MARINE CORNUET | Excerpt from Conference on Decolonial Methodology
Excerpt from « Conférence de méthodologie décoloniale » - « Conference on Decolonial Methodology » given by Françoise Vergès on September 28, 2016, at the gallery Island Brussels, in Brussels, Belgium.
Transcription and translation by Marine Cornuet
Françoise Vergès is an anti-racist and feminist activist, a political scientist, and a writer who grew up in la Réunion island. She has lived in Algeria, Mexico, England, and the U.S., and settled in France in the mid-1970s. She has published many books (at least ten) as well as articles about the continued impact of slavery and colonialism not only in former colonies but also on the colonizer’s soil, body, economy, politics, and speech. She has written on Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and decolonial methodology applied to museums, language, feminism, labor, and the economy. Her most recent book is “Un féminisme décolonial”.
In early 2019, I stumbled upon a conference given by Françoise Vergès on youtube, as I was looking at how the French use, or refuse to use, the word “race”. The French Constitution still forbids to include race as an indicator in surveys, for instance, in an awkward and questionable attempt to affirm that race isn’t “real”. Other social constructs, such as gender, social class, or nationality are allowed, but race, probably in part because of how it connects to the collaboration of the French government with the Nazi invader during WW2, and to the colonial violence exercised by the French abroad, is still taboo. Meanwhile, racism continues its macabre work within French society. I was translating a poem by Monica Youn for a French magazine, and the word race was mentioned many times in the original. I had translated it by “race” in French, but the editor had given me some pushback. Listening to Françoise Vergès talk (and then reading and listening to a number of interviews of her) about race, in French, and explaining how this construct must be uttered with words in order to be analyzed, taken apart, and placed into a historical context was very helpful to me. I was able to make a case for the word to be used in the translated poem, a poem that precisely shows how categories get built, how violence is part of their foundation, and how the sustained pleasure of some maintains these categories as socially accepted constructs. Later on, while taking a class with Ammiel, I decided to transcribe and translate this particular talk, thinking it might be helful to others. This is an attempt at representing Françoise’s speech on the occasion of that talk, not only in a different language, but also in a different medium,from the orality of a lecture to a written form. I wanted to make the rhythm of Françoise's speech visible, so I used dashes to indicate short pauses and her equivalent of English "um". I also included hyphens to replace partial words and small repetitions.
So as for me / well, I grew up / on the Reunion Island, and / I have no memories / of my birthplace / it has no importance to me that I was born / in Paris. Except sometimes to say that I am a Parisian by birth, which is rare / well. But it has no importance because, because it was actually the Reunion Island that has been / a / that has remained an archive for me, because I also grew up in a very militant family / a feminist family, anticolonialist, and that is to say that I, - / -, all these questions didn’t come to me at university, or / through encounters, they came to me, they have been part of the life I was in.
In other words to observe / the way in which racism / was expressed, to observe inequalities, to observe, and then the fact that the Reunion island is Fr, is “French” [signals air quotes], a French territory but in fact it is completely located in the Indian Ocean, in other words absolutely in a place that is absolutely not European, where Europe is geographically, culturally, politically totally in the periphery. So that was also a, a / that was also something that, that was lived.
And at the same time a very strong presence of the French ss, state. Very very strong. Through its army, its police, its justice system, its schools, where, of course / we learned / everything about France and not a single thing about the region where we were. That is to say / Madagascar, South Africa, India didn’t exist / and even less the island on which we lived. That is to say that I knew everything on Auvergne volcanoes and nothing about the volcano of the Reunion island which is totally active, -, -, -…
So that’s, these are the somewhat banal things of coloniality, but well, that continue, in, in a way, to exist. So, the questions on which I would like to debate / well, to discuss with you tonight in the, in the / with / in the, after this conversation, is: what is the vocabulary that we’ll use to talk about decolonization. In other words, what, how to stray away from the vocabulary of colonization, in other words how to not spend our time reacting to the colonization discourse. And how to really invent a decolonial / vocabulary. Colonization / so / since / whether it is authors in Asia, in Africa, in the Caribbean / we can cite / Fanon, Césaire / Mémy, and, and others / and well Glissant, and Maryse Condé, and others, it’s the question of the dispossession of the self / of one’s culture, and of one’s land. So when, wh, which vocabulary are we going to use that is not simply the vocabulary of loss, and of, of regret, and finally of, of lack.
Then the question of colonization is always a process of racialization. Always. There, there isn’t, it’s not simply the fact of going / to occupy some land, it’s an entire process of construction of the white race. In other words, who are whites going to be. So, -, I prefer to talk about, about what we call whites, rather than to talk about blacks etcetera, because that is always, in fact, what people talk about when we talk about racialization, and the manner in which whites where racialized is not talked about, in other words, the, the invention of the white race. I mean, it didn’t, it didn’t come. And actually, historically, in Europe, you can trace it. There are no existing whites, I mean, from, from, before a certain point. And whites really appear with the slave trade, really, with the transatlantic slave trade. The term white as a social marker, as a cultural marker, appears at that time. So we / so this question of the process of racialization and of this construction of the white race, which is so much with us.
Another of these questions is actually how to stray away from Eurocentrism, from wes, from Westernization, and / from this / this North-South axis. In other words, how to free ourselves from it, at the same time, in other words really to fight it and free ourselves from it, in other words to start looking across, to what were South-South exchanges / what did, what did, what circulated outside of this North-South logic, which we think is, would have been there constantly, hegemonically and dominant whereas it wasn’t. What were the other forms of modernity, what were other ways of being modern to the world.
Another of these questions which is also very strong when one lives in the South, is the vocabulary of development. You have to develop, you have to become, well, in other words, there’s still, that marks very strongly, in other words, you are missing something, there is absence and lack. And so you have to make up for this absence and lack to get to somewhere that would be civilization.
In other words how to stray away for the vocabulary of absence and lack, how to stray away from, from, from, from really stray away very profoundly and one can really see that one can’t stray away from it because even at the, even at the economic level today, one can clearly see that after years of development-under-development, etc. / today it’s all about this question about how the South can arrive to the same / / living conditions or GDB, well all these fictions, as the North. So one can clearly see that it continues, that the North continues to be the model / one should / / aspire to, but whether it is in the field of architecture, I mean all these malls that invade the world, that are all built the same way, the airports, well, there is even / a space built around us that is / that is a space marked by a certain way.