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Postcolonial Realms of MemorySites and Symbols in Modern France$

Etienne Achille, Charles Forsdick, and Lydie Moudileno

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781789620665

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781789620665.001.0001

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(p.23) Archives
(p.iii) Postcolonial Realms of Memory

Oana Panaïté

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The archive is both an object and a practice where history and memory converge. Yet this French site of memory is also defined by what it leaves out, i.e. the colonial past. This article examines two sites – that is, two forms and practices of document conservation and management along with their public and didactic uses – that define the postcolonial context in France. The first is represented by former colonial archives (Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration; Archives nationales d’outre-mer) whose relocation and renaming reflects public attitudes and state policies of obfuscation rather than disclosure of the colonial past. The second site is literature (novels by Condé, Monénembo, Chamoiseau and Sebbar), which operates as an intermediate space between memory and history and a realm of living memory that assumes the responsibility of remembering by fulfilling the three tasks incumbent upon the archival institution: managing public recollections, salvaging private memories, as well as conserving, selecting, organizing, and transmitting unrecorded or unacknowledged phenomena and events for social, political, and cultural purposes. The article also considers the lacunae in metropolitan literary history that constitutes, in the post-Lansonian French culture, a nation-building archival genre.

Keywords:   Memory, History, Concealment, Fictional Archives

The study of archives authored by Krzysztof Pomian in ‘Les France’, the third quarto volume of Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire, is one of the entries included in the last major section of the entire project, ‘De l’archive à l’emblème’. The fact that it features in the sub-category ‘Enregistrement’ or ‘recording’ underscores its conceptual and symbolic value for an overall undertaking predicated on the forms of conflict and convergence between memory and history. As Pomian states in the beginning, when he quotes the founding act of France’s modern archives department, the mission of this office, created in 1979, is ‘[d]e gérer ou de contrôler les archives publiques qui constituent la mémoire de la nation et une part essentielle de son patrimoine historique’ [to manage and control public archives that constitute the nation’s memory and an essential part of its historical heritage] (1997 [1992]: 3999). The official decree thus ratifies an inextricable connection between two distinct ways, i.e. memory and history, of relating the past and relating to it.

Yet the object itself remains to be defined, beginning with what constitutes an archive and what materials belong in it. Les Lieux de mémoire’s obfuscation of colonialism in French memory and history is confirmed by the ‘Archive’ entry, made even more evident by the hapax: ‘En 1699, sont établies les archives de la Marine, des Colonies et des Galères’ [In 1699, the archives of the Navy, Colonies and Galleys are established] (Pomian, 1997 [1992]: 4051) – a reference that remains woefully undeveloped. I therefore propose to examine two sites – that is, two forms and practices of document conservation and management, along with their public and didactic uses – that define the postcolonial context in France. The first site is represented by former colonial archives whose relocation and renaming reflects public attitudes and (p.24) state policies of obfuscation rather than disclosure of the colonial past. The second site is literature, which constitutes itself, as an intermediate space between memory and history, as a realm of living memory that assumes the responsibility of remembering by fulfilling the three tasks incumbent upon the archival institution: managing public recollections, salvaging private memories, and conserving, selecting, organizing and transmitting the archives for social, political and cultural purposes. Before focusing on literature as artistic creation, I will briefly examine its institutionalization through the practice of literary history insofar as it constitutes, in the post-Lansonian French culture, a nation-building archival genre.

Pomian points out the open semantics of the concept of ‘archival documents’ stemming from the erasure of a whole host of limits: temporal (documents can be both old and new); formal (the archive incorporates a range of objects, written or visual, large or small); material (paper items stand alongside a papyrus or a magnetic tape); and even spatial, meaning that a document remains so regardless of the place of its production (1997 [1992]: 4000). This cross-boundary quality is clearly at work in both the concept and the practice of the colonial archive. In Édouard Glissant’s project of recovering ‘what was concealed under the surface’ (1989 [1981]: 74), the tension between the individual and communal memories of the dispossessed (the slave and the colonized) and the official records of ‘a History with a capital H’ (1989 [1981]: 76) is predicated on a similar heterogeneity of temporal lines, formal instances and material manifestations:

The summary of a journey, the account of an expedition into the universe of the Americas, this multiple discourse carries the stamp of an oral exposé, thus making a link with one of its most promising agonies. When the oral is confronted with the written, secret accumulated hurts suddenly find expression; the individual finds a way out of the confined circle. (1989: 4)

Furthermore, the postcolonial critique of the archive places the oral tradition at its core, and thus complicates the notion of ‘recording’, expanding its meaning beyond the objective materiality of the media (papyrus or tape) to include the subjective experience of remembering (the living witness).

Another methodological distinction introduced in Les Lieux de mémoire is that which separates the document, which belongs to the archive, from the monument, which does not. Drawing this line is (p.25) all the more necessary because the difference between the two is in actuality fuzzy at best: a building or war site can be construed as a document, while a written text can be endowed with monumental value. However, Pomian points out that monuments have an invisible connection to the past while being easily identifiable; made of rare materials, standing out thanks to their majestic bearing, their primary role is to serve as mediators between past and future (1997 [1992]: 4002). Archival materials, on the other hand, manifest a common appearance, grounded as they are in often humble materiality, and only reveal their meaning under close scrutiny and to the keen eye of the specialist or scholar. Moreover, documents are defined by their relational nature, generated as they are by a person’s or group’s activities in an unintentional way (unlike collections, which betray their owner’s will, taste and choices); archives are therefore ‘secreted’ like an organic substance or ‘sedimented’ like geological deposits (Pomian, 1997 [1992]: 4007). These differences are both confirmed and complicated by the colonial and postcolonial contexts. Among the buildings that signal, even to the untrained eye, a potential connection to France’s imperial past, the Palais de la Porte Dorée, inaugurated in 1931 on the occasion of the Exposition coloniale and situated in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, stands out in several ways (see the essay by Patrick Crowley in this volume). First, its eclectic architecture, which combines elements of Art Déco with orientalist (Moroccan and South-Asian) influences, constitutes a testament to the artistic and historical period of its conception. Second, it has undergone multiple changes in name and official status, from Musée colonial (until 1935) to Musée de la France d’outre-mer (until the late 1950s), before becoming an art museum tasked with holding collections from Africa and Oceania and, more recently, being designated in 2007 as Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration and in 2012 as Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration; this ‘sémiophore’, to use Pomian’s terminology, wavers between a visually majestic reminder of France’s dominant place in the world – thus a pure monument – and a repository of documents attesting to France’s long tradition of immigration.1 Government decrees that oversee these changes point to the state’s active role in shifting the emphasis from the symbolic value of the building itself as a symbol of the ‘empire colonial’ to the patrimonial task of preserving and publicizing a trove of documents that showcase France as a ‘pays d’accueil’ [host country].

(p.26) Thus, in the postcolonial economy of memory, the centrifugal political force of the monument is tempered by the centripetal function of the archive. Moreover, as the Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence also attest, the phenomenon that can be called the archival turn in France’s current management of its colonial history serves as an obliquely redemptive gesture. Redemptive because these institutions are presented as sites of preservation of a past that does not reflect a current state of affairs but is rather placed in a historical perspective that underscores the political and ethical distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’. But also oblique insofar as the critical dimension is not stated explicitly and is not supported by a methodological or theoretical engagement with the sources that compose the archive. The introduction page to the ANOM website states:

As heir to more than three centuries of history, the Archives nationales d’outre-mer keeps two large collections with different administrative and archive pasts:

  • The archives of the Secretariats of State and the Ministries responsible for the French colonies from the XVIIth Century to the XXth Century.

  • The archives transferred from the former colonies and Algeria when independence took place between 1954 and 1962, apart from the management archives which remained in the countries concerned.2

The archives owe their existence to a colonial history only indirectly acknowledged in this brief prefatory statement and in the more detailed information provided about the origin and organization of the different collections (ministerial, repatriated and private) held in Aix-en-Provence. Any reference to the actual process of colonization is either replaced by its chronology (‘three centuries’, ‘between 1954 and 1962’) or implied in the expressions ‘French’ or ‘former’ colonies. What is underscored instead is the claim to a heritage whose actual formation through conflicting agendas and policies engendering various forms of domination, dispossession, resistance, participation and maintenance remains largely unexplained. The last reference to the partitioning of the archives during the time of the Algerian war is puzzling in its laconicism, which clashes both with the contentious nature of the political event that (p.27) oversaw its creation and with the many unaddressed methodological, legal and ethical issues surrounding the ownership and administration of these split archives.

The example of the ANOM is a test case for Pomian’s own investigation of the ‘in-between’ status of archives, determined by the overlap of legal and practical matters. Their contents require a constant negotiation between diverging agendas and interests (private/public) and distinct uses (legal/scientific). For instance, the date when documents become available to the public marks a ‘frontière de la mémoire’ (Pomian, 1997 [1992]: 4010), a memorial boundary that marks the passage from a set of private documents associated with an individual or a group to an archive that, freed from the restrictions of private ownership, belongs to all and becomes the object of history. The guiding principle of this approach is document conservation as a means to prevent their loss or damage: ‘Conserver les archives, c’est les soustraire à toute action susceptible de les détruire ou de les détériorer’ [To preserve archives is to remove them from any action that could potentially destroy or damage them] (Pomian, 1997 [1992]: 4008). This raises a number of questions about the legal and practical parameters that determine the very creation and transmission of the archives.

But what do archives conserve and how? Nora’s project does not account for the exclusionary side of the archive, as it is enlisted by state institutions and private organizations to project a collective national ideal. In Derrida’s interpretation, according to which the archive represents a negotiation between the death drive and the pleasure principle, there is ‘no political power without control of the archive, if not memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation’ (1996 [1995]: 4).

It can be argued not only that this absence is a lacuna in Nora’s project but that it actually reflects the national attitude towards the postcolonial question in general. The relatively few French scholars who have addressed the issue, along with their more numerous peers from the UK or US, have worked to expose and overcome what Nicolas Bancel calls a political and institutional ‘blockage’. He expressly refers to the ‘minor’ (‘minorée’) place afforded to colonialism and postcolonialism in Nora’s monumental series (2006: 17). This ‘epistemological trouble’ (Panaïté, 2013: 147) transpires, for instance, in early twenty-first-century works of literary history (Tadié, 2007; Touret, 2008; Viart and Vercier, 2005) where postcolonial Francophone literature is dealt with in a (p.28) peritextual or parenthetic manner, any reference to it being limited to a paragraph or short sub-chapter. The fact that this vast production is consigned to a discrete or peripheral place is rendered even more evident by the broad scope of these scholarly works. When an ‘extension of the field’ (Touret, 2008: 245) is contemplated, one study dedicates an entire essay to writers from the colonies, covering only the postwar period until the 1960s, the decade which saw the advent of decolonization. After this decade, writers and their works cease to interest French literary history and criticism, being returned, as it were, to the literatures of their nations, although it is unclear how this rule applies indiscriminately to Algeria, an independent country, and Martinique, a French overseas department. To this temporal partition the authors add a geographical one, setting themselves the rule to not include literatures in French from Canada, Haiti, Vietnam or Lebanon. One explanation summarizes the political and ethical principles that guide this approach: ‘The concept of “Francophonie”, owing its belated appearance to the political context of decolonization, covers a variety of situations which cannot be assimilated. We will not deal here with this field and its unstable borders’ (Touret, 2008: 253).

The question raised by these colonial and postcolonial classifications is not unlike those used by Pomian to distinguish between documents in pre- and post-Revolutionary France: did the change in political status bring about a sudden transformation in archival materials and memory forms and objects? Les Lieux de mémoire establishes the French Revolution as an historical caesura that generated two types of archive: the ones it produced as it was unfolding and the ones belonging to the Ancien Régime – or, in Derrida’s terms, ‘archivization produces as much as it records the event’ (Derrida, 1996 [1995]: 17). The event transformed dynastic memory into state memory, and the genre of chronicle gave way to the scholarly treatise as the dominant manner of addressing the past. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Revolution, the past became the object of a double controversy. First, history has had to negotiate its course between an ‘histoire-continuité’ that serves as an extension of the old memory and an ‘histoire-rupture’ that purports to reject all identification with pre-revolutionary political institutions. Second, post-revolutionary France has had to contend with an ongoing tug-of-war between state memory and the people’s memory as they compete for the authentic representation of national memory (Pomian, 1997 [1992]: 4055–56). Yet, the dismantling of the colonial empire from 1946 to the indépendances of the 1960s marked (p.29) a break not only in the imagined continuity of French history but also in the memories of millions of people, citizens of the Republic and subjects of the empire, whose lives were radically altered by their change in political and administrative status, social rank, economic conditions and place of residence. In the case of the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration and the Archives nationales d’outre-mer, the only signs of change are noticeable in the renaming and repurposing of colonial monuments and documents. The former highlights the history of immigration rather than colonization, which becomes a secondary topic for exhibits, collections and dossiers. The latter hosts archives that were relocated under the pressure of historical events when France was entering its postcolonial era. The euphemistic naming of these institutions that preserve colonial documents together with the absence of a systematic scholarly apparatus dedicated to the historical, non-European context to which they owe their existence makes short work of the didactic duty assigned to the archives by the 1979 decree.3

Nora’s totalizing and pragmatic approach points toward but never meets with Foucault’s, for whom the archive is not ‘the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past’ (1972 [1969]: 130) but rather a ‘system of discursivity’ that makes memory and history possible (1972 [1969]: 129). To be sure, Pomian’s analysis does not evince any of the late twentieth-century scepticism towards the archive, predicated on the beliefs that ‘hard facts have gone soft’ (Darnton, 2003: 1) and rife with doubts about ‘archive as a fetish’ whose contents present only a selective, mediated and biased version of a past that remains irretrievably lost (LaCapra, 1985: 92). Yet, from this perspective, two definitions of the archive as a colonial realm of memory emerge, drawing a stark contrast between official and fictional archives, where fictional, meaning ‘imagined’ or ‘virtual’, stands in contrast with official, taken as ‘historical’ or ‘physical’, but not with ‘real’, ‘true’ or ‘authentic’. Fiction operates as a restorative site (p.30) of memory that lays claim to the truth of the archive by supplementing its scarcity, correcting its falsehoods or making up for its complete absence.4

In the context of the French empire, novels such as Doguicimi (1938), by Paul Hazoumé, Soundjata ou l’épopée mandingue (1960), by Djibril Tamsir Niane, or Crépuscule des temps anciens (1962), by Nazi Boni, draw on both documentary accounts and oral traditions in order to reveal the history, traditions and everyday lives of the Bwa people during the Volta-Bani war, or of those living in the Kingdom of Dahomey or the Mali Empire. The postcolonial era brings with it a whole host of books that set out to bring to light the untold stories obfuscated by the official chronicles of Western history. Memory and history are situated at the opposite ends of the archival spectrum here, with literature endeavoring to fill the emotional and ethical chasm between them. In her historical novel Ségou (1984–85), Maryse Condé undertakes the monumental task of recreating the life of the Bambara people throughout several generations of Traoré rulers and their subjects during the nineteenth century, a crucial time when their empire comes under increased pressure from the forces of European colonization. The Hugolian shape and magnitude of the novel transform it into a sweeping collective saga. It weaves genealogical recreation, ethnographic research and historical facts into a narrative that resurrects and transcends the archive. Tierno Monénembo’s Le Roi de Kahel (2008) recounts the story of Aimé Victor Olivier de Sanderval, a nineteenth-century Lyon-born explorer of Africa. In an epigraph revealing of the book’s entire approach, the author’s acknowledgments to Olivier de Sanderval’s heirs for granting him access to their forefather’s written archives preserved in the city of Caen is immediately followed by a document excerpt that reads ‘Le Créateur les a faits noirs pour que les coups ne se voient pas’ [The Creator made them black so that blows would remain invisible]. The narrative works along the archival grain, embracing rather than rejecting the ‘affective mastery’ (Stoler, 2009: 67) at the core of the colonial project but also undermining the ‘affective knowledge’ (Stoler, 2009: 98) preserved in the colonial archive. Monénembo’s ‘roman d’archives’ exhibits its paratextual devices and bibliographical apparatus (p.31) while juxtaposing conflicting voices (most notably, those of the different Africans Sanderval encounters on his journey) and perspectives (for and against colonization) in order to highlight the multiplicity of memorial threads that weave the tapestry of the colonial past.

In the postcolonial era, works such as Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco (1992) and Leïla Sebbar’s La Seine était rouge: Paris, octobre 1961 (1999) draw on documentary resources to reveal the overlooked socio-economic consequences of the 1946 creation of the Caribbean ‘overseas departments’ or to question the historical and political lacunae about violent police action against anti-colonial protesters during the war in Algeria. Chamoiseau’s Goncourt-winning novel recounts the struggles of the population of a shanty town against the destruction of a community and erasure of memory caused by urban development in contemporary Fort-de-France, Martinique. The novel borrows the formal features of the archive as it erects a complex fictional scaffolding of official reports and personal notations, private writings and explanatory notes. Its narrative supplements and eventually supplants the silent, failing or false historical records. Using the trope of the second-generation immigrant that ‘does not speak her father’s language’, Leïla Sebbar’s book engages with a crucial episode from the French–Algerian war: the bloody repression of an anti-war protest organized by the FLN in Paris in 1961 along with its subsequent cover-up on the orders of the Police Prefect Maurice Papon. Because, in the absence of a credible official inquiry, the actual number of victims and their cause of death have been the subject of heated contestation, Sebbar delegates the quest for truth to her characters: a ‘Beur’ teenage woman, an Algerian journalist in exile during his country’s ‘dark decade’, and a filmmaker. Their individual narratives illustrate the multidirectional and mediated nature of postcolonial memory, while highlighting the archival vocation of art that gathers and sediments the traces of the past lost in the official discourse. Moreover, from Didier Daeninckx, who in his 1983 detective novel Meurtres pour mémoire also focuses on the 17 October events, probing their disturbing connections to the Occupation years, to Alexis Jenni, whose L’Art français de la guerre (2011) delves into the history of France’s colonial wars, metropolitan writers have increasingly taken an interest in the lived reality of the country’s colonial past and the current manifestations of its postcolonial present both in the world and in the Hexagon.

In his conclusion, Pomian points out that the evolution of the concept and function of the archive has transformed it into a futurocentric (p.32) institution that subordinates its contents and mission to the gaze of generations to come and of their historians (1997 [1992]: 4058). This temporal reorientation, along with its underlying ideological and political agendas, may explain why the colonial past and the postcolonial present are often occluded from the future-oriented national archive: their conservation, study and transmission entail returning to an unacknowledged history and facing its enduring and deeply conflicted memory.

Works Cited

Bibliography references:

Bancel, Nicolas. 2006. ‘L’histoire difficile: esquisse d’une historiographie du fait colonial et postcolonial’. In La Fracture coloniale. La société française au prisme de l’héritage colonial, edited by Pascal Blanchard, Nicolas Bancel and Sandrine Lemaire, 85–95. Paris: La Découverte.

Boni, Nazi. 1962. Crépuscule des temps anciens. Paris: Présence Africaine.

Chamoiseau, Patrick. 1992. Texaco. Paris: Gallimard.

Condé, Maryse. 1984–85. Ségou, vol. 1 Les murailles des terre, vol. 2 La terre en miettes. Paris: Robert Laffont.

Daeninckx, Didier. 1983. Meurtres pour mémoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Darnton, Robert. 2003. ‘How historians play God’. Cromohs 11: 1–3. http://www.cromohs.unifi.it/11_2006/darnton_historians.html.

Derrida, Jacques. 1996 [1995]. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1972 [1969]. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Book.

Glissant, Édouard. 1989 [1981]. Caribbean Discourse. Translated by J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Hazoumé, Paul. 1938. Doguicimi. Paris: Larose.

Jenni, Alexis. 2011. L’Art français de la guerre. Paris: Gallimard.

Keen, Susan. 2003. Romance of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

LaCapra, Dominick. 1985. History and Criticism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Monénembo, Tierno. 2008. Le Roi de Kahel. Paris: Seuil.

Niane, Djibril Tamsir. 1960. Soundjata ou l’épopée mandingue. Paris: Présence Africaine.

Panaïté, Oana. 2013. ‘La querelle des bibliothèques ou la gêne de la critique française face à la littérature en français’. Nouvelles Études Francophones 28, no. 1: 145–61.

Pomian, Krzysztof. 1997 [1992]. ‘Les Archives’. In Les Lieux de mémoire, edited by Pierre Nora, 3999–4067. Paris: Gallimard/Quarto.

(p.33) Sebbar, Leïla. 1996. La Seine était rouge: Paris, octobre 1961. Paris: Thierry Magnier.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tadié, Jean-Yves, ed. 2007. La Littérature française: dynamique et histoire. Paris: Gallimard.

Touret, Michelle, ed. 2008. Histoire de la littérature française du XXe siècle – après 1940, vol. 2. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

Viart, Dominique, and Bruno Vercier. 2005. La Littérature française au présent. Héritage, modernité, mutations. Paris: Bordas.


(3) Recent government initiatives point to possible developments in this area but their nature and extent are yet to be determined. Among them, it is worth noting the 2014 appointment of the historian Benjamin Stora, well known for his works on the French colonization of Algeria and the war that brought it to an end, to the position of president of the Conseil d’orientation in charge of developing scientific and cultural projects within the patrimonial complex of the Palais de la Porte Dorée. See http://www.palais-portedoree.fr/fr/letablissement-public-du-palais-de-la-porte-doree.

(4) ‘Romances of the archive’ have also been used to cast the loss of the empire and the country’s colonial legacy in a generic framework that combines knowledge and affect to provide compensatory narratives, as Susan Keen has shown in her study of British literature.