HomePolemicist Writers and Polemical Essays in World Literature

HomePolemicist Writers and Polemical Essays in World Literature

Polemicist Writers and Polemical Essays in World Literature

Écrivains polémistes et essais polémiques dans la littérature mondiale

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Published on Tuesday, June 29, 2021


This conference intends to reflect on the articulation between literature and politics by taking the polemical essay and the polemical writer out of their local and historical anchorage and placing them in the perspective of world literature. Because of its hic et nunc inscription, the polemical essay seems particularly unfit to participate in it, that is, to “circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original” (Damrosch, 2003). And yet, these writers circulate, these writings are translated. What are the consequences on their contentious belonging to the literary domain?


International Conference, 20-22 October 2021 - Bordeaux-Montaigne University


From Léon Bloy, Karl Kraus and Lu Xun, to Kamel Daoud, Arundhati Roy, Jonathan Franzen and Elfriede Jelinek, the figure of the polemicist writer who devotes a part of her or his work to criticizing the political and cultural current events of their time in the periodicals, appears to be beyond time, space, and political stances. In France, this figure can be traced back to the libels and mazarinades of the Ancien Régime, but it has been singularly consolidated since the liberalization of the press, the democratization of education, and the establishment of modern representative regimes (Passard, 2015) also allowing for the “birth of the intellectual” (Charle, 1990). The polemicist writers deploy their “lyrical anger” (Zola on Jules Vallès) towards political or more generally moral commitment (as an Author activist, Arundhati Roy), but also for an anti-intellectualist denunciation (Al-Matary, 2019), or an internal critique of the intellectual field (Kozan, 2017). They regularly publish their reactions to the news, publishing their polemical essays in the press, in reviews and/or volumes (lampoons, columns, editorials, collections...). Being part of the literary field while blurring its borders, the polemicist writer has been distinguished by Gisèle Sapiro (2018) in France at the turn of the twentieth century apart from other types of writers intervening in the public sphere - the notable, the aesthete, and the avant-garde.

This conference intends to reflect on the articulation between literature and politics by taking the polemical essay and the polemical writer out of their local and historical anchorage and placing them in the perspective of world literature. Because of its hic et nunc inscription, the polemical essay seems particularly unfit to participate in it, that is, to “circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original” (Damrosch, 2003). And yet, these writers circulate, these writings are translated. What are the consequences on their contentious belonging to the literary domain?

Main themes

International Variety of the Polemic and the Polemicist

In his diary entry on December 25, 1911, Kafka contrasted the centrality of quarrels and conflicts on literary and political subjects in the literary landscape of the small nations, and the relegation of these to the “cellar” of the great literatures. The very modalities of polemical writing must have different definitions according to the cultures: what happens to the ad hominem argument, a central element of polemical definition in Europe, in those spaces that do not base their traditions in Greco-Roman antiquity? How do the different cultures think about this liminal area between literature, criticism, journalism and politics, according to the place they give to intellectuals (Charle, 1996)? How does the polemicist writer articulate his different social identities, and to what extent is he recognized as part of the literary field? When William Sassine publishes his “Chroniques assassines” from Conakry, he participates in the redefinition of a posture of a committed writer and journalist within a literary field in reconfiguration, at the interface of local and transnational dynamics.

International Circulation and Construction of Genres and Postures?

Works on polemics rooted in historical (Robert, 2003), stylistic (Kerbrat-Orecchioni, 1980), rhetorical or judicial approaches (Declercq & al, 2003; Albert & Nicolas, 2010) and discourse analysis (Angenot, 1982, 2008; Amossy, 2014) have already, marginally, brought out transnational aspects, linked in particular to European religious conflicts and the transmission of ancient or modern models, or even figures, such as Sir Bickerstaff borrowed from Swift by Steele (Lévrier, 2007) and then Paul-Louis Courier. Pascale Casanova (1999) and Franco Moretti (2000) have each shown in their own way that the evolution of novelistic forms makes sense in a hierarchical international space: national literatures are constructed according to the forms in use in the world’s literary centers, according to precise temporalities, and most often through hybridization logics. Do these analyses remain valid for the polemical essay, which a priori don’t circulate much?

Parallel to this global development of the novel, as well as of the press in the nineteenth century (Thérenty &Vaillant, 2010), one can observe, at first glance, a surprising similarity and synchronicity of the forms, postures and the media’s logics of the polemical writer across the globe. Can we affirm with Arundhati Roy that “the globalization of dissent” is underway (Roy, 2020)?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus sarcastically wrote about the “jaccusitis” (from famous Zola’s J’accuse) under which Maximilian Harden, the editor of the Berlin magazine Die Zukunft, was suffering. His own magazine, Die Fackel, mixed foreign inspirations - from Henri Rochefort’s La Lanterne to the Munich Simplicissimus -, and Viennese models, be it the oratory art of the nineteenth-century Burgtheater or the critical feuilletons (Le Rider, 2018). It can be shown how foreign and national “models” intersect or contradict each other, move through hybridization and translation; but one can also observe the definition and elaboration of so-called “national” forms of polemics, the construction of certain features as foreign or national models, to be imitated or rejected. To what extent did they contribute to the emergence of national literatures (Thiesse, 2019)? More structural comparisons could be attempted: is it by homology of positions that Karl Kraus and Lu Xun could be qualified by their contemporaries as one of “Austrian Mencken”, the other of “Chinese Mencken” (Barral, 2015; Kozan, 2017)?

Misunderstandings and Games of Scale

What effect does internationalization have on the polemicist and the polemical essay? Can one continue to be a polemicist in exile, outside one’s country or even outside one’s language? The polemicist is often a master of language, even a critic of it: practicing puns, Witz and linguistic glosses, they resist translation; still the latter can also instrumentalize the violence specific to the polemicist’s text (Samoyault, 2020). Circulating without its context (Bourdieu 2002), the polemical essay is the object of a reappropriation during the transfer from one socio-historical context to another. Certain debates perceived as coming from the United States, on feminism or racism, divide French writers, such as Virginie Despentes on the one hand and a “neo-reactionary” intellectual (Durand and Sindaco, 2015) like Richard Millet on the other. Writing from Algeria, but about a European situation, the writer Kamel Daoud found himself propelled in 2016 to the center of heated debates in France, following an exchange of columns with social scientists (Le Monde, February 10, 2016). In this case, it is also the place of writers in societies, the value of parrhesia and their legitimacy to express themselves on current political events that is at stake.

Internationalization sometimes gives the polemicist writer the dimension of a “dissident” addressing “world public opinion” (Weltöffentlichkeit) at risk of rendering the writer’s initial polemical position illegible (Liao Yiwu, for example, with regard to the exiles of 1989), or of erasing the complexity of local power relations, as in the case of the Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra during the civil war of the 1990s (Leperlier, 2018). Are polemics the preparation, the shadow or the negative of universalist discourses? Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his involvement in Charter 08, was initially the “dark horse” of Chinese literary criticism in the 1980s-1990s: highly polemical towards the memorial culture of his time and deploring the “narrowness of the Chinese intellectual’s horizon” and his lack of access to the universal. The internationalization revives the evaluation of certain works, such as those of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Kaplan, 1987; Kaplan & Roussin, 1994; Roussin, 2005) or of Peter Handke, upon whom “aesthetic” and “moral” judgments clash (Sapiro, 2020). By intervening in the content, the form (collection...), or the paratext, writers (or their successors) as well as intermediaries and cultural mediators contribute to politicizing or, on the contrary, depoliticizing the translated and imported work (Popa, 2010). Just as the polemicist writer’s text can be placed in the spotlight for the interest its subject and polemical stances generate, at the risk of over-politicization, it can also, on the contrary, be “literalized,” that is, considered as literature, when it changes location, language, and scale, at the risk of its depoliticization.

Local Horizons of World Literature

The aim of this conference is to consider the perspectives of theoretical renewal that these untimely figures and writings, swarming in the dodgy area of the extreme local, and their problematic circulation, can bring to theories of world literature, and to our conception of literature in general. We will hold up the mirror of this “refractory and refracting” writing to literature (Denis Labouret, in Declercq & al., 2003).

We will expect case studies (study of works, translations, writer’s trajectory...) as well as proposals for theorizing, mapping or modeling the circulation of polemical essays and polemical writers in history. If the privileged period is the long twentieth century, studies on other periods could be considered. The aim will be to bring together researchers coming from the French studies with researchers specialized on other regions of the world.

Submission guidelines

Deadline: 15th July 2021

Please send an abstract (300 words) and a short bio to celine.barral@u-bordeaux-montaigne.fr & tristan.leperlier@gmail.com. Languages: French and English.


  • Céline Barral (Bordeaux Montaigne University / UR Telem > Plurielles)
  • Tristan Leperlier (CNRS / Thalim)

Scientific Committee

  • Sarah Al Matary,
  • Marc Angenot,
  • Céline Barral,
  • Elara Bertho,
  • Catherine Coquio,
  • Ève de Dampierre-Noiray,
  • Jean-Paul Engélibert,
  • Tristan Leperlier,
  • Franco Moretti,
  • Cédric Passard,
  • Philippe Roussin,
  • Gisèle Sapiro,
  • Marie-Ève Therenty,
  • Laetitia Zecchini.

Keynote: Gisèle Sapiro (CNRS/EHESS)


Al-Matary, Sarah, La Haine des clercs : l’anti-intellectualisme en France, Paris, Seuil, 2019.

Amossy, Ruth, Apologie de la polémique, Paris, PUF, 2014.

Angenot, Marc, La Parole pamphlétaire : contribution à la typologie des discours modernes, Paris, Payot, « Langages et sociétés », 1982.

Angenot, Marc, Dialogues de sourds. Traité de rhétorique antilogique, Mille et une nuits, 2008.

Barral, Céline, Le « tact » des polémistes : Karl Kraus, Charles Péguy, Lu Xun, trois œuvres de polémiste du local au mondial, thèse de l’Université Paris 8, 2015.

Bourdieu, Pierre. « Les conditions sociales de la circulation internationale des idées ». Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, n° 145, 2002, p. 3‑8.

Casanova, Pascale, La République mondiale des lettres, Paris, Seuil, 1999, éd. revue et corrigée 2008.

Chaudet, Chloé, Écritures de l’engagement par temps de mondialisation, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2016.

Charle, Christophe, Naissance des « intellectuels », 1880-1900. Paris, Minuit, 1990 ;

Charle, Christophe, Les Intellectuels en Europe au XIXe siècle. Essai d’histoire comparée, Paris, Seuil, « L’univers historique », 1996.

Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature?, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Declercq, Gilles, Murat, Michel et Dangel, Jacqueline (études réunies par), La Parole polémique, Paris, Champion, 2003.

Durand, Pascal et Sindaco, Sarah, Le Discours « néo-réactionnaire », Paris, CNRS éditions, 2015.

Kaplan, Alice, Relevé des sources et citations dans Bagatelles pour un massacre, Tusson, éd. du Lérot, 1987.

Kaplan, Alice et Roussin, Philippe, Céline, USA. Special issue of South Atlantic Quaterly, 93 :2, Spring 1994.

Kerbrat-Orecchioni, Catherine, Le Discours polémique, Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1980.

Kozan, Aksel, Trois critiques internes du champ intellectuel en Europe : Julien Benda, Karl Kraus et Gilbert Keith Chesterton (des années 1890 à la fin des années 1930), thèse de Sciences Po, Paris, 2017.

Le Rider, Jacques, Karl Kraus. Phare et brûlot de la modernité viennoise, Paris, Seuil, 2018.

Leperlier, Tristan, Algérie, les écrivains dans la décennie noire, Paris, CNRS éd., 2018.

Lévrier, Alexis, Les Journaux de Marivaux et le monde des « spectateurs », Paris, PUPS, 2007.

Liu, Xiaobo, La Philosophie du porc et autres essais, tr. Jean-Philippe Béja, Paris, Gallimard, Bleu de Chine, 2011.

Liu Xiaobo, Vivre dans la vérité, éd. Geneviève Imbot-Bichet, tr. collective, Paris, Gallimard, Bleu de Chine, 2012.

Meizoz, Jérôme, Postures littéraires : mises en scène modernes de l’auteur, Genève, Slatkine érudition, 2007.

Moretti, Franco, « Conjectures on World Literature », New Left Review 1, janv.-fév. 2000, p. 54-68.

Passard, Cédric, L’Âge d’or du pamphlet : 1868-1898, Paris, CNRS éd., 2015.

Popa, Ioana, Traduire sous contraintes : littérature et communisme, 1947-1989, Paris, CNRS éd., 2010.

Robert, Valérie (dir.), Intellectuels et polémiques dans l’espace germanophone, Asnières, Presses de l’Institut d’allemand (Sorbonne Nouvelle), 2003.

Roussin, Philippe, Misère de la littérature, terreur de l’histoire. Céline et la littérature contemporaine, Paris, Gallimard, nrf/essais, 2005.

Roy, Arundhati, L’écrivain-militant, tr. Claude Demanuelli et Frédéric Maurin, Paris, Gallimard, 2003.

Roy, Arundhati, Mon cœur séditieux (My Seditious Heart, 2019), tr. de l’anglais, Paris, Gallimard, 2020.

Samoyault, Tiphaine, Traduction et violence, Paris, Seuil, 2020.

Sapiro, Gisèle, Les Écrivains et la politique en France, Paris, Seuil, 2018.

Sapiro, Gisèle, Peut-on dissocier l’œuvre de l’auteur ?, Paris, Seuil, 2020.

Thérenty, Marie-Eve et Vaillant, Alain (dir.), Presse, nations et mondialisation au XIXe siècle, Paris, Nouveau Monde éd., 2010.

Thiesse, Anne-Marie. La Fabrique de l’écrivain national. Entre littérature et politique, Paris, Gallimard, 2019.


  • Université Bordeaux Montaigne, Domaine Universitaire, 1 - 9 esplanade des Antilles
    Bordeaux, France (33)


  • Thursday, July 15, 2021


  • polémique, essai, chronique, postures, littérature mondiale, sociologie du littéraire


  • Céline Barral
    courriel : celine [dot] barral [at] u-bordeaux-montaigne [dot] fr
  • Tristan Leperlier
    courriel : tristan [dot] leperlier [at] gmail [dot] com

Information source

  • Céline Barral
    courriel : celine [dot] barral [at] u-bordeaux-montaigne [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Polemicist Writers and Polemical Essays in World Literature », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, https://calenda.org/891580

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