- Contesting Views: The Visual Economy of France and Algeria by Edward Welch, Joseph McGonagle
The book joins a broad corpus of critical works exploring the intricate transnational, transhistorical relationship uniting the two imbricated, if antagonistic, spaces of France and Algeria. What it brings to the debate is a fresh focus on what the authors call, in an echo of Deborah Poole’s phrase, its “visual economy,” a perspective “bound up in processes of ‘production, circulation, consumption and production of images’” (7). From its eye-catching opening juxtaposing the French media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Évian Accords with the Merah killings to reveal the blind spots and obsessions marring France’s perception of its colonial legacy, the book consistently strives to highlight the ways in which visual culture in its broadest sense “shapes understanding of the Franco-Algerian relationship and of France’s Algerian past” (6).
The book comprises two parts addressing respectively the visualization of French colonial Algeria and the Algerian war (mostly from a French perspective) and contemporary representations of that history, with a focus on their spatial configurations. The first chapter deftly investigates the corpus of pied-noir photo books in terms of their narrative staging of nostalgic perspectives of French Algeria. A second chapter probes the role of the photographic image in the historiography of the Algerian war, an approach that chapter three applies to the specific case of October 17, 1961. The last two chapters emphasize the spatial performance of the Franco-Algerian relationship. Chapter three discusses the critical purview of the Mediterranean sea, envisioned both as a liminal space where identities are rewritten and as a physical barrier, whereas chapter four identifies the visual tropes underlying contemporary depictions of national space.
Shedding light on the evocative power of the image as “a diverse and contested site” across contexts, the authors’ longitudinal approach provides a thorough and pointed overview of the visual cultures of the Franco-Algerian dyad. Replete with insight, this compelling volume will be a valuable resource for all students of the history and culture of France and Algeria, while the limpid yet pithy prose makes it accessible to all levels of specialization.
Given these many strengths, the reader can only deplore that the authors did not better circumscribe the scope of action of the transnational concept they reclaim. This is particularly true of the chapter on the Mediterranean. Whereas the sea’s power to dissolve rigid identities is rightly underlined, the argument limits the transnational nature of the region to a binary geography centered on France and Algeria. Despite a passing mention of the hybridity of darja, this theorization overlooks the potential of a fully deployed Mediterranean within which Algeria can forge transversal connections to third spaces, cutting across postcolonial patterns of dominance and enacting the kind of far-reaching subversion that the book’s argument promotes. But this only marginally detracts from the book’s overall value, whose in-depth, nuanced analysis makes it an essential, must-read contribution.