- The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars
In the last few years, an important and growing body of scholarship has emerged that centers on the explication of the nature, functioning, and legacies of France's colonial empire during the twentieth century. Such studies as Eric Jennings's account of the intersection of Vichy policies and anticolonial nationalism during World War Two, Tony Chafer's analysis of decolonization in West Africa, Herman Lebovics's study of the impact of colonialism on French metropolitan policies after empire, and James Genova's examination of the French-educated elite in West Africa, among others, have opened new vistas on how scholars read the field of French colonialism and understand postcoloniality in a francophone context. Gary Wilder's book The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the Two World Wars, makes an important contribution to this new generation of work on empire by way of its interdisciplinary methodology and its re-conceptualization of the nature of the French nation-state in the context of global modernity.
Wilder's starting point is his concept of French imperial nation-state. He argues that "France's parliamentary republic was articulated with its administrative empire to compose an expanded and disjointed political formation" (3) that simultaneously and inseparably encompassed the metropole and colonies forging a unique socio-juridico-political entity that was at once national and imperial. Consequently, Wilder contests the long-standing assertion that France's imperial project contradicted its republican impulse and undermined its functioning. Rather than read the empire through the lens of contradictions or a symmetrical dialectic of liberty (in the metropole) and oppression (in the colonies), Wilder asserts that the particular forms of French colonialism enacted in the empire and the specific republicanism expounded during France's Third Republic were two aspects of the same system of governmentality operable in both places. They were not contradictory, but complimentary, each functioning and sustained through the other. Both Third Republic republicanism and French imperialism operated through a common epistemological framework that made possible the concomitant operation of Republican Humanism and African Humanism (as exemplified [End Page 235] by the Negritude movement from the 1930s) in relation to one another even if they reflected difference loci of power in the colonial relationship.
Drawing upon the works of colonial administrators and theorists as well as the writings of the Negritude poets Wilder effectively demonstrates the importance of complicating our framing of the nation-state as a subject of analysis and the value of utilizing the tools operable in disciplines as diverse as sociology, anthropology, literary criticism, history, and philosophy to get at the complex networks that bound disparate individuals and communities together in an imperial matrix, which itself was developed within an overarching global modernity characterized by a biopolitics of welfarism and capitalist rationality. While it was certainly beyond the parameters of the study as Wilder defined it, the work could have been strengthened even further by more of a gesture toward the period of decolonization. We get an excellent analysis of the field of engagement during the interwar years between elites from West Africa and French imperial administrators, but the implications of that relationship for the possibilities of postcoloniality are not fully worked out. Wilder's book is a must read for anyone interested in the cultural politics of empire, French imperialism, and postcolonial theory. It is certain to make a significant impact in the field and spawn its own genre of scholarship.