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Fonctions du Cliché : du Banal à la Violence

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

Introduction: The Violence of (our) commonplace

Claudine Raynaud et Peter Vernon

Texte intégral

My stories come to me as clichés. A cliché is a cliché because it's worthwhile. Otherwise it would have been discarded. A good cliché can never be overwritten; it's still mysterious.
Toni Morrison

  • 1 See GRAAT, 13, Usure et Rupture: Breaking Points, Université de Tours, 1995.

1The first meaning of the word "cliché" is "positive": in typography a cliché is a metal plate upon which an image is reproduced in relief. In photography, however, cliché is a "negative" and, indeed, its most current acceptation is that of commonplace, banality, cultural stereotype, repetition. It makes reproduction possible and authorizes it. Bearing the positive and negative poles in mind, together with the dynamic of their potential inversion, one arrives at the core of the concept of cliché. The aim of the conference was to look at the various forms of manifestation of the cliché as well as the roles played by the cliché in discourse and text, while attending to the relations of the commonplace with banality and violence. As such, it was a logical follow up on our previous reflexion on cultural, historical and textual breaking points ("Usure et rupture").1

1. "Clichagees": starting points

  • 2 "Collective fixed schemas which schematically ascribe a body of general characteristics to individu (...)
  • 3 In view of the renewed controversy in Prance about whether one should debate with the National Fron (...)

2In the introductory article Ruth Amossy recalls the distinction between stereotypes, commonplaces and clichés she elaborated in Les Discours du cliché (1982), which she co-authored with Elisheva Rosen, and Les Idées reçues. Sémiologie du stéréotype (1991). She defines stereotypes as "schèmes collectifs figés qui assignent de façon schématique un ensemble de traits généraux à tous les individus appartenant à un même groupe".2 "Idées reçues" are commonplaces, "associations frozen within common opinion" and proceed from the discourses of majorities. Clichés, in contrast, are worn out figures of speech, lexically filled and fixed units which, in their own way, "translate the values of the socio-cultural context to which they belong". In her reading of Robert Baldy's description of Germany as carnivorous fiend (1912) and Paul Déroulède's crude call for revenge (1908), Amossy looks at the way in which written as well as spoken discourse prods the readers (the listeners) to violence. She first traces the history of the rhetorical debate on the respective parts played by passion and reason in persuasive speech. Her aim is here to focus on the role of stereoptypes in argumentative discourse. "Factual" description hides a collective ossified schema which helps the reader reconstruct the stereotype. Stereotype has both a cognitive function (it is a "schème cognitif"): it clears out a belief shared by the speaker and his audience; it also entails a value-judgement ("une évaluation") since stereotypes have a hold on a specific political mythology, particular social representations. Rational debate gives way to the "evidence" of the proposed solution as stereotype integrates passion and reason within a unified argumentative model.3 Again and again, the authors will test the cliché's naturalness — "l'allant de soi", as Barthes would say — to de-construct its transparency, to question its violence.

3Scorned but indispensable, the lowest common denominator of everyday life, how have clichés come into being since they seem to have always already been there? Cliché is a printerly term, a variant of the French "cliquer" (Oxford English Dictionary, 1928 edition), satisfyingly material, Gillian Beer reminds us. How could communication take place without clichés since they "hold open neutral spaces within a common community"? One of their functions is to threaten, or sustain, one group in a multicultural milieu. The question of ironic distancing surfaces when one tries to analyse clichés as "citations" or opposes them to the notion of trope, which etymologically includes resistance to repetition. Beer illustrates her remarks with the genesis of a particular cliché, "no man is an island", from the point of view of the cultural historian. The original statement is never quite a cliché because it makes an ethical demand: one must believethat "no man is an island"; it reinforces assumptions while creating Îlots de résistance". The grounding binary opposition contrasts isolation — insulation — with global communication, community of being (man v. mankind). Yet cliché can be re-awakened when it is re-appropriated as Dennis Brown's reggae version of the song demonstrates. Islands might have become a commodity for the tourist industry as brochures of the Caribbean, Bermudas, etc., repeat ad nauseam. Islanders, like writer Jamaica Kincaid, voice the pathetic irony of that commodification of the banal life of our exotic Other.

4"There is nothing new under the sun", rien de nouveau sous le soleil, comes as the epitome of cliché, the definition of cliché itself, and provides an apt starting point for Rachel Bowlby's analytical link between cliché and advertisements: slogans or devices. Historically overlapping, cliché and advertisement share a dual function: they draw on the blandest pieces of cultural knowledge; on the other hand, the advertisement must stand out, strike. These two functions are mutually reinforcing. Describing the rhetoric of advertisers at the beginning of the century and their defense of copy writing against the dangerous drifts of literature, she opposes two tendencies. Some advertisers insisted on the force of novelty of the slogan, which will inevitably dwindle to the banality of commonplace. Banalisation is the condition of the success of the slogan, not the end of it. Conversely, other publicists argued that familiarity — "ideas which are present in the mind" — breeds belief. She turns finally to Barthes' reading of a Panzani pasta and tomato sauce advertisement. The effect of the image rests on the presence of lexiques ·. the cultural connotations which make the product attractive. Are we condemned to repetition? Are we haunted by or doomed to parroting, Amossy's and Rosen's "hantise du psittacisme" (1982, 148)? Bowlby's conclusion is that the discourses of advertising contain a continual reflection on how minds respond to old and new ideas, old and new forms of words, a question which has always been central to rhetoric and to which advertising gives a fresh turn.

2. Towards a politics of cliché and the Other: stereotype and ideology

5Divina Frau-Meigs's pragmatic and comparative — both qualitative and quantitative — analysis of the contents of TV fictions on an international scale leads her to oppose stereotypes — a fictitious space wherein a status quo is produced — to fixed and clear signs. Her approach owes much to Pierce's theory of interpretation. New information is manifested by the introduction of ambiguity. The double stakes of the project are: first, to define the notion of cliché as a system of probabilities, a dialectical relationship between encoding habits (conventions) and ambiguity. The second aim is to chart the conditions of the increased trivialization of the cliché within the context of the internalization of TV productions. Figures (themes, emphases, characters and actions) contribute to the elaboration of prototypes (as opposed to stereotypes), an intermediary step between icon and symbol. (Violence is treated as a theme within her approach). TV fictions across the world — nine countries were surveyed — foreground two poles of TV communication: the internalization of characters through conventions and a virtual and reversible externalization of the actions. The renewal of hackneyed conventions takes place through hybridization and an oscillation between conforming to and breaking away from them. Transcultural analysis makes the externalization of fiction and cliché explicit; it also calls for a mobilization against the risk of a generalized trivialization of the contents of TV fictions, which could all emanate from the United States.

6Mariana Net's approach also relies on Charles Sanders Pierce's semiotic categories: Representamen, Object and Interpretant. Her starting point is Eco's and Bonfantini's definition of stereotypes as "behavioral habits acquired by acquaintance with the sign" (Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, 1988, 386). She deals with the way in which people fall from one cliché into another and also points out that cultural stereotypes are closely related to intertextuality, as described by Riffaterre and Genette. Net considers how semiosis is achieved in Forster's A Passage to India. The clichés of the empire-builders operate within the community while the identikit is equally true of the Indians' prejudice against the British administration. The analysis of Adela's "rape" and her admission that it did not take place leads Net to the conclusion that a limited semiosis occurs: no issue is possible outside of an endless chain of clichés. She further defines three classes into which self and other fall: 1) cliché as a strategy of self-defence. (When the cliché-generating machinery goes wrong, violence ensues, leaving room for the absurd. Human reactions can be absorbed into indifference, or contempt). 2) clichés can be caricatures of the Other, or else a faded symbolical image of an idealized dead world, never to be retrieved. (At one point in the novel, Dr. Aziz shows Fielding a picture of his dead wife). 3) the ideal case occurs when clichés are re-invested with significance. (For successful communication to be achieved a third, ideally projected world — a kind of utopia — would be necessary). But utopias are yet another stereotype.

  • 4 A socio-historical appreciation of the emergence of the PC movement remains to be done in the conte (...)

7The semiotic interpretation of cultural stereotypes which provides an abstract frame of reference leads us to specific attempts to analyse sexist and racist stereotypes in context and in situ. Dominique Daniel chooses to tackle the notion of cliché by looking at the PC or Political Correctness movement which emerged in the late 80s in the United States. She focuses on Politically Correct Persons' attempts at reforming language by issuing and implementing speech codes. PCPs fight clichés because they reinforce derogatory stereotypes and fail to account for the diversity of reality, which runs counter to their own endeavour to promote a respect for differences and multiculturalism in all domains. They fundamentally denounce the violence exerted on the person or the object the cliché designates and stress the process of alienation effected by the "levelling language of the Other". Daniel puts forward the idea that identifying a cliché and decrying the anti-minority violence it harbours is both relative and subjective. The violence of the cliché would not derive from the linguistic unit per se, but from the discrepancy between the socio-cultural context in which it emerged and our current frame of reference. For the currency of the cliché stems from the fact that it translates the values of the socio-cultural context in which it is inscribed (Amossy, 1982). Detractors of PCPs stress their derisory efforts to alter language in the face of the actual situation of minorities and see in the movement a residue of the radicalism of the 60s. Moreover, any policing of language generates counter-clichés. Yet PCPs could be said to fight for an awareness of the politics of the cliché, a reflexiveness which is one of the hallmarks of democracy.4

8Hélène Aji's article tries to chart Pound's antisemitism and fascism in an effort to link politics and poetics, ideology and ideograms. As a whole, Ezra Pound's poetry can be apprehended in its refusal to accept a stable poetic voice and as a reaction against Whitman's voice. In the Vorticist movement, Pound inscribes his poetic venture within a specific historical context and seeks to find who could be responsible for the Manichean world of industry and international finance which justified his American exile. Pound's antisemitism is not deliberate; rather, it is banal, typical of the American middle classes. Yet Pound appropriates the most worn out clichés of post-Belsen antisemitism, which in the last analysis is not American, but European. Taking up all the stereotypes whose violence has turned the Jewish people into scapegoats, he uses them in a manner akin to the Nazi doxa: the usurer-Jew stops the circulation of knowledge. Pound also opposes the monotheism present in the Judaic cult of the Book. His refusal of a used language, his fight against usura, lead to his struggle against clichés by means of intensive repetition (the figure of ploce), which aims to give back to words their original power and revive the plurality of their meanings. Aji concludes that by choosing the arbitrariness and the irrational character of the antisemitic cliché, Pound finds himself a prisoner of clichés, which, like the psychoanalytic repressed, inevitably come back.

9The relationship of cliché to stereotype is best illustrated by an analysis of the cultural imbeddedness of prejudice against women. The violence of clichés of femininity stand out in the contextualization of the appearance of the figure of the hysterical woman. Recalling the now wellknown history of the wandering uterus, Sybille Kershner reminds us that the emergence of psychoanalysis must be related to eighteenth-century notions of femininity as they were expounded by the Philosophische Arzneiwissenshaft. Kershner insists on the socio-cultural construction of a vision of women which links their bodies ("femaleness") to their mental states: this legacy still lingers.

10Taking the equivalence between clichés of the Civil War and photographic clichés literally, Michel Etcheverry demonstrates how cinematic productions on the American Civil War (Griffith's and Huston's) owe their dramatization to actual photographs (Mathew Brady's) taken to represent the battle scenes, which were themselves reconstructed static pictures. His emphasis falls on the ideological consensual aspect of the cliché which must "transfer on the conclusions an agreement which first bears on the premises" (Amossy, 1982). His study of patriotism, pathos and the imagery and rhetoric of war echoes Amossy's own piece in this volume, while the picture of death — death's picture — links his reflection to Barthes' own analysis of the photographic cliché.

11Paralleling Rachel Bowlby's approach, Alessandra Marzola establishes a comparison between clichés and the Barthesian notion of myths (Mythologies, 1957); this theoretical frame of reference enables her to proceed to a semiotic analysis of Harold Pinter's play, No Man's Land. As is the case for myths, something is lost, has been stolen in the process of serialization. She further links the triteness of clichés to photography, through a deft use of Barthes' analysis of photographs (La Chambre claire [Camera Lucida ], 1980). She interprets the icon of the photograph album, the impossiblity of memory's recovery of the past as event, as the "That-has-been", yet "immediately separated", and underscores the deferral inherent in cliché, the Intractable. The formulaic structure of the cliché stands out as a string of unchangeable signifiers dooming the stage to ultimate paralysis and to an eternal absence of meaning, a "no man's land".

3. Towards a dialectic of lyricism and banality: violence and language

12The last part of this collection comprises essays that all sought to disclose the complex workings of cliché within literary texts, be they discrete stylistic units (figures of speech) or more diffuse shared cultural references. Is there an aesthetic proper to the workings and the uses of clichés? What are the specific textual and intertextual strategies that clichés rely on? How is cliché manipulated, worked, erased, vivified, and to what ends? As a number of articles point out, the role of the reader is paramount in any linguistic play with the cliché, as the reader shares or disavows the common knowledge, the fossilized icon, the stock phrase which functions as interpellation.

13Martine Hennard-Dutheil argues that Rushdie's attempts to reclaim the language of abuse in the context of demystifying strategies has been misunderstood. His position between two worlds (London, Bombay) helps him effect a critique of the cliché. The metropolitan space is a "topos" that challenges a classical definition of the commonplace. Rushdie upsets the routine of cliché'd language and dead metaphors: "worlds apart" and "explosive situation" are literalized; the commonplace is defamiliarized. The narrator of The Satanic Verses dramatizes the liminality of the migrant's experience in a poetics of dis-location. Rushdie's awareness of the mobility of language and the mutability of meaning translates into an interest for etymologies and polysemies. Migrants are metaphorical beings, migration is itself a migratory experience. Gibreel's enigmatic will to tropicalize the metropolis means an intervention on language and a spicing of its tropes. Such an enterprise is fraught with ambivalence, or rather ambi-violence. The postcolonial writer runs the risk of misrepresenting his or her original culture in the process of translation. However, the migrant sensibility is more apt to articulate a critique of the dominant system and intervene in the language that perpetuates it. Rushdie's strategies include a process of linguistic revival which regenerates ossified and hackneyed language. State violence, through the death sentence of the fatwa, reminds us that language is complicit with power.

14Charlotte Sturgess's analysis of cliché in one of Margaret Atwood's short stories provides a link between the cliché's ideological charge and a stylistic approach which looks at the cliché as an ambivalent rhetorical strategy in its relationship to the "real". Clichés point to the unsecured bases of a language which the doxa can appropriate in the struggle between the unsaid and the oversaid. Through intertextual references to romance and fairy tale, "Bluebeard's Egg" stages a mise en abyme of the power of the cliché to disarticulate the represented real and to provoke an undermining of metaphors from within. The irony inherent in the workings of the cliché destabilizes a reader who gains an increasing awareness of the reading process and of his/her own positioning. The violence of this fracturing, the play on the preconstructed status of the cliché, must be linked to postcolonial writing — as was evident in Hennard-Dutheil's reading of Rushdie's novels — and to feminist re-visions.

15Reading three of Raymond Carver's short stories, Claire Fabre focuses on the way in which clichés are generated in the text and on the violence exercised by language. The lack of clichés' enunciative consistency raises the question of the production of a secondary imaginary network — Sami-Ali's "imaginaire secondaire" — as clichés are literalized (Sami-Ali, 1980). The stories further depict paroxysmal moments when language takes control: instead of using clichés, the characters are used by them. The negative value of the cliché is counterbalanced by the positive function of its repetition. Banality concurs with indifference which must be understood as an openness to the world, a salutary dissolution of the self into the world.

16Starting from Sami-Ali's definition of banality as what stigmatizes a break with the imaginary, Béatrice Trotignon questions the apparent blankness of a passage taken from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and comes to the conclusion that inscription relays banality. Stylistic devices make for impersonality, indifference and distanciation — they help discard experience — while the reintroduction of lyricism is linked to the act of writing itself, and not to a particular center of consciousness.

  • 5 For further references, see Pierre Gault, "The Oxymoron as Central Trope in The Passion Artist" Rev (...)

17Clichés can be reactivated by a poet's or a writer's work. The setphrase "Nature's silence" initiates a careful analysis of the violence exercised by language upon the real in Annie Dillard's "Teaching a Stone to Talk" and the means developed to escape that violence, the violence of the already-said of evidence, of what goes-without-saying. Pascale Poulain demonstrates how a complete redefinition of the notion of silence is achieved in the text while paralleling and contrasting the stylistic figure of cliché to those of paradox and oxymoron.5 The familiar order of things — banality — can then become a starting point for an ontological relationship to the World.

18Claudia Desblaches also focuses on the poet's ability to bring back to life the deadening hold of cliché as fossil by working on the hackneyed poetic reference to the "femme-fleur" in the work of two poets. In William Carlos Williams' celebration of the woman's body, metaphor supplants comparison as it reactivates the cliché. In e. e. cummings' case, iconicity — which calls up the real instead of turning its back on it — can help the poet free himself from the cliché. Repudiating the cliché, he recreates a lyrical mode which might be termed a "grammatical lyricism".

19Véronique Porteous's article explores the limits of the cliché, or explodes its limits in a deliberate iconoclastic gesture. The violence of Edmund White's migratory nomadic poetry might reside in its radical newness which refutes the cliché to write within another space, beyond the dialectic of subject and object where the commonplace (le lieu commun) is the world in the etymological sense of the word and the central figure is that of "outside", of "real situationless man". Porteous argues that White attempts a reconciliation between poetry and thought by advocating a "quiet apocalypse", recovering the Greek root of the term: an unveiling, a baring, a stripping. "De-conditioned, drifting, discovery": White s writing offers a para-doxal a-topical exploratory poetics of rhythm, beyond clichés. The quintessential figure of postmodernity concurs with the postcolonial simultaneous non-belonging to two worlds of Rushdie's migratory troping.

20Concurrently, there is a contemporary preoccupation with the banal as the desirability of the thing-like. Following our investigation into the links between the cliche, violence and the possibility of lyricism, the next conference will consider different re-inventions of the real.



Amossy, Ruth and Elisheva Rosen, 1982. Les Discours du cliché Paris: CDU-SEDES.

—, 1991. Les Idées reçues. Sémiologie du stéréotype. Paris: Nathan.

Barthes, Roland, 1993 [1957]. Mythologies suivi de Le Mythe, aujourd'hui in Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Seuil, 563-719.

—, 1993 [1964]. "Rhétorique de l'image" in Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Seuil, 1417-1420.

—, 1980. La Chambre claire. Paris: Seuil [1981. Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.].

Bowlby, Rachel, 1993. Shopping with Freud. London: Routledge.

Deleuze, Gilles, 1993 [1968]. Différence et répétition, Paris: PUF.

Eco, Umberto, 1978. The Role of the Reader: Exploration in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jullien, François, 1991. Eloge de la fadeur. Paris: Editions Philippe Picquier.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, 1990. The Violence of Language. London: Routledge. [1996. La Violence du langage. Paris: PUF],

Milesi, Laurent, 1995. "Plus d'usure: Dante, Shakespeare, Pound, Derrida." GRAAT 13, 205-229.

Riffaterre, Michael, 1971. Essais de stylistique structurale. Paris: Flammarion.

Sami-Ali, 1980. Le Banal. Paris: Gallimard.


1 See GRAAT, 13, Usure et Rupture: Breaking Points, Université de Tours, 1995.

2 "Collective fixed schemas which schematically ascribe a body of general characteristics to individuals belonging to the same group" (Amossy, in this volume). Further references are to this essay.

3 In view of the renewed controversy in Prance about whether one should debate with the National Front, see Amossy's article, "Les dessous de l'argumentation dans le débat politique télévisé", Littérature, 93, Le Partage de la Parole (février 1994) 31-48, an analysis of the confrontation between Bruno Mégret, "Délégué National" of the National Front, and black comedian Isaac de Bankole.

4 A socio-historical appreciation of the emergence of the PC movement remains to be done in the context of its belated mis-translation into the French media and intellectual scene. Typically, the folkloric excesses of PC have been stressed at the expense of a detailed analysis of the politics of its appearance on American campuses.

5 For further references, see Pierre Gault, "The Oxymoron as Central Trope in The Passion Artist" Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1983) 130-136; Jean Cohen, "Théorie de la figure" in Sémantique de la poésie (Paris: Seuil, 1979) 84-127; Gilles Mathis, "L'oxymore: essai d'analyse" and "Oxymore et expansion", Bulletin 10 (1988) and Bulletin 12 (1990) of the Society for English Stylistics (Université d'Aix en Provence). The Society for English Stylistics (Société de Stylistique Anglaise) recently held a conference on the cliché whose proceedings are forthcoming.


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