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Algeria's Impact on French Philosophy: Between Poststructuralist Theory and Colonial Practice

[Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida. Image from the University of Chicago Chronicle.] [Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida. Image from the University of Chicago Chronicle.]

Pal Ahuluwalia. Out of Africa: Post-Structuralism’s Colonial Roots. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Jane Goodman and Paul A. Silverstein (eds). Bourdieu in Algeria: Colonial Politics, Ethnographic Practices, Theoretical Developments. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Christopher Wise. Derrida, Africa and the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

In the past few years, there appears to have been a falling out between Middle Eastern studies and post-structuralist theory. Edward Said’s Orientalism remains necessary reading for most graduate students, but the surrounding debates in post-colonial and post-structuralist theory have fallen decisively out of fashion. It would seem that the so-called “cultural turn” (often - mistakenly - taken to be synonymous with post-structuralism or postmodernism) was actually a dead-end. While there is a robust debate in critical theory as to the political implications of post-structuralism, in Middle Eastern studies the current refrain sometimes begins with: “just say No to Discourse.”

A more sustained engagement with both critical theory, on the one hand, and Middle Eastern history, on the other, might offer a productive way out of this impasse. It might reveal, for example, that discourse (in Foucault’s sense) and representation (or narrative) are by no means interchangeable. It might show how political economy – indeed Marx himself! – has played a central role in post-structuralist thought from Foucault to Spivak. Moreover, the philosophical tradition in which political economy was articulated was not – could not have been – divorced from questions of epistemology, history, and (even) culture. At the same time, the figures that inspired much of post-structuralism, such as Hegel and Comte, were absolutely crucial to Marx’s work.

But to return to the Middle East, there are pressing political and intellectual reasons why such a rapprochement between history and theory is crucially important. As I have argued, a nostalgic return to class and poverty, while certainly welcome after decades of focusing on Islam and Arab “exceptionalism” is of limited use in understanding the events of the “Arab Spring.” Nor are we doing our students a favor by simply sweeping Foucault and Company under the rug as a wayward chapter in critical thought. Even more dangerous is the omission of critical theory on the grounds it is something that happened “over there” (in Europe) and therefore remains outside the purview of Middle Eastern studies.

A number of recent books on critical theory and colonial history offer a way out of the mutual disciplinary suspicion. After all, as Robert Young has claimed in White Mythologies, “If so-called ‘so-called poststructualism’ is the product of a single historical moment, then that moment is probably not May 1968 but rather the Algerian War of Independence.” While post-structuralism is sometimes dismissed as politically irrelevant, Young focuses on its relationship with Algerian decolonization. He implies that post-structuralism was not only politically engaged, but emerged from a rejection of the philosophical assumptions upon which the colonial edifice was built. Quite literally, the bombs that went off in the casbah jolted French philosophers from their modernist/structuralist slumber and prompted the marriage of political and philosophical concerns.

This is certainly one “Master Narrative” on the colonial origins of post-structuralism. Yet a very different account emerges in Edward Said’s reflections on his meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the home of Michel Foucault in 1979. Beauvoir, Said tells us, was a “serious disappointment, flouncing out of the room in a cloud of opinionated babble about Islam and the veiling of women.” Foucault’s support for Israel eventually cost him a friendship with Gilles Deleuze, and Sartre offered a written statement that “praised the courage of Anwar Sadat in the most banal platitudes imaginable.” In this light, the colonial politics of these figures appears much less flattering, but equally important.

Faced with these divergent accounts, how should we address the historical links between French post-structuralism and Algerian decolonization? What were the implications of Algeria’s role in social theory, and how do we make sense of the fact that the list of thinkers directly influenced by events in Algeria — Jean-Paul  Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean-François Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Michel Foucault — reads as a canonical list of French philosophers?

In differing ways, three recent books have addressed these questions. Pal Ahluwalia’s Out of Africa: Post-Structuralism’s Colonial Roots examines the “worldly origin” of theory and claims that Algeria offered a set of conditions that were “necessary for the emergence of post-structuralism” (8). The other two works focus on the oeuvres of Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida, respectively. In comparison to Ahluwalia’s work, they posit a more complicated relationship between colonial politics and theoretical interventions. The edited volume by Jane Goodman and Paul A. Silverstein, Bourdieu in Algeria: Colonial Politics, Ethnographic Practices, Theoretical Developments, explores Bourdieu’s “nostalgic construction” of Algerian society. These essays convincingly show how Bourdieu’s methodological and philosophical commitments engendered a static image of Kabyle culture.

Christopher Wise also interrogates the political implications of critical theory. In Derrida, Africa and the Middle East, Wise claims that by privileging Jewish theology Derrida espoused a “latent Jewish liberalism” that reinforced the political discourse of Zionism. According to Wise, while Derrida worked to undermine the “visualist hegemony of the Christian West,” he did so by upholding a universalist conception of the Jewish spirit, which effectively silenced alternative epistemological and political traditions in the Middle East. 

Algeria as “Radical Disjuncture”: The Critical Possibilities of Decolonization

Ahluwalia’s work is undoubtedly a major contribution to debates on the relationship among the various theoretical “posts” (post-structuralism, postmodernism, and post-colonialism). He claims that “postcolonialism is a counter-discourse that seeks to disrupt the cultural hegemony of the West” while “post-structuralism and postmodernism are counter discourses against modernism that have emerged within modernism itself” (3). But what allowed post-colonialism to escape from the hegemonic designs of modernism? How does the postcolonial subject find a position exterior to modernity?

In Ahluwalia’s account, a partial answer is that post-colonialism was a reaction to a failed modernity: “It is in Algeria that we find the most radical disjuncture between the promise of European modernity and the reality, which demonstrated the very pitfalls of the universality of those ideas” (2). Raised in the chasm between colonial theory and practice, these intellectuals were able to question the assumptions of progress, rationality, and positivism that constituted the foundations of the civilizing mission.

For Ahluwalia, the occupation of Algeria provided the decisive context for the ideas of Derrida and Cixous. Born in Algeria, they were forced to confront the virulent anti-Semitism directed against European Jews. Ahluwalia also makes a great deal of the “marginal” existence of these figures, implying that there is a correspondence between identities deemed to be “outsiders” and a critical theoretical stance. He writes, “the most vigorous dismantling of the assumptions of Western intellectual orthodoxy comes from its margins” (85). It is not difficult to see how this might lead to a crude identity politics whereby one’s religious, regional, or socio-economic standing offers privileged access to radical critique.

Ahluwalia is not alone in this regard. Indeed, there has been a renewed enthusiasm in literary theory for pied noir identity, which is viewed as “fragmented, tattered and rootless” (103). This not only overlooks the privileged position of European Jews vis-à-vis the native Muslim population, but also ignores the political tensions between Ashkanazi and Sephardic Jews and the fact the “rootless” existence of the pied noirs was linked to their occupation of Algeria. This historical amnesia surrounding the figure of the pied noir in French literature also echoes the recent work on Camus, a topic I have addressed elsewhere. But given Ahluwalia’s repeated insistence that we attend to the “worldliness” of theory and account for the historical context in which theoretical texts are produced, this tendency is puzzling. Ahluwalia is correct to point out that deconstruction should be read in light of its colonial origins, but as Wise argues, Derrida did not offer a “radical disjuncture” with colonial history. Instead, Wise seems to imply that the anti-Semitic sins of the colonial Father became the Zionist apologetics of the hybrid Son.

Yet Ahluwalia’s work is an important redress to the allegation that post-structuralism necessarily ends in a nihilistic discursive abyss. The fact that Lyotard was actively involved in the struggle of Algerian workers, and that Derrida offered a critique of American hegemony in the Middle East, highlights that political commitments were a driving force in the articulation of critical theory.

Ahluwalia’s defense of Foucault, however, is less convincing. He writes that Foucault’s time in Tunisia was decisive to the epistemological framework outlined in The Archeology of Knowledge. Yet he also concedes that Foucault neither “wrote nor commented on his experiences in Tunisia” (148). When Foucault is quoted, it is to claim that he was drawn to Tunisia because of the “sun, the sea, the great warmth of Africa,” a statement that invokes not a few Orientalist tropes (146). Lastly, Ahluwalia’s claim that Islamic rhetoric in Iran and Foucault’s work both shared a certain “anti-modernist stance” (151) shows the bizarre relationship between Foucaultian musings and Iranian history. In this account, modernity is reduced to the Weberian cage – except that it now possible to escape from this instrumental rationality using the magic carpet of Islamism, or the deconstructive potential of post-structuralism.

Bourdieu in Algeria: The Methodologies of Social Theory

Following Ahluwalia, Goodman and Silverstein claim that Bourdieu’s work is “predicated…on the colonial setting in which he carried out his research” (3). Bourdieu first went to Algeria in order to conduct military service in 1955. Inspired by his time in North Africa, he later developed his theoretical apparatus of the field and habitus in an attempt to navigate between the dominant theoretical trends of structuralism and phenomenology. He also studied the connections between theory and practice, offering a critique of participant observation and calling for a reflexive form of ethnography. While attending to the biographical and theoretical influences provided by the Algerian context, Goodman and Silverstein emphasize Bourdieu’s reification of Kabyle culture and his denial of Algerian agency. In opposition to Ahluwalia’s emphasis on the failure of modernity, they write that to “focus solely on moments of rupture and dislocation risks both neglecting the accommodations Algerians may have made to colonialism and obscuring from our analytical purview those areas of society that may have been less dramatically impacted by colonial relations” (19).

A concern with the modalities of writing, transcription, and translation is central to these essays. Bourdieu, Jane Goodman notes, did not study the Berber language until he returned to France. In addition, his assumption that orally transmitted proverbs and sayings offered “unmediated signs of habitus” led him to view the Kabyle as an undifferentiated subject (100). Goodman argues that the characterization of modernity as loss or dislocation perpetuated the notion of colonialism as a devastating and irreparable disjuncture. “Despite Bourdieu’s hope that his works would provide Algerians with tools to build a new future, his accounts were haunted by the Orientalist specter of a precolonial order supposedly shattered by its entry into capitalist modernity” (117). In order to describe the divide between the pre-modern and the modern, which underpinned his ethnography of Kabyle culture, Bourdieu ignored the existing literary traditions and written maps that would have complicated his understanding of modernization.

Focusing on the tension between written and oral sources, this volume rigorously explores the intersection between theory and disciplinary formations. In so doing, the authors neither romanticize nor demonize Bourdieu’s colonial politics. Instead, they trace the ways in which Bourdieu’s disciplinary and personal orientations influenced his study of Algeria.

Abdellah Hammoudi analyzes Bourdieu’s emphasis on orality in light of the disciplinary division between ethnology and Orientalism whereby “ethnologists of Kabylia learned and used the oral vernacular for their inquiries, while Orientalists specialized in the written language” (201). According to Hammoudi, Bourdieu continued a long-standing trend that employed Berber and French to study the Maghreb while overlooking the textual traditions written in Arabic. As a result, “the Kabylia that Boudieu demarcated as an object of study was impoverished as a phenomenal cultural field and stripped of its living complexity” (232). This, in turn, influenced Bourdieu’s theoretical apparatus, which Hammoudi finds to be “quite static” compared to Merleau-Ponty’s ”phenomenology of the playing field” (225). Paul Silverstein argues that this reification continues to have important political effects, noting that Berber activism in France has been intellectually and institutionally indebted to Bourdieu’s work on culture. 

It is difficult to read these essays on Bourdieu without reflecting on Derrida’s warning that writing should not be viewed as less “true” than the spoken word. Given that Bourdieu sought to unify the realms of theory and practice, it is ironic that Derrida (who never confronted the vagaries of fieldwork) offers a way of understanding the gap between epistemological concerns and methodological tools that is found in Bourdieu’s writing. While Derrida undermined the privileging of the spoken word, it is precisely this trust in orality – manifested in ethnographic practice – that became complicit in Bourdieu’s reification of Kabyle culture. 

Derrida’s Politics of Identity: Algeria, Anti-Semitism and Deconstruction

Like Bourdieu, Derrida experienced intense social alienation as a result of his upbringing. While Bourdieu often highlighted the disjuncture between his childhood in rural Béarn and the elite world of French academia, Derrida emphasized the impact of anti-Semitism on his daily life in Algeria. Thus, while Bourdieu projected his nostalgia for village life onto the world-view of the Algerians, Derrida’s Algeria was the site of personal trauma. As Christopher Wise notes, Derrida often claimed to be writing from specifically Jewish concerns. Wise’s project in Derrida, Africa, and the Middle East is two-fold: first, to claim Derrida’s critique as African as well as Jewish, and second, to explore Derrida’s contribution to contemporary debates on the Middle East – namely in relationship to Zionism and American Empire.

Both of these aims are read through the politics of identity that is found in Derrida’s own work. Derrida, Wise reminds us, often described himself as a “little black” and “very Arab Jew” (42). His self-identification as African is the foundation of Wise’s claim that Derrida’s concepts are “homologous with Egypto-African [concepts],” even though Derrida himself elided this fact by framing his work with Jewish theological concepts (168). Yet in redefining Derrida as “African,” Wise makes a series of claims about the Sahel that re-inscribes Africa as a place of ancient mythology, pagan beliefs, and oral culture. Take, for example, Wise’s repeated reminder that “many people who live in the Sahel have limited contact with either alphabetic or typographic texts” (183). Ultimately, in trying to recover Derrida as an “African” rather than “Jewish” voice, Wise tends towards an essentialist description of both.

Borrowing the term “Abrahamic” from Louis Massignon, Derrida sought to form an alliance between Judaism and Islam that would undermine the logocentric tendencies of Christianity. Yet, Wise argues, Derrida’s invocation of the “Abrahamic” is deeply informed by Jewish theology and effectively overwrites the histories of Christian and Islamic thought. This appropriation allows Derrida to overlook the more nuanced political realities of the Middle East - the ethnic tensions within the Jewish community and the existence of Arab Christians, for example. Similarly, Wise claims that Derrida reinforced certain tropes that are central to the political discourse of Zionism, such as the conflation of history and allegory that occurs in Derrida’s description of Jerusalem (63). For Wise, if Derrida’s theory of the trace was linked to his status as a Jew in Algeria, it was also employed as a tool of colonial occupation rather than radical emancipation.

Estranged from French academics by his decision to live and teach in the US, Wise claims that Derrida was “reluctant to directly intervene within the American academic context” (128). While Derrida may have been aware of his own position vis-à-vis the American academy, his numerous interviews and publications on the post 9/11 world hardly seem to exemplify “reluctance.” Wise acknowledges that Derrida’s critiques of US foreign policy were “valuable if sometimes problematic” (128) and ultimately concedes: “there is a sense in which global events following 9/11 propel Derrida into a more direct confrontation with U.S. foreign policy, which undermines his prior interventions on behalf of the Israeli state” (145).

While I am largely in sympathy with Wise’s conclusion, he seems to overlook two facts which might have complicated, if not altered, this conclusion: first, Derrida’s engagement with Emmanuel Levinas’ writings on Israel, and second, the fact that Derrida expressed a degree of solidarity with Palestinians on numerous occasions. 

Derrida’s views of Zionism were certainly at odds with his larger project, which sought to critique the foundations of Western metaphysics. Moreover, this lack of critical engagement with Zionism is a tendency Derrida shared with other critical theorists who conflated resistance towards Israel with “Anti-Jewish” sentiments. Against this tendency, Judith Butler has argued that the relationship between Judaism and Zionism must be refuted in ideological as well as historical terms. Thus, while correct to point out the overlapping uses of Judaism and Zionism in Derrida’s writing, Wise oversimplifies the complicated relationship between deconstruction and Jewish identity. 

The Intimacy (and Indeterminacy) of Critical Theory

A generation of French intellectuals matured against the backdrop of France’s colonial drama, which destroyed the foundations of the civilizing mission and refashioned France in the shape of a hexagon. Yet these three works demonstrate that while post-structuralism offered a powerful critique of the epistemological and physical violence of colonialism, it was also imbricated in a Eurocentric philosophical milieu: in Algeria Sartre saw the revolutionary proletariat, Bourdieu asserted a pre-modern peasantry, and Derrida fashioned his theory of messianic truth. Not only did they reflect on the philosophical canon in light of Algerian history, they also understood Algeria through the optic of European philosophy.

Read together, these books show how the intimate relationship between Algeria and France was worked through in specific ways that were not politically overdetermined. They also underscore that post-structuralism cannot be reduced to a rejection of European philosophy or modernity tout court. Suspended between Robert Young’s utopian conjecture and Edward Said’s baffled observations, Algeria offered the promise of critique and the threat of reification. It provided a set of mirrors (and distortions) to a generation of theorists who were impacted by the trauma of losing a piece of France’s national self. These works highlight the historical importance and political indeterminacy of post-structural critique, which continues to inform our theoretical and political worlds. As we continue to think about the impact of the Arab Spring on the categories of analysis that have been used to study the Middle East, the relationship between post-structuralism and Algeria offers an important historical precedent. Moreover, before we resign post-structuralism to the dustbin of MESA history, scholars of the region should think about the ways in which a more fruitful rapprochement could be both intellectually desirable and politically necessary.

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