A Small Island


Benjamin Noys

University College Chichester, UK

Copyright © 2001 by Benjamin Noys, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

François Vergès. Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999.

  1. In his recent survey of contemporary theory Peter Hallward points out that 'Nothing is more orthodox in the domain of postcolonial studies than an insistence on the multiple, specific, heterogeneous nature of contexts and subject positions. But even here, how exactly this theoretical insistence is to be turned into critical practice remains a matter of vigorous debate' (Hallward 7). Perhaps the difficulty with turning an insistence on the specific into critical practice is that it has largely remained a theoretical insistence. Postcolonial studies has witnessed many calls and demands for us to attend to the specific and has produced many manifestos of the need for more careful considerations of context(s). It is into this situation that Monsters and Revolutionaries makes a scandalous intervention, because it offers us the specific history of a particular colonial and postcolonial context without preamble, debate, or apology. By simply offering us a political history of her own 'small island' of Réunion Françoise Vergès has made the turn from the specific into critical practice. In doing so she offers some important and painful lessons for contemporary postcolonial studies.

  2. In particular she offers a painful lesson for all those who would rely on the great narratives of decolonisation and liberation whose most notable theorist was Frantz Fanon. Little islands like Réunion have often been regarded as irrelevant to these great narratives, but Vergès argues that this 'irrelevancy' is actually a critical position. For her the great narratives rely on a 'myth of historical rupture' (2) whereby they try to erase the shameful colonial past to create a radically new future. However, the failure of these great narratives has opened up spaces for different models, not so much of liberation as subversion. Réunion is one such space, offering us the paradoxical demand for assimilation to the colonial power and not liberation from it. From the perspective of national liberation such a demand can only seem like a betrayal or a kind of 'identification with the aggressor'. But what Vergès explores is the subversive dimension of this demand for recognition and how this call for a filiation to the colonial power can articulate a new politics of memory that threatens the stability of both colonial power and conventional postcolonial discourses.

  3. The result is a very detailed and fascinating study which any review, by necessity, cannot present without a loss of the specific detail on which her analysis depends. However, to draw out the thread of the subversive demand for assimilation is to give just one example of how Vergès overturns many of our cherished assumptions. She explains how the demand for assimilation subverts colonial power by forcing it to recognise the equality between the colonised and their colonial 'masters'. In doing so it subverts the logic of colonial racism, which rests on an inequality between the coloniser and colonised. The French republican form of inequality has figured the colonised as the 'younger brother' of the French coloniser, creating a relation of fraternal inferiority. By demanding 'liberty, equality, fraternity' anticolonial activists on Réunion have ruptured this French 'colonial family romance', by turning its own discourse against it. What is state legitimation in the metropole is state subversion in the colony.

  4. In taking colonial discourse at its word the anticolonial struggle on Réunion confirms a critical insight that has been articulated by the psychoanalytic theorist Slavoj Zizek. In his numerous works he has often argued an overidentification with the explicit discourse of power that may be more subversive than the distance from power of a disidentification. In a recent work he suggests that 'simply taking the power discourse at its (public) word, acting as if it really means what it explicitly says (and promises) - can be the most effective way of disturbing its smooth functioning' (Zizek, 2000: 220). Unfortunately, Zizek has often been infuriatingly vague about what this overidentification might actually be in practice, and it has been easy to regard this suggestion as an example of his taste for wilful paradox. However, the specific analysis supplied by Vergès of anticolonial discourse in Réunion offers a critical practice that employs such a subversive overidentification. By taking French colonial discourse seriously the colonised force it to try to answer a question that it cannot answer: 'If we are who you say we are -- monsters, beasts, insane -- and yet we are your equals, who are you?' (245).

  5. So, what could have remained a rarefied question of theoretical discussion is rendered as a critical practice through attention to this specific context. What is particularly subversive about this demand for recognition is the specificity of what the colonial power is being asked to recognise: the reality and value of métissage (miscegenation). It is in her exploration of métissage that Vergès translates the specific reality of the life and history of Réunion into a critical practice that subverts both colonial power and emancipatory discourses. The reality of métissage is the reality of, predominantly, a history of sexual exploitation of black women by white men. This is a filiation and a history that France would prefer to forget, deny or sanitise, because it is a history of anxiety, pain and desire that fissures colonial and postcolonial discourses of power. Métissage is also a value, the value of a mixing of 'blood' that threatens any colonial or postcolonial discourse of purity. I can only recommend you explore for yourself the powerful continuities Vergès identifies between a colonial racism of 'blood' and a postcolonial racism of 'identity'. What she analyses is the virtual impossibility of French colonial power assimilating the fact and value of métissage as a memory of suffering.

  6. While métissage is a fascinating figure that sits alongside the emergence of other figures of 'mixing' in postcolonial studies (Creole, hybrid, rhizome, graft, etc.), some of its most important implications lie in the realm of memory. The demand for recognition is subversive not only because it takes colonial discourse at its word but also because it reminds it of what it would rather forget: slavery. This politics of memory is, as Vergès recognises, painful for both the colonised and coloniser. Slavery and métissage resist the identification of heroes from the past and instead point to a more ambiguous and unstable history of 'mixing', forced and otherwise. The analogy to other postcolonial situations is intimated by Vergès and so remains for others to take up. She indicates the 'memory work' undertaken in the fiction of Toni Morrison, and we could also refer to other writers working in a British context, like Fred D'Aguiar. In a recent essay on slavery he suggests that 'The continuous hurt of slavery rests in the fact that a mere knowledge of it is enough to cause pain. Without fiction, this history would remain a source of anger and grief without any hope or ability to transcend them, except through amnesia, which is the end of hope' (D'Aguiar, 143).

  7. The history that Vergès writes does not offer the sort of consolation that D'Aguiar finds in fiction. What she suggests is that the inheritance of slavery is not only one of anger and grief, but also of shame. The very drive to 'transcend' anger and grief that D'Aguiar identifies with fiction may be a drive that reduces the shame that is part of that inheritance (although D'Aguiar's fiction is actually quite sensitive to this legacy of shame). Instead Vergès insists we all, whether descended from colonisers or colonised, or from what we could call, after Primo Levi, the 'grey zone' between the two, inherit a legacy of shame, guilt and complicity. Her writing carries a severity that strikes a chastening note for all those who might tend to try make good the past: 'No projection onto the Other, no denial of one's complicity' (11). However, it is this severity and this insistence on a critical memory of the past in all its specificity that prevents métissage being reduced to a 'united colors of Benneton' multiculturalism. It is also what reminds all of us who work in postcolonial studies that emancipation can never simply emancipate us from past but that instead any emancipation is always an inheritance, whether we like it or not.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London and New York: Verso, 2000.

D'Aguiar, Fred. 'The Last Essay About Slavery.' In The Age of Anxiety. Ed. Sarah Durant and Roy Porter. London: Virago, 1996, pp.125-147.

Hallward, Peter. 'The Singular and the Specific: Recent French philosophy.' Radical Philosophy 99 (January/February 2000): 6-18.

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