Bowman on Asseraf, 'Electric News in Colonial Algeria'

Author: 
Arthur Asseraf
Reviewer: 
Jack A W Bowman

Arthur Asseraf. Electric News in Colonial Algeria. Oxford Historical Monographs Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Illustrations, maps. xv + 223 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-884404-4.

Reviewed by Jack A W Bowman (University of Warwick) Published on H-Socialisms (August, 2021) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55958

Colonial Algeria and Media Representations

News is at the center of daily life for much of the world. If it isn’t on a television in the background or thrust into view as soon as entering a shop or a newsstand, it is being discussed with friends and colleagues or pinging at us from our phones. It has the power to both divide and unify, and in the supposedly post-truth era of fake news and social media, it wields a changing importance across the globe.

Contrary to its name, however, news is not new. Even though the growth and development of news has changed considerably throughout history, much of these advances have only been written about from an early modern perspective. These changes in printing and news, driven by the establishment of the printing press in 1450, have been well studied by historians, such as Robert Darnton and Lucien Febvre, among many others.[1] However, since the technological innovations of the nineteenth century, its basic structure has remained remarkedly stable. Arthur Asseraf’s Electric News in Colonial Algeria contributes to the growing literature that brings these themes into the debates about colonialism.

Focusing on the settler colony of Algeria, itself a vibrant point of interest, Asseraf uses a variety of sources to assess the role news played in the colonial context. In doing so, he disputes key claims of other global histories and creates a framework for engaging with news in other colonial settings, both peripheral and central. He also tempers understandings of the kind of exchanges that occurred at the ground level of the imperial project, moving beyond the basic assumptions of colonial histories and picking apart Algerian society from the ground up. This is shown in his wide source base, in his engagement with forms of vernacular print and the locations in which it was discussed, and through the variety of historical actors he draws on. Asseraf interrogates the idea of news, examines why news mattered, and asks the question, what even was news?

Running through Electric News is a metaphor of electrification, both literal and figurative. Asseraf uses the imagery of electricity to underpin his analysis. In its most literal sense, it is used to explain the nature of the new technologies that brought news to Algeria. Asseraf also uses this metaphor to push his core argument, that “as news circulation became more electric, Algerian colonial society became more polarized, generating [a] charged atmosphere” (p. 10). Contrary to some expectations that increased connectivity would connect people, Asseraf argues, it simultaneously unified and divided communities.

Asseraf also views contact between different groups in Algeria through this same lens of electricity. He writes how electricity is “fundamentally ambivalent—connective, yet dangerous. This ambivalence is richly suggestive of the nature of social contact in colonial societies” (p. 11). Finally, he uses the metaphor to grapple with the well-used global history buzzwords of “flows” and “friction.” In unpacking these oft-trotted out terms, Asseraf uses them with meaning underscored by his extended metaphor, stating how viewing Algerian society and its links for global history as electric can “take a fresh look at notions of ‘contact’ and ‘flow,’ two major but often unacknowledged metaphors in recent historiography” (p. 12).

In approaching news as a category of analysis, Asseraf sets out a broad but sensible definition. He writes that “news is a report of a recent event deemed to be interesting and factual.” Of course how recent, the temporal aspect of news, is always in flux and directly related to its audience. Similarly Asseraf states that “what was considered to be interesting, factual, or recent differed widely between different audiences.” It is these “overlaps and distinctions” that Electric News interrogates (p. 3).

Chapter 1 focuses on two 1881 laws in which colonial authority was exerted, following the arrival of print news to Algeria by the French fifty years earlier. Consolidating the republican regime, these two laws centered on the freedom of the press and censorship and the indigénat (Asseraf uses this term to denote the native population, although he states the difficulty in casting such a broad society under one banner). Asseraf thus takes these laws as the formal beginning of his study and analyzes how Algerian Muslims sought to carve out a voice for themselves in the new forms of media, with a focus here on newspapers. In chapter 2, Asseraf assesses the role of the telegraph in further polarizing Algerian society. This “weapon of conquest” was originally used by the French army, but as Asseraf demonstrates, it also had the unintended effect of “plugging Algeria into the emerging system of international news” (pp. 67, 73).

In chapter 3, Asseraf more broadly analyzes media that grew in use during World War I. Prophecies, rumors, and songs are contextualized in terms of a rapidly changing world. Song lyrics, for example, quickly evolved, while older Algerian manuscripts were more rigidly applied. This leads Asseraf to ask: “were people in colonial Algeria living at the same time?” (p. 100).

Chapter 4 focuses on 1930s cinema and radio; as Asseraf further argues, rather than replace older forms of media, new media layered on top, “creating an intense and confusing maelstrom of news” (p. 131). Radio allowed listeners to tune in and out of conflicting reports as the airwaves became increasingly politicized. He quotes Algerian Muslim Ahmad Sahnun, who stated that through these airwaves “colonialism reveals itself” (p. 153).

Chapter 5 assesses Algerian Muslim reaction to the Italian invasion of Libya and the British mandate in Palestine. Asseraf terms the interest that such news brought Algerians as “proxy nationalism” (p. 156). These conflicts allowed Algerians to speak about their own situation without criticizing the French directly and thereby coming under the strict censorship laws and other cultural restrictions. These proxy situations brought to Algeria through the news were used to discuss and criticize the shifting perceptions of the colonized and the colonizers and their respective places in global affairs. Asseraf suggests that his book can be read as a response to and further development of Frantz Fanon’s essay, “Ici la voix de l’Algérie” (“This Is the Voice of Algeria,” 1959).[2] Fanon also suggested the double-edged nature of new media as both dividing and denying agency, as well as unifying and providing momentum to the colonized.

Asseraf, in the epilogue, also rebuts Benedict Anderson’s classic, yet by now widely criticized, analysis in Imagined Communities (1983), a rebuttal that has become seemingly obligatory in new histories of empire, anti-colonialism, and political thought. Perhaps a better reading of Electric News is in thinking on how Asseraf’s approach can be applied elsewhere. Outside of the so-called exceptional colony of Algeria, does the analysis and framework of Electric News translate to other geographies, as Asseraf suggests? In its thematic and analytical approach, yes it can. Asseraf’s approach to news is fresh and engaging, and his use of archival sources offers great legitimacy to his claims.

Asseraf’s approach, nonetheless, is vulnerable to gaps in the archival legacy; specifically, female voices are absent, mirroring the same gaping blind spots as of the public realm in colonial French and Algerian society. This, and the lack of specificity about individual publications, are the most obvious flaws in Electric News, perhaps inevitable with an approach as broad and successful as Asseraf’s.

Overall, though, Asseraf’s Electric News is an exciting and engaging study that analyzes print and other forms of communication during the colonial period. Asseraf complicates the exchanges between colonizers and the colonized and suggests how empire functioned at the ground level. It is a joyfully written book, abound with lush imagery and engaging stories, a serious academic study but without losing its human touch. Electric News offers much to historians of print, colonial Algeria, colonialism and anti-colonialism in general, and mass media more broadly. In writing about news and its not-so-newness, Asseraf has created an interesting and exciting study, which above all offers new ways to understand these issues and developments.

Notes

[1]. For example, see Robert Darnton, “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” American Historical Review 105, no. 1 (2000): 1–35; and Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800, trans. David Gerard (London: Verso, 1976).

[2]. Frantz Fanon, “This Is the Voice of Algeria,” in A Dying Colonialism, trans. Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 69-98.

Citation: Jack A W Bowman. Review of Asseraf, Arthur, Electric News in Colonial Algeria. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55958

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