Michael J. West

Stories and Stances:
Cross-Cultural Encounters with African Folktales


This paper describes a recent initiative to incorporate folktales and legends from francophone West Africa into a college-level advanced Foreign Knowledges course. Students were asked to keep reading journals to record their reactions to various texts taken from France and francophone West Africa. An analysis of the reading journals shows that critical competencies in Western culture often do not carry over when students encounter African texts. In the same way that students make linguistic errors by translating literally from their native language to the target language, they likewise make critical errors by misapplying critical stances to unfamiliar cultural contexts.

Michael West
Carnegie Mellon University

Richard Donato
University of Pittsburgh

Spectacular Ideology: The Parisian Expositions Universelles and the Formation of a National Cultural Identity, 1855-1937


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Paris hosted six Expositions Universelles in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900 and 1937. In 1925 it also hosted the Exposition des Arts Dˇcoratifs et Industriels, at which the Art Deco style was first exhibited on an international scale; in 1931 it was the scene for the Exposition Coloniale, at which France, Europe and the United States displayed various colonies and "colonized" peoples. Spectacular Ideology examines the role of these eight Expositions in the formation of a national cultural identity in France from the beginning of the Second Empire to the close of the Third Republic. This period has been most closely identified with the Industrial Revolution and "modernism" in various fields. One way of understanding contemporary or "post-modern" France is to look at the debates that shaped the "modern" nation as it asserted its technological and esthetic supremacy, and as France's leadership in the artistic, technological and political spheres rose and declined over the period. Many of the impulses that produced the Expositions Universelles, especially the desires to educate, indoctrinate, entertain and turn a profit simultaneously, find their current expressions in spaces such as EuroDisney, scientific theme parks such as the Parc de la Villette or the various annual salons devoted to everything from household furniture to decorative arts to aircraft. All of these contemporary spaces and events have their roots in "ExpoCulture" or the culture of the Parisian World's Fairs.

This book places locates itself within the field of cultural studies by positing the notion of "cultural identity" as a construction. Since Pierre Bourdieu's The Field of Cultural Production, we have come to recognize the concept of "culture" as problematic until we situate our discussion within the intersections of various competing and often conflicting cultures. Thus we can meaningfully consider the ways in which literary, scientific, artistic, manufacturing and consumer cultures, for example, go about engaging, interpreting, subsuming, representing, challenging and accepting or rejecting one another. The Expositions Universelles provide a fascinating "field", both literally and figuratively, on which the question of what it meant and still means to "be French" has been at times violently debated. The participants in this debate include not only representatives of traditionally "high" or literary culture but also journalists, engineers, artists, explorers, salesmen, soldiers and statesmen. A look at the rich documentary evidence left behind by those who planned and visited the Fairs shows the inadequacy of arbitrary distinctions between "high" and "low" culture. Writers and poets whom we might expect to have disdained the Fairs were often their most enthusiastic supporters; conversely, career diplomats and soldiers could often prove to be some of their most mordant critics. The diversity and multiplicity of this dialogue make it not only interesting but meaningful. As current debates rage over the character of "true France", many of the questions first raised at the Expositions Universelles are still with us today. In fact, the continuing and deepening divisions between those who advocate an open, inclusive nationalism and those who advocate a closed or exclusionary nationalism (taking as their slogan "la France aux Français") highlight many of the problems spawned by the aggressively militaristic nationalism that was created and displayed at the Expositions Universelles.

Spectacular Ideology is interdisciplinary in that it draws on history, including art history and the history of architecture, politics and urbanism as well as literary and visual culture. It employs "ideological" analysis to the extent that it looks at the World's Fairs as part of what Guy Debord referred to as the "society of the spectacle", in which products and manufacturing processes are displayed as part of the creation of a culture of consumerism. This process is linked to questions of representation, specifically the ways in which the French saw themselves portrayed as participants in global economic and artistic culture. Following Michael Miller's analysis of the role of the department store in the assimilation of the French provinces into the capital in his The Bon Marchˇ: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920, this study looks at the phenomena of the World's Fairs as creating a French identity in scientific and artistic culture. While Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen examines the transformation of rural French peasants into urban laborers, Spectacular Ideology considers the role of the Expositions in the creation of a French consumer class. The considerable number of armaments displays, both French and non-French, point to a culture of militarism that coincided with the rise of nationalism over the period. The displays of colonized lands and peoples correspond to the rise of ethnography and anthropology as disciplines, while many of these exhibits fueled nationalism by attempting to justify French and Western imperial ambitions. In many ways they exemplify what Edward Said has termed "orientalism", a European-centered examination of Africa, the Middle East and Asia in which a purported intellectual objectivity inevitably masks a gambit for political hegemony.

Drawing on sources including the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Archives Nationales in Paris and the Library of Congress in Washington, Spectacular Ideology examines rare French and American government reports, accounts made by visitors to the Expositions, popular magazines, advertising, novels, poems, songs, posters and even postcards to show how issues of representation are deployed in the construction of a national cultural identity. The wide-ranging and truly popular nature of the debate over what it once meant to "be French" offers insights into many of the current problems produced in the construction of a national cultural identity.

Format: Introduction + eight chapters + epilogue. Illustrated.

"Sex Acts: Performances of Gender and Sexuality in the Works of Mallarmé, Zola and Proust"

in Exceptional Spaces: Performance and History, Ed. D. Pollock. University of North Carolina Press. Forthcoming.


This article traces the notion of performance with respect to gender and sexuality in Mallarmé, Zola and Proust. From 1874 to 1875 the French Symbolist poet Stˇphane Mallarmé edited the first eight issues of La Dernière Mode, a women's fashion magazine, using a number of female pseudonyms. While Mallarmé's biographers and Mallarmé himself explained this curious travesti as the product of economic necessity, the considerable amount of obvious pleasure Mallarmˇ took in this performance, as evidenced by an excessive attention to all aspects of a Victorian woman's life, suggest otherwise.

Emile Zola's novel of about a Parisian department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, continues this excessive attention paid to feminine activities, in this case shopping. Zola was caricatured in the popular press as a woman, "Mademoiselle Zola", sitting in front of "her" boutique, Au Bonheur des Dames. In a previous novel, La Curée, Zola presents examples of compromised gender categories (femininized men and masculinized women) and homosexual and lesbian behavior to make an indictment of the excesses and decadence of the Second Empire.

Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu also draws on the world of women's fashion (among other subjects) in an extended meditation on the transience of the Belle Epoque and the transcendence of the work of art. Like Zola's text, the Proustian narrative presents examples of omnipresent homosexual and lesbian behavior, but rather than use evidence of that behavior as proof of the decadence of a particular society, Proust instead points to the timelessness of that behavior and, by showing examples of it everywhere he transforms it into a universal phenomenon that marginalizes heterosexuality. Proust in this way "performs" his narrator's heterosexuality as marginal in contrast to a universalized homosexuality, thereby reversing the typical coming-of-age narrative familiar to every gay man and lesbian who discovers that his or own sexuality contradicts the universalized, dominant heterosexuality.

While all three put forth different aspects of performativity with respect to gender and sexuality, Mallarmˇ alone demonstrates the most obvious pleasure in his performance.

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