Vacarme 40 / cahier

Cadiot’s politics


By doing away with transitory words in order to experiment with the force of the present in literature, by rewriting the text according to a critical project and reconnecting the multiplicity of verbal constructions that make the world hum, by blurring the very body of language: these are some of the ways in which Cadiot’s literature and politics hold together. Francois Cusset takes another look at Cadiot’s recently published Un nid pour quoi faire, which offers the ingredients for a reconfiguration of the sensible [1].

Muffled slide


It is searching between the sounds on the page—their whispering audible from the text itself—to find something capable of expressing a silent convolution swirling to a standstill. In other words, it is finding the right construction that will enable this simple, woolly movement to preserve its multiplicity of referents: a skier at the bottom of a run, a child in socks on a smooth floor, a hooded elf on a cushion of air. These are technical problems for the art of writing that stem from the contemporary reader’s familiarity with these different slides, readers for whom they constitute immediate conscious data, an elementary phrase from teletechnological grammar, inscribed in our imagination by the sporting icons and cartoon scenes that lull our childhood. But does this technical problem still emanate from literature? Does it emanate from politics? More importantly, does the way in which it emanates from one also cause it to emanate from the other, by means of a single articulation? Could this simple slide lead us to rethink two clichés of discourse on modernity (the litany about the “end” of which, and nostalgia for whose struggles, are so rigid in their authority)—literature and politics? Though he might appear not to have touched on it, these are the unorthodox questions with which Olivier Cadiot’s work has, for twenty years, been confronting a bloodless, pale, bloated French literary landscape. Because for Cadiot, it is a question of a tacit relationship—never explicit—between literature as a complete artistic technique and an extended politics understood as a kind polishing up of norms, such as all of the normalised words and perceptions that every subjectivation works either with or against. In a word, it is the opposite of hackneyed biographical or thematic approaches that only connect literature and politics according to contextual motifs, or as part of the Author’s much-vaunted “commitment” to countering the despots of his time. Literature does not do politics only when it discusses it or is inspired by it.

On the other hand, today a certain way of sifting and sorting the most contemporary words and feelings, often the most trivial, is probably producing a literature that is more political, more radically critical, than the surfeit of writer-petitioner texts and novels about power that overfill our bookshops’ shelves. The question Cadiot’s work raises is similar to that raised by Jacques Rancière in a recent book, though Rancière once again dealt only with the modernist corpus, from Flaubert to Mallarmé. Cadiot’s work, especially his last publication [2], allows the problematic set in motion by Rancière to be taken further and tied to our present political and literary climate (even if this has meant twisting and supplementing it). At first glance, Olivier Cadiot’s work, divided between poetry and the novel, between present-day chatter and free-form sprees, seems to illustrate Rancière’s thesis: if literature does politics, it is only as literature, not as a theme or warning, but as a kind of “arrangement of signs” and “decipherment of [our] obscure depths”, achieved by reconfiguring the relationship words have with things and people, connecting a system of meaning to a system of visibility, by modifying what Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible”—by introducing, in this context, “new subjects and objects onto the everyday scene”, “another community of sense and the sensible”, “another everyday world and another population [3]”. Cadiot’s approach, therefore, effectively establishes a new kind of sharing, a new kind of distribution, a new logic of the sensible. It consists of capturing today’s rumblings and reconstructing them, making them skid, boil over, run. It certainly does not involve delineating politics, manifesting that other literary presumption, effective action. As Rancière concluded, taking up an old theme, a common mistake—a Marxist-mechanistic or humanistic-literate one—consists of opposing the fact of interpreting the world to the act of transforming it. It comes down to distinguishing two incommensurable orders, whose relationship is only transitory and vaguely dialectical. Cadiot’s method, like certain others today—Rancière for his part points to examples in the Rougon-Macquart novels and Madame Bovary—consists of re-establishing the rule of a political truth appropriate for literature. This means changing the dominant categories of perception and thought in language itself. It is a whole tactic for creating interpretive space that results in a transformation of our way of seeing and doing things, a disidentification (what Russian formalists called “defamiliarisation”) that in effect modifies the common world, instead of being a metaphor for change.

idiocy, democracy

This means crossing swords with conventional language, the obedient ritornellos and necrotic quotations that fill today’s pages. Rancière speaks of the role children’s songs and proverbs play in the ambitious Rimbaldian “new” language project. According to Cadiot, his own project involves a certain risky relationship—marked by overcrowding and overstatement—with trendy dialects and urban codes: real estate mumbo-jumbo, advertising jargon, the patois of variety tunes. In Cadiot’s work, turns of phrase and abbreviations that belong to “bobo [4]” language have the same effect the fairy tales from Rimbaud’s childhood had on his poetry. They should enable, “in the language’s most hackneyed phrases and the meaningless rocking of counting rhymes, the emergence of that unknown required to create new meaning and a new rhythm of collective life [5]”. A hundred and fifty years and several industrial revolutions later, including those of mass leisure and referential foolishness (the post-modern irony of a connivance from below), the risk involved in embedding the idiocy that surrounds us in the text is even more crucial. When Cadiot risks playing the village idiot, when he taps into the flood of highly inept slogans and references, minimal discursive segments cut up and recombined, he too is asking literature, in the spirit of the Flaubert of Bouvard et Péchuet, to “apply itself, as an idiot, to extracting from idiotic refrains the rhythm of an unknown world where poetry and prose will once again be immediately confounded [6]”. The excessive angelism of Flaubert’s two old bibliophiles becomes a piercing overstatement in the average Cadiot character. The outlandishness from which his literary truth proceeds arises from a tactical extravagance, from a carefully managed supplementary idiocy. But it is also a case of literary democracy rejecting the entrenched separation between poor and legitimate language and “revoking the distinction between men who speak in energeia and men with noisy, suffering voices, between those who act and those who only subsist [7]”, between subjects and objects of the political present—between the heroism of the select few and the anonymous plebeian’s lack of distinction.

In literature, democracy is said to derive equally from the Mallarméan project of “giving a purer meaning to tribal words”—a tabula rasa of the hierarchies and conventions of ordinary language—and from what Rancière calls “that immediate identification of the poetic with the prosaic”. It is a meticulous catapulting of linguistic registers, an inversion of priorities, the interlacing of textual genres and levels of language. These are all shocks that should not leave the socio-political inequality always-already placed in language unscathed. In Olivier Cadiot’s recent “novel”, in which an exiled king attends winter games with his court, when he mentions the “SOS Royalty” service and Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic study The King’s Two Bodies on the same page—that is, a title that could easily belong to a report in Voici magazine and a title that actually does belong to a Céline novel—it is not so much for the efficiency of contrast (a game at which advertisers excel). He is rather using this type of convergence to weave new language. Un nid pour quoi faire, in which a king hires a strategic advisor to “put a little muscle back in his image”, actually revolves around one particular convergence that constitutes a theoretical and political operation of the first order. It consists of taking two self-referential speeches that appear unrelated to one another, one about monarchic rites and one about “PR”, and fitting them into one another, pushing the overlapping of their respective arguments and rhetoric far, to find out if each reveals the other’s secret logic, and if they share a connecting continuity. This is not without previously having slightly “hysterised” them, having stuffed each one (as a lab assistant prepares a mouse before an experiment) with a little extra panic that might imperceptibly topple them behind the facade. It is astounding to observe, on the one hand, how the internal logic of speech in the king’s court, somewhere between rivalry and celebration, always—and not only in their shady chalet—makes it resemble the cesspool of suppressed hatred and putrid remorse that defined the last days of the last Pétainists at the Sigmaringen manor (an apocalyptic in-camera whose face is constantly haunting this story), and on the other hand to see how the overexcited talk about public relations and image enhancement proceeds from an ascent into madness, a flight forward from nothing, and from this nothing’s distressing certainty, which continually motivates them to overstep their own power.

heraldry and media

This slight excess was needed to reveal the psycho-political springs of ultra-pyramidal power on the one hand, and the ontology of advertising on the other, as well as their unexpected complementarity. It must be said that these two systems of logic share a higher madness, something the narrative clearly makes use of. The power of decree has become compulsive, completely disconnected from reasoned links between the needs of the project and what is desired. The king spends his time imagining great works and important reforms but doesn’t bother to implement anything, and the PR advisor is constantly tossing the most ludicrous possibilities into the air hoping a passable idea will emerge. The result is a build-up of “if we did this” and “why not that” which leads to an infantile delirium, a combination of levelled emotional responses and illusions about the omnipotence of desires, something that well and truly reflects how power operates today. As they draw each other out, the speeches about the fleur-de-lis and target audiences, about heraldry and media, shed a harsh light on the staggering ductility and boundless absorptiveness of contemporary domination. The dominator in this case suggests, for example, inventing an “inverted capitalism”, an “etiquette that is low in fat, cooler”, or a complete freedom subject to a comprehensive surveillance system—a delightful variation on the Foucauldian panoptic that the castle implements “inside” a chalet where each person is visible to all. This meeting of the royal and his PR man also reveals how ideological data originating in traditions and secular conflicts are soluble in the advertising bath, the two becoming indistinguishable to the point of vertigo: “I’m becoming conservative because I need a new image, you know what I mean?” the king explains to his advisor.

Thus the importance of the literary operation offered here: associating also means decompartmentalising; mingling already means dismantling a hierarchy. Because in the final analysis, literature ultimately works to establish equality through the infra-world and changes of angle, through unusual juxtapositions and changes of rhythm.

You would think this was precisely the modernist project of the avant-garde, since it rejected the separation of art and life, and collaboration with the defuct powers that prevailed. It opted for a tactical impurity, a plunge into the troubled waters of the present world; magical and chaotic explorations of the social mire, urban prose, market overabundance and industrial trivialities. Pioneering examples of this kind of exploration are supplied by Balzac’s Wooden Galleries in Palais-Royal’s seedy maze, or Beaudelaire’s Madam Panckoucke and her toy shop. However, the question can no longer be formulated in the same terms more than a century later. The contemporary element in literary works cannot not be reduced to the mise en abyme of market chaos, nor to the metonymy of urban rubbish and dreamlike boutiques. It is now a matter for the text’s own coordinates, for the ambiguous language the narrators and characters share. Now the words themselves are trivial, not just the objects they review. Impurity is no longer a localised motif but an all-embracing spirit, pollution is no longer an experiment but the very condition of producing speech, exteriority is no longer represented but invests every part of the narrative. In Cadiot’s work, the text buzzes with a thousand words of our day, a build-up of idio(cadio-?)syncratic formulations, a polyphony of doxa debris and flashes of cliché that are ceaselessly diverging the text, threatening its very composition. Retour définitif et durable de l’être aimé—beginning with this title, in the form of a marabou’s promise at the bottom of a post box—already crackled with Nike and Prada songs and more or less controlled jazz solos (“ouin’mor’taï’m”). It teemed with characters who were typical to the point of becoming atypical, (“the joe who looked like Peter Sellers” or “the woman with her hair in a snow white vertical bun”) and cuttings from the magazines Jours de France or Détective. A flux in which the narrative “I” seemed like an outmoded witness, the classic victim, like the king’s advisor in Un nid, unable to stop the suggestion machine inside him or the Zeitgeist roaring all around him. As Cadiot himself has suggested, everything happens as if the poet had contracted a strange Stockholm syndrome, and was invaded by voices, streaked with slogans, bombarded by passwords, “a hostage given over to the enemy, conquered by other people’s words, ffft, swallowed, vanished”. In this sense, the problem introduced by the PR adviser, who forces himself to “always have ideas”, particularly applies to what is left of the Author after the end of the avant-garde. The author in question never stops admitting that “everything ejects from me”, that he “diffracts [himself] in the details”, or that alas “everything is interesting”; to the point that he risks not differentiating the channels and mixing those low intensity fluxes with a whole other referential geyser, that of the dead giants or some subtle hidden alexandrine—since Nietszche, Deleuze and Mallarmé buzz between the stitches in the text as well.

speed, fragments, body

How do you arrange these heterogeneous vocal influxes, distribute and combine this contemporary noise, cut up and reorganise the accessories of modern life, arrange the whole in a way that respects the discontinuity of its strata and the continuity of its underlying connections? These are the technical (or techno-political) problems Cadiot has been attempting to resolve through literary art since the typographical and intertextual experiments of his first book, ‘L’art poétic’ (1988). Now an accomplished technician, he admits having first sought to deal with these questions by means of oral poetry and the visual artist’s cut-ups. The literary solutions that he has been patiently developing for these structural problems, or that he says he is still in the process of testing, proceed from a triple inflexion, from an effort to draw literature toward three of its boundaries, toward three of its most intimate alter egos: speed, fragmentation and body—by accelerating it, crushing it and incorporating it. First there is what Michel Gauthier rightly called “the speed factor [8]”, a lot of work on irregular beats, paradoxical rhythm, a sophisticated kinetic alternating deceleration and rapid advances, crossing the frontiers between genres simply by varying speed: accelerating the unfolding of the novel in order to lighten the friction produced by its arbitrary verisimilitude, or slowing down the poetic movement by instilling plots and characters.

Next there is the fragmentation strategy and the problems it engenders. It is important to cut without isolating, to separate for the purpose of diverting while still foraging links, and also to confront the enigma of the disjointed unity of time, whether it concerns a slide or a feeling expressed telegraphically (“frozen mind”). It is also important (so not to succumb to it) to introduce the logic of fragmentation in the spirit of what is happening in the text, as something that could fall into the crater separating literature and common sense, from either side. Because this perilous art of fragmentation also reflects the workings of domination, which proceeds by separating, cutting up, individualising, until resistance begins, when the fragment becomes an enclave, an interstice, an autonomous place. And this is the point when, in Cadiot’s work, not only do you find hidden slogans and scattered refrains, but also all of the phonetic or semantic inventions that have made a home in the narrative in order to open paths to other constructions. That recurring “viiiitrier” (“glaaaazier”) or that importunate onomatopoeia (“ff-fff”) are not just exercises in euphony but also sonorous junctions gearing down the text. The perplexing “transgenic worker” and the “aura measurer” in Cadiot’s latest book are not just portmanteau-words in tune with their time but the challenge of a vertigo within a vertigo, one more divergence to bypass a divergence—always the sub-political circulation of why not. The fragments are certainly never far from iteration, from those lists of accessories or ingredients that so often loom up in Cadiot’s pages. If the basement of the chalet-castle conceals “booms [to dance to] based on Bach”, and in the garage there is an “umarked horse-drawn coach” and in the kitchen a savoury “bear sausage”, it is not so much the height of unlikely juxtapositions, but rather an inventory without context, a list without subject—all the more liable to accumulate infinitely.

And lastly there is the trademark of Cadiot’s atelier, and his added value, the prodigious physicality of this texts, the athletic or burlesque abundance of the bodies that move, sweat and pant within them, always seemingly on the verge of crossing over to the other side of the text and plunging into an animated image or a physical presence. It’s the never-ending, flat-out footrace run by the narrator in Colonel des Zouaves. It’s the hilarious ballet the characters perform in Retour definitive, as they careen over whole kilometres and avoid in extremis smashing into the flight, and in which the swallowed hail of commas and verbs makes the text itself run: “feet curling, face wrinkling…” And in Un nid it is the parataxis of slaloms and torchlit descents as well as the obscene vigour of the chamberlain Goethe or the royal fondling. But these three technical achievements—acceleration, fragmentation and incorporation—do not resolve the whole problem. Because between Mallarmé and PR, between beautiful language and its alter ego, between stunts fit for the Marx Brothers and the allure of market fetishism, or between the modernist dead end and postmodern drifting, the path is narrower that it seems. To cut a path between catharsis and mimesis, between the absolutes of intransitive writing and the small-time relativism of writing that embraces its object, imitating it to the point of becoming it: this path is not easily practicable, and sometimes the author’s heart is in his boots.

neither modern nor postmodern

At every moment, one must tear oneself away from the yoke of modernism and its avant-gardist myths, sow one’s literary superego and trick all of the great spectres before whom one has always-already laid down arms. First one must dispense with the modernist postulate par excellence, that writing can be absolutely autonomous, that the absence of an object can free it from the servitude of representation, the triumphant postulate of a “material specificity of literary language” as Rancière sums it up. It is a matter of resisting the dark charms of intransitives, by making oneself receptive to the impure words of the day, by inventing a language-valve that allows stereotypes and radical propositions flow in both directions, without abandoning Flaubert’s dream of writing reduced to a single “style”, in the sense of an “absolute way of regarding things”, something for which Sartre faulted him in his examination of the “petrification of language”, and which Rancière reinterprets as “radical egalitarianism [through] the absolutisation of style”, at the expense of levels of meaning and their hierarchies. Except in Cadiot’s work, it is no longer a matter of absolutising the “style” in order to thwart the classic system of representation, but rather of radicalising the way things are said (through an address, confession, monologue, occasional dialogue—a continual ingestion and ejection of people’s speech) in order to depose the modernist system of communication. The autonomy of his style, just like the effect of distance his enunciation creates, re-establishes equality on the ruins of the dominant discourse. Of course, such a “hermeneutics of the social body” and market fetishism through literature could be practiced unabashedly at a time when social sciences had hardly begun to stir, when Marxist and Freudian sciences were babbling, when a writer could use the means at his disposal to try to get social signs to speak to him, as the palaeontologist was just starting to get stones to talk. But the process became delicate after the heyday of social sciences, when this semiological zeal was no longer acceptable and theoretical insanity had left nothing but intimidation and disillusion behind it. You cannot work the way Cadiot does without being inhabited by the ghosts of the great critical project of the half-twentieth-century, which everyone must give up in turn, before going looking for emancipation here and there, as best he can. It is difficult to assert literature as technique if you fully accept the failure of critical thought as science.

What is required after the effort not to be modern(ist) is the energy not to be postmodern. The former requires the courage of an inaugural mourning, a mourning that must be observed to begin from the literary absolute and performative speech. The latter, which is less difficult, comes from an unfailing vigilance, watching out for the Stockholm syndrome and not letting the text get contaminated by its object, also by standing firm in the face of the crudest temptations (which will always be there) of lyricism and autofiction, the alpha and omega of the contemporary literary field. Thus Cadiot is constantly mocking the return of poetic pathos, the Orphic lineage, or schoolgirl sentimentality. He even has someone say to Bossuet, the king’s poetry advisor, that all poems are like a summer pop ballad or “water closet graffiti written with crap”. And he cheerfully gibes at self-justifying fiction, which in Retour définitif he calls “ass-society written like a third grade paper, to the max, total autofiction”.

It is ultimately an arduous task: to jettison the old masters under suspicion, as well as the backward illusions that succeeded them, to tame the ghosts and channel the fantasies, to accept impurity while in no way giving up technical (or techno-political) intransigence. They are gestures that no one accomplishes alone, and they make Cadiot’s approach incomprehensible if you try to apply the archetype of the solitary poet sweating in his workshop, and if his approach is not regarded as constituting a world, a kind of world-making. Because a shared world is taking shape as well, around sound collective work experiences (on stage or in the wings with Ludovic Lagarde, Rodolphe Burger or Pascal Dusapin, for an experimental translation of the bible, or assembling the two issues of Revue de la littérature générale with Pierre Alféri) and a particular world of literary reference—that of the poets Jack Spicer and Emmanuel Hocquart, the wirters Jacques Roubeaud and Gertrude Stein, the conceptual inventors Gilles Deleuze and Lawrence Sterne (Tristram Shandy’s cosmographer). It is a community that is intensifying the flow, consolidating the margins, arousing the world’s desire. Only mourning between the lines and the contagious power of laughter, minute clockwork and an outlay of burlesque can make common cause and turn literature into a political experience.


Translation: Matthew Cunningham


[1“Sensible” is used here, as elsewhere, in an archaic sense currently being resurrected in English translations of the work of Jacques Rancière, i.e. “that which is perceived by the senses”. See Jacques Rancière, The Politics Of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, London, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. (Translator)

[2Un nid pour quoi faire, Paris, P.O.L., 2007.

[3Jacques Rancière, Politique de la literature, Paris, Galilée, 2007, p. 23.

[4Abbreviation of “bourgeois bohemian”. (Translator)

[5Jacques Rancière, Politique de la literature, Paris, Galilée, 2007, p. 15.

[6Ibid., p. 39.

[7Ibid., p. 21.

[8Michel Gauthier, Olivier Cadiot, le facteur de vitesse, Dijon, Les presses du reel, 2004.