Decolonial Revolution: Algeria, Violence, and Liberation
Algeria was the crown jewel of the waning French empire. And so when the guerillas of the Algerian National Liberation Front launched the Algerian War of Independence, France, determined to retain its 120-year-old colony, responded with every available method of colonial oppression: torture, terror, rape, and massacre. The Algerian revolutionaries intensified their efforts in turn, and by war’s end—after France, exhausted, broken, and itself edging towards civil war, at last accepted Algeria’s demands for total independence—nearly 1 million Algerians lay dead. The conflict, which the French, to this day, euphemistically call a “police action,” has then and since served as a paradigm case for decolonization and revolutionary war, informing the political, social, and ethical debates that invariably arise in the context of decolonial liberation. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, U.S. Defense Department planners studied the Algerian War as a cautionary tale—of how not to conduct imperial war. Meanwhile, for generations of writers, theorists, and artists, from Albert Camus to Frantz Fanon ot the filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo—whose Battle of Algiers is a landmark of postcolonial cinema—the Algerian War is cause and inspiration to consider everything from coloniality and the experience of being colonized, to race and racialization, to the meaning, efficacy, and even necessity of violence. How can we understand the experience of decolonization—the interwoven allegiances that it mobilizes, the complexity of its violence, and the non-linear historical trajectories that it sets in motion? What futures seemed incipient at the start of the Algerian War, and what possibilities and realities did it, ultimately, foreclose?
In this course, we will examine the French settlement of Algeria, the Algerian War, and the War’s postcolonial legacy, in Algeria and beyond, as a basis for thinking about the meaning and experience of decolonization and the different political and ethical questions it raises for both colonizer and colonized. We will explore the complex social groupings and relations that both sustained and destabilized the Algerian colony—and that did so much to intensify the War’s brutality and violence—from the French administration to the settler-colonial pied-noirs to the Algerian intelligentsia to the indigenous, largely Muslim population. We will also examine the renowned figures who have shaped our understanding and theories of decolonization (all of whom were engaged in the French empire in Algeria), from Frantz Fanon to Albert Memmi, alongside a diversity of primary materials, from Algerian independence fighters, French imperialists, and anti-imperialists, and artistic representations, including Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers. Throughout, we will ask: How do colonizers and the colonized see themselves, and each other? How can we think about violence as a tool of political and social liberation? What are, if any, its limits? What kinds of futures did decolonization promise? Why did the French fight so stubbornly, so viciously, to maintain its colony? And, how has the Algerian War shaped our understanding of imperialism, nationalism, and decolonization today?
Course ScheduleSunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
October 23 — November 13, 2022