From Cows in French Banlieues to Pigeons in Popular Culture | Fahim Amir | Samstag, 27.06.2015

Towards a Theory of the Zoopolitical Unconscious

There are utopian spaces knitted into the fabric of the seemingly pessimistic film La Haine.1These are always connected to music and occupy places that are either deeply hidden from the surveilling eye of police and media (breakdancing in the cellar while listening to “Outstanding” by The Gap Band) or occupy high grounds in space themselves (rooftop grilling while Cameo’s “Funk Funk” is playing in the background). For an enlightening analysis of the relationship between entertainment and utopia, see Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia” in Only Entertainment (1977; London/New York: Routledge, 2002): 19-35. One famous scene in La Haine condenses this “fleeting utopia”2Sanja Sharma and Ashwani Sharma, ““So Far So Good...” La Haine and the Poetics of the Everyday” in Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 17, no. 3 (2000): 103-116, 112. more then any other moment in the film: Hubert packages and smokes weed in his bedroom, listening to “That Loving Feeling,” sung by Isaac Hayes, and looks outside the window of his “rabbit hutch” (cage à lapins – as the identical flats of the cité are called). His gaze falls onto the inhabitants of the banlieue below. While the sound of a police helicopter immerses the social landscape in a tense mode of being watched by unfriendly eyes, Hubert’s gaze arrives at another window. Here we see a DJ, Cut Killer, positioning the loudspeakers by the window to sound outwards into the space between the buildings. The non-admission of young migrant men into discotheques is a recurring theme in banlieue films3See Mark McKinney, “Haunting figures in contemporary discourse and popular culture in France,” in Sites: The Journal of Twentieth-Century/ Contemporary French Studies revue d’études français, vol. 1, no. 1 (1997): 51-76; 69, footnote 57. and also later in La Haine; here, the loudspeakers transform the open space of the banlieue into a grand dance floor.4For an insightful reflection of the relationship between the horizon as an interior, militarism, and the porosity of public space, see Beatriz Colomina, “Battle Lines: E.1027,” in Renaissance and Modern Studies, Special Issue: “Space and Gender,” vol. 39, no. 1 (1996): 95-105.Cut Killer stages an ingenious mix with samples of U.S. hip-hop artist KRS-One’s “Sound of the Police,” French rap formation Supreme NTM’s “Nique La Police” and Edith Piaf’s notorious “Je ne regrette rien.” Young angry black men from transcontinental hip-hop engage in an oneiric duet with an elderly white lady performing the popcultural national anthem of France: “the hybrid result is powerful enough literally to set the camera flying.”5Kate Griffiths, “Borrowed identities: Mathieu Kassovitz and Djamel Bensalah” New Cinemas 4:3, 2006, 185-195, 193. Claire Tarr notes that the peace was not so harmonious: NTM attacked Kassovitz as a “trendy Parisian” who was exploiting the black and beurs of the banlieue with “one-dimensional and inauthentic” representations. See Claire Tarr, Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 64.

Indeed, this is just what the camera does: “As the music envelops this space, capturing the attention of the young residents down below, the camera hovers disquietingly and seeps across the estate as if it were marking out a protective zone.”6Sharma and Sharma, “‘So Far So Good...’ La Haine and the Poetics of the Everyday,” 103-116, 112.

This scene is visually arranged in direct opposition to the first scene in Paris, where the vertigo effect makes them look even more alienated and lost among the buildings of the metropolis. Here the opposite is the case: the camera-eye flies over the spaces in between the towers and towards the end of the shot slightly higher than the rooftops, producing a feeling of connectedness and promising light-heartedness. While the protagonists are usually depicted as overwhelmed by architecture or caged within enclosed spaces, fleeing from one place to the other, here the camera-eye looks benevolently over the buildings, showing glimpses of their nonconventional shapes.7The inhabitants of the banlieue were not entirely happy about the shooting of this scene, as Kassovitz notes: “There was too much wind and the blokes could not control the machine. We did it three times, we gut insulted but we got there in the end.” In Interview du fanzine Steadycam” quoted in Ginette Vincendeau, La Haine(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 54.

Carried out at bird-like altitude and consisting of a single shot that changes its direction fluidly, the camera-eye seems to deliver a zoomorphic vision. It firmly refuses to adopt the predatory altitude of an eagle scanning the space for its prey (like a police helicopter), or to be taken hostage by the seemingly innocent aerial perspective that would make the social housing complex look like the architectural model of some genius architect. On the contrary, the camera-bird rests for a moment with the inhabitants on the ground and in the next instant sits at the window ledge of their domesticity before it flies in between the tower blocks as if it were navigating through its own habitat. It is the non-innocent perspective of a banlieue bird – a pigeon vision.

The film has been variously understood as engaging in a complex relationship with the media and even aiming to “crack the screens of representation.”8Griffiths, “Borrowed identities: Mathieu Kassovitz and Djamel Bensalah,” 185-195, 193. Thus Vinz, for example, screens the media reports for his appearance and is frustrated not to be depicted among the looting crowd. At the same time, the journalists who want to interview the three protagonists are attacked physically with stones and verbally with “This ain’t a zoo!”9Amy Siciliano, “La Haine: Framing the ‘Urban Outcasts’” in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 6, no. 2 (2007): 211-230, 224. Being watched like a trapped animal that cannot flee, the spectator’s gaze is the strongest expression of disgust the protagonists can come up with. If the neocolonial terror of visuality is most condensed in the notion of a safari park that invokes the kinship of camera and rifle shooting, it’s hardly a surprise that the counter-proposition of the film takes the perspective of a free flying animal. It is as if the objects of a nature documentary had taken hold of the camera themselves. For the short duration of La Haine’s pigeon vision, the visual regime of the zoo is broken and its heteronomous choreography is interrupted.

Nature, as the expelled other of high modernist architecture, “creeps back” at the moment of unexpected animal sightings in La Haine, Konstantonos notes in reference to Vinz’s cow sightings.10Myrto Konstantarakos, “Which Mapping of the City? La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995) and the cinéma de banlieue” in French Cinema in the 1990s, ed. Phil Powrie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 160-171, 169. The pigeon vision of the post-riotscape is part of a similar but different maneuver towards contested urbanism, belonging to this non-innocent territory and catching glimpses of a vague beyond. This resonates with the consciousness of the protagonists who never spell out the concrete form of their escape from their situation apart from a vague “getting away,” as Hubert formulates in the film.

Since La Haine depicts the life of three abjects, it cannot be a surprise that the scene that momentarily suspends exclusion in the postindustrial space takes the viewpoint of a true Angel of Fordism: As neither a useful agricultural working animal nor a romantic wild species, but eating and shitting in public space, it is the visuality of their continued living existence in the post-Fordist cityscape that makes pigeons a nuisance.11See Colin Jerolmack, “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals” in Social Problems, vol. 55, no. 2 (2008): 72-94. This spatio-visual logic lets pigeons become “matter-out of place”12See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966; London: Routledge, 2004). and the visual genius loci of the banlieue in La Haine. The shared relationality to the urban space makes pigeons and banlieue kids kin – both seem to be at the wrong place at the wrong time all the time in all spaces.13For questions of abjectivity in La Haine, 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, 197-210. For the role of anality in La Haine see Tom Conley, “A Web of Hate,” South Central Review, vol. 17, no. 3, and Cinéma Engagé: Activist Filmmaking in French and Francophone Contexts (Autumn 2000): 88-103. For an exploration of dissident relational practic­es in La Haine, see Adrian Fielder, “Poaching on Public Space: Urban Autonomous Zones in French Banlieue Films,” inCinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, eds. Mark Shiel & Tony Fitzmaurice (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 270-281.

The important point here is not the subjective intention of the director but its objective quality as part of the collective unconscious of visual culture that accompanies the negotiation of existential issues of inclusion and exclusion in the era after the trente glorieuses. Fredric Jameson’s famous notion of the political unconscious14 in aesthetic texts, which points to impulses that take collective experience as the absolute horizon of interpretation, must necessarily encompass zoopolitical dimensions, since real and symbolic animals are always already part of human collectivities. Not only is the unconscious zoopolitical; the zoopolitical is unconscious.

Animals are not aliens in conscious descriptions of dystopias and utopias either.15As regards the zoopolitics of utopia, note how, for example, Thomas Morus in his Utopia not only stated that there would be no need for the cruelty of hunting, but also seemingly insisted that portraits of his family had to include his beloved monkeys. See Rainer E. Wiedenmann, Die Tiere der Gesellschaft: Studien zur Soziologie und Semantik von Mensch-Tier-Beziehungen (Konstanz: UVK-Verlags-Gesellschaft, 2002), 105-149. Concerning the zoopolitics of dystopia, take, for example, KRS-One’s “Sound of the Police,” which plays a crucial part in the soundscape of the pigeon vision scene. In its first line “Woop-woop! That’s the sound of da police! That’s the sound of the beast!” the song brings together sovereignty, police, and the beastly16 For a seminal exploration of this relationship in European thought, see Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume I, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). , and later reflects on the continuity between police officers and plantation overseers:

“The overseer rode around the plantation

The officer is off patrolling all the nation

The overseer could stop you what you’re doing

The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing

The overseer had the right to get ill

And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill

The officer has the right to arrest

And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest!

(Woop!) They both ride horses”