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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 3–Literal Exclusions: From Academically Exclusive to Social Disgrace 63


Chapter 3 Literal Exclusions: From Academically Exclusive to Social Disgrace One of the most important mysteries of the Académie is that, beyond the in- direct exclusions, there have been literal, decisive ones amounting to no less than disgrace when the recipient had fulfilled all that was required, had gone through the trials of candidacy, had been elected and received, and later ex- cluded… thrown out of the “illustrious” Compagnie of “Immortals.” The first Académicien to be literally excluded was Granier, about just a year into the history of the Académie. That in itself signaled, early on, the imperfection and the precarious guarantee—in terms of distinction—of the ones destined or supposed to be “immortals.” Although the detailed reasons for this early exclusion may be sketchy, what researchers have found out points to issues of basic morality. According to René Kerviler, “It is known that the first exclusion was that of Auger de Monléon, sieur de Granier, one of the first forty Académiciens and the editor of the memoirs of Queen Mar- guerite, accused of infidelity.” (Kerviler, p.66) But Jean-Pol Caput held that Granier was accused of something else, which violated one of the rules re- garding morality: “If an Académicien makes an action unworthy of a man of honor, he will be interdicted or dismissed according to the importance of his lapse.’ It was applied, but discretely, to Granier de Monléon, convicted of swindling.” (Caput, p.99) In any case, this shows the...

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