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The Prison House of Modernism: Colonial Spaces and the Construction of the Primitive at the 1931 Paris Colonial

Jones, Donna V.
Modernism/modernity, Volume 14, Number 1, January 2007, pp. 55-69 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/mod.2007.0014

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The Prison House of Modernism: Colonial Spaces and the Construction of the Primitive at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition

Donna V. Jones

/ modernity

volume fourteen, number one, pp


2007 the johns hopkins

The Coloniale Moderne

I am the Empire in its dcadence watching the tall blond Norsemen march, meanwhile writing indolently, with a golden style, acrostics where the sunlights languors dance.1

university press

1931 was a fateful year, for it marked the inauguration of Negritude and the grand opening of lexposition coloniale, Frances spectacular display of imperial might and demonstration of the success of its global mission civilisatrice. In the suburb of Vincennes, the French could encounter a grand and detailed simulation of the nations vast imperial possessions. Full-scale reproductions of African villages, medina marketplaces of the Maghreb, and the ruins of Cambodias Angor Wat were all erected and placed along the Parisian city limits.2 The exhibition was composed of hundreds of ornate pavilions, which were to represent European colonial outposts the world over, featuring the French possessions with monuments to great colonial battles and exotic architecture from the colonies. In 1931 the French Empire was at its zenith. Next to Great Britain, France was the second largest imperial power at the time with a significant presence on virtually every continent. In Africa,

Donna V. Jones is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is completing a manuscript entitled The Promise of European Decline:Vitalism, Aesthetic Politics and Race in the Inter-War Years.

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France held the Maghreb, most of west and central Africa, and had a strategic post in the continents eastern coastal region with Djibouti and French Somalia. France was second to Great Britain in the Middle East and the Caribbean, and rivaled Great Britain in Asia with its possession of Indochina and much of the Pacific Islands. Colonialism appeared universal at this point in history, the vast territories of the world had been divided and apportioned among the lords of human kind.3 Although the primary purpose of the exhibition of 1931 was to demonstrate for the world the extent of French imperialism, the fair also advanced the goals of European expansion and the ideals of colonialism in general. Thus, the planners felt it essential that each European nation that had ever held colonies, no matter how minor, participated in the exhibition by constructing a pavilion. The Portuguese designed an immense pavilion to reflect the architecture of Angolas expired Kongo kingdom; the Belgians erected a mock central African village as their entry; and the Dutch modeled theirs on ornate Javanese stilt houses. The United States also fitted comfortably among the imperial powers and offered exhibitions on Alaska, Hawaii, the Panama Canal, and the Philippines. Denmark placed the igloos and, perversely enough, the Inuit of Greenland themselves on display and Italy reconstructed a Roman basilica from Libya. Only Britain, the one nation that surpassed the French in colonial domination, did not participate in the exhibition.4 Although Britains absence was a noticeable loss, the exhibition was determined, nonetheless, toward a show of completion through the reconstruction of what may be perhaps one of the first ideological attempts to advance the notion of a global village. Colonialism, the propaganda boasted, had united the world, spreading the modern advances of the metropolis in its path. The 1931 exposition was thus the realization of both the colonial ideal and the idealization of modernity, representing at once the culmination of imperialist expansion at its apogee and its moment of impending decline. It comes as little surprise then that Frances final display of colonial omnipotence would implement architectural aesthetics that simultaneously conveyed the imperialist triumphalism of the civilizing mission and the pessimistic self-reflexivity of modernism. Unlike earlier exhibitions which had amplified the cultural and material differences between the colonized and Europe through spectacular displays of acts of savagery, the planners of the 1931 colonial exhibition, although no less exoticist, made use of the principle of synthesis. Gone were the collections of crude huts and lean-tos that had comprised the native sections of previous fairs; in their place were towering modern primitivist pavilions. Organizers proclaimed: [The pavilions] are the architectural resume of the exotic world.5 In designing these constructions, exhibition architects were to incorporate somehow the union of opposites in their final structures: the primitive and the modern, the material and the cultural, the past and the future. The two central exhibits, the reconstruction of the west African fort Djenn (Fig 1.) and the Cambodian temple Angor Wat provide the most impressive example of the organizers modernizing impulse. Structures were built significantly larger than their originals in Asia and Africa, their facades were smoothed and modernized, and the dimensions of their towers were exaggeratedly angular to imitate the formal excess of


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Fig. 1. Interior of the fort Djenn, taken from M. Cloche, 60 Aspects de lexposition coloniale (Paris: Stu-

dio Deberny Peignot, 1931).

the cubists. In his work on international exhibitions, Robert Rydell refers to this mode of trompe loeil as the Coloniale Moderne. After the First World War the aura of truimphalism which infused the idea of Empire began for the first time to appear as an anachronism, an idea that had reached its culmination and end; he argues the Coloniale Moderne was a way to reanimate imperialism by infusing it with the immediacy of the modern. [The 1931 Colonial Exhibition] was a way of making imperialism seem as fundamental to modernity as the architectural fantasies of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The public had to be convinced that imperialism provided the bedrock on which modern times and progress depended (WF, 64). Indeed the modernization of colonial architecture served to dissolve the incommensurable otherness of the primitive, enabling the entry of the colonized into the wider human community of le plus Grand France, a Greater France, organized around a shared aesthetic principle. Rydell simply reads these exhibitions as somewhat transparent advertisements for the political and technological aims of the day, in which modernism is reduced to a stylistic means to garner public support for Western global supremacy. This was of course the explicit aim of colonial exhibitions and world fairs, but the use of modernist aesthetics implies more than a proleptic measure to ward against public disinterest in the colonies. The 1931 exhibition also presents us with more recondite questions concerning aesthetics, politics, and the ideological transformation of modernism itself at the historical conjuncture when the hint of empires long anticipated decline surfaced at its peak.

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Modernism also anticipates the acknowledgment of failure within colonial discourse and then displaces this anxiety on to the figure of the primitive. In psychoanalysis and Marxist linguistic theory, displacement has been tied to the tropes of metaphor and metonymy. Through, for example, the metaphoric displacement of the phobic object, the subject is able to contain and objectify his or her anxiety. One can speak of the Other through another more familiar object, dulling its effect and its power, by equating it with something banal or unthreatening. Nevertheless, to express the modality of modernism and imperialist aesthetics, it is necessary to introduce the trope of synecdoche as well. Both France and Africa, colonized and colonial, civilized and primitive, are demonstrably put via the Colonial Fair into synecdochial relationship to Greater France, which, more than displaying a simple name change, designates a totality which possesses a shared world historic, albeit ineffable, quality that suffuses and constitutes the essential nature of the multiple parts that make it up. What positive qualities Greater France actually imparts to its members remains opaque and even vaporous, though the grandeur of the idea itself was meant, as Rydell is correct to underline, to impress and instill loyalty among working-class French and colonized alike. Nonetheless, the parts of the French Empire were indeed integrated within a whole that was imagined to be qualitatively different from the sum of the parts and of which the parts were but microcosmic replications. The colonial exhibition materialized these synecdochial methods in its representation of Greater France; indeed the culminating achievement is the integration of that which differs most from the French ideal and the infusion and domination of its primitive identity by its membership in Greater France. Primitivism no longer then signified the radical exteriority of modernity. Primitivism had long been standard fare for modernist art, but it had been, by and large, linked to a pessimistic narrative of modernity; understood exclusively within the history of the European avant-garde the primitive marked the limits and failures of modernity, delimiting that realm of the irrational which modern consciousness could no longer subsume. The transformative potential of the primitive was thought to inhere in its intangibility, which bound it to Western aesthetics long held idea of the elusiveness of the art object itself, its ability to defy both the terror of time through ephemeral beauty, as well as the hegemony of exchange-value through the art objects uselessness. As modernity unfolded through violent fits and upheavals, reconfiguring time through the unreflective destruction of the old, modernism sought a countervailing force in the timelessness of the Other. However, by interacting with the architectural aims of imperialism, primitivism was emptied of its critical orientation towards modernity and instead facilitated the signification of the successful assimilation of the Other. It is through the representation of Africa as a docile and assimilated Other that modernism redefined and reanimated the imperialist aesthetic of triumph. In earlier exhibitions Africa was the site of intractable savagery, unassimilable to the rigors of civil society and incommensurable with the rest of humanity. For France to laud the culmination of Empire, it had to celebrate the assimilation of what it considered most to be disparate.


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Fin de Sicle Exhibitions: Spectacle and Violence of Objectification

Naturally, the mode of representations of subject populations was linked to the historical aims of the imperial nations themselves. While the exhibition of 1931 represented a world unified by the spirit of modernization, earlier exhibitions were concerned with the violent acquisition of colonies and the extraction of resources. World Fairs and Colonial Exhibitions reflected attempts of nations to forge a popular consensus over their priorities and their vision of progress as racial supremacy and economic growth (WF, 10). They were immense spectacular events that took annual inventory of the advance of modernity and Western dominance throughout the globe. At each fair, artifacts from parts of the globe, previously unknown to Europeans, were brought in, showcased, and exhibited in a manner which mocked and exaggerated the presumed savagery of the newly colonized. Earlier fairs propagandized the public to accept extreme violence as the sole and necessary means for the conquest of colonies. Through representations of violent and dreadful native practices such as cannibalism and human sacrifice, the exhibitions served to elevate the imperialist wars and battles from little followed events in distant lands to feats of heroism and the sacred duties of the civilized West. The caged native warrior, ruthless and fierce, became the metanymic figure for African and Asian peoples who dared resist the violent pacification of the imperialists. Take for example the Dahomian exhibition at the Paris World Fair of 1889, the same year France began its military campaign to capture this west African kingdom. The display was among the most popular with visitors, featuring a sacrificial totemthe tower of Abomey made of roughly hewn wood, caked in blood, and covered with ornate masks. While the threatening wood masks depicted skulls, signifying the totems use in ritual sacrifice, what generated the most fascination and outrage were reports that the blood on the totem, used even in the exhibition, was human. Thus, overnight the Dahomey exhibit became the symbolic juggernaut that tested the resolve of the French civilizing mission. To the French public who attended the exhibition and read the popularized reports of the nations military campaign, tales of cannibalism and human sacrifice not only marked the boundaries of the psychic object but also cast the colonized, in this instance Africa, as the eternally unassimilable Other. The form of exoticism used in the fin de sicle exhibitions was imbricated with both the historical demands of imperialist primitive accumulation and Victorian aesthetic conventions that displaced social transgressions and taboos on to a demonized Other. These exhibitions were constructed with sharp and clear spatial and architectural boundaries drawn between the civilized and savage. Technology, monuments, aesthetic and formal experimentation were found exclusively in the European pavilions which publicly displayed for the first time marvels like the Eiffel Tower, Art Nouveau, or the Trocedero. The primitive practice, however, served as more than a metonym for the colonized, for there was a synecdochial relationship to barbarism. By making it the only quality of the Other to be represented, thus insinuating that it dominated and infused them, the early fairs served to consolidate the myth of the incommensurability of the colonized. In this way, the colonized were

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cast out of the bonds of a mutual humanity that alone could have deprived the horrific violence of primitive accumulation of its warrant. It is not my intention to suggest that this earlier mode of representation was dissipated wholly by modernist style. That they could coexist, as they did, speaks to the sense that what was always in question was the human agency of the colonized.

The Pavilions of the 1931 Colonial Exposition

In addition to its use in design, synthesis was meant to embody the high ideals of Frances overseas policy of assimilation which colonialists felt had finally been realized in 1931 with the establishment of le plus Grand France. French belle lettres and high culture had long been in accord with the colonial principles of assimilation. Behind the duplicitous pronouncements of universal reason, and the universal rights of man in the colonies, stood the very real colonial policy that sanctioned the obliteration and suppression of native cultures and the imposition of French language, institutions, and laws. Senghor sniped: The French wants bread for all, culture for all, liberty for all; but this liberty, this culture, and this bread will be French. The universalism of this people is French.6 However, despite the long acceptance for the idea of a Greater France among the ruling class, many French colonialists felt that the ordinary citizen was hopelessly cosmopolitan and cared little about the colonies. There was almost the implication of an aristocratic epistemology, to borrow a concept from Georg Lukcs, such that only the ruling class could intuit those qualities, which imparted greatness to each part of the greater French whole. The spectacular construction of the French empire in miniature placed strategically in the working-class suburbs of Vincennes, would provide an object lesson to the French people of the realization of a modernist France, a France which had successfully assimilated difference and had drawn into its rationalized and metropolitan core the enchanting periphery. The Colonial Minister Paul Reynaud opened the exposition stating that the goal was to give the French a consciousness of their empire. . . . Each one of us must feel himself a citizen of the greater France. He urged the French public, from this day on, to think of the metropole as extending far beyond the boundaries of Paris, encompassing its colonial possessions: France is an indivisible whole. The old France of Europe and the young France overseas have grown slowly closer . . . have mixed with each other and have become inseparable.7 Such was the organizers vision of colonial syntheses, embedded in the unique form of architectural mtissage each structure bore. The sharp angular style of lart ngre, which had been condemned a decade before for having corrupted the aesthetic purity of French modern art, was now the exemplary formal convention used to represent the idea of the indivisible whole of greater France. Africa, because it stood as the most distant and barbaric continent in the French imagination, became the signifier of a successfully assimilated periphery, and its art, as I shall now argue, became the totem of a totalized vision of modernity. The pavilion dedicated to the colonial ideal, La Section de Synthse (Fig. 2), narrates best the historical revisions concealed within the veneer of modernist inclusion.


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Fig. 2. Full exterior of La Section de Synthse (Muse de lhomme). Taken from Illustration de lexposition coloniale (Album Hors Srie, juillet 1931).

La Section de Synthse housed the museum of French colonial history. A long and intricate stone fresque encases the length of the buildings classical facade, depicting the people, flora, and fauna of the French possessions, each blending fluidly with the other. The exhibition catalogue relates the artists intentions to render the harmonious integration of humanity into the idea of France. The design of the fresque emphasizes motion; the features, limbs, and details of each nation run uninterrupted into the other, suspending both uniformity and difference. Each region maintains its distinct nature, but this heterogeneity is unified in the fluidity and circuitous construction of the fresque. By flanking the sides of the pavilion, the fresque gives the illusion of encircling the building. The contrasting fluidity of the fresque design encompasses the interior display of French Imperial history, encasing it, as it were, in a stone rendition of the Peaceable Kingdom. But the imposition of the Roman columns lining the facade belies the modernist gesture toward the inclusion and synthesis of disruptive marginal elements. Superimposed on the designs mutable figures is the grid, organizing the family of man in an unambiguous racial hierarchy. The History relayed in the exhibits interior bluntly narrates what the imperial columns silently suggest. Maps of the globe, marking the French territories, cover the four immense walls of the exhibit hall. The topological display of Empire in maps, rings of flags, and statues of victorious soldiers reduce the scale of Greater France to the level of the visitor. The exhibition catalogue entreats the visitor to enter the pavilion and wander through the vast scope of French possessions in order to experience it in its totality. The captions beneath the sterile monuments of colonial victory revise and suppress the violence and terror that were a vital part of the actual synthesis of the

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colonies. The revised history of the colonial conquest is one of the benevolent encounter between reason and the irrational.
Tels sont [les] points principaux que dveloppe la Section de Synthse . . . Ce que nous avons apport tout dabord dans nos possessions, cest la paix. En Afrique du Nord, des 1830, notre expdition touffait ces redoutables foyers de piraterie sems sur toute la cte algrienne, en Indochine, nous avons libr les peuples de loppression des mandarins et des pirates, nous avons en Afrique surtout, le plus infortun des continents, on peut le dire, littralement sauv toute une race voue lextinction.8 [Such are the principle points developed in the Section de Synthse . . . Above all, what we have brought to our possessions abroad is peace. In Northern Africa, in 1830, our expedition stifled the dreaded flames of piracy scattered throughout the coast of Algeria, in Indochina we liberated the people from the oppression of the Mandarins and pirates and for Africa, the most unfortunate of the continents, we may say that we have literally saved a race from the verge of extinction.]

In this articulation of the aims of imperialism, synthesis is synonymous with the task of salvation. In its infinite benevolence France is drawn to the colonies by a divine calling to set things right. Related in the passage above is the belief that each of these regions of the world was gripped to various degrees by chaos, disorder, and brutal mayhem. Bringing these vast and hostile sections of the globe into the sight of the metropolitan city was not a simple task of pacification; rather it was a managerial effort in reorganization. The expressed aim of synthesis was to save the colonies from the chaos that infused and guided their natures, to reform them by bringing them under universal rule. Synthesis was thus a full-scale effort in classification and colonial typography, a way of placing the empires possessions in the proper position in a representation of the hierarchy of man. This is illustrated in the passage above in a serial description of each regions troubled past. Measuring the rest of the globe against Europe, the description begins with an image of North Africa, plagued by pirates, and ends with sub-Saharan Africa. As in the earlier exhibitions, Africa marks the limits of French universalist resolve; it is described as a continent on the verge of extinction, a measure of that which should be impossible to redeem or recuperate. As the text goes on to state how the synthesis of Africathe site of what were most contrary to the professed ideals of France: slavery, despotism, and savagerybecomes an example of the unquestionable success of the assimilation policy. In speaking about Africa the text deflects the gross abuse and violence of French colonial history on to native culprits.9 The history of slavery, enforced labor, daily terror and violence, atrocities the French justified as the necessary means to civilize the savage in Victorian exhibitions, are absent in the 1931 revisions. In their place is a Hobbsian state of violence, violence that is endemic to the region, an archaic violence that knows no French participants. The catalogue explains that France has saved the Africans from their own despotic black sultans, les plus froces ngriers du monde, and has ushered the continent into a state of peace never known to them until now. The fresques figures of Africans, frozen in harmonious interaction with the animals and fauna of their environment, speaks in the


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most fantastic image of their peaceful existence within the totality of France. From the exhibitions emphasis on the ornamental use of the passive African, one can see how closely colonialist synthesis resembles the structure of aesthetic sublimation; but unlike classical aesthetics where the union of opposites engender a third, distinct, and more beautiful form, the colonized are erased in and through sublime representation, those representational figures signifying absence. Whatever subversive force with which one may wish to invest these hybrid imageshow after all could one object to such beautiful depictions?they serve ultimately to empty from these representations those who have been sacrificed for the making of a Greater France, or rather to confine them impossibly to tyrannically beautiful forms which are emptied of their historical presence. That which is unspeakable cannot go unsaid without ever more unspeakable violence. Other pavilions represented something other than the propangadist transmutation of imperialism into a Greater France. For example, in the Belgian pavilion, we find complex processes of appropriation and mimicry: on the one hand, the Belgian colonizers appropriate and deploy fetishized objects of the colonized to signify the omnipotence and centrality of Belgian rule; on the other hand, the Other is synecdochically defined as primitivethe artifacts of savage violence and fetishistic practice are used as ontological representations of the other. Michael Taussig examines this process of appropriation in the context of mimetic exchange between the colonized and colonizer. Mimesis, he argues, is not only an attempt to imitate the outside of the Other, it is a method of usurping its power, of appropriating and reconfiguring its meaning. Although Taussigs analysis of mimetic exchange concentrates primarily on the ways in which the colonized use mimesis to negotiate and make sense of Western norms, norms frequently violently imposed on them, he makes clear that mimesis entails the mutual interpretation of the images and symbols of cultural difference; for this reason his work is of great use to the discussion here of the modernist deployment of primitivist style in the pavilions to signify the consolidation of empire.10 Taussig maintains that both the colonized and colonizer engage in acts of mimetic exchange in an effort to penetrate and contain the potency of the Other by mastering the vital elements of their respective symbolic universes. Mastery in this sense does not imply getting it right, for the mimic does not flawlessly reproduce the customs of the Other; rather, mastery involves the seizure of the Others cultural affects such as secret ceremonies or rituals and the redeployment of these practices for ones own ends. Mimesis, Taussig reminds us, always circulates within the matrix of colonial power; it is not a free and equal system of exchange, rather it is a process enmeshed in, and distorted by, the colonial realities of terror and exploitation. We do not have here Bhabhas hybrid displacing space, developing in free interaction between the indigenous and colonial culture, much less the undermining of imperialist authority or authenticity. In a recent review of Taussigs work, however, Michael Baud mistakenly aligns Taussigs theory of mimesis with Bhabhas rather seamless conception of hybridization, which Bhabha offers in place of the noisy command of colonialist authority or the silent repression of native traditions.11 Far from abstracting from the context of colonial violence, Taussigs prose is replete with experiments to induce in the

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reader the terrors of uncertainty which suffuse the native so as to enable understanding, however partial, of the context in which the mimesis of the colonizer is carried out; moreover, Taussig has attempted to induce awareness in Western academics of how the mental stability with which they attempt their brilliant hermeneutics of the Other themselves depend on counter-terror against chaos.12 We can see such an act of mimetic containment in the exhibitions Belgian Congo pavilion (Figs. 3 and 4). As is clear in the picture of the exterior, the Belgian pavilion, even more than the west African fortress, exhibits the modern primitivist style of the era. The design emphasis is on the display of tribal fetishes, imposing ceremonial masks and shields. The catalogue tells us that the pavilion was designed to be both impressive and picturesque. Evoking the memory of indigenous customs, the villages and battles between the many tribes, the pavilion combines the representations of the placid pastoral life and the savage rivalry of tribal warfare.13 The structure is composed of an immense thatched dome, supported by a ring of rustic columns adorned with masks and fetish reliefs. We find the more modern interpretation of an African aesthetic, however, in the pavilion courtyard. In front of the complex of thatched circular buildings, there stands opposite each other two rows of elliptical and yet sharply geometric shields, each supporting a very tall spear that doubles as a flagpole. With such an array of flags, spears, and shields at the entrance to the pavilion, the feeling of entering a national palace or a consulate building is generated. The history of the Belgians in the Congo is anything but picturesque. Joseph Conrad referred to the Berlin Congress of 1887 as the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.14 It was at this congress, called to settle Europes inter-imperial rivalries, that the gathered states granted King Leopold II his wish to make Belgium the capital of an immense empire, for which he received all of central Africa. Commenting on Leopolds designs, one British consul expressed the wish that territories so immense would, at last, silence the edacious monarch by choking him.15 But so large an empire did not silence King Leopold, and he went on to impose a reign of terror in the colony that lasted two decades. The state was set up as Leopolds personal financial enterprise, abandoning the political and institutional pretenses employed in the French or British colonies. Leopold had no professed civilizing mission; the mission of the Belgians in the region was to extract as much labor effort and raw resources as they could, regardless of human cost. Recruiting forced labor on rubber plantation and mines, the colonizers imposed inhuman quotas on the workers, cutting off workers hands and feet if they failed to meet their quota. In this sense the Belgian Congo was a cruder and crueler articulation of the civilizing mission than the British and French colonial ventures, which coupled violent exploitation with benevolent institutions. The Congo became synonymous with the excesses and horrors of imperialism. Sartre writes in the colonies the truth stands naked.16 Indeed the horrors of the exploitation of the industrial working class in the nineteenth century were magnified tremendously in the colonies in the twentieth. The consumption of human life approached genocidal proportions. Yet in the Belgian pavilion the naked truth of the violence of primitive accumulation is concealed and displaced in the monumental reproduction of an African fetish.


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Fig. 3. Interior of Belgian Congo Pavilion taken from Le livre dor de lexposition coloniale internationale de Paris 1931 published by Commissariat Gnrel de lexposition, par la federation Franaise de Anciens Coloniaux (Paris: Librarie ancienne Honor Cham-

niale Internationale de Paris 1931.

pion, 1931).

Fig. 4. Exterior of Belgian Congo Pavilion. Taken from Le Livre dOr de lExposition Colo-

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Taussig is quite helpful here in understanding the aesthetic repression and deferral of violence in the colonies. Examining the narratives of primitive accumulation in the coloniestravel reports from the Belgian Congo, the Andes, and Amazon basinTaussig describes how mimesis functions in these spaces of terror. The colonizer, he argues, discovers the evil they have imputed to the colonized, and mimic the savagery they have imputed (SCW, 70). In an effort to stress their absolute difference from the idolater, the fetishist or savage, the colonizer ascribes supernatural powers to the native, his land, and culture, the strength of which justify savage means of repression. We find in the pavilion representation of the artifactual significations of these powers attributed to the primitive. This is not surprising, for within the lived economy of terror the cultural affects of the Other take on tremendous symbolic value for the colonized. Masks, fetishes, and other artifacts function at once as worthless trinkets, the mark of the colonizeds absolute difference toward the West, and instruments of power, frightening objects deployed by the colonized to counter the colonizers magic. For this reason they cannot be simply ignored or dismissed as objects that defy symbolization; in order for the colonizer to declare themselves rulers, the objects of the colonized must be incorporated into their system of domination. Thus the taking up of African artifacts as synecdoche to signify the completion of the civilizing mission should not be understood as a belated gesture of recognition towards the aesthetic worth of African cultural production; extending Taussigs notion of mimesis here, such gestures as the appropriation of African architecture should appear to us as controlling actions rather than an act of belated reconciliation. The violence of primitive accumulation sets in motion an economy of terror in which the spirits of the dead and exploited linger in both the landscape and histories of these frontier societies; the demands for restitution for the wrongs suffered as a result of the Wests insatiable demand for raw resources make up the subtext of what is understood as a primitive thematic of haunting and possession. In the hands of the explorer, the overseer, or European technician, native artifacts become mediating instruments through which the excesses of colonial violence may be indirectly confronted. Taussig tells the story of Roger Casement, friend of Joseph Conrad and witness to two particularly vicious colonial campaignsthe establishment of rubber plantations in both the Belgian Congo and Brazilwho towards the end of his career began to collect native fetishes ostensibly for his own safety (SCW, 131). Casements story is but one example of the manner in which native artifacts serve to protect or shield the colonizers from the repercussions of frontier violence. One might surmise that Casement used the fetishes to protect himself from what he had become in the violent frontier. Like the wayward Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Casement understands himself as having fallen prey to the corrosive effects of his environment. The fetishes were to ward off further degeneration in spirit that his long stays in the jungle had set in motion, as well as to protect him from the inevitable retaliation of natives for the savage deeds of the Europeans. Casement is an example of an imperialist gone native, mimetically appropriating and internalizing the symbolic values of the Other, but this cycle of appropriation


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signifies neither the openness of the colonizer to the ways of the colonized as some critics assert, nor is it evidence of the inherent subversiveness of the primitive in the face of Western efforts of totalization.17 Far from disrupting the modern, the imagined primitive, especially its supernatural aspects, becomes the license for colonial violence in its psychic and colonial forms. While the European traffic in things primitive is enclosed in a peculiar and mystifying dialectic actually brought about by the initial violent encounter between the colonized and colonizer, the natural state of these regions is one of primeval violence which infects and bewilders all who come into contact with it. An embodiment of the surreal couplet of violence and desire, Casements story is one of many representations of the colonial world in terms of its inherent magical real quality to disturb all notions of unified subjecthood. There is of course the hyperbole of Conrads Kurtz, reduced to the ambiguity of sado-masochistic horror and unable to return to reason and by implication, Europe. The grotesque here is less in the colonial officer or even the narrative, but the Congo itself. In the Belgian pavilion the savagery of imperialist history is allocated to the masks, the imposing shields, and spears. This monument which the catalogue explains is designed in the style of a great African chief, transmits the centralized power of Leopolds kingdom.18 The civilizing influence, by contrast, resides in the presence of the Belgian mining societies represented in a panorama circling the pavilions interior. A contemporary columnist Charles DYdwelle described it thus:
. . . a type of Negro palace, of such a kind that doubtless no Negro king has inhabited, but it passably recalls, with its domes and its palisades certain sultanates of central Africa. At the center of the dome of yellow straw matting seems to dominate an illusory city, a city of new straw matting. The columns are loaded with rustic images of a somber barbarity . . . We enter on the same floor. From a blue dome, a soft light falls on a blue pavement. This is the patio around which are grouped galleries and dioramas. Dim light favorable for study. All along the periphery we discover colossal factories. One sole mining society employs more than four thousand white agents and thirty thousand black workers.19

Racism makes DYdwelle skeptical that the pavilion represents an actual African palace. His comment that no Negro king has ever lived in such a structure is informed by racialist theories of Paul Vidal, the French geographer who created a taxonomy that equated racial characteristics with the populations respective milieu. Within this theory reminiscent of Spenglerian morphology, architecture was the externalization of known racial essence, and since in DYdwelles estimation Africans were at the bottom of this hierarchy, any structure of that magnitude could not be an accurate representation of their milieu. For DYdwelle, the pavilion is not sufficiently barbaric, and he makes the mistake of separating the various styles into their constitutive racial components. He comments on the Belgians neat and orderly raked white sands; juxtaposing that with the straw matting, he remarks: this ensemble of savagery and gardening is perhaps a good enough summary of the Belgian aesthetic in Africa.20 This is only one reason why DYdwelle misses the point of the pavilion, which is not to render a display of African power, or even, for that matter the regions vast cultural or aesthetic diversity.

M O D E R N I S M / modernity


What is more interesting are DYdwelles comments on the interior diorama. The tone of hasty outrage gone from his description, the columnist goes on to detail what he is most familiar with and what most pleases him about the pavilionthe colossal factory. Alas, DYdwelles contempt for the ensemble of savagery and gardening unwittingly reveals to us the pavilions true fetish object, the object within which the energies of men are transformed and concealed within the thing. For it is only as a contrast to a fantastic and primitive world that the mining complex can be fetishized as a rational organization of energy, regardless of who benefits from its wealth or the millions of human lives which have been consumed in its operation. DYdwelle lapses into the language of worship and awe. The dim lights of a church, a library, or temple are fitting and set the mood for the visitor to behold the magnitude of one sole mining company, the synecdoche that has distilled and now represents the diverse qualities and energies of four thousand white agents and thirty thousand black workers. The placement of the factory within the pavilions savage exterior as a civilizing presence actually speaks more to the ideological fantasy of a disenchanted West than it does a wild and primeval Africa. The fusing of these two oppositesthe totemic architecture and the factoryunknowingly expresses an image of the enchanted modern, haunted not by the savage and subversive culture of the native, but by the suppressed knowledge of modernitys own fetishistic practices.

1. Languor in Selected Poems of Paul Verlaine, transl. Martin Sorrell, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 13031. 2. For my discussion of the historical significance of the 1931 Colonial Exhibition I am relying on Robert Aldrich, Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion (New York: St. Martin Press, 1996); Catherine Hodeir and Michel Pierre, LExposition coloniale (Paris: Editions Complexe Bruxelles, 1991); and P. A Morton, Civilizing Mission of Architecture: The 1931 International Paris Colonial Exhibition (PhD Dissertation: Princeton University, 1994). 3. Victor Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1969). 4. See Aldrich, 263. Despite the many invitations from the French government and Marchal Lyautey insisting that Britains participation was essential to the exhibitions aims the British declined the offer citing financial difficulties incurred from their own colonial exhibition in 1924. 5. Robert Rydell, World of Fairs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 64. Henceforth abbreviated WF. 6. Cited in Janet Vaillant, Black French and African: A Life of Leopold Sedar Senghor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 37. 7. Both cited in Vaillaint, Black, French and African, 85. 8. Commissariat Gnral de lExposition par la Fdration Franaise des Anciens Coloniaux, Le Livre dOr de lExposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris 1931 (Paris: Librairie ancienne Honor Champion, 1932), 22. 9. See Patricia Leightens essay The White Peril and lart ngre: Picasso, Primitivism and Anticolonialism in Art Bulletin Vol. 72 (December 1990), 60930 on the representation of the French atrocities in the colonies and the reaction of French avant-garde. The response of the avant-garde was trapped within the same discursive boundaries of exoticism as the colonizers. In fact their representations of an Africa in need of redemption anticipates the late modernist representations found in the exhibitions. 10. Micheal Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing


the prison house of modernism


(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 10. Henceforth abbreviated SCW. 11. Homi K Bhabha, Signs taken for wonders: questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817, Critical Inquiry, 12:1 (1985), 154; see Michel Baud, Imagining the Other: Michael Taussig on Mimesis, Colonialism, Identity, in Critique of Anthropology, 17:1 (1998), 10312. 12. Michael Taussig, Terror As Usual: Walter Benjamins Theory of History As State of Siege in The Nervous System (New York: Routledge: 1992), 1136. 13. A. Demaison, Guide officiel de lExposition coloniale internationale (Paris: Kapp, 1931). 14. Joseph Conrad, Geography and Some Explorers in Last Essays, ed. Richard Curle (London: Dent, 1926). 15. After a brief campaign against the Congo atrocities, in 1908 the Congo was transferred from King Leopold to the Belgian state. 16. Jean Paul Sartre, Preface to Franz Fanons Wretched of the Earth in Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois, Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 2004), 229. 17. See Maria Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). 18. Demaison, Guide Officiel. 19. In Morton, Civilizing Mission of Architecture, 153. 20. Ibid.