Pal Ahluwalia’s Out of Africa

I am teaching a new course “Theoretical Foundations of Global Studies Theory,” so I am reading broadly right now, particularly in the area of postcolonialism and critical theory. One of the best books that I have read has been Pal Ahluwalia’s Out of Africa, which argues that the roots of French postcolonialism lie in that nation’s long and tortured history in Algeria. He makes the argument by tracing the lives of key thinkers -Camus, Sartre, Cixous, Lyotard, Fanon, Derrida and Bourdieau- to show how their Algerian experience shaped their writings. In Algeria, the key question that people faced was “What is my identity?” Europeans from many nations adopted a persona of being more French than the French, in order to distinguish themselves from the Arab population. But this identity was contingent. For example, Algeria’s Jews first received citizenship, then lost it under Vichy France, and did not have it reinstated until six months after the war. This context shaped, for example, the experience of Helene Cixous, the famous feminist scholar. As the war forced people to take sides and decide on their identity -did they really belong in their homeland?- multiple academics experienced exile.

Although postcolonialism is sometimes denounced as a First World construct, the connection between these authors and more recent postcolonial theorists -Said and Chakrabarty- is clear. Postcolonialism emerged as a challenge to Enlightenment thought. And as Pal Ahluwalia’s work illustrates, this perspective was originally adopted by Europeans with experience in North Africa, but it was then embraced in the developing world. It was also the case that from the beginning there were authors such as Franz Fanon, who was from Martinique but dedicated himself to the cause of Algerian liberation. Still, in many respects postcolonialism began as a French project, then moved to the developing world. Said approached postcolonialism from the Arab perspective, a mirror to the French theorists. Despite their profound differences, they understood each other.

One of the points that struck me from reading this book was the diversity in national approaches to global questions, although Ahluwalia does not discuss this in his work. In the United States, neopositivism rules in International Relations programs. Scholars adopt a quantitative approach to international questions, which they assume will generate the equivalent of scientific laws, if only the data sets can be large enough. Although science studies has long since questioned the scientific basis for much of the social sciences, there is arguably little engagement with philosophy in neopostivism, which has become so dominant in the United States that other schools of though are being squeezed out of mainstream academia in political science programs (read Dan Nexon’s wonderful rant on this theme). This is not the case in Britain, where the English School took a related but different approach. While still focused upon the state, the British are fascinated by history, and the manner in which the international order is generated. The French, in contrast, begin their approach with an emphasis on political philosophy, and are obsessed with the question of identity. They have a deep mistrust of rationality, and -in contrast with the United States- are very interested in how knowledge is created. For the most part, they eschew a quantitative approach to knowledge, and are fascinated with writing.

One of the marks of a great book is that leads the reader to look at questions from a fresh perspective. After reading this book, my thoughts went on a tangent. As a Canadian, I’ve long had an interest in the French empire’s history in North America. In New France, French rule was predicated upon a trading, political and military alliance with the native peoples, which quickly allowed the French to move deep into the interior of the continent. There were French soldiers in Illinois, while the New England colonies were still expanding to the Adirondacks. At the core of the French colonial project was an emphasis on diplomacy and negotiation. They did not impose their culture or their laws on the native population, and even the Jesuits soon abandoned acculturation as a project.

New France became a British colony in 1763. Seven decades passed before the French began their colonial project in Algeria. And when they did, they utterly abandoned everything that they had learned in the New World. Why? Had this approach simply been forgotten? Or had they decided that this approach was flawed? Algeria was to be a case of settler colonialism, in which total assimilation was France’s ultimate goal. Algeria was to be a part of France. In schools, even Arabic was banned for the Algerians (p. 25). To what extent was the later French history of colonialism shaped by the earlier experience in North America? Why was there such a difference in the two colonial enterprises?

Ahluwalia does not examine such comparative questions, instead carefully grounding his study in the biography and thought of key Franco-Algerian intellectuals. His coverage of the literature is exhaustive, and his bibliography is definitive. The book is clearly written, carefully organized, and insightful. While rigorous, the clarity of the writing means that it would be appropriate for an undergraduate class, while being challenging enough for graduate students. And while focused on the French connection with Algeria, it raises larger questions: the connection between exile and identity, the contradictions within modernity and Enlightenment thought, and the decolonising of knowledge.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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