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French Historical Studies 23.4 (2000) 707-729

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Review Article

The Arts and Sciences of Colonialism

Daniel J. Sherman

Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, ed. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler (Berkeley, Calif., 1997)

A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930, by Alice L. Conklin (Stanford, Calif., 1997)

The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism, 1798–1836, by Todd Porterfield (Princeton, N.J., 1998)

Nature, the Exotic, and the Science of French Colonialism, by Michael A. Osborne (Bloomington, Ind., 1994)

Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Race in Colonial Algeria, by Patricia M. E. Lorcin (London, 1995; paperback ed. 1999)

Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers under French Rule, by Zeynep Çelik (Berkeley, Calif., 1997)

Phantasmatic Indochina: French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature, by Panivong Norindr (Durham, N.C., 1996)

Identity Papers: Contested Nationhood in Twentieth-Century France, ed. Tom Conley (Minneapolis, Minn., 1996)

It was probably only a matter of time before the “cultural turn” manifested itself in the study of French colonial history. Long among the most marginalized of subfields, the history of the successive configurations of overseas France has, in the wake of postcolonial studies, moved [End Page 707] closer to the center.1 When a distinguished literary critic deems “the colonizing mission” one of the two “great events” of modern French history, the other being the Revolution (this in a book designed, among other things, to critique the misappropriations of Continental theory),2 it is clearly time for those of us trained in hexagonal insularity to sit up and take notice. In the meantime, many Anglophone scholars working on aspects of French colonialism have embraced cultural history as, one may suspect, a way to signal the importance of their research to their more Eurocentric colleagues. The result is a creative profusion that has the potential to alter the study of French history in significant ways.

This is not to suggest that French colonial history has hitherto ignored the cultural, or that what one must in this context call French metropolitan history has completely bypassed the colonies. Between 1975 and 1986, books by William Cohen, Fanny Colonna, Sylviane Leprun, and William Schneider illuminated such topics as French intellectual and popular representations of Africans and the ideological workings of primary education in colonial Algeria.3 What some have called the cultural “apogee” of the French empire, the Exposition Coloniale of 1931, has its place in Pierre Nora’s influential collection Les Lieux de mémoire, although Nora specifically excluded extrametropolitan sites from his otherwise capacious definition of “lieux de mémoire” (the exposition was held in Paris).4 These works, however, did not challenge either the subordination of culture to politics and economics in colonial history or the secondary status of the colonies within French history as a whole.

Even the paradigms of social history, which structure two exemplary works on colonial settlement published in the 1990s, relegate culture to a secondary position. Effectively if not explicitly a superstructure [End Page 708] on a materialist “base,” culture here emerges as the residue of socioeconomic processes external to it. David Prochaska devotes the last chapter of his study of the French-Algerian community in Bône, now Annaba, to “the creation of a colonial culture.” He uses such artifacts as street names, picture postcards, and popular literature to show convincingly that a self-conscious settler culture, one “subjectively aware of its existence,” emerged in Bône toward the end of the nineteenth century.5 Revealingly, Prochaska elaborates on this idea by comparing it to a notion of class-consciousness derived from labor history. In a book in which the principal vectors are demographic, economic, and political, culture constitutes simply one more piece of evidence of the formation of a distinct European settler community with its own identity. Culture as a dynamic element of that process goes largely unexamined.6

Isabelle Merle’s thorough and sobering history of the French settlement of New Caledonia similarly relies principally on a social history model. Though sensitive...


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pp. 707-729
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Archived 2004
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