restricted access The Etat Civil: Post/colonial Identities and Genre
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French Forum 29.3 (2004) 79-94

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The Etat Civil

Post/colonial Identities and Genre

University College Cork

Naming peoples and places was a central feature of colonial and imperial enterprises: to name was to have dominion, or at least the illusion of control that colonial administrators sought to make real. The attempt to regulate, in some way, the name of the colonial subject by inserting it into the standard format of the état civilnom followed by prénom—was, however, even more problematic as it involved changes in social practice and tradition. This article examines the role of the name in two post/colonial Francophone texts and, in doing so, questions contemporary French pragmatic approaches to genre that emphasize the relationship between the stability of the individual's name, as inscribed within the état civil, and the generic status of the text. The opening section of this article is a brief consideration of the relationship between genre and the name as viewed by pragmatic theorists of genre; the second part offers examples of two francophone texts in which the name is put in play. The first is Kateb Yacine's Nedjma which was published as a novel in 1956 and the second is Patrick Chamoiseau's Une enfance créole ii: Chemin d'école, an autobiographical project published as a récit in 1994. Though separated by a period of almost forty years and emerging from different geographical and cultural contexts, both these generically uncertain texts put the name in play in ways that unsettle the presumption that the name could be grounded in the état civil throughout la plus grande France.

Genre is about formal boundaries and can be seen as a social construct. This is particularly evident in the work of pragmatic theorists who use models of intersubjective communication to underpin generic divisions. Of the many borderlines they establish the principal one is that between factual texts and fictional texts. In constructing a line of [End Page 79] division between these forms of narrative, theorists, such as Philippe Lejeune and Jean-Marie Schaeffer, place much emphasis upon the relationship of identity between the name of the author and that of the narrator. Where the name on the cover of the book is also that of the narrator, then the author is presumed to assume responsibility for the referential authenticity of the text. Where the name of the narrator is different from that of the author, then the fictionality of the text is foregrounded. In privileging the relationship between name and genre, some theorists hope to avoid the marchlands of generic indeterminacy. In the following examples, each theorist is concerned to stabilize generic categories through an approach that ultimately appeals to the norms of society and the institutions of the state.

Jean-Marie Schaeffer, for example, argues that no text can be understood outside of a system of protocols that regulate acts of communication.1 His claim, which is entirely reasonable, is that genre can only be understood against a normative background. His study of genre, and in particular genericity, is not a prescriptive one. Schaeffer diverges from any view that would bind genre to a set of rules designed to make of each category a substantive form. Instead, Schaeffer proposes that every text has a set of characteristics that help the reader to recognize it in terms of one genre rather than another. A text might radically dispute the conventional traits of a genre whilst still belonging to that genre. Despite its divergence from the Balzacian model of the novel, the nouveau roman, for example, is still recognized as a novel. However, Schaeffer does argue that genre is a product of a system of constraints that are determined within a socially or culturally determined context (341). Schaeffer's analysis does not, however, consider the politico-cultural specificities that inform a normative background and social conventions. What is clear, however, is that these conventions significantly determine the illocutionary force of a work and, as a result, how the work is received...