02:50:41 amCategories: Fieldwork, Anthropological notes

Space, time and revolt: - My blog, my project and I, part 2

The working title of my project has been Communities in the making: Identity and belonging in postcolonial Paris and London. Initially, the idea was to do a similar project to the one I had done for my master thesis. However, after I came to Paris I quickly learnt that the situation here is quite different from the one in London 6 years ago. The first thing I realised was that it was no wonder my first fieldwork went pretty well, but – hélas – I yet don’t see any reasons for this one to follow suit…

In London 1999, I stumbled right upon the climax in the creation of a home-grown British Asian identity. And what chance, because that kind of identity politics was exactly what I had prepared for. Before I crossed the North Sea to arrive in London I had read Paul Gilroy’s brilliant There ain’t no black in the Union Jack almost to pieces, and what I found amongst the second generation British Asians was a situation quite similar to the one Gilroy described amongst black Britons 10-15 years earlier. (Gilroy shows how a way of being black and British had been created through political struggles, a process where music and social/political movements played an important role. The British Asian identity politics I found going on in London in the second half of the 1990s was formulating a strategic, or political identity, as a response to stigmatisation (for a large part).

And then I went happy go lucky to Paris to find a French, republican equivalent…

Perhaps the Marche pour l’Egalité in 1983 (also called “march for the Beurs (French Arabs)”) can be compared to the identity political process I witnessed in London, but there are so many differences that perhaps it would be a too gross simplification to equate the two phenomena. To the extent that there are or have been identity political movements here in France, I think they would take a very different shape.

These different shapes are of course exactly what I’m here to look at, but until now I have had problems finding a nice little comparable and “studiable” phenomenon. Instead of something small, manageable and significant, I’ve become utterly overwhelmed by noteworthy phenomena and processes going on, and – of course – by an accelerating amount of academic literature on whatever imaginable and relevant subject. For instance, it’s been written books on the situation of French Arabs and the situation in the banlieues at least since 1983… And every month there are new publications coming – I have lost track of books and journals already published on the November 2005 riots; Banlieue, lendemains de révolte, La République brûle-t-elle?… (I’ve got four of them but there are many more).

So, after I had become aware of – through the confrontation with the French context – how focused and pertinent my previous field study had been, I understood that I needed a sharper and more locally adapted focus for my approach here. My first idea was to look at interaction in, and appropriation of, space. The first two months of my fieldwork I lived next to the neighbourhood of Belleville, and every day I crossed through a field of ethnic, cultural and social diversity with is perhaps one of the most complex on earth: Relatively recently arrived East Asians establishing new enterprises, recently arrived West Africans and equally recently arriving bobos (bohemian bourgeoisie artists and professionals – predominantly, but not exclusively white (and quite a few of them seem to live in ethnically mixed couples)), the long-staying North African Muslims and North African (Tunisian) Jews and the old white artisan and working class, apparently all together... (Apropos the working class element; funnily, at an exhibition at the Town Hall recently, I heard an interview with the photographer Willy Ronis who recounted that he had lived next to Belleville 70-80 years ago, but had been prohibited to go there from his middleclass father, presumably because of it’s working-class shabbiness. Luckily, for those of us who appreciate good photos from Paris he started hanging around there as an adult).

In addition to a research focus on the appropriation of space, I was also thinking of looking at the re-appropriation of history, which was also a phenomenon that quickly grabbed my attention. Before I came here I had just read the anthropological classic Europe and the people without history by Eric Wolf (which as brilliant as Gilroy’s book, here my favourites turn up, one after the other…). And the funny thing was that while only a few of my informants in London said, to quote Asian Dub Foundation; “we’re only here ‘cause you were there”, the theme of France’s dependence on it’s colonies, the atrocious history of slavery, the work the (former) colonial subjects have done and still do here reverberates everywhere – from rap songs to what the local cornershop owner easily will chat to you about… So yes, the re-appropriation of the history of France seemed like a relevant approach.

My contemplation had come about this far when the banlieues seemed to explode last autumn. Whatever I’d been thinking concerning focus for my research until then just drowned in an overload of information. The angry kids outside Paris didn’t seem directly relevant in my comparative study (just as the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Ilford hadn’t made much impact on my findings in London), however the bearings the November riots have had on the media as well as the politics is worth a research project in itself…

(As I write this, on one of the numerous talk-shows which goes on for hours and hours into the night, I can hear them mentioning the autumn’s revolt as they’re discussing the CPE (“All that for that”, as they somewhat self-ironically have dubbed the discussion)… Right now, Alain Finkielkraut – with messy, half long hair, round glasses and a broad stripy tie, a French intellectual, obviously… – seems to be suggesting that the French youth is malleable and easy to seduce; - the president of the student organisation is shaking his head, the porte-parole of the ruling party is looking almost bored… I’m about to lose track of the task of finishing this, absorbed as I easily become of these French discussions… I ought to study one of them anthropologically, as a ritual. If they don’t talk all at once sooner or later, the event has not been very successful). The law on “equal opportunities” (l’égalité de chances) where the CPE has been part and which has been messing up the whole country for more than a month, is meant to be an answer to the problem of the banlieues. The response is rejected by a majority of the French population, including quite a few of the banliusards themselves.

Maybe the law obliging schools to teach the positive sides of colonisation would have been scraped sooner or later anyway, and maybe the silent non-celebration of the centenary of the law on laïcité (separation of state and church) and the bicentenary of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz would as well have been subdued anyway, but my impression is that the sensitivity to colonial/historical issues is nothing but gaining in importance at the moment.

So, yes, a focus on a re-appropriation of history could be a well-founded choice for this fieldwork. It fits well in with the larger, comparative object of my research project as well, as this new scrutiny of the history of France also can be seen as a next step in identity politics: British Asians (e.g.) made it possible to be British in new ways – they widened the boundaries of “Britishness” – through reversing and removing the stigmas that for a long time had been attached to their South Asian origins and which had excluded them from being British. The critique that is being lanced against French national history – devoirs de mémoire, “the duty to remember” – can be interpreted as a challenge to the omissions and forgetfulness incorporated into the national history of former colonial powers (as well as other nations). To be French is not what one thinks it is… And by what right can one exclude the descendants of slavery, descendants of soldiers fighting for France in numerous wars, the migrant workers participating in the glorious growth of the post-Second World War period and so on from being citizens of this nation/republic? The empirical phenomenon almost fits too well with my new infatuation for Eric Wolf’s perspective, as well.

For a while much of my attention has been on this re-appropriation of first space, and then more and more of time. But then suddenly, France erupts again. A friend of mine reminded me that all these demonstrations and revolts fit perfectly with my research focus on communities in the making… Yes, she’s right. And I start to reflect on all the anger, revolt and political commitment I have come across here. In fact it’s been so much of it that I’m considering revising the working title of my project to Revolt and belonging in postcolonial Paris: community in the making.

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