The following was inspired by a post by Ben Myers:

I recently wrote a paper on the concept of cliché in Proust. Without getting into the boring minutiae of the paper itself, it might be interesting simply to point out the history of the word ‘cliché’, which had three main stages.

The word first arose with the advent of stereotype printing. Unlike previous forms of printing, stereotype used type-casts (often made from plaster of Paris) taken from a plate rather than the plate itself. The net effect of this technique was massively to increase rates of productivity and total output. ‘Cliché’ was the word French print-workers coined to imitate the sound of the matrix dropping into the molten metal, and it soon became synonymous with the copies themselves. In other words, cliché was originally onomatopoeic. (At this point in the paper I made all sorts of pretentious comments about onomatopoeia constituting ‘sealed, impervious phono-monads in which the tessellation of sound and sense is so exact as to deny all alterity’…). Cliché printing was effectively the copy of a copy; it was originally a simulacrum. (Cue postmodern canned cheers).

The second stop on the fateful journey of this outcast word was in the world of nineteenth-century photography. Here, cliché was the word photographers naturally turned to in order to name the new-fangled photographic negatives, since the principle of material inscription appeared sufficiently similar to the world of printing. Finally, it was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that cliché became used regularly as a synonym for ‘banal commonplace’. This was thanks primarily to the associations of cliché in both print and photography with mass reproduction, and hence with mechanical repeatability.


In terms of Ben’s taking notes of his own clichés the better to avoid them, it might be worth remembering that this insidious fear of repetition only really arose (in France at least) with Flaubert. He was the first to instigate what Barthes calls ‘writing as craft’ [écriture artisanale]. And this was mainly due to the revolutionary upheavals of 1848-1850, which made it impossible for bourgeois writers to go on writing in the manner which until that point had been undergirded by outright class hegemony. For Fredric Jameson, following Barthes, this was the moment at which rhetoric, a precapitalist mode of linguistic organization, a preindividualistic standard of fine speaking shared by a ruling class with a homogeneous public, gave way to what we now know as style: a truly bourgeois, highly individualistic, quasi-physical, solution to ‘the sapping of the collective vitality of language.’ (Jameson himself is a fine stylist).


3 thoughts on “Cliché

  1. Ben Myers says:

    Thanks, a great post! To mention my own favourite contemporary stylist: in relation to style, James Wood also writes about Flaubert as the source of all modern evils.

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      Yeah, I think most people tend to! I’m still building myself up to read Sartre’s 5-volume work on Flaubert… I do like James Wood, especially his How Fiction Works, though I often don’t agree with what he says in his reviews, despite their quality. I’m currently researching a paper on the politics of style in Fredric Jameson, and as part of that I read a book by Percy Lubbock, who was a friend and literary admirer of Henry James, called The Craft of Fiction (1921). Much of it was remarkably similar to Wood’s How Fiction Works, if different in aim. You might also like to check out Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, which is a beautiful book on the nature of the novel.

      I’m looking forward to your posts on writing! Keep up the good work – I really enjoy the blog!

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