A “Child of our Empire”?: Epistemic Rupture and Anticolonial Consciousness in Interwar Paris


  • Ananya Agustin Malhotra University of Oxford


This article argues that a growing number of students from French colonial contexts in Paris following World War I sought to reckon with colonialism as a phenomenon requiring epistemic revolution. Reading surveillance reports and personal papers alongside periodicals and newspapers, this work of global intellectual history situates anticolonial student groups, intellectuals, and activists like the Martinican surrealist René Ménil (1907-2004) and Vietnamese phenomenologist Tran Duc Thao (1917-93) in a transnational context. It situates developments in anticolonial thought within histories of French colonial education, a growing transnational anticolonial consciousness, and the new artistic and philosophical traditions of surrealism and phenomenology in the 1920s and 30s. First, I outline the colonial motivations of Third Republic education to cultivate an Antillean and Indochinese elite through admission to and scholarships for France’s grandes écoles. Secondly, I show the connections between the “epistemological rupture” in intellectual and artistic disciplines following World War I, including the developments of surrealism and phenomenology, and the growing transnational consciousness amongst left-wing anticolonial groups in Paris. In doing so, I argue that anticolonial student groups in the late 1920s began articulating the necessity for intellectual and cultural emancipation as a precursor for political decolonisation, often turning to transnational sources. I conclude by looking closely at the anticolonial writings of Tran Duc Thao in Les Temps Modernes and the anticolonial student-run journal Légitime Défense (1932), which Ménil co-founded, as a product of these intersections.