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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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Chapter 10–The 20th-Century: Colonialism and Internationalism 197

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Chapter 10 The 20th-Century: Colonialism and Internationalism Nationalism, Race, and Issues of Creativity and Influence All the history of the French language—from the days of the Pléiade and the treatise of Henri Estienne under Henri III to the rhetoric of the 18th-century French Enlightenment through the foundation and duty of the Académie française—spells a solid story of nationalism. While it took the Revolution to really make French the national language, and the 19th-century to actualize its preeminence, the 20th-century opened the economy of this linguistic jour- ney into an aggressive, if revisionist, nationalism that even encompasses race and theorized inherent gifts. Indeed, although Richelieu’s catholic title made it look as though the type of discourse heard from the Académie with regard to the French language is uniquely catholic, nationalism and newer rhetoric on race made Protestants join in the chorus of linguistic superiority. Indeed, as if making peace with their past persecution—epitomized by the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes—20th-century Protestants restated their claim to the French language and its ‘revolutionary’ heritage. World War I may have invited that need, as we will see. In his 1918 Anthologie protestante française, Raoul Allier demonstrated French Protestant initiation of modern democracy for the world. While ac- knowledging that Protestantism, the Reformation, was started in Germany by Martin Luther in the 16th-century, Allier quickly argued French potency: This Huguenot literature is French to the core. […] It is a fact that Luther’s Reforma- tion...

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