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© Patrick O'Donovan 1986–2019

'Learning from contrarians: on Barthes and Certeau'

Is literature’s vocation to be disobedient? This is a recurrent question with regard to modern and contemporary writing, and the responses that it has elicited have a considerable margin of ambiguity. The paper opens with a brief review of successive ways, explicitly or implicitly, in which literature has been thought about with regard to the question of disobedience — as a ‘juridicité subversive’ (Derrida), as an instance of ‘a singular modernity’ (Jameson), as the medium of a ‘desperate vitality’ (Pasolini), as an overt gesture of disobedience (Modiano). Barthes and Certeau followed distinct paths within the same historical and cultural field. One point on which they converge is the espousal of existential risk as an act of disobedience, though they theorize this possibility differently. This is also an aspect of the work of each which has had a considerable influence in the thirty or more intervening years. Beyond a sustained contestation of the category of authority, what connects them is a shared exploration of a discursive practice that, in drawing on the negativity which is for each of them a key dimension of literature, seeks to articulate its claims today to be seen as a certain kind of ‘fable indéterminée’.

  Paper as read (please do not quote)