5 | 2020
Unmoored Languages

This volume explores the complex relations developing between a literary text and the world beyond the representational function. Not content to capture, narrate or describe the existing world, writers keep creating autonomous worlds and inventing new languages to account for yet unmapped territories and experiences. As the materiality of language and its poetic quality come out, the sounds, rhythms and visual effects of the text become living milieu rather than material or simple instruments subordinated to thought. Though the effect first produced upon the reader may well be of strangeness or obscurity, such unmooring of language warrants a valuable extension of language likely to bring back to the reader buried, unsuspected emotions and aesthetic experiences, should she be willing to adopt an open type of reading, more fluid than the automatic system of conventional associations on which reading largely relies.

In this collection, writers and literary scholars from the U.S. and France focused on the nature of the mutations to which unmoored language is submitted, as well as on the various ways in which the text makes sense in spite of all. How to describe that which exceeds language rather than avoid the confrontation by relegating it into the vague category of the ineffable? Throughout, literary, linguistic or philosophical analyses have as their horizon the vision of language reflected by the unmoored text, as well as of the relations between language and the world.

5 | 2020


Anne-Laure Tissut et Oriane Monthéard

Texte intégral

1Obviously a literary text does not entertain with the world a simply representational relation– although one should immediately amend such a statement, for representation is never quite so simple. To some authors writing is an opportunity not to capture nor to narrate the world but rather to create autonomous worlds; however, the latter always are to some extent influenced by their concrete environment, close by or farther away. As writers launch into the exploration of aesthetic and emotional virgin territories, yet unmapped by literature, they have to invent new languages to account for unheard of situations and experiences. Such is the case of Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, Rob Stephenson, Blake Butler, Guy Davenport, Laird Hunt or Percival Everett, as well as, though less ostensibly, of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Karen Tei Yamashita or Steve Tomasula.

2In these works, both the writer’s and the reader’s experiences are above all language experiences, since the text sometimes seems to generate itself, through likenesses, filiations, or other relations of kinship, to the point of apparently no longer referring to anything but texts – be they other works in literary history, other texts by the same author, or other passages from the same text. The materiality of language comes out. The sounds and rhythms or even visual effects of a text become living milieu rather than material or simple instruments subordinated to thought. Though the effect first produced upon the reader may be of strangeness or obscurity, if not hermetism, such unmooring of language actually warrants the valuable extension of language.

3Thus unmoored writing calls for an “unbinding” or “loosening” type of reading1, whose modalities recall those of psychoanalytical listening. According to André Green, such reading “follows the threads in the text but refuses the main, leading one that is being put forward by the text” so as to allow traces of an unconscious discourse to emerge from the conscious one. “[…] The eye passes over them without stopping, but the reader’s unconscious perceives and records them. […] The analyst starts from the traces that were left for his eyes to see –he listens, but reads not the text, which he rather unbinds or loosens.” Such a loose or floating way of listening, which according to André Green “comes to double rigorous reading”, is one of the aspects of unmoored language broached in this collection.

4Often, as the text is taken away from the function of representation, the poetic dimension emerges, not only in the texts acknowledged as belonging to the genre of poetry, but also in prose. While such materiality of language has been acknowledged as one of the main operative principles in poetry, does it acquire specific forms in fiction? Then in what ways does a novel differ from a poem, other than in terms of length?

5Throughout, literary, linguistic or philosophical analysis has as its horizon the vision of language reflected by the unmoored text, as well as of the relation between language and the world. One may wonder whether the unmoored text is able to multiply the possible relational modalities, thus increasing the reader’s strength2.

6In the course of the “Unmoored languages” international conference, held at the University of Rouen on November 3rd and 4th 2016, a gathering of writers and literary scholars from the U.S. and France explored those questions, focusing on the nature of the mutations to which language is submitted, as well as on the various ways in which the text makes sense in spite of it all. How can the reader appropriate the “remainder”, as theorized by Jean-Jacques Lecercle, and still find meaning in the apparently meaningless text? The question was raised of how to describe “that which exceeds language without bringing about any surrender to the ‘ineffable’, the unsayable’, the ‘undescribable’, the ‘untranslatable’, in a word, to ‘mystery’” (Laplantine, page 9). Every once in a while, rather than staying apart from the reader, unmoored writing is better able to develop deep links with her, thanks to its capacity to bring up, bring back and bring out buried, unsuspected emotions and aesthetic experiences, all of a sudden turned oddly familiar, like a (false) déjà-vu.

7In “Trans(positions)(mutations)(formations)itionˮ, artist Rob Stephenson offers a performative piece that both enacts unmooring and reflects over its effects and possibilities.

8While sharing his experience as a creator “– this same thing is always happening – when I make music or write or make images – an unawareness made up of creeping mutation or development is always at work – transitioning” Stephenson takes us on a rambling, maybe a flâneur’s walk through various artworks–Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent–and essays-Jean Baudrillard’s Fragments–, commenting upon landscape gardening, video games and relationships. His meditative piece challenges categories and habits to offer a poetic experience suggesting that transition is the very essence of living and thinking.

9Then Tom Byers’ paper, “Weighing Anchors: The Pleasures of Readers”, launches the discussion with a thorough exploration of the call for papers. By allowing the linguistic, philological and even sensorial implications of the topic– “Unmoored Languages” –to unfold, Tom Byers’ paper opens out a wide field for further investigations while drawing a map of reading pleasures. Weighing the pros and cons of unmoored literary texts, Tom Byers launches on a poetic meditation on reading, writing, and the always intensely subjective, and sometimes unfathomable motivations for reading as well as gains from reading. A fluctuating graph develops of the reader’s variously loose rational relations to the text in their close correspondence to the reader’s desire and imaginative involvement in the reading act.

10In “Lectures de la déliaison dans The Flame Alphabet de Ben Marcusˮ, Monica Manolescu explores the double nature of language in Ben Marcus’s novel, between destruction and creation. After a theoretical review on the notion of “unmooringˮ, Monica Manolescu indeed offers to read The Flame Alphabet against its premises, thus unmooring the stated destroying potentials of language from its performative, creative powers. This iconoclastic meditation on language is shown to be the ambiguous sign of a creative practice that keeps defining itself anew while exploring the potentials of the letter.

11Stéphane Vanderhaeghe, in his Tentative d’approche d’une fiction spéculativeˮ, examines speculative fiction as a form of unmooring, insofar as it moves away from the mimetic to takes itself as its own object. Punctuated by quotations by Blake Butler, Joshua Cohen and Ben Marcus, this paper is a poetic meditation exploring the contradictions inherent in speculative practices while pondering over its own modalities. More specifically this creative piece reflects upon the links it creates with the speculative text which concomitantly strives to sever all such hermeneutic connections. Stéphane Vanderhaeghe’s paper offers and actually enacts alternative modes of relating to speculative texts, which will not be read in any conventional sense and might have instead to be speculated.

12Three students of the University of Rouen wrote and presented responses to Rob Stephenson’s work. Léopold Reigner invents a playful, creative dialogue between Rob Stephenson’s Passes Through and Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America to show how reading two different texts at the same time may create one singular text in the reader’s mind. Mélissa Richard chose to enhance the kinship between Rob Stephenson’s Passes Through and Walt Whitman’s poem “Think of the Soul”, in terms of the poetic persona’s sense of universality and individuality, as well as his insistence upon the sensorial. As to Sarah Boulet, she composed a text by weaving together excerpts from Stephenson’s work and Shelley Jackson’s, so as to bring out the parallels that struck her between the two artists’ productions and manners.

13In her article “Lost in Translation: Figures de la déliaison dans Leaving the Atocha Station de Ben Lerner”, Paule Lévy analyses Ben Lerner’s novel as an ironical Künstlerroman that questions the very possibility of poetry in the postmodern world. The narrator, a young American poet finding himself in Madrid in 2004, seems to move about in a state of detachment from his surroundings, which is only worsened by his difficulties to communicate in the foreign language. From this near impossibility, the novel points towards other modalities of meaning, rising from the point of rupture between signifier and signified. While the novel apparently praises detachment, it also ironically sheds light on the poet’s narcissistic imprisonment and questions both the possibilities and limitations of representation and unmoored forms of expression.

14In “Jazz Mislaid Jazz: Rhythm has No Boundaries”, Judith Roof daringly brings together jazz music, Stein’s work and Beckett’s, as relying all on unmooring practices to let unheard-of potentials soar. Itself escaping classification, Judith Roof’s creative piece boldly, poetically enhances the musical and more largely sensorial qualities that allow language to touch and move. As the reader progresses along this performative text, meant to suggest an improvisation in some parts but relying on sophisticated structures, she experiences the instability in language that conveys both vital energy and the precariousness of our mortal condition– “most soulful music leads away from soul to lead to it, omits to elicit, deprives to feel, but never in these terms, no loss and gain, no minus and plus, but says all in letting us know it is holding back that there is more unsaid than said more felt and that there is yet more to say.”

15In “Unmoor your thinking for an instantAutoannotation et déliaison dans The Mezzanine (Nicholson Baker) et Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (D.F. Wallace)”, Yannicke Chupin studies the use of footnotes, a self-reflexive practice that has recently been reevaluated in American contemporary fiction. Writers such as Nicholson Baker and D.F. Wallace consider footnotes not as a mere marginal zone submitted to the purposes of the narrative, but as a potentially independent writing locus. Though closely related to the body of the text they comment upon, footnotes bring in visual and narrative discontinuity. In works where they abound, they also provide the narrator with a secondary narrative path through which his/her inner voice seems to free itself from the discursive constraints governing the primary text. In Baker’s novel and Wallace’s short stories, Yannicke Chupin analyses how oppressed narrators resort to footnotes to escape the tyranny of social and linguistic rules, “unmoor their thinking” and take refuge in imaginary worlds where censorship is banned. When the presence of footnotes becomes overwhelming, the annotations tend to generate an autonomous narrative thread that challenges the conventional hierarchy between text and paratext. Meaning is then largely produced by the tension between them and by the presence of a self-analysing voice-over engaging a private dialogue with the reader.

16Melissa Bailar’s article, “Lipogrammatic Criticism: Inspirations from La Disparition is a formal tour de force, as it is bound by the same linguistic constraint George Perec submitted to in La disparition, which allows her to experience the challenges Perec and his translators have faced. Along with its experimental dimension, this paper discusses how lipograms can generate “fictional, translational and critical originality”, or how, in other words, a formal constraint occasions the invention of a sub-language governed by its own laws. Melissa Bailar first examines how the novel’s narrative is determined by the missing symbol, since this loss affects the hero, whose life consists in avoiding any object or word evoking / including the letter ‘e’. Moreover, abiding by this orthographic rule necessarily frames the narrative’s unfolding of events, which accounts for much of the work’s whimsical humor. Now such a strict limitation is certainly stimulating to translators, as evidenced by the many and multilingual versions of La disparition. Among these, the translations that reveal typically “Oulipian linguistic agilities” display the most impressive translation strategies – “twist”, “tricks”, “roundabout tactics” and “awkward locutions” – and endow language with a new grammar. Melissa Bailar finally reflects on the possibility for critical discourse to benefit from self-imposed writing rules: isn’t “linguistic virtuosity”, by turning critical writing into an “artistic activity”, the suitable language to grasp innovative works such as Perec’s?

17In the next article, “Les formes déliées de Kapow! d’Adam Thirlwell: avatars d’une pensée en mouvement”, Florian Beauvallet explores how Thirlwell invents new modes of writing, reading and representing founded on the logics of un-tying. He first analyses the visual aspect of this highly experimental and “multimodal” work that questions, through graphic instability, the limits of the text as a physical object. Reading codes are also disturbed by the metafictional and digressive narrative structure that seems to be constantly self-(re)producing. Page structure is affected by these decentering and fragmenting playful effects, as paragraphs are deconstructed, distorted or even superimposed. The materiality of the work is further revealed by its “synaesthetic aesthetics”: the graphic layout on the page expresses voice variations and rhythms, a process that is but one example of the novel’s general tendency to suggest unusual connections. Digression, as a verbal form of controlled improvisation, is also crucial to the novel, not only because it contributes to a carefully arranged narrative confusion but also because it urges the reader to reorganize and relate these different threads. The narrative and the reading processes are then driven by a never-ending movement in which time and space seem to be in turn contracted and dilated, folded and unfolded. Multiple possibilities of associations and unexpected collages shape this unconventional novel which is both about unbinding and relating, scattering and assembling.

18Zach Linge’s contribution to this volume, “Theory of/and Original Writing After Deconstruction”, offers both a selection of his poems and an epistolary introduction presenting “the situation out of which [these] poems emerged”. To Zach Linge, making and communicating sense are inseparable, and the ways in which meaning may be addressed determine the “unmoored” quality of his poetry. He reminds the reader of the misleading identity of the poetic or epistolary speaking “I”, necessarily rooted in though detached from the physical individual it originates in. He also ponders on how linguistic constructions may be apprehended outside networks of reference, and yet create a presence of their own that eventually reshapes relations to representation and a reconstructed speaker. Inspired by these reflections, his poetic compositions, as he claims in his introduction, assess the independence of poetic language from reference, experience and the poet as a person while framing the “I” as a poetic “relational construction”.

19In Ré-ancrer la langue ? – ‘Moran’s Mexico: A Refutation by C. Stelzmann’ de Brian Evenson”, Maud Bougerol examines how embedded narratives and a complex array of paratexts in Evenson’s short story confuse the reader and takes her into a disturbing, unfamiliar, even uncanny representation. To do so, she draws on André Green’s idea of how “unmoored writings” require the reader’s participation in the process of re-ordering the text and thus re-anchoring meaning. But what happens when this re-anchoring process is performed by the narrator and how does it affect the reader’s experience? Maud Bougerol first shows how the numerous competing frames and voices in the work–glosses, footnotes, translations, quotations–constantly question narrative authority and reliability. Similarly, the profusion of explanations and details, together with figures of erasure and concealment are used to obstruct the readability of the work. She then analyses how “textual excess”, as a form of proliferation in language and in interpretation, disorients the reader and hampers full access to meaning. Yet by filling in these blanks, the reader may take part in the construction of meaning and re-bind the text to his/her own interpretation. Finally, the metafictional dimension of the text and the way it points to the materiality of language add to the complexity of this work, in which the reader has both to identify and elaborate multiple interpretations.

20Finally Célia Galey’s paper analyses Jackson Mac Low’s The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers (1964) as an intermedial artform, or choreography viewed “from the perspective of performance poetry. Following in the steps of Anna Halprin for instance, Mac Low “redefined the relationship between instruction and performance in non-mimetic terms.” With a special emphasis on the “mutually defining relationship” between the aesthetic and the political in Mac Low’s performance writing, this paper explores the new “distribution of the sensible” thus operated. Through the lens of Rancieran theory the collection is shown to alter “both the author-performer relationship and the social determinations inhering performance practices at large.” Still the limits of Mac Low’s process of subjectifying the performers are acknowledged, as it may have actually proven the irreducible nature of “authorship, authority, and subjection”. It nevertheless invites the spectator to join in the “pla[y] with the shifting nature of all normative patterns” as initiated by Mac low’s “practice-based critique of ubiquitous power dynamics”.

21As a conclusion to the volume, this paper focusing on intermediality confirms how the unmoored text lends itself to translations of all kinds. Thus the singular experience offered to the reader in the original language is created in another language, while arousing a similar dynamics of reciprocal creativity between the common language and the idiosyncratic language invented within its structures.


Bonnefoy Yves, L’Autre Langue à portée de voix, Paris, Seuil, 2013.

Deleuze Gilles, Logique du sens, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1969.

Depraz Natalie et Serban Claudia (ed.), La Surprise à l’épreuve des langues, Paris, Hermann, 2015.

Green André, La Déliaison, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1992.

Laplantine François, Son, Images et langage. Anthropologie esthétique et subversion, Paris, Beauchesne, 2009.

Lecercle Jean-Jacques, The Violence of Language, London & New York, Routledge, 1990.

Pinson Jean-Claude, Habiter en poète, Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 1995.

Prigent Christian, La Langue et ses monstres, Paris, P.O.L., 2014.


1 “Délie” rather than “lit” (“loosens” rather than “reads”), showing a serendipitous closeness in sounds in French.

2 François Roustang evokes the person’s access to « a new relational complex, larger and flexible. The strength that she then feels comes from the fact that she no longer counts on her strength alone but on all the strength imparted from the elaborate and varying network in which she finds herself, letting herself be shaped by it.” Savoir attendre, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2006, p. 35.

Pour citer ce document

Anne-Laure Tissut et Oriane Monthéard, « Introduction » dans « Unmoored Languages », « Lectures du monde anglophone », 2020 Licence Creative Commons
Ce(tte) œuvre est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International. Polygraphiques - Collection numérique de l'ERIAC EA 4705

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Quelques mots à propos de :  Anne-Laure Tissut

Normandie Univ, UNIROUEN, ERIAC, 76000 Rouen, France
Traductrice et professeur de littérature nord-américaine contemporaine à l’Université de Rouen Normandie.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Oriane Monthéard

Normandie Univ, UNIROUEN, ERIAC, 76000 Rouen, France