Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The French Atlantic: Travels in Culture and History. By Bill Marshall.
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, February 2010. Cloth: ISBN 978-1846310508, $95; paper: ISBN 9781846310515, $35. 256 pages.

Review by Kadji Amin, Columbia College, Chicago

Bill Marshall's The French Atlantic: Travels in Culture and History is a site-based study of a series of transatlantic exchanges involving French language, commerce, and culture. The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which focuses on a single location. It begins with Nantes, France's principle slave port; then moves on to la Rochelle, a major port of the Huguenot diaspora to New France; Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, two North Atlantic centers of the Acadian diaspora; Quebec City, the location of a distinctive French nationalism outside of France; New Orleans, a uniquely Caribbeanized French colonial city within the United States; Cayenne, the creolized capital of Guyane and the site of France's most famous overseas penal colony; and Montevideo, a vantage point from which to consider oft neglected Francophone-Hispanic interactions in the New World. Each of these seven sites functions as historically specific node within a web of transatlantic flows, interactions, and exchanges. Marshall interprets "transatlantic" narrowly to exclude circumatlantic movements that might encompass the Western coast of Africa. Nevertheless, the diversity of Marshall's selection of sites, each of which plays a highly specific role within Atlantic histories of slavery, commerce, migration, racialization, and colonialism, is the principle strength of this study.
Marshall critically situates his book as an Atlantic corrective to certain weaknesses inherent within Francophone studies on the one hand and postcolonial studies on the other. Given that "Francophone" describes any and all populations that speak French outside of the French hexagon, Marshall argues that Francophone Studies reinforces the construction of France's former colonies as the periphery whose meaning exists only in relation to a French metropolitan center. Postcolonial studies has critically deconstructed such a division between metropolitan center and (post)colonial periphery. Marshall points out, however, that, in addition to being Anglophone-centric, postcolonial studies has tended to neglect the material and the economic dimensions of colonial histories. He sees in Atlantic Studies, on the other hand, the potential to "open a space within and beyond the sometimes clashing, sometimes colluding categories of 'French,' 'Francophone' and 'postcolonial,'" arguing that its "solid historical underpinning, attentive to concrete realities of migration, slavery, technology and commerce, guarantees a materialist viewpoint" (10-11). Marshall's Atlantic intervention into French, Francophone, and Postcolonial Studies is a compelling and timely contribution to the nascent field of French Atlantic Studies.
The project borrows from Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari a theoretical vocabulary of deterritorialization, becomings, lines of flight, and rhizomatic connections. Marshall's engagement with Deleuze and Guattari's philosophical system is, on the whole, rather thin. The principle utility of Deleuze and Guattari's thought for Marshall's project, however, is that it enables him to retain the adjective "French" –the central requirement of the Atlantic interactions that he studies—without reifying the hexagon as the site of essential or originary Frenchness. With the help of Deleuze and Guattari, Marshall envisions a Frenchness whose origin and point of reference are neither the metropolitan center nor the purity of the classical French language. This is a Frenchness that breaks up into "particles of Frenchness," which are able to form rhizomatic and creolized connections with African, indigenous, Anglophone, and Hispanic traditions without, for that matter, becoming any less "French." By supplementing this conception of Frenchness with a materialist concern for the economic inequalities, forced displacements, and violent hierarchies of Atlantic history, Marshall maintains a healthy awareness of the fact that French dispersals are far from being politically neutral processes and that creolization is seldom the fruit of peaceful mixings.
The French Atlantic draws its methodological inspiration from Michel de Certeau's distinction between place and space. For, rather than being a straightforward transatlantic history of the seven sites that Marshall has selected, Marshall's project is that of turning the "places" (les lieux) of Atlantic history into "spaces" (les espaces), by exploring the stories, representations, and images through which Atlantic history has been inhabited, commemorated, distorted, and embellished. The French Atlantic's storied and historically grounded exploration of space is an informative, interesting, and original contribution to Atlantic studies, French studies, and Francophone studies.
Within its broadly interdisciplinary mix of literary criticism, cultural studies, Atlantic history, and critical theory, The French Atlantic nevertheless gives "geographical and historical fact" foundational status (21). Marshall studies cultural texts for the ways in which they figure or disfigure important sites of Atlantic history, failing to explore the performative efficacy of cultural texts in actually producing both geography and historical memory. At its best, however, Marshall's emphasis on the primacy of history performs a crucial contextualization of artistic movements and cultural objects. Through the method of site-specific analysis, he is able to restore a crucial historical, geographical, and material dimension to the literary and cultural works he studies.
The French Atlantic's major weakness is that it tends to sacrifice both depth and direction for breadth. In its rapid movement between depictions of a particular site within a series of different cultural texts, the study seldom provides an in-depth analysis of how place functions in any single work. Within the individual chapters, a rambling parcours through both history and story often takes the place of a more sustained argument. In his invocations of critical theory, Marshall is more likely to use theorists' most famous points to illuminate a historical or cultural example than to critically rework existing theoretical paradigms, much less propose original ones.
The book excels, however, as a virtuosic historical, literary, and cultural journey through space. Each chapter deftly weaves together a range of representations of a specific transatlantic site. As a series of explorations of space, the study is richly textured, engaging, and enjoyable, with an impressively encyclopedic breadth of literary, cultural, and filmic references considered within the context of often surprising historical details. At its best, The French Atlantic allows us to envision familiar and unfamiliar cultural and literary texts in a new way, as a series of reflections on space and the transatlantic histories that inform it.

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