Academic journal article The Romanic Review

History Writing as Cultural and Political Critique, or the Difficulty of Writing the History of a (De)colonized Society

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

History Writing as Cultural and Political Critique, or the Difficulty of Writing the History of a (De)colonized Society

Article excerpt

The Dividing Line of Historical Reason

At the start of my career as a researcher, I had the idea that contemporary French history was also, in a certain way, the history of colonial Algeria. (1) With time, I realized that while there is, in France, a historiography of colonial France, there is no history of colonized Algeria. It cannot be said that the history of colonial conquest has created a common space if by that one means a space that is shared or divided.

A philosophical and practical dividing line bisects historical reason. This line is not merely a product of the unequal development of research. It is also a function of processes of differentiation and exclusion. To put it simply, there is only one subject who elaborates, defines, and activates the past, present, and future, who determines what must be said and preserved and what must be destroyed. This is the dominant/dominating subject. The dominated--the colonized or their heirs--remain in the shadows, in a "second college" of thought, the realm of memory. When the colonized attempt to become the subject of their own history, they become unbearable, inaudible, they terrorize. We block our ears.

Let us consider, as a point of departure, the case of the Harkis, who, in the wake of 1962, were corralled into camps in the south of France. It could be said that this was just the physical materialization, or territorialization, of what had always been in the mind of the "Francais de souche europeenne" or the "French of European stock," and indeed of the "French of France." The Harkis were people who made a contribution to colonial France. They made sacrifices for France; they contributed to its "glorious" past. In 1962, when the pieds-noirs of Algeria retained their rights as French full citizens, the Fiarlas were classified as "Francais de souche nord-africaine" (French of North-African origin], an expression that conveys the incomplete integration of this "auxiliary" population, in thought as well as in political practice, as fully fledged French citizens.

What, then, can be said of those who fought for the independence of their country, for emancipation from colonial domination? In the best of cases, in the historiography "of the left," they are typically presented as petty local tyrants, leaders of factions, harbingers of the despotism that many formerly colonized countries--"postcolonies," to use the English terminology--experience today. If they were, at some point, subjects of their own history, then they were subjects of the history of despotism and tyranny, not that of emancipation and freedom. For some French historians, the only true Algerian nationalists were the Algerian communists, European or Europeanized in their majority, for whom political "engagement" was not linked to community (the tribe) or the sacred (religion). They alone bore the standard of a supracommunitarian nation, a citizen-nation stripped of its religious sacraments, a secular and progressive or proletarian nation.

There are, I would contend, two histories: a history of colonial France with its institutions and its people, and a history of Algeria with its institutions and its people. Rather than a common history and single ontological process, there are intersecting, concomitant histories. Given this, what is necessary is not to decolonize history, as Mohamed Sahli proposes, but rather to enable Algerian historians to continue liberating their thought and forming their own paradigms. (2)

For Another Episteme

The colony inevitably generates confusion because it entails the maintenance, within the borders of the colonizing country--borders established by force--of a difference between national and foreigner, or rather between citizen and colonial subject, citizen and noncitizen, or citizen and second-class citizen. It might seem that the current generation of historians (those writing since the 1980s) are conscious of this dividing line, but actually they are not. …

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