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Heralds of Freedom

From: Ab Imperio
2/2013
pp. 17-23 | 10.1353/imp.2013.0046

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When the article "Colonial Situation: A Theoretical Approach" by French sociologist and anthropologist, Georges Balandier, came out back in 1951, the anticolonial liberation movement was gaining momentum, and heated political debates on the meaning of concepts such as freedom, democracy, and progress were spreading over the metropoles of European colonial empires. (Balandier's article is published for the first time in Russian translation in the "Methodology" section of this issue of Ab Imperio.) Balandier's article holds a special place among the numerous publications of politicians, philosophers, and social scientists of that epoch: for the first time, it conceptualized the "colonial situation" as a "totality" - a complex and dynamic hierarchical system of economic, cultural, racial, and political relationships set in a particular historical context. In French social theory of the mid-twentieth century, "totality" stood for the structuralist approach toward a problem, the most famous example being the project of "total history" by the Annales school. Balandier changed the focus of looking at the colonial world. Instead of juxtaposing directly clear homogeneous groups (tribes, nations, ethnicities) and subjects (the "state-colonizer," the "subjugated tribe," or the "people"), he identified less familiar and more heterogeneous subjects of domination (the colonizer) and subjugation (the colonized): local and urban communities, select subgroups within the imperial aristocracy, administration, commercial elites, and so on. Instead of "cultural clash" (à la Bronislaw Malinowski), Balandier suggested analyzing the different types of interaction of those groups and how power relationships and hierarchies are constructed in specific historical contexts. In this way, Balandier produced a complex analytical model of the "colonial situation," which, as Frederick Cooper noted half a century later, was not fully comprehended and adequately read at that time. According to Cooper,

analytically, Balandier may have won too easy a victory: once the colonial situation had been identified, it became something recognizable, compartmentalized, and - in not too many years - transcended. …At the height of decolonization struggles, notably during the Algerian war, intellectuals were most likely to see colonialism as a solid obstacle that should and could be removed. It was the process and consequences of the removal that was exciting, not the object blocking the path. Many students thought that all they needed to know about colonialism was its horrors, and a text from Frantz Fanon could be sufficient to convey that. Historians, by the 1960s, also started to look away from colonial history, for to study it too much, even critically, was to reinforce the old canard that real history meant the history of white people in Africa; the new history which new nations needed was either a history of the precolonial past or the anticolonial past; colonial history could be taken as a too-familiar given.

This partly explains the constellation described and criticized by the next contributor to the "Methodology" section in this issue of the journal, the French philosopher and historian, Jean-François­ Bayart. According to Bayart, postcolonial theory, which owed its powerful rise in the 1980s and 1990s in America and Europe to the contribution of intellectuals from former colonial countries, had rediscovered the research field of the "colonial situation" virtually anew. The most influential postcolonial theoreticians redefined the analytical agenda according to their own interests and constructed intellectual genealogies of their own. In this context, the ideas of Balandier and other French (but not only French) intellectuals mentioned by Bayart were "dismissed" and reduced to the level of a binary opposition juxtaposing scholarly and political discourses of the "colonizer" ("Europe," the "West") to discourses and practices of the colonized. Bayart insists that the original French tradition, which was forced out by that new wave of scholarship, had emerged earlier and independently of postcolonial thought, was based on different epistemological foundations, had a liberating potential of its own, and therefore deserves revisiting and recognition, rather than politically motivated neglect. Essentially, Bayart describes the genesis of the critique of empire and colonialism in the logic of Jeremy Adelman's concept of "imperial revolutions": postcolonial critical thought became a result of the modernization of social thinking and imagination in imperial societies. Opponents of Bayart insist on the principled incompatibility of anticolonial politics and theory with the intellectual milieu of the metropole society.

The third...



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