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From Fait Divers to “Fake News”: Fictions of Race Between Mass Media and Literature

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Organizer: Olivia Harrison

Co-Organizer: Madeleine Dobie

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The status of truth in journalism is an object of growing attention and concern. One of many common strategies of mis- and dis-information is the amplification and distortion of minor news stories that become the stuff of conspiracy theories. The polemical appropriation of local news that has become a recurrent feature of the media landscape has reached extreme proportions in recent years, but it has a longer history. It is rooted in the idiosyncratic genre of journalistic reporting known as the fait divers – sensational news stories involving otherwise anonymous actors – that have played an outsized role in the production of racial stereotypes. Such stories sustained anti-Semitism in the late nineteenth-century and helped to crystallize anti-immigrant discourse in the postcolonial period. As a form of journalistic writing, the fait divers genre leans heavily on literary techniques, in particular the genre of detective fiction. It has also played an important role in the production of racial archetypes, from the “diabolical Jew” to the twentieth-century cliché of the knife-wielding Arab. In France, a number of novels have engaged, drawn from, and in some cases subverted the ubiquitous circulation of racial clichés in the media, from Albert Camus’s L’étranger, Jean Raspail’s Le camp des saints (1973), and Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (2015) to Ahmed Zitouni’s Avec du sang déshonoré d’encre à leurs mains (1983), Nacer Kettane’s Le sourire de Brahim (1985), and Ahmed Kalouaz’s l’Encre d’un fait divers (1984). This seminar tackles what the French historian of immigration Gérard Noiriel has called the “fait diversification” of reporting in the age of nativism to interrogate the fictions of race: the narrative strategies that racial thinking relies on, but also recent efforts to subvert racial stereotypes in the realm of fiction. Its aim is less to analyze how racial clichés have been produced in tabloid reporting than to interrogate the fault line between fact and fiction that is proper to the fait divers genre and, in turn, to track efforts to subvert the production of racial difference in antiracist literature. Although our interrogation begins with the French context, we encourage comparative approaches to the production of racial clichés at the intersections of media and literature across Europe, the US, and other sites of (post)colonial migration in the long twentieth century.

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