Phantasmatic Indochina: French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature

Phantasmatic Indochina: French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature

by Panivong Norindr

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This reflection on colonial culture argues for an examination of “Indochina” as a fictive and mythic construct, a phantasmatic legacy of French colonialism in Southeast Asia. Panivong Norindr uses postcolonial theory to demonstrate how French imperialism manifests itself not only through physical domination of geographic entities, but also through the colonization of the imaginary. In this careful reading of architecture, film, and literature, Norindr lays bare the processes of fantasy, desire, and nostalgia constituent of French territorial aggression against Indochina.
Analyzing the first Exposition Coloniale Internationale, held in Paris in 1931, Norindr shows how the exhibition’s display of architecture gave a vision to the colonies that justified France’s cultural prejudices, while stimulating the desire for further expansionism. He critiques the Surrealist counter-exposition mounted to oppose the imperialist aims of the Exposition Coloniale, and the Surrealist incorporation and appropriation of native artifacts in avant-garde works. According to Norindr, all serious attempts at interrogating French colonial involvement in Southeast Asia are threatened by discourse, images, representations, and myths that perpetuate the luminous aura of Indochina as a place of erotic fantasies and exotic adventures. Exploring the resilience of French nostalgia for Indochina in books and movies, the author examines work by Malraux, Duras, and Claudel, and the films Indochine, The Lover, and Dien Bien Phu.
Certain to impact across a range of disciplines, Phantasmatic Indochina will be of interest to those engaged in the study of the culture and history of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, as well as specialists in the fields of French modernism, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and comparative literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379799
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 01/24/1997
Series: Asia-Pacific, culture, politics, and society
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 705 KB

About the Author

Panivong Norindr is Associate Professor of French and Italian studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

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Phantasmatic Indochina

French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film, and Literature

By Panivong Norindr

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7979-9



The French Colonial Phantasmatic and the Exposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris

"Indochine" as Phantasmatic

In his latest book, Edward Said reexamines the relationship between culture and empire as a complex engagement with and "struggle over geography" (Culture 7). He considers the novel to be "the aesthetic object" par excellence, of particular significance for the "formation of imperial attitudes, references and experiences" (Culture xii; emphasis in original). Other critics such as James Clifford, Clifford Geertz, Eric Hobsbawm, and Terence Ranger include in their studies of colonized cultures other types of cultural forms: museographic and ethnographic displays, rituals and ceremonies, traditions. They argue that cultural representations of exotic nations and their people are complicated processes that involve various strategies that differ from those that depend on mimetic representation, transparence of representation, and immediacy of experience. Clifford reminds us that cultural accounts are intentional creations, not solely caught up in the representation of other cultures but, more radically, in their translation, invention, and reconstruction (21?54). One of the aims of this chapter is to shift our understanding of colonial conquest from a purely "geographical inquiry into a historical experience" (Said, Culture 7) to imaginary/conceptual ones.

While I acknowledge the influence of Said's seminal studies on my own work, Said can be criticized for overestimating the impact and power of the novel and of scholarly discourse in shaping public opinion on the colonies. He fails to consider the multiple mediations and translations, and the power of the unconscious, in the reorganization and transformation of scholarly knowledge into individual and collective phantasms for the Orient. I therefore propose to examine Indochina as a phantasmatic construct essential to the containment strategies of successful imperialism, a thesis put forth and analyzed in the context of World's Fairs and, more specifically, in the framework of the Exposition Coloniale Internationale held in Paris in 1931. The focus is not only on the performative function of the Exposition, that is to say, on the Exposition's role in disseminating imperial ideas and beliefs. Rather, the Exposition will be seen as the paradigmatic site of an elaborate mise-en-scène or staging of the "idea of Indochina," where the conquest of the imaginary is inextricably linked to both the act of naming and the act of representation, and where complex mechanisms of cultural production are at work.

To underline the processes of naming, translation, and representation as the central modes of production of strategies of containment, one must locate the emergence of Indochina in French consciousness or the French imaginary as a modern and model colony. We could begin by reviewing accounts written by travelers and explorers to the region (see Gamier, Pavie), a corpus of texts that participates "in the fixing of colonized cultures, making them static and unchanging rather than historically constructed" (Niranjana 3). We could also proceed by studying the genesis of modern colonial cities and assessing the politics of French colonial urbanism (see Leprun and Sinou, Wright). These two approaches would undoubtedly illuminate many aspects of the logic underlying French colonial expansionism and expose, for instance, the link between French colonial architecture and the policy of "association," or French architectural aspirations and their destabilizing effects on traditional indigenous forms. However, in order to interrogate more forcefully the processes of "invention" and "reconstruction" that subtend the relations between metropolis and colony, colonizer and colonized, I have chosen to concentrate on the Exposition Coloniale Internationale, a cultural event that brings to the fore different strategies of representation and practices of "containment" and allows for a rigorous analysis of the elaboration of exotic fantasies.

Conceived as a stage upon which to enhance the prestige of Imperial France and thus to justify and promote the ethos of colonialism, the Exposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris delineates a space within which various systems of representation and different discourses on the Other come together to "materialize" exotic cultures. Experts and scholars in all fields were asked to contribute their knowledge and expertise to this project. Anthropologists selected cultural artifacts to represent and chronicle aspects of indigenous life. Archeologists, geographers, and economists collaborated to catalogue, inventory, map, and accurately assess French colonial possessions and their wealth, using, for instance, exploration reports and findings of the Société de Géographie or of the École française d'Extrême-Orient. The curator of the Louvre chose artwork inspired or influenced by the colonies. But one of the most important roles was played by architects, who not only planned and conceived the mise-en-scène of the exotic spectacle, but who also, and more concretely, designed and reproduced native buildings and monuments. All of these experts' contributions, as sources of retranslated objective truths, coalesce in and around the Palais d'Exposition (exhibit hall) and participate in the elaboration of la féerie coloniale (the colonial phantasmagoria).

L'Exposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris did not simply strive to give a unified vision and complete inventory of exotic (i.e., colonized) reality, but was also designed to "ravish" and arouse desires for the colonies. It is, therefore, a privileged point of entry into what I call the French colonialphantasmatic. By colonial phantasmatic—a term I borrow from psychoanalysis—I mean the ideological reality through which colonial fantasies as the support of desire emerged, operated, and manifested themselves. It also refers to the psychic process, the structuring action, which shapes and orders the subject's life as a whole. The modern use of the term "fantasy" was first conceptualized by Freud in his many essays on the function and nature of fantasy. My own understanding of the complexity of this concept is largely mediated by the work of the French psychoanalysts Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, who first unveiled their views on fantasy in their original 1964 essay "Fantasme originaire, fantasme des origines, origine du fantasme." They defined it more succinctly in their Language of Psychoanalysis as "an imaginary scene in which the subject is a protagonist, representing the fulfillment of an (unconscious) wish" (314). Elaborating on Freud's analysis of the relation of art to fantasy, Laplanche and Pontalis link desire to unconscious fantasies which structure and shape the subject's psychic life: the claim is "to unearth the phantasies which lie behind such products of the unconscious as dreams, symptoms, acting out, repetitive behavior, etc.... (317). Kaja Silverman puts it more succinctly; she calls the phantasmatic this "unconscious fantasy or group of fantasies which underlies a subject's dreams, symptoms, repetitive behavior, and day-dreams" (161). I argue that the colonial phantasmatic elaborates a complex restructuring of both psychical and cultural reality.

To appeal to a psychoanalytic concept like the phantasmatic and extend it to include a nation's discursive practices and, more precisely, colonial fantasies at the Exposition, may seem at first antithetical to cogent analytical research. But, as feminist critics such as Elizabeth Cowie and Cora Kaplan have elegantly shown, fantasies are not only a "crucial part of our constitution as human subjects" (Kaplan 146), they are also imbricated in the discourses on sexuality and race. They caution us against seeing fantasizing as "a female specialty," a particularly important injunction in the light of our postulate that the entire colonial enterprise hinges on a masculine imaginary of conquest. The myriad discursive forms these male colonial fantasies assume are thus the object of critical scrutiny in this study. I suggest that the colonial phantasmatic may also give new insight not only into the underlying premises of French colonial discourse of the 1930s, and its enduring appeal, but also into the identificatory and libidinal forces of what Jameson calls its "political unconscious." The desire for exotic and other sensual and cognitive experiences manifested itself in concrete fashion, in the design of the Palais d'Exposition, the decorative façade, and so on. This desire was impressed upon the imagination of these fairgoers by collapsing the aesthetic with the real in order to elicit support for French colonialism and, ultimately, to solicit a political endorsement. Apprehending the Exposition as fantaisie, both as creative activity and imaginative process as well as the products of this activity, sheds light on the ways la France officielle represented its colonies and imagined Indochina, its relation with the colonized nation and its people.

To test and illustrate this notion of colonial phantasmatic, I posit the following hypothesis. I contend that "Indochine" is a nineteenth-century French fiction, a fantaisie or geographic romance, created by France to elicit desire for its Far Eastern colonies. It is an imaginative territorial assemblage calqué (traced, copied, translated) from the political boundaries fixed by the French government when it created the Union Indochinoise in 1887, in an attempt to consolidate the French presence in Southeast Asia and contain Great Britain's progress there. The phantasmatic Indo-Chine is difficult to locate precisely or represent accurately because it extends beyond the purely administrative and political boundaries of theUnion Indochinoise. This uncharted territory has for markers cities like Hué, Saigon, Angkor-Thom, Vientiane, or Phnom Penh. These are not places mapped by geographers and cartographers, excavated by archeologists, or studied by the experts of the École française d'Extrême-Orient. Hué, Saigon, Angkor Thom, Vientiane, and Phnom Penh are represented, translated, and mediated—what the French call the process of vulgarisation (popularization)—by more "popular" media. The Indochinese fantasies, in other words, are elaborated and disseminated, arguably more effectively, by means other than through the work of experts. In Orientalism, Said believes that "to get at the Orient [the reader] must pass through the learned grids and codes provided by the Orientalist" (67). Said's work leaves out popular sources. In this newly modern age of mechanical reproduction, the journal illustré, such as Le Tour du monde, L'Illustration, or Le Monde illustré, which made their first appearances in the 1860s, featured heroic accounts of French military advances in untamed regions, reports of important archeological discoveries like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and records of daily indigenous life in the colonies. These journals brought the vicarious traveler in contact with exotic lands, their strange customs and peoples. These phantasmatic images circulated via other media as well: stylized posters, designed by well-known artists like Capiello and others, for the Messageries Maritimes, cajoled the would-be traveler; advertisements boasted of the easy life in the colonies and urged the French to leave their drab life behind—a dream no longer out of reach for most French with the advent of new technical advances in steam travel (and later, air travel). Postcards also played an important role in promoting French colonial possession. In the political arena, the Tonkin expedition (1883?85) sealed the fate of Jules Ferry. His colonial policies were widely debated and commented on by the daily press. Ferry had to resign from the Présidence du Conseil after the French debacle at Langson (March 1885). By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the spectacle or "theater" of the colonies, to borrow Sylviane Leprun's words, had become an integral part of French life.

The emergence of French colonial fantasies of Indochina reveals an attempted identification and conflation of this phantasmatic Indochine with the political Union Indochinoise. Indeed, it is the very failure of that identification—the discrepancy between the imagined ideal and the political reality—that must account for the logic, motivations, conscious and unconscious desires. Its location between India and China explains its christening and original orthography, Indo-Chine. The swerving away from its strictly cartographic meaning to signify a new political geography, or physionomie politique, was designed to erase from the collective memory the bloody history of its foundation (i.e., events like the death of Commandant Rivière or that of Francis Garnier). The French will to fashion an innocuous image and a new and coherent identity for Indochina meant endorsing the pseudo-scientific belief that these independent kingdoms and nations and their cultures were derivatives of those of India and China. In numerous accounts of its "elementary geography" written during the belle époque, Indochina is regarded as "a region of transition," "a meeting point," "the cross-roads of maritime routes between the Orient and the Far-East" (Brenier and Russier 20). It is an empty space where traces of a glorious past can only be excavated with the knowledge and expertise of the French. By promoting the idea that Indochina is merely the "hinge [charnière] between the Indian and Chinese civilizations" (Marseille, Empire 21), we might come to fully appreciate the power of Orientalist discourse in legitimizing the political will of the nation. For now, it suffices to say that the spelling used by the École française d'Extrême-Orient becomes the one adopted officially by the French government (Brenier and Russier 19). What once was its sole defining mark, the graphic trace of the hyphen, the linking trait d'union, disappears at the very moment French fantasies of Indochina take hold of the French popular imaginary.

To consolidate these myths of Indochina as lack, void, or absence, a new history of the region had to be written, one that would fit the new political identity assigned to it and accommodate new phantasmatic images like those of Angkor Wat, long forgotten by the natives, and "rediscovered" and promoted by the French. The history of the Union Indochinoise served to legitimize the French administrative construction of "Indochine" as the "cadre territorial et étatique de la colonisation [territorial and state boundary of colonization]" (Hémery, Ho Chi Minh 24) which imposed French colonial rule on a number of independent kingdoms and states, bringing them together under the aegis of one central general government. The creation of a federation of states paradoxically meant carving and dividing a region, under the suzerainty of the Vietnamese and Chinese empires, into three provinces (Cochin China, Annam, and Tonkin), wrestling territories from the Thai that constituted part of the ancient Khmer empire, and unifying the three kingdoms of Laos into one colonial state. Transforming these occupied territories in the Southeast Asian peninsula into a single administrative, economic, and political space and identifying it under the name "Indochine" meant not only ignoring boundary disputes between historically rival nations, absorbing heterogeneous populations, and drawing new political boundaries without any regard to ethnic composition. More importantly, it also meant inventing a stable and unified identity based on a lack, the absence of a proper name, and supplementing it with a colonial phantasmatic.

The Exposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris homogenizes and consolidates the heterogeneity of Indochina's history and geography through a variety of representations. As mentioned earlier, the Exposition constructs and disseminates these representations to an impressionable public already acquainted with the exotic colonies through the press, political discourse, literary writings, and cinema. By framing the popular and political images of Indochina within this new geographical space of the Exposition, these Indochinese fantasies (e.g., those invented to promote Saigon or Angkor Wat as the cradle of an ancient "Indochinese" civilization) become identified as the real markers of that new French colonial possession triumphantly named "Indochine," destroying in the process both the region's cultural specificity and its diversity. The Exposition is therefore the site where strategies of containment and identity formation are at their most effective. What is at stake in these representations of other cultures and their peoples, and what do these representations tell us about French colonial ideology? How effective were these cultural manifestations in assigning a cultural identity to Indochina? What allowed the French to speak of a sexualized and feminized Indochina? What were the modes of identification conceived to stimulate and satisfy these desires and phantasms for the exotic? My aim is not so much to contest these representations nor to simply relocate the position of the native/woman/Other but to deconstruct these fantasies by bringing together and juxtaposing conflicting discourses of colonization on Indochina. To achieve this process of defamiliarization, I focus more specifically on architectural discourse and on the ways the Palais d'Exposition becomes a paradigmatic model of the true representation of French colonial empire.


Excerpted from Phantasmatic Indochina by Panivong Norindr. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Indochina as FIction 1

1. Representing Indochina: The French Colonial Phantasmatic and the Exposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris 14

2. Unruly Natives: The Indochinese Problem 34

3. The "Surrealist" Counter-Exposition: La Vérité sur les Colonies 52

4. Indochina as "Rêves-Diurnes" and Male Fantasies: Re-Mapping André Malraux's La Voie royale 72

5. Geographic Romance: "Errances" and Memories in Marguerite Duras's Colonial Cities 107

6. Filmic Memorials and Colonial Blues: Indochina in Contemporary French CInema 13

Conclusion: Retracing the Legacy of "Indochina Adventures" 155

Notes 159

Works Cited 181

Index 199

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