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Empire of Language

Toward a Critique of (Post)colonial Expression

by Laurent Dubreuil; translated by David Fieni

Publication Year: 2013

The relationship between power and language has been a central theme in critical theory for decades now, yet there is still much to be learned about the sheer force of language in the world in which we live. In Empire of Language, Laurent Dubreuil explores the power-language phenomenon in the context of European and, particularly, French colonialism and its aftermath. Through readings of the colonial experience, he isolates a phraseology based on possession, in terms of both appropriation and haunting, that has persisted throughout the centuries. Not only is this phraseology a legacy of the past, it is still active today, especially in literary renderings of the colonial experience-but also, and more paradoxically, in anticolonial discourse. This phrase shaped the teaching of European languages in the (former) empires, and it tried to configure the usage of those idioms by the "Indigenes." Then, scholarly disciplines have to completely reconsider their discursive strategies about the colonial, if, at least, they attempt to speak up.

Dubreuil ranges widely in terms of time and space, from the ancien régime through the twentieth century, from Paris to Haiti to Quebec, from the Renaissance to the riots in the banlieues. He examines diverse texts, from political speeches, legal documents, and colonial treatises to anthropological essays, poems of the Négritude, and contemporary rap, ever attuned to the linguistic strategies that undergird colonial power. Equally conversant in both postcolonial criticism and poststructuralist scholarship on language, but also deeply grounded in the sociohistorical context of the colonies, Dubreuil sets forth the conditions for an authentically postcolonial scholarship, one that acknowledges the difficulty of getting beyond a colonialism-and still maintains the need for an afterward.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-12

Colonial! The word is everywhere. In newspapers, journals, and books; at conferences, lectures, and symposia. At times it seems as though the present has been invaded by the colonial past. And not just in Europe. What are we to make of the former colonial “possessions” that remain in thrall to an unresolved history, ...

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Part I: Phraseologies

One may kill without a word; so they say. But every colonial empire speaks, and speaks of itself. The colony is also a site within language, often a topos. Writing both describes and alters it. This book is itself an addition to the seemingly innumerable texts already produced on this site, bookish continents. ...

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Chapter 1. (Post)colonial Possessions

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pp. 15-35

The colonial phrase that we are assembling will speak first in French. We may then see how our examination might be extended to other languages. This choice of language is clearly a function of the space I am privileging in this work. The concern with discrepancies among languages will make extrapolations possible. ...

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Chapter 2. Haunting and Imperial Doctrine

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pp. 36-56

When it is uttered in a political space, the phrase of possession also helps us to grasp the principal colonial and postcolonial doctrines, which tend both to invoke and to revoke enchantment. Reestablishing the tacit links these doctrines bear to haunting is thus a supplementary gesture of interpretation. ...

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Chapter 3. The Revenant Phrase

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pp. 57-80

The colonial phrase of possession is made possible by the encounter of multiple elements: these include a discourse relating to the appropriation of the earth, the language of the slave trade, and a description of the supernatural. Depending on the histories of the specific places and languages, this possibility is more or less achieved both in the colony and in the texts that contribute to the life of empire. ...

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Part II: Giving Languages, Taking Speech

Who speaks—can she? Is there a force or an instance that authorizes us to speak, or to write? Social language usage certainly privileges some actors and orators over others. However, speech cannot be given unless someone in fact takes it. In other words, it is only the right to proffer that may be conferred; to withhold a word, that is another story: ...

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Chapter 4. The Languages of Empire

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pp. 83-101

With the prescribed articulation between language and speech (langue et parole), we enter a more clearly theologico-political space. The term “theologico-political” merits clarification. It is taken from Spinoza’s 1670 Tractatus theologico-politicus, written in Latin. ...

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Chapter 5. Interdiction within Diction

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pp. 102-118

We have seen all the uncertainties and limits concerning linguistic transmission; we will now examine how a modification in the practice of French becomes fused with all these uncertainties. The ultimate goal of these changes is the canceling out of the speech of the colonized. ...

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Chapter 6. Today: Stigmata and Veils

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pp. 119-128

The advent of speech is never achieved once and for all. And although it does not definitively undo interdiction, indigenous speech does open a breach in the colonial edifice. The insistence of indigenous discourses in French, in tandem with the wars for independence, has made it difficult for colonial verbiage to claim to represent the language without being ridiculed. ...

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Chapter 7. Reinventing Francophonie

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pp. 129-144

Speech is born from the unheard-of in language, it alters already existing connections, it reforms usage. It can contribute to the construction of a phrase—that collection of sedimented utterances, words, idea-grammars, and parts of speech. Speech is therefore an event, never original, that breaks with an established order with which it communicates; ...

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Part III: Disciplining Knowledge

If one must speak the colony, then it is necessary to decide which discourse of knowledge is capable of such speech, and by means of which disciplines. What I first called the phrase designates the buildable linguistic agglomerate that encircles and expresses the colonial adventure. ...

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Chapter 8. Formations and Reformations of Anthropology

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pp. 147-158

In the Greco-European lineage, it is possible to trace the first anthropological narratives back to antiquity, to Herodotus, for example. We see these narratives renewed by the experience of the New World, by authors such as Jean de Léry. However, if we consider “anthropology” in terms of a discipline, ...

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Chapter 9. The Impossible Colonial Science

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pp. 159-180

For all of its imaginable points of acquaintance, there is nothing about anthropological discourse that makes it particularly adequate in relation to colonial diction. On the contrary, in the multiplicity of its postures, anthropology always requires recourse to a disciplinary exteriority. ...

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Chapter 10. Who Will Become a Theoretician?

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pp. 181-196

The work of Homi Bhabha diverges between what it says and the saying of it. Interdisciplinarity is in no way adventitious, but its ambition must be distinguished from the concept of hybridization that it explains. In general, the new forms within the Anglo-American university must pass through interdepartmental clusters. ...

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After the Afterward

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pp. 197-202

Silence is so often eloquent. To not speak of the colony, to evoke it as little as possible, as happened for several decades in France, may entail the unremitting return of a jargon that has already been heard so many times. In public speech, in the clamor of the media, in language teaching, scholarly discourse, and literary texts, ...


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pp. 203-218


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pp. 219-230


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pp. 231-240

E-ISBN-13: 9780801467516
E-ISBN-10: 0801467519
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801450563
Print-ISBN-10: 080145056X

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1