… and what’s poetry got to do with it?
  • Amelia Walker

Franchissement is a term Michel Foucault used in ‘What is Enlightenment?’, an essay concerned with knowledge, knowing and the concept of critique. In English translation, ‘franchissement’ was translated as ‘transgression’, sparking debates among translators and critics who argued that this move obscured important differences between Foucault’s earlier and later approaches. Because ‘What is Enlightenment?’ was among Foucault’s last writings before his death in 1984, some critics also suggest ‘franchissement’ as signifying a germinal concept Foucault would, given more time, have developed. In this article, I take up these suggestions from a poet’s point of view, arguing that there are major benefits to be gained by raising the question, ‘what is franchissement?’ in the academic field of creative writing, particularly with regards to poetry. Observing the importance multiple creative writing researchers ascribe Foucault’s concept of critique, and treating franchissement as a process through which more becomes known, I propose that the word ‘franchissement’, loaned into English, could enrich ongoing critical inquiries regarding relationships between poetry and knowledge.    

Keywords: Creative writing – Foucault – franchissement – transgression – messy translation


Franchir (French verb): ‘to cross over, to surmount, to clear’, ‘to cover (a distance) … to last through (a period of time)’. The nominalisation, franchissement, can suggest ‘crossing, clearing’ (Merriam-Webster 2000: 157).


‘What is franchissement?’ I wonder, staring from a bus window that is also a page: once blank, now gathering symbols, words … thoughts? No. Instead, efforts at thinking, and the tracing thereof: silver snail memories, a plane’s fading exhaust; images of things re-imagined through their very conception; things the presence of which depends on departure; flight.

How is this relevant? In a scholarly article, everything must bear significance.

Ah, but it does. Otherwise, I would have later struck it out. The loose grammar, too, makes a point: long sentences wander into colons that open: open: open: trap doors: rabbit holes: an Alice-mind tumbling: curious: curiouser: sometimes a direction’s value is knowable only through travelling.

‘What is franchissement?’ I’m still wondering. My dictionary says crossing, clearing … But franchissement goes beyond that. It is transgression. Sometimes. In certain translations of Michel Foucault’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1984a: 45). Yet it isn’t. In French, Foucault wrote not ‘transgression’ but ‘franchissement’ and ‘franchir’ (1984b: 573).

Through the window: yellow: canola. Beside me: my lover; ripe scents of hair and skin; familiar now; a year ago, unknown. I was with somebody else then; was somebody else, then. I recall John Kinsella on poetry and knowing:

thinking about how I write, I have found myself searching many familiar areas, with the most commonplace being as necessary as the most esoteric. Ploughing a field on Wheatlands when I was eighteen is every bit as important to me as first reading Deleuze and Guattari (2007: xi).

A yawn shudders me: I slept poorly last night. I was nervous about this article, which asks:

What is franchissement?

                                       … and what’s poetry got to do with it?

These are vital questions for poets in universities. That is this article’s first key point: why asking ‘What is franchissement?’ matters. But how can I address it? I am not a trained translator, not in any language. Furthermore, my French is woeful. Any translations I offer are therefore explicitly messy. This entails limitations, yes, but also strange benefits. That is the second key point: how messy translation makes knowledges through creative misreading. I then broach franchissement – the third point – and pose it as a process through which more becomes known, individually and collectively. Poetry can facilitate franchissement, I argue, drawing on examples from this introduction-as-artefact to illustrate the connection. However, my ultimate aim is not to fixedly define franchissement: instead, I assert the value in asking, ‘what is franchissement?’ To emphasise this, the article ends with an un/knotting: an invitation for others to un-do my arguments, to weave new dialogues around franchissement as a productively always-already-in-question site for ongoing inquiry and knowledge (re)making.

Why ask ‘What is franchissement?’
To illustrate the value in asking, ‘what is franchissement?’ this section considers, first, the question’s background, and then, franchissement’s pertinence to poetry in universities. Regarding background the question evokes previous inquiries, most crucially Foucault’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1984a) – a response to Immanuel Kant’s ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ [‘What is Enlightenment?’] (1784a; 1784b). Also notable are Judith Butler’s ‘What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue’ (2001) – in turn a response to Foucault’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’[i] – and What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1991; 1994). This last text, though not explicitly connected, bears at least three links.

The first is that Foucault had in 1966 given an interview titled ‘Qu’est-ce’un philosophe?’ (1966a) (published in English as ‘Philosophy and the death of God’ (1966b), but ‘What is a philosopher?’ would also serve). The second link is that Foucauldian expert Judith Revel (2002: 29) identifies the foreword to Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Deleuze and Guattari 1972) as Foucault’s earliest use of ‘éthique’ (ethics/ethicality) with the specialised meaning he lent it in later writings including ‘What is Enlightenment?’ where Foucault emphasised the ethical relationship each individual bears with themselves, their actions, and their ongoing re-formation as a subject always-already constructed also in relation to political fiends and forces of power (Revel 2002: 29-30). The third link is that What is Philosophy? includes references to Foucault and to Kant, which, although serving to distinguish Deleuze and Guattari’s approach from Foucauldian and Kantian modes of critique, at least reflect shared concerns (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 51; 112-3).  

‘What is Enlightenment?’ was among Foucault’s last works. It was intended for a seminar at the University of California, Berkeley that was cancelled in respect of Foucault’s passing. Readers of Foucault wonder what might have arisen, had Foucault lived to attend it. For such readers, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ signals emergent possibilities Foucault would likely later have developed (Passerin d’Entrèves 2000: 184). For Butler (2001), the crux of ‘What is Enlightenment?’ is critique. Butler’s reading is consistent with Revel’s observation of how Foucault later in his career loved to practice ‘problematisation’ – a critique of thought as opposed to methodically searching for one fixed solution (2002: 4).[ii] For Butler, Foucault’s critique is crucially connected with questioning:

‘what is critique’ is an instance of the critical enterprise … the question not only poses the problem – what is this critique that we supposedly do or, indeed, aspire to do? – but enacts a certain mode of questioning which will prove central to the activity of critique itself (Butler 2001: n.p.).

Critique’s primary task is therefore ‘to bring into relief the very framework of evaluation itself’: to query ‘the relation of knowledge to power’; to recognise how ‘our epistemological certainties turn out to support a way of structuring the world that forecloses alternative possibilities’. This is ‘a practice in which we pose the question of the limit of our most sure ways of knowing’ (Butler 2001: n.p.) much as poetry, too, seeks different ways of knowing (Webb 2009). Both critique and poetry, in this sense, are practices of ‘thinking otherwise’: thinking the previously unthought-because-unthinkable: not simply forbidden, but inconceivable (Butler 2001: n.p.). Thinking otherwise is vital to philosophy, which for Foucault meant ‘the displacement and transformation of frameworks of thinking, the changing of received values and all the work that has been done’ in order ‘to think otherwise, to do something else, to become other than what one is’ (Foucault 1988b: 330).

Just as poets play with and sometimes reshape conventions of poetic form and even language itself (Kinsella 2007: 10), critique and thinking otherwise are concerned with expanding limitations. Indeed, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ closes by remarking that the critical task ‘requires work on our limits … a patient labour giving form to our impatience for liberty’ (Foucault 1984a: 50). This emphasis on limits and shifting them is strongly visible in contemporary ‘postcritique’, which (like many ‘posts’) works not necessarily against critique but remains ‘informed by critique while pushing beyond it’, positing a shift from ‘de words’ like ‘deconstructing and demystifying’ towards ‘re words’ like ‘replenish, reconfigure, recreate, reimagine, reinvent’ (Felski 2017: 4).

An important distinction to make regarding postcritique and critique in Foucault’s later writings is that postcritique’s primary concerns reside with ‘interpreting literary and cultural texts’ (Anker and Felski 2017: 1), whereas Foucault was looking at critique of the self as a broader set of practices, potentially including, but exceeding, those of reading and interpretation (Revel 2002: 28-29). Furthermore, the turn towards positivity and creation is already strongly evident in ‘What is Enlightenment’ when Foucault characterises the ‘philosophical ethos’ as a ‘limit-attitude’:

if the Kantian question was that of knowing what limits knowledge has to renounce transgressing, if seems to me that the critical question today has to be turned back into a positive one … The point in brief is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression (Foucault 1984a: 45; emphasis added). 

However, in 1993 James Miller (456) pointed out that ‘transgressing’ and ‘transgression’, used in the translation quoted above, do not appear in the French, which reads:

si la question kantienne était de savoir quelles limites la connaissance doit renoncer à franchir, il me semble que la question critique, aujourd’hui, doit être retournée en question positive … Il s’agit en somme de transformer la critique exercée dans la forme de la limitation nécessaire en une critique pratique dans la forme du franchissement possible (Foucault 1984b: 573; emphasis added).

The italicised words ‘franchir’ and ‘franchissement’ were rendered in English as ‘transgressing’ and ‘transgression’. A problem with this, Miller noted, was that ‘transgression’ in French is ‘transgression’:[iii] had Foucault wanted the word, he would have written it – as he did in the 1960s (Foucault 1963b). Deliberately not writing ‘transgression’ was, Miller contended, Foucault’s way of distinguishing later from earlier approaches, or potentially even signalling a new critical concept (franchissement) – one Foucault would, given time, have elaborated. The creation of concepts is, after all, definitive of the philosophical labour (Deleuze and Guattari 1991: 8); Revel depicts Foucault as a (re)creator of concepts for whom changes in language signalled changes in approach (2002: 3).[iv]

Jeremy Carrette, although concerned about other aspects of Miller’s scholarship, deems him correct to question the rendering of franchissement as transgression (Carrette 1999: 27-28). Beatrice Hannsen separately makes a similar point about the need for translations that make visible, for English readers, the transgression-to-franchissement shift, which she associates with Foucault’s move, in later work, towards treating boundaries as ‘enabling’ (2000: 72). Revel also emphasises Foucault’s linguistic-as-conceptual turn away from transgression: by the 1970s, Revel claims, Foucault had majorly revised his ideas and preferred instead to investigate strategies of resistance (‘les stratégies de résistance’). Foucauldian resistance does not purport to straightforwardly break or surpass limits in the dichotomous and opposed sense ‘transgression’ might infer: limits and resistance exist together in paradoxical reciprocity (Revel 2002: 54).

The term ‘résistance’ is not, however, greatly used in ‘What is Enlightenment?’. Franchissement is. This adds weight to possibility of franchissement in ‘What is Enlightenment?’ representing an emergent concept worthy of attention. Or, to borrow Revel’s analogy, franchissement might be recognised (re-cognised: re-thought) as an overlooked conceptual tool (‘outillage conceptuel’ (Revel 2002: 3) for those interested in Foucauldian critique to take up and put to use. The question, ‘what is franchissement?’ therefore becomes one of what this concept might prove useful for: how might we engage it for thinking and rethinking, for understanding our worlds? what knowledges – and potentially other things, for instance, creative works – might we produce with it? what can we make – both with, and offranchissement?

I suggest that franchissement can make a valuable tool for poets in universities. This suggestion bears two rationales. First, Foucauldian theory is already strongly engaged by creative writing and arts academics, including but exceeding poets (Walker 2012; Hecq 2015: 61-62; Baker 2015; Johnson 2016; Rice 2017; Adsit 2017). For Frances A Johnson, Foucault’s ideas bear ‘crucial relevance’ for ‘discussions of art and its will to disclose – culturally or politically, or both – a particular society as a complex system of power relations’ (2016: n.p.). Dallas Baker, observing ‘fundamental characteristics’ shared between ‘the Foucauldian subject’1 and ‘creative texts’, posits creative writing as a generative ‘site for interventions in subjectivity’ (2015: 2). Crucially, Baker engages Foucault’s later works, including ‘What is Enlightenment?’, as opposed to earlier writings regarding writers such as Pierre Klossowski, Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot (e.g. Foucault 1964a and 1964b might superficially seem a more obvious engagement of Foucauldian theory for creative writing research). For Baker, writing offers ‘a technique in a Foucauldian ethics of the self (or self-bricolage)’ – that is, for the ‘reworking of subjectivity’ through ‘critique’ as ‘attention to conduct and contemplation or reflection on life’ (Baker 2015: 3). Writing as ‘an intervention into subjectivity’ thereby becomes ‘a kind of performative research or knowing’ that generates new insights about our world(s) and how we might develop more liveable ways of being (Baker 2015: 12).

The above arguments demonstrate Foucauldian critique’s – and thus franchissement’s – relevance for creative writing broadly. However, I here focus specifically on poetry, which, as Sarah Rice argues, bears special links with Foucauldian thought because Foucault emphasised form(s) and ‘trans-form-ation’ (2017: 9; original emphasis), and poetry entails intense engagement with form, forms (haiku and sonnets, for instance) and the limits of language (2017: 10). John Kinsella, discussing ‘radical formalism’ in poetry, similarly reflects that poetic form provides a paradoxically generative ‘box to be pushed against’ (2007: 58). For Rice, the ‘struggle – of poet (as active agent) and poem (as active agent)’ is key to the creation not only of poems, but crucially of possibilities that become thinkable via self-transformation enacted through poetic processes (2017: 8).

The second, more pragmatic, potential application of franchissement as a conceptual tool for poet-academics is to explain how poetic creation generates research. As Dominique Hecq and Julian Novitz observe, ‘creative writing’s “inhabitation” of the academy has often been uneasy, reluctant and contested’ (2018: 2). The long-standing demand to ‘prove the value of what we do’ (Kroll 2002: n.p.), continues to hound creative writers and artists in the academies (Di Niro and Walker 2018). Indeed, the imperative to justify creative work in universities has arguably intensified in the wake of the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, subsequent to which both education and the arts have faced significant funding reductions, including but exceeding, for example, in Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA while formal changes to research evaluation systems ongoingly enforce ever-greater pressures upon creative academics to elucidate how our work informs collective knowledge (Di Niro and Walker 2018).

The pressures noted above may be particularly strong where poetry is concerned, for poetry is a marginalised, oft-misunderstood mode of writing (Hecq 2005). Yet that marginality – that proximity to the line or indeed limit – simultaneously makes poetry pertinent to critique, that is, to limits and their potential manipulation. Because with critique these are explicitly limits of knowledge, connecting the two can help show how poetry (re)generates knowledges and thereby constitutes research. Franchissement, being crucially connected with critique, therefore offers a valuable conceptual tool for supporting ongoing practices of poetry and poetic research.

On messy translation: misreading as methodology

language “vibebrates” – it is never simple (Johannes Göranson in Mazza and Göranson, 2018: n.p.).

As earlier noted, my French is woeful. And this article draws on multiple texts written in French. This scenario entails obvious limitations, but, conversely, also some benefits. My messy translations produce a form of ‘messy research’ in which ‘opportunities and improvised (ad hoc) practices’ are valued for the new and unexpected possibilities they produce (Lynch 2011: 835). This, I suggest, is itself a form of poetic limit-play that, like Foucauldian critique, raises possibilities of thinking otherwise. In my messy translation practices, I am guided by poet and poetry translator Johannes Göranson, for whom ‘translation poetics’ calls readers to think ‘in terms of translations and deformations’. Discussing his Swedish-English translation of Aase Berg’s work, Göranson reflects:

I translate in a more intuitive way. I also don’t see myself as being ‘in control’ … I feel like the poem asks me to translate it in certain ways … the poem drowns me and I resurface with a translation. No, I don’t resurface. We both drown. The poem is the underworld because the underworld is where translations can happen. (in Mazza and Göranson 2018: n.p.)

Göranson later observes that ‘not just translation, but poetry, too, happens in the underworld’ and later again strengthens this link between poetry and translation by remarking on how ‘[i]n the underworld of translation, we may channel different tongues and that’s poetry’ (in Mazza and Göranson 2018: n.p.). He illustrates the knowledge-generative potentials are illustrated through Göranson’s reflections on how translating Berg influenced his own writing:

it came in large part out of translating Aase’s work; it came out of the slag, the wrong turns, the leftovers of translations… In a sense, Aase’s work asks me to mistranslate it, not to make a translation that replicates a stable original, but to enter into a deformation zone where things happen to my language. (in Mazza and Göranson 2018: n.p.)

A similar case for the benefits of messy, or at least nonconventional, ways of reading, translating and interpreting is put forth by Van Overmeire, who muses: ‘bricoleurs that we inevitably are, we might adopt it [messy interpretation] as a method’ (2011: n.p.). Discussing Jacques Derrida’s critical re-reading of Plato’s The phaedrus, Van Overmeire observes how, ‘contrary to most traditional interpretations’, Derrida’s ‘“more fertile” approach’:

discovers new chords, new concordances; it surprises them in minutely fashioned counterpoint, within a more secret organization of themes, of names, of words. It unties a whole sumplokē patiently interlacing the arguments. What is magisterial about the demonstration affirms itself and effaces itself at once, with suppleness, irony and discretion. (Derrida in Van Overmeire 2011: n.p.)

Such chords and concordances are what I aim, through messy translation as creative misreading, to strike. This is my messy methodology of knowledge (re)making.

Franchissement and/as poetry: individual and collective knowledge-(re)generation
It is time to consider, in turn, what franchissement might mean for English language users, and how poetry may support it. Regarding meanings, Miller suggested ‘transcendence’ (1993: 456), but this bears at least two problems: one, its Kantian overtones are troublesome (Carrette 1999: 28-29): although Foucault did respond to Kant, he crucially critiqued and departed from the Kantian approach (Revel 2002: 5)[v]; and two, ‘transcendence’ in French is ‘transcendence’, making Miller’s own criticism of ‘transgression’ as ‘transgression’ equally pertinent (Carrette 1999: 28-29). Noting this, Carette proposes ‘crossing over’ (1999: 29). Hanssen similarly recommends ‘crossing over’ or ‘border passing’ (2000: 71). These, however, risk the implication of fixing limits on actively stepping in- or outside: limits unchanged by the stepping. The problem here is that Foucault problematised conceptions of outside/inside and limits/resistance as separate, opposing factors, instead emphasising their paradoxical reciprocity. He saw the margin as a myth (‘La marge est un mythe’, Foucault in Revel 2002: 20) and inquired into the outside of inside (‘dehors du dedans’, Revel 2002: 20).

Table One offers additional examples of franchissement translated into English. Most are from Foucault, and one from Deleuze and Guattari. For ease of cross-comparison, I have bolded franchissement, franchir, and so on in French. Then, in English, I have bolded the corresponding translations. That is to say, all bold in the quotes of Table One is added.

Table One: Uses and Translations of Franchissement

(a) Examples from ‘Qu'est-ce que les Lumières?’ (1984b) / ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (trans. C Porter 1984a)

(i) ‘Je caractériserai donc l’êthos philosophique propre à l’ontologie critique de nous-mêmes comme une épreuve historico-practique des limite que nous pouvons franchir’ (n.p.).

‘I shall thus characterize the philosophical ethos appropriate to the critical ontology of ourselves as a historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond’ (n.p.)

(ii) ‘Et, de ce point de vue, l’expérience théorique et pratique que nous faisons de nos limites et de leur franchissement possible est toujours elle-même limitée’ (n.p.).

‘And from this point of view the theoretical and practical experience that we have of our limits and of the possibility of moving beyond them is always limited’ (n.p.).

(b) Examples from ‘Preface a la Transgression’ (1963 [2001]) / ‘A Preface to Transgression (1963)’ (trans. DF Bouchard and S Simon 1977 [1999])

(i)‘le règne illimité de la Limite, le vide de ce franchissement où elle défaille et fait défaut’ (43).

‘the limitless reign of the Limit, and the emptiness of those excesses in which it spends itself and is found wanting’ (59).

(ii) ‘la transgression franchit et ne cesse de recommencer à franchir une ligne qui, derrière elle, aussitôt se refereme en une vague de peu de mémoire, reculant ainsi à nouveau jusqu’à l’horizon de l’infranchissable’ (44).

‘transgression incessantly crosses and recrosses a line which closes up behind it in a wave of extremely short duration, and thus is made to return once more right to the horizon of the uncrossable’ (60).

(iii) ‘La limite et la transgression se doivent l’une à l’autre la densité de leur être: inexistence d’une limite qui ne pourrait absolument pas être franchie; vanité en retour d’une transgression qui ne franchirait qu’une limite d’illusion ou d’ombre’ (44).

‘The limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows’ (60).

(iv) ‘Et la transgression n’épuise-t-elle pas tout ce qu’elle est dans l’instant où elle franchit la limit, n’étant nulle part ailleurs qu’en ce point du temps?’ (44)

For its part, does transgression not exhaust its nature when it crosses the limit, knowing no other life beyond this point in time? (60).

(v) ‘elle [transgression] ne fait pas resplendir l’autre côté du miroir par-delà la ligne invisible et infranchissable’ (44).

‘it [transgression] does not transform the other side of the mirror, beyond an invisible and uncrossable line, into a glittering expanse’ (61).

(c) Example from Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (Deleuze and Guattari 1991/2005) / What is Philosophy? (Deleuze and Guattari, trans. H Tomlinson and G Burchell 1994)

(i) ‘toutes les facultés de l’espirit franchssent leurs limtes, ces mêmes limites que Kant avait soigneusement fixées dans ses livres de maturité’ (8).

‘all the mind’s faculties overcome their limits, the very limits that Kant had so carefully laid down in the works of his prime’ (2).


Table one shows franchissement’s potential implications to be multiple: the term’s meaning depends on context of use. Table one also indicates that, in addition to ‘transgression’, ‘transcendence’, ‘crossing over’, ‘crossing-over’ and ‘border passing’, franchissement is sometimes rendered in English as going or moving beyond, broaching excess and/or overcoming. However, all these bear the same issue earlier noted: a too-strong tendency to imply the limit as fixed, whereas Foucault as he continued theorising tended increasingly towards limits as things repeatedly tested and shifted as opposed to simplistically crossed or overcome.

A more useful approach to franchissement in English is, in my view, that of Valérie Nicolet-Anderson, who loans the French word into English, deeming it ‘work of invention and creativity’ in aid of critique as ‘practices of freedom [that] give one the rules of the game, “the ethos ... that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible”’ (2012: 202). Nicolet-Anderson considers it ‘everyone’s responsibility, in a constant daily practice, to give a positive content to the franchissement of limits ... this creative work of the self on the self’ (2012: 203). By loaning franchissement,[vi] Nicolet-Anderson invites readers to undergo franchissement – to expand conceptual limits – for if language facilitates thought, admitting a new term to one’s mental lexicon allows for thoughts previously unthinkable. Furthermore, if a function of poetry is to regenerate language (Pollock 2012: 30), bringing franchissement into English can be considered an act of poetic knowledge-(re)-making through language re-making.

Hence, I propose that we as English-using poet-academics adopt franchissement and related terms into our critical writings and discussions of poetic practice-as-knowledge-making, for it can bring new perspectives and possibilities to our inquiries. That we as English-users will likely treat franchissement in ways that deviate from French usages, far from being a problem, present benefits: franchissement can become a site for knowledge-making: messy misreading will bring new meanings, open new possibilities for thinking, knowing, being and creation, including the re-creation of franchissement itself. More than simply a concept, franchissement continually re-considered – critiqued – can become a site for (re)conceptualisation: an always-in-flux site for continually reconsidering the (once thought to be) known and re-cognising (re-thinking) frontiers of the (not) knowable (yet).    

However, in recommending franchissement as a loan word in English, an awkwardly-unavoidable acknowledgement must be made: franchissement is already in English. We have the business franchise: a branching out: and out: and out: and …

                                                                                                      … The uber-capitalist, institutional and normalising implications of this link – with fast food eateries and their perennially 1950s-America-recalling commercials featuring white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed nuclear families in which nobody is queer, using mobility aids, or even slightly concerned about disposable packaging and landfill – are worrying for those of us committed to the broadly Foucauldian project of troubling and undoing such norms with their symbolic and actual violences. The thought of the franchise is therefore useful: it reminds that franchissement, like other Foucauldian games of power, bears no intrinsic valence. That is to say, franchissement is in and of itself neither positive nor negative. We cannot assume that all franchissement is good. In some cases, it may lead to dangerous, even violent possibilities. Cautious self-reflection is always required.

There is yet more to draw from Table One. It reveals that franchissement was already part of Foucault’s critical lexicon as early as 1963, in his work on transgression, and it reminds that franchissement is not a term exclusive to Foucault. As English-using poet-academics contemplating what we might make of and through franchissement, we can look not only to ‘What is Enlightenment?’, but also to Foucault’s earlier writings – in which he dealt explicitly with topics of literature and art (Foucault 1964a; 1964b) – and to writings from other French thinkers who discuss franchissement.[vii]

That Foucault was already referring to franchissement when he theorised transgression supports Diogo Sardinhia’s (2005) argument that, although critics like Hanssen, associate transgression with a ‘younger Foucault’ and ideas ‘far removed’ from his later works (Hanssen 2000: 71), Foucault’s earlier and later texts may after all be read as complementary, not opposing. ‘What is Enlightenment?’ can be considered Foucault’s autocritque of his 1960s writings on transgression – a revisiting that altered some elements while retaining or strengthening others. For instance, one difference is Foucault’s attitude to ethics/ethicality. In ‘Preface to Transgression’, Foucault distanced transgression from ‘éthique’  – which he associated with morality and/as normative policing of behaviour, for instance via religious dictums (in English, closer to ethics) – whereas ‘What is Enlightenment?’ explicitly broaches ‘éthique’ – but treated differently, as something not institutionally imposed or set, but instead a process of being and becoming (other than one was) in ways crucial to both individual and collective happiness (closer to ethicality). Regarding similarities between ‘Preface to Transgression’ (1963a; 1963b) and ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1984a; 1984b), Table One also shows that the interdependence of limits and transgression is in his 1963 work already explicit, for instance through quote (b)(iii) in Table One. Hence the Foucauldian theory of transgression was not as dichotomous or oversimplified as accounts discussed earlier in this article might suggest.

Also observable in Table One are connections between franchissement and transgression – see quotes (b)(i-v). Similar connections are notable in other French writers’ accounts of transgression. Indeed, in their introduction to Paradoxes de la Transgression (2012), book editors Michel Hastings, Loïc Nicholas and Cédric Passard observe that transgression’s very etymology evokes franchising a limit (2012: 9).[viii] Psychoanalytic theorist Janine Filloux similarly identifies the franchissement of some threshold (‘seuil’) as key to the etymology of transgression (2009: 35). For Filloux, transgression is passing or progressing beyond (‘au-delà’): franchising a limit that instates order – the act of which annuls the old order, but also instates a new one, thereby inscribing a new limit yet to be franchised (2009: 35).[ix] What Filloux suggests here bears some similarities with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of fuite, which translator Brian Massumi presents fuite sometimes as ‘flight’, sometimes as ‘escape’. Massumi explains that fuite ‘has a different range of meanings than either of the English terms’, covering ‘not only the act of fleeing or eluding but also flowing, leaking, and disappearing into the distance … It has no relation to flying’ (1978: xvi) (although I would argue that it relates to flights of fancy, such as those on which poetry sometimes sweeps us). The linkage of these two concepts could also help us understand what we as poets in universities might make of franchissement in English.

While Foucault in his later writings focussed significantly on critique as re-making the self (1984a; 1984b; 1988a), Hastings, Nicholas and Passard’s depiction of transgression as something that reveals social rules, enabling their analysis (2012: 10)[x] makes it possible to suggest at least two vitally interrelated, reciprocal modes of franchissement: individual and collective. Individual franchissement is when one member of a society, through critique and self-re-making, nudges a limit of thought and becomes able to know what was previously unknowable due to their contextually-governed subjective constraints. That individual then becomes able to share their new insights with others in the same context, who are most likely limited by that context in similar, albeit not identical ways. For instance, the individual who undergoes franchissement may publish a research paper sharing what they have realised. Or they may create a poem. Or a social media post. Or simply speak with others. In all these and further eventualities, individual franchissement leads to possibilities for collective franchissement: the expansion of collective knowledge, that is, the knowledges available to a given community. Collective franchissement then subtly changes how all individuals in that community are subjectively constructed, meaning that everybody’s limits shift, potentiating even more new modes of individual franchissement, and thus collective franchissement, and thus … the feedback process continues.  

Poetry can facilitate individual and/as collective franchissement, and the term franchissement offers us, as poet-researchers, an expanded conceptual toolbox for theorising our creative practices of knowledge-generation. For example, in this article’s prosepoem introduction I noted how the ‘page: once blank, now gathering symbols, words’ facilitates ‘efforts at thinking, and the tracing thereof … things re-imagined through their very conception: things the presence of which depends on departure: flight:’ and as I wrote the word ‘flight’ I thought of ‘fuite’ and of Massumi’s translation. This prompted me to revisit Deleuze and Guattari and to recognise the potential usefulness of their ideas for (re)imagining franchissement in English. I have already signalled one part of this potential usefulness. A second, particularly relevant for poets in universities, entails the importance Deleuze and Guattari ascribed to artistic practice, including literary practice as a mode of engagement with knowledge. As Rex Butler observes, art is for Deleuze and Guattari ‘a privileged object of inquiry’ through which to ‘confront philosophy with its limits’ (2016: 33).  

Another instance of poetic franchissement in this article’s introduction entails the references to a new lover and a past relationship now fled. At first, I thought these grossly inappropriate for a scholarly piece (too intimate, too self-indulgent, plain crass). I went to delete them: my throat caught; something ached and screamed: they mattered: they mattered and still matter because they remind me: it was through poetry that I recognised my needed to flee the old, toxic relationship. This occurred through my verse novella Dreamday (Walker 2017), which engages psychoanalytic notions about unrecognised desires that drive us in ways we don’t comprehend. Ironically, when I wrote Dreamday, I thought it was about a fictional character – nothing to do with me. But when the proofs arrived and I read the story of that tortured ‘I’, it became clear: their story was mine. This exemplifies a phenomenon Hecq identifies in poetic research: ‘most of the discoveries we make occur after the fact’ (2015: 8).

With the poetically-gleaned knowledge Dreamday afforded, I left the relationship: a franchissement that incited multiple ongoing franchissements as I negotiated – and keep negotiating – drastically changed, changing situations that continually reconfigure who I am, what I know, and how I think. Although these franchissements might appear me-centric, this example in fact illustrates how individual and collective franchissements interconnect: as a result of leaving the toxic relationship, I penned a research paper, recently accepted for forthcoming publication in a research journal.[xi] The paper offers insights that I hope can benefit others in similar situations. It also points to social issues of gender as a constructed concept that inflicts extreme symbolic (as well as actual) violence upon multiple members of society, in multiple ways – themes also explored in a special issue I co-edited for the journal Writing From Below (Walker, Wisdom, Marks, Pearce and Challans 2017), resulting from the poetic franchissements Dreamday facilitated. 


La mort de Dieu ne nous restitue pas à un monde limité et positif, mais à un monde qui se dénoue dans l’expérience de la limite, se fait et se défait dans l’excès qui la transgresse (Foucault 1963b: 43; emphasis added).

The death of God does not restore us to a limited and positivistic world, but to a world exposed by the experience of its limits, made and unmade by that excess which transgresses it (Foucault 1963a: 59; emphasis added).

English language narrative models commonly feature patterns of rising conflict followed by resolution: the restoration of order to chaos; the answering of questions; the solving of problems; tying together of loose threads. In French, the equivalent is dénouement. Because noue means ‘knot’, my tendency as a creative misreader is to think: unknotting: a thought that evokes more than ‘resolution’, for although, yes, unknotting might mean getting the knots out of something tangled and thus tidying up what was once a mess – that is, restoring order – it can also suggest the fraying apart of threads previously woven in tidy fashion: the raising of new questions: new problems: new chaos: generative chaos: what Foucault called problematisation.

This article has suggested that franchissement in English can indicate a process via which we shift limits of thought, thereby transforming both individual and collective knowledges – in other words, a process through which we come to know more, or perhaps a kind of fuite as flighty escape. This article has also argued for links between poetry and franchissement, presenting examples to illustrate how I believe these links can operate. Yet the key point of this article, which focused on the question ‘what is franchissement?’, was explicitly not to answer the question and instead to argue for the value of the question itself: a question I contend we as poets in universities should repeatedly pose and repose, subjecting all answers to critique and problematisation. Hence I close with a reminder that all suggestions presented in this article are just that: suggestions: ripe for remaking. This line of flight flees in multiple directions:



[i] Henceforth in this essay, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ refers to Foucault’s essay unless otherwise specified.

[ii] I here paraphrase: ‘À la fin de sa vie, Foucault aimiait à parler de « problématisation » … un exercice critique de la pensée s’opposant à l’dée d’un recherche methodoque de la « solution »’ (Revel 2002: 4). Note that I have changed ‘vie’ (life) to ‘career’ and ‘parler’ (to speak) to ‘practice’. A more faithful translation might read ‘Towards the end of his life, Foucault loved to speak of “problematisation”… a critical exercise of thought as opposed to the idea of a methodical search for the “solution”’.

[iii] Wherever I present ‘transgression’ in italics, I am emphasising usage of the word in French.

[iv] I paraphrase: ‘le laboratoire de la pensée n’est pas seulement le lieu où se créent les concepts mais bien souvent aussi le lieu où, dans un movement de retournement qui est toujours présent chez Foucault, ils sont dans un second temps passés au crible de la critique interne… termes sont donc produits, fixés puis réexaminés et abandonnés, modifés ou élargis dans un movement continu de reprise et de déplacement’ (Revel 2002: 3). This messily translates to ‘the “laboratory of his thought” [metaphor] is not only the place where he creates concepts, but often also the place where, in an movement of return always present in Foucault, his concepts are again subjected to internal critique… terms are produced, fixed then re-examined then abandoned, modified or expanded upon in a continual movement of revision and deplacement’.

[v] ‘Foucault développe deux lignes de discours à partir de Kant’ (Revel 2002: 5) messily translates as ‘Foucault develops two lines of discourse in departure from Kant’.

[vi] From here onwards, with a small number of exceptions, franchissement is no longer presented in italics because I am loaning it into English and trying to integrate it as a normal word.

[vii] Franchissement is here italicised to emphasise usages in French. This point applies to any other italicisations of ‘franchissement’ and ‘transgression’ from this point onwards.

[viii] ‘’L-étymologie du mot « transgresser » évoque… le fait de passer outre, de franchir une limite’ (Hastings, Nicholas and Passard 2012: 9) messily translates as ‘The etymology of the word “transgression” evokes… the act of passing beyond, of franchising a limit’.

[ix] ‘Franchir un seuil en abattant des barrières est le sens étymologique de transgresser. Transgresser c’est passer au-delà, franchir une limite qui instaure un order. Le franchissement annule l’ordre présent pour en instaurer un nouveau, inscrivant par-là méme une nouvelle limite à franchir’ (Filloux 2009: 35). Messy translation: ‘Franchising a limit and breaking down barriers is the etymological sense of transgression. Transgression is to pass beyond, to franchise a limit that instates order. Franchissement annuls the present order in order to instate a new one, inscribing a new limit to franchise’.

[x] ‘Il est donc permis… d’envisager la transgression comme un révélateur, un analyseur des régles du jeu social’ (Hastings, Nicholas and Passard 2012: 10) messily translates as ‘it is thus possible… to see translation as a revealer, an analyser of the rules of the social game’.

[xi] The paper is titled ‘Women Like That: A Poetic Inquiry into the Complexities of Intimate Partner Abuse’ and has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Gender-Based Violence.

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