Writing the Prison – Sensationalism, Metaphor, and Revolution

180D :  French Civilization
Spring 2023
Class No: 30869
263 Dwinelle
Ty Blakeney
11:00 - 12:29 PM

In this course, we will trace three parallel traditions of the representation of prisons in French culture across the 20th and 21st centuries. First, there was a sensationalist tradition of representing the prison in popular literature. These texts, often written by outsiders, exhibited the space of the prison as a kind of morbid curiosity for the avid gaze of the French public, often at the expense of the dignity of the prisoners themselves. After the Second World War, the prison also became an important metaphor for existentialist and other writers, a kind of limit case of the human experience that revealed philosophical truths. Finally, there was a tradition of literature written by prisoners themselves, often connected to the movement to reform and abolish prisons that gained steam after 1968.

During the course, students will ask questions like…

  • What is the role of literature in perpetuating forms of oppression? What is the role of literature in revolutionary challenges to oppressive structures?
  • To what extent do representations of prisons in 20th and 21st century prisons give us access to the experiences, feelings, and thoughts of prisoners themselves? What forms are best suited to do so?
  • Is there such a thing as an “authentic” prison text? To what degree does the embeddedness of artistic works in economic, intellectual, and political fields of struggle dictate their form and content?
  • How are representations of prisons across this period impacted by intersectional questions of identity, especially gender, race, class, and sexuality? (For example, is it possible to represent homosexuality in prison without sensationalizing it? Why are the metaphorical prisoners of the post-war period all straight white middle-class men? Why is the question of race largely absent from the prison reform movement of the 1970s?)
  • How has the representation of prisons changed as the French security state has expanded, especially in the wake of the “war on terror” in the 21st century?
  • What is the relevance of this tradition of prison representation for contemporary debates about the abolition of prisons?

Students will leave the class with a rich understanding of 20th century French literature’s embeddedness in historical, cultural, and political movements. The class will seek to challenge some conventional notions that students might have about the inherent revolutionary potential of literature, and give students a more nuanced theoretical framework through which to understand the relationship between literature and politics, both revolutionary and conservative. The class will also introduce students to wide range of literary and filmic texts, both canonical and “minor.”

Required texts (to be purchased online -- please search using ISBN and get only these editions):

  • Jean-Paul Sartre, Le Mur (978-2070368785)
  • Jean Genet, Notre Dame des Fleurs (978-2070368600)
  • Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir (978-2070729685)