Foreign Office / David Beytelmann

David Beytelmann

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See also the performance page: Foreign Office

May Thierry forgive me, for not having managed to write a fully theoretical piece that does justice to his hopes for Outside Lectures. I’ve given into the charms of semi-autobiographical fiction and am wading in narrativity; this is no way to practice philosophy.

When Thierry Fournier first asked me to conduct the interviews that the scenes from Outside Lectures are taken from, I must admit that I hardly saw myself in the role of the witness, and much less in the role of someone having a human experience to meaningfully recount, of which the general or universal import, in being inextricably individual, would be the very dignity—the substance calling on speech.

The idea was to speak simply and express how I perceived certain situations, to describe my perception of a problem, because I had already described them and because he felt my opinions were interesting for this particular work. One of the most striking experiences of my life—and I’d told Thierry about it—was working for a cleaning company (I would recommend this experience to all apprentice philosophers in between two takes of Das Kapital tome I). There I learnt, both socially and bodily, what it means to be what I call “an invisible person” (the guy who comes to vacuum and clean the toilets, and who is often a woman). It’s banal and everyday, but nobody seeas you, everybody averts their eyes, nobody dares speak to you, all conversations, all social situations, everything is beyond you. One becomes a mere spectatorly conduit of social interaction, not “somebody.” All the more so for those working nights in the subway network. I’ve made it a matter of pride to say “Good evening, sir.” Social life evolves according to this invisible limit deciding if you exist or if you don’t; you’re there but you’re just utterly irrelevant. No one has anything to say to you, there’s just the need to communicate what you have to do. Instrumentum vocalis.

My job was to clean three floors of an office block as quickly as I could, in other words before 7.30am (I arrived at 5am by bicycle, as this was when the guards changed shift) “to avoid seeing the employees when they would begin to arrive,” said my supervisor. What was interesting, in this experience, was the aftertaste of serfdom it left; it’s a totally and utterly disembodied socio-economic relationship, and it’s accepted as such. Nobody feels the need to address you with the norms and modes of typical face-to-face interaction. Nobody will say to you: “Hello, excuse me, where has the coffee been put?” Instead they’ll say “where’s the coffee at?” This brief description is of course clumsy, given our more or less general awareness of the mild manneredness that maintains the pecking order. Here, however, I simply point to how naturally we inhabit this mode. One of the projects vindicating me and that I shall perhaps never accomplish is to account for the experience of cleaning workers, a manner of speaking the conflict created by being necessary to the reproduction of material life and yet allthewhile treated like dirt, like nothing. This is also and far too often an experience that only affects “immigrant workers.” I’m not quite sure how, but I would like to explore this experience, almost like an homage to to those anonymous souls having to turn the crank on part of the capitalist merry-go-round. An image from Patrice Chéreau’s 1981 production of Don Giovanni at the Théâtre du Châtelet comes to mind: while the action is taking place on stage, large teams of workers labor away, barely taking in what’s happening before them, as if absorbed in an all-consuming and never-ending task. During this time, those in power bustle about and have the time to wonder wistfully about whether they’ll get an erection or not. It seems to me that there’s a kind of ironic note to the fact that the cleaning sector operates under this same dynamic, and that the current French president won an election by campaigning on a theme dear to the extreme right: “national identity.”

But to return to these experiences… sure, well, yes, but I got out of it. It was a passing moment. Not my social destiny, I’m petit bourgeois. I’ve gone to university. There are many people, every day, who continue to survive in these conditions, they have neither face nor voice, their experience remains silent and mine has been a passing moment, I cannot manage to be their voice. These are some of the things that came to mind when Thierry asked me to speak in front of the camera.

But despite this, I could see myself speaking about what Thierry thought to ask me to recount. I think that this is because I trust him, out of affection and politics of a sort, and out of the understanding and affinities we share. He had previously let me know and so I already had an idea of what he was interested in, of what he’d been thinking about. We’d already exchanged a fair bit about political, personal or family stories, about minor events whose meaning is unavoidably political yet, paradoxically, only declared in the dramas of privacy. I’ve got to admit, it all begins with short anecdotes, around a table, a café, in the middle of a conversation, like when you associate a sound or smell to something that stops you dead, listening to a great piece of music in your apartment, watching the streets of Paris unfurl indifferently out your window. Yet the material of life-been-lived, the thickness of words put to describing experiences, seemed also quite intimidating to me. I felt something akin to uneasiness, embarrassment—this may ring a little false like false modesty, but it’s true.

In fact, I’m tormented by those folk that have “really lived something.” It begins early on in life, like when you’re told as a kid that your great grandfather saw half of his family knifed to death by porgromists and then left to Paris on foot. In this sentence, the person telling you the story emphasizes the words “on foot.” The same guy (his name was Aaron) sets up in the Marais area of Paris, learns a trade and becomes a tailor and, after great effort, manages to send for his wife, in the Ukraine until then. She settles down with him, but soon falls ill, she has to be sent to hospital, until one fine day when Aaron receives a letter informing him he can go pick up his wife (I wasn’t told what her name was). So he buys the finest cloth and makes a beautiful dress for her. But when he goes to the hospital to pick her up, he is told—or rather he’s made aware—that she’s dead, that he has to retrieve her body. In the only photograph we have of him, Aaron is serious with a Sicilian-style mustache. He has strong a jaw line and a sad look in his eyes; they’re outlined with kohl.

The moral of this story is that when you’re an immigrant, it’s better to learn the local language. (I’d add that failing having been able to enroll in the public school system, Aaron should have had a dictionary of administrative French on hand). My grandfather told me all of this and I’d like to make the most of this space to add that the bastard didn’t want to pass on Yiddish to me, because he was ashamed, and because evidently the emotional thickness of language does indeed exist.

But beyond the weight of such stories, I think it’s because I read too many personal accounts, too many narratives, because I listened to too many incredible words. Shmerke Kaczerginski and his I was a partisan (his memoirs as a jewish partisan in the soviet forests), Marek Edelman, the autobiographical texts of Jean-Pierre Vernant, Geronimo’s Memoirs, Hersh Mendel, the incredible Biografia de un cimarrón, Frederick Douglas or Booker T Washington, Joseph Dietzgen, Che Guevera, etc… the heroes’ hall is endless but retains a strange permanence, like the bent out goal posts of a football field long abandoned yet always taken up anew and trodden on by generations of players. I believe this is a permanence known to those readers who were taken off as children into the worlds and stories of Jack London. The merits of this secret epic can also have indescribable features, revealed in those almost anonymous encounters that we sometimes have. To this day, I can still recall a café in Buenos Aires, Avenida de Mayo, where exiled republicans would meet to talk and play cards. I remember that at the far end of the room they’d hung a Spanish republican flag (red-yellow-purple for those don’t know it). They would fight as they recounted the Battle of the Ebro. I remember one old guy who, extremely moved, told me: “You know, I killed someone back there. I saw him and I pulled the trigger. I heard him scream and I saw him fall slowly. He was just another unlucky guy like me. I still dream of him at night, I see his hand twisting on impact, like this. I was 16 years old.”

That’s some of the impossible tone that I’ll never correspond to, and that will always escape me. But I realize afterwards, and it’s the strength of the work Thierry made of me in some ways, his maieutics, that I still had something to say that was worth being shared. There’s no mystery to it, and I don’t think Thierry will hold it against me if I reveal the hidden secret of our interviews, but we laughed a lot about often tragic things.

I might be wrong, but I think that it’s from this experience, that I told him of, that the idea came about to speak of the inside/outside border through pieces of wallpaper coming off an old wall. I’m personally amazed by what he managed to do, the way in which managed to incorporate these ideas around a maté (seen briefly on the table), and I am also surprised by the depth that the problem of language takes with this question of ones’ emotional relationship to space and time as revealed through the migrant experience. I feel that it’s by speaking with Thierry, by trying to formulate what could unite a shattered experience, that I came to express a feeling which has followed me since childhood and which I had never quite found the words for. It’s the idea that you never really fit into the drawer. There’s always a leg or an arm sticking out (cf. “national identity”). Whether chance events or existential perspective, part of you is always foreign, outside, and strenuously resisting “national identity” which, after all, is just verbal lunacy: in Argentina, Argentinian but jewish; jew amongst jews, but with a mixed family, with the Irish, the Basques and the Indians; among jews, an internationalist, a cosmopolitan, not a zionist (which is to say nationalist); at school in Argentina, son of an exiled commie, under a military dictatorship at once catholic fundamentalist, anticommunist, Maurras- or Franco-styled nationalist; in France, a run-of-the-mill Latino (with all that goes with it)… etc. The list could go on, with various situations; you can see how certain “identity frameworks” seem to switch on, beyond your control, and with independent impunity, affecting speech and bodily characteristics.

For a long time, I wondered why it was that I had never managed to find the way to express, beyond mere theory, how much these various elements I’ve just spoken about formed an unstable whole. What I mean by this is that the political program of the nationalist normalization of social life consists precisely in destroying the categories of expression of these particular situations in order to slot them into an framework of experience that is prefabricated by a political discourse in which identities must be stable. Just like with the issue of national identity.

The fragment of Outside Lectures that I appear in bears a title: “Foreign Office.” I think the title’s basis is well justified: we spoke and laughed for hours when I recounted by anecdotes about the administration, and particularly my residency visa.

David Beytelmann
Paris, February 2009