Articles Issue #12
BY Lily WoodruffAugust 12, 2014
BY Lily WoodruffAugust 12, 2014
We must always first contemplate something else—the water, or Diana, or the woods—in order to be filled with an image of ourselves.
—Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
In the wake of May 1968, Didier Bay began documenting the daily life of return-to-order Paris such as it was visible through a telephoto lens that he positioned in the window of his Latin Quarter apartment. Nine years later, he published the 263-page volume, Mon quartier vu de ma fenêtre, or My Quarter Viewed from My Window,1 [Fig. 1] which presents sequences of small black-and-white photographs of local residents in their homes and in the street accompanied by type-written explanatory narratives. At a time when sociologists were restructuring the landscape and politics of post-World War II France, Bay considered himself a “sociological” artist.2 Yet, unlike sociology engineered for technocracy, Bay’s sociology did not quantify in order to categorize. Instead, the distant and multiply fragmenting views of his neighbors expressed a profound suspicion that it is impossible to fix social knowledge due to the insularity of the private individuals who compose a society. If Bay’s project invited doubt about sociology however, it transformed such doubt into a critique of order that was particular to the years following 1968. As much as Mon quartier is a study of his civilian neighbors, it is also an examination of the state power that resided down the block in the Republican Guard barracks on the Place Monge, and across the street in the apartment where an undercover police officer supposedly lived with his family. Through sequential repetition Bay continually fragments conventional, unified images of both civilians and state power. In this way, Bay resists casting the subjects of his serial photographs, the neighbors and state power alike, as “types” that could then be interpellated by the law—a law that constructs the fixed identities that define it and upon which it depends.
As Bay claimed, his interest in surveilling others originated in a highly personal loss, that of his mother to suicide when the artist was twenty. Upon her death Bay experienced frustration at reviewing photographs from her life that fail to provide any explanation for her death. In the idiosyncratically typed English and French texts that introduce Mon quartier, Bay recounts, “I discover that the only souvenirs left of her are rather inaccurate and purely ‘motherly.’ Of the woman, the individual she was I knew nothing. Although it is more likely the individual than the mother that committed suicide”3 [sic]. These old family photographs revealed to Bay the double impossibility at the heart of the artistic project he subsequently undertook: the inadequacy of identity categories, such as “mother,” to communicate information about those they would describe, and the limitations of the photographic medium in conveying information more dynamic than what is immediately visible in the static image itself. Mon quartier seeks to discover in the private lives of others what Bay never knew of his own mother, but in doing so, it presents sequential photographs that multiply views of his subjects and replace sociologically produced identity with a continuously evolving process of identification.
Categorical distinctions are not, however, absent in Bay’s book. Indeed, Bay’s observations are typically classed and gendered. The first page of photographs presents images of two types of women that Bay shows to be of a kind.[Figs. 2 and 3] Both have emerged from their windows to manipulate cleaning tools providing a moment for Bay to snap a few nearly illegible photographs on whose snippets of information he elaborates:
These two women of different ages have the same “femine” occupation in the morning. The older one is dressed. It is an habit, a discipline taken a long time ago; since with age coming she can’t bear any more things or people that look neglected. Since sha has no beauty anymore, at least she tries to be neat , and live among neat things , cleanliness . The youngest uses the “middle-class” priviledge of the dressing-gown, as a distinctiv sign of not being obliged to go out to work, then wear street clothes [sic].4
While Mon quartier includes studies of men and children as well, the photographs’ residential site positions them to capture subjects that would resemble Bay’s mother. Middle-aged to older women at home during the day are the subject of a preponderant number of frames. As he wrote in 1974, “I was more and more interested, attracted to those individuals of whom one can feel the loneliness (self-willed or not, but it seems to be the rule) of whom you can establish the strict and narrow system of habits that govern their lives.”5 This loneliness, Bay argues, is the product of a generalized “education” in which individuals learn to adopt a public persona that ends up stifling communication, even in the privacy of one’s own home.
Although Bay’s project focuses on the close observation of people in their everyday lives, the emergence of difference through serial photography actuates his work in opposition to the habitus in contemporary sociology. With regard specifically to his interest in classed behavior, Pierre Bourdieu describes habitus as an “objective relationship” that “enables an intelligible and necessary relation to be established between practices and a situation, the meaning of which is produced by habitus through categories of perception and appreciation that are themselves produced by an observable social condition.”6 Bourdieu conceives of habitus as a tautological and inescapable loop of both cause and its own interpretation such that the individual can be reduced to a collection of observable social effects, as a result of which he or she becomes the product of society’s ideological reproduction. Even the seeming agency of individual taste becomes an ossified representation of categorized, predictable choices and habits such that, according to class, education, and political leanings, individuals could be predicted to demonstrate affinities for Bach or Brassens, Le Monde or Le Figaro, tennis or football, a tidy or a harmoniously designed home. The temporality in which such norms are reproduced is cyclical.7 It is the time in which, after taking hundreds of photographs of people cleaning, primping, working, or smoking out of their windows, Bay can conclude that daily activities are necessarily ordinary, and that in them “nothing really happens.”
In a period of explosive social change, “nothing happens” was a condemning accusation of conservatism. The idea that it was people, not structures such as habitus, that are responsible for inciting action was, indeed, the criticism to which one anonymous May ‘68 protester famously alluded when scrawling across a blackboard of the Sorbonne, “structures don’t descend into the street.”8 The threat of stagnation posed a particularly pointed threat to representations of society during the years following the May movement when its impact was subjected to continuous reappraisal.9 In his own post-1968 study then, Bay does not circumscribe his neighbors within perpetually reproduced categories. Rather the project functions as a sort of sociology of masking whose social categorizations would undermine structural reification. In an album of text and photographs that shortly followed on Mon quartier, Bay takes up the issue of structuralism explicitly. La Jeunesse de Didier Bay vers 1975, or Didier Bay’s Youth circa 1975, provides an account of everyday Parisian life by assembling the chronology of a day from real and fictitious events designed to showcase objects or phenomena as diverse as alcoholism, pigeons, pregnancy, and revolution. While the categories range from natural (snow) to ideological (church), Bay highlights each one’s multiple connotative points of access by defining it according to both broadly cultural and personally idiosyncratic expressions. Amidst this vast heterogeneity, he includes a lengthy discussion of the category, “structures,” and its academic offshoot, structuralism. While Bay recognizes that making structures serves the basic organizational, comparative, and analytic function of setting things, people, and ideas in relation to each other, he also insists that doing so can serve the “imperious” “hierarchical political impulse” of “a pseudo-science, which is very widespread in our era.”10 “I flee structure as much as I can,” Bay asserts: “That is to say, the structure of others.” Rather than plugging data into seemingly self-evident horizontal and vertical structures designed by technocrats for their efficiency and supposed progress, Bay instead attempts to structure “in all directions,” a technique he sees as the most rich, scattering, and difficult to perform.11
An essential difference between Bay and Bourdieu is the way they describe and construct models of temporal unfolding. The serial multiplication of nearly identical photographs in Mon quartier counter-intuitively undermines temporal structures that would normally give the impression that “nothing happens.” Whereas representation risks fixing identity in a closed circuit consistent with the reproduction of habitus, sequential repetition offers an alternative temporal model that resembles the linear time of accumulation. Repetition makes the everyday ‘nothing’ significant by detailing the minute difference of moments and gestures. The significance of these details, however, is not in what they represent, but in how their visibility alters representation. For Gilles Deleuze, modern artistic practices that make use of repetition provide instances in which repetition may avoid solidifying into representative norms since they allow for permutations that ultimately lead to the abandonment of representation itself. It is not that repetition multiplies perspectives on any given subject, but rather that each instance of repetition leads to a decentring, to a perpetual divergence that leads to the dissolution of the very identity of the subject.12 This type of “active” self-differing repetition “never ceases to unravel” in a continual juxtaposition of instances that demonstrate an internal splitting of the representation repeated.13
Bay demonstrates this unravelling most exhaustively in a series of 106 photographs that show the lengthy process of a “typical housewife” as she curls her hair and applies make-up while sitting at a table positioned in her window.[Fig. 4] The initial photographs show the entire window and its framing set in the exterior of the building as the woman sets up her hair drier. After she has settled into her chair, Bay’s camera zooms in to capture her arms’ every movement, the way she holds the hairpins between her teeth, the towel she drapes around her shoulders. In a few frames she stands up from her chair and the camera jostles as though Bay’s own movements were themselves unsettled by this unanticipated initiative. A few ill-framed images squeeze her into the lower left corner of the image heightening the impression that Bay shoots with automated regularity rather than carefully composing each individual shot, and in the midst of the series, he includes an image of her empty chair in a moment of absence, which heightens the realism and impression of neutral objectivity. Finally, she finishes attending to her own appearance and directs her attention to the up-keep of the home—the sweat-producing action of which, Bay notes, threatens to counteract her labored refinement. In the last several frames, the place in the window is repurposed by a studious 12-year-old daughter who sets about to doing her homework. Taken together, these are the “traces of life” that Bay insists one can make out among the social “indifference and anonymity” of habit. In the course of the series, the figure of the ‘typical housewife’ comes to seem less a type, and more a specific individual composed of gestures, impulses, and motivations.
Moreover, the content of the photographs metaphorically reflects back on Bay’s use of the medium itself. Sequence allows the viewer to see the woman’s made-up appearance as the result of a process. In turn, her putting on of a public image, “like a sort of Geisha,” as Bay says, reflects back on the fact that a photographic representation is also the accumulation of moments in time, whether the photographer selects a single, ideal image among hundreds or prints a selected range, as Bay does here. More importantly however, while Bay’s authorial point of entry and serial reproduction disperses the unified representation that his subject creates of herself, it also fragments his own authorial unity. As he documents and interprets the scene he becomes a self-differing repetition of it: his position with regard to the typical housewife is dependent and reactive as his own movement is determined by hers. Each process underscores the fact of the construction of the other.
The relative subjectivity that Bay’s serial process constructs with regard to his own authorship extends, moreover, to implicate the reader as the book suggests that all interpretation provides an ethical basis by which individuals negotiate their relationships to their communities. The opening pages present the reader with a disclaimer of the sort one finds at the ends of films. A conventional French rendition of the legalistic formula reads: “Les personnages et les situations de ce récit étant purement fictifs, toute ressemblance avec des personnes ou des situations existantes ne saurait être que fortuite.”14 Historically, the phrase was developed to protect the rights of the author. The disclaimer assures that the characters in a film are fictitious even as the film may benefit from references to real people.15 Such a disclaimer validates a narrative fiction within its genre through what Gérard Genette has called “professing the work’s fictiveness.”16 The disclaimer guarantees the originality of the author and the primacy of authorship as a practice of pure invention. It allows for the possibility of resemblance, without ascribing authority to the viewer who does the recognizing. Such contracts depend on, and reinforce, the nominal definition of fiction as imaginary, and exonerate the novelist from taking responsibility for resemblance. The world of resemblance remains abstract, potential, undefined. The role of the disclaimer is to refuse liability as it provides a legalistic observation and disavowal of the problem of influence.
As the very existence of the disclaimer implies, however, film viewers or book readers will inevitably find resemblances. Confident of this, Bay manipulates the traditional disclaimer so as to pose the responsibility of the reader not as a potential threat to authorship, but as an invitation to the reader of his book to find similarity between the work of art and the life to which it refers. In Bay’s words, “Toute ressemblance avec des lieux ou personnages existants serait purement fortuite et n’engagerait que la résponsabilité de ceux qui voudraient se reconnaitre dans ce travail” [“Any resemblance with existing places or people would be purely fortuitous and would engage only the responsibility of those that would want to recognize themselves in the work”]. By moving the latter half of the original phrase to the beginning, he isolates and forefronts the idea that such resemblance is desirable. Doing so also renders the phrase ambiguous as it makes it unclear who would be the subject doing the resembling. “Characters and situations” are no longer features of the work of fiction that one would relate to the exterior world of reality. Instead, “places and characters” “exist” in the real world, thereby blurring the distinction between fiction and the otherwise apparently documentary rhetoric of the images and texts that appear throughout the book. The places and people who might potentially and fortuitously resemble those in Mon quartier or those in the real world could be those that appear in the book, but as Bay also suggests, they could be those who read it. The suggestion that resemblance would be fortuitous puts the evidential quality of photography into question thereby threatening to reduce directly referential indexicality to merely approximative mimesis. The boundaries between the book and the world it depicts, the book and the reader who might see him or herself in it, and therefore the boundaries between the reader and the real world that the book would depict, all blur. The distinction between fiction and reality comes to hinge on the processes of seeing and interpreting.
Introducing “responsibility” and “engagement” into his version of the disclaimer, the process of recognition that Bay suggests takes on ethical overtones. The reinvented phrase calls attention to the implied, yet unstated, position of the person who sees the resemblance. Instead of imagining a potential prosecuting party against which the film disclaimer pre-emptively protests, his suggestion that the reader would recognize him or herself in the work is an invitation to enter into a relationship of responsibility with an other, if only imaginatively, by placing oneself in the position of that other and identifying with her. The work operates between documentary and fiction to suggest that the process of identification is a form of narrative building that involves taking responsibility for understanding one’s relationship to society. Bay’s own photographic and textual processes of interpretation acts as models for how the reader should him or herself respond to the work and, by extension, to one’s own neighborhood. The disclaimer thereby is transformed into an invitation to claim responsibility.
Essentially however, this strategy of self-recognition that Bay invites on the part of the reader of Mon quartier involves recognizing oneself as potentially different from any internalized self-conception, that is, recognizing how one might be seen through the eyes of another. In rewriting the disclaimer, Bay counters a tendency of the law more broadly to reduce specificity to general categories and rules that can be maintained and regulated, and to apply a pre-fabricated moral order that overrides individual analysis. The standard film disclaimer operates through the generalization of information and the erasure of the specificity of any original story upon which a fiction may be based. The profundity of individual experience is effaced by the nominal assertion of truth value, the insistence that resemblance is purely coincidental, that authors compose original fictions. In photographing and publishing snippets of others’ lives, Bay does not condemn his subjects to a permanent identity such as it is written through an authorial act through which it is generalized. Rather, he attempts to create an open form that proposes an alternative and fluid way of understanding private lives as unique, variable, and only accessible by the very interpretations that would threaten their autonomy.
Much like the humanist photographers of post-war France, Bay focused on everyday people in everyday life, yet unlike them, he eliminated their triumphant tone as well as their belief in the medium’s capacity to communicate universal values. After 1968, the idea of the “reporters illustrateurs” such as Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson artistically documenting the dignity of human struggle fell out of fashion.17 While Bay shared the ambition of the previous generation of photographers to create a sense of community, his approach to doing so emphasizes the contingencies by which such narratives are produced, and promotes the production of self-critical alternatives. Bay typifies the generational turn away from the conviction that one could capture an event and the forms that perfectly signify it in a “decisive moment.” Indeed, his sequences reject the idea that one moment could be decisive about anything. While his anecdotal human-interest stories participate in the “literary” quality that Clement Greenberg championed for photography, his work evades the transcendent effects that the critic sought in figures like Eugène Atget.18 Making photography literary for Bay did not involve monumentalizing the banal, but multiplying its minutiae in what he refers to as a sort of photographic “prattling.”19 His narratives centre around actions, but these are not sentimentalizing scenes of children playing in the street or workers dancing in cafés. Bay’s serial images of individuals engaged in everyday activities do not reveal actions that serve to generalize the expressions of the individuals pictured through their very stereotypical nature. Bay does not reveal actions that serve to generalize the expressions of the individuals pictured through their very stereotypical nature.
Instead, the stories Bay tells begin by reducing everything to stereotype, recognizing the generality, and then, through the process of textual description, imagining a specificity that imputes psychological depth and motivation as it imaginatively fills in a back-story. Rather than creating the image of something like a “Family of Man” in order to inspire universal human values, Mon quartier attempts to bind the individual viewer to a community beyond him or herself by allowing the mundane to remain mundane. The viewer’s primary point of access to the subject of the photograph is not through recourse to a larger set of social myths, but through occurrences that can only be experienced as personal because they escape narrative interest. In part, this is because the likeness of objects within the series both establishes and circumscribes a field of reference. In part, it is because the photographs reveal few details that could provide associative traction for the memory or imagination. Nothing happens within each frame, there is little obvious ‘interest’ in the actions of a person washing windows (however ‘human’ the activity may be), and from start to finish, Bay provides no narrative arc that would unite the fragmented scenes of the book. Instead, the reader is presented with a collection of ‘chapters’ that could each stand alone, and the book ends as abruptly as it begins: with two images of a truck removing horse litter used by the Republican Guard.
Even as Bay’s work does not transport the viewer into a realm in which life seems more like literature, the pocket-sized book proves to be a particularly rich mode for a project that aims to incite in the reader a personal identification with the individuals pictured. As Bay noted in his DAAD application of 1975, he was looking at the time for a publisher who would consider his collections of text and photographs not as “artistic” works, but as novels, which he hoped might integrate into his audience’s lives as bedtime reading.20 The paperback is a medium that one consumes privately, ensconced behind the walls of one’s home, that is, in the very space that Bay penetrates with his camera. Publishing his photographs in a form intended for private consumption collapses the space of the viewer into that of the viewed thereby bringing the reader closer to recognizing him or herself in the images as they share analogous settings. Extending this circuit even further, Bay includes at the beginning of the book his then-current address in the Belleville neighborhood and invites the reader to write to him so that the monologue of his work might be transformed into a dialogue.21 Responding to Bay’s invitation for dialogue-by-mail would then approximately respond to his desire to know something of those that surround him, as observation of his neighbors would expand into a potentially infinite array of responses through the reciprocity of the audience.
This process of transforming individual identities into intersubjective relations was a specifically phenomenological endeavor. The progressive unfolding of photographs combined with textual narration slows viewing so that the time required to closely inspect each image draws attention to the process of seeing and consequently encourages a critical awareness of mediation. Whereas distraction may have been tactically apt to art of the early twentieth century as it looked to overturn bourgeois easel painting, by the time Bay began his work in the 1960s, moving, flashing images had become so overwhelming that he specifically sought to recover contemplation in order to scrutinize what is invisible to spectacle society and to the art world that was increasingly coming to resemble it in what he called an “involution of the escalation of appearances.”22 As one example of this shift, art photography publications of the twentieth century separated themselves from the world that yielded up its imagery in what David Campany has called a “relentless avoidance of textual elaboration and a graphic isolation of each image in a buffer of white” that “offered beautifully alienated commentary on a continental slide towards spectacular consumer society without invoking their own medium as one of its prime agents.”23 Isolating the photographs from all textual description showed them to be impeccable images that, in becoming identical with the page, seemed to elevated these books to the status of fine art objects while suggesting that photography was the peer of painting or sculpture.
By these standards, Mon quartier is a conspicuously modest affair. Bay reproduces the photographs at 35mm scale and lines them up like prints on a contact sheet. The small scale undercuts the descriptive adeptness that Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski promoted as an essential attribute of the medium, while the gridded multiplication of frames across the page recalls historic photo-essay installations that artists such as El Lissitzky and Edward Steichen had in earlier generations deployed to promote the medium’s journalistic capacities—an association that is deepened by Bay’s emphasis on the equipment that he used since press photographers were increasingly replacing their detail-rich medium formats with 35mm cameras during the 1960s. Although Bay used photography in an artistic practice, the rawness of his work aligns it with late 1960s and ‘70s street and performance documentation, and distances it from the technical perfection that characterized the high art print. In this, his work participated in conceptual photography’s move to drastically reduce descriptive content, and to instead focus on the social function of the medium as a means of communication.
Bay’s serial photographs emphasize that they are repetitions of the world, and as repetitions, that they are different from that world. As Bay stated in an interview from 1993:
Photography, one knows its a lie because it is nothing but an image, but it is a very interesting lie because it allows for detachment: one looks at an object, not at reality. It is a trace of what was, but it is no longer what was; it is situated in a different context with another meaning [sens], etc. It is interesting to try to explore obscure zones with a medium that is thought to be, on the contrary, very objective, and to make it play the role of giving false testimony to update not what is available to be seen in the object represented, but what is sensed by the look that one brings to it. It is a great advantage of photography, at the same time that it is a difficulty.24
Bay’s texts help to separate the represented object from reality via testimonial interpretations of actions that are otherwise visually illegible. In one instance, Bay explains a series of eleven images of a woman washing her windows by mentioning that the daughter has left behind her cat—which is barely visible in the photos—while she went travelling in India with her boyfriend. The apartment, Bay notes, was just purchased by the family, which had been living there for years. Their change in status, Bay concludes, meant that they would undoubtedly view the space and the neighborhood differently from now on. Through the introduction of text then, images of a seemingly insignificant activity, undertaken by numerous of the figures in Bay’s book, become suffused with a sense of prospectively enduring, lonely preoccupation—a tone that can only be provided via information that is otherwise completely unavailable to the reader-viewer. In this way, Bay undermines the authority of photography to deliver detail-rich and accurate account and instead transforms it into a more interesting lie, an experience of self-conscious sensitivity.
By constantly shifting from one moment to the next, referring to events beyond the frame, and focusing on the details of reproduction itself, Bay makes photography a potentially multiple and self-different mode of representation. His concern to engage the viewer in an experience with the artwork provides an opportunity to examine the points of contact between different registers of narrative construction. As he explained with regard to his work broadly, “[m]y desire to explore the fields of mediatizsation with the aid of photos, of texts, and of video, is a ‘natural’ anachronism in our era of normalisation-informatisation where the media have an increasing importance as they become the omnipresent visible message.”25 In this post-1968 moment, Bay aligned his own writing and the terminology for the process of selecting and recording a scene using a camera with the language of May’s revolutionary ferment. In his work, “the capture of speech [prise de parole] developed through the capture of the image [prise de l’image].”26 The incorporation of the two together drew him to the conclusion that “the world of the ‘visible’ (images) is not as alienated from the world of the ‘readable’ (culture) as one likes to believe, and in this conjoined work, of photos and texts, emerged other autonomous dimensions of the two media (the invisible, the illegible?).”27 If images were the bedrock of spectacle society, Bay also saw their potential to provide the first step in a process of critique by challenging, as he stated, “the alienating socio-cultural ‘acceptances’ that favor automatisms, synchronized perception, clichés, and [that] therefore mutilate the possibilities of creation and the perception of writings and readings (photos and texts).” In line with other incisive conceptual photography practices of the time, here also, bringing text and image together makes the inadequacy of each descriptive system perceptible.
Indeed, throughout Mon quartier Bay counteracts the automation of slick forms whose transparency threatens to elide content with the spectacle of their own invisibility by instead showcasing human error. Pronounced over- and underexposure and the occasional flipped negative point to the photographs’ difference from the world they represent and underscore the fact that the accumulated images have been arranged and cannot therefore be considered a direct transcription of reality. Similarly, the texts that Bay types up are riddled with spelling and typographic errors; he has purposefully neglected to correct them in order to close the gap between language as it is naturally spoken and its artificial transcription through what he referred to as the “cultural fascism” of perfect writing. In a pseudo-dialogical “self-interview” from 1975 Bay wrote, “I do NOT KNOW anyone who is at ease in writing, because it is a fictive, artificial culture that is imposed by strict rules that are foreign to what one wants to express (the packaging taking precedence over the contents).”28 Writing, he notes, is an alienation that takes place in the most intimate familial spheres as it is often parents who impose on their children a correct form of speaking, thereby privileging form over the content of the message communicated.
The “Rabelais” style of writing that Bay understands himself to employ is part of his broader rejection of the structuralist transformation of culture into scientifically rational fragments divorced from their lived reality. On one hand, Bay argues that we are alienated from writing as the consequence of living in a culture where reading is supplanted by radio, cinema, and television—media that he sees as replacing reflection with entertainment. On the other, writing becomes foreign due to its over-study by etymologists, semioticians, and “technocrats among others.”29 As Bay understood it, culture was in a moment of crisis that had arisen because “science grafts itself onto the lived in order to recuperate it, to denature it, to efface it … leaving in its place rigid structures of a ‘scientific culture’ … of imposture.” The typographical disorganization of Bay’s work then resisted the mystifying transparency of clear writing. “Here we undertake then,” he wrote, “the image + text aspect of my work, the image being for me a necessity, reference of a certain reality around which the text turns, departs, and returns.” Unedited text, like raw, underexposed, and haphazardly framed photographs, attempted to transmit content immediately, even as the means of communication were opaque and could not be taken as objective. They aimed to produce an immediacy that should lead to contemplation by providing a palpably new, yet slowed, perceptual experience of information and the means of its communication.
Two thirds of the way through, Mon quartier becomes not just a record of Bay’s personal exploration of hidden humanity, but a user’s manual that instructs the reader in identifying State power. Two chapters take this up explicitly as Bay analyzes the movements of individual police officers and the street pageantry of the Republican Guard. Whereas previous chapters about windows and civilians adopted a more subjective and interpretive approach the chapter on the police provides histories, definitions, and a taxonomy of ranks. It cites articles of the civil code and observes notable moments of surveillance and insurrection that define the shifting interests and functions of the police through history. Similarly, in the chapter on the Republican Guard, Bay notes that this military order developed out of the 1795 Légion général de Police, and describes its evolution across the centuries including the augmentation of the numbers of men and horses at their disposal, the changing of titles, and administrative shifts. He identifies the symbols that mark the Guard’s visibility in the city such as the motto of their flag (“Value and Discipline”), the distinguishing markings of their dark blue uniforms with brass buttons and alternatively white or black belts, the weapons that they carry according to rank, and he notes that their brass band is “very well-known.” His tone is that of the dictionary of the Académie Française, the institution that polices the French language.
Positioned just off of the Place Monge Republican Guard barracks, and within only a few blocks of the Sorbonne and its obstreperous students, Bay had frequent opportunities to observe the activities of state power.[Fig. 5] In his photographs, police in riot gear assemble and confer, unmarked cars circulate plain-clothes officers, all-terrain vehicles with grilled windows roam the streets, helicopters hover overhead. Bay notes that after May 1968, “the republican guard has now a special repressive force equipped with brand new material: big Triumph motor-cycles, special helmets , overall for close-fight , bludgeon and special gun holsters , cow-boy style” [sic].30 Even as their spectacular presence achieved dazzling new levels of visual arrest, Bay recounts, “When I wanted to take a snap-shot of the first coming out of this ‘elite armada’ I was forbidden to do so by officers that said they will confiscate the camera if I do it” [sic]. [Fig. 6] In a unique instance, Bay himself descends into the street to stalk the police, perhaps with the retaliatory goal of capturing the images that had been aggressively denied to him before—the low position of the camera and each frame’s slight cant sensationalizing Bay’s risk in taking the pictures, which otherwise, like most surveillance photographs, reveal very little.
His confrontation with the Guard aside, Bay otherwise downplays the drama by personalizing the officers in narratives about quotidian banalities. He recalls that his mother received help with her housework from the wife of one of the guards, who would sometimes supply them with inexpensive bottles of champagne. He observes the mutual relationship of vulnerability between officers and their horses, recalling that the husband of his mother’s friend broke his leg when thrown, and pointing out that an officer might be reduced to infantry if he is seen to be abusive toward his animal. Hardly the image of the noble cavaliers arranged in neat rows with plumed hats and flashing sabres at the ready, Bay’s portrayals all take place in the wings of the military stage; he shows the breaking of the set rather than the show itself. Silhouettes of tiny figures on horseback purposelessly stand in the middle of a narrow street, hay is delivered, and litter is taken out along with the trash. At one point, the text wanders away from a pair of guards sauntering down the street to an unresolved rumination: “It is said you can engage them, like the firemen, to polish the floorboards of a flat for instance. But then would they take their horses for such a mission,” he wonders, “and would they stand so straight in the saddle” [sic].31 He thus draws the activities of the guard back to the same genre of house work undertaken by the many women that populate his book. Amidst a series of twenty-seven photographs that show the tedious movements of a guard directing a cavalcade of vans to exit the barracks against traffic, Bay comments that these activities constitute, as he puts it, “another day…”[Fig. 7] If the state’s performance of its authority rests in assuring identity between the Guard and its image, then Bay’s strategy for undermining that power is to fragment and diversify that image through the integration of a difference that resembles the banality of what one might see as their sociological opposite: the faceless, domestically-bound housewife.
If the Republican Guard represents France’s most spectacle-oriented cadre of state order, at the opposite end of the spectrum would be the invisible presence of the plain-clothes police officers that blend in with civilians in the spaces of their daily activities. The French term, and the one which Bay uses throughout Mon quartier, is policier en civil. Whereas the English expression “plain-clothes” simply suggests that the officer moves about under cover of the everyday, policier en civil incorporates the legal signification of “civil” such as it refers to the private relations between individuals beyond the concerns of the state. The term echoes the “civil status” that Roland Barthes referred to in describing the photographic “pose” as an “an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality.”32 The pose intertwines the subject and his or her civil status into a single identity that is reinforced by visual evidence. But who is the subject of formal study for the plain-clothes police officer? Like a photograph, the policier en civil is a representation of a civilian. Unlike the photograph however, the plain-clothes officer does not present himself as a representation, but as an immediacy, as actually identical to himself. Whereas the photograph, as a consequence of its technical limitations, fails to represent more than the visual identity of the individual the policier en civil is a fake version of a civilian without biography or specificity. He represents the general “man in the street,” a no one in particular amidst the daily “nothing happens” whose order he is there to maintain.
Unlike the figures of the Republican Guard, the plain clothes officer is not given a chapter of his own, rather he is punctually and obliquely present throughout the book. He blends into Mon quartier just as he would be intended to blend into the community, in both cases serving as a thread of continuity between domestic and official spheres. Bay first introduces his character only nominally while observing the activities of his “wild-haired” housewife as she goes about her morning chores and surveys the street with her son. The focus is not on the officer, but is squarely on “the civil policeman’s wife,” a “good specimen of a house-wife,” as evidenced by her dedication to her middle-class private sphere and devotion to the men in her life—husband and son. Bay’s incidental introduction to the officer prioritizes his relationship to the domestic sphere by subordinating his discursive presence not to the state, but to the collection of otherwise invisible activities upon which his private life is structured, and which refer back to Bay’s seeming primary interest in figures resembling his mother. The first time that the plain-clothes officer actually appears as an image it is in the context of his wife as they make the “conjugal bed” and go out into the street together. Bay uses visual information to underscore the link between the officer and civilian life, observing that “in some way they look alike, him, the civil policeman, and her, his wife” [sic]. His hesitance in making this assessment may simply refer to questions of physiognomic or stylistic likeness, yet it also plays on the ambiguity of the officer’s identity—that is, the fact that his private appearance cannot be separated from the civilian guise he wears as a state agent. Is he ever more than a simulacrum of himself?
The figure of the plain-clothes officer positions Bay’s objective of seeing beneath the public mask of socialization in terms of the problems of representation specific to the post-May ’68 era, as he observes the potential power of the distinction between the real and realism in everyday life. The evolution of the police in nineteenth-century France saw the accumulation of effects that made the authority of the state increasingly visible by distinguishing officers by height, education, and costuming.33 The visibility of the uniform became a preventative weapon of the “democratic Leviathan” that was intended to reduce the need to reactively inflict bodily harm with actual weapons. Likewise, the police pre-empted popular resistance by immersing themselves within the neighborhoods they patrolled, consuming on credit, and locally taking on other jobs while their wives mingled with the community through popular local women’s activities—activities that recall Bay’s ruminations on the possibility of engaging the Republican Guard’s services to strip a floor or to supply champagne. While an organization of undercover agents had existed since the eighteenth century, conspiracy among civilians and the fear of revolution during the twentieth century led the police to develop mimicking privacy as a standard tactic. That is, the police made use of the distinction between a representation and its object to operate as a force that, like the photographic pose, acted upon the presumption of identity. As Maurice Blanchot observed in July 1968, the street had awakened as a site of free speech and politics during the events of May, and in response, those streets were invaded by policiers en civil: “They are everywhere, in every place that draws their suspicions, close to the cinemas, in the cafés, even in museums, approaching any time three or four people are innocently talking: invisible, but all the same very visible.”34 Four years later, in 1972, the profession of police enquêteur would come into legal existence with the simple purpose of observing the public and making inquiries.35
As with the official public taxonomy that Bay provided of the police, he also presents classificatory information about the plain-clothes officer. But here, rather than drawing from official public intelligence, the information is derived from private knowledge that Bay has accumulated through his own counter-surveillance operation. On one page, three snapshots concentrate on a man loitering on a sidewalk while looking up at a building, and below another six track the progress of a black car turning at an intersection. Bay explains: “One of those discreet anonymous car is waiting for the civil policeman . Those cars are easy to recognize because of being so well polished (policed) and because of the particularity of having a double opening window on the back-seat door”[sic].36 Along with Bay, the reader takes on the role of the one who does the policing. Whereas banalizing the image of the Republican Guard undercut the official mode of self-presentation that allows them to form a stable identity for the state, banalizing the image of the plain-clothes officer would only endorse its intended effect. Unlike the Republican Guard, the plain-clothes officer already shares Bay’s aesthetic idiom, since his public image depends entirely on banality. By making him more visible in his civilian clothes, Bay at once makes use of, and undercuts, identity by bifurcating it into the official and private uses of a single style of costuming. Integrated into the book, rather than set aside as a type, the officer becomes the specific individual whose family the reader has come to know, and it is on this point that Bay’s serial photographs reposition his official capacity in order to suggest that the representation he performs is also a representation of his civilian self. Bay thus highlights representation by making the dissimulation visible through the multiplication of perspectives on public and private personae and their overlapping.
It is not that Bay attempts to expose the truth of the officer’s identity, rather, his decoding here, as in the cases of the other civilians throughout the book, demonstrates an imperative to be suspicious of all identity. Because of his active dissimulation, the plain-clothes officer would seem more false in the identity he projects. Yet Bay’s conclusion goes further. In the end, he finds that it would be impossible to know anyone other than himself—and that even then he would know himself only as a reflection of his environment—thereby indicating that the officer is not exceptional in his masking. It is useless to ask when point the plain-clothes officer’s exterior appearance is factitious and when it is the honest, direct presentation of a true civilian. It is rather that his masking is doubled, the conscious camouflaging both covering, at the same time that it is identical with, the automatic camouflaging that is the standard mode in which all people present themselves, according to Bay. If, in the end, all appearances are simulacral, it would seem impossible to decide whose version of identity is more accurate: that of the police or that presented by Bay? The important distinction between them is that Bay reveals the rhetoric of sameness in representation that the police would instrumentalize.
In her book on the “afterlives” of 1968, Kristin Ross calls attention to the discourse that emerged among sociologists who came forward to argue that nothing had really happened in May.37 Citing Jacques Rancière, she proposes that the language of the sociologists is that of the police in the act of breaking up a crowd by assuring that there is nothing to see, nothing happening. “Nothing happens” is the language of anonymity, the opposite, Rancière notes, of the interpellative “hey you!” that binds the identity of an individual to the law. Nothing happens may not bind the individual to the law, but it does bind the anonymous masses to sociological laws of representation. In contrast, Mon quartier demonstrates the importance of the specificity of the individual and the minutiae of daily happenings as they provide sites for ethical interpretation on the part of the reader. It is tempting to interpret Bay’s representations of the police and Republican Guard as using a negating “nothing” to strip them of the power they attempt to wield in determining when and where an event can be seen to take place, or to themselves be the event when that event is state spectacle. Doing so however, would mean reinforcing the same concept of the circular, reproductive time of habitus upon which order is reproduced, as it would confirm the structuralist descriptive tendencies that Bay sought to avoid.
Bay’s sociology of masks invites the viewer to separate the specific individual from the general representation, and in doing so, to see both that unique individual and the points that the viewer may hold in common with that other vis-à-vis their shared social education. Insofar as Bay attempts to suggest the specificity of the police as much as the housewives, his invitation to identify with the characters in the book also implicitly asks the reader to determine whether or not he or she might identify with the forces of order as well. While identification may allow for greater community building through the empathetic expansion of understandings of self and other, identification can also mean further assimilating forces of repression and fixity. If it is impossible to escape masking in the end, then the most ethical position may be to recognize oneself as a collection of instances of repetition of the community to which one belongs and to understand such repetition as a process that can either involve passive entrenchment or active, perpetual decentring in which one is constantly shifting the view and demanding new means of representation.