Contesting Views: The Visual Economy of France and Algeria Review

Updated on June 29, 2018

France and Algeria have a long and not particularly happy history, including centuries of Barbary slave traders, French colonization of Algeria after a bloody conquest, an bloody war of independence fought by the Algerians, and then an unstable post-colonial period. Contesting Views: The Visual Economy of France and Algeria by Edward Welch and Joseph McGonagle seeks to examine this by looking at the post-colonial relationship between France and Algeria, the continuing shadows of the Algerian War, and how representations of the Franco-Algerian relationship are expressed in postcards, photos, and films. In this it does an effective job of portraying the post-colonial relationship of the two countries and the continuing trauma of the Algerian war, although it also has a host of drawbacks and is a specialized and difficult book tor ead.

Chapters

Chapter 1 (not labeled as such, and thus zero), "Introduction: Visualizing the Franco-Algerian Relationship", lays the book out as being one which examines the Franco-Algerian postcolonial relationship, through visual images. Both France and Algeria are tightly bound together, both by historical memory, and current ties, and the book claims that this is represented in visual form which constantly continues to exist in France and Algeria. It then lays out the chapter organization that it will cover, to stretch the examination of the Franco-Algerian images from colonial times to the present.

Part 1, "Algerian Pasts in the French Public Sphere'" starts with Chapter 1, "Wish We Were There: Nostalgic (Re)visions of France’s Algerian Past", concerning postcards from the colonies. Increasingly there has been a trend of old photos, and particularly post-cards, assembled into books about old Algeria and Algiers, by the pied-noirs (the French or European settlers in Algeria). These function as part of "nostalgérie", the nostalgia from the pied-noirs for their lost homeland to which they cannot return, and to reconfigure its memory as part of France instead of as a foreign country. For the pied-noirs, these guidebooks could serve in effect as links to, and replacements of, their vanished youth, forming guides to the city of Algiers, while simultaneously resurrecting the colonial visualization of it. Pierre Bourdieu’s "Images d’Algérie: une affinité élective" follows a different path, in looking at Algeria and the tremendous changes which shook the country during the last decade, seeing a country in flux. Regardless, these books help to constitute the way in which memory is shaped and transformed in contemporary France.

The European-looking city of Algiers in 1899: imagines like it would be a feature of the Pied Noir inspired books.
The European-looking city of Algiers in 1899: imagines like it would be a feature of the Pied Noir inspired books.

Chapter 2, "Visions of History: Looking Back at the Algerian War", covers how the Algerian war itself has been portrayed in visual memory in France. Unlike other wars like Vietnam or the Second World War, there have not been the same penultimate image of the war, and it has principally been covered by the history branch of academia which has placed little emphasis on visual images. Much of that which has existed has been on the flight and plight of the Pied-Noirs. That about the war itself has been divided into two categories: official military-produced pictures, and those created by conscripts. A particular example of the latter is Marc Garanger, who had been responsible for photographing unveiled Algerian women as part of identification photos, but whose work would be reinterpreted as a testament to the resistance and strength of Algerian women during the war, hostile in response to the coercion and imposition of the French demands. By contrast, Mohamed Kouaci's FLN (front de libération nationale)-derived photographs showed smiles and enthusiasm, the opposite side of the relationship between a photographer and his subejcts. The book explores this with the differing reception and support of photography of the war on the two sides of the Mediterranean.


Chapter 3, "Out of the Shadows: The Visual Career of 17 October 1961: Out of the Shadows" deals with the historical memory of the massacre of October 17 in Paris, where the Parisian police murdered up to 200 Algerian protesters. The left and the right had dissenting views on it, with left-leaning newspapers focusing on the oppression and mistreatment of the Algerian protesters, while their conservative counterparts about their threat to the established order - while also ceasing their interest as soon as the visible protests had ended, while the left wing papers continued to follow the Algerians in jail and under Police brutality afterwards. For both however, the central picture was the Algerian male and his figure during the events, either under attack or as a threatening ukwnown. In the decades following, coverage in photos has increasingly shifted to the protesters as peaceful and defenseless, while it had focused during the events itself on violence and chaos. In Algeria by contrast, the protesters are portrayed as their own actors and independent.

A map of the October 17, 1961 demonstrations in Paris, where up to several hundred protesters were killed.
A map of the October 17, 1961 demonstrations in Paris, where up to several hundred protesters were killed.

Part 2, "Mapping Franco-Algerian Borders in Contemporary Visual Culture", opens with Chapter 4, "War Child: Memory, Childhood and Algerian Pasts in Recent French Film" discusses a recent wave of interest in the Algerian war in 21st century cinema. It does this in literary analysis of three different films, Cartouches gauloises, Michou d’Auber, and Caché, which are all defined by the relationship of childhood to the war. Cartouches gauloises on the front line, Michou d'Auber in a childhood in Metropolitan France defined by the shadow of war, and Caché in the memory of childhood and the conflict - and ominously one which has the least positive view of the possibilities for reconciliation.

Chapter 5, "Bridging the Gap: Representations of the Mediterranean Sea" notes that the Mediterranean has had an important role in the representation and ideology of French Algeria and as a zone of identity and relationships between France and Algeria. The sea was both used to legitimize French Algeria as part of a trans-Mediterranean civilization, and then as part of the separation from Algeria as the Pied Noirs were exiled from the newly independent country. Today it is still regularly crossed by ships between France and Algeria, with the book analyzing various films devoted to this subject, seeing it as an important part of what constitutes the Franco-Algerian relationship.

Pied-Noirs leaving Algeria
Pied-Noirs leaving Algeria

Chapter 6, "A Sense of Place: Envisioning Post-Colonial Space in France and Algeria" is once again dealing with the general Franco-Algerian contemporary relationship and particularly one about issues such as Algerians in France. It principally focuses upon three films, Salut cousin!, Beur blanc rouge and L’Autre Côté de la mer, to cover the Franco-Algerian relationship in France, commenting upon the difficulties of identity. It then travels to Algeria, where Algeria has sometimes been used as a mirror for France, and its image and portrayal strongly impacted by the Algerian Civil War.

Chapter 7 is the conclusion. It covers contemporary anxieties about the Algerian relationship in France, linked back to colonial tragedies, and then recaps the book and what it had achieved.

Review

Franco-Algerian relations are naturally a complex topic to cover, given the degree of emotional baggage which lays it down and the huge range of factors which impinge on them, both positively and negatively. The two countries are quite close and tightly interlinked, and yet at the same time they have the trauma of the Algerian war, large immigrant communities from Algeria in France with major tensions surrounding them, and both intense cultural overlap and rivalry. Given these problems, trying to look at all of the facets of the Franco-Algerian relationship in the cultural sense is an extremely difficult task, but Contesting Views does an admirable job of doing so, looking both at historical and at contemporary views of Algeria and France. The book really does provide an impressive range of sources which it brings forth and analyzes, particularly in the contemporary period and of the films throughout the eras. Sometimes these can seem perhaps random and almost like snapshots, but with such a huge field to explore, it is easy to see why it would be hard to select a particular few. The fears, anxieties, tensions, and problems reflected by the Algerian war show are shown again and again, demonstrating the way in which the past continues to affect the present. It is not truly a history book nor current affairs, but instead is a combination of the two, with an extensive focus on the past which is used to explain the present. For demonstrating the way in which the shadow of the old French imperial relation with Algeria continues to exist in changed ways, and how it has generated new forms. Whatever problems the book has, it ultimately does provide a rich cultural depiction of the Franco-Algerian context and very effectively displays its post-colonial nature.

While the book quite naturally portrays the Franco-Algerian cultural relationship in great detail, it does much less to attempt to place it into international context. Indeed, I suspect that the book deepens the Algerian-French relationship to a degree, because its focus is principally upon French and English cultural productions, without classical Arabic, Algerian Arabic, or Berber material available - thus leaving French as that which is naturally turned towards France. Algeria and France are placed into a duality, and while there is a constant search to attempt to see the in-between of them, they are ultimately still quite discrete bodies. My favorite chapter, dealing with representations and the presence of the Mediterranean Sea, goes to some extent in attempting to bridge this gap in a shared presence between the two nations which is both represented the same and yet different, portraying a fascinating image of commonality and difference for a common object.

More importantly however for flaws of representation, is that the Algerian side is underrepresented. This book deals much with the French perception of Algeria, or the French portrayal of the post-colonial problems of Algeria in France, but there is little about Algeria's own postcolonial problems and its portrayal of France beyond economic aspects. I feel that perhaps to use the term the "visual economy" of France and Algeria overstates and does not correctly define what the book really does: it is much more French representations of Algeria, than a shared exchange of visual production between the two. Furthermore, it is one which is cultural and narrowly so, as there is little focus on other aspects which might fall under a "visual economy", such as the economics of the production of this visual not-truly-exchange, and broader issues like Islam receive little focus - as does things like Algeria's own internal demographics or language. The book seems content to largely treat Algeria and France as entities which are near-monolithic, instead of looking at the nuance of the viewers and the viewed.

Another shortcoming is that while the book spends extensive amounts of time analyzing certain images or films, these are only rarely available in the book. Particularly chapter 1, which deals with Algerian postcards and images of Algeria, discusses constantly the photographic element, but it has no actual images. For this book, which is inherently a photographic and visual analysis, this shortcoming is a major problem for the reader's ability to independently analyze and understand what the authors are portraying.

It must be noted that if one does not speak French, there are substantial amounts of French text found within the volume, which are only translated at the very end of the book. Thus if one does not speak French, it will be very hard to engage with the fullness of the text without a great deal of page flipping and burden. Furthermore, the text often finds itself caught up in or in self-admiration of extensive and esoteric theory discussion, and the utilization of paragraphs which are difficult to comprehend due to their rarefied scholarly nature. To some extent this is to be expected with any post-colonialist work, given their tendency to wordiness, but it still does go to excess at times. For example, consider the following selection from page 75:

"So what is it specifically that photographs do? How are we to understand the role of the photograph in what Edwards (2008: 330) calls the ‘visualisation of history’? A useful starting point is provided by David Campbell’s definition of photography as ‘a technology of visualisation that both draws on and establishes a visual economy through which events and issues are materialised in particular ways’ (Campbell 2009: 53). In other words, photographs show us certain things in certain ways, and generate a range of effects, meanings or understandings in doing so. Of central importance here is the relationship between event and photograph. The ‘materialisation’ of events through photography, as Campbell has it, is better seen as a process of production or shaping. Photographs give form to historical flux by making ‘visual incisions in space and time’ (Edwards 2008: 334). Carving out or fixing particular moments allows narrative shape and coherence to be given to discontinuous or heterogeneous combinations of incidents, reactions and interventions unfolding in time, and between which there may at first appear to be little in the way of causal connection. The photographic act introduces a relationship of metonymy whereby the moment caught comes to represent the event as a whole, and, in doing so, can take on explanatory power in relation to it. Thus, the form given to a particular incident through its photographic representation (such as images of bloodied Algerian men, sprawled and battered in the wake of police violence) enables certain understandings of the broader event to be ‘read off’ or deduced from it. As Edwards (2008: 334) puts it, photographs are the ‘little narratives’ on which larger narratives can be grounded; but it is also important to bear in mind that they have the potential to drive and dominate those larger narratives."

This lengthy amount of material ultimately mainly serves to make the case that photographs can shape the narrative of an event, forming the representation of it. This is really hardly a stunning revelation, from a very lengthy discussion of theory. Sometimes theory can be more inciteful, and the book can raise questions which are intriguing. In any case however, it makes the book somewhat difficult to give an easy answer on concerning its validity: the concepts it raises can be interesting at times, but it is hard to dissect them as the book has such a mass of plating which make them troublesome to dissect. Those interested in the book would have to come from the scholarly classes as frankly it is a difficult book to understand oftentimes.

In the end, how does one classify the book? I would say that to me, its greatest resemblance might be to a host of literary reviews (if not focused on the written word), mixed with art and film reviews. Its appeal belongs to those in post-colonial studies, and perhaps Francophone studies, or literary reviews. For those interested in conducting a cultural analysis of photos and film, the book provides a wide range of its examples of the Franco-Algerian context. Overall, it is a very specific audience. For this audience the book is a useful one, but outside of it, its specialized and scholarly nature diminishes its appeal. While this is fine and acceptable as books should try to seek out their desired niche, it means that one should be perhaps careful in picking up this book, for without belonging to these subjects, it will make it one which is difficult to read and finish. This is a book which it is difficult to simply state if it is "good", or "bad", because for a small field of scholars it is very useful, if with a host of drawbacks as outlined above, but for the rest of the population it makes for an exceptionally difficult read.

3 stars for Contesting Views

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas

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