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Authorship and Responsibility: Literary Trials and the Ethics of Writing (France, 19th-21st Centuries)

  • Gisèle Sapiro

What are the limits of literary freedom? Writers' claims for autonomy have encountered legal restrictions to their freedom of speech.  As suggested by Foucault, censorship has shaped the very notion of authorship. This talk will confront the diverging conceptions of the author’s responsibility in France and the beliefs in the power of writing that underlie them through the debates surrounding literary trials, including the cases of Béranger, Courier, Flaubert, Baudelaire, the naturalists, and the purge trials after World War II. In reaction to these conceptions, writers developed their own code of ethics, which contributed to the emergence of an autonomous literary field and to the construction of the figure of the public  intellectual, embodied by Zola and by Sartre.

Gisèle Sapiro is Research director at the CNRS and Director of Studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales. She is also head of the Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique, Paris, and been a visiting professor at the University of Freiburg and at NYU, among other places. Her interests include the sociology of intellectuals, literature, publishing and translation. She is the author of La Guerre des écrivains, 1940-1953 (Fayard, 1999; forthcoming in English translation with Duke University Press), La Responsabilité de l’écrivain. Littérature, droit et morale en France (19e-20e siècles) (Seuil, 2011), and of numerous articles published in journals of sociology, history, political science, aesthetics and literature, cultural studies and French studies. She is also editor or co-editor of Pour une histoire des sciences sociales (Fayard, 2004), Pierre Bourdieu, sociologue (Fayard, 2004), Translatio. Le marché de la traduction en France à l’heure de la mondialisation (CNRS Editions, 2008), Les Contradictions de la globalisation éditoriale (Nouveau Monde, 2009), and L’Espace intellectuel en Europe (La Découverte, 2009).


Co-sponsored by:  The Europe Center, Department of French and Italian, Taube Center for Jewish Studies, Center for the Study of the Novel, Department of Sociology, DLCL Research Unit on Literature and Ethics, Hebrew Literature Workshop, and the French Culture Workshop



Event Summary

Sapiro describes how writers during the inter-war period were targeted for social and political subversion, and even accused of being responsible for the French military defeat. The belief in the power of the written word, a legacy from the French Revolution, along with the Catholic fear of the dangers of reading, contributed to the perception of the printed word as a vehicle for inciting crime. Censorship was prevalent, with many prosecutions for writing and publishing carried out during the 19th century.

Sapiro traces how this repression led to the development of two competing ideas of professional ethics around writing: the idea of art for art's sake, and the political commitment of public intellectuals. She also describes the application of objective and subjective responsibility theories, ideas about criminality, and the absence of a professional ethics in writing, to the laws of free press during this period. Sapiro outlines several specific cases of prosecution against prominent authors in France, and the variety of arguments used in the defense - sometimes unsuccessfully.

A discussion session following the talk raised such questions as: How does the identity of the author relate to concepts of citizenship? Could the trials of authors be considered a form of censorship? Were there structural similarities between the trials and the public debate? Was there any reaction in the literary realm? Was there ever any criticism about the legal mechanism as the appropriate arena for discussing this moral debate? Why wasn't the debate held within the government?