EASA, 2006: EASA06: Europe and the world

Bristol, UK, 18/09/2006 – 21/09/2006


Colonial legacies: the past in the present

Location Victoria LT
Date and Start Time 18 Sep, 2006 at 16:45


Benoît de L'Estoile (Ecole normale supérieure/ CNRS, PSL Research University) email
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Short Abstract

How is the colonial past negotiated, contested, reinvented, forgotten in our world? In what sense do colonial memories and imperial legacies shape today's self-understandings, both in Europe and in former colonised countries?

Long Abstract

Colonial legacies are not only a concern for those countries that once had a colonial empire, but indeed for the whole of Europe, which has been shaped, both objectively and subjectively, by its colonial experience. Men (mostly) and women travelled from all over Europe to participate in the colonial experience as missionaries, traders, settlers, administrators, and so on. To be 'European' was, in the colonial world, a category defining status and prescribing relationships.

This colonial past is present in our world in many ways. It is objectified in monuments, museums, buildings, but also in continuing flows of commodities and people; it is felt in political, intellectual, artistic life, and in the memories of those who somehow define themselves in relationship to the colonial moment. It informs the rhetoric and the categories through which Europeans deal with migrants from former colonised countries, define standards of good governance or conceive development projects, and through which people outside Europe look at European tourists, businessmen, politicians or anthropologists.

In that sense, 'colonialism' is not something that is beyond us, a past to be left to historians, but is a central topic for anthropologists, both as scholars and citizens, not only because our discipline still has to reckon with its own colonial legacy, but because it is part of our present.

Our plenary will ask, how do colonial legacies shape our daily life? How is the colonial past negotiated, contested, reinvented, forgotten in various forums from politics to museums to scholarly discourses? In what sense do colonial memories and imperial legacies shape today's self-understandings, both in Europe and in former colonial dependencies?

Chair: Benoit de L'Estoile


Double erasures: rewriting the past in French postcolonial museums

Author: Nelia Dias (ISCTE)  email
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Long Abstract

During the last months, French colonial past has emerged in the political and social sphere giving rise to heated debates about slavery and teaching history in textbooks. Paradoxically, museums have been left aside from this controversy although the new millennium has been the point of departure for several important transformations in ethnographic museums throughout France.

Focused on the Musée du quai Branly (MQB), due to open its doors in June 2006, the paper attempts to examine on the one hand how the recent projects of redesigning the museums of ethnography reflect the ongoing tension between the issue of cultural equality and of cultural diversity; they also mirror the fragile balance in reconciling the republican ideals, namely republicanism's universalizing and egalitarianism tenets, with the reality of a growing multicultural French society. On the other hand, it seeks to explore the new intellectual and ideological framework within which non European objects are put on display. By omitting explicitly the term ethnography and by privileging the geographical location, the MQB clearly expresses a break with the nineteenth century museum legacy based on disciplinary formation.

To what extent do these double erasures of the disciplinary past and of the European collections attest to significant changes in the ways of dealing with the colonial legacy? Why the museological sphere in general and the French anthropological community in particular are quite absent from the recent debates? How the extension of the notion of heritage (with the inclusion of non European objects) is a way of overcoming delicate political issues and of establishing a consensual memory?

The embodied past. reconciliation and resentment in post-apartheid South Africa

Author: Didier Fassin (Institute for Advanced Study)  email
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Long Abstract

South Africa's relation to its violent history is both colonial (conquest and exploitation since the 17th century) and postcolonial (during the segregation and later apartheid eras). In the aftermath of the 1994 first democratic elections, the politics of pacification, deracialization and nation-building was entirely defined through the idea of a dramatic and radical rupture with the past. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, between 1996 and 1998, was meant to be the turning point of this process, both discovering and burying the times of white oppression ; just as the Apartheid Museum, at the entrance of Soweto, represented the reconstitution and memorialization of the hatred regime. Nelson Mandela, in the political sphere, and Desmond Tutu, in the religious world, were the incarnations of this so-called New South Africa. However, from the late 1990s, it became clearer and clearer that the past had not passed. From his virulent « Two nations » speech, contrasting his previous « I am an African » discourse, to his harsh attacks during the ceremony for the return of the remnants of Saartje Bartman, the « Hottentot Venus », Thabo Mbeki became the herald of a new politics of memory denouncing oblivion and denial. Resentment reached its peak during the AIDS controversy which awakened old wounds and unveiled hidden tragedies. The racialization of the debate, the africanization of the responses and the paranoid tone given to interpretations (with accusations of genocide) did not only remind a distant past ; it also encountered present revelations about what did happen and was until then unknown, including a Biological and Chemical Warfare project against the Africans.

Based on fieldwork both in the public sphere where politics and science meet and in townships and former homelands where everyday life is still profoundly marked by socio-racial inequalities, my presentation develops the concept of embodiment of the past, taken from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology but also inspired by De Certeau's distinction between historiography and psychoanalysis. Nora's « lieux de mémoire » underlined a trend in the officialization of the past through places, symbols, celebrations. Conversely, what I am interested in is that which resists to this institutionalization of memory, which is painfully inscribed in the body, which makes the past present in one's life : « memory as it flashes up at the moment of danger », in Benjamin's words. Beyond South Africa's so often evoked exceptionalism, I intend to analyze its exemplarity for the understanding of today's tensions around the legacies of the colonial past in Africa and in Europe, most notably. Against the common denunciation of over-victimization, I suggest to take seriously the necessity of dealing with the past to open the future. Beyond reconciliation and resentment, anthropologists thus have to make sense of the contemporary politics of time.

What has anthropology learned from the anthropology of colonialism?

Author: Peter Pels (Leiden University)  email
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Long Abstract

The emergence of an anthropology of colonialism in the 1990s has generated the possibility of reflecting critically on the cultural and historical embedding of the discipline of anthropology, offering what is in effect a historiography of the discipline’s present. How has this historical consciousness changed the contours of the discipline? Has it allowed anthropologists to critically distance their discipline from its intimate involvement with the world of modernity, development and the welfare state, as it first emerged under colonial rule? Has it forged an anthropology that, instead of targeting and thus essentializing otherness, now studies the processes by which human differences are constructed, hierarchized and negotiated? This presentation focuses on the recent scholarship in European and North American anthropology in order to discuss the potential effects of the anthropology of colonialism’s historical consciousness on anthropological ontologies (such as "culture" and "development"), epistemologies (such as "fieldwork" and "method") and ethics. It thus tries to answer the question whether the critical promise of the anthropology of colonialism can be fulfilled.