Projet/ Project

The purpose of this project is to stabilize and develop an international scientific network on the topic of Literature and Democracy (XIXth -XXIst centuries): theoretical, historical and comparative approaches, already existing between France, the United Kingdom, Spain and to include Japan, Taiwan, Tunisia and the United States.

The co-operation between the research teams is the result of a previous Programme informally conducted since 2011, and initially founded by CEFC (Hong-Kong), MFO (Oxford), CERC (Université Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle) and CRAL (EHESS), which led to four international conferences in France (2011 & 2012), United Kingdom (Oxford, 2013), and Spain (Madrid, 2015).

The State Of The Question

For more than thirty years, questions around the relationships between literature and democracy have been raised within a specific context, defined by:

a – The fading away of theories of literature which had separated the literary text from its historical and social framework; the importance attached by cultural studies and postcolonial studies to the role of literature in shaping cultural memories and the symbolic imaginary of societies;

b – A new range of questions applied to literature(s) in the humanities and social sciences (political philosophy, moral philosophy, cultural history, sociology of culture, anthropology, etc.) – whether literature is considered as the fully realised example of cognitive frames (C. Ginzburg) and political and moral categories (S. Cavell, M. Nussbaum), as a form of social learning or of social cognition (J. Habermas), as a practical form of knowledge (J. Bouveresse) or philosophy (V. Descombes), etc;

c – A revived interest in the nature of the links between literature and politics (F. Jameson, R. Rorty, C. Lefort, P. Rosanvallon, J. Rancière, E. Balibar, J. Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, Arjun Appadurai, Carol Breckenridege, etc)

d – The emphatic search for new forms of democracy in a large number of countries, from the democratic transitions of the mid 1970s to the Umbrella Movement in Hong-Kong in the fall of 2014.

Literature possesses an agency in the public sphere by virtue of being able to articulate questions arising within the body politic. Literature is further able to articulate these questions against a rich historical, rhetorical and linguistic background. When political questions are taken up by literature, their normative implications – stretching from the domain of state politics to the intimate realm of personal relationships and existential self-questioning, and involving the political significance of language use – are presented as both wide-ranging and historically rooted. The project looks at this agency of literature along two axes: from a rhetorical point of view, in terms of stylistic and generic invention and from a sociological point of view, in so far as literature itself is an institution within the public sphere.

While being attentive to the deep cultural and historical differences between the literary and national traditions considered, the aim of the project is to study: 1) how literature, as a public discourse and a public performance, is constitutive of the collective representations and imaginary of the democratic reality; 2) how literature(s) as an aesthetic and social domain have been transformed if not shaped by the democratization and the liberalization of national states and societies during the last two centuries.

The impact of democracy and democratization on literatures raises broader questions about the nature of literature itself and its role and function in societies, as well as its relation to other parts of the cultural sphere and to the other arts. Is literature essentially private or does it belong to the public realm and therefore legitimately participate in the democratic discourse?

The ambition of the programme is threefold: historical, comparative and theoretical. The network is thus composed of researchers from several disciplines: philosophers, literary specialists, comparatists, historians and sociologists.


From the perspective of this programme, our concept of literature (the discursive institution which takes over from the “Belles Lettres” after 1800 in the ‘Western’ and ‘Western-style’ democracies and nation-states) underscores not only the moment of individual expression but also its institutional practices in the public sphere. Therefore, our concept of literature transcends the expression of private concerns and issues. Like language itself, literature is much more than a private expression: it is above all a public performance. It belongs to the communicative acts that involve the intentional representation of a state of affairs in the world. It is constitutive of institutional reality; it also highlights the role of imagination in creating this reality (John Searle, The Construction of social reality, 1995; Making the Social World, The Structure of Human Civilization, 2010). This institutional theory examines the role of literature as a structural element of the social totality. As a public institution, literature participates in the deliberative process of democracy.


The content of the word has dramatically evolved from the eighteenth century up to now in public rhetoric (Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions. America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850, edited by J Innès and M. Philps, Oxford University Press, 2013). For the purposes of this project, we define democracy, in the wake of pragmatism and deliberative theories of democracies, not only as a mode of government but as a form of society resting on the free circulation of discourses and knowledge, enabling equal individuals to participate in public affairs. Democracy has an “experimental character” (J. Dewey) and is an “endless inquiry” (J. Dunn, Democracy : A History, 2005).

Beyond the events of the last two decades, we see that the idea of democracy in the modern sense has ceased to be a doctrine embraced only in the West and has gained a universal force as a political idea and an aspiration. It has been said that “democracy” has thus become everyone’s slogan: everyone seems to be in favour of it today. The programme will take into account critical voices of what democracy means today, of its so-called excessively deliberative dimension or of its supposed blindness to politics and conflicts.

Comparative approach

The programme focuses on the late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries and pays attention to the central developments of literatures and the language of modern democracy. It endeavours to compare national literary traditions – the nation-state having been the frame for democracy in modern history.

A comparative dimension is essential to understanding the diverse processes through which literature evolved in Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, with relation to the democratization of nation states and societies. It is even more necessary if this relation is to be looked at in contexts in which democracy is an idea that is referred to with varying degrees of urgency. The situation differs when one considers established democracies, new democracies and regimes that are in the process of democratizing or resisting democratic social movements.

It is also all the more important to look at the place literature may occupy in the study of politics and democracy at a time when there is an obvious circulation of ideas between texts belonging to the field of literature and the field of social sciences. Examining democracy is therefore an opportunity for literary studies to develop their own discourse on subjects they have in common with other social sciences.

The novelty of this project lies not only in its comparative dimension but also in the focus of the extra-literary contexts (rhetoric, criminal law, sociology, politics, history). It assumes an interdisciplinary vocation.