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Geometry in Jean Genet: Shaping the subject


Written by
Joanne Brueton

We are pleased to share the news that Dr Joanne Brueton (ULIP's Lecturer in French Studies) has recently published her latest book with Legenda (European Humanities Research Centre at Oxford University), Geometry in Jean Genet: Shaping the subject, which explores the making and unmaking of national, colonial, and identitarian spaces in Jean Genet’s writing.

It may seem strange to associate a cold, mathematical term like geometry with the French writer Jean Genet (1910 – 1986). As a queer icon, political dissident, advocate of the Black Panthers and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and the enfant terrible of twentieth century French literature, Genet is notorious in the French canon for his incendiary, affective, and erotic poetics.

Yet, rather surprisingly, Genet draws on the abstract language of geometry to navigate and articulate a bold vision of subjectivity. Points, lines, diagonals, grids, and circles are ubiquitous in the early novels he drafted in prison in the 1940s; shapes are etched into the controversial plays of the mid 1950s and ribboned throughout the radical essays of the 1960s and 70s; and geometric spaces structure the political memoir of the decade he spent with the fedayeen in the Jordanian refugee camps.

The premise of this monograph is that these shapes doggedly try to map how the self relates not just to the Other, but to the politics of territory, and to the ontological demands of measuring an identity that binds the individual to a fixed notion of belonging. Historically, geometry has offered a way to apportion and demarcate land. Originating in Ancient Egypt as King Sesostris sought a way to divide terrain between citizens, it was later caught up in the colonial practices of European cartographers who carved up territory in the expansion of Empire. I argue that Genet reappropriates such dehumanising forms of measurement, which turned space into capital and individuals into numbers, in order to lend form to a more fluid vision of subjectivity that refuses to be essentialised by static metrics.

More broadly, this book explores how Genet – long considered an antagonist and a pariah in the French literary canon – is in fact a visionary writer of his time. Genet’s counter-geometries position him as a key interlocutor in French theoretical debates about how to measure, quantify, and materialise subjective experience. By engaging with unseen geometries in post-structuralist philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari, Cixous, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Nancy, and even Sartre, I suggest that Genet’s geometry offers a new way to critically approach modern French literature and thought: one which promotes the radical anti-identitarian epistemology of the twentieth century, and galvanises the possibility for social transformation.