Globalization, Subjectification, and the Historicity of State Formation

Talk no. #47 – Published on Theory Talk, Interview with Jean-François Bayart, February 13, 2012.

Debates on globalization tend to assume an analytical tension between economic dynamics on the one hand and the nation-state on the other—an assumption shared by both liberal IR theory and its critics, who for instance see nationalism as a backlash against globalization. Jean-François Bayart, well known among Africanists, has always argued against such a zero-sum interpretation of state and market — as a historical sociologist of state formation, he challenges this core narrative within IR. In this Talk, Bayart—amongst others — explains how the development of capitalism and the nation-state are part of one and the same movement, argues for an event – focused approach to comparative analysis, and elucidates the notion of subjectification in global politics … //  

… Last question. What do you think of the relationship between French and American academia? It seems that there is some antagonism sometimes a misunderstanding, or it’s another way.

  • I do not think there is any antagonism. When it does seem to exist, it is often very artificially constructed, sometimes by the Americans, sometimes by the French, but concretely, these worlds are strongly intertwined. It is true that 30 or 50 years ago, French researchers may have read little English, but that’s surely a thing of the past. Most debates that are supposed to be cleaved along national lines between America and France, are actually divided within each of these entities. For example: one can easily say that France is hesitant towards postcolonial studies and interpret this in terms of a cleavage between France and the United States, but in truth, postcolonial studies is criticized both within France and the United States, and there are also French defending postcolonial studies. I think this thinking is a fashion item: this emphasis on the French cultural exception, the provincialism of French universities, but I don’t like it. Moreover, one of the major influential writers in the U.S. is French. Neither can we say that the U.S. is closed towards the French intellectual tradition.
  • The only thing I want to draw attention to, especially that of English readers, is that there is a tendency at present in the United States, a kind of imperial provincialism. And I am struck by how Americans work more in isolation, and this is a very recent phenomenon, I think largely created by bibliometrics. And now you have people who only cite among themselves, a very curious sort of phenomenon, a phenomenon French authors naturally complain about, but increasingly the British as well. I have British colleagues telling me “you say you are no longer cited, but neither are we.” There is a phenomenon of imperial provincialism, which I think is very dangerous for the vitality of social sciences in the United States. But that is fairly new, and I think it has nothing to do with a kind of Franco-American conflict, it’s more a perverse effect of bibliometrics and the general evolution of our business. By contrast, the real criticism you can make against social sciences in France, is that they completely lack any knowledge of what their counterparts in other European countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain are doing.
  • But we still feel clearly how all of this mediated by translations. For financial reasons, there are increasingly less translations then before. For example, back in the 1980s, the microstoria were immediately translated into French. If today we’d see the same effort in terms of translations from Italian to French, I’m not quite sure. So I think that French social science aren’t too open, essentially for linguistic reasons, towards what people are doing in other European countries. And even more so with regards to cultural or linguistic spaces such as Turkey, Japan and China… Obviously, the specialists in those countries will speak their languages. French historians, for instance, completely ignore the enormous production available on the Ottoman Empire, while the existing body of literature is extremely rich. They rely solely on the body that is available in English, German, or French — but whatever is written in Turkish and not translated into these dominant languages, escapes us. I think in France, the opening towards the English language is complete — but the rest remains more problematic.

(full long interview text and related links).

(Jean-François Bayart is director of studies at the Centre nationale de recherche scientifique CNRS and professor of African politics at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris / Paris Institute of Political Studies. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including The State in Africa: Politics of the Belly and The Criminalization of the State in Africa).

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