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This University Seminar focuses on the transnational material, intellectual and symbolic exchanges that have characterized the regions that once composed successive French empires since the seventeenth century.  The seminar will not be an exercise in colonial or imperial history, organized around the opposition between « center » and « periphery », but rather an exploration of connections and lines of fragmentation within that space. The goal of the seminar will be to explore not only France’s global expansion and retraction in the modern period, but, no less significantly, the after-lives of the French empire in various post-colonies, networks, and institutions. Our goal is to map a distinct—but not isolated—world within the “globe,” one conditioned but not defined by France, its empires, its language, and its ecumene. Inherently interdisciplinary, the seminar will bring together scholars in the humanities and the social sciences from Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa in order to understand these complex exchanges that reach « Beyond France ».

Ralph Ghoche

Samia Henni

Aubrey Gabel

Eponine Senay

Meeting Schedule

09/29/2023 Maison Française, 2nd Floor
11:00 AM

Paraska Tolan-Szkilnik, Cornell University

Respondent: Gregory Mann, Columbia University

11/03/2023 Maison Française, 2nd Floor
12:30 PM
Everything Contained in Your Home”: Plague, Homes, and State Responsibilities in Coastal Senegal 1914-1921
Gregory Valdespino, Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities


The following is the second chapter of my book project The Politics of Dwelling: Urbanization, Migration and Home Between Senegal and France, 1914-1974. The book traces the rise of what I call the politics of dwelling in France and Senegal, a political framework that turned certain Senegalese populations’ domestic spaces into colonial and postcolonial governmental responsibilities. This chapter is part of the first half of the book that examines how the conceptual groundwork for this framework was laid during and after World War I. However, this section also explains the limits of this framework in the interwar years and why Senegalese claimants struggled to make their domestic well-being appear like legitimate domains meriting government support. This chapter follows a first chapter on domestic assistance for Senegalese soldiers in both Senegal and France during World War I, ending with disputes over the kinds of domestic assistance veterans were entitled to. In this chapter I look at how periodic plague outbreaks in coastal Senegal after 1914, and government decisions to destroy houses in response, produced political compromises and bureaucratic systems that Senegalese dwellers used to demand government assistance. I examine debates over segregation in Dakar as well as indemnity petitions in Saint-Louis and the Cayor to argue that these claimants try to make their particular domestic needs and spaces, the very ones that had been pathologized by state officials, state responsibilities. This fit their own domestic demands into ongoing debates about the boundaries and responsibilities of colonial government. While these claims were not always successful, I argue Senegalese dwellers used them to enact and articulate expectations about what the colonial state’s relationship with their domestic lives could or should be.

Respondent: Madina Thiam, New York University

02/09/2024 Maison Française, 2nd Floor
12:30 PM
Transoceanic Cancerous Breasts: Shaping Caring as Praxis of Resistance through the Visibility of Vulnerability
Jennifer Boum Make, Georgetown University


“Le cancer est notre démon radioactif, notre petit cadeau nucléaire envoyé via mer, via air.”
—Ari’lrau Richard, Matamimi ou la vie nous attend (2006, 115)

“À 27 ans, alors que j’allaitais Théo qui avait 1 an, j’ai constaté une boule dans mon sein. Mammographie. Biopsie. Chimiothérapie. Radiothérapie […]. C’était un cancer au stade 3, déjà avancé.”
—Jessica Oublié et al., Tropiques Toxiques (2021, 114)

My reflection originates from the juxtaposition of two images. The first image appears in the literary magazine, Zist, and is relayed in the graphic narrative Tropiques Toxiques (2021) by Jessica Oublié et al. on the theme of chlordecone contamination in Guadeloupe and Martinique. A Black woman dressed in the French flag sits in front of a pink background, under a banana tree, holding Frantz Fanon's Les Damnés de la terre. Her right breast is connected through intravenous drip to the banana tree, itself connected to a catheter full of poison, which is slowly contaminating her. This image clearly links exposure to the chemical used to eradicate banana weevils between the years 1972 and 1993 in the French Caribbean and the risk of breast cancer. The second image, used in the context of the rallying cry “MaohiLivesMatter” condemning the legacy of French nuclear testing, shows a woman with the top-half of her body draped in the French flag and the flag of French Polynesia wrapped around her thighs. Her hands are chained at the wrists, her evanescent ravaged body is consumed by radiation as the radioactive cloud takes shape over her breasts. The proliferation of breast cancer is identified as a direct consequence in present-day French Polynesia of radioactive fallouts during the nuclear testing conducted by the French government between the years 1966 and 1996 in Mururoa and Fangataufa.

This gendered perspective on the effect of ecosystems lastingly damaged by pesticide use in the context of the French Caribbean and nuclear testing in the context of French Polynesia, this chapter argues, centers the motif of the cancerous breast to embody neglect and abuse, as well as simultaneously incarnate forms of vulnerability that signal the urgency of care. If the first step of this study is to investigate ways to challenge colonialist tropes of sexualized women’s bodies through the imagery of the cancerous breast, I next propose that by making visible lives made vulnerable, by inhabiting this vulnerability, it becomes possible to both expose neglect and shape caring into a transoceanic praxis of resistance to governmental and institutional inaction.

Respondent: Emily Bloom, Sarah Lawrence College

03/08/2024 Maison Française, 2nd Floor
12:30 PM
Notes toward a Foyer Literature: On Reading and Writing in the Depiction of West African Workers’ Struggles
Jennifer Bajorek, Hampshire College


Written toward freedom, groping toward concepts that do not yet exist for the outernational and untimely spaces from which it emerges, written by, about, and for people who often cannot write or read in a conventional sense, foyer literature seems to be in trouble from the start. And yet, there exists a small but richly rewarding corpus of foyer memoirs, one of which, Notre case est à Saint-Denis ’93 (2015), by Franco-Malian writer, photographer, projectionist, and immigrant rights and workers’ rights activist, Bouba Touré, will serve as a kind of matrix text for us. There are also reasons to consider foyer literature as overflowing the categories of both narrative and written form. It might include the collection of oral histories collected and published by the Senegalese labor leader Sally N’Dongo as part of Voyage forcé : itinéraire d'un militant (1975). Or it might include the film by Mauritanian director Sidney Sokhona, Nationalité : Immigré (1975). Paradoxically, in allowing for a proliferation of forms to be considered, the specificity of the thing seems only to be sharpened. This chapter will explore this paradox more fully, along with other preliminary issues in the definition a foyer literature, asking, ultimately, what it means to write for those who “ne savent ni lire ni écrire,” and why such writing has been so unmistakably placed at the center of depictions of West African workers’ struggles.

*Foyer: a hostel or residence hall created by the French state to house workers coming from (former) French colonial territories to work in the Hexagon during “les trente glorieuses” (1945-1975). While the first foyers were not associated with a particular ethnic, racial, or national group, ever since the start of the Algerian war for independence in the 1950s, North African workers were deemed untrustworthy and disinvited, the foyers have remained a social, cultural, and political space closely identified with West African immigrant workers.

Respondent: Kaiama L. Glover, Yale University

04/19/2024 Maison Française, 2nd Floor
12:30 PM
The Anonymous Artist: René Guénon on the Nature and Function of Art and Architecture
Iheb Guermazi, Columbia University


In the 1860s, Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir, a Sufi shaykh and the vanquished leader of the Algerian resistance to the French invaders, proposed a rather peculiar solution to counter the expanding colonial project in the region and to spare his co-religionaries further military confrontations with the West. From his Damascene exile, he argued that Christianity and Islam shared a mystical and esoteric core and that both religions could peacefully unite if their followers transcended their visible religious differences and collectively built a new metaphysical pact across the two shores of the Mediterranean. Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir’s ecumenical vision, I argue, was transmitted through an uninterrupted silsila- a chain of Sufi masters and disciples- metamorphosing by the middle of the 20th century into an art and architectural theory. The mutation of this Muslim universalist utopia into a cohesive aesthetic discourse was the fruit of multiple intellectual collaborations between Arab Sufi mystics and a group of European converts to Islam. Rene Guénon (1886-1951), one of the most important metaphysicians of the 20th century, is a central node in this silsila. The aesthetic question has not been central to Guénon’s work. Yet, his rare insights on the matter helped, as I argue, shape a Sufi reading of art that his followers adopted and expanded. This is the third chapter of my book project, where I closely read Guénon’s views on the nature and function of art while situating him within the mystical and intellectual tradition first initiated by Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir.

Respondent: Ali Karjoo-Ravary, Columbia University