Colonial Pedagogies of Passing: Literature and the Reproduction of Frenchness

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Free, compulsory, secular: these adjectives have been a hallmark of French schooling since the Third Republic. Yet while republican educational policies were developed as a means to implement the ideals of the French Revolution, they have not always been received as liberating by those educated under them. Specifically in colonial societies, where schools formed an indigenous elite to mediate between the French and the colonized who labored for them, republican values were often seen as a justification for economic exploitation and military occupation. In the 1950s, while anticolonial movements were gaining momentum, Francophone writers began to tease out colonial education's politicoeconomic role, and in looking back on their own schooling, they singled out literary pedagogy as central to the colonization of minds. Decades later, Raphaël Confiant's Eau de Café (1991) would sum up their experiences in one character's brief encounter with Racine, meted out as punishment by the teacher qua language police: "Major Bérard's first and last schoolmaster had aroused a permanent disgust in him for the study of books after catching him speaking Creole with his classmates and condemning him to memorize Andromaque" (214).' This passage offers, in condensed form, what might be considered a literary primal scene, in which the colonized child encounters French literature as a form of "correction" for the first time.2 Such scenes reveal the French school to be a kind of "correctional facility," a performative space in which students are "encouraged" to perform Frenchness "correctly." Repeated throughout the colonial literature of the 1950s, these scenes are doubly literary: they reveal French literature to be a product of colonial pedagogy and stage the very mode of production of the colonial literary text.

Colonial education therefore involved what could be called a pedagogy of passing: to succeed, students had to learn to pass as French, and literature provided the model they were expected to imitate. Colonial literature was the ultimate result of successful literary passing on the part of its authors. Yet while one might think colonized pupils learned to mimic an original constituted by "real" French people's performance of Frenchness, French representations of literary pedagogy suggest that the "original" itself might more appropriately be considered a colonial artifact. For the metropolitan classroom as well is a site of racialization where children are made French though confrontation with their colonized Other. This is not to say that French students undergo a colonization equivalent to that of the colonized, but rather that the model of Frenchness imposed even in schools in France rests on a foundation of colonial violence. Of course, to become French, one must forget this violence (how French can French be if it ultimately depends on those who are not), and forgetting would be much easier for the French than for their colonial subjects. Likewise, whereas colonial literature in French often reveals the role played by literary pedagogy in its own mode of production, French literature more frequently dissimulates this role.3 For this reason, it is more useful to turn to French cinema for metropolitan literary primal scenes, of which François Truffaut's 1975 L'argent de poche (Small Change) and André Téchiné's 1994 Les roseaux sauvages (Wild Reeds) offer prime examples. For both films contextualize the teaching of literature in the French classroom within France's colonial history and suggest that Frenchness itself depends on an identification with the civilizing mission even after large-scale independence.

My reading of these films (and of their readings of French literary classics) intersects with a body of historical work on the Frenchification of France that occurred during the long nineteenth century. In Le français national: Politise et pratiques de la langue nationale sous la Révolution française (National French: The Politics and Practices of the National Language Under the French Revolution) (1974), Renée Balibar and Dominique Laporte trace the history of the nationalization of the French language-formerly the monopoly of the king and his court-as part of the shift to bourgeois rule, which required a common language for the nation's working class. …


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