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France Honors Emmanuelle Saada and Souleymane Bachir Diagne

On Monday, December 4, Columbia University professors Emmanuelle Saada and Souleymane Bachir Diagne were honored with the insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters at a ceremony hosted at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York. Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montclaur named Saada and Diagne Chevalier of the Order of the Arts and Letters for their contributions to their scholarly fields and their dedication to expanding francophone education.  

Good evening!

As Cultural Counselor, it is my pleasure to welcome you here to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to bestow the insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters upon professors Emmanuelle Saada and Souleymane Bachir Diagne. 

The Order of Arts and Letters (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) was established in 1957 to recognize eminent artists and writers, as well as people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.

We are here tonight to honor two devoted professors whose lives have been marked by rigorous scholarship and dedication to their subjects, as they have worked to expand the understanding of francophone thought here in the United States. Professor Saada, your work has been marked by a ceaseless pursuit to understand France from a historical and sociological perspective. You have committed much of your career to sharing your profound understanding with others here in the United States.

Professor Diagne, tonight we recognize the many contributions you have made in the field of philosophy, particularly as a leading scholar in the history of logic, the history of French, Islamic philosophy, and African literature. You have spent over 30 years teaching at universities in Senegal and the United States, and you have also committed much of your time to improving educational opportunities for others by serving as special advisor on cultural and educational policy in Senegal, as well as by working with various government panels and international committees.

Professor Saada, I will start with you.

You grew up in the suburbs outside Paris. You recount childhood memories of your father, a Sephardic Jew from North Africa, and the way that he would sometimes refer to the French as “us” and sometimes as “them”: these stories perhaps explain why exploring the complexity of the French identity has been at the center of your work.

Your academic journey began as a student in France, where you attended the Ecole Normale Supérieure. After graduating with degrees in history and sociology, you arrived in the United States in 1994 on a doctoral exchange between the Ecole Normale and NYU. By 1997, you were serving as the Assistant Director at NYU’s Institute of French Studies. Your success is notable in that you were also facing an entirely new language and culture, but you learned and adapted quickly.

A colleague recalls your time on the faculty at the Institute of French Studies at NYU where you made it your task to scrutinize how other teachers taught their classes, studying the differences between American and French teaching. As a result, you developed your own style, drawing creatively from both the Socratic and deliberately improvisational American seminar tradition and the rigorous style of the French lecture. Your teaching models an approach to scholarship that involves constantly generating conversation among texts and arguments across different areas of regional and methodological specialization, so as to better assess, interrogate, and understand them. You evidently succeeded in capturing the best of both teaching styles. Indeed, your students describe you as at once hilarious and simultaneously intellectually rigorous.

More recently in your career, in 2012, you won the Columbia University Distinguished Faculty Award. This demonstrates that you are not only a brilliant academic, but a passionate teacher who is deeply invested in each one of her students. One colleague calls you without a doubt the most deeply ethical person she has ever worked with. You capture exactly what academia should be about: thinking critically and advancing ideas, yes, but also supporting others in developing their own ideas as well. 

Your multidisciplinary work and talent is highlighted by the fact that not only do you serve as a professor in French and history, but have also been appointed as a professor in sociology. These three appointments mark your distinction as a scholar whose scope is never limited to one field. Through your multifaceted perspectives, you have contributed enormously to the understanding of French history and sociology here in the United States. You have changed the way we think about the history of colonialization, gender, and the law. 

You’ve dedicated much of your scholarly work to understanding immigration and colonization from a social and historical lens. In 2007, you published Les enfants de la colonie, a groundbreaking work that explored the “metis question,” where you examined how this status of persons of mixed parentage born in French Indochina faced social and civil issues in France. Your book was awarded the Pen American Center French Voices Award. This award, which we at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy launched in partnership with Pen America, seeks to recognize the best contemporary French writing in every field. It also received the 2007 Auguste Pavie Prize, awarded by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-mer, and was a finalist for the Prix Jean-Zay as well.

In addition, you have published four other books, and an innumerable list of articles, mostly dealing with colonialism, gender, and law. Moreover, beyond all your work as a writer and professor, you also serve on the Editorial Committee of two prominent French journals—French Politics, Culture and Society and Genèses, Sciences Sociales et Histoire. While you certainly could dedicate yourself exclusively to writing, instead, you set aside a large portion of your time to organizing conferences and events in order to engage French and American thinkers in dialogue and collaboration.

Serving as the Assistant Director of the Institute of French Studies at NYU from 1997 to 2002, you organized over 30 events each year including conferences, roundtable discussions, and symposium and brought prominent French guests to the US. You have continued this at Columbia, where in your current position as Director of the Center for French and Francophone Study, you work extensively with the Maison Française to initiate programs revolving around French academic and cultural subjects. As someone not only devoted to studying France’s past but also to ensuring that it remains understood in the future, you organized two workshops called The Future of French and Francophone Studies with a French Embassy Centers of Excellence Grant. Moreover, you’ve organized multiple international conferences, including last year’s conference at the Maison Française called “Categories in Trouble, The Politics of Identity in North Africa, 19th-20th centuries.”

In fact, realizing the necessity of incorporating the Middle East and North Africa in today’s dialogue, you and two colleagues developed the Middle-East/North Africa Summer Institute in Amman and Paris when as a Columbia faculty member you were awarded the President’s Global Innovation Fund in 2014. This project offers students and faculty the chance to collaborate on a global scale, and The institute offers students, researchers and professors a chance to engage deeply with the developing field of Middle East-North Africa, as well as provide research opportunities, workshops and seminars. 

Professor Saada, it is indeed difficult to sum up all your accomplishments, as they are not only extensive, but broad in scope. As a scholar, you have produced rigorous works detailing, questioning, and analyzing France and its colonial past. As a teacher, you go far beyond what is asked of you, always ready to take on tasks when you feel they are necessary or worthwhile, even if they are labor-intensive and thankless. For the many students who you have guided through the academic world, including those who have gone on to receive Ph.D.s and become professors themselves, you are a tremendous force of intellectual guidance and your wisdom and humor has served as a constant support system. Furthermore, you have created countless programs to bring together global thinkers on a variety of topics of great relevance to France and our world. For these reasons, it is my great pleasure to present you with the Order of Arts and Letters.

Emmanuelle Saada, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

And now, I turn to your colleague, Professor Diagne:

It seems that these days, society has a way of orienting us either toward the humanities or the sciences—it is not every day that we see people with interests and talents in both areas. Yet after completing your undergraduate studies at the Sorbonne, your skills were so exceptional and wide-ranging that you had to decide whether to pursue a track in the humanities or go into the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées to become an engineer. When you spoke to the headmaster of Lycée Louis-le-Grand, the secondary school that would prepare you for entrance into the Ecole Normale Supérieure for a doctorate in the humanities, he advised you to follow this path as it would make you the first Senegalese student to be admitted into this extremely competitive system. He added that this would make your president very happy.

You took his advice and followed this path, receiving an agrégation in Philosophy in 1978, and then earning your Doctorat d’Etat in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1988. After graduating from the ENS, you in fact met President Senghor of Senegal, and he told you that he was expecting great contributions from you to the “lettres francophones”—you were, after all, a child of his education policy, he said. You replied, “I am indeed, Mr. President.” We can only imagine how happy you made President Senghor with your outstanding contributions to Senegalese and French thought.

In 1982, you returned to Senegal, where you taught as an assistant in philosophy at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. By 1992, you had made your way to being Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. In 1993, former president of Senegal Abdou Diouf named you special advisor on cultural and education policy, and you were simultaneously teaching Philosophy at the Cheikh Anta Diop University. You came to the United States to teach at Northwestern University in 2002, and in 2008, you joined the faculty at Columbia, where you now chair the Department of French and Romance Philology and teach in the Department of Philosophy. Your long career as a professor has been marked not only by your intellect but by your warmth. Something that all your students recognize about you is the way in which you walk into every class with a huge smile on your face. They sometimes even affectionately call you “Magister,” perhaps because they feel that not even the venerable title of “professor” captures your brilliance. It is for this reason among others why Columbia University recognized you with the Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award in 2015.

You approach each one of your interests, whether it be the history of philosophy or African literature, with a profound appreciation for their immense complexities. You speak French, English, and Wolof and read Latin, Greek, and Arabic. You’ve published over a dozen books exploring topics like the history of logic, the history and philosophy of Islam, and African culture and philosophy. You speak with as much ease on topics like Boolean logic as you do on the subject of Islamic philosophy. You have also contributed several entries for dictionaries and encyclopedias, never shying away from the challenge of defining such difficult terms as “African Philosophies,” “Negritude,” and “rationality.”

Over your career, you have edited various journals and have contributed to an extensive list of publications, and you’ve authored dozens of articles in publications from around the world exploring questions of philosophy, African identity, and Islamic philosophy. You serve as co-director of Éthiopiques, a Senegalese journal of literature and philosophy, and Revue d’histoire des mathématiques, published by the Mathematical Society of France. You are a member of the editorial board of Présence africaine, as well as a member of the International Scientific Committee for Diogenes, a UNESCO-supported journal of philosophy and social sciences published in Paris by the International Council for Philosophy and Social Sciences.

You are committed to developing future educational opportunities for all, as you serve on UNESCO’s Council on the Future, as member and chair of the scientific panel, of CODESERIA, the Pan-African council dedicated to developing research in social science. You also serve on CAMES, the African and Malagasy Committee for Higher Education.

In 2009, the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie awarded you the El Fasi Prize in the Social Sciences and the Humanities, for your impact on and contributions to the French-speaking world. In 2011, you won the Dagnan-Bouveret Prize, awarded by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, for your book, Bergson postcolonial. L'élan vital dans la pensée de Léopold Sédar Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal, and that same year you also won the Edouard Glissant Prize awarded by l’université de Paris-VIII for your work. The French news magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, named you one of the 50 thinkers of our time with good reason.

Last but not least, you are a dear friend of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. You are a member of the jury of our translation grant program, French Voices, where you diligently read and review submissions and passionately argue for the books that most deserve to be brought to an American audience. And we know we can always count on you to take part in the major events that we organize to promote Francophone thought. Your generosity was in full display earlier this year when you accepted to speak at midnight at the Night of Philosophy and Ideas, the12-hour marathon of philosophical debate, performances, screenings, and installations that we ,the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, co-present with the Brooklyn Public Library. You gave a beautiful talk entitled “Inhabiting our Earth Together,” even though you – a true citizen of the Earth - had just arrived from Marseille earlier that day.

You are no stranger to these ceremonies, as you have been named Chevalier, Commandeur and Grand Officier de l’Ordre National du Lion by the government of Senegal. The French government has named you Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite  as well as Chevalier de l’Ordre national des Arts et Lettres.  And now; Professor Diagne, for your outstanding contributions in philosophy and education, it is my great pleasure to present you with the insignia of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

image credit: Flandrine Raab

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