Electric News in Colonial Algeria
By Arthur Asseraf
The news you read may change every day, but the system that underlies it has not changed much since its emergence in the 19th century. Then, the technological transformation of the electric telegraph synchronized information flows between continents and led to a single, globalized news industry. But how did people live through this transformation? Did it really mean that everybody was now living at the same time? Electric News in Colonial Algeria traces how news circulated in a particularly divided society: Algeria under French rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In this period, news became increasingly electric. News was being conveyed, quite literally, through electromagnetic currents on telegraph cables that made it much faster and denser than before. Algerians became connected to international networks of news, and local people followed distant events with great interest. But the news also became more electric in a more metaphorical sense: the intensification of circulation brought on by new technologies helped build a colonial society divided between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Muslims’. Once news reached Algeria, accounts of recent events often provoked conflict as they moved between different social groups. In a society split between its native majority and a substantial settler minority, distant wars led to riots. Under colonialism, Algerians became more connected and more divided at the same time.
By looking at a very particular territory, Electric News in Colonial Algeria is an attempt to think through how we might write a history of Europe and the Middle East at the same time. By this, I do not mean trying to write the history of the Middle East on its own terms: many scholars have rejected the dominance of Eurocentric historical models in the history of the region, with their assorted temporal metaphors of ‘delay’, ‘catching up’, and ‘diffusion’. Rather, I am asking what happens when we stop holding these two regions conceptually separate, and try to look at historical change affecting both simultaneously. How does this also affect our understanding of Europe? How can looking at North Africa change our understanding of the development of mass media and the acceleration of modernity?
Algeria under French rule is a good place to start thinking about this. Conquered from 1830 and formally integrated into French territory from 1848, Algeria was officially part of France. At the same time, the vast majority of its population remained Algerian Muslims who were excluded from French civic life. Despite a government-supported settlement campaign, Europeans only made up 10-15% of its population by the 20th century. Algeria was thus both part of France and a colony, politically in Europe and geographically in North Africa.
This specificity has often led Algeria to be treated as an exception. For people in Middle East Studies, the Maghrib in general is already distant from the central preoccupations of the field, whose account of modernity centres on Egypt and the Levant. Algeria’s extreme and precocious settler colonialism in particular makes it even more difficult to understand than its neighbours. For French history, Algeria appears as a strange inverse to the development of the Republic, though recent scholarship has stressed how central colonial history was to the development of the metropole. Rather than an exception, Algerian colonial society can be seen as a microcosm of the frictions and inequalities of the wider world. Electric News looks at the juxtaposition of a fully-fledged European settler society with all the trappings of classical modernity alongside a vastly larger society with its own networks, and tries to hold them in the same analytical gaze. Depending on who you were, colonial Algeria was simultaneously a mass media society as it was not.
Let’s take one example, which forms the first chapter: newspapers. Newspapers were a common and widespread object, due to the explosion of print for a settler audience. But because the vast majority of the population remained illiterate until independence, for most people newspapers could only be seen and heard but not read. This differential role of the newspaper, affecting people very differently even though they lived in close proximity, is a challenge to most existing theories of how the printing press causes social change. After 1881, freedom of the press applied in Algeria just as much as it did in metropolitan France – though only for the settler minority. Thus we cannot understand the development of a liberal press regime in France without considering how it functioned in the Republic’s other half across the Mediterranean, or to put it differently, we cannot understand the development of mass media in Europe without considering its dearth in other spaces. In essence, the ‘mass’ media was always intended for a certain kind of mass, which did not include the ‘natives’.
Because specific media were often restricted to one segment of society, Electric News follows the news rather than the medium, tracking the circulation of accounts of recent events through the widest possible range of sources in multiple languages across colonial society, from songs, rumours, letters and manuscripts to newspapers, telegraph and radio dispatches and television broadcasts. Individual chapters look at the development of newspapers, the telegraph, radio and newsreels, and how they inserted themselves into a rich ecosystem of information circulation with unpredictable results. Moreover, the book does not separate the colonial state from the society it ruled over: as the French government watched anxiously over these developments, it monitored Algerians’ reactions to news through an extensive network of surveillance that often ended up spreading news rather than controlling its flow.
In the process, the book uncovers a paradox: it was the same thing which connected and polarised people at the same time. News could only circulate through contact between people. But as it inserted itself into social structures, different groups’ interpretations of news generated conflict. The final chapter offers a detailed case study of this by examining how news from Palestine provoked tensions in Algeria in the 1930s. As events in Mandate Palestine shared a cast recognizable to many Algerians (Arabs, European settlers, Jews), it was unclear whether events over there were the same as back home. Furious debates opened up in Algeria about how to interpret what was unfolding on the other side of the Mediterranean; debates that were foundational to the development of Algerian political movements.
In turn, this leads the book to suggest a reassessment of Benedict Anderson’s account of the development of nationalism in Imagined Communities. Anderson suggested that the newspaper and the novel allow people to imagine themselves living in a simultaneous community. This seems overly optimistic on two counts. First, it gives too much power to media in shaping communities. Depending on who read them and how, newspapers produced fragmentation and division as much as it did a community. Second, this is an excessively simplistic understanding of people’s experience of time. Following the news shows that the development of modern media did not synchronise people into a single, homogenous time, but produced a bewildering piling on of new temporalities on top of existing ones.
Indeed, the problem with writing a history of news is that news contains its own sense of temporality which is at odds with the historian’s logic. By definition, to those who experience it, news feels new. As the book highlights in the central chapter, rather than shying away from this contradiction between news and history, between periodization and the event, embracing it can help reveal some of our assumptions about the role of media in historical change. After all, trying to explain simultaneous change across regions raises problems about history-writing itself, about how we reconcile our subjects’ different experiences of time with our own attempt to craft a single narrative.
Arthur Asseraf, Electric News in Colonial Algeria, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Arthur Asseraf is Lecturer in the History of France and the Francophone World at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. He is a historian of North Africa, France, and the Mediterranean. Born and raised in Paris, he was Examination Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford, before joining the History Faculty at Cambridge. His research focuses on global histories of colonialism, race, and information.
Citation: Arthur Asseraf, Electric News in Colonial Algeria, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.09.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19736.