French Literary History: Cultures of Topology
“French Literary History: Cultures of Topology” is a collaborative project on French literary history whose primary goal is to identify and analyze hitherto unnoticed patterns in French literary history. It does so by focusing on different commonplaces, topoi, and by evaluating these topoi’s historical and esthetical functions and evolution in literature. The projects second goal is methodological and concerns the possibility of developing a viable topological method for literary historiography.
The project consists of one principal investigator, one associate professor, two postdocs and two phd-students. It has a wide range of international collaborators and organizes a series of academic events conferences, lectures, seminars, master-classes etc.
The project started in September 2014 and lasts four years.
The project is intended as an experiment in the genre of writing French literary history. We are approaching French literature through its recurrent commonplaces, or topoi, in the period going from the Renaissance till today. Some situations, some scenes, some figures are historically recurrent in such a manner that they in themselves belong to the history of literature: they are patterns of literary succession, the components of a repertoire — in a literary rhetoric —, they are "something" that literature/authors use for their discourse (in order to persuade, to be plausible, as a mark of credibility, of making recognizable, or as the persistence of a problematic). This holds true, not only for the topoi of Classical and Medieval literature, but also for the modern topoi that the research project seeks to identify.
Compared to their predecessors, these modern topoi seem to a much higher extent to be grounded in an empirical-historical field, that is: in the objects, practices, places, and events of their contemporary culture. It might be the arrival in Paris as a topos, the attempt at finding an invigorating rest outside of the city, the staging of French gastronomy, or the art of gallantry as a model of social behavior.
All of this means that the research project is on the one hand situated in the vicinity of recent developments in the study of the role of 'place' (lieu) in literature and, broader, culture, and that it may on the other hand be considered as a critical continuation of the work of Ernst Robert Curtius. With place studies the project shares its emphasis on the importance of the empirical-historical field — with the topological studies of Curtius it shares the emphasis on the immanent development of literary form.
An important point of difference from the topology of Curtius is this project's insistence upon how the topoi as expressive patterns allow for important changes of content throughout their development. Firstly, the actual topoi and their successive occurrences are embedded within different historical — cultural, social, political, artistic — situations. Secondly, the actual topoi are stylized through aesthetical and rhetorical devices that are equally historical. Our project could be summed up thus: to discover the historical and aesthetical configuration of topoi in French literature from the Renaissance onwards.
Finally, we consider contingency an important aspect of topoi in French literature (the contingent, the non-necessary, as a basic topical principle of literature). Topoi are used to unfold, to explore, to criticize or to negate the dreams, schemes, wills, desires, intentions of literary characters. Through their recurrence the topoi appear conventional and recognizable but in its articulation of the topoi literature inserts divergent, opposing and unconventional elements (that is why talk of ‘contingency’). For instance: as a topos “French gallantry” implies politeness, conversation, diplomacy and general knowledge of codifications of social behavior. In literature these elements can very well be present but alongside them one can be sure to find gallantry’s reverse: irony, silence, loss of tact. French “gastronomy” as a topos implies subtlety, art, authentic regionalism and health but in literature the topos is articulated with its flipsides such as hunger, social ambitions, lack of manners, or provincial bad taste. Literature articulates the backside, the tensions and problems of commonplaces and if the latter could be said to function as identity markers for Curtius their articulation in modern literature reveals cultural difference and cultural non-identity.
The project posits that six cultural phenomena fashion, rioting, gastronomy, gallantry, Paris, intellectualism are neither facts, nor myths but cultural commonplaces. What is a commonplace? In classical Greek and Latin rhetoric commonplaces were called topos koinos/locus communis and were labels for a standardized repertoire of arguments helping to persuade an audience of one’s case. As such, a topos (topoi in the plural) was a conventional “truth” in a given culture, which the audience accepted without having to question it (“a mother loves her child” e.g.). This did not mean that a topos was true in any logical or scientific way; it was credible and probable within the given culture. The rhetoricians constructed an extensive reservoir of topoi as a help to the construction of the most convincing arguments. It is with this notion of topoi as cultural “truths” according to public opinion (doxa), that the project will identify the six cultural phenomena.
As cultural commonplaces these phenomena are used by all kinds of discourses talking about French culture: political discourse, tourism discourse, economic discourse, journalism discourse. All these discourses make relative use of the six commonplaces to identify and make sense of French culture. So does literature. In this way literature is one among many discourses talking about French culture through a specific articulation of the commonplaces. Consequently literature cannot be said to represent these topoi as if they existed in a given shape as an object or as an idea: the topos “a mother loves her child” cannot be represented but it can be articulated and used in many different ways depending on rhetoric, discursive rules and ideology. The same goes for French gastronomy as a cultural topos: it cannot be represented as such, but can be articulated and used in many ways and genres.
The project wishes to analyze the relation that French literature has to this level of cultural commonplaces at different historical moments from the Renaissance until today and posits a third theoretical supposition: French literature holds a constant critical, pessimistic if not downright cynical attitude to its own culture. The project consequently posits that the cultural cynicism of French literature equals an insistence on commonplaces not as cultural identity markers but as problems, as divergence and as discord. French literature holds a history in which markers of national culture such as “gastronomy” or “rioting”, are articulated, not as of markers of identity, but as markers of cultural conflict.