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1This book probes the unstable, indefinable nature of the notions of “race,” “culture,” and “identity” from a perspective described as feminist and postcolonial. According to the author, all attempts to understand the notion of identity should take into account not only the historical situation – decolonization – but also the economic conditions in which postcolonial racism operates: redistribution in a globalized economy, fragmentation of the working class, international labour law. Postcolonial racism differs from biological racism in that it is ‘non-differentialist,” race-free, as it were, “seeming to assert that biological races do not exist while insisting that cultural differences between peoples are irreducible” (p. 8).

2The author develops her thinking over six chapters that aim to demonstrate the relevance of the postcolonial approach in a range of humanities and social science fields: geography, law, philosophy, psychoanalysis, literature and gender studies.

3In the first chapter Bentouhami-Molino undertakes to forge a “new geography of knowledge.” She shows that the geographical representations that began to develop in Europe in the seventeenth century were not neutral but driven by imperialist aspirations of entrepreneurial and territorial conquest: an “irremediably ‘ethnocentric’ system of geometrical rationalization” based on value asymmetry between the (European) centre and peripheries at varying distances from that centre. She also notes the semantic slippage from physical attributes and climatic specificities (warm south, temperate north) to moral and sexual qualities (effeminate, cruel East, virile yet gentle West). This slippage, characteristic of Montesquieu’s writings, occurs even today: the “man of the south” is assumed to be hypersexualized and Oriental women to be subject to his male desire and violence. To rethink the situation, the author suggests “provincializing Europe”; in other words, making an effort to understand how life is experienced in non-Western societies. Here she draws heavily on Indian subaltern studies, which restore subaltern collective memory such as that of the peasantry.

4In the second chapter she examines the contribution of postcolonial studies to the field of law, mentioning first the role of law in the constitution of different categories of persons: in this case those to be granted the status of citizen or subject and those to be refused that identity, a refusal used to justify colonization. In the colonial conquest, people were subjugated through “identity expropriation” (p. 43). The author inquires into the legal processes that produced race and made whiteness a property right – a paradoxical right because whiteness is inalienable (it cannot be sold). As she sees it, inalienability is precisely what gives the attribute of “whiteness” its value, making it a morally desirable identity marker but also a resource for accessing a considerable number of social advantages.

5Philosophy is the subject of the third chapter, which begins with a long passage on defining the real: definitions must take into account both the content of reality and the problem of granting legitimacy to utter or name the real. “Racialized” persons or slaves could be denied all ability to speak for themselves and to utter the real. The author’s key reference here as she examines the relevance of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to the colonial period is Frantz Fanon. There are three components to her critique. First, whereas according to Hegel the struggle between master and slave is for mutual recognition, in the colonial scheme of things, acquiring freedom requires “surrendering” freedom and therefore implies asymmetry of consciousness. Freedom here was offered rather than acquired through struggle; it was therefore merely a “hollow word.” Moreover, Hegel’s slave eschews objects and seeks instead the master’s love, a subjective, alienating quest that leads him to surrender the objective conditions of liberation. Her third point concerns the affective dimension of the colonial situation: the slave seeks to possess the white woman to escape his race. For him, then, acquiring freedom necessarily implies negating his own person.

6The fourth chapter describes “the discomfort of psychoanalysis.” In Totem and Taboo (1913), Sigmund Freud turned to distant cultures, cultures considered primitive and understood to represent “archaicism, the childhood of European civilization and an atavistic vestige discernible in obsessive-compulsive neurosis” (p. 88), to probe European consciousness and mentality. For Bentouhami-Molino, Freud’s writings never denied the complexity of non-European cultures; rather, his works were used by colonial psychiatrists from a perspective of racial reductionism. Algerians were understood to be aggressive due to sexual frustration and a brain defect that doomed them to commit homicide and otherwise follow their drives. Here racism created differences that overstepped the boundary of cultural construction, establishing a Manichean difference between “racialized” and “non-racialized” individuals. The author nonetheless points out a subsisting ambivalence: the dichotomous borders are never quite clear-cut and race remains a “floating signifier.” [1] To liberate “racialized” people from ascription to a race and from their vain attempts to win the love of “non-racialized” people, Fanon called for “therapeutic violence” that would extirpate the “enemy” from their inner being and put an end to “simulacrum and imitation.”

7In Chapter 5 Bentouhami-Molino shows what postcolonial reality “does to language and literature.” She compares colonial writing, with its sharp opposition between “us” and “them,” “at home” and “abroad,” to “decolonial” writing, which tells of being uprooted and torn between two situations. Writing is a “mapping of the real” that extends beyond mere passive description of reality. Through its use of metaphor, colonial writing euphemized colonial violence, constructed alterity, racialized. Conversely, decolonial writing describes the materiality of things, and their violence. In this connection the author raises the question of “creolism,” an elusive, slippery type of writing characterized by “poetic metamorphoses,” writing without origin or foreseeable consequences.

8The last chapter focuses on the issue of gender, thereby justifying the author’s qualification of her approach as “feminist. Here she discusses the ability of women (in a subaltern position) to impose ways of thinking and being and even an ideology. As she sees it, this is justified if we are referring to Gramsci’s ideology of lived experience, rationalization of behaviour and the free circulation of ideas. She is also interested in the ability of minorities to speak for and emancipate themselves. Critical of universalist policies purporting to liberate minorities (women, homosexuals, etc.), she endorses instead a non-specific feminism and argues for the concept of intersectionality initially developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw. [2] This concept, which takes into account the way race, gender and class violence compound each other, is, as she sees it, not only descriptive but also central to attaining political objectives. It has “made it possible to think out a genuine emancipation programme that takes into account the lived experience of victims and minorities” (p. 166).

9While some chapters in this book require great concentration given the notions used (particularly those on psychoanalysis and philosophy), this is enlightening reading for anyone wishing to discover or enhance their knowledge of postcolonial studies. It is nonetheless regrettable that the feminist approach was not further developed (gender is discussed only in the last chapter); like postcolonial thinking, feminist thinking could be applied to all the fields examined. This criticism aside, the work offers a highly stimulating approach that reassesses the intellectual contribution of postcolonial studies from a multidisciplinary perspective. It offers keys for apprehending and analysing past and present issues as well as a toolbox for understanding a number of them and decentring our view, our own knowledge, questioning our concepts, which in many cases come from one specific discipline. The work was primarily conceived as theoretical but it is also profoundly political, inviting us to work from a feminist and postcolonial perspective to combat the types of racism specific to contemporary western societies.


  • [1]
    S. Hall, “La vie posthume de Frantz Fanon. Pourquoi Fanon? Pourquoi maintenant? Pourquoi Peau noire, masques blancs?” Les Cahiers philosophiques, 2014, 138(3), pp. 85-102. Originally published as “The After-life of Frantz Fanon: Why Fanon? Why Now? Why Black Skin, White Masks?” in The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation, ed. Alan Read, London, Institute of Contemporary Arts and International Visual Arts, 1996, pp. 12-37.
  • [2]
    K. Crenshaw, “Cartographie des marges: intersectionnalité, politique de l’identité et violences contre les femmes de couleur” [Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics and violence against women of colour], Cahier du genre, 2005, 39, pp. 51-82.
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