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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 2–The Académie française and Indirect Exclusions 29


Chapter 2 The Académie française and Indirect Exclusions When talking about access to the Académie française, the notion of exclu- sion can be defined in many ways. There are literal exclusions of members who were elected, which constitutes a ‘disgrace’; and there are general, quiet, undeclared yet real exclusions which keep certain groups of people from even the dream of undergoing the test of a candidacy. The undeclared general exclusions apply to a variety of groups with defi- nitions ranking from gender to class, ethnicity to nationality, ideology to po- litical orientation. They use French, contribute to its development, ‘enrich- ment’, and expansion; they are French or French-speaking, but not conven- tionally established enough to fit the likely profile of an Academic candidate. Class Matters We already know that in France the aristocracy—of blood and mind accord- ing to Louis Réau (p.317)—had the monopoly of French cultural institutions (led by the Académie) all the way into the 18th-century, and that only when ‘ordinary gentlemen’ like Voltaire and d’Alembert succeeded in joining the Académie with the second half of the 18th-century did the bourgeoisie and the philosophers without nobility gain influence, thus making the non blood ‘princes’ actual participants in the ‘making’ of the French mind. We also know that with the underlying monarchic system of the elections, ‘lower’ class geniuses had to wait with time in order to even earn a chance after the monarchies were ‘retired’, and when the ‘democratic’...

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