Introducing Pr. Michel Pierssens and Epistemocriticism

Thursday, May 24th, Pr. Pierssens to give talk at Aix-Marseille Université.


Michel Pierssens is professor of French literature based at the University of Montreal. His writings have played a key role in the latest francophone international projects in the field of Literature and Science, including the ‘Euterpe’ project on scientific poetry in French from the 18th to the 20th century (2007-2010) led by Hugues Marchal, in which M. Pierssens was directly involved, funded by the highly competitive French National Research Agency. Although these works pertain mainly (but not only) to fiction written in French, the theoretical elements devised by Pierssens could be of use to us when it comes to analysing Victorian Literature and Science.

Michel Pierssens’s seminal book Savoirs à l’oeuvre : Essais d’épistémocritique could be translated as Knowledge at Work: Essays in Epistemocriticism. Published in 1990, it led to the foundation of the online journal Epistémocritique – Littérature et savoirs in 2007, a platform on which many of the latest conference proceedings on literature and science have been published since, in French. Pierssens insists on writing ‘savoirs’ without a capital ‘s’ and in the plural: he is not talking about a unique kind of essential Knowledge (‘Le Savoir’) but rather about the multiple effects of knowledge on literature. Whereas “epistemology” concerns scientists and historians of science, he focuses on epistemics. Taking the example of the role of Stanhope’s printing press in the opening of Balzac’s Lost Illusions and the telephone in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Pierssens sets about studying given epistemic regimes in given writing exercises. How does a specific kind of knowledge serve a specific work or the private construction (or idiologue) that prepares for that work? What means does this kind of knowledge endow the text with and to which ends?

            Pierssens coins the term transfer agent to describe the entities that allow the reciprocal translation of epistemics in literature and text in knowledge. These agents form a very heterogeneous group of metaphors, chains of reasoning, isolated words, descriptive traits, quotations, plays on words, etc. The point is not just to spot identifiable sciences or doctrines in the text, but to look at the act of writing as a point where knowledge is always potentially in crisis, always hybridized. As Pierssens puts is, “fiction thinks and acts, it thinks with its time, against it, and sometimes outside of it.” The book’s essays focus on Alfred Jarry, Stéphane Mallarmé, Antonin Artaud and other French luminaries but for the purpose of this post I will concentrate on the piece pertaining to Stendhal, which is the first essay in the collection.

Stendhal was 44 years old when he wrote his first novel, Armance, in 1827, an enigmatic story of babilanism (or impotence). The text was published three years after Sadi Carnot’s groundbreaking Reflexions on the Motive Power of Fire and Pierssens argues that the protagonist’s impotence perfectly illustrates a transitional moment between two worlds and two epistemic configurations. The hero himself, an aristocrat who trained as an engineer at the École Polytechnique, personifies this shift. His predicament is partially explained by the classical theory of passion in terms of heat and cold. This theory can be traced back to Aristotle and traditionally provides a series of easily identifiable signs essential to psychological characterization, which Pierssens calls “the coded repertoire of the calorific”. The protagonist’s contradiction is that the heat of his internal passion can only be translated into a cold appearance. But this classical semiotic model is incapable of explaining fully the character’s impotence and the writer uses another language, the language of energy, through the numerous references to guns and the central scene of the duel, which wounds the hero and kills his opponent. 

In the broader history of literature, Pierssens identifies this transition as one from the ‘semiotics of literary passion’ to the ‘thermodynamics of fiction’, in which signs become corruptible and characters, writing forms and, ultimately, language cease to be fixed. Quoting the philosopher of science Michel Serres, according to whom “knowledge is a place of transformation” that oscillates between spaces of non-knowledge (Le Parasite, 1980), Pierssens argues that Armance manifests in fiction a moment in time when old knowledge (the theory of passion) is on the verge of becoming non-knowledge but the new kind of knowledge (thermodynamics) is not completely accepted yet, as one would have to wait until 1850 and the rediscovery of Carnot’s work for the second principle of thermodynamics to be fully explained. Stuck between two semiotic regimes, the novel can only be one of impotence.

Pierssens differentiates didactic fiction, which is ordered by the logic of reflection and merely “reflects” a certain state of knowledge, and fiction like Stendhal’s, which explores the potentiality of knowledge either to point to its limitations or adapt it to the functions and needs of the imagination. In both cases, literature, according to Pierssens, participates in the advancement of knowledge.

As part of our France-Berkeley workshop on “Form across Literature and the Sciences in Victorian Britain”, Michel Pierssens will give a talk introducing a roundtable on Epistemocriticism. He will first briefly recall the major steps that led from the much ill-understood pronouncements by C.P. Snow about the two cultures to the present complex and very diversified research field of epistemocriticism.  A few examples, taken from French literature, will illustrate what is accomplished when literature puts knowledge to work for its own purposes. He will conclude by offering a summary sketch of his own present view of the cognitive contribution of literature as it creates new worlds through its confrontation with the Unknown.


Talk scheduled at 4:15, Bâtiment Multimédias – 29 avenue Robert Schuman

Room 2.08


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