The second of the videos we’ve been producing with Ross Domoney, Daniel Murphy and Eric Amalraj as part of our Par(is) Unknown series.
In the hours before the first round of the French elections, as the voices of European reason and liberalism anguished and then sighed with relief, we took to the streets of Paris: from its edge to its core, the French capital exudes fear and resentment. For so many, the election is distant, irrelevant, unable to change a life for which there is little to celebrate.
Over the next few days, I will be in Paris with good ol’ friend Ross Domoney, working on a brief series of video dispatches from the stressed streets of the French capital:
Glare at your TV screen, flick through your feeds, blink at your flashing updates and you will soon immerse yourself in what is meant to be an election like no other, an election that is supposed to determine the future of France and even Europe as we’ve known it so far.
Keep it at that, and you could easily believe the election is fought at the TV studios, between the four gladiators fighting for the soul of the Republic. But out in the city things are, as always, more complicated. In the days leading up to, and following the election, we ask urbanites about their fears and their hopes. As the country grips itself for the mother of all battles, we delve into the city’s streets and its metro carriages to brush out its psyche.
So here we are. France, from all places: the visceral land of hope for rebellion across our old continent, the mythical mecca of the 1968 uprising, the formidable, always hopeful page-turner―in the Arts, in Politics, in all The Stuff That Matters―has come to this sorry state, a mimic of political life that is not. On the screens, the feeds and the updates, four candidates battle it out for the ultimate Republic-trophy: an archetypal fascist, a caricature of a corrupt politician, an “independent” savior of the kind that has flourished in the ever-growing detachment of politics and the everyday, and a seemingly refreshed old-cut leftist who promises not to make a Tsipras of himself. Back in Athens, we had followed these words in some astonishment, wondering what the man himself might think of becoming synonymous to retreat and betrayal, a name equating subservience and defeat. Over here, under the glaring Parisian sun, the distance from Athens puts it all under perspective―a peripheral capital that battled it out but lost, the first victim in liberal democracy’s war on itself. For some time now, liberal democracy has moved the war from its peripheries, to its semi-peripheries, now bringing it squarely back to its own heartland.
So here we go. On the eve of the trip some person in uniform is shot dead at Champs Élysées: a death as full of symbolism as it can possibly be, and as devoid of any actual meaning. Lone wolf assaults on the symbolic guards of the Republic have become a symbol of the Republic itself. This morning, more persons in uniform, of the khaki variety this time, stand guard at the airport, arriving passengers filtering through their cordon, and are any photos allowed? Why of course not, the essence of the security theater includes the self-awareness of its need to stay both highly visible and creepily disguised: imposing, but never quite immersing itself in the everyday life of a city that, against, despite and beyond the politics of fear and division keeps marching on.
Out in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory, fall 2017
Loughborough University, UK
Henri Lefebvre (1901–1991) was one of the most important Marxist theorists, introducing the ordinary to Marxist theory while living an extraordinary life himself. Lefebvre joined the French Communist Party in 1928, and was expelled in the late 1950s, a heterodox voice in a Stalinist, orthodox structure. He joined the French Resistance, became close to the Situationist International and backed the May 1968 revolt.
Lefebvre was born at the dawn of the twentieth century and died in the year that officially ended the Cold War, the era riddled with the potentially catastrophic effects of state and power antagonisms upon the everyday lives of populations caught in their midst – very symbolic for a thinker who departed from traditional paths of Marxist theory to develop a theory encompassing the sphere of everyday life instead, one that read through and beyond the nation-state as its unit of analysis. Lefebvre left behind an extremely large amount of writing that includes more than 60 books and over 300 articles. To summarize these would be impossible. Yet, if one were to outline his legacy, it would be a gross omission not to include, at the very least, Lefebvre’s enhancing of our understanding of everyday life, of the production of space, and of the urban potential for revolution.
If there is one thing that is striking about everyday life in Trump’s times, is that at the surface of it, nothing has changed. Why of course, you would cry in protest―what do you expect to see, craters in the pavements opening up, lava firing away, the now unsalvageable populace now screaming away in panic?
No, of course not. The same kind of rhetoric has come up, after all, time and time again, in Greece at the peak of its own crisis―the usual “why are your cafeterias still full” moronic line of argument. I did not expect to see this kind of spectacle. But what is striking in the brief time between Trump’s swearing in and the present moment―only sixty-odd days, mind, but at this moment in history this is something of an eternity―is how most people seem to have switched from being shell-shocked, to denial. I think that is what it is, denial: not complacency (which would require a full admission of what is going on) nor, exactly, resignation―well hopefully not, plus it must surely be way too early for that. Denial: a creeping sense that what is happening isn’t real and that, if one were to try and ignore it it might, it might just go away. In my talks with friends, comrades, strangers, the same recurring thing comes up: surely Trump will be impeached, it is only a matter of time, look at all those Russia links, plus―this one is new―they don’t seem to be letting his administration pass anything through, anyway. So, goes the inadvertent conclusion, all one has to do is wait for the fruit to ripen and fall off the tree: a question of when, not if.
This is what the people say when they speak. But the bodies, as they move through the city, tell much of a different story. They are masses-in-limbo, no longer expecting, not waiting for the next phase, but knowingly trapped in an in-between that will certainly not end any time soon. For no matter what happens in the highest echelons of power, the credits to legitimate, liberal democracy have rolled already―whether the audience decides to leave the cinema or not doesn’t make much of a difference to this fact. Whatever happens “next” is of no significance importance. The bodies know, and they in turn radiate through their shiftlessness, that life as we had known it so far is gone.
They know that what is to follow is a long limbo, an in-between that becomes our here-and-now, certain in its uncertainty, unexpectedly reassuring in its bleakness. Why rush? The place is here, and the time is now―and we’ll be here and now for some while.