Pascal Nicolas-Le Strat
2008
Translated by Millay Hyatt
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Pour consulter le texte en français: Occupations temporaires

Temporary occupations

“Creative-intellectual workers” (artists, urban activists, students, social workers, etc.) frequently occupy wastelands (neglected urban areas or abandoned factories) and turn them into spaces of creation and experimentation. These acts of occupation echo other practices of appropriation—be it material or symbolic, partial or temporary—that have become widespread in France since the nineteen-nineties. Collectives of unemployed and precariously employed have repeatedly invited themselves into the domains of salaried management (unemployment offices [Assédics], job centers [L’ANPE], the offices of the employers’ union Medef or the trade union confederations [1]) and, for as long as the occupation lasted, symbolically and materially rid these entities of their regulatory function and turned them into stages of politics and protest. [2] The act of occupation can thus above all be described as a détournement (of function) and a reversal (of perspective). It is an act that goes further than the aim of protest focused on by the media: it is rather a powerful political and social move that draws attention to current power relations and, at the same time, upsetting, reversing and hijacking them for new ends. An occupation makes visible the antagonism that is at stake for the particular movement, but without allowing itself to be restrained or closed in by it.

For an act of occupation is also a production of experiences and an assemblage of relations—in a word, the production of subjectivity. It operates both on a polemological level (our struggle, “what we’re up against,” the alternative) and on an experiential level (our involvement, “how we’re up against it,” experimentation). Both of these levels are absolutely essential, because it is only the intensity of what is lived and experimented together that will prevent the power relations from closing down on themselves, of becoming self-legitimated, and from hardening into a necessarily unsuccessful repetition. On the other hand, if the act of occupation defuses its antagonistic and dissident potential, it will become weakened and impoverished; it will become depoliticized. The more hostile the environment it has to confront, the more an act of occupation is restricted to looking inward in a limited and defensive way. [3] The severity and urgency of what is at stake can block any (re-)evaluation and questioning; the exacerbation of the antagonisms can entirely foreclose a vital reflection on the ethico-political qualities of the action and on the forms of life and interaction implicated by it. (Antagonistic) struggle and (experiential) involvement should thus not become disjointed. It is only in this way that the act of occupation will be able to stay responsive, open to new issues, and receptive to other concerns.

1. The self-constitution of speech and presence

The sans-papiers have also engaged in multiple acts of occupation—the most symbolic being the occupation of the Saint-Bernard church in Paris [4]—and this political gesture has gone a long way in  giving back a voice to these citizens confined to the margins of society, permanently subject to the presumption of illegality, and always at risk of actually becoming so. [5] What the sans-papiers and homeless, the artists without space and the workers without official status have in common is an unflagging will to reappropriate and affirm: a powerful capacity for the self-constitution of speech and of presence. An act of occupation works the dividing lines; it provokes an antagonism around what creates borders in society—borders between spaces that are valued and those that are not, between authorized speech and inaudible speech, between performing bodies and silent bodies. It is immediately subversive, by virtue of what it implicates and what it provokes, by the very nature of the movement it sets in motion: a counter-speech and a counter-presence that come from within and smash established boundaries. In an occupation, those whom society renders invisible make themselves seen and heard. Those whom the political order and the wage order have disqualified assert themselves with their speech and their activity. Such an act is not merely defensive, but insistent, intensive, and inclusive. It invents a space in which there seemed to be only non-spaces, neglected and vacant territories. It  dislodges the most oppressive forms of power where they had become so perfectly acclimatized that no one dreamed of interpellating or contradicting them. When the collectives of the unemployed or precariously employed occupy the ANPEs or the Assédics, they make visible the profoundly inegalitarian and excluding nature of the apparatuses  that “treat” unemployment. Their intrusion is improper, disturbing, and uncalled-for. It is all the more perturbing in that it is not simply motivated by a particular demand or opposition to something, but rather subverts the rules of the game, deconstructs the situation, and undoes conventional practices. Where city dwellers in a hurry only see vacant lots and destitution, occupying collectives create new active and living spaces. This intrusion causes the usual organization of space to vacillate; points of reference become confused, fixed positions evaporate. Those who have been kept at a distance break and enter; they invite themselves where they were not expected, and their presence becomes an extraordinarily noisy disturbance and confusion.

2. A substantial interruption

The act of occupation instigates a rupture; a vertical rupture that interrupts a function or blocks a process. It is a political insertion into a particular situation that reshuffles its assemblage. An act of occupation does not function in the same way as a strike, where a balance of power is created and the terms of the conflict are defined. A strike fixes the situation by polarizing the stakes. An act of occupation, on the other hand, in the first place creates an event and opens up the situation. It gives free rein to heretofore silenced speech, establishes a presence, opens up possibilities...Far be it from us to deny the element of conflict in an occupation or to downplay the confrontation of the forces at work in a particular situation. We simply want to emphasize an occupation’s character as event and its capacity to “make a difference.” [6] An occupation provokes a substantial interruption that alters and reorders the situation. What was excluded establishes itself as presence; absence or lack become visible. When artists or others occupy a disused industrial zone, they foist a discordant presence into the heart of the city. On the one hand, they reclassify a discredited and neglected space, thus flying in the face of real estate and urban land-use policy. On the other, they prove that forms of life and activity can constitute themselves in an autonomous fashion and that living conditions in the city can be changed. There is a manifest break with the glowing and self-centered terms in which the city represents itself in its marketing campaigns and urban aestheticization programs. The city, as it were, is dislocated where it is, in the sense that the occupied space stays essentially the same (occupation is not synonymous with rehabilitation or renovation) but at the same time becomes totally other than it was since it is put to new use or involved in a new activity. The rupture is very much a vertical one. The dominant logic is defused, at least locally. The general process is dispossessed of its resources, at least temporarily. An occupation does not have the capacity of undoing an apparatus of domination in its entire scope; it cannot close it in. An occupation does not attack the apparatus head-on, exposing itself. It does not take place in an extensive mode. Faced with the massive, extended, expansive deployment of domination, an act of occupation does not oppose it with a force equal (in size) and symmetrical (in content). It can only contradict the forces of domination by taking them from the rear and by surprise. It can only upset the apparatus by destabilizing it from within. An occupation does not confront its opponent face-to-face (on the front lines) but transfixes, penetrates, distorts. By creating an opening or a breach, it is able to make a difference on the enemy’s own territory.

3. Acting within and against the situation

Occupying collectives thus combat the logic of a situation by repudiating its expectations. These collectives turn a particular situation against itself by introducing it into a new context or by diverting it from its goals. Of course the situation resists; its current disposition cannot be so easily contradicted nor its configuration undermined. An act of occupation is a situated act in the sense that “an action can be considered situated not merely by virtue of being inscribed in particular circumstances but by actively exploiting these circumstances.” [7] Indeed it is the mark of a constituent counter-power that it takes over what exists in order to make it mean something radically different. Such a counter-power necessarily acts within a particular situation, both within and against it. It must demonstrate that the different dynamics at work can be revised or reversed; that the absence of status does not go hand in hand with social exclusion, that the experience of stigmatization does not permanently silence people, and that falling into disuse does not necessarily rob a place of its use value. An occupation can be described as a strategic hypothesis that puts itself to the test, politically and in a given context, contingent upon the opportunities opened up by the situation itself and the ability of the occupying collective to seize one of these opportunities and exploit it for its own ends. It is “within the creation of these situations, in the manner in which connections are made, maintained, and extended, according to their own nature, that the field of what we call ‛political experimentations’ is opened up.” [8] The occupying collective experiments with the situation in the true sense of the word, as it must evaluate and reevaluate the environment within which it finds itself, integrate this or that contingency, adjust its action in face of the opposition it encounters, strive to provide precise information on events that occur, and so forth. It cannot be satisfied with tipping the balance of power in its favor—which in itself is already a lot—nor with simply defending its position. It is necessarily confronted with the indeterminacy of the situation. This indeterminacy forces it to regularly reconsider its point of view and to come up with new hypotheses, to test other modalities of action, and to reconfigure its mode of intervention.

4. A situated and contextualized mode of subjectivation

The occupying collective is a subject—an active and offensive subjectivity—that defines itself according to the situation. It would be false to assume that there is such a thing as a collective as such and that this collective would be “content” to take a stand in a particular situation, as if it could  become involved without itself being fundamentally affected. The occupying collective is a situated collective whose constitution and identity are intimately linked to the context in which it becomes involved. It makes use of the resources available in the particular situation and takes on its contradictions. Its collaborative capacity and its subjective “nature” become established in direct relation to the resistance it experiences from its environment and to the antagonisms it faces. If the occupying collective pretends to define itself independently of the contextual constraints that shape its intervention, there is reason to fear that it is simply repeating the old fantasy of the activist avant-garde, and that the occupation will amount to no more than a political coup—a grand one, certainly, that can help raise consciousness and that can quite usefully put the cat among the pigeons. But it is then also subject to all the limits of such a “coup”: the risk that the collective will turn inward (sectarianism) and attempt to legitimize itself by endlessly repeating its own actions (activism). An act of occupation corresponds, from our point of view, to a mode of situated and contextualized subjectivation. The identity of an occupying collective is an integral part of the situation within which it constitutes itself. To speak of an occupying collective and to speak of the situation of occupation is to become aware of the two sides of the same reality, that is, the process of subjectivation that occurs in the course of a particular action in a given context. Its situated character does not, however, mean that an occupying collective is shapeless, flimsy, capricious, or haphazard. On the contrary, its situatedness makes it stronger. The collective does not rely on what it has achieved, on its political capital, but rather exploits to its advantage the numerous opportunities made available in the situation—provided that, of course, it is receptive enough to its environment that it becomes aware of such opportunities and can turn them into supports and resources for its action. Under such conditions, the occupying collective does not project the image of political isolation, self-centered and full of its own power, but the image of a “subjective configuration,” both solid in its ideals and highly conscious of its own ecology—its situated and contextualized character.

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[1] L'ANPE (Agence Nationale Pour l'Emploi, The National Agency for Employment) brings together job offers and those seeking work and advises the unemployed. The Assédics (ASSociation pour l'Emploi Dans l'Industrie et le Commerce, The Association for Employment in Trade and Industry) manage the  unemployment insurance contributions and pay out benefits to job seekers. The Medef (Mouvement des Entreprises de France, Movement of the French Enterprises) is the most important organization of employers in France.
[2] Cf. Evelyne Perrin, Chômeurs et précaires au coeur de la question sociale, La Dispute, 2004.
[3] Bernard Aspe stresses the risks of withdrawal and depoliticization associated with the logic of “insulation” created within “psycho-acoustic bell jars.” He argues that if there is such a thing as an inhabitable space, it can only be one that is configured by a politics at the pulse of current antagonisms. Cf. L'instant d'après (Projectiles pour une politique à l'état naissant), La Fabrique, 2006, p. 20 and 55-56.
[4] On August 23rd, 1996, law enforcement officers brutally evacuated the three hundred African sans-papiers who had occupied the Saint-Bernard church in Paris. The image of police officers breaking down the door of the church with hatchets has become emblematic of the strength of the movement and the force with which it is repressed.
[5] On the presumption of illegality, cf. Étienne Balibar, in Sans-papiers : l'archaïsme fatal, La Découverte, 1999, p. 108.
[6] On political philosophy as philosophy of difference, see the works of Maurizio Lazzarato, especially “Puissance de la variation,” interview with Yves Citton, Multitudes, 20, 2005.
[7] Michel de Fornel, in La logique des situations (Nouveaux regards sur l'écologie des activités sociales), L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 1999, p. 120.
[8] Didier Debaise, “expérimentez, n'interprétez jamais,” in Multitudes, 23, 2006, p. 98.

 

Pascal Nicolas-Le Strat
(Translated by Millay Hyatt)