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Postcoloniality The French Dimension

Margaret Majumdar
French, 1970

Postcoloniality The French Dimension by Margaret Majumdar

In present-day France, its most everyday manifestation as far as the diasporic communities are concerned is the basic definition of immigrants and their descendants from the former colonies as the ‘visible’ minorities. It is because they look different that they are marked out. Their different bodily appearance is what defines them in popular discourse, their skin colour, the shape of their facial features, the characteristics of their hair. Other features are also added, such as the type of clothing worn. Even such things as smells and noisy behaviour become linked in the popular imagination to these Others, as picked up for populist effect by Jacques Chirac in his now notorious comments on ‘le bruit’ and ‘l’odeur’, amongst other derogatory references to immigrants in a party meeting at Orléans on 19 June 1991 (Le Monde, 21 June 1991). However, it is noticeable that the visual and indeed bodily characteristics predominate in the way the Other is defined.1 Fanon has analysed in depth the importance of the body in the constitution and definition of the black man, which he sees as fraught with difficulty and negativity.2 Moreover, it is often assumed that these Others are themselves responsible for their visibility, that they deliberately ‘flaunt their differences’ (Bancel and Blanchard 1997: 29). Visibility and vision can assume many different guises. In its most extreme form, that of surveillance, vision is used as a deliberate controlling strategy, as notably proposed by Jeremy Bentham in his design of the ‘all-seeing’ Panopticon for the institutional control not just of prisoners but also workers, hospital patients, school students and so on, allowing the observer to observe and control without being seen (Bentham (1787)/1995). As Michel Foucault pointed out in Surveiller et punir (Foucault 1975), drawing out the implications of ‘Panopticism’, it was the visibility itself and the inmate’s awareness of it that was the essential factor in the control. The system is designed in such a way that the inmate may be seen at all times, yet the inspector viewing him/her cannot be seen. Moreover, it is an essential part of this system that the inspector does not have to constantly view the inmate. The important thing is that the inmate never knows whether (s)he is actually been viewed at any particular moment and yet is always aware that (s)he might be. This becomes what Foucault has called the ‘automatic functioning of power’, where the effects of the surveillance are ongoing even where it is actually only carried out intermittently. It is thus the creation and sustaining of the power relation that matters, not the actual exercise of power by any particular individual.