Alfredo Lèal – Francophonies: Notes Towards the Erasure of the Nation-State


Alfredo Lèal (Tlalpan, Mexico City, 1985) is a novelist, essayist and poet. He received scholarships from the Fundación para las Letras Mexicanas (2005-2006) and Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (2011-2012). His book of short stories Ohio (2006) won the María Luisa Puga national narrative prize; he is author of Circo y otros actos mayores de soledad (Ediciones de Educación y Cultura, 2010), La especie que nos une (Tierra Adentro, 2010) and the novel Carta a Isobel (Terracotta, 2013). In 2012, he co-founded Ediciones Entre-Ríos, a publishing house dedicated to philosophy and literature. In 2013, he received a scholarship to participate in the Séminaire de Formation de Jeunes Traducteurs Hispanophones at the Institut Français d’Amérique Latine (IFAL). He is currently working on a seven-volume ‘total novel’ titled La derrota del Absoluto.



Francophonies: Notes Towards the Erasure of the Nation-State


It would be difficult to document in detail the transformations that the concept of la Francophonie (the French-speaking global community) has undergone in the last decades. It would demand not only a tracking of the conceptual changes, but also of the transformations the concept has provoked at the core of French-language literature. One thing is certain however: today, we must speak of Francophonies in the plural and not of one sole Francophonie, given that the cultural, political and even ideological manifestations of the evolution of la Francophonie have produced expressions that are as pluralistic as the voices that, sometimes discordantly, compose it. But despite this complication (as much typological as it is epistemological) it is possible to assert (without, naturally, overlooking the risk of falling into facile binarisms) that the Francophonies are divided. At one extreme, we have that which we could refer to as ‘universalist Francophonie’ while, on the other, we have what could (still) be defined as ‘militant Francophonie’. Both classifications are understood synchronically, to be sure, but above all diachronically: that is, not only as the literary result of the independence struggle of the French colonies – taking the case of Algeria as a paradigm – but also as a necessarily historical consciousness, one which explicitly posits – or maybe leaves to one side – questions related to the three fundamental issues facing the Francophonies of our time: migration, identity and language, as understood within the framework of a determined Nation-State.

It is necessary, however, to go more deeply into these two types of phenomena. On the one hand, then, the ‘universalist Francophonie’ is characterized by a kind of detachment, of negation, even of militancy —which, to simplify, we could denominate Marxist, owing above all to the work of black thinkers, that is, the first Césaire, the first Senghor and the first Fanon— which definitively marked the first politico-philosophical manifestations of francophone thought. On the other hand, the ‘militant Francophonie’, a revindication of the identity of certain, predominantly disaporic, cultural manifestations, is represented by figures that (as Christiane Albert recalls in his study L’immigration dans le roman francophone contemporain)remained on the margins of the conventional topoi of Francophone literature. These figures include the child, the woman, or the homosexual, who, even if they were present —as phantasms or absences— in some Francophone novels up until the end of the Sixties and perhaps, the middle of the Eighties, they are overshadowed by the iconic figure of the migrant who arrives in France, student, man, politically active, who stands out as the francophone hero par excellence, in the thematic and linguistic sense. Without falling into reductionism, it is possible to state that within ‘universalist Francophonie’ a latent political indifference reigns, disguised precisely as the ‘universalism’ which, not without a certain admixture of phronesis, drives contemporary Francophonie towards a constant search for identity (a similar thing happens in one of the currents of English-language literature known and even studied in some academic circles as ‘World Literature’). More than a search for identity, we could think of a constant postponement of their natures and their aesthetic(s) —and, by extension, ethic(s) — in the search for their identity: a search which was thought to have been wrapped up and determined once and for all in those figures, now classics, which put francophone thought on the literary map. On the contrary, the principal problematic faced today by ‘militant Francophonie’ —and, it bears repeating, alongside it all Francophonies, understood not only as forms of literary expression, but above all as policies related to a given Nation-State— is globalization, neoliberal expansionism, the new face of imperialist colonialism, from which phenomenon, as we know, the concept of Francophonie first emerged.


As Sánchez Vásquez reminds us, this has to do with the ‘death of history’ as a euphemism for the ‘eternity of capitalism’. But, as mentioned at the beginning of this text, in spite of the likes of Michaux, Saint-John Perse and, currently, Malouff, there is in this apparently clear line (apparently ‘de-termined’ by the evolution of the Francophonies of our times) one constant: migratory blurrings, which with time become problematic not only in the legal sense (and can come to refer, as Kristeva has it, to the status of a specific individual bearing the mark of a State’s legislation, as in the ancient Greek concept of the metic) but also take on a profoundly identitarian sense. This does not refer to a dialectical identity described, as Ricœur has it, in line with the Lévinasian idea of some inaccessible, ungraspable, even invisible Other. These blurrings create a parasitic identity after the fashion of Derrida —an Algerian, lest we forget— which negates permanence and is at all times identical to and different from itself. From these two central problematics, a third, linguistic one takes form, in which ethics and aesthetics converge.


This split compromises Francophone praxis as a resistance to the Nation-State, insofar as it produces a kind of forced coexistence between both the universalist and the militant forms of Francophonie, a coexistence which opens up a wide, pluralist, even democratic perspective on Francophonies. Along with those of migration, identity and language there is a fourth problematic which goes beyond the entirety of Francophone literary responses, allowing them to remain, albeit provisionally, in a state of constant becoming-ungraspable, becoming-invisible, to recall the words of Deleuze. With this in mind, Francophonie should be conceived of, in our time, as a collection of divergent, contradictory expressions, with two general tendencies, universalism and militarism. We ought to be aware of the problematics each of these directions confronts and the manner in which they are ‘resolved’. Nevertheless it is possible that we cannot know what it means to speak of Francophonie in our own time – by which we mean grouping these headings under a single rubric, as well as examining what each expression can bring to the conversation, within the context of a voluntary society — with the final result that it is impossible to define Franophonie in and of itself. In short, it is impossible to know exactly what we mean when we talk about ‘Francophonies’.


With this in mind, texts from both the universalist and militant tendencies coexist within a concept that cannot contain them. On the one hand, within universalism, we find texts by Ben Jelloun, Assia Djebar and Maryse Condé, three authorities who enjoy global acclaim in both the critical and the commercial senses. At the other extreme, we have texts by Albert Memmi, one of the canonical voices of militant Francophonie, which sets itself against the four contemporary problematics we have described; Raharimanana, an uncategorizable writer whose work exists in a generic territory made up of sociology, the novel and poetry; and Dany Laferriè, whose work unites criticism and mordant comedy. How ought we discuss those expressions which find themselves in the interstices, on the frontier between two – apparently well-defined – expressions? Two illustrative cases are the work of Wajdi Mouaward and Nina Bouraoui. How to define these? How to categorize them? It would seem that the general heading of ‘Francophone expression’ will do for both, since it leaves them open to the possibility of constant in-definition, which is nothing if not postmodern. Can we equate the speaking of Francophonies with the speaking of postmodernism? It would not seem so, and nor would it seem that we must define once and for all the Francophone phenomenon, whether by means of generic or political (including biopolitical) labels.


What is it, then, that unites those expressions we group under the heading Francophonie? It strikes me that there is one constant which, in its turn, solves and problematizes the three axes (migration, identity and language) which have defined Francophonie: the Nation-State. Worth noting, however, is that this disappearance is determined by the direction Francophone expression takes: that is to say, its political position, its ethics, and its aesthetics made palpable through its texts. If universalist Francophonies claim to dismantle the Nation-State which constricts its aspirations, through an erasure of geographic –and therefore diegetic– space, militant Francophonies aim for the same goal, that is to say, a total erasure of the Nation-State’s totalitarian supremacy which determines once and for all Francophone expressions. However, these are two irreconcilable postures which propose distinct solutions to the problem of the Nation-State and national literatures. In the nineteenth century, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, under the guise of ‘national identity’, they were comprised of two forms with contrasting expressions. On the one hand, we have the return of Enlightenment Humanism, which depends on an essentialism concerning human characteristics, as expressed, according to Georg Lukács, in Nazi ideology; on the other, permanent revolution, total resistance to so-called civilization and its attempts to encircle cultures and their characteristics. In any case, being optimistic, the struggle is the same, simply that distinct arguments with distinct and – so far – without solutions. Better not to speak of solutions, in fact, given the post-Auschwitz context which makes such a concept impossible.


Can we, then, say that these distinct forms of Francophonie are constant, opposing poles? Fundamentally, yes, but only if there is a void left by the Nation-State. Nevertheless, given the conditions under which both the militant and universalist tendencies propose the erasure of the Nation-State, it is possible to think of their constant, mutual contradiction as a two-front struggle against the Nation-State. Only time will tell which of the two tendencies will prevail in literature. The task of predicting this, however, is far too problematic: the two tendencies in contemporary Francophonie must confront the idea of the Nation-State and its disappearance, but as part of this project must also make use of the strength and worth of their French-speaking tradition. The current state of Francophonies is, to say the least, symptomatic of the present historical moment. This is one of the many reasons to imagine these distinct tendencies as a unified space within literature, which we can use to think about our contemporary environment. In Francophone literature, despite its internal divisions, we can find the seed of what, in a few short years, will begin to happen in all national literatures. We must take these divided Francophone tendencies as something which will, soon, become paradigmatic.


(Translated by Tim MacGabhann, editor at Mexico City Lit.)