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Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France

Ann Laura Stoler

Today it is possible that France will have to choose between attachment to its empire and the need once more to have a soul. . . . If it chooses badly, if we ourselves impel it to choose badly, which is only too likely, it will have neither one nor the other, but simply the most terrible affliction, which it will suffer with astonishment, without anyone being able to discern the cause. And all of those capable of speaking or of wielding a pen will be eternally responsible for a crime

—Simone Weil, 1943

Colonial histories possess unruly qualities. Sometimes they may remain safely sequestered on the distant fringes of national narratives where they have long been deemed to belong. Sometimes they transgress the proprietary rules of historiographical decorum, trample manicured gardens, uproot precious plants, or ignore trespassing signs and zoning ordinances. Colonial histo-ries may violently register the tensions of the moments in which they are recalled or slip surreptitiously into the faded patina of irrelevance. They can be rendered to the present as vestige — or pressingly at hand. They can be made unavailable, unusable, safely removed from the domain of current conceivable human relations, with their moorings cut from specific persons, time, and place. They are histories that can be disabled and deadened to reflective life, shorn of the capacity to make connections. Not least, they raise unsettling questions about what it means to know and not know something simultaneously, about what is implicit because it goes without saying, or because it cannot be thought, or because it can be thought and is known but cannot be said.

At issue is neither stubborn ignorance nor sudden knowledge. It is the confused and clogged spaces in between in which this essay rests. It reflects on the conceptual processes, academic conventions, and affective practices that both elicit and elude recognition of how colonial histories matter and how colonial pasts become muffled or manifest in contemporary France. My interest is in the peculiar conditions that have rendered France’s colonial history alternately irretrievable and accessible, at once selectively available and out of reach. Intimately imbricated is a more basic issue: the political, personal, and scholarly dispositions that have made the racial coordinates of empire and the racial epistemics of governance so faintly legible to French histories of the present.

Aphasic Afflictions

Some ten years ago, in preparation for what was hailed as the first “transatlantic” conference on “the colonial situation,” in honor of the esteemed anthropologist of Africa Georges Balandier, I was struck by two things: (1) by the celebratory effervescence of interest in, and proliferating work on, France’s colonial history, evident in both U.S. and French scholarship, and (2) by the curiously unreflective idioms in which earlier treatments of colonial issues were being framed.1 It was a “forgotten history,” as a “memory-hole,” or as a “collective amnesia” — as a history that somehow was “lost” in the decades following the Algerian war and armed battle in Vietnam and as a French public digested revelations about Vichy and Nazi sympathies that stretched far beyond those previously indicted as its most infamous collaborators.2

For many of us who had long worked on France’s racially charged colonial history and the breadth of its documentation, the exuberance seemed odd, almost feverish, and misplaced. It was not only belated, as students of French colonialism now so readily note. In light of the staggering surge in publication and debate of the past few years, the excitement could be seen as just one in a series of renewed claims to exposure of the discrepant histories that divide republican principles from systemic, targeted, and sustained forms of privation in the making of modern France.

At issue, of course, has not been “discovery” of torture in the colonial history of France, nor are these new revelations that there were indeed camps of coercive resettlement, detention, and concentration throughout the empire’s carceral archipelago. In 1927 André Gide condemned the deadly labor regimes that accompanied the building of Indochina’s railway.3 Simone Weil produced a steady stream of anticolonial texts in the 1940s, up until the year of her death.4 In 1958 the militant Communist Henri Alleg published La question, a graphic account of his own torture at the hands of the French military.5 La gangrène, which appeared in June 1959 and was immediately banned, documented the intimate technologies of brutal indignities that French soldiers inflicted on Algerian women and men.6 Pierre Bourdieu was writing about Algerian workers and “the colonial system” throughout the early 1960s.7 Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi’s 1962 account of the torture and rape of twenty-three- year- old Djamila Boupacha received worldwide attention.8 Extensive evidence of detention camps in Algeria and within France proper has been available to historians in easily accessed sources for a long time.

Nor can it be claimed that racially targeted colonial violence in the making and maintenance of the republic was absent from scholarship and popular literature or confined to the exigencies of wartime alone. Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and Jean-Paul Sartre all underscored the “sordidly racist” and “systemic” compartmentalized violence that colonialism animated, the “lines of force” it created, and the “degradations” it instilled in the colonies and in Europe — among both colonizer and colonized.9 Abdelmajid Hannoum rightly argues that historiography played a key role in making North Africa a European territory “in the minds of the French people,” following the formation of a settler society in the 1870s.10 But French historiography had lots of help. Historiography has been only one branch of a broader field of French academic culture, whose favored rubrics, contents, and concerns have deftly excised Algeria as well as France’s other colonies, protectorates, and possessions from the national purview, not once, but again and again.

Gérard Noiriel once used the phrase “collective amnesia” to reference the studied absence of immigration from French historiography and school curriculums.11 Similarly, “colonial amnesia” and “historical amnesia” are often used pointedly to describe the public and historiographical low profile of colonial history in France.12 Kristin Ross saw the “keeping [of] two stories apart” (that of modern France and that of colonialism) as “another name for forgetting one of the stories or for relegating it to a different time frame.”13

But forgetting and amnesia are misleading terms to describe this guarded separation and the procedures that produced it. Aphasia, I propose, is perhaps a more apt term, one that captures not only the nature of that blockage but also the feature of loss. Calling this phenomenon “colonial aphasia” is of course not an appeal to organic cognitive deficit among “the French.” Rather, it is to emphasize both loss of access and active dissociation. In aphasia, an occlusion of knowledge is the issue. It is not a matter of ignorance or absence. Aphasia is a dismembering, a difficulty speaking, a difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things. Aphasia in its many forms describes a difficulty retrieving both conceptual and lexical vocabularies and, most important, a difficulty comprehending what is spoken.14

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An earlier rendition of some of the questions raised in this essay was originally given as the keynote address for the conference “1951 – 2001: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Colonial Situation,” at New York University, April 2001. I thank audiences at New York University, the University of Utrecht, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Tel Aviv University, the University of Toronto, and the University of California, Los Angeles, for their probing questions. I thank Didier Fassin, Lawrence Hirschfeld, Achille Mbembe, Richard Rechtmann, Janet Roitman, and Miriam Ticktin for their challenging queries and comments. All translations from the French are by the author.

  1. This essay references only the U.S. scholarship on French empire, a field that too has exploded in the past decade, where it is directly related to my argument. While it would make sense to examine the circulation between French colonial historians in the United States and France for a comprehensive review of this literature, that is not my subject here.
  2. For a fine English-language review of what Henry Rousso called the “Vichy syndrome,” see Rosemarie Scullion, “Unforgettable: History, Memory, and the Vichy Syndrome,” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 23 (1999): 11 – 26. Examples of the use of “amnesia” and “forgetting” are many. See, e.g., Helene Champagne, “Breaking the Ice: A Burgeoning Post-colonial Debate on France’s Historical Amnesia and Contemporary ‘Soul Searching,’ ” Modern and Contemporary France 16, no. 1 (2008): 67 – 72.
  3. André Gide, Voyage au Congo (Paris: Gallimard, 1927). There were many others I do not quote here. For a history of French “anticolonial” writing and the different forms it took, see Jean- Pierre Biondi and Gilles Morin, Les anticolonialistes, 1881 – 1962 (Paris: Laffont, 1992).
  4. This article’s epigraph is taken from an unfinished essay, titled “The Need for Roots,” that Weil was writing just before her death in 1943 and is quoted from Simone Weil on Colonialism: An Ethic of the Other, ed. and trans. J. P. Little (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 124.
  5. Henri Alleg, La question (Paris: Minuit, 1961).
  6. La gangrène (Paris: Minuit, 1959). The book was seized and banned in France by the government and subsequently translated by Robert Silvers and published in English as The Gangrene (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1960).
  7. See, e.g., Pierre Bourdieu, “Guerre et mutation sociale en Algérie,” Études méditerranéennes 7 (1960): 25 – 37; Bourdieu, “Les sous-prolétaires algériens,” Les temps modernes 199 (1962): 1030 – 51.
  8. Simone de Beauvoir and Gisèle Halimi, Djamila Boupacha (Paris: Gallimard, 1962).
  9. Anne Mathieu, “Jean-Paul Sartre et la guerre d’Algérie: Un engagement déterminé contre le colonialisme,” Le monde diplomatique, November 2004, 31 – 32.
  10. Abdelmajid Hannoum, “The Historiographic State: How Algeria Once Became French,” History and Anthropology 19 (2008): 92.
  11. Gérard Noiriel, The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship, and National Identity, trans. Geoffroy de Laforcade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), especially 1 – 9.
  12. See Anne Donadey, “Between Amnesia and Anamnesis: Re-membering the Fractures of Colonial History,” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 23 (1999): 111 – 16. See also Todd Shepard’s excellent study, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006), especially “Forgetting French Algeria,” 101–35; Benoit de L’Estoile, “L’oubli de l’héritage colonial,” Le débat 147 (November–December 2007): 91 – 99.
  13. Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995), 8 – 9.
  14. David Swinney, “Aphasia,” in The MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 31 – 32; Jonathan D. Rohrer, William D. Knight, Jane E. Warren, Nick C. Fox, Martin N. Rossor, and Jason D. Warren, “Word-Finding Difficulty: A Clinical Analysis of the Progressive Aphasias,” Human Molecular Genetics, at 131/1/8.full (accessed October 7, 2009); “Aphasia,” Wikipedia, at Aphasia (accessed October 15, 2009); Harold Goodglass, Understanding Aphasia (San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1993); The Free Dictionary, s.v., “aphasia,” medical-dictionary.thefree (accessed November 3, 2010).


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