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One Story of Academia

Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française


Moussa Traore

One Story of Academia: Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française explores how the word race was historically linked to kings and feudal lords as a sign of elite social distinction, and how the Académie française has embodied that type of distinction in France since its establishment in 1635. Meant to be an undeclared, scholarly, «mysterious» companion to the French monarchy, the Académie created a powerful attraction for the highest classes, inspiring critics of different stripes; considered to be the highest expression of Frenchness, it excluded different groups based on class, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, ideology, and nationality. The self-proclaimed heir to ancient Greek and Roman scholarship, the Académie also claims to represent Europe, the West, and even Humanity. However, as an academic institution, it has experienced «dialectical» arguments between traditional (feudal) elitism, and scholarly elitism as both sought to define French culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. «Trustees of taste» and promoters of purity, the Académiciens and their strong supporters followed the troubled evolution of the word race and of social distinction. Borrowing from inter-European ethnic issues and nationalism, subscribers to the growing «racial» distinction had the features of the colonized analyzed with the French, and by extension, European and Western sense of social distinction in mind. Consequently the colonized ended up at the lowest end of the social scale; in turn, this placement explained the application of European feudal norms of exploitation on the colonies and created the more controversial and dreaded concept of «racism». This book highlights how the significance of language in the French sense of race – as superiority – is at the heart of the Académie française.


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Acknowlegments ix Introduction 1 Chapter 1–The Académie française: Theory of Uniqueness, Mystique of Attraction and Tests of Worth 13 History of the Académie française and its Influence outside of France 20 The Power of the Academic Myth and the Reality of its Pursuit 23 Chapter 2–The Académie française and Indirect Exclusions 29 Class matters 29 Gender matters 30 Ethnicity and Religion matter 38 Nationality matters 46 Ideology and Politics matter 47 Chapter 3–Literal Exclusions: From Academically Exclusive to Social Disgrace 63 Chapter 4–The Dictionnaire de l’Académie and its Meaning 69 Chapter 5–The Académie and Frenchness before the 18th-Century 73 Chapter 6– Heritage of the Academic Accomplishments: The 17th-Century in the Rhetoric of French Uniqueness and Purity in the 20th 97 Chapter 7–The Académie, Europe and the Colonial Rhetoric on Race Separation 119 Contents viii Chapter 8–The 18th-Century: Philosophers and Church Men in the Académie 133 Key Agents of the Enlightenment in the 18th-Century Académie: Saint-Pierre, Montesquieu, Voltaire 136 Consequences of the 18th-Century “Europe française”: Influence of the Académie française and outside Reactions to it 141 Economy of the Struggles in the Académie before the Revolution and Developments Thereafter 148 Defending the Anciens beyond the Revolution into the Empire: the Case of abbé (later Cardinal) Maury 156 Chapter 9–The 19th-Century: Modern Imperialism and Academic Discourse 161 Hugo on Napoleon 163 Alfred de Vigny: Challenger of the Académie...

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