Much More than a Franchise

By Jan Baetens

Laurent de Sutterjack sparrow

Jack Sparrow. Manifeste pour une linguistique pirate

Bruxelles, Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2018, 1128 p., 12 euros

ISBN : 9782874496479


If popular culture is culture for the millions, entertaining and easy to understand, many great readers and critics are well aware of the fact that this fundamental openness is not to be confused with shallowness or lack of sophistication. Popular culture has a lot to tell –not always of course, but this also applies to high culture, many forms of which are equally dead matter. The truth of drawing is told by Hergé as well as Rembrandt. If you want to understand the unconscious, a Hitchcock movie proves no less useful than Un chien andalou. And for the mysteries of the heart, it is not forbidden to prefer a romance comic to Jane Austen.

The Pirates of the Caribbean may not be compulsory viewing in serious film classes (and to make things even worse: this is a Disney franchise, based on a Disney theme park attraction, catering to Disney fans, etc.) but this brilliant and crispy essay by Laurent de Sutter shows that it is time to put all prejudices aside.

A specialist of law theory and prolific author and lecturer (will he be called one day the Belgian Zizek?), Laurent de Sutter explores in Jack Sparrow the theme of piracy from a linguistic point of view. For to be a pirate is not only to make the choice of a way of life that rejects the ruling order, based on fixed rules imposed by a ruling class. Such a pirate choice is only possible thanks to a special use of language, which de Sutter calls the pirate use, based on the radical combination of the fireworks of verbal performance and the denial of language’s referential function. In Jack Sparrow, de Sutter analyzes this piracy in a permanent braiding of the Johnny Depp character and a wide range of cultural theories on the role and nature of language in society.

It should not come as a surprise that Baudrillard’s ideas on seduction and Lacan’s rethinking of the relationship between truth and desire occupy a key place in his argumentation. These high-cultural references, however, do not hinder the joyful anarchy Laurent de Sutter is defending. His book is a roller-coaster of intellectual provocations and exhilarating formulas, of language transformed into a sound and image spectacle as well as high philosophy mixed with fun and laughter. Serious readers will not be changed into pirates after having read this book, but Jack Sparrow is definitely a work they are in need of.

Writing the Revolution

 By Jan Baetens

Écrire la révolution: De Jack London au Comité invisible

La Licorne, N° 131, 2018 (Rennes : Presses Universitaire de Rennes)

ISBN: 978-2753574960

Journal website:



History did not end after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and since 9/11 many new forms of historical consciousness as well as experiencing time and history have emerged, sometimes rather slowly, in the wake of theoretical efforts to restore the focus on our ever changing world, but occasionally also very abruptly and unexpectedly. In this new historical paradigm, the notion of “revolution”, that is the radical event, often unplanned or unforeseen, that suddenly breaks the continuous chain of moments, situations, contexts and frameworks, has achieved once again a central position –next to, for instance, the apocalyptic stance of much ecocriticism or the ongoing nihilism of no future movements.

Well-known and much appreciated for its thematic issues on all aspects of literary studies, the French journal La Licorne presents an excellent overview of the ongoing debates. It takes as its starting points the two perspectives on revolution that have been defended by respectively Jacques Rancière (“how to prepare as well as produce a revolution?”) and Slavoj Žižek (“what to do once the revolution is there?”). However, this double question is not addressed in abstract or general terms. The 246 pages volume edited by Émilie Goin and Julien Jeusette opens with an excellent discussion of what is at stake in the recent return of the revolutionary sensibility and its interactions with a wide range of social transformations and dismays and ends with three interviews of key agents in the field (Nathalie Quintane, Ana Bertina, and Leslie Kaplan –a selection that crosses media as well as generations). Yet the central part of the book is made of excellent close readings of works and authors that illustrate the various and more than once contradictory meanings of revolution as a concept but in the very first place as a practice, be it a real one or an imaginary or utopian one.

Although the French Revolution and its afterlife continues of course to remain at the very heart of any reflection on the idea of revolution, and not only in France, and although the interpretation of this Revolution is currently once again more leaning toward the extreme left version of it, this collection of essays has the great merit of including a certain number of themes and topics that provide us with a much wider angle. Next to excellent readings of, for instance, the revolutionary rhetoric of “Le Comité invisible”, the collective pseudonym of a group of authors calling for an actual revolution, and inspiring interpretations of texts on May 68, the issue contains meticulous interpretations of works that are less easy to pigeonhole on the ideological spectrum, such as for instance Döblin’s unsentimental novelistic report on the failure of the German revolution in 1918 or Antoine Volodine’s postapocalyptic prose. In addition, it also tackles works and authors that are clearly anti-revolutionary, such as for instance the French writers who travelled to Germany in the Nazi period, before and during the war, in order to study and praise what they considered a necessary counter-revolution, or the nowadays forgotten novel by Paul Nothomb, Un délire logique (“A Logical Madness”), in which the author tries to justify the betrayal of his World War Two resistant friends.

In conclusion: an important collection, not only for its intrinsic scholarly qualities and the great diversity of themes and angles, but also for its courage to foreground the importance of writing and literature. Revolution may be made by ideas, but to perform it, one still needs words, and those made by writers are vital in this regard.