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  • The Cult of the Modern: Trans-Mediterranean France and the Construction of French Modernity by Gavin Murray-Miller
  • Denise Z. Davidson
The Cult of the Modern: Trans-Mediterranean France and the Construction of French Modernity. By Gavin Murray-Miller (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2017) 317 pp. $60.00

The Cult of the Modern revolves around an innovative research question: How did the obsession with modernity evolve into a political strategy during the Second Empire in both metropolitan France and French Algeria? The book demonstrates that similar concerns shaped debates on both sides of the Mediterranean, and that the theme of modernity lay at the heart of political debate. Murray-Miller argues that "modernization" and "colonization" were interconnected processes, and that "modernity remained an imaginary construction that carried a variety of meanings and associations" (12). Napoleon III's regime is known for its modernization efforts, particularly massive urban development projects in Paris. In glorifying the modern, the emperor and his supporters depicted the regime as improving life in France by bringing order, stability, and progress. Murray-Miller's book reveals that those who opposed the Second Empire similarly used modernity as a political tool, as a strategy to combat authoritarian strains within the regime. Murray-Miller also makes clear that European settlers in Algeria used modernization as a way to attack both the military administration of the colony and the Second Empire's support of Arab autonomy, a kind of cultural relativism that the settlers rejected in the name of "civilization" and "progress."

The book promises an innovative approach, with a structure that focuses on metropolitan France and Algeria, in the process showing how the two places related to, and shaped, each other through the rhetoric of the modern. In the end, much of the book reads more like a synthesis of the secondary literature about the Second Empire and of France in Algeria, treating the "modern" as a theme visible in both places. Only the last three chapters build their arguments largely from original research into primary sources. In addition, the Algeria side of the story disappears from [End Page 503] long sections of the book, making that important component of Murray-Miller's larger point seem less than central at times.

The book begins with a chapter that discusses ideas about the modern, followed by a chapter that discusses the Second Empire's use of "modernity" as a political tool. Both chapters are based largely on secondary sources and present a fairly standard narrative. Murray-Miller's main point is that "modernity and 'modern society' were themes embedded in and elaborated through the political language of the period. … linking discourse with practice, and ideology with reality" (80). Chapter 3 treats ideas about the nation and their relationship to the rhetoric of the modern in both France and Algeria, demonstrating the parallel efforts to modernize the people of both places. The fourth chapter addresses the theme of religion and the modern, exploring both Catholicism and Islam and demonstrating that "modernity and progress" worked to create a unified sense of the Second Empire's goals and accomplishments on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The following two chapters examine how reformers and critics of the regime, including republicans, used the language of modernity, blending positivist themes of science and progress with democratic values. In that way, they "successfully appropriated a nonrevolutionary, democratic, and 'modern' political identity for themselves" (181). These chapters include some reference to civilian administration and policy in Algeria, though they concentrate mostly on metropolitan France.

The last chapter of the book turns to a fuller exploration of the situation in Algeria, particularly how political prisoners sent there served as a conduit between metropolitan political circles and settler communities. As cultivating "civilization" and "modernity" among the Arabs of North Africa emerged as a central goal for the regime, colonists looked to the state to reinforce their positions within Algeria. Republican critics of the regime also denounced the treatment of Algerians and the refusal to grant them citizenship as a way to voice opposition to the Second Empire. These last points draw attention to the most innovative methodological contribution of this book—its insistence that Second Empire French...


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pp. 503-504
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