Theses Doctoral

Difference and Dissidence: French, Arabic and Cultural Conflict in Lebanon, 1943-1975

Marcus, Elizabeth Jacqueline

This dissertation brings together a study of French and Arabic literature and the cultural history of post-independence Lebanon (1943—1975). It is intended first as a contribution to post-colonial criticism and historical literature on decolonization. Second, as a contribution to literary and historical research on multilingualism, as it undergoes various changes to recover “sub-national” narratives, gestures and behaviours that subvert ideas about homogenous national identities. It begins with a set of questions about language: in the context of multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, such as Lebanon, what is the place of language in configurations of diversity, and what is its relationship with religion? What relationships do minorities seek or preserve with the national language at or after decolonization, and how does this affect their relationship with the state? Why do some collectives assert linguistic homogeneity and why do others promote more room? Finally, can language acquire indigeneity?
While multilingualism in modern-day Lebanon is a wide-spread social practice, it is far from simple. I argue that in the aftermath of independence in 1943, a forgotten and eventually failed project of bilingualism was promoted by a conservative, nationalist and mainly Christian Maronite network of intellectuals, writers and academics attached to the Francophone university in Beirut. The project raised red flags for partisans of Arabic in Lebanon who argued that bilingualism was nothing more than a conceptual “fig leaf” for maintaining a colonial tie with France as well as an established cultural and political status quo that worked in favor of Lebanon’s Maronites. The project therefore failed to be adopted by a wider, national collective. Well before the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, the project was dropped even by those who had initially rallied to its cause.
This work analyzes bilingualism at the encounter of literature, law and the social sciences, both as disciplinary approaches and respective local discourses. In this way, I examine how descriptive, prescriptive and imaginary genres converge in the discourse of nation-building. Through a constellation of readings of debates over the place of bilingualism in legal education, cultural anthropology, and the literary field, and a close reading of French and Arabic literary works, this study asks how the strategic use of language by newly independent citizens casts a light on bilingualism as a multidimensional social and discursive reality and not a purely linguist or literary phenomenon as is often considered. My theoretical point of departure, therefore, is to study how language can play a role in constructing a knowledge-based discourse that incorporates law, literature, and the social sciences.
There are two crucial aspects of this story that run throughout the histories and texts I engage with in this project. The first is that the project of bilingualism was part of a wider interest in making national identity defined by bilingualism. In so doing, it diluted the radical alterity nominally attached to multilingualism in the national setting. Yet the bilingual project might also be considered a radical one. In part, it setting out to enforce the re-signification of bilingualism in a postcolonial era, it sought, to an extent, to attenuate the centrality of the confessional structures of state. The project therefore draws our attention to the kinds of thought experiments that developed in the process of decolonization and the early years of the Cold War, a mode of creative thinking that was dropped and replaced by more hegemonic structures. But its failure indicates why, when this idea was deployed, it became the price to pay for the expected unity of the national collective. Ultimately, the bilingual project was vulnerable to critique and the failure of its re-signification was due to it being slated as an elite postcolonial project legitimizing Christian power in “cultural” terms.
A second crucial aspect of this story is that the project, while representing a failure, is nevertheless conceptually critical for several reasons. This project of linguistic diversity engendered a new politics of interpretation of text and society that led intellectuals, academics, writers and politicians to articulate the cultural stakes of the new nation-state. Indeed what we risk missing in the representation of bilingualism —as elite, conservative, confessional and colonial— is that the project generated a culture of textual critique based on the language of diversity and difference in law, the social sciences and literature. The bilingual project demonstrates the extent to which the disciplines of law, social sciences and literature in Lebanon co-constituted one another after independence. The failure of bilingualism therefore produced new forms of cultural knowledge, and is a small but important feature of post-independence Lebanon.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Saada, Emmanuelle M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 5, 2017