From Cows in French Banlieues to Pigeons in Popular Culture | Fahim Amir | Montag, 15.06.2015

Last Night, During the Riot, I Ran Into a Cow

Without cows and their appetite there would be no photography as we know it, argues Nicole Shukin in Animal Capital.1Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 105-114. The scientists at Kodak’s research laboratory had a problem at the beginning of the 20th century: The gelatin used by Kodak to bind light-sensitive agents to a base had produced results of poor quality. Only after mustard seeds had been added to the cows’ feed were satisfactory photographic results achieved. If cows hadn’t accepted their new diet, the photographic and cinematic history of the world would probably have been quite different.2Even when the emulsion specialists at the Kodak laboratories had eventually solved this problem otherwise, this would have had a different material aesthetic outcome.

The cows, slaughtered for the sake of industrialized visual culture, had been put on the disassembly line, a journey whose mechanistic spirit only knew one direction – forward to death. Ghost cows haunt Mathieu Kassovitz’s film La Haine (1995) and the trope of lethal one-directionality, individually and of society as a whole, is also its plot’s driving force. While the appetite of cows made films possible, it is this film’s strange appetite for cows that this first blog entry will reflect upon.

In the film that brought its director the Golden Palm of the Cannes Film Festival, we follow roughly 20 hours in the life of Saïd, Hubert, and Vinz, three inhabitants of a fictitious French suburb, after a riot has shaken the projects. Vinz has sworn to kill a policeman if Abdel Ichaha, a young Arab, who has been brutalized by police and fights for his life in a hospital, should die of his wounds. At the end of the film, both Abdel and Vinz will be dead and all the unfolding cinematic events will retrospectively seem to inevitably lead to this outcome. The film starts and ends with the voice of Hubert telling the moral of the social fable: A man falls from the 50th floor of a skyscraper. On his way down past each floor he keeps saying to himself: So far so good, so far so good. But not the fall is important: it is the landing.

As part of La Haine’s consciously arranged play between reality and fiction, the movie betrays its own moral and follows the seemingly unimportant – it concentrates on the fall. And while the spectator witnesses Vinz’s fall through the last 20 hours of his life, the protagonist’s mind is repeatedly occupied by ghost cows. Both the film’s main protagonist, Vinz, and the ghost cow are introduced in the same scene, stressing its importance.3Lampropoulos argues in his interpretation of this scene that the saliva dropping from Vinz’s face makes him look like a “rabid dog,” but this interpretation seems a bit far fetched. See Apostolos Lampropoulos, “Blood, Sweat and Tears: Failed Mappings of Un-abjection in Hostage and La Haine,” Studies in European Cinema, 9: 2+3, 2012, 197-221, 200. Vince claims among his first words in La Haine that he has seen a cow at the riots the night before. Saying this immediately after being awakened by Saïd, it is not clear if he has only dreamed its appearance. Later, Vinz (and the spectator) will see the cow again, wandering through the partly burned and looted banlieue, while nobody else seems to take notice. Vinz will bring up the “cow business” again and again, without being taken seriously by his friends or coming to any conclusion.

Director Kassovitz himself argued repeatedly that the appearance of the cow is his private greeting to his anarchist grandfather and the old radical slogan “Mort aux bourgeois! – Vive l’anarchie! –Vive la Commune! – Mort aux vaches!”4See Ginette Vincendeau, La Haine (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005), 78, FN 51. Here the animal seems to appear as a wrong translation of the political into animal semantics – the origin of the synonymity of vache (French for “cow”) and “police” is often linked to the Prussian-French war and the jump from the German word Wache (German for “sentry” or “police station”) to the French word vache. The cow thus inhabits extra-textually the seemingly passed space of working class resistance against police and the bourgeois on the one side and self- organized collective living on the other side.

Later, after the three friends flee from the police for a night in Paris, another cow enters the narrative as part of the famous “toilet scene”. While they discuss if Vinz should kill a “pig” if Abdel dies, an elderly man unexpectedly leaves one of the toilet cubicles to tell the story of Grunwalski, an old friend, with whom the supposed survivor of French-Vichy internment was transported to Siberia – the transport happened in cattle cars. Grunwalski, in his shame, hid behind a bush during a short stop and died in the cold, because he could not catch up with the leaving train. Again, the cow enters the space of presence and absence: it is already dead, brought to the killing place, but now the humans occupy the place of the cow. Whereas earlier the cow was positioned in a place that is usually reserved for humans (banlieue), now humans occupy the place that is normally reserved for cows (cattle car). Both changes in positionality occur imminent to individual and collective catastrophe.

In La Haine the catastrophe is not only economic and social but also architectural and spatial.5See, for example, Amy Siciliano, “La Haine: Framing the ‘Urban Outcasts’,” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6.2: 2007, 211-230, 212f. However, it would be much too easy to grasp the appearance of the ghost cows as a mere marker for spatialized alienation from nature, in the way John Berger does in his infamous essay, “Why look at animals?”6John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?” in About Looking (New York, 1980), 1-26. Indeed, it might just be the other way around: while the ghost cow in the tragic story of the elderly man enters the stage in the dark setting of a Paris night, where the three friends run from one disaster to the other, Vinz’s ghost cow is shown in the bright daylight of their banlieue home in the aftermath of the riot. And it is also here, where the only other sighting of a live animal occurs. Saïd teases another inhabitant of the banlieue who stands there with his dog by addressing the latter: “Tell your owner he is ugly!” Vinz’s ghost cow, on the other hand, seems to have no owner; at least during the upheaval the cow strolls freely and unharmed through the banlieue. La Haine proposes riot-time, without being romanticized or idealized, to be the only time that the beast of burden runs free.7For an account of the free movement of animal and humans in times of political upheaval, see Nádia Farage, “No Collar, No Master: Workers and Animals in the Modernization of Rio de Janeiro 1903–04,” in Transcultural Modernisms, ed. Model Mouse Research Group (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013), 110-127. For a political treatment of animal ghosts in postcolonial spaces, see Cassel Busse, “Animal Ghosts, Colonial Haunting: History’s Presence(s) beyond Benjamin and Derrida, in Ethnic Literatures and Transnationalism: Critical Imaginaries for a Global Age, ed. Aparajita Nanda (New York: Routledge, 2015), 134-144.

While in the case of the ghost cow all perspectives are from the outside, the next blog entry will be dedicated to the appropriation of an entirely animalistic viewing angle in La Haine: the becoming-pigeon of the camera-eye.