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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 8–The 18th-Century: Philosophers and Church Men in the Académie 133


Chapter 8 The 18th-Century: Philosophers and Church Men in the Académie Looking closely at the membership of the Académie as the institution was making the transition from the 17th-century to the 18th-century, one clearly notices the powerful presence of the clergy in it. Besides the cardinals, (arch)bishops and general supporters and defenders of Catholicism, the list of the abbés, the potential religious leaders to come, is lengthy with at least nine members. These representatives of religion were to push the religious issues of the 17th-century all the way into the 1740s. This explained not only the mindset and leaning of the absolute monarchy, it also raises questions as to what being French meant and was to mean after Louis XIV; and what the future of the Protestants, the Enlightenment, etc. was to be. Opening the 18th- century, the ideas of Enlightenment were to become the main challenge for the religious establishment, the political leadership, and the Académie. The position of the Modernes was to gather strength after Descartes and his independent scholarship, while the Aristotelian heritage was fiercely de- fended along with that of Richelieu, the credited founder of the Académie. As their production brought them distinction and popularity, more philoso- phers joined the Académie, and the language of purity took a different tone. Before the philosophers could have a hold in the Académie and respond strongly to the religious dominance, there had to be gradual changes begin- ning with the end...

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