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  • New Ekphrastic Poetics
  • Susan Harrow

Why ekphrasis? Why now?

The ‘visual turn’ has been foundational and formative for literature studies, for word-and-image research, and, increasingly, for cultural studies, including Thing theory.1 Over the past twenty years researchers across the broad modern period in French studies have engaged in the innovative study of visual–verbal relations, with particular emphasis on literary impressionism, avant-garde poetics, Surrealism, and the nouveau roman.2 Discipline-defining work by Hal Foster on Surrealism’s death-bound beauty in literature and art, and by Mieke Bal on reading Proust visually, has complemented Derrida’s work on the displacement of the traditional boundaries between art and theory, Foucault’s assessment of the significance of Manet for twentieth-century non-representationalist art, and Michel Butor’s engagement with intermedial art from words-in-painting, through textual–visual boundaries in the study of Montaigne, to collaborative [End Page 255] practice (cascades of livres d’artistes) with painters from Pierre Alechinksy to Jasper Johns.3

As the visual turn becomes more pronounced (becomes a swerve?) in the academy, so it is producing changes in institutional infrastructure and nourishing collaborative research and advanced-level teaching.4 Increasingly, the mainstreaming of visual culture studies as an invigorated interdisciplinary area capable of reaching out to diverse audiences within and beyond the academy is achieving recognition, forging partnerships, stimulating outreach, and influencing funding allocations in French and francophone studies in the UK. Challenging unitary constructions of ‘French’ art, the Arts Council-funded project ‘Channel’ (University of Sheffield, 2006) involved contemporary artists from France, Algeria, and Quebec (Djamel Tatah, Valérie Jouve, Natacha Lesueur) in a multicultural, multimedia exploration of themes of nomadism, migration, and settlement.5 More recently, the project ‘Post-Colonial Negotiations: Visualising the Franco-Algerian Relationship in the Post-War Period’ (2008–2011), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), has begun to map the visual mediation (through film, video, photography, and television) of the relationship between the two nations.6

Significantly, the visual turn is extending disciplinary parameters and encouraging migration between specialisms traditionally seen as divergent, even distinct. While postcolonial literary studies has long ceased to be a disciplinary adjunct to contemporary French studies, research in postcolonial visual culture is only now exploring the interconnectedness of French and wider francophone cultures.7 This special issue of French Studies highlights fresh territories of the visual in postcolonial and travel literature through the prisms of Albert Memmi’s écriture colorée and Nicolas Bouvier’s iconotextual creativity. Beyond this — and it is one of the conspicuous findings of our collaborative project — tropes of migration, bilingualism, [End Page 256] territory, hybridity, and hospitality enter into dialogue with modernist and postmodernist writing in French by Henri Michaux, Heather Dohollau, and Bernard Noël. Thus the five readings that make up this issue reveal a deeper connectedness between the tropes of postcolonial thought and certain visual preoccupations of metropolitan French literature. Individually and collectively, they work towards a more reciprocal relationship, one whose discernible horizon is a fully integrated French–francophone studies. We invite the reader (and the viewer) to assess, through these five studies of modern and contemporary writing in French, the potential scope and significance of a new ekphrastic poetics.

Contemporary ekphrastics — the study of the modes whereby texts engage with visual culture — informs the sequence of readings in late modern and contemporary writing offered here. The impact of ekphrastics on French and francophone studies is pervasive, yet oddly muted: while the pertinence of this interdisciplinary field is real, its contribution often goes unacknowledged, save for intermittent references to the work of W. J. T. Mitchell or James Heffernan. Yet contemporary ekphrastics has much to teach us about intermedial mobility (and the lack of it), modes of viewing, text-as-process, performativity, the writerliness of the visual object, the visuality of text; in short, it can sharpen our focus on all the components of what one might term (reworking Lejeune’s term in autobiography studies) the ‘visual–textual contract’ (which implies the breaking as much as the making of that contract). Just as this special issue responds to current debates in ekphrastics, understood both as reflection on theory...


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