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La construction du discours colonial Review

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Since the cultural turn in studies on the French colonial empire and imperialism in general in the 1980s, there has been far more focus attached to the investigation of what the empire meant, how it was portrayed, and its cultural influence in France. It is fitting thus that there would be a book like Construction du discours colonial: L'Empire francais aux XIX et XX siècles (Construction of a colonial discourse: The French Empire in the 19th and 20h centuries), which discusses the historiography of the empire and how it was portrayed in its different regions.

The French empire was far from a homogenous whole. An outsized proportion of the book is dedicated to Indochina, conversely both the richest and often one of the most ignored part of the empire. But there is also the Pacific (a subject of another chapter), an even more neglected region, and the general tenor of the book, despite its engagement with the colonial subject, seems to as a whole take a rather blasé look at the degree of French involvement with the colonies: its profound lack of interest in African art and as a rule culture, or its denigration of Vietnamese art. It could have been striking to see a comparison with British attitudes towards their own colonies in Asia, and particularly how they interacted with the art of India.

What seems striking is that the book has such a dramatic distinction between the abstract ideas of the creation of colonial discourses, and very micro histories of specific subjects: the beginning of the book is extremely difficult to understand and it focuses at great length on the difficult theorizing which is a forbidding challenge for anyone reading French academic books, and whose main contribution is relatively limited, to talking about the changes in historiography with the decline of the hagiographic colonial view, the rise of Marxist perspectives, and then the decline of this perspective in favor of cultural schools, alongside the actors and agents in French colonialism who helped format a discourse of empire, particularly on the subject of history. By contrast, after this it tends to focus on specialized subjects, particularly artwork (for Africa and Indochina), as well as the historiography of particular colonies, such as Indochina or the Pacific islands, being particularly intriguing in its discussion of the relative weight of ethnologists andanthropologists.

These specific subjects are generally well covered, and the segments on Indochinese and African arts show the difficult integration of these new cultural productions into the European framework of art. In Africa it was often declared that these people who supposedly lacked history and artistic development had no art worthy of the name, while in Indochina the legacy of Chinese and Indian influence in Vietnam and Cambodia/Laos respectively split the study into two distinct branches, while the overall artistic talents of the land were heavily panned. Angkor Wat showed itself as the only element of colonized artwork which became emblematic, but at the same time fit into a European narrative of decadence, decline, and the need for French guidance to restore the lost glory of this civilization. But they feel to be so specialized that the overall one of French colonial discourse and its broader structure is lost, except that which can be gleamed from aside comments within. There is some exception concerning Algeria and North Africa where the coverage is focused upon the general nature of who was producing discourses on French colonial North Africa, but this in its short nature ( a small ending chapter), and in its focus upon generalities errors in the opposite direction, providing a good feel for the nature of research but only a limited amount concerning the specific details of what the discourse on North Africa actually was.

Of course, a book is not necessarily that which you would expect it to be. But when you hear something like "the construction of a colonial discourse," you expect a very different sort of book: how the ideal of the colonized being backwards, passive, racially inferior was created, the establishment of the idea of the mission civilisatrice, the ideal of mise en valeur, hygiene, assimilation vs. association, and an in-depth look at what sort of individuals were involved in producing this rhetoric upon the colonies. At most these are only hinted at in between the lines, with the exception of the admirable section on the historiography of Polynesia which shows very well the changing perceptions of Polynesian natives. The book feels like a collection of isolated snapshots of different aspects of the French colonial empire, without a general binding together. Individually, they are interesting, but it makes it a scattered diorama of the French empire.


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