Decolonizing French theory with Lydie Moudileno

Author: Salvatore Riolo

Lydie Moudileno

Lydie Moudileno is the Marion Frances Chevalier Professor of French, Professor in Comparative Literature and Professor in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California (USC).  Her recent publications include two substantial studies on postcolonial France: Mythologies Postcoloniales is a study of colonial signs and racialized myths in 21st-century France, inspired by the work of Roland Barthes (co-authored with E. Achille, Ed. Champion, 2018). She is also the co-editor of a multi-contributor volume documenting physical and immaterial traces of Empire in the French Republic, Postcolonial Realms of Memory (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

Salvatore Riolo, a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Notre Dame, has written a summary of Moudileno’s lecture, which may also be re-watched on the Nanovic Institute’s YouTube page.


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On February 16th, 2024, Professor Lydie Moudileno, Ph.D., delivered an intellectually engaging lecture at the University of Notre Dame titled "Poaching French Theory as Decolonial," exploring the interrelation between postcolonial discourse and the work of French theorists of the late twentieth century, thus highlighting the analytical framework and the interactions between her works and the intellectual landscape of France.

Poaching as a decolonizing practice

Moudileno begins by defining the reasons behind the choice of the title of this lecture. In her view, the concept of “poaching” represents the relationship she has with French theorists used as a source to decolonize practice. The French translation of the term “marcher sur les plates-bandes” (lit. “to walk on the flower beds of somebody”) further underscores the nature of the conflicting exchange. Through "poaching," a boundary is forcefully crossed to gather resources. This process of trespassing represents the use of French theorists in postcolonial. However, this movement also allows for a useful shift in perspective that enriches the practice of sociocultural analysis. In engaging with the intellectual landscape of mainland France, there is an attempt to redefine and challenge the paradigm according to which the center is where theory is produced, a place of epistemic privilege for its intellectual history. In contrast, the colonial space is where knowledge is produced but lacks legitimacy due to its geographical origin. Therefore, there is a need for a dialogue between the cultural production of the center and that of the periphery to redefine the balance between the two. 

“Poaching” offers a pathway to repurpose resources and methodologies tailored to alternative critical contexts.

Illustrating her approach to decolonizing French theorists, Moudileno showcases two pivotal examples of this research methodology. Initially, she examines the interplay between Roland Barthes' seminal work Mythologies (1957) and her volume co-authored with Etienne Achille, titled Mythologies postcoloniales. Subsequently, Moudileno delves into the correlation between Pierre Nora's Realms of Memory (1984) and "Postcolonial Realms of Memory," a collaborative endeavor with Etienne Achille and Charles Forsdick, elucidating the intricate connections between these scholarly works.

From the Metropole to the decolonial

Mythologies by Barthes stands out as one of the most widely read and studied texts in Barthes' repertoire. Moudileno underscores the profound impact of Barthes' contributions, spanning disciplines from semiotics to cultural, colonial, and postcolonial studies, thereby showcasing the enduring value of his theories. Barthes' Mythologies delves into the interpretation of signs within social contexts, elucidating their relationship with power structures and ideological implications. While primarily focusing on metropolitan areas, emblematic of bourgeois life, Barthes explores everyday sources such as magazines, advertisements, sports events, and toys to uncover the production of myth within the fabric of everyday life, transcending elite literary circles. Additionally, Barthes scrutinizes the naturalization of racial signs within 1950s French society, aiming to define Frenchness through the study of signs, revealing its entrenchment within bourgeois sensibilities. Building upon this foundation, Moudileno's Mythologies postcoloniales endeavors to extend this analysis from a peripheral perspective, probing the presence of race within supposedly race-blind French social orders. Through everyday experiences, Moudileno exposes the subtle racial messaging embedded in societal practices, such as the association of Africa with chocolate, and explores the complexities of integration efforts, as exemplified by the composition of the French national sports team. This nuanced analysis extends beyond the metropole to colonial contexts, scrutinizing how narratives in television and film perpetuate and naturalize differences, thereby enriching our understanding of the intricate interplay between signs, power dynamics, and cultural constructs in contemporary society.

From national history to postcolonial history

Following, the examination delves into Pierre Nora's work, particularly focusing on the volumes of the Realm of Memory, which hold a pivotal position as an essential reference for cultural history in France. Inspired by Nora's concept of constructing collective memory, this endeavor was ignited by his influential contributions. Nora's approach, however, drew attention for its conspicuous absence of references to the empire and colonial legacy. Rather than merely critiquing this oversight, the aim was to confront and rectify the gaps in Nora's narrative. Leveraging Nora's foundational ideas provided an avenue to contribute to a more nuanced understanding, enriching the discourse with complexity. This endeavor involved reinterpreting some of Nora's frameworks through a postcolonial lens (such as La Marseillaise, the archival practices, the memorials, and the museums), and introducing new themes. Moreover, the project's scope extended beyond national boundaries to encompass the colonial context, thus amplifying and diversifying France's historical narrative.

Intellectual roots and renewal

To conclude, Moudileno expanded on her decision to center her focus on Barthes and Nora, pointing out how it emerges from a deeply personal connection rather than a mere academic pursuit aimed at dissecting theoretical intersections like post-structuralism and post-colonialism. For her, these intellectuals hold a special place rooted in her upbringing and educational background, forged during a time when the empire's colonial legacy was largely overlooked. This intimate tie evokes a sense of ambivalence, as she grapples with both the constraints of this historical framework and her profound engagement with their writings. Rather than idealizing them as sources of enlightenment, Moudileno's exploration of this ambivalence becomes a method of reckoning with France's colonial past while revitalizing her intellectual trajectory. Through the process of deterritorializing their work, she endeavors to transcend conventional boundaries of discourse, paving the way for fresh perspectives and deeper understandings to emerge.

About the author

Salvatore Riolo

Salvatore Riolo, a Ph.D. candidate in Italian studies at the University of Notre Dame, earned a B.A. in languages, civilization, and the science of language at the University of Venice and an M.A. in linguistics at the University of Bologna. He was selected as a Nanovic Institute Graduate Fellow for the 2023-24 academic year and serves as co-editor for Europe in the World. His research background includes foreign languages and translation, specifically German, English, and Russian, textual linguistics in literary studies, and semiology. He also has experience as teacher of Italian as a second and foreign language.