. Should we thus conclude that reaching the breaking point of intelligibility can guarantee the birth of the other in its radical alterity?
Todorov brought to light the difficulty of apprehending alterity in schemes other than the ones we are familiar with, questioning the possibility of mapping the other’s radical difference. The narratives about the Aztecs are among the first illustrations of this tendency to project pre-conceived expectations onto the other: ‘One would seek to transpose it into a familiar cognitive scheme in order to make it understandable and thereby at least partially acceptable’ (Tzvetan Todorov, Les Morales de l’histoire, Paris, Grasset, 1991, p. 41, our translation). Can reducing alterity to the categories of the same or resorting to the other as a foil to reinforce the self (the other being then everything the self is not) be said to be part of the more conservative trend in SF as opposed to more subversive trends of the genre (what Broderick calls allographers along Terry Dowling’s coinage ‘xenographies’) or of fantasy?
Are we condemned to a certain ethno — or anthropo-centrism — an accusation that is launched against the socio-constructionists that contend that our beliefs, desires or intentions are mediated by shared social and normative conventions that have been learnt and internalized in the specific discourse community we belong to — or can the other be ‘known’ to a certain extent while preserving its radical difference? Do tropes have a heuristic power able to change our conception of the world and of others? Is there such a thing as ‘rhetorical ethics’ that could give us access to the other? If, according to Broderick, zeugma and syllepses are characteristic of the poetics of SF, what relationships do these tropes of fusion entertain between self and other? How effective are other figures of speech in their depiction of the Other? Can they be said to be a product of an all-powerful Reason reducing alterity to the same? In La Raison classificatoire, for example, Patrick Tort indeed recalls that the two major classifying systems of human thoughts rely on metaphor and metonymy. Or, on the other hand, can tropes be said to ensure a speculative and prospective exploration, producing ‘scandalous or non-sense effects’ (Rosolato) that are capable of upsetting the classifications through which we have been trained to perceive the world? Can stylistic problems like focalisation or reported speech — that are often a privileged way to access the other’s conceptual schemes — be seen as anthropocentric blows dealt to alterity? Can the other be sketched out through lexical and syntactic inventiveness without its portrait being entirely tamed or harnessed?
The focus on this conference will thus be on the linguistic and poetic means writers resort to in their description of others (rather than be merely thematic). The point is to bring under scrutiny how fiction succeeds (or fails) in its discursive mapping of otherness and what the dialogue it imagines with the other teaches us on language and the human self. What will be explored are the limits of language and the linguistic strategies that are displayed by genre literature to get around this predicament.
This interdisciplinary international conference wishes to attract both literary critics, linguists and stylisticians working on the literature of the English-speaking countries from the 19th to the 21st centuries.

The following themes could be addressed but they are in no way restrictive:

– linguistic representation of alterity
– tropological ethics
– stylistics and genre
– intelligibility and linguistic experimentation
– the speakable / unspeakable
– representation of cognitive structures through focalisation, reported speech, pronominal identification, etc.

Deadline for submission: September 15 2012
Notification of acceptance: November 30 2012
Proposals of around 300 words to be sent to both:

– Maylis Rospide <>
– and Sandrine Sorlin <>

Language of the conference: English