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The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.2 (2001) 423-445

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Gendering the Revolution:
Language, Politics, and the Birth of a Nation (1789–1795)

Marie-Claire Vallois

Under the Convention, the imaginary body of the King is replaced by a body of language, to which is assigned the mythic and operative role of articulating the Nation as a system.

—Michel de Certeau, Dominique Julia, and Jacques Revel,
Une politique de la langue: La Révolution française et les patois, 1975

The Constitution is null and void if the majority of the members of the Nation have not taken part in its writing.

—Olympe de Gouges, Declaration of the Rights of Woman, 1791

In the foreword to the second (1978) edition of L'écriture de l'histoire, Michel de Certeau chose to represent the aims of his study of Western historiographic écriture by way of an ironic commentary on a 1619 engraving in which Amerigo Vespucci is depicted as the discoverer who arrives from the sea and finds before him "the Indian America, a nude woman reclining in her hammock, an unnamed presence of difference, a body awakening among exotic fauna and flora." To illustrate one of the main ideas of his study—that history functions as a practice [End Page 423] and a discourse that are the products of its own locus and its own subject—Certeau is concerned to show how the discursive practice of history is bound up with this imaginary "inaugural scene: . . . the conqueror will write the body of the other and there, trace his own history. From his own desires and fantasms he will fabricate the historized body of the Other."1 In Une politique de la langue, Certeau and coauthors Julia and Revel took up another historiographic instance, examining the legislative and juridical writings on which the official history of modern France is based. In analyzing the "strategies" of those discourses of power whose ideology produced a "fantastic" and "folkloric object," these authors exposed the resistance of its "colonized" and reified Other by revealing the multiplicity of its participants and actors.2 To that extent, Une politique de la langue also anticipated L'invention du quotidien, where Certeau, no longer concentrating on the strategies of power, could uncover the corresponding "tactics" of those subjugated others. In his later books, Certeau went on to provide a much-needed theorizing of practices that has enabled us, particularly today's female historians, to fully capture the complex workings of this moment in modern history.

Une politique de la langue's primary object of study is the Abbé Grégoire's 1790 Questionnaire, relatif au patois et aux moeurs des gens de la campagne and attendant Correspondance on France's national language, as well as his Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d'anéantir les patois et d'universaliser l'usage de la langue française, of 16 Prairial, An II. Reading this corpus of documents as a "narrative of origins" and foundations of modern France, Certeau shows how those administrative and legislative writing practices enabled its construction not only as a novel political entity, but also as a juridical subject and a nation. France attained political unity on the basis of the constitutional acts and decrees written by such revolutionary leaders as the Abbé Grégoire and Barrère, who established French as the one and only language of France and thereby scripted the birth of the nation. As in L'écriture de l'histoire, Certeau shows in Une politique de la langue how history's process of unfolding entails the creation of an Other, in this case exposing the ethnographic impulse and mission at work in those history-making legislators and administrators of revolutionary France.

No engraving or frontispiece represents the imaginary ties that bound these new explorers—the provincial notables and clerks who, together with Grégoire (the constitutional reporter to the constituent assembly and the convention), drew the map of a new terra incognita to be conquered—the [End Page 424] "wild France" surrounding urban, patriotic Paris. They are represented instead by reports and by maps with crosshatched areas and dotted lines where, in light and shadow, the outlines...


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