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boundary 2 31.3 (2004) 47-73



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In/Civility, in Death:

On Becoming French in Colonial Martinique

Civilization, civilization, pride of the Europeans, and their burying ground for innocents. . . . You build your kingdom on cadavers. Whatever you may want, whatever you may do, you act with deceit. At your sight, gushing tears and screaming pain. You are the might which exceeds right.1

History is a highly functional fantasy of the West, originating at precisely the time when it alone "made" the history of the World.2

Nation, for Homi Bhabha, is most clearly understood, as well as enacted or performed, in "the narratives of nations," that is, in "its language and [End Page 47] rhetoric," "as it is written" (Bhabha's emphasis).3 Donald Pease, in turn, proposes that this "national narrativity" relies on what he calls the "experience of non-knowledge," particularly insofar as it implicates and is implicated in colonialism. According to Pease, a "national people['s]" own subjection is forgotten or "foreclosed" as it is "(re)performed" in "their colonial relations," allowing them to both uphold and disavow "the knowledge of national narrativity's cover story."4 This "cover story" occludes the brute force of state power manifested most explicitly in the use of the legal or legitimated imposition of violence (military and police, for example), which is synonymous with a state-sanctioned incivility used to control subjects but which is "not-known" or disavowed5 by those subjected to it, traded in for or covered over by a myth of national belonging that rests at least in part on "civility," a notion most often defined in terms of mutual recognition among like-minded individuals who maintain a certain level of social relations and hence livelihood based on the recognition this myth of nation promulgates. In France's writings on colonial Martinique, however, it becomes apparent that the colonial [End Page 48] other realizes civility and the consequent claim to nation only in death, in the final and patriotic gesture of blood sacrifice to nation, to France.

This essay undertakes to trace the genealogy of France's myth of nation and, moreover, how France has inscribed or written itself as the nation, the model or essential nation next to which no other measures up. France's national narrative is in many ways an arch- or hyper-narrative according to which France is not the instantiation of a nation but is rather the nation, a notion that comes through most strikingly in writings (to recall Bhabha's "nation as it is written") on its colonies. Hence, an understanding of the way France has interpolated Martinique into the nation informs how France has written and continues to write its own history, which is at the same time the story of "what it means to be French," an idea that emerges out of France's relation to the colonial other, which is in this case the Martinican.6 World War I witnesses a significant transformation in the representation of the colonial other, when "for the image of the savage and the cannibal is substituted that of the 'bon nègre,' courageous, gentle, sociable, laughing and docile, a big naïve child," a kind of counterimage disseminated throughout interwar France in ad posters, postcards, theater productions, [End Page 49] and cinema.7 What has not evolved in this new and "positive" representation of France's colonial other, however, is the image and paradox of the "big child," which, I will suggest, amounts to the equally paradoxical image of a living dead, a "civil undead" lodged or fixed in a national narrative of the inextricably linked and mutually implied elements of life force, inevitable progress, and the historical imperative or will to conquer.8

My intention in employing a term as apparently illogical as civil undead is to play up the illogic of the French discourse on colonialism that traps the colonial other in an impossible predicament in which unquestioned civility is recognized in or attributed to the colonial other only when that other has died in service to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2141
Print ISSN
0190-3659
Pages
pp. 47-73
Launched on MUSE
2004-11-09
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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