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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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Chapter 1–The Académie française: Theory of Uniqueness, Mystique of Attraction and Tests of Worth 13


Chapter 1 The Académie française: Theory of Uniqueness, Mystique of Attraction, and Tests of Worth When on March 13, 1634, with their host Conrart present, Boirobert read to the Cardinal de Richelieu the function of the “assemblée” which was to be- come the Académie française, little did they know how popular, attractive, successful, and controversial their initiative would become along the years and centuries. While explaining the resistance of the Parlement to register the patents of the institution, M. le duc de La Force pointed to the first sentence of the project presented to Richelieu as a reason for jealousy on the part of the members of the Parlement. In the sentence, Boisrobert declared that the Académie relied on “its founder and his authority” because he was the only one “capable of raising it on foundations strong enough to last as long as the monarchy.”1 But we know that it survived the monarchy, if not the monar- chies, into the Republics, the Empires, the democracies, and into our days. Wasn’t there, unknown to them, something more to their undertaking than just their being a cultural or political companion to the monarchy? It seems so. The Académie survived the different political regimes and under- went influences just as the French language did, just as France itself man- aged to come together as an imagined community, and just as the ‘monarchi- cal’ social status—which dominated for long—survives in individuals who strive for...

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