Anthropological Quarterly 77.4 (2004) 835-843
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The Avowal and Disavowal of Difference France
Mayanthi L. Fernando
In Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation, a theoretically sophisticated and thoroughly researched study drawing on twenty months of fieldwork in Paris and its working-class suburbs in the mid 1990s, Paul Silverstein maps out the production, deployment, contestation, and re-deployment of social difference (ethnic, racial, and religious) in post-colonial France. Through an examination of various social and cultural forms, from immigration policy, colonial governance, and urban planning to novel writing, hip hop music, sports, religious practice, graffiti, and petty crime, Silverstein illustrates how the French state's colonial and post-colonial structurations of Algerian "difference" are appropriated, contested, and transformed by post-colonial subjects. He explores the resulting modes of historical consciousness and forms of political subjectivity among Algerian and Franco-Algerian actors, from the avowedly hybrid identities of the 1980s Beur generation to the more particularist Islamic and Berberist movements of the 1990s and early 2000s. These processes of appropriation, contestation, and even collusion constitute what Silverstein calls "transpolitics," as the intersecting interests and political subjectivities of post-colonial immigrants and post-colonial movements inextricably link Algeria and France, Algerians and Franco-Algerians. For Silverstein, transpolitics implies not only [End Page 835] the crossing of national boundaries but also the transcendence of formal political institutions (political parties, labor unions, state bureaucracies) and forms of belonging central to modern nation-states.
Silverstein announces in his Introduction that the book "should by no means be read as a community study of Algerians in France" (6). Indeed, his concerns extend far beyond those of a classical ethnography when he argues that the changing political subjectivities and identities of Franco-Algerians and the discursive and structural modes of differentiation that undergird them are inextricably linked to questions of French national identity and the French nation-state's predicament as a post-colonial entity in a new Europe. Drawing on Arjun Appadurai (1996), Silverstein regards this as the problem of the hyphen between nation and state, or, in other words, the tension between nationality and citizenship. What, and more importantly who, constitute the nation? What are its limits? Who is to be included and, consequently, excluded? As a multi-racial, multi-religious France is drawn further and further into the European Union, public anxieties and debates about French national identity and what constitutes incommensurable difference from "Frenchness" are increasingly the norm, played out most prominently in debates about the place of Islam and Muslims in France. Silverstein emphasizes, however, that not all difference is illegitimate in the eyes of the French state and the French public. The Black-Blanc-Beur mélange of France's 1998 Soccer World Cup championship team was almost universally hailed as a national victory against the cultural chauvinism and racism of Jean Marie Le Pen's Front National party. Yet in the minds of many French, for every "integrated" Zinedine Zidane, the team's captain and Marseille-born son of Algerian Kabyle immigrants, there exists a Khaled Kelkal, another son of Algerian immigrants, linked to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and held responsible for a failed terrorist attack on a high-speed train line in France.1 Difference thus alternates between the commensurable and the incommensurable. Even as it is targeted for erasure, difference is continually constructed and managed, avowed and disavowed. In the state's avowal and disavowal of difference, Silverstein sees the "ambivalent character of a post-colonial France vacillating between republican logics of universalist citizenship and localizing concerns over the demise of national particularity" (5). His book is therefore as much an ethnography of contemporary France as it is of Franco-Algerians, with the question of difference and identity (local, national, and transnational) as its central problématique.
The first chapter, "Immigration Politics in the New Europe," analyzes this ambivalence between universal citizenship and particular national identity by [End Page 836] examining France's place in...