Travel in Twentieth-Century French and Francophone Cultures: The Persistence of Diversity
There is something insidiously subversive about the way this book digs beneath the surface of the banal and the 'everyday' to reveal interconnections between orders of experience and knowledge that are not usually allowed to contaminate each other. The suspicion of witnessing a subversive activity unfold undoubtedly comes partly from the sense of transgressive delight to be derived from seeing so much of the material selected for attention punching so tellingly above its weight. From surprisingly simple starting points, an examination of the nature of travel in the post-colonial era (to use Françoise Lionnet's definition of 'post-colonial' as a synonym of 'post-contact') and how it has been represented in various forms of literature, Professor Forsdick leads his readers into a close interrogation of some of the central concepts of postcolonial theory: an ongoing reflection on the term exoticism, an interrogation of what constitutes cultural diversity and what are the implicit kinds of intersubjectivity on which such a notion can be founded, how agency within representational strategies is indissociably linked to processes of identity formation and so on. Indeed it is because Forsdick is prepared to excavate, unrelentingly, the material traces of 'journeys' as events (and events that relied on 'journeys') that the simultaneous archaeology of related concepts (travel, exoticism, cultural diversity, authenticity, identity formation) can be recognized as interconnected in new and enriching ways. The book has a clear chronological sweep, with chapters focusing on texts/events located between the two 'fins de siècle' of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, before engaging with this material, a good deal of space is devoted (in the Preface, Introduction and first chapter) to 'clearing the ground', outlining a central paradox that subsequent chapters will interrogate more fully: exoticism is figured as internalizing a twin movement of 'death and rebirth, loss and recovery' (p. 21) so that although diversity is perceived as declining under the combined onslaughts of hypermodernization and globalization, it nevertheless persists. Subsequent chapters devote attention to an appropriately diverse range of forms of 'displacement' and the writings they have motivated, from Albert Kahn's Archives de la Planète, via the 1931 Exposition coloniale, ethnographic missions, 'travel' narratives from and into the metropolitan centre, through to the recent work of the Pour une littérature voyageuse movement. With meticulous attention and punctilious scholarship, Forsdick draws on the writings of a panoply of postcolonial theorists and cultural anthropologists to help negotiate these contradictory perceptions of the exotic. The filiation from Segalen through to Glissant is possibly the key to accessing Forsdick's rather understated and probably provisional conclusion that processes such as 'syncretism, relation, hybridity, creolization, [and] transculturation', which 'imply a travelling within and between cultures' (p. 220) in a non-hierarchical, self-reflexive way and [End Page 407] relying on notions of multiple rather than fixed conceptions of identity, allow an understanding of the persistence of diversity in the face of its purported entropic erosion and decline. One of the lasting contributions of this book to current debates may well be the productive tension it generates between its 'ostensible' subject matter: the tracking of how 'elsewhere' is figured in practical terms in French and francophone cultures, and the ongoing reflection on, and theorization of, the complex notion of the exotic. Forsdick modestly identifies as one of his objectives a desire to 'contribute to a further opening up of the field of studies of travel literature in French' (p. xvi). This book goes much further than that: it demonstrates how a cultural archive can be decolonized, thus opening up a refreshing engagement with new theoretical spaces.