New Introduction: The reparative fiction-bowl theory

Émilie Notéris

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New Introduction:
The reparative fiction-bowl theory[1]

For a year and a half now I’ve been teaching a monthly writing workshop called How To SupPRESS University Writing, whose title pays homage to the science-fiction writer Joanna Russ and her book How To Suppress Women’s Writing. In the workshop I take the role of a firelighter. I offer the participants little scraps of fiction – mainly written by women and gay men, except for Kafka, whose writing is queer, as I see it. On these little scraps of fiction and other wads of paper each person sets down the branchings of their theoretical and literary references and together we start fires, rubbing one text against another a few times. Fires to warm us up and light our world. Fires to stoke university writing as it is taught in the context of the growing scarcity of free texts and their free oxygenation. In Three Guineas, published in 1938, Virginia Woolf recommends the following, “Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this “education”!’”[2] That cry can still be heard today.

In late 2019, one of the workshop participants, the artist Jagna Ciuchta, asked me if I knew of a French translation of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which she needed for her thesis. I quickly found her a link to a French version that was available online.[3] And I took the opportunity to reread it. The connection between that text and the restorative fiction project was as plain as day and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’ll come back to that. I let the Christmas holidays pass, along with the changeover to 2020, before setting to work writing this new introduction to my book[4], which I had often been asked to do. “You ought to write a more general text that specifies the concept and the practice, a text that anybody could easily read.” While that request customarily sparked deep annoyance in me, I decided to give it a try nevertheless, because, on the one hand, it would allow me to take stock, and, on the other, some time having passed since it was published, I can now clarify my thinking while benefiting from a so-called overall view.

To understand reparative fiction, we need to draw a bowl, a bowl that was broken but has been repaired according to the Japanese philosophical technique of kintsugi. Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken porcelain by joining the scattered fragments of a piece, which are fitted together using a gold paste. The golden scar left by the repair works like a transcendence of the accident. The repair doesn’t deny the break, it sublimates it and keeps it visible in the eyes of one and all. It isn’t a negation of history or a return to an idealized initial state through the crack. Kintsugi mobilizes positive affects; the broken bowl isn’t added to the household waste recycling, it is returned to its place in the kitchen. The act of breaking dishware then becomes much less problematic and all the more playful inasmuch as another perspective that is less definitive and paranoid is opened to us. It is the perspective of transformation.

Rather going all out to discover the causes of the break or shine a light on the separations, we have to focus on the repairs. Activate a reparative rather than paranoid principle, including where no repair seems possible. In an interview with the economist Felwine Sarr, published in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles on 29 January 2019, the historian Patrick Boucheron quoted by way of an example, and for the second time,[5] La Fiction réparatrice: “Reweaving doesn’t mean hiding the seam, it means embellishing the cut. In her book La Fiction réparatrice, Émilie Notéris talks about the Japanese art of kintsugi, which involves repairing broken porcelain pieces by making gold joints. The repair is an enrichment by the very fact that it renders the history of its accidents visible. What is essential with this poetics (which is also a politics) of putting things in the present is that it allows each person to weave and reweave while exposing the fractures, that is to say, the scars. Careful, though, nothing is filled in! It is not a ‘smooth’ history that is shown but rather the chronicle of our fractures.” With these words he was able to synthesize and reformulate my sentiments more easily than I could have at the time. The expression “the chronicle of our fractures” and the repair of the poetics/politics duality is indeed part of the experience as he states it with great clarity. It was one of the challenges that arose after writing my book and activating the reparative fiction principle, that of knowing whether or not it might prove operative beyond the experimental field proposed in its pages.

A get-together was organized in June 2017 for the book-launch at the Parisian bookstore Petite Egypte, with the author Alice Rivières, a character from documentary fiction invented by the clinical psychologist Émilie Hermant, who, with Valérie Pihet, codirects the collective Dingdingdong (the Institute for the Co-production of Knowledge about Huntington’s Disease). Alice had first appeared in the 2009 novel Réveiller l’aurore, which tells how she learned she carries a gene for an incurable illness, Huntington’s Disease. Émilie had just published, the same year as I did, Le Chemin des possibles: La maladie de Huntington entre les mains de ses usagers, cowritten with Ms. Pihet. This encounter was crucial since it involved discussing the effectiveness of a piece of reparative fiction with a young woman stricken with Huntington’s who had decided to draw on the power of fiction “to approach the disease as a mutation whose finality is completely unknown and therefore interesting,”[6] rejecting “the paranoid effects”[7] of the diagnostic, the announcement of a catastrophe as the only end in sight. This wasn’t a simple scheduled event that is part of a book tour but rather the intuition of a true, and beautiful, human encounter. Émilie activates fiction in order to transcend the disease, I wrote. But Émilie also corrects me here in her own words, “… I do not transcend the disease, whether through fiction or the other points of view I hold. Fiction and literature let me tackle Huntington’s with greater accuracy, subtlety, daring, breadth, and imagination, than the disciplines that had been used – before we got involved – to produce knowledge about this disease. The difference is important, i.e., not transcend but, on the contrary, delve quite deeply into it, equipped with a range of tools (including literary ones) capable of getting around in the dark as readily as in the light of day with a freedom that I have found nowhere else. Yet I don’t feel separated from reality for all that! I perceive reality differently. I’m stuck dealing with it all the time throughout our dingdingdongian inquiries and I stir it relentlessly, which elicits in return lots of nourishing things for my future and the future of my friends. Reality that has been dingdingdongized in this way is a terrific mixed bag!”[8] She empowers the stories of the people who become the users, the inhabitants, of Huntingtonland. While she doesn’t use the term repair, her work does aim to call into question a collection of interpretive binarisms like the real world and the imaginary world, or science and fiction.

This repair, you might think, goes far beyond the bowl framework we sketched out above, and you would be simultaneously wrong and right. I do have to come back to that, though. Until that time I had only focused on the theoretical aspect of the bowl, its surface, its meaning. Not on its character as a container. On what one might well come to place in it and in what way one might use it. In her 1987 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Ursula Le Guin reexamined a 1980 book by the feminist anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher, Women’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society.[9] In the second part of the book’s second chapter, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Evolution,” Fisher asserts that “the first cultural device was probably a recipient” (Fisher 1980, 58). This version of history clearly favors female gatherers over male hunters; the first tool was not a weapon. Not every tool necessarily possessed the cutting edge of flint but more readily the flexibility of the tie, the link. As Le Guin puts it, “…for what’s the use of digging up a lot of potatoes if you have nothing to lug ones you can’t eat home in.” History and prehistory as they have been told to us, or have been freely interpreted by men for men and women, have erased another history, another story, made up of care and gathering. Le Guin thus wrote, not the Ivory Tower version of a female author’s text, but a transmission of Fisher’s book, down to reprising her analysis of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the tossing up in the air of the masculinist bone. If Le Guin’s text is relatively common knowledge today, Fisher’s book seems to have disappeared without a trace. It is that genealogy that needs to be reclaimed.

In her chapter on “The Carry Bag Theory of Evolution,” Fisher quotes Sally Slocum in her 1971 article “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology,” as the trigger that set her off to write her book, “Given the cultural and ethnic background of the majority of anthropologist, it is not surprising that the discipline has been biased. … There is a strong male bias in the questions asked, and the interpretations given.”[10]  Slocum suggests that two major cultural inventions were, not weapons for hunting, but rather containers, “recipients,” for gathering food, and baby carriers for freeing up women’s hands in gathering. Fisher herself, in a chapter following the one devoted to the container and baby carrier, focuses on pottery and tools connected with cooking practices while also touching on the harnessing of fire, “Women, then, would have been the primary inventors and users of a whole complex of devices and techniques around which groups activities and subsistence were organized, leading to the creation of culture and, eventually, civilization.”[11]

If women gathered or picked instead of conquering by force, it is the same story seen in research and writing. For Slocum the use of the term “Man” in a generic sense has contributed to rendering the distinctions between Man and men ambiguous. She explains that female anthropologists learned to think like men and so she called for opening up the discipline and a philosophy of anthropology. Slocum influenced Elisabeth Fisher, who inspired Ursula Le Guin in turn. For Le Guin the novel, if it is a tool, is indeed a basket, a bag rather than a weapon, while epics, made up of conquests and violence, are to be replaced by other stories that mix care, sharing, and gathering. These wouldn’t be naïve stories; they would be different stories told from other points of view and more reparative. With bags, the hero is no longer needed, “Finally, it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.” So it is preferable, going forward with the novel-basket, to get rid of the heroes and keep only the people.

Reparative fiction then had a bellyful of arbitrary binarisms and separations, those of nature/culture, for example, or body/mind, or theory/fiction, which it intends to repair by questioning high-yield cultural products of its day and age (films and series). It’s a way of taking the pulse of the imagination by drawing a parallel with the research advances being obtained in a variety of theoretical fields (philosophy, history, anthropology, literature, etc.). to tell a story, or rather a variety stories that are nonbinary, murkier, queerer, and less immediately satisfying in the field of dominant French academic thinking.


Émilie Notéris (2020)

Invitation made on the occasion of the season Esthetics of Use, Uses of Esthetics, first movement, artifice


[1] New introduction to the book La Fiction réparatrice for its reprinting in April 2020, Éditions UV. Original publication: CAC Brétigny, 2020.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, New York, Harvest Books, 1963 (first Harvest edition), 36.

[3] For the English original, see

[4] La Fiction réparatrice, Éditions Supernova, Paris, 2017. Reprinting, April 2020, Éditions UV.

[5] See Patrick Boucheron’s lecture, Saturday 14 October 2017, at the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, marking the reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection.

[6] Email correspondence with Émilie Hermant in the course of writing this text, February 2020. I quote the author verbatim.

[7] Email, Hermant, February 2020.

[8] Email, Hermant, February 2020.

[9] Joanna Russ praised Fisher’s book in a review of it when it first came out; the review was published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, (fall 1980), 78-79. At the end of the piece, the author draws a parallel with a good number of books she holds in high regard, including The Transexual Empire, a transphobic book by Janice Raymond that was published in 1979 and which begins with a more problematic reading of her seminal book The Female Man. While a feminist and queer use of Russ’s texts is always possible, we must nonetheless bear in mind what can never remain a mere detail. (I discovered that while reading the Frontiers article for this new introduction.)

[10] Sally Slocum, cited by Elizabeth Fisher, Women’s Creation: Sexual Evolution and the Shaping of Society, Anchor Press, 1979.

[11] Elizabeth Fisher, ibidem.