Visibly Underground: When Clandestine Workers Take the Law into their Own Hands

The underground I’m interested in is not a space sought out or cultivated in opposition to the law; rather it’s a situation of clandestinity either generated by or in some sense despite the law. Yet this does not mean to say that this underground is devoid of any political charge. On the contrary – although it is frequently the case that this zone of non-droit is framed as a human disaster, rather than as an issue of both political and ontological consequence. The humanitarian frame for much discussion of illegal migration around the world reflects the fact that it is but very rarely opposition to the law in the so-called ‘host’ country that constitutes the primary impetus for this ‘underground movement’. Yet the challenge brought to the law by the ever more numerous candidates for illegal migration becomes political and, as such, is apt to generate forms of mobilisation and association that weave into other, perhaps more self-consciously constituted networks of political resistance. In other words, existing without papers in ‘le pays des papiers’, as young Algerian harregas, or clandestine immigrants, like to call France, is rarely intended as a political act, though the idea that this act might always be an act of desperation needs to be questioned too. But it becomes a political issue, and not merely a political issue in the sense that politicians are summed to answer the specific forms that this plight takes, but more exactly, it becomes an occasion to think politics again.[1]

The situation for the sans papiers migrants is conditioned by a lack: a lack of papers and a lack of so-called ‘useful’ qualifications or skills. The aim of this chapter is to think about how that lack can function as a positive prompt, producing an acknowledgment of the limitations of the political system, or the law, and generating by extension the possibility of construing that lack as possibility, or openness. In other words, the lack will be construed as being also a plus: something like the sort of ‘supplement’ or ‘movement’ that Rancière identifies as ‘le politique’, in opposition to ‘la politique’ of the institutionalised management of population flows. Instead of denouncing the aberrant evolution of the law, which has reduced some people previously living legally in France to illegality, or criticising the increasingly stringent formulation of the law, or the unbending application of the law, as the majority of pressure and support groups tend to do, Rancière’s thinking involves a more disarming reconceptualisation of the life of the ‘cité’. It disarms the impetus and organising principles of a certain form of socially-motivated action, which may critique specific aspects of State ‘reason’, but does not ultimately question the reason of State and the supposed ‘self-evidence’ of an expression such as Michel Rocard’s oft-quoted appeal to ‘common sense’: ‘La France ne peut pas accueillir toute la misère du monde’ or ‘France cannot accommodate all the misery of the world.’

More fundamentally, Rancière is particularly significant to us here because he also loosens the connection between two conceptions of the avant-garde that tend to remain locked together, and by extension reshapes the frame of underground contestatory activity. These two conceptions are, on the one hand, a notion of the avant-garde as fore-runner that embodies the intelligence of the moment and the possibility of determining the future forms of history, and, on the other, the notion of the avant-garde or non-conformism as engaging in finding new forms of life, in modifying what Rancière would term the ‘domaine du sensible’. In distinguishing these two conceptions of the avant-garde, and rejecting the teleological structure of the former, Rancière’s work participates in, and constitutes one of the most important articulations of a vibrant scene that wants to think otherwise than within the frame of a Hegelian dialectic.

Today I want to try and shuttle between that level of abstraction and some very local instances of work that have been produced in Paris in relation to the nebula of protest and resistance clustering around the sans-papiers movement. This shuttling is proposed as a heuristic device to engage with what is at stake in considering ‘Paris’ in the context of practices that are generally perceived to have no particular location and in this sense to be best understood as transnational phenomena. After all, illegal immigration is a global reality, and though it is important to distinguish between different legal regimes operating in different national spaces and the different cultural affects that freight specific journeys, the actual movement of migrants suggests the very relative significance of these distinctions when set against frontiers such as those that keep apart Europe and North Africa, or American and Mexico, or those with papers and those without within ‘le pays des papiers.’

Academic discourse in the humanities is also largely a transnational phenomenon, of which this collective publication is a good instantiation. At both these levels, it’s not immediately obvious why it might be worth making a distinction between Paris and Amsterdam in today’s global economy. But this publication is also a good example of the fact that this distinction is everywhere apparent to us, and that historical and/or socio-political terms and considerations are not sufficient to think it. So it is to that end that I need the shuttling between what we might term theory and socio-demographic reality. Because the specifics lie not in a particular social reality, or in a particular and new – or vanguard – mode of thinking, but in how thinking and living rub off on one another, and the sort of culture that accrues around that rub.

So this piece is part of a larger endeavour to think the specificities of a city, not so much despite the global processes that traverse it, but rather in light of these processes. And its claim is that there is a specific texture and energy to the question of ‘papers’ in France, which needs more of an explanation than can be derived from focusing on the details of the law of that nation, and in turn offers more of an occasion for thinking.

I propose to substantiate these claims by staying quite close to two different ways in which actual moments of struggle where the force of law has been disrupted, for varying lengths of time, have been accompanied by efforts to enable this necessarily short-lived pressure on the law to be translated into different forms of visibility. The first endeavour grew out of the longish occupation of the Bourse du Travail building in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, a large block of offices in a Haussmannian building, which belongs to the CGT, and which was occupied by the Collectif des Sans-Papiers from May 2008 to July 2009 following the announcement that a certain number of regularisations would take place and the CGT positioned itself to ensure that its members without papers would be top of the list. This choice of location is significant, over and above the not negligible factor that the building offered un-used space in a central location with electricity and plumbing. The CGT has long been a key locus of oppositional energy in France and is still closely associated with extreme-left organisations such as the Nouveau parti anti-capitaliste as well as the Parti communiste français. But its record on supporting the sans-papiers is much less positive: its position had tended to echo the view that illegal immigrants are a threat to the job prospects of French citizens, thus aligning itself on the position of ‘common sense’ that requires a regretfully stringent application of quotas and a necessary removal of elements who slip through anyway[2].

The decision to occupy the Bourse du Travail put the government, under President Sarkozy, and the CGT on the same side of the fence. Moreover, the occupation was significant because, like other large scale occupations, it flaunted the illegality of its participants, drawing attention to people who were not necessarily known to the préfecture and who thereby increased their chances of deportation. But unlike the much-mediatised occupation of the Saint-Bernard church in 1996, which ended with violent clashes and numerous arrests and deportations, here the Collectif did not have the theoretical protection of the Church and the CGT ended up doing the work of the police by strong-arming the sans-papiers out. The latter took refuge in another strategic location in the 18th arrondissement, in the empty premises of the French Social Security administration, the CPAM, where they founded the Ministry for the Regularisation of All the Sans-Papiers. Once again the movement ran the risk of visibility, with a permanence set up on the street and large banners hung from the building. The men lived on the ground floor so as to establish continuity with the street, and separate quarters were established for the women and children on the second floor. In this instance the overt, but passive contestation of the law collapsed in the face of the law’s intransigence: despite the official circulars that define due processes for the regularisation of applicants on the basis of particular forms of evidence, all regularisations in Paris had ceased. The law had responded to exception with exception; physical inertia met with bureaucratic inertia; the bid to ‘void’ the law and ‘ape’ government ‘ministry’ by making the intrinsically selective process of ‘regularisation’ universal and applicable to ‘all’, met with the self-silencing of the law as its implementation slowed to a complete halt. And in order to secure the proper functioning of the law, the movement left the premises, despite suggestions of dissension. The current situation, at the end of 2010, is effective dispersal, with sporadic demonstrations that receive little media attention, such as the occupation of the Cité de l’Immigration museum, which went virtually unremarked in the press despite the fact it forced one of the largest new cultural centres in Paris to close its doors for a significant period of time.

This ‘vacillation’ of the law is worth considering a little closely. One of the reasons why the properly political dimension of the sans-papiers situation is often ignored stems from the fact that the actors involved tend to get cast as individuals seeking individual solutions that will enable them to disappear fully into the anonymous mass of legitimate citizens, and if ‘pulled up’ or ‘out’ and summed to testify to their legitimate presence on French soil, enable them to merge comfortably back in behind a piece of paper that theoretically cancels whatever ‘difference’ they may wear more or less ostensibly. What sort of political force can a heterogeneous group of people all bound on proving at all cost their capacity for integration possibly constitute? By definition their plight commits them to a form of consensus, and social and political militants active in this and related areas such as housing and access to education often express the difficulty of consolidating any action with such a fluctuating population whose relation to the struggle is conditioned by their success in making the law work to their own end, particularly in the face of evidence that, for the State too, the law is a flexible tool and not an autonomous structure.[3] Being a sans papier is after all hopefully a mere phase in the life of an individual; it is not a matter of conviction.

In the course of a fascinating study that charts the experiences of a diverse group of Algerian men, primarily, all living illegally in France although some were raised in that country, Marie-Thérèse Têtu-Delage describes the frustrations of ‘French’ militants: ‘[les jeunes] ne se plient pas aux règles françaises de la vie associative […] Les ‘Français’ s’étonnent des relations des sans-papiers entre eux, de la labilité de leurs liens, de leur méfiance réciproque, de leurs disputes, de leur médisance.’[4] Lurking within this sort of frustration is often a sense of the unreliability of the sans-papier – here today demanding assistance, gone tomorrow, late for appointments, willing to take clandestine work even though it may mean jeopardising the dossier that has painstakingly been put together by a local support group… The characterisation of the unstable, self-interested, potentially unscrupulous character runs deep, generating the characterisation of the sans-papier militant as a chameleon, as Ababacar Diop was described by Le Monde after he led the very noisy occupation of the Saint-Bernard church.[5] The pressure that this potentially unapologetic manipulation of the law places on ‘our’ consensual conception of the democratic process is perhaps expressed most clearly in the way young Algerians tend to translate the Arabic word harragas: in French they call themselves ‘grilleurs’. ‘On grille les trains,’ ‘on grille les contrôles’, ‘on grille son nom’… But it is precisely within what can too easily be reduced to a form of delinquency that the affirmation of self-determination needs to be heard, and not where it is more comfortably muted in the evocations of hapless victims of a new world order. That these ‘grilleurs’ are victims of shrinking economic, social and political possibilities is not in question; but they are not only victims. The choice of illegal immigration is experienced as an act of self-definition, which is also an act of shared significance: an adventure that resonates strongly for those still ‘back home’ who write the names of the harragas on the walls of the medina, thereby generating the sort of mythology that Appadurai has analysed as productive of localities, or lived worlds constituted by relatively stable associations, and often opposed to the forms of belonging offered by the nation state.[6]

In the past twenty years or so, and more intensely since the post-2001 restrictions on global mobility for certain social categories, the self-perception of the migrant has shifted significantly and in ways that are articulated through a comparison with the previous generation seeking opportunities for work. This distinction operates at the level of self-designation as part of some larger group, as one particularly rich declaration by one of the young harregas interviewed by Têtu-Delage reveals: ‘Les immigrés, ceux qui ont des papiers, nous appelent les blédards, les clandos. C’étaient les premiers. Nous, on a appris le droit, la demande d’asile. On sait comment contourner, aller dans le sens inverse des autres, ouvrir des voies. Aller à Hambourg avec un passeport grillé, demander l’asile politique en Allemagne parce que tu as le droit au logement. Là-bas, il n’y a pas de squats d’Arabes, que des SDF. Après, tu passes en Hollande, puis au Danemark. L’entrée en France, ça craint, c’est pas grave, il y a la Grèce, l’Espagne, le Portugal. Il y a toujours une solution pour passer.’[7] Where their father and uncle’s generation are perceived as caught in a structure of exploitation, with the only redress possible being recognition of their ‘place’ within that structure – whether in the form of army pensions, residency permits, papers for dependents etc – what this comment articulates is a strikingly fluid sense of some sort of shared underground agency, an agency that subverts the structure, that uses the law, that is smarter than the law, with the key value being at all times the capacity to move and to outwit. In its expression of its unfreedom, it also declares another future which is not only that of ‘regularisation’.

The same young man will also express feelings of extreme dejection in the course of Têtu-Delage’s deep ethnographic study, and the account of his activities leaves us in no doubt as to the difficulty of his choice. But the irrepressibility of his declaration, with its claim to inventivity and creativity, is inseparable from the knowledge of what objectifies him or what ‘holds’ him in a marginal and acutely vulnerable category, that of the putative asylum seeker. Where the State can only perceive a form of disturbance, and humanitarian groups deplore the actions of criminal networks exploiting the desperation of individuals, we need to contend with the idea that persistent efforts to outwit the law, and the connections that happen in and through this effort, also open up a sense of possibility around frontiers. This is not, however, to lapse into some sort of post-structuralist celebration of nomadism or transnationality. It would be naïve to suggest that the actual frontiers of economic and political division are any the less imposing as a result of what is also perhaps nothing more than the bravura of a young apache. But the expression of that defiance and what is involved in hearing it as an expression of possibility generates some sort of friction, or rub, somewhere between the smooth functioning of the law and the fantasy of unhindered circulation on the part of the illegal migrant who knows the secret passages in fortress Europe.

This brings me back to Paris as a site, then, of encounters where the forms of expression have a particular tone, such as ‘griller’ with its evocation of a lawlessness that has strong roots in a poète damné tradition (from Rimbaud through to Roger Nimier), and the listening in turn also draws on a specific range of resources. And more precisely it brings me back to the first of the projects I want to mobilise here: the project that grew into its title ‘Vas-y montre ta carte’ initiated and developed by Fabien Breuvart throughout the occupation of the Bourse du Travail. This project papered the walls around the main place de la République with cheaply printed A4 pictures of two people, one usually of African origin and the other of more varied social and physical profile. Together the two people held up an identity card, which on close inspection – though the photo didn’t always make this inspection possible – turned out to be the ID card of one of the people pictured.[8]

As ‘portraits’ these photos were fascinating for the sort of ‘brouillage’ or disruption that they provoked, in a mild, almost surreptitious way. The idea of surreptitiousness is important to me here to try and catch something of this project’s mode of visibility and readability. In contrast as much with the widely mediatised and aestheticising images of migrants produced, for example, by the Paris-based Brazilian photographer Salgado, as with the criticism famously levelled at them by Susan Sontag in her work on regarding the pain of others, these photos have none of the reifying, brooding intensity that tends to transform misery into a form of spectacle, but nor do they offer a means of reconstructing what Sontag felt was abstracted out of Salgado’s stills, that is the ‘concreteness’ of politics and history. They are not interested in the specific trajectory of the migrant photographed, nor in his or her name: they are interested in what perhaps remains a fleeting moment of interaction that occurs by means of an interpellation that constitutes both of the objects of the lens through the summation to show papers.

Indeed, the ‘tu’ of the address shifts across the divide of menacing challenge and civic invitation, generating a subversion of the powerful fiction that papers underwrite identity. Of course, papers do in very real senses underwrite all sorts of possibilities, but what the light gesture of suspending the ID card between two distinct hands and two distinct bodies suggests is the disjunction between this ‘fiction’ and the bodies it tries to order and control. It also flickers with possibilities of stories between people, especially when the photos are viewed in series and the bodies seem variously together, or together variously, either constrained, or almost affectionate, laughing, portentous. A certain sort of community is figured in this togetherness, and Fabien Breuvart explained to me how people came often from quite a distance specifically to the Bourse du Travail to participate in the project, responding to a need to inscribe themselves in this story. He also related how quickly and easily people handed over their ID cards, and one of the things that is suggestive about these photos when viewed serially is the range of ways of holding the card and who holds it most forthrightly.

But more important perhaps than these variations within the act of loosening the monadic structure of ID-based social organisation, is the formal quality of this project that becomes more apparent if we contrast it, say, with the relatively common practice of ‘parrainage’ or ‘sponsoring’ whereby a fully-paid-up member of civic society assists a migrant or asylum seeker with his or her process of integration, initiating him or her into the ways and means of the ‘host’ country. In those contexts what is lent in terms of knowledge and even in even in terms of goods and clothes gives a very thick sense to the ‘identity’ of the community gradually created, even though the sharing may involve a degree of reciprocity. In Fabien Breuvart’s photos, however, what is shared, even though very provisionally, is precisely what cannot be shared, and the ‘flat’ collectivity of two hands on one card intervenes between the embodied differences of destiny, or of place in the structures of civil society.

It’s the doubling that is interesting, behind the ‘card’ that declares singularity. It creates, I feel, the sense of the pressure of bodies rubbing shoulders while also collapsing any impression that the photo offers up the full presence of a unified subject, as portraits in the traditional sense are often perceived to do. Instead the presence we gauge here occurs across a distance, that of the ID card, generating the implication that we are all held together, though apart, by the structure of papers, those with as much as those without, and by extension this gesture implicates us, as we look, casually caught by the interpellation from the wall: ‘go on, show your papers.’

Let me shuttle back now to my ‘higher’ level of abstraction: what perhaps needs underscoring here is, then, that these photos, which squarely frame the impoverished victims of global capitalism and put them on view for police and spectators, can help us think through the dilemma of how to make these clandestine workers visible without either assigning them to a particular, and catastrophic place in the regime of law, or abstracting them into mere shadows. In his introduction to Anabell Guerrero’s Aux frontières, a collection of photos taken in migrant camp Sangatte near Calais, John Berger stages this dilemma: how do you catch a living shadow on camera while also avoiding the cat-and-mouse strategy of revelation and censure, shared by the national media and the state police? How do you avoid the claim: ‘here you have it, the reality of the camps’… Between aesthetics and information, or between disembodied forms, circulating without weight in ‘our’ world, and sociological facts, what we need is a production of knowledge that subverts these categories by subverting the structure of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, ‘citizen’ and ‘clando’, by prompting us to ‘show our cards’ too, provoked thereby in our own unfreedom to think carefully about the postures we might adopt when holding them out. Defiance, apology, anxiety… Perhaps we’re not fully sure of being ‘en règle’ ourselves…?

What I want to emphasise here is a mode of apprehension of the production of identity that happens as much within the body as it does in some sort of reflective process: it is no more freely imagined than it is fully ascribed. Rather the fiction of the disinterestedness of the law is crossed by feelings of discomfort or discrepancy – ‘not me, you don’t mean me…’ – in its reception. Our own implication in this interpellation is also an experience of our resistance to it, which tends to take the form of a flood of emotions, subsequently relived as stories told of intransigent police officers, influential friends, things that go really wrong, stories bound together with shame, or defiance, or laughed off loudly. It is rare that one’s tussles with the identity police don’t involve the experience of exception, where our place within the law is overwritten by other realities, where we take exception to the form experience is assuming. And Fabien Breuvart expressed a version of this when describing the impetus for his project, which he claimed would not have happened if it hadn’t been ‘dans ma rue’. The archetypal structure of belonging within the culture of Paris – ‘mon quartier’, ‘ma rue’ – is right in the foreground here, particularly as voiced by a local shopkeeper such as Breuvart, who is a quartier photographer first and foremost, making most of his income from ID pictures and family prints. It resounds with two distinct sounds: a sense of appal – how can people be reduced to living in these conditions on my street; but also a recognition of responsibility. In his terms, it was not possible to remain unmoved by this event. The emergency was as much his emergency as that of the sans-papiers themselves, and as we talked on in the local market café, where he often meets one of the main leaders of the Bourse du Travail occupation who has cleaned the aisles of the market for over 15 years, his account of what was caught up in this imperative bled out into other sources of grievance, both local and more existential.

This notion of ‘taking exception’ – and by extension, the feeling of entitlement in taking the law into one’s own hands – echoes through the other project I want to discuss here: the film work made by Sylvain George, a relatively young French film-maker whose work focused on the trajectories of illegal immigrants has recently caught significant attention in a number of festivals[9]. In one of George’s early short pieces, entitled NO BORDER and built around images of the liminal presence of migrants in Paris, Benjamin’s famous 8th Thesis on Philosophy occupies the screen:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.[10]

Giorgio Agamben has offered the fullest engagement with Benjamin’s thesis on the State of Exception in his sequel to Homo Sacer. There he rejects the idea that a state of exception occurs outside the frame of law as a moment of disruption that subsequently founds a regime, as in a revolutionary upheaval that then legitimises the constituent assembly. Instead he elaborates a reading of exceptionality which claims, echoing Benjamin, that we live in a permanent state of exception, understood, not as untrammelled force, but rather as a structure or tension that holds together in one body – the State – the two forces of life and the law. The first, also analysed as autoritas, operates with impunity, the second, potentas, maintains and enforces the law. While these two forces have been conceptually distinct in earlier regimes, the modern state has entered a permanent state of exception by welding them together. In other words, what characterises the modern state is its now generalised tendency to act outside the law while continuing to sustain the fiction of the law’s sovereignty.

The significance of Agamben’s analysis lies in the way it opens up another mode of exceptionality that must be understood as operating on and with the law, rather than erasing the law. Instead of conceptualising resistance to a government-driven state of exception as requiring force to meet force, thereby generating some sort of dialectical resolution, Agamben advances the idea of a ‘deposing’ of the law. Not its suppression, but its transformation through acts of study or play. He is interested in actions that seek only to manifest themselves and, in so doing, to reveal the disjunction between law and life: those moments of ‘exception’ which, he claims, hold the ‘possibility of reaching a new condition’.[11]

Thus Agamben posits a form of ‘pure violence’ whereby action does not bind and neither commands nor prohibits, but rather loosens the law from its role as juridical structure in a way that finds a particular resonance with the loosening of ownership of one’s ‘ID’ in the photos produced by Breuvart. This pure ‘play’ reveals the non-necessity of the law, or its lack of purchase without autoritas to ensure its application. In its combination of defiance and flippancy it mirrors the overt flaunting of the law by state power, which also risks exposing the limits of the law. In other words, the notion of exceptionality as demonstrated by the repressive force of state is faced with another mode of exceptionality.

In the final part of this chapter I will explore this other mode of exceptionality further through Sylvain George’s film-work, speaking a little more in the process both to George’s own mobilization of Benjamin’s thinking and by extension to Agamben’s strenuous efforts to think about what sort of pressure can be brought to bear on the institutional frames of civil society. But doing so will also involve shuttling away from this level of abstraction and back to the close grain of the ‘sensible’ where the question is again what sort of visibility enables the figuring of this exceptionality. Or, to put it another way: what sort of forms does George produce to enable the underground in Paris to be seen.

What is perhaps most striking about George’s films is the way they move fluidly between highly formalizing, almost writerly, strategies and oblique snatches of documentation of brutal reality, surveying the sorts of makeshift encampments in dis-used lots in the city, particularly behind the Gare de l’Est, or dwelling on bodies cursorily washing in the cold at a water tap in the street. The camera lingers on the rubbish, the rags, the cardboard, the plastic bags, all signs of transience and the dematerialisation of social life. But these signs are not merely empty, as if emblematic of the commodification of labour. They are in some instances quite literally occupied, but the motion of his films is still not exactly about making ‘concrete’ the processes of capital or the bodies on the streets. What is more important is the ebb and flow of presence through the films, or the way ‘empty’ forms gain weight, then retreat again into mere shadows, like the lights on the water between France and England, or the plastic bags full of all one owns, then abandoned in order to make a dash. There is a long tradition in France of fascination with the way the city harbours its capacity to shock, a tradition that could bear lots of names, but perhaps most resonantly that of Baudelaire, for whom the city and its obscure and abandoned ‘déchets’ offered supremely the occasion to ‘penser à des choses qui ne sont pas de la terre’. Baudelaire, and particularly Baudelaire read with Benjamin, is one of the principle resources with which George appears to apply himself to listening and seeing in Paris. But this does not mean to suggest that his work is about exegesis, any more than it is about representing with sociological accuracy the patterns and processes of migrancy. Rather it is about a construction of the self or a construction of a certain knowing, in which a literary culture – perhaps a specifically ‘Parisian’ lexus – is what both enables and is transformed by the effort to see an ‘underground’ reality.[12]

Like Breuvart, this process is affirmed as fundamentally political precisely in the fact that it operates outside the frame of ‘traditional’ or institutionalised politics, or in that it operates as some sort of exception to the categories that regiment social life. Breuvart emphasised an experience of ‘cassure’, something irredeemably lost; George in turn resists any designation as militant, if that means an association with a recognisable and stable political formation. The limited nature of the fluctuating, liminal ‘collectif’ of the sans-papiers, generated in the face of specific emergencies and intended to play a role in situations of crisis – such as deportation etc – that do not have a vocation to endure, is in this respect a significant element in understanding both these endeavours, not merely a regrettable consequence of a ‘floating’ population. The pressure they bring to bear to bear on the ordered control of bodies in space is intermittent, a seizure or shock that disrupts the habitual flow of information and processes. But this interruptive flare of emergency is not fully blinding, and this might be another way of saying that it is not primarily aesthetic or poetic: it has shape, it reveals a process, it articulates sounds that fill space. In George’s film, it has what I want to call a particularly Parisian urban tone, that of the Passante’s lightening gaze, or that of the pestilent crowd’s heaving body. These are the forms that re-emerge through the flare, while also being what ignites that flare, thereby holding off the full eclipse of what needs to be seen.


This chapter strayed far from the ‘traditional’ notion of the underground: let me try and bring it back within that frame.

N’entre pas sans violence dans la nuit –  Show your cards[13]

George’s film, of which the first of these renditions of an interpellation (that is also an invitation) is the title, participates in the events that ensued when an identity check in the Chateau d’Eau area of Paris prompted a small riot. It opens with the arrival of the police, but contrary to the energy and momentum we might expect with this sort of emergency, the law hovers and floats across the screen as an abstract form before emerging into its incontrovertible force. The street hurls around us, and yet the whole scene is suspended, ‘crispé’ as people camp their indignation in its imminent overflow into uncoordinated action, as if its time had suddenly got thicker. George’s montage wrong foots the sense of unfolding, and in that suspension it generates an openness, a possibility. And if violence, or resistance, is what we are invited to effect, it is a very specific mode of violence. Not a directed, purposeful attack on an identifiable target, but a bristling of the self, as if sprouting nervy antennae.

We’re squarely in Paris here; the film ends its long sequences of defiant but uncoordinated action with a hand slapping a sticker announcing revolution on one of the iconic art-nouveau metro entrances as the body disappears below ground. But it does nothing to imply that this riot will be anything other than an ‘incident’, ignored by most, but nonetheless of the greatest urgency: a visible, direction-less suspension of the law. So if we are undoubtedly in Paris, any attempt to re-locate this ‘moment’ or ‘space’ clearly on a map is problematic. Instead of a consolidated city, mapped, mined or mirrored by its underground, we have found ourselves shuttling between different frequencies, observing something like the crackle between them, and it is only in so doing, I would like to contend, that we can know something today of what constitutes clandestine Paris.

(A slightly different version of this text was published in Paris-Amsterdam Underground, Amsterdam and Chicago, 2013, eds. Lindner and Hussey, pp.147-157)

[1] François Brun [2006] ‘Les Sans-Papiers : simple affaire d’humanité ou (aussi) question polituque ?’ in Migrations Société 18 : 104, pp. 103-120 : he charts the process of ‘victimisation’ whereby the ‘political actors’ of the Saint-Bernard occupation in 1996 have come to be perceived as mere ‘objects’ of militant and official discourse.

[2] NEED to document this more ?

[3] See François Brun [2002] « Sans-papiers aux guichets : échec au droit ? » in Antoine Pickels (éd) A la lumière des sans-papiers, Brussels: Complexe, 2002, pp. 71-88. Didier Fassin also underscores the limitations of an approach to the question of illegal immigration based on the idea of the law as always being ‘the expression of an unchanging truth that is implemented in all impartiality. Irregular situations are always the result of an interaction between individual initiatives and the political will of the authorities.’ He describes the evolution of the law and the way it ‘produces’ irregularity.  Didier Fassin [1996] ‘« Clandestins » ou « exclus » ? Quand les mots font les politiques’ in Politix 34, pp. 78-79 (translation my own)

[4] Marie-Thérèse Têtu-Delage [2009] Clandestins au pays des papiers. Expériences et parcours de sans-papiers algériens, Paris: La Découverte, [NEED TO CHECK PAGE NO]

[5] D. Fassin associates these conceptions with the gradual shift to a dominant use of the language of clandestinity when referring to the increasing production of ‘irregularity’ which results in part from the changing formulation and application of the law. He compares the noble sense of clandestinity in the context of a totalitarian regime with the untrustworthy dimension it takes in a democratic context: ‘The “clandestine” doesn’t respect the rules of the economic and social “game”; he takes advantage of the goodwill of the so-called “host” country where he hopes selfishly to make the most of the advantages.’ Fassin [1996], p. 83. See Le Monde 24 January 1997

[6] Arjun Appadurai, After Colonialism. The Cultural Consequences of Globalisation, chapt. On 7, ‘Destinies of patriotism’. These acts of self-determination have clearly been overtaken to some extent by the ‘local’ self-determination of the Arab Spring, particularly in the case of Tunisia, where the ‘cross-Mediterranean’ currents run undoubtedly both ways.

[7] Marie-Thérèse Têtu-Delage [2009], p. 21 [CHECK]

[8] The project, and other work by Fabien Breuvart in his ‘galérie du mur’, can be seen on


[9] Sylvain George’s film Qu’ils reposent en révolte (figures de guerre) [2009] was selected for the International category of the International Documentary Festival (FID) of Marseilles; his work was also part of the festival Un Etat du monde et du cinema held at the Forum des Images in 2011.

[10] Walter Benjamin [1940] ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ trans. Harry Zohn in Illuminations [1969] New York: Schocken. The standard English translation opts for the notion of emergency here, whereas the concept of ‘exception’ is closer to the political tradition within which Benjamin was writing.

[11] Giorgio Agamben [2005] State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, Chicago: Chicago University Press,  p. 88

[12] George described his film-making as a means of constructing himself in an interview with the author (15 Nov 2010)

[13] The first of these is the title of George’s 2008 film; the second is the present author’s own version of Fabien Breuvart’s project title.