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One Story of Academia

Race Lines and the Rhetoric of Distinction through the Académie française

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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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Introduction 1

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1 had it—of a specific group of people, or as an indicator of feudal valor, be- comes a complex concept challenging any group considerations: Low class Europeans (feudal days’ peasants), who were so far away from being a ‘race’ of anything in line with their kings, suddenly become types of ‘race’ over the colonized, considered to be “belated races” as Sarraut termed it. We will get to know, factually, whether with race as feudal nobility and race as ethnicity, the word “race” has joined the Académie in its mystery, and why it has be- come even harder to define race after colonial interactions. We may come to discover whether the feudal mentality of race, distinction, nobility and what sustained it in colonial confrontations—that cruel wisdom of dehumanizing, subjugating, exploiting, keeping down and objectifying other races as Sarraut explained—changed at all in spite of Sarraut’s own revised doctrines of 1923, or even in the very year 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made. This would be a good place to find out why Benedict Anderson concluded that “The dreams of racism actually have their origins in ideologies of class, rather than in those of nation” (An- derson, p.149); whether an individual who, from a tradition of self-assumed or conventional superiority always thinks that s/he has to exercise that supe- riority against anyone coming into contact with him or her; or whether other, traditionally or historically poor, low class colonists became ‘racist,’ i.e., use...

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