The burden of empire was placed squarely on the shoulders of the colonized. The shrouding of this fact is the scandal that should not be allowed to repeat itself, either in our historical interpretations of the past, or in present efforts to appropriate this history for the use of new forms of global domination.
—Nicholas B. Dirks, The Scandal of Empire
Postcolonial paradigms and politics have become relatively prominent on the French academic scene during the past decade. But somehow the flare of interest in le postcolonial or postcolonialisme has been accompanied, rather than followed, by even more visible commentaries and metacommentaries, rejections, and criticisms.1 Recent academic publications, as well as a few references in popular science magazines such as Sciences humaines, have been seized on in turn by English-speaking critics and reintegrated into their understanding of contemporary France.2 The authors invited to contribute to this volume, Jean- François Bayart, Achille Mbembe, and Ann Laura Stoler, have been important witnesses to and analysts of the unfolding debate. The postcolonial argument among French scholars, on the one hand, and American and British scholars, on the other, is articulated on at least two levels, the critical and the metacritical. Since the late 1990s, English-speaking scholars working on contemporary France or on French-language literatures have noted the apparent indifference of French intellectuals to the meanings and concepts of postcolonialism since the late 1990s; in particular, the institutional situation of French studies in the English-language academy, and the difficult insertion of the postcolonial paradigm into French literary studies, was carefully examined, for instance in the seminal work of Charles Forsdick and David Murphy.3 In terms of impact, however, these landmark studies did not resonate much beyond the academic spaces where French and English intersected, and in France, hardly at all: such work had the triple “handicap” of being produced in English, of broaching the subject of the postcolonial, and of dealing with literature.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, with the rapid emergence of postcolonial approaches in France (since 2005, in particular), French scholars in history and anthropology have been less interested in postcolonial ideas per se than with addressing the notion that postcolonialism might be a Hexagonal blind spot. As Forsdick and Murphy point out, “There has been evidence of an almost simultaneous reaction against this incipient ‘postcolonial turn’ with historians and essayists such as Bruckner and Lefeuvre warning against, in the case of the former, a decline of the West associated with penitence for the colonial past, and in the case of the latter, historiographic falsifications linked to processes of postcolonial repentance.”4 This backlash has tended to polarize the debate between “expiation,” on the one hand, and oblivion, on the other, oversimplifying the issues at stake: the point is not that France has ignored its colonial past. Neither the French public nor French academia has “forgotten” France’s colonial legacy. But what this awareness has become is another question.
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- “Qui a peur du postcolonial?” Mouvements, no. 51 (2007); “Postcolonialisme et immigration,” Contretemps, no. 16 (2006); “La question postcoloniale,” Hérodote, no. 120 (2006); “Relectures d’histoires coloniales,” Cahiers d’histoire, no. 99 (2006); “Faut-il être postcolonial?” Labyrinthe, no. 24 (2006); “Empire et colonialité du pouvoir” and “Le postcolonial et l’histoire,” Multitudes, no. 26 (2006); “Pour comprendre la pensée postcoloniale,” Esprit (2006). More recently, Jean-Loup Amselle, L’Occident décroché: Enquête sur les postcolonialismes (Paris: Stock, 2008).
- See for instance Charles Forsdick and David Murphy, eds., Postcolonial Thought in the French-Speaking World (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009). This volume painstakingly seeks to analyze both postcolonialism and French “specificities” in relation to one another.
- Charles Forsdick and David Murphy, eds., Francophone Postcolonial Studies (London: Hodder Arnold, 2003).
- Forsdick and Murphy, Postcolonial Thought, 17.