Exceptions are usually conceived of in relation to rules but in fact a wide range of issues arises from this dialectical relationship: exception turns into exclusion when it is construed as embodying a deviation from dominant schemas of thought, as eluding classification, as not fitting the canon or as going against the Establishment. But addressing what constitutes an exception means addressing the unthinkable, eccentric or transgressive, that may herald potential renewal and redistribution. When the noun is turned into an adjective, it even takes on a positive connotation: to be ‘exceptional’ is to be situated beyond the norms in force. Would thinking about exceptions in such a way imply thinking of difference in non-taxonomic, non-comparative terms? We hope the rich notion of exception will lead the different panels to explore these values and implications (among others).
When we think of ‘exceptions’, we are likely to associate them immediately with ‘rules’, in accordance with the famous, often ill-conceived saying, ‘the exception that proves the rule’. This expression comes straight from Latin law (Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis) and although it conceives of the exception as necessarily implying the existence of a rule (we cannot speak of the exception without mentioning the rule it relates to), it is often used with a slightly different meaning: the exception is regarded as proving the validity/soundness of the rule. It is thus interpreted differently when used in common law than in common sense: it tests the rule on the one hand and confirms its hegemony or authoritativeness on the other. In legal contexts or in state law for instance, the notion has been used to question exceptional post-9/11 legislation in the US (George W. Bush’s Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay [Hussain 2007]) or the opt-out clauses for the United Kingdom (among other countries) in European law. In this respect, Brexit appears as the latest and most dramatic instance of British exceptionalism.
What arises from such duality might be called the ‘paradox of exception’, exceptions being regarded as either breaking the rules, thereby acquiring the status of ‘odd ones out’, or sowing the seeds of future forms. The notions of classification and categorisation, and their repercussions on the history of science and medicine, emerge against the backdrop of this duality. This essentially corresponds to Canguilhem’s question regarding the living: “To the extent that living beings diverge from the specific type, are they abnormal in that they endanger the specific form or are they inventors on the road to new forms?” (1991, 141). The exception could therefore be held as the inventive form of the ‘specific type’ of tomorrow, ahead of its time, providing a temporary escape from all existing classifications. The platypus discovered by the first European settlers in Australia is a prime example: this semi-aquatic mammal, which lays eggs but suckles its young, upset all the established classificatory frameworks, as Eco recounts in Kant and the Platypus (1999). Furthermore, even though it is a prerogative of science to exclude all irrelevant phenomena when constructing a scientific theory (Luis J. Prieto 1975), reconsidering these elements relegated to the margins of theory often results in new theories. Hence chaos theory was developed thanks to the observation of phenomena (referred to as ‘nonlinear’) which had previously been considered monstrous exceptions (Hayles 1990).
‘Exception’ becomes synonymous with ‘exclusion’ when it refers to that which escapes any classification, dialect, thought pattern or established canon. In this context, it evokes the dialectic of pathology and norm which Foucault discussed in his history of madness. In the classical age, the madman was the ‘other’, in opposition to the ‘norm’ and therefore the ‘universal’: “the madman is the other in the eyes of others: the other – meaning, the exception- amongst others in the universal sense” (1972, 199). But if we construe exception as leading ‘towards new forms’, normality need no longer be synonymous with centrality, nor exception with marginality. Might it be possible to construe the notions of exception or difference “in a non distinctive, non comparative and non taxonomic manner”, as Marielle Macé has suggested (2016, 96)? Would it be possible, to use her own examples, to conceive of a madman in and of himself, without reference to the norm of sanity? In a different field altogether, can we think of homosexuality without contrasting it with heterosexuality? When applied to language such an approach would mean that linguistic ‘infractions’ could be seen, not as departures from a norm (which is always multifaceted), but rather as “acknowledgements of the virtual possibilities inscribed in language” (Gardes Tamine 2010). Unless, of course, we believe that exceptions exist merely as a stage in the process of linguistic theorising, only to be brought into the fold later by a broader theory. The notion of exception therefore engages with that of the Establishment, and with the dialectic of insider/outsider to which it is linked. It questions the notions of enumeration and of inclusion and exclusion. In the same way as Protestantism and Puritanism questioned the adiophora or ‘indifferent’ things which were not expressly mentioned in the Bible, the 9th amendment of the American Constitution mentions those rights to which it does not specifically refer; the notion of exception thus becomes an interpretative framework for the fundamental texts of the theologico-political tradition of the English-speaking world.
Furthermore, when we transform the noun into an adjective, being exceptional is not about failing to meet the norm, but about stepping outside of the norm, enjoying an exceptional status in the sense of supreme singularity. We could speak here of exceptional destinies, exceptional or original lives, singularities which deserve to be turned into life stories, but also resolutely unclassifiable works, and literary madmen struck by creative genius. Films or biopics featuring exceptional scientists, such as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001), Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing, provide some examples. Besides, an exceptional destiny, sometimes drawn from insularity, can also be the belief of a nation that interprets it as a source of exemplarity. Hence Great Britain has cultivated its eccentricity while America, the Elect nation with a ‘manifest destiny’, has fashioned itself as the first new nation (Lipset 1963) that could claim, for instance when referring to socialism, “it didn’t happen here” (Lipset and Marks 2000). Exception has its paradoxes: to offer oneself as a model is to risk being imitated and therefore losing one’s exceptional status.
Thinking outside the box, or working against what is considered ‘normal’, what is expected or banal, is a de-territorialisation, a de-centering which challenges easy classifications; it challenges the canon, as well as belief systems, styles, and literary and aesthetic movements. The phrase ‘to take exception to’ implies being offended or indignant. And indeed, the academy risks running out of steam if it lacks the courage to think differently, to plough its own furrow, against orthodoxies and intellectual routines which ultimately fossilize thought and marginalize the very production of knowledge. This conference takes place in Provence, where Zola and Cezanne met and became friends. We might want to follow their lead and reflect upon the unexpected or the impromptu, to dwell on formal, aesthetic and intellectual innovations which initially appear to oppose conventional knowledge. The concept of exception rejects academic conformity. It welcomes, even clamours for, the kind of critical re-examination that favours the emergence of the unthinkable and transgressive.
The conference will welcome contributions which reflect on the ways that rules are established and undermined, in order to uncover how art, literary works and translations can break up stylistic and/or semantic conventions. As Scottish critic Alex Thomson (2017) puts it, “all [our] writers are outsiders”. This goes for our translators, too, if one is to believe Henri Meschonnic (1973), who writes that, “translating is part of the ceaseless process of changing society’s literary forms”. In the field of didactics, this principle would invite us to re-examine the particular status of ‘the rule of exception’ and, more generally, the rule according to which a standard variety can embody the norm and impose what deviations are. We hope that the conference will also question the assumption that civilizations believe their collective spaces to be both unique and inimitable.
Translated by Aurélie Ceccaldi, Marie-Odile Hédon, Anne Page, Laurence Sterritt, Sandrine Sorlin. Revised by Alice Byrne
Canguilhem, Georges. 1991. The Normal and the Pathological. Trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett in collaboration with Robert S. Cohen. New-York, Zone Books.
Eco, Umberto. 1999. Kant et l’ornithorynque. Trad. Julien Gayrard. Paris : Grasset.
Foucault, Michel. 1972. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique. Paris : Gallimard.
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Hayles, N. Katherine. 1990. Chaos Bound. Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca & Londres: Cornell University Press.
Hussain, Nasser. 2007. « Beyond Norm and Exception : Guantánamo ». Critical Inquiry, Vol. 33, No. 4: 734-753.
Lipset, Seymour M. 1963. The First New Nation. The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. New York: Basic Books.
Lipset, Seymour M. & Gary W. Marks. 2000. It Didn’t Happen Here. Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Meschonnic, Henri. 1973. Pour La poétique II. Paris : Gallimard.
Prieto, Luis J. 1975. Pertinence et pratique. Essai de sémiologie. Paris : Editions de Minuit.
Macé, Marielle. 2016. Styles. Critique de nos formes de vie. Paris: Gallimard.
Thomson, Alex. 2017 in Hames, S 2017 Narrating Devolution: Politics and/as Scottish Fiction. C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-century Writings, 5(2): 2, pp. 1–25, DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/c21.20