The Night of Ideas event here was a big success, and applause for all those who made it so – the people at the French Consulate here in L.A.
One of the panels I attended was about colonialism, post-colonialism, and identity, a discussion with Achille Mbembe, Nicolas Bancel, Kaoutar Harchi, Alain Mabanckou & Dominic Thomas. The discussion ranged over identity, Francophone literature, and France as a world language. It was fascinating, but … I resisted the opposition that dominated the proceedings, or so I thought.
That opposition aligns, on one side, France and the European nations, and on the other side, post colonial third world nations, as participants in a history in which the Europeans, representing an identity en bloc, colonize other peoples, who then have to find a path to their identity by overthrowing the European pesence, so to speak.
I understand how this image of Europe seems plausible from the side of those who live in post-colonial domains. Nevertheless, the idea of an eternally fused European identity is a miscarriage of history.
My problem with this story. then, is on the European side. Far from it being the case that the European nations have always existed as such, they are a relatively recent phenomenon. For instance, the majority of French people did not always speak French, nor identify from their first sentences with France/ The way it came about that France is now relatively homogenously French is a recent and incomplete phenomenon. The model for colonialism was formed in the heart of Europe as various peoples – the Irish, Scots and others in Great Britain, the Gascon, Provencal, Breton and others in France, etc. were subjected to the same combination of direct violence and institutional cultural violence to get them to be “British” or “French” or “Italian” or “German”. In other words, as Spanish, French, Portugese and English colonists were imposing themselves upon the people outside of Europe, inside of Europe the same forces were at work on the great peasant masses.
A turning point, or, perhaps, a point of collective clarification, came in the French revolution, when the revolutionaries took surveys of the countryside to find out how many French citizens actually spoke French. Abbe Gregoire, head of the research committee, “concluded rather hopefully that three quarters of the people of France knew some French. On the other hand, he admitted that only a portion of these could actually sustain a conversation in it, and he estiated that only about 3 million could speak it properly.” (Eugen Weber) This, out of a population of about 28 million. In other words, the France we know today is historically anamolous – although the Right yammers on about “strangers” in the midst of France, actually, the number of people who can converse in French properly living in France only became a majority in the late 19th century, and this, after a vast organizational effort. We don’t think of the school as creating the nation-state, but that is precisely what happens all over Europe. The great media inventions of the 19th century, the press, the novel, the theater, were all embedded in the effort to make the French french, the Germans German, the British English.
This is more important that just my peculiar historical caveat. It brings together the violent history of Europe and the violent history of European colonialization. Too often, the former is considered as happening in some separate, advanced time zone than the latter. The civilizing mission of France was the label for creating France, creating a nation state, with the creators, the governing class, being a minority in their own “countries”.
This 18th and 19th century history is not dead. Rather, the buckling of the Europe we have known since 1945, or, in Eastern Europe, since 1989, shows evidence that the fissures and buried resentments exist just under the crust. Identities that were, four generations ago, defeats are clung to now fiercely, evidence of the success of what Foucault called the disciplinary society. This is what the discipline is about.