Literary Terror to Advance Democracy? Victor Hugo, Rancière, and the Body
This article examines Victor Hugo’s claim to use a “93 littéraire” to advance democracy. It draws on Jacques Rancière’s articulation of literature and democracy to advance a dialogue with Hugo’s “Réponse à un acte d’accusation” (written 1854, dated 1834). Three questions guide this close reading of the poem: How does Hugo’s literary project bolster democracy? What is “literary terror” and how might it advance democracy? Rancière’s work provides theoretical insights into these relationships but, in contrast to Hugo, he strives to move beyond the Terror as a founding event that continues to hold sway in how we understand and practice democracy. This then raises a third question: if, as Marx poignantly observed, we make our own history but under conditions handed down from the past, how does the Terror get handed down and shape the present? I argue that in order to answer these questions we must attend to the body and the different ways both the Terror and Hugo’s “literary terror” position it and do work on it.