Prof. Annabelle Dolidon talks about the history of French science-fiction and how it deals with questions of transhumanism, artificial intelligence, climate change, and other potential futures.
Hello everyone. Today’s special episode covers a subject near and dear to my heart, science fiction. It’s a genre that I love because it asks challenging questions about where humanity is going and its predictive quality is something that no other genre can boast. But today we’re not just covering science fiction in general but French science fiction in the post-World War Two period. France has an incredible literary tradition going back to the Middle Ages. Though it’s science fiction has often been overlooked. Thankfully, Professor Annabelle Dolidon of Portland State University is studying post-World War Two French science fiction and has worked to popularize it for a contemporary audience. Professor Dolidon received her master’s from the University of Notre Dame in French studies before acquiring her PhD from UC Davis in 20th and 21st century French and Francophone literature. Her previous work focused on prose by French women writers. Currently she is researching French science fiction and its depictions of the changing climate, developing social structures, and bodily transformation. What follows is a deep dive into how French writers have approached futurism and the possibilities and threats posed by changing technology.
But, let’s talk a little bit about you. Can you tell me about yourself and perhaps why your love of sci fi came about.
It’s not my original project. When I was a student for my PhD I was doing general literature, a lot of women literature. There were some studies and stuff like this, so that was my my first interest and that’s what I published in the first year and I kind of got bored with it. And then I discovered science fiction and it brought me back to when I was reading it, when I was much younger and I didn’t read it for many many years and I came back to it and I discovered a wealth of ideas, different narratives, not in terms of style and form. I mean, once you’ve read the canonical work of quantities much higher but really good writing. However, in this questions that the other types of literature don’t ask. So that was perhaps six years ago, something like this, so I’m not a pure scholar of science fiction or science fiction in terms of the history of the genre. I’ve read a lot but it’s not my specialty whether it’s very interesting to me is more what’s happening now. The authors that I’ve been publishing average stuff from the 80s and the 90s but really, also what has been coming out for the last 10 years is really really interesting. So I’ve published two or three, well one that’s published one has been accepted not to published one accepted and also the thing that interests me a lot is teaching it when I publish.
You mean scholarly articles or you mean scholarly articles? OK but not creative.
No no I don’t do any creative writing.
Well it’s I think it’s mostly a matter of having the time because I need to concentrate a lot on everything I do, and because as a professor sometimes a little scattered around. I’ve done a lot of service and committees services like this I do advising and I love teaching and I I always try to teach new courses. So I’m a little (????? 4:42) and that’s the problem. So when I focus I think a lot about creative writing but I haven’t really put myself into it yet. What interests me right now a lot is actually, connected to sci fi but not only is the world of French comics, which is another absolutely amazing field of literature. Really, really high quality, it’s amazing what comes out. So this is kind of what I’ve been doing for a couple years now. I came to it through science fiction because one of the problems and will probably come to this later, one of the big problems with French science fiction is that it’s not translated. So, the American readership cannot really…
Why do you think that is?
Because there is no interest on this side of the Atlantic. There’s so much production in American science fiction that this really, I mean, even globally you have some authors that are translated into English but not that many.
You have some German authors or ( 5:40 ) great history in science fiction. There are a few French but, I think more two or three very established authors like John (name 5:52). Even somebody like (french name 5:56) that is really one of the biggest is not translated. So that’s mind boggling to me. But translation takes money and you know a publisher would want to sell copies and I don’t know that people will see the French come out of all the production or the publications that exist already in America or in English or British. So it seems that there is no market for it. One project that I had that I thought I would work on this year but it probably will have to wait a little more, is to get an anthology of French short stories published in English and perhaps with the French and English text together.
So I’ve been tracking some texts that have already been published and there you’ll find a few in American journals, magazines of sci fi.
So if you don’t kind of see that it’s a French name and agency translated from the French calling for readers and perhaps know that it’s in French also because it’s published alongside American texts. So, but there are few there, not that many. And publishing an anthology you need pay the translators. To find them you need to pay the author. Also, I’ve talked to some authors. I went to, I was very lucky, I went to the Utopian festival last year, which is one of the biggest festivals of sci fi in France. So I met all the great authors and I’ve been reading some of them, very nice people, some of them interested in the project, who sent me texts, but they have to be translated. I have to find a publisher to do it.
So that’s my take.
That’s interesting because France has such a reputation as having one of, maybe the greatest reputations for literature and yet now that I think about it, most of that relates to the past, particularly the Enlightenment thinkers because there really haven’t been, I suppose to many great French books in general, not just sci fi but in general that have reached a wide Anglophone audience.
In the 19th in the 20th century, yes.
Perhaps lately a little less but I mean to think of (French 8:28 ) all these people have reached a wider audience. But, I think for today’s generation it’s really considered, like old canonical literature in it’s roughs. I mean who studies (FR 8:42) anymore. I mean so much have been published. And who reads ( FR 8:47) anymore. I don’t, not my area. I do contemporary stuff. I’ve read them and I’ve taught them. But, it’s yeah, it’s not that, I don’t necessarily need to add to the conversation. But these authors, what’s interesting, sometimes the group still read them with new eyes or rediscover some authors that are not often read. And that’s what you were mentioning when we connected. My review of this book, which is somebody who was going back to (FR 9:12). I think that’s how you pronounce it. She’s going back to authors at the turn of the century really, World Science Fiction that have been forgotten and she un Earthed the text. She studies the text. I don’t know what impetus she will give to readers to go read this 100 year old text because the style is a little old. In terms of what has been produced, it’s unfortunate but it’s texts from (FR 9:49) for example were not written for children. They were somewhat revolutionary at the time. He really envisage the world thousands of years from now, and there were not that many people were doing this in that particular genre. Now it’s classified as children’s literature just like the(FR- Queen the Devil 10:10) in the 17th century are now classified as children literature. But that’s not how it was produced in the first place. There were a lot of utopian texts that were written for political purposes or trying to get out of the box in terms of ideas. And none of this is a little bit been forgotten. God knows why that happened. I really, you know even the books that I read about that are trying to define French or French science fiction, retrace its history do not offer really good explanation as to why the American market dominates so much Yeah I don’t know. I wish I had the answer to that because indeed you have the philosophers look at science fiction now. The article from Le Monde that you shared with me this morning really showed that people are starting to really pay attention to the ideas that come out of science fiction literature.
Just to be clear to what we’re referencing, recently France had the 14th of July parade often known as the best D-Day parade although that’s not quite correct.
And the military parade, and there was a man on a hover board flying around and after that the president (11:40) had set up a group of researchers called Red Team and it was asking science fiction writers and futurists to come up with ideas for possible future technology potentially to be used for the military.
So, very interesting I mean I wonder how much that pays. Maybe I should apply.
Very interesting for several reasons. So first of all this idea that people are starting to pay attention I think comes from the contents, the questions that are now the the matter of science fiction narratives today. Which is not what it was in the 50s or the 60s or 70s. The space travel, meeting aliens, and things like this. There’s a lot of interesting narratives on this topic but that’s not really what’s interesting nowadays and that’s not what the authors write about anymore. There’s a lot on virtual reality. There’s a lot on robotic, but there’s also usually what I really enjoy in French science fiction is the social repercussion that all of those technical changes bring about. It’s never just a technological tool. It’s never a gimmick. It has repercussion on social classes,, medical coverage. The ones who are left behind, that you know, we hear, we talk about the 1 percent or the 99 percent depending on which side you on. There’s a lot of that going on in science fiction. So of course the dystopia is easy to find, apocalyptic stories. And the way they’re envisioning the world so there’s a lot of Utopian thoughts that falls into that. So even if there’s still robots or there’s still like an alien encounter, the picture that they draw is much larger than just like a hero or some kind of self discovery story.
It often has a larger political social dimension. So that’s an interesting aspect to it. Of course a critic of consumerism and capitalism is often present coming from that, was an interesting thing I read also several times.
It’s one of the differences when you try to pinpoint what’s the difference between French sci fi and American sci fi which is really hard to define. Defining sci fi in general is already enough of a nightmare. Right. One of the things that I read about American sci fi is you can find right wing science fiction. In French I haven’t encountered it yet. It’s usually more, I mean the people that I met, the authors that I met in the books that I read are often usually on leaning on the left. Will describe the takeover of big corporations for example on water or air and leaving like half of the planet to die. A lot of possible politics stories will deal with climate change or over consuming. That’s often the root of the problem.
So if there is a story where you have the rebuilding of a society afterwards, which a lot of stories don’t necessarily deal always with that. Always with that, stop the catastrophe or the immediate aftermath of it. There will be a rejection of that. Although it’s not on the meaning on the left, I mean you can have more people closer to nature kind of take on it.
That’s the plan the budget and you the house for example still conservative. So it’s interesting to see the range.
Wasn’t about a title because I was just thinking I heard about but I forget the name of the book.
There was a book I think it was published like 30 years ago when it was a pretty big book in France and it was about it was about how a bunch of migrants particularly from Africa come into France and then they make an alliance with the left wing and then they essentially get rid of the traditional France. And I think there was another one published a couple of years ago that is basically the same thing.
I don’t know.
So. OK. Well there it is. We might have to google it a little bit.
But I do know there are at least some dystopian sci fi novels, maybe not so much sci fi. I mean I think they generally take place around what we would consider like our time maybe like early twenty twenties but it’s basically this idea. That Africans, Muslims come into the country unite with the left and then they overthrow the good, natural white France.
Well, you know that would be a classic symptom. What, you know, big part of France thinks now it’s, just the way it is.
I mean, the rise of the conservative right and racist groups and everything is obvious to everybody in Europe. We’re lucky that France avoided them and whether you like my call or not. I cannot imagine having my Le Pen the president of France. But you know we can always happen. But it’s a tendency, there’s a growing discontent in French population, in Europe in general. People are always scared of what’s foreign and that’s why science fiction is always a great literature to deal with those kind of issues and concern it some even if you don’t have the answers raising the questions really good enough.
But at, Yeah, I mean the political issue in Europe is a problem.
Sci fi is often follow also the current events and tried to ask more almost metaphysical questions around those events. I mean in the 50s it was you know the Cold War and the race to arming everybody, and Hiroshima that kind of thing. So sometimes it address things directly through an invasion. Right now what’s more interesting for me is issues of climate change or post humanism and things like this. But the political issues are still also important to sci fi writers and they still inject in the narrative you know an alien form of life or just people will live differently and try to address those issues. I mean colonization is still shows up sometimes post-colonial thoughts with a little less now I think. But that was also a period where there were a lot not that, so yeah.
I just want to point out that maybe those right wing texts are there but maybe they don’t show up in the very front of reputable bookstores apparently. But I’ve heard of a couple.
So you brought up two very important themes which I wanted to go into. How about we start with trans humanism because that seems to be particularly something that you’re interested in.
So perhaps for our listeners who don’t really know much about trans humanism. Would you like to get into that a bit and how that is reflected in French literature.
Sure. So you have two terms you have trans humanism or course humanism and you’ll find all kinds of definitions out there.
So I’ll tell you how I understand it or how I use it.
I guess I like the term trans humanism much more because for me it’s always a matter of transition. Post is post what, you don’t know, I mean, post assumes that you already know a point of origin that’s impossible to pinpoint and you can only imagine. Trans humanism is something that is not necessarily appropriate or circumscribe to science fiction because we’re already in it. Before I get into examination there’s a great book that I want to tell your listener about if they’re able to read French. There is a Belgian philosopher called Jim (FR 20:49). And he has a lot of working groups in Belgium that bring together philosophers, scientists, and science fiction writers and he’s been looking at science fiction for many many years. So that’s not appeal, but he has a book called The Encyclopedia of Trans and Post Humanism. It’s a wonderful book. And it shows you also the breadth of what trans humanism can mean. So you can think of all the story of enhancing the body. So the point is to enhance the body and the body changes. So first of all we research what we wear or who we wear. Thirty thousand years ago, fifty thousand years ago. We uncover bones and we reconstruct the bones and we come from monkeys. Well, why can’t we ask the question, what are we going to be in ten thousand, fifteen thousand years from now? If we were monkeys, you know, thousand years ago. What are we going to be it’s worth asking the question. It’s a very legitimate question, we can’t answer obviously, but it’s obvious that we will not be what we are today.
I mean, I really cannot imagine that if we’re still on this earth in fifteen thousand years we, won’t look anything and that’s very fascinating. I think perhaps troubling but fascinating at least.
So in terms of trans humanism if you think about the medical world. So we already have a lot of prostheses. We have pacemakers, people can graft, receiving graft skin. Other people from one person to another person. We get a heart from somebody else. We get all kinds of doping substances in sports to enhance your faculties to go faster and higher. This is trans humanism.
Can I ask would you define that as trans humanism because I imagine that some people would look at prosthetics and heart transplants and that sort of thing and say OK you are not making something, you’re not making an improvement you’re just replacing what was there. So is that trans humanism.
It is to me because it becomes part of yourself. I mean I understand that. Let’s say you lose a leg on the mine and then you get it persists to you like it. It’s not flesh and bone that’s true but it really becomes part of how you function your body gets, adapts to it and the way you walk and the way you function in your everyday life. This prosthesis becomes part of what you do and how you think. So even if it’s not necessarily flesh and bone exactly, it has an impact on your cognitive ability to handle your environment. For example the pacemaker. Yes it’s a piece of, I don’t know what it’s made of today, metal, but it’s inside of you. And it regulates the rest of your function so without it to die. So is it not part of you it’s got a part of you, if you marijana and you see pink elephants. Of course it’s an external substance that your body reacts to it. So you are de facto modifying your body.
Yes of course. So when we talk about hybridity that’s all so that. I mean a lot of science fiction books for example will imagine characters who have, you know, ports like be ports all right you plug in your neck or something like this. And you can communicate or people who know Black Mirror for example Black Mirror is another good example because it examines the ramification of what’s one little change can have. So I often tell my students about the episode it’s one of the first episode of the season where you have the ability to record your day, all the time,
The entire history of you.
Yes. And then this guy starts being jealous because he thinks his girlfriend or wife I think is having an affair. So he keeps in a loop, looking looking looking at the things and that definitely modifies the way you perceive the world. It also shows that even though you can record, you still don’t know. So the interesting thing and I’m kind, of it goes all over the place when you start talking about science fiction. So I cannot help it.
Oh please. (??? 25:38) are welcome.
So the tension I’m going to make here is, one text that I love to teach, and I love to reread every year almost is (FR 25:45). So this is a short story and that has been translated. That’s easy for anybody who doesn’t speak French to read and it’s eighteen eighty something texts. Fascinating. That’s a question we should have today. The more you know the less you know right. And it’s of course it’s anchored in this end of the 19th century with the faith in progress and positivism and science will answer all the questions and then you have this character and I simplify the story. But the more he tries to find answers the crazier he gets because this also this knowledge of the world creates more questions than answers most of the time and that’s why science fiction is so fascinating. It’s because it takes something that you discovered and it takes it to another level. The 19th century is absolutely amazing. I mean, you can start seeing things that you couldn’t see before because it’s so small and then it tells you that all the stuff that’s been there and you didn’t see, you didn’t know it was there and it’s there. What else is there. What else is there. You don’t see. So the 20 century you know you have going to the moon. Really. In those days you discover new planets and systems and everything. So you discover all those galaxies and those planets. You don’t know what’s there. So it’s like the more we we see, we learn about the more questions it creates. Because you don’t. Is there life out there? We don’t know but gee there are so many planets out there. How can there not be one where there’s some form of organism. So the wealth of material that sci fi has to work is amazing. Not to mention life here on Earth.
And I just don’t see another genre that ask those questions. So well, I mean social issues and political issues obviously general literature talks about it. But the way science fiction kind of grasped on something, interest to go beyond the everyday usage, is something there’s a great another philosopher that’s called (FR 28:22) Who wrote The Practice of Everyday Life. You have people like(FR 28:25) mythologies and all these people were looking at how everyday life and everyday objects were much more than what we thought. And when something is given to you, a lot of people use it the way it’s intended to be used. So sci fi will use that for example as a as a premise.
that sounds nice.
That’s almost an exact quote from a firefly episode. Did you watch Firefly.
Oh there is an episode or one of the characters is hallucinating and, you know, she is holding something up she thinks it’s a branch and says, it’s just an object. It isn’t what you think it is but it’s actually gun because she’s going crazy. Okay. Sorry.
No no no. I mean this goes about like poaching. We’re poachers of everyday life objects. So that’s why when you invent the telegraph or something and then sci fi is going to take it then communicate with another planet, so we can go for that. The thing that’s interesting now is that the real world is catching up with science fiction really.
You have a sci fi you read, it’s amazing in the year after you learn that it actually exists. And that might be why people are gaining respect for science fiction. Its because they reading it, like oh then they got it right or something. And it’s not a matter of, science fiction is not a crystal ball. Its questioning where it could be or Yeah. I mean the way everything is integrated the consequences of inventing something.
I mean cloning for example is an obvious technological tool that scares a lot of people for good reasons. And you have Hollywood movies on that topic for example. There’s a current author called (FR 30:35) Some people might know because she’s, she’s quite famous and she’s been translated but the one book that so far has not been translated by her is her short story collection called ZOOT??? and they’re a couple short stories on cloning in there that are very disturbing.
My favorite kind of sci fi.
Well one story is called My Husband the Clone.
And it’s it’s told from the perspective of a woman who has been asked to tell her story for women’s magazine and she didn’t want it at first. Okay I’ll tell. Because I might help somebody else. So it’s set in the future, two years from now. And her husband died in a very funny way which I think with we’d have to censor it. So I will say he died. And the technology is not there yet to save people. So he’s being frozen. And then after a few years we did that technology. So they decide to bury him. And it’s kind of boring because he’s been that’s like 10 -15 years and nobody cries anymore. You just have a funeral. In any case before they decide to bury him or cremate him they get some material from him so that you can have a baby but it’s actually a clone of her husband so she’s carrying her husband and she’s raising him again and she’s, it’s hilarious because (FR 31:55 ) with dark humor too. So it’s a pleasure to read it. And she talks about her her mother in law and her his sister who wanted to raise him this way and none of them raised in this way. So I won’t do it this way I’ll do it that way and everything. So the whole nurture questioning. And she said that the day care in that futuristic France priority or for the little clones and so she has a whole, also the whole health system for example, the whole school system is evoked in the story. So that’s what I mean when I talk about fringe science fiction it’s. It talks about all those big institutions usually the school the hospital and the government are very much part of the whole story the whole structure of society is imagined not just the story of one hero or one device or one’s misplaced triggers.
That’s a very interesting story you brought up.
And I think personally because I am so into sci fi, a published sci fi short story, I have a novel coming out this spring. Because I’m big into sci fi that really doesn’t shock or terrify me and yet I think for most people who are casually into sci fi maybe they’ve watched the Matrix or something when they hear something like that.
That sounds pretty terrifying. So do you view the potentiality for trans humanism as a positive thing, especially as we talk about really huge leaps. Because so far we’ve talked about trans humanism as an alternate or slightly enhanced human experience but I think when most people think about trans humanism they either think about. Captain America being injected with serum that makes him a superhuman or they think about prosthetics that greatly enhance a person’s intelligence. Yeah exactly. So do you view trans humanism as a positive thing.
I can’t see it as a positive or a negative thing. For me it’s a tool. Like many things it’s a tool. The technology that we associate with trans humanism can be used for good purposes or bad purposes.
I don’t see the term evil. I mentioned pacemakers, I mentioned prosthesis for people who lose their legs. That’s very that’s awesome. Cloning is, I don’t like the idea of cloning at all. I’m just. Well I don’t understand the need for cloning anything even sheep for that matter. But. I guess one of the question is because it’s sometimes just because it’s available why do you necessarily need it. But I feel like the whole Western society is based on this, because it’s available then you need it. The whole you know commercials, consumerism is based on this. It just exists.
So you should have it. In terms of technology, there’s a lot of, I mean, doping is really damaging to a lot of people. I mean athletes are suffering from it.
Is there a positive aspect to doping. I don’t know. There’s got to be some. I mean, some of the substances that they use for example are medical substances. Look if you if you think about painkillers and this drug epidemic with people getting addicted to painkillers. In the first instance painkillers are great. They’re there for a purpose. They help people. Then if you abuse it then it turns into something else. I think one of the the question that trans humanism actually ask is, do we have the capacity as human beings to have a smart way to look at things? And that’s really difficult. It’s a question that philosophers in the 18th century in terms of political system. There is no perfect system. But there may be some that are a little better than others. No. Trans humanism can, it’s always going to be seen perhaps as dangerous because there’s always the potential of abuse.
But it’s no different from other things in life.
So I don’t see it necessarily as negative. But I think as human beings we definitely have the potential to make something really terrible with it. And there’s no way around it. It’s almost human nature. So but, I don’t want to see it as negative in itself. It’s it’s new technology and it’s always new it’s always hard to get used to new things. So I’m just like everybody else does I hear new things. And then at the same time if I see the more I get informed the more I can see the positive. Also usage of a few things.
And that’s why you need to read extensively on things and and see different sides of the story because we’re often presented on the one side of the story. And it’s very detrimental to our thinking. But it’s hard because we are bombarded with information it’s hard sometimes to see where it comes from but I don’t think it’s misleading negative.
I had a great sci fi author here at PSU two years ago (FR 38:00) and the students asked her why she’s quite dystopic in her way of thinking and she hates the politics here. And so students were asking her, How do you see the world in five years you think it’s going to be like the apocalypse? Is it going to be completely dystopic or, And her answer was that in a short term, she was not optimistic but in the long term she was because we always rebound. So I think new technology takes time. And hopefully we’ll be smart enough to not make some do something very very stupid. The problem is these are very insidious and we’re doing very stupid things right now that take a long time to show. And then when people don’t see the consequences of something right in front of their nose they think you can dismiss it like climate change or just flooding rivers and we’re trying to protect rivers and then somebody comes behind and just takes off all the protections and then we’re set back in.
We’ll have to clean up one day. So it’s good for you.
I know right.
As the future generation inheriting it. You know, that’s interesting that you talk about that.
And it’s funny how I think sci fi writers either write about a utopia or as it’s becoming more often dystopia because just from my experience as a historian I think that it’s neither one or the other but that you can have two very different situations in different places.
So for example I would argue that for a lot of Native Americans the apocalypse has already happened it’s already been a dystopia. I mean in particular I was researching the poorest place in America. I think the average person gets I think nine hundred dollars a year. There’s something like 96 unemployment. It’s like a small town like 160 Native Americans who are the people living near where Wounded Knee was.
And so here they’re already living in an apocalypse dystopia not to.
I want to be as sensitive as possible but I think people get my general attention. Whereas other people in America are living better than any humans ever have.
So I kind of see both happening simultaneously but maybe that’s my take.
Well somebody is you think I can be somebody else’s dystopia.
But you see the comparison that you made for example can be making many places. I was in Europe recently and I was in an airport show in Switzerland and in French and the news did a very short segment out of nowhere and then moved on to something else and said like in the US people waste seven times more than the rest of the world. The average, of the rest of the world or something. No number that is really staggering.
And I always think of the refugee crises and I always think with somebody from a poor village in Africa arriving in Portland and stepping in the supermarket, that must be extremely disturbing to see an aisle that’s only for cereal boxes.
And so this this idea of estrangement that science fiction usually starts with very often. That’s what you’ll find in a lot of books that are trying to define science fiction is like who you are as a reader put in a strange place. That happens to people all the time. And I’m not talking about a simple cultural shock as a tourist somewhere. But I just can’t imagine that experience of going from a place where you have trouble finding one cup and ending up in a story you have to choose between 50 of them. And that’s the thing also that sometimes helps me teach things to my students. For example, the idea of choice and the thing that you always need to choose in the US. You cannot not choose because you have so much to choose from so let’s say one morning you you break a cup or something and you’re like I need a cup, of any cup I just get a cup. You cannot need a cup. It’s not possible to just need a cup. Because when you go to the store you have to choose between different shapes, different sizes, different colors. Some have words some don’t have words. So you cannot not choose. So everything is edited and everything is a sign, everything is a code. Because depending on what you choose you will make a choice. And that idea of perhaps not having to make that choice to a world where you have to constantly make a choice. Must be a very strange situation. So you can imagine some sort of a short story on that premise and you can set it as a science fiction story. You don’t have to.
But sometimes people will be more receptive to that, to the premise, to the device, too that mental issue, question if it’s set in a science fiction area. Now you have to help people see through it sometimes so that they understand that the story actually is not that far away from them. And that’s the thing also I think a lot of people don’t read science fiction because they think it has nothing to do with them. And it’s really not the case.
Yeah that makes me think, you know, if you if you give someone a hypothetical scenario and say OK, there’s a young man on a desert planet whose family is killed by government and then he becomes a rebel fighter that ends up fighting against disorganization.
Is that OK?
I think most people say no and then if you tell them oh that’s Luke Skywalker it’s like well that’s a total flip.
Oh yeah that’s funny, I was thinking of the opposite when you told the story, like people would be, Oh yeah! I want to read that story it’s pretty awesome. And then you mentioned al-Qaida and everybody went ooooooo- yeah it’s true. But that’s that’s just because it helps you and it doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything. That’s the thing that people have to understand because I’m really tired of that mindset of like, when you’re trying to understand something because you’re siding with the bad guy. That drives me nuts. I’m trying to understand how people commit absolutely horrific acts. This is not a way to excuse. It is the way to try to prevent it from happening again or understand why people come to those conclusions. Now of course sometimes it ends up that you have to look at a little bit of yourself too, and that’s uncomfortable. But if you read just to be comfortable then…
Yeah. What are you even doing.
Yeah, I mean that’s why once in a while I like to read what I’m comfortable with. Also, you know it’s my little utopian.
But most of the time I like to read things that go a little deeper.
Yeah. For work doesn’t bother you in some way then is it really worth reading so much.
Yeah you’re not learning anything.
Exactly. So, I wanted to get back a little bit specifically to the trans humanism question because you are saying that’s not necessarily good or bad.
But a lot of the time trans humanism is associated with dehumanization, that essentially a character will become so omniscient or omnipotent that they cease to function as a normal human being. Maybe you can provide French examples for me. I’m thinking of someone like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen.
So do you agree with this?
No I don’t. I’m trying to find a specific, (Name ??46:20) has some short stories that deal with that.
But once again it can be completely abused. But I don’t believe that it’s trans humanism should lead to dehumanization. Trans humanism is the way, let’s just say to super simplify, like you modify your body. What does it mean that you’re less of a person. First of all it doesn’t mean that you have to be a bad person. If you’re a bad person but person whether you modify your body or not. You know the whole superpower heroes and things like this you can with great powers, great responsibilities. You can have great powers and use them well or use them badly. I mean all the Marvel Comics deal with like good heroes and bad characters. So trans humanism is a bit like this. I mean, I really, it really depends on what we make of it as human beings.
So for example let’s say for a moment, hypothetical, sci fi scenario, let’s say you have a character that takes some sort of experimental pill and suddenly becomes ten times smarter than an average human being.
They’re just an expert in absolutely everything, that sort of thing. Are they still human? Have they become something different?
But, then you ask the question what, what is it to be human.
I think that’s essentially what we are asking.
If could answer that, that would be great. It would be a best seller although I I just have an opinion on this I guess. I don’t know how to to define what it is to be human. I guess I could try to define what it is to not be human but, I don’t know whether it is either because the term human is a bit like the term nature. It has so many connotations. For some people to be human is to be good. Well that’s soul that’s very naive. It’s lovely but it’s the you know the gentle savage idea,. the noble savage idea. To be human, does it mean to have two legs two arms. Does it mean to speak with the different genus and animals that we have speech. Well that’s a double power speech.
Are we doing something good with it. Well that depends. Being able to speak is some amazing ability literally. What some people don’t speak. They’re mute. Are they human, you know, some people can’t see. Are they human. Some people are smaller and others are bigger than others.
What makes it that some people are human and not. What makes it that some people live in terrible conditions at our borders and suddenly they’re just a number on a piece of paper. They die in a terrible facility somewhere and whether less human than you and I.
I mean what is it that makes us human? So, when you go into trans humanism, because humanism issues and you talk more about like physical enhancement technological enhancements like this, well which threshold you think somebody stops being human I don’t think you can decide that. At some point you know, then you have to, if you try to enter it from the other side and you look at artificial intelligence now, when is it that, why are people so afraid of it? Because they don’t know the threshold when will we consider artificial intelligence to be human. I think it will never be. But that’s something that may be hard to make the difference. Can you have a normal conversation with an artificial intelligence and not know the difference. That’s far far away. But yet, when again, we think about 10,000 years from now so these are fascinating questions to which I really don’t have the answers. But I love to think about it and talk about it an imagined things, so I make my own science fiction in my head I guess. But I’m not afraid of trans humanism at all. I mean it’s just, you know, I have tattoos, know people with piercings. And it doesn’t, you cannot judge a book by its cover. I’ve met some very physically all over the place, people with extremely conservative ideas. I’ve met some very shy conservative looking people with very progressive ideas. So I try to reserve my judgments and try to get to know somebody a little bit. It’s hard, it’s not to come naturally but with experience and I think being a teacher I think is a great way to do this. I’ve been at PSU (Portland State University) for 10 years and I’ve met so many wonderful students, really helped me open my my mind to a lot of ways of seeing things. Teaching sci fi has been also really great for this. It’s so, you know, what is human, I don’t know.
Yea, I can absolutely agree with you on the teaching part that’s been really revolutionary for me. What’s funny about what you brought up about why are people afraid of artificial intelligence and whether or not it can become human. I’m not so much afraid of artificial intelligence become human I’m afraid of it going beyond that turning into Terminator or something. Then there is, I think one of my favorite like micro stories. Have you heard this one. Basically humanity wanted to just find out whether or not God existed.
And so they built this computer and they kept building and building and building it in order to make it capable of computing, you know anything, that was possible and they made some incredible machine and they asked a computer does God exists?, and then the computer said “he does now.”
Yeah, its my favorite micro story.
You know I think that said, God created us and we did the same to him.
So we returned the favor very well.
Yes that’s exactly it. Yeah.
Well that’s an interesting story of course. But, what you can question is the premise of the story in the first place. Why would you want to prove God? Well to me, I’m an atheist. I don’t want to shock anybody, so I’m not going to go into religion too much because that’s not that’s usually a dystopian topic for me right off the bat. But if you’re trying so hard to prove God then it means your faith is not very strong. If you decide, I mean at the same time, if you don’t prove it then you cannot try to recruit more people because you don’t have arguments. You know, God exists. And that’s the end. (FR name 53:35) it didn’t work very well for him when he tried to prove it to. There’s a great scene, there is a wonderful movie for this which has nothing to do with sci fi but it’s a historical movie. (FR movie 53:45)
Yes, I’ve seen that.
There is a scene in (FR movie 53:51) where the famous priest who’s very witty and very articulate makes a whole speech in front of the king and proves the idea of God, proves God. And then at the very end because he’s too smart and he doesn’t know where to stop says “I could have proved exactly the opposite.”
And then he’s completely banished from the court obviously. But it’s rhetorical, you can’t, you know, (FR movie 54:20) you have the scene with the monk where he says well, the wind exists you can’t see it, it exist. We have instruments to measure with. So now we can prove actually that it exists.
But this idea of always. But I guess it’s a human quest. We always want the answers to everything. And for me the goal is to learn to live without having the answers to everything. And it’s a lot of fun.
Well, moving from God to nature.
So one thing that I absolutely love and which is actually one of the major themes in my book that’s coming up, not to do any shameless plugs, but, is climate change. Particularly the possibility of a future radically different from ours which is possible even without a lot of change because even if our sea levels rise by one meter that’s going to have devastating consequences. Yeah. Tens of, if not hundreds of millions of people will be pushed inland, huge refugee crisis, that sort of thing. So is this a theme you’ve seen addressed in French science fiction and can you talk a little bit about that.
Yes it’s that’s an important theme in French science fiction. Even since the 70s authors have been dealing with issues of deforestation, you know, just pure pollution. So you know we talk about trans humanism you can talk also about the modification of seeds or the Monsanto kind of tropes. I would say big corporations and stuff like this. Having ownership of water or air or stuff like that and abusing it. Releasing chemicals in water or viruses or that type of thing is a very common device for French science fiction. And so, the last article that I wrote has been accepted, so it probably will be published next year in the French Review deals with that. And it’s a big novel by (FR author 56:35) who’s also a big famous writer. And it’s called (FR title 56:42). And the story is the crossing path of several people that are thrown on the roads because of climate change and they look for a place where life is better but there’s not, actually. And that’s the interesting part. So there’s no hope, and there’s no happy ending. So it deals also with rising sea levels. And it mentions, so you never know exactly who to blame but it’s overconsumption, wars but wars are over, and pollution of water. And he wrote another book, a famous book that was called Aqua that dealt with the pollution of water. So now it’s very rare to find good water. So those stories are quite popular. They’re very often connected to big corporations and the capitalist economic model.
It so in it, it talks about the complacency of people to justice. You know, you have, you did we talk about technology a lot. And we all have like a big fridge in France the fridges are three times smaller than ours. Mine is always fall on the house. My mom just so we you know we use a lot of energy, a lot of energy.
We have air conditioning everywhere. So we don’t, unfortunately we don’t think about this often enough. And it’s just very comfortable to have air conditioning but it’s awful for the planet. So yes it’s a big theme in science fiction. It’s usually dealt with through the post apocalyptic narrative, like things collapse. And it’s really interesting because the question that for me is raised by all those post apocalyptic narratives is, is it that desperate that I can’t find really a book that deals with changing things now. They all have to just destroy things, and then restart. It’s like, it’s too much work to deal with it now, to fix it. We’re just like, we’re just going to like, launch the bomb or flood the whole world and everything, and then we’ll have a story of people rebuilding. The rebuilding is not always positive either and depending on the books. Some of them are positive or negative. But it’s really this idea of there’s always a Utopian idea behind the idea of trying to make things different. But it’s, to me, it’s always a statement of failure somewhere. Every time you write a apocalyptic book, even if it has a happy ending and things restart well for, and for us today as readers it’s a statement that we failed because you have to destroy the world before you can rebuild it. It’s really sad that at this point in humanity we can’t see how to fix it. We have to just let things go or accelerate the destruction of it almost and sometimes it’s that death drives. If you read a little bit of Freud that makes it like we’re going to death like we’re trying to go faster toward it for some weird reason and we’re kind of in a train that we can’t stop. People maybe know Snowpiercer (movie). So yeah that idea of climate change is something that science fiction deals a lot with. Also because science fiction, because it projects itself a little further than general literature of course it’s going to look at the consequences of things. And not the consequences just on the rivers or on the forest but the consequences on us, on human life, on the way we deal with each other, the idea of devolution is very often associated with this. I think it’s constantly actually asking what makes us human. Because when you have those types of stories and let’s say there is an apocalypse and we lose, I don’t know, we lose power. No more TV, no more fridge, no more anything to help you. You just have your legs to walk. Things like that. Who did you become? What do you go back to? So that’s often also something that’s a great storyline. And you have those stories where people go back to being beasts. You know like really devolve into primitive beings. Then you have the opposite or sometimes you have both in the same story. So the question is, what it is that makes us human and it’s human and it’s in itself, who are we with the other teams of relationships with each other? The community questions, what’s our cultural identity, national identity, all the ideas of nation for example most science fiction nations don’t exist anymore. That’s the idea of the state for example is gone. There’s no sci fi novels today that deals with the state, the state is always taken over by either corporation or doesn’t exist. That’s interesting in itself. And also what is our relationship to the environment? So those three kind of levels of questioning like ontologically who are we? How do we deal with the other? With a capitol “O”. How do we get together? How do we build together, if we can? And what’s the relationship that we should have with the world that we live in? So all the theory of, you have equal criticism, you have animal rights, you have all of this is is encompassed in those narratives because at least on the French side from what I read when you’re dealing with those issues there’s the ramifications are large. Like I said, it’s no longer just a story of one hero who’s trying to rebuild his little commune somewhere or it exists. But then it’s in them. What’s interesting. So what is the world today what what are we making of it? The other issue that’s very interesting in print science fiction that we haven’t touched upon is all the issues of virtual reality, alternative reality, simulacrum. All that comes out also from fringe thinkers like (FR name 1:03:22)
There have been very fruitful for science fiction. So there’s some great stuff about that too.
If people want to discover really, really good fringe science fiction I would advise them to read. (Sabrina Calvo we used to publish under the name David Cardwell. ck names 1:03:40) It’s out of this world. It’s extremely well-written. It’s for me, it’s hard to read American science fiction sometimes a lot because as a non-native reader it’s very hard literature to read because the real good science fiction is…
Oh yes. I can only imagine translating those words those works. So Sabrina’s books are really complex but it’s really one of my big discovery of the last two years. There’s also a couple of (?? 1:04:20) I don’t remember the name of the author because he’s not very famous but he’s from (??place 1:04:22) and it deals with the pharmaceutical industry and which collapses a little bit with the virtual world, video game, second life kind of thing. And so that’s also the type of narrative that are really, they’re impossible to summarize almost because the stories are so built, it’s not necessarily, you know, a journey with a start a middle and an end, and clear episodes. It’s the whole experience and you’re immersed in those books. So you have those strands in France, you have more like, I’d say the social concerns, climate change and then you have also those that perhaps you could link more to trans humanism perhaps because it really changes who we are as humans. The way we think, the way we see the world, the way we perceive things through either new substances or new technology or new devices that make us handle the world differently.
So this is all part of the new stuff and sometimes it seems positively, sometimes negatively. Sometimes you have to go through the negative to arrive to the positive. You have a little bit of everything and then you have a lot of crap.
The problem is, I don’t know how we’re going to get that translated.
Right well that leads into my next question which is, what do you envision for the future of French science fiction? Do you think that there is any chance that maybe it will get a wider audience or become more popular?
Well, I’m hopeful but I think it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of work and a few dedicated people. I’m working on it. In France first, within France, science fiction is gaining traction like in academia for example. ( But Sir John I was not at all. Consider what really 1:06.) Not at all. And now you start having people teaching it, writing about it, using it not only in literature courses but sometimes in philosophy courses or things like that. So it’s entering the university and that’s a big deal and that’s recent. I think they’re gaining visibility. Those big festivals also help. There’s also like you, were talking about it (FR 1:06:51) and the fact that there is, the one thing that I regret does not exist in the US and does exist in France is the more interdisciplinary way of looking at things. If you want to rebuild the city for example, the mayor might bring together philosophers, architects, writers, community leaders, like all kinds of people. And if you watch the news there is always like a movie director or writer that’s invited on the news. So art, philosophy and all this is usually not discarded. It’s part of the thinking. So I think it’s a good thing for science fiction because science fiction writers, first of all, a lot of the writers come from a scientific background or an industrial background. So a lot of the science fiction even though it goes astray into some alternative reality path, these people do their research, their interests and they’re curious. Sometimes they research popular magazines, not necessarily very technical things. But they follow what’s going on. So even if you have a story that’s kind of out of this world, literally, the premise is always connected to what’s going on in the world. So people are starting to read it more. connect with it more. I think cinema is helping. The trend is more into fantasy than science fiction these days but still it makes people think a little bit. There’s been a few big sci fi movies. Comics are very popular in France some really beautiful and really well-written comics about science fiction stories. So those avenues in France are developing and that’s a big deal because in France too. It was not a big interest, in the corner in the dark, like the nerds go to sci fi books. Now it’s a little different. In terms of crossing over, I find some books that are translated, you know, in Italian or in German and some of them in English. The market is saturated with with American and British sci fi. Very good ones too. So there’s no need for the market itself. And if you market it, I don’t know how to market it because you like French sci fi. It is somewhat of a blowhole, international jar.
And if you can find some of different sensitivities sometimes on the European side. So I don’t know, everything is about money.
So it doesn’t make money. I don’t know.
So I’m trying to be optimistic also because I have people like Natasha (FR name 1:09:28) and there’s some people who are in the US and they’re starting to be interested. The other thing that makes me optimistic is the text book that I wrote with a colleague about teaching French science fiction, and it’s open source, so anybody can find it and look at it on the PDF scholar platform of the Portland State Library. and it’s called (Fr 1:09:50). And each chapter is based on a short story. The short stories not are not in the book for copyright purposes but they’re available to read online on on the library web sites so you can just go read the stories if you’re interested. These are available, you can find those, and you can look at the book. It’s been downloaded like twenty four hundred times around the world. So I don’t know if people teach with it or they just look at it. But it’s been quite successful. Students really like it. I have a colleague who’s going to write a review, a positive review of its to be published as well. So I know the problem is to make it available because every time I teach science fiction, even when students at first they don’t really know what they’re going to get.
They always love it. So it’s a little bit, sometimes like to get a taste of it and if you get a taste of good sci fi, you’ll want it, but just opening the door is really, it’s not easy. And if I managed to with anthology it’s going to take a few years because I have to find the text, have to get the agreement of the author, you going get translated to get it published. So it’s a long work and if you wanted to get one novel, I wouldn’t know which one to pick because that’s also another idea but you need to create a corpus to create interests. And that’s kind of an uphill battle. But hopefully that will happen.
I mean the short stories I think are wonderful. It’s a great job on this very high quality (FR 1:11:30) write short stories of really great quality. So that’s a great way to enter. Also French science fiction for people who can read French but you cannot read a 3 or 400 page novel. Short stories are wonderful. You’ll find some on line. You might find some, if you find anything translated that will be a short story.
I’ve found some old expired the addition of like 1960s sort stories but these are like on eBay.
I almost don’t open it because I want the book to crumble. But nowadays it’s really, it’s really hard and nobody is looking into it.
I mean, I do contemporary science fiction so every time I teach it I hope to have the books shipped from France because you can find them here. Now I’m lucky because Kindle is starting to have some books that I can access here. But otherwise you have to do a little bit of your own research. And short stories, they are great way to enter that way.
Absolutely. Short stories are in my opinion where most of the good literature is because with mass market novels they are made to be sold by essentially a huge number of people whereas short stories, those are for the discerning people who really want to just dive into new ideas. So, do so in any case.
Is there anything we haven’t discussed yet that you would like to talk about or if we covered everything?
we covered a lot, I’d say so if people want to know more, because I can’t give you a list of authors in the sense that I know, I’ll come up with two or three names and but the best ways for me to go on the website of the Utopian Festival the other festival is (FR 1:13:45 lazy Maggi) and if you go on those Web sites and you look at the guests of the festival over the years or the prize the prizes for the best book or best known one and stuff that can help you find references because there’s still a lot out there, and like OK, if I want to read French sci fi Where do I start? What do I get? You can start anywhere, but then you can find like ,the little perhaps a bio the author or like the great site where you can buy online sci fi and sometimes they have short story for ninety nine cents is (FR 1:14:18) up to a set that and they’re a publisher, they’re a magazine. It’s a wonderful site and you can get lots of reference there. So the only thing I’d like to add is you have to point some places to people who want to know a little more. I really encourage people to go discover this wonderful literature and get disturbed.
Well hopefully my podcast will get more people listening. Thank you very much professor.
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Jewish-Muslim Relations in Modern France with Dr. Ethan Katz (31)
Hello everyone. This is your host Gary. On a recent trip to the San Francisco Bay Area I had the opportunity to interview Professor Ethan Katz of UC Berkeley. Professor Katz is an incredibly accomplished scholar with a list of awards grants and fellowships for his books. That is so long that it could be a book in and of itself. His most recent book was the burdens of brotherhood Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France published by Harvard University Press in 2015. And as the primary topic of today’s interview Professor Katz specializes in both the history of Jews and modern France and the history of Jewish Muslim relations in modern France. France is an incredibly important country for Jews. France was the first country to give jews full political rights under Emperor Napoleon during the 19th century tens if not hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated to France from the east as they fled the Russian pogroms. Today France has the third highest population of Jews in the world behind Israel and the United States. France also has the second largest Muslim population of any European country behind Russia. As such Jewish Muslim relations are incredibly important within France. In what follows. Professor Katz tries to untangle the complex history of Jews the development of their identity in the 20th century and their relationship with Muslims. If there is a central theme to this episode it is that of French ness as Jews and Muslims have alternately accepted or rejected a French identity and in turn tried to have their identities accepted by France and its people. Please enjoy. Or.
Thank you very much for being with us Professor Katz I am very excited about this interview because this does seem to be very relevant but also a very hot button issue that youre dealing with.
I’m sure we can talk about potential controversies as we get along but you focus on Jews in 20th century France. From my understanding this was a time of intense contradictions. On the one hand Jews were much more tolerated in France than much of the rest of Europe in the preceding century hundreds of thousands of Jews migrated from the east to France and this continued into the 20th century. Meanwhile in part because of these mass migrations many on the far right promoted anti-Semitic policies and stereotypes. Can you tell us about the intense and contradictory place of Jews in France in the first half of the 20th century.
Sure. Thank you for having me on the podcast. I’m happy to be here. I a lot of what you’re describing there really is centered in the 1930s and 1940s the largest migrations of Jews to France occur from the late 19th century to the late 1930s and really the largest one takes place in the interwar years when the population grows from one hundred ten thousand to over three hundred thousand. And as you say the majority of people come from Eastern Europe. And as we know the 1930s in France as in many places are a time of economic depression and they’re a time of heightened phobia. They’re a type of France of a kind of cultural molasses and sense of crisis that goes beyond economics or social problems. And in those circumstances you have a dramatic rise in anti-immigrant sentiment anti black sentiment and anti-Semitism probably most prominently.
And at the same time this is a moment where the response to the threat of fascism in France is this great counter mobilization of the left between 18 34 and 36 culminating in the election of the popular the Popular Front in 1936 and the head of that coalition government is Leo Bloom who is a very proudly Jewish French politician the head of the French Socialist Party and the first man to be elected.
Well the French called Premier but effectively prime minister of France and he is on the one hand only able to be elected prime minister in France because of the opportunities that are there for Jews at the same time. He is jeered as a Jew in the National Assembly shortly after his election where one deputy’s uphill ballot will become a major official for economic policy under the Vichy government says we need someone deeply rooted in French soil not a subtle Tommy artist which is a you know a terrible anti-Semitic screed against bloom. So it’s a moment. I mean France has this contradictory history it has these countervailing force forces and then we see them really turned on their head whereas the promise of the republic and its inclusionary tendencies and the tradition of the French Revolution create a certain amount of protection for Jews through the 20s and 30s even in the face of intense anti-Semitism that’s all wiped away with the fall of France in 1940 and the emergence of the Vichy government and a very systematic policy of anti-Semitism which as we know very well now from historians those policies began well before the demands of the German government and the policies in the southern zone France right where the Vichy government had a significant amount of control from 1940 to 1942. They were really more rapidly anti Jewish and intensely anti Jewish and many of their policies than the Germans in the occupied zone during those first two years of the war. So that of course is a set. There’s a there’s a deep sense of betrayal for French Jews for all of the challenges of the 1930s for the longer history that included the Dreyfus Affair in the 80s 90s and the early 20th century Jews felt very aligned with that revolutionary tradition very aligned with republican democracy in France very much at home right. There’s a saying in the early 20th century like a Jew in France to describe a situation of paradise for a Jew elsewhere in Europe. There are some even called it the promised land right there. There’s a claim about France has a new Jerusalem that’s already widespread in the late 19th century. And so for Jews who lose their property who have their rights stripped away with the fall of France 1940 and the emergence of the Vichy government and who are not able despite lobbying intensely and in many cases talking about waste they’ve served the state historic and all these things to regain their rights. There is a deep deep sense that their world has been shattered and their faith in France has been shattered. And yet despite all that’s after the liberation of France in 1944 to 1945 and the return of the Republic most Jews appear to have their faith in France in some significant measure restored. Based on the strength of the resistance based on the efforts of various resistance figures to try to stand up against the anti Jewish measures and based on their own desire for a return to normalcy. And so in some ways what I think we can fairly describe as a kind of great love affair of a significant Jewish population with its home country in France in a sense resumes in 1945 not entirely as if nothing had happened. But I think largely also based on the assumption that the vast majority of anti-Semitic measures had been orchestrated by an outside force the Nazis and a small cadre of people supporting them at Vichy. We now realize that that was not an accurate view of things. But I think it made it easier also. So so yes. So we have these tremendous ebbs and flows the first half of the 20th century in terms of Jews relationship to France and their sense of inclusion or exclusion.
So you bring about the French resistance and how the activity of the French Resistance helped restore faith in France for the Jews. But currently you are working on a project about Jews actually being involved in a lot of military engagements against Vichy France. Previously it was titled freeing the Empire of the Jewish uprising that helped the Allies win the war. Can you tell us about this.
Yes so that is my current project and it’s a project really based in Algeria. We’ll play it a chance to talk about my first book and how it’s led me toward an interest in French Algeria. But this is a story that’s remarkably little known.
It’s a story of a small group of several hundred people mostly Jews and most of the non jews are probably anti Semite. They’re in many cases from the same kind of far right groups that I spoke a few minutes ago about. But they have aligned interests those people want to resume the fight against the Germans. And so in the in and in the city of Algiers and in some other towns of Algeria they begin various groups begin organizing and they coalesce in the autumn of 1942 to help prepare the way for the success of the American landing in Algiers. And they played a central role by taking over almost all of the strategic locations in Algiers from the Vichy government on the night before the Americans arrive. And they do that quite successfully. And there are almost no casualties as a result of that when the allies come to enter Algiers which is really the key target of the invasion with Algiers. They have basically taken French Algeria and signaled that they’re going to be taking French North Africa in a short time. So it’s a remarkable story and it’s a group of Jews who are by and large students small shop owners doctors lawyers civil servants people who are tend to be very very integrated in their sense of their friendships but people who are also mostly in social circles with principally other Jews often involved in Jewish organizations that are combating anti-Semitism or working for better relations with Christians and Muslims people whose Jewishness is in some cases awakened by the events of 1940.
What’s crucial in the Algerian context unlike most people in mainland France is that in October 1940 with the Jewish statute there all the Jews of Algeria who have had French citizenship and then that is almost every Jew in Algeria have French as an issue for the preceding 70 years.
They all lose that citizenship with the stroke of a pen. And so that context really creates a tremendous sense of betrayal for these Jews as well and for many people a kind of political awakening that leads them into this resistance group.
That is very fascinating and I wanted to ask one more question then about Jews in World War 2 specifically about the public’s image of Jews during this period.
Because you seem to be proposing a whole new perspective on Jews that maybe people don’t have because generally speaking I feel like the public thinks when they think about Jews during World War 2 it’s mostly as victims or hiding.
But here you have Jews taking an active role even taking over a major city. Do you how do you want to change the public’s perspective then about Jews during this period. Or do you.
That’s a good question. So in some ways I think you’re correct in that that public image is very prevalent. I’m not sure. In some ways what is required to change the public image that is to say we now have a lot of scholarship about Jews as resisters. We have books with titles like Jews who fought back. Right we have this significant effort that scholars have undertaken already to show that Jews were not simply passive victims in World War 2. So I’m I don’t have enough of a sense of self-importance shipping to my book will transform that image where others have not. This is a great story. It’s a story that also has a direct connection to American history because of American landing and they collaborated with the Americans. The most distinctive facet of it is the success of this effort. The most familiar case of Jewish resistance for most people is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a valiant but tragic and arguably doomed from the start effort to resist the Nazis and the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Fundamentally different in almost every way from this effort. And so I do want to try to recenter our understanding of Jewish resistance during World War Two by thinking comparatively about what made this effort successful versus the movements that we know better in mainland France and Eastern Europe and across Europe. But I’m not I don’t think it’s unique insofar as Jews fighting back or participating and resistance it happens to be a story of great success which perhaps will have a different impact on people’s image. But I can’t say.
Well I wish you the best of luck in becoming huge and popular. Maybe you should contact Quentin Tarantino and tell them this is Inglorious Bastards but real. Maybe you can get that movie made from your lips to God’s ear right.
OK so moving now beyond World War 2.
So you’ve researched Jews in the postwar period in multiple contexts those specifically you focused on the idea of secularization versus religion most notably in the book secularism in question Jews and Judaism in modern times which you co-editor with Ari Moskowitz. I hope I’m saying I scratch yours kvetch.
Can you tell us about the place of Jews in France post-World War 2 and this question of secularization versus religiosity.
Right so let’s take a big step back on the secularism question and and move the lens out from France for a moment because it’s a it’s a broader issue right. We know that book as a result of a working group that was part of the University Pennsylvania the Carter Center for or against Judaic studies now ten years ago and the impetus for that working group was a major debate a major rethinking of secularization as an inevitable narrative that had been very wide spread through the 80s and even into the 90s among many historians social scientists and the rethinking of secularism as for a more critical perspective rather than simply as a kind of neutral way of separating church and state and creating space for everyone which tends to be our conventional view of it. So there has been a major rethinking in significant part because of developments that we know about in our world in the case secularization the Iranian Revolution 1979 was a big impetus for a lot of people to come 11th is a more recent memory for many of us. But the rise of various religious groups in many cases radical religious groups and their success forced a rethinking of the secularization narrative as it became called. And meanwhile secularism in places like France is regarded by many people as having exclusionary components to it as defining who can and can’t speak in the public sphere and in what ways.
And so that more critical perspective has opened a lot of new paths in analyzing the place of religion and what it means to call things secular in various contexts. So that had had very little to say about Jews and Judaism and Jewish studies had had very little engagement with those conversations when our working group was coming. So that was the broad goal of that collection that we put together was to bring together Jewish studies in the case of Judaism with those conversations the French case as I started to allude to a moment ago is a very interesting one because like you see today as the French call it this public secularism that is deeply embedded in French culture and in French law since the 1985 separation law is a striking case of the challenge of negotiating some place for religious groups in the public sphere in a country that has had a notion about a neutral public sphere that actually goes back right to the French Revolution and that the ban because neutral self if you will the unencumbered self of the abstract individual that’s at the heart of ideas of revolutionary citizenship and Republican citizenship frequently those ideals find themselves uncomfortable with what it means to bring religion into the public sphere with what it means to bring another ethnic or national identity in the public sphere.
They historically had a very hard time with what they viewed as an affable biological differences in the case of women. So what were you. Well I dealt with some in that book and more in my book Jews and Muslims was how have various groups tried to find ways to negotiate a place where they were both fully French and in a sense French first in public and still able to also bring other identities and allegiances into the public sphere in public conversations.
And it seems like at least to some extent that Jews have been successful in this regard and we can talk about more modern events because things have seemed to take a turn but at least for now France has the third largest Jewish population of any country in the world behind only Israel and the United States.
Why do you think France of all countries has become such a magnet for Jews right.
So France has historically been a real magnet for Jews and we should note that despite contemporary challenges it retains this very large population. There are over 300 kosher eateries in the Paris region which makes it the city with the second largest with the largest number of kosher restaurants outside of Israel. And there is a thriving community in many ways. Historically France was the first country to emancipate its Jews during the French Revolution 1790 in 1791.
There is certainly a history of kind of receding and rising levels of anti Jewish sentiment and receding and rising levels of Jewish rights in France.
It’s not a straight line but it is a country that for many Jews after the French Revolution became very strongly identified with a set of notions about tolerance and enlightenment and openness to Jews. Opportunity for Jews that felt very distinctive and that has certain strong parallels with the American context. And I think for many Jews they felt they particularly in the 19th century that the values of the Hebrew Bible were the basis of the values of French Revolution and they really felt their destiny as Jews tied up with the destiny of France and the early years of the state of Israel. France was one of Israel’s strongest allies from 1948 1967. People forgot that because what came after was much more acrimonious at times but that I think felt like a continuation for many French Jews of their sense of striking explication between Jewishness and friendliness.
So there’s a long history there and in the 20th century there were five prime ministers of Jewish descent in France. That’s five more than America has had Jewish presidents. Right.
So you know there’s there’s a strong sense you know in the 1950s 1960s France was the only country outside of Israel that did not have any quotas on Jewish immigration as hundreds of thousands of Jews came from French Africa and settled in France.
So there’s a long history there where Jews have felt welcomed with significant almost unlimited upward mobility in France. Many Jews have been successful economically.
Occasionally up to the level of extreme wealth but more commonly just successfully moving into the French middle class. Many many immigrants within a generation. So I think there’s lots of reasons why people have felt that France was a place that Jews could and would succeed.
So aside from this positive view in the past 10 years or so there hasn’t been a lot of complaints of a rising wave of anti-Semitism. And whether or not this happens to be the case I’ve read certain reports that. The Jewish population in France could cut by half within the next 40 years or so. Do you want to tell us about these new challenges Jews face in France. And do you think that there will be an exodus from France right.
So really what we’re looking at can be data to the fall of the year 2000 in terms of the major shift where you had in the course of a few months several hundred seven or eight hundred reported anti-Semitic incidents. By far the most since World War 2 in any concentrated period time and a sense of shock further shock and a sense of betrayal about the unwillingness of the French state for a couple of years to acknowledge France has a problem anti-Semitism and to articulate it that way and a steady stream of on average six to seven hundred thirty six thousand one hundred reported anti-Semitic incidents a year which ranged from graffiti to anti-Semitic mailings to several cases particularly in the last seven or eight years of murder right of lethal anti-Semitic attacks.
And so that’s all real that’s all there and there’s a lot of reasons for it. I talk a little bit about some of those reasons in the last chapter of my book on Jews and Muslims.
And so I think people are fearful and there has been an uptick in migration to Israel from France by Jews not the kind of dramatic swelling that some people predicted and continue to predict. Historians are notoriously bad prophets so I not.
I think the future is up in the air. I think the future is to be made.
I think France’s challenges with Muslim Jewish relations.
And that’s where Geordi of anti-Semitic attacks come in the last couple years is from Muslims all of the lethal anti-Semitic attacks of the last 20 years have been carried out by people who in some way identify with Muslims or Arab ness. That’s a small number of attacks. Just to be clear and it’s a small number of perpetrators and I left my book trying to show that Muslim Jewish relations have always been very complex historically and operating from the assumption that there’s nothing automatic about stripe today and that that strife is limited to a small number of people but all that said how France deals with its significant Muslim population and the level of socioeconomic inequality and the in many cases discrimination that these people face the challenges of where they live.
All these issues that are very live issues in France.
I believe those issues and how France addresses them will do much to shape the future of Jews in France because I think if France is successful at integrating more of its population from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa than anti-Semitism will be a much smaller factor.
But these are hard issues and you know a big part of the challenge is that in pockets of that cultural world from which he will come. Anti-Semitism is endemic. It’s automatic. It’s part of how people were raised just like we’re all raised with certain biases. And Mark Weitzman this French journalist just published this book called hate about anti-Semitism in France.
And he has some very challenging material there. That. Is a. Too.
Of the way that pockets of that world are so inflected with anti-Semitism. And it’s not easy to solve these challenges but I continue to think that. The inequalities that many of these people face do a lot to shape the ways in which they take on radical ideologies of all sorts.
And so the degree to which France can deal more successive social problems there’s not a lot to make us super optimistic in recent French history on this score but it is going to do a lot to shape this question.
Absolutely. So now that it’s been brought up I do want to jump into your work on Jewish Muslim relations.
I think one thing that most people would be shocked to hear is that Jewish Muslim relations were quite amicable up until the 1920s 30s and perhaps even longer. Do you want to explain why this was.
Well Jewish Muslim relations have always been complex.
And the fact is that the Jews and Muslims who came to France from North Africa beginning in the 20s and 30s and in the interwar period for all were one you have a hundred to one hundred and forty thousand Muslims who come to France who are living in France at a time you have more people who come because they come as rotational laborers that come as seasonal laborers right.
So they usually don’t stay in France for more than a consecutive 18 months and then they send a lot of their income back. In many cases to their families it’s primarily men like 80 percent men.
Often they have wives and children back in North Africa. So you have these people living alongside the first small wave of Jewish migrants from the same countries to France. And sometimes you have shared. Spaces of culture and music and cuisine and all the things that people knew from North Africa that they had in common which were quite considerable. I mean Jews and Muslims had lived together in Algeria Morocco Tunisia and the larger Mediterranean world in significant numbers for centuries. Well before the French conquest in Algeria in the 19th century and while they didn’t live on equal terms per say they often lived quite amicably and they influenced each other’s habits and customs and culture. And so they were all out with them. But the other piece is of course that Jews and Muslims faced not identical but often similar challenges as minority ethno religious groups in France that struggled for full acceptance. That struggle to negotiate this very divide of secular public culture and their private ethnic and religious identities I spoke about earlier. And so in many cases there were groups of Jews and Muslims who were part of the same groups together like International League Against Anti-Semitism. The again nothing that I see is made anti-Semitism that the le Carre in the 1930s and that even has remained the case up to the day that certain numbers of Jews and Muslims have worked together in the anti racist movement in France periodically. So there also was a reason for a common political cause.
In many cases on the left of course there were tensions but there are the tensions in France were largely around legal inequalities since Jews in Algeria had become French citizens in 1870 and Jews who came to France from practically anywhere had a relatively smooth path to naturalization since French citizenship law enables people to naturalize as immigrants from most countries within a certain period of years and their children who were born in France to all almost automatically receive citizenship whereas the Muslims who came from Algeria had French nationality but did not at France’s and their way of getting French citizenship would have required them to renounce their Muslim status in a way and most viewed as a betrayal of their traditions. And so their path was much more difficult and it affected everything in terms of their legal rights and their educational background and all kinds of limited possibilities for them.
And so that was the source of significant tension really only much later really after the independence of Algeria.
It’s only then that the principal source of political tension between Muslims and Jews in France becomes the Israeli Arab and Israeli Palestinian conflicts.
So I specifically wanted to jump into that because I like to consider myself a pretty learned person. However I’m not an expert on Jewish history and I think most people make the assumption that Israel was a huge turning point in Muslim and Jewish relations. However in we had contact each other before this interview and you told me that it was actually Algeria not Israel that was a major turning point in Jewish Muslim relations in France. Can you explain why that was.
Well Algeria’s the catalyst for sort of you know a periodic set of tensions right I don’t think I would call it the turning point persay. You know there’s a set of riots in Constantine in 1934. Joshua Cole has a great book coming out on this topic in the very near future.
I write about it some of my first book and these riots left twenty five Jews and three Muslims dead and they had major ripple effect in the French mainland and they were illustrative of all of the tensions the fact that Jews had greater legal rights greater economic opportunity had greater educational background in Algeria than Muslims with rare exception the fact that meanwhile there was the beginning of a real native Muslim politics in Algeria in the interwar period partly because of visual not a law of 1919 which create a small cadre of but a significant one of Muslim men who could participate in local politics and really begun to mobilize in important ways. And also because of the beginnings of Algerian nationalism around a figure name is Sally Hodge who had started this group actually in the mainland among workers who were coming these rotational laborers who were becoming more politicized in the context of Paris’s radical political tradition and their experiences that they were having there. So all of that is bubbling up in this is this is by far the most significant moment of violence but it’s all bubbling up in the conflict over the future of Algeria as that becomes a live question. Jews in many cases are liberal they’re committed to reform for Muslims they would like to see that happen land Bloom puts his name on failed Bloom b a left Bill 36 which while a modest reform effort was also considered by many people a major one but at the same time they are by and large very wedded to the French presence in Algeria.
I mean they’ve had citizenship since 1870 that changed their whole education and cultural trajectory even though many remained attached in certain ways to local Arab culture.
And so that’s very different than the experiences of Muslims who are becoming increasingly skeptical that they can really ever be fully French and become integrated and gain citizenship as various moments of promise evaporate and that tension becomes more acute in the aftermath of World War Two as the move toward independence calls for independence and ultimately a violent war for independence. As that March kind of gets underway in the late 40s and early 50s the under. Pinning its attention only grow and so then you have the French Algerian War from antiquity for 1962 which as we know is one of the central conflicts of French history writ large in the 20th century and one where you know Muslims had more than one position and I talk about that in my book but by the war’s end most Muslims supported the call for independence the wanted to go to Mass and now the FLN and Jews were much more conflicted and a certain number of Jews even went over to the die hards of actually call says not because they necessarily liked them or liked their methods but because they felt they were all stood between them and the departure of France and a very uncertain future if France left and the vast majority of Jews in Algeria came to France in 1962.
And that was a moment of trauma for them.
So all of these events made Algeria really central to our story. And it’s not that the Israeli Arab or Israeli Palestinian conflicts are not important they are important. But you’re right the assumption that suddenly 1948 when Israel is established is the watershed moment. It just doesn’t really hold in this case even though what is important is that the Israeli Palestinian Israeli air conflicts become mapped on to the air during question they become mapped onto social inequalities they become lived out by Jews and Muslims in French terms in the main land more and more and then eventually take on a life of their own after 1967.
So I want to end by asking a bit about the French and Muslim Jewish relations today. How do you see that occurring in France. I particularly ask because right now France has the third largest population of Jews but it also has one of the largest Islamic populations in Europe.
So it appears to me that the positive or negative relationship of these two groups would have quite a big spillover effect upon the world.
That’s it that I think there is some silver effects. I think the capacity of Jews and Muslims to live together in France is in some ways a test for a lot of the work.
That is to say if France could get this right that would be a good model for a lot of Europe and beyond and the level of tension is typically viewed as almost an inevitable spillover from the Middle East conflict in a way that of course loses sight of a lot of complexities that we’ve been talking about here and a lot of particularities the French case. So yes I mean I think that France has a country that has prided itself on its ability to integrate diverse populations. It forgets periodically This is Jeff everybody else argument about the amnesia French immigration history that France forgets any generation that is already integrated all these people before. It hasn’t had a chance yet to forget because in the case of African Muslims because that integration has been less successful although it’s been more successful by many measuring sticks than people tend to realize in terms of the way that opportunity comes for second generation people and the way that on a whole series of metrics people’s cultural assumptions gravitate toward those of the driving population when you look at these polling statistics after that they’ve lived there for a generation.
So yeah I mean it is a it is a question that concerns us all because we’re living in a world that is sharply divided in so many instances along ethnic religious lines and the wider conflict between Jews and Muslims that is centered in this small strip of land in the Middle East that much of which is regarded by many of us as Israel and at the same time contested call by others Palestine that that conflict is one that has vast ramifications. And I think the real question that gets asked in France that really resonates for everyone is can people separate their allegiance as their ethnic religious identifications the time to that conflict from a life that is somewhere else where they have many strands to their identity and their life that go beyond conflict. Right.
And a lot of people I spoke to in France put it in those terms and they said you know I tell my Jewish friends or I tell my Muslim friends Look I’m more you know faithful to the Israeli side I’m Jewish you’re more faithful to the Palestinian side you’re a Muslim I don’t blame you I hope you don’t blame me. That doesn’t mean we can’t get along here. The slogan of one of the slogans of S.O.S last season to this anti-racist movement that was born in the mid 1980s and many of its early activists were Jews and Muslims. One of the slogans was we cannot solve the Israeli Palestinian conflict on the banks of the South meaning we shouldn’t be dry and we should be focused on what our common causes are here. And that is not something that most people have been able to really do is to have a strong sense of separation that says we share a life here. We have to have a sense of common destiny here and the things that divide us are somewhere else and we need to be able to compartmentalize them right.
And I think that is something that you know in a world that is constantly smaller because of the ways that we’re interconnected across the globe we have to all face that question of can we take the things that are maybe opposing legions sins and put them aside in the name of a common good.
So this conflict which centers on a small strip of land in the Middle East the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that conflict has vast ramifications for the world.
And in that sense France is a kind of testing ground for whether spillover as it’s often referred to from the Middle East can be contained can be set aside.
Well hopefully Paris will retain its 300 kosher shops. Thank you very much for joining us Professor Katz. Thanks for having me.
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