With the “colonial turn” in French studies now on the wane, this article attempts to assess its contributions. It suggests that one of the main thrusts of the “colonial turn” has been the reconsideration of the “Republic” as a framework for understanding modern French history: the colonies being the place where the Republic “contradicted itself” or, on the contrary, where its deepest tensions revealed themselves. While this perspective has been essential in underlining the importance of race in modern French history, it can be regarded as no more than an attempt to write a history of “France” enriched by the imperial perspective: indigenous worlds appear only secondarily in these analysis of the “imperial Republic.” This shortcoming echoes other criticisms that can be addressed to the “colonial turn” in French studies: the ahistorical use of the category of the “colonial” in the singular and the lack of satisfactory analysis of the “postcolonial.”
The “Colonial” in French Studies
At the time of his death, the sociologist of immigration Abdelmalek Sayad (1933-1998) was putting the final touches on a collection of his principal articles—since published under the title La Double Absence.1 The publication of this collection provides, I think, a good occasion for introducing Sayad to the anglophone public, which to date has had almost no exposure to his work. In France, Sayad’s sociology has been essential not only to the study of Algerian immigration, but to the understanding of migration as a “fait social total,” a total social fact, which reveals the anthropological and political foundations of contemporary societies. The introduction of this exceptional work to American specialists of French studies is timely, moreover, because immigration and more recently, colonization have been among the most dynamic areas of research in the field in the past few years.
Transatlantic Perspectives on the Colonial Situation
In the past several years, colonial studies have reemerged as an important focus for the social sciences on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet there has been little exchange or communication between scholars in France and the United States. Moreover, the apparent commonality of the subject matter often masks important differences in approach, as well as differences in the political and scholarly agendas that support such research. The editors of this special issue of French Politics, Culture and Society believe that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Georges Balandier’s classic article, “La situation coloniale, approche théorique” (Cahiers Internationaux de Sociologie 11 : 44-79), presents a valuable opportunity to promote Franco-American dialogue on the colonial question. This special issue publishes some of the works presented at a conference organized in April 2001 by the Institute of French Studies of New York University and entitled “1951-2001: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Colonial Situation.”
Dignity, Prestige, and Domination in the “Colonial Situation”
My contribution is an attempt to resolve one of those enigmas that the French colonial archives hold for assiduous readers. In the course of comparative research on the juridical status of métis children in the French Empire,1 I was struck by the frequency with which the terms “dignity” and “prestige” figured in a wide range of colonial preoccupations—whether on the part of local or central administrations, private individuals or institutions. These were not merely personal or social qualities, but terms that had precise legal meanings and that played a central role in colonial jurisprudence. In this context, the terms were predominantly used in the negative—referring to threats to prestige (atteintes au prestige) or to the obligation to maintain one’s dignity (garder sa dignité).
À l’origine de ces quelques éléments de réflexion sur les lectures américaines d’Alain Corbin, il y a le souci de percer une énigme et, plus encore, de comprendre un malentendu: ces deux objectifs offrent une belle occasion de saisir les modes sur lesquels sont appropriés les travaux des historiens français et, audelà, d’éclairer certains points nodaux de l’oeuvre de Corbin. La réception américaine sera donc surtout ici prétexte à une entrée un peu décalée dans l’imposant massif corbinien.