Over the past years, France has been rocked not only by violent demonstrations in the banlieues (city outskirts) but also by raging debates regarding the place of “postcolonial studies” in the French archive and in current scholarship. The dispute over postcolonial studies in this European venue is symptomatic of disagreement about the status of French colonial history and the category of race in the construction of contemporary national narratives. The varied and conflicting understandings of both postcolonial studies and the nature of empires entail fierce disagreement over the status of race and immigration in France (if not Europe) today. This introductory essay reviews the arguments presented in the main articles, discussion papers, and Doxa essays included in this special issue. The author enters the debate by arguing against the notion that postcolonial studies can be summarized as a theoretical form. Because postcolonial studies has produced compelling accounts of the epistemological bases for the production of difference and historical forms of regulation, its intellectual force lies in the constant postulation of alternative narratives and counter-histories in a relentless effort to displace the fault lines of power-knowledge. However, to what extent can this contemporary scholarship rid itself of the categories of nineteenth-century academic disciplines? By considering the third languages of the postcolonial world, one can address this predicament of thinking and reasoning in the language of the educator, the statesman, the colonizer, the slaver, the exterminator. In the end, though, an epistemological rupture would entail more than differential languages; it requires that significance no longer be located in historical inscription.
Throughout this special issue, authors have used French versions of standard texts, with English versions, where they exist, indicated in footnotes. All translations from French in this introduction are my own. I would like to thank Plaegian Alexander and Stephen Twilley for their patience and their hard work; Yann Arthus-Bertrand for his quick fix; and Dilip Gaonkar, Claudio Lomnitz, and the Editorial Committee of Public Culture for their strong support.