Letter from Paris: French Universalism Shows its Limitations in the Art World—and Beyond

As the world came to a halt in the spring, I was reading two books simultaneously: How We Became Posthuman, a seminal work from 1999 by N. Katherine Hayles about transformation in the digital age, and Achille Mbembe’s Brutalisme, a philosophical volume on our tumultuous times that had just been published a few weeks prior. I opened both looking for material to back up some points in an essay I was writing. But I quickly realized that, taken together, they pointed to something crucial to an understanding of the workings of French institutions and how, in the art world, those institutions are positioning themselves in terms of exclusion, inclusion, and secession.

As France went into lockdown and resorted to a frenetic consumption of news, specific themes started to surface around questions related to what it means to be human and the long-debated concept of French universalism. Handed down through history as a remnant of the 1789 Revolution, French universalism is based on a belief that to be treated equal and be free, citizens should surrender their personal affiliations and that no group should be given special treatment. In the 1990s, however, universalism’s ideal of an abstract, essentialized citizen with no particularities collided with real bodies as women, queer activists, and immigrants started to organize, with support from multiculturalist politics gaining ground in Europe.

While the dominant political discourse in France remains conditioned by mutations of a universalist heritage, the pandemic shined light on a notable divide. In one camp were idealists hoping that a collective vulnerability to a shared, natural threat would revive the hope of building a world in common. In the other were more pragmatic observers who couldn’t help but notice how contamination rates among stigmatized minorities mirrored the results of years of politics based on an “indifference to difference.” (While statistics based on race, ethnicity, or gender remain forbidden in France, contamination rates in suburbs populated by a majority of residents of foreign origin with higher unemployment rates were soaring.)

In the context of the first camp, Hayles’s study of the posthuman can be read as an attempt to salvage a “critical universalist” position by foregrounding how the human stands in relation to other species and artificial agents. In April, Hayles herself published an essay, “Novel Corona: Posthuman Virus,” stressing “the commonalities that all humans share with one another, notwithstanding all the ethnic, racial, geopolitical, and other differences that exist between us.”

But, as reflected by the second camp, humans are mnemonic beings who reflect past and present living conditions, with vulnerabilities that affect some more than others. As Mbembe prophetically wrote in Brutalisme, humanity’s essence has been transformed and its existence threatened as a result of historically imposed Western dichotomies (nature/culture, subject/object, human/nonhuman) that erased ancestral African cosmogonies rooted in free-flowing and ever-reconfiguring flux.

Achille Mbembe flipping through his award-winning book Critique of Black Reason (2015).

Achille Mbembe with his award-winning book Critique of Black Reason (2015).

During lockdown, Brutalismea dense and sinuous reconsideration of contemporary theories about technology, identity, and ecology—became one of the most-read books in France. While Mbembe was already a prominent public intellectual there (he graduated from the Sorbonne and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, and has frequently written for national newspapers), the book’s popularity can be pinned to a more specific cause. In April, Mbembe published a piece at the francophone website aoc.media (the acronym for “Analyse Opinion Critique”) that spread quickly as other publications shared extracts and responses translated in several languages.

The highly freighted term “universal” appeared in the article’s title, “The Universal Right to Breathe”—a gesture that was hard not to notice in a political context where the French president was rekindling the old debate over universalism by proclaiming “fighting separatism” as his priority. Before this moment, the Cameroon-born Mbembe had been known mostly for his analysis of contemporary power relations, widening the scope of “biopower” through his pivotal concept of “necropolitics,” or the annihilation of those considered enemies of the state. Sovereignty, he explained, equals the power to decide who lives and who doesn’t, as exemplified by modern states built on slavery, apartheid, and colonization—a power that, in recent times, has been extended on a planetary scale to include supranational entities such as corporations.

In such a context, “separatism” appears above all a vital reaction to the peril of death imposed on those treated, in Mbembe’s words, as “mere waste.” And the pandemic reveals political universalism as the material, structural construction of power that it is, regardless of whether citizens adhere to it or not. It is a kind of power that operates through what Mbembe describes as “fracturing and fissuring” and “expelling organic matter.” When he calls for a “universal right to breathe,” he simultaneously exposes how universalism has normalized its opposite.

In the institutional art world, metaphors of life and death prevail, and while most spaces survived the first phase of lockdown, those that did not offer a striking example of the unevenly shared “right to breathe.”

Above, a literary event organized by the publishing house Présence Africaine at La Colonie, Paris, October 2019.

Above, a literary event organized by the publishing house Présence Africaine at La Colonie, Paris, October 2019.

In the middle of March, a multidisciplinary space founded in 2016 by artist Kader Attia and restaurateur Zico Selloum to host exhibitions, critical debates, book releases, film screenings, concerts, and DJ sets announced that it was closing due to a funding deficit. Located near Gare de l’Est in central Paris, La Colonie (written so as to connote an anti-colony) was financed by income from a bar in the space, a model similar to the one Attia used in the early 2000s, when he financed much of his work through his bar Le Café Chéri(e).

Offering free entrance, La Colonie became a home for unheard ideas and, contrary to state-run institutions, did not impose translation on non-francophone voices. It played a major part in making decolonial thought accessible to a larger public by appealing to antiracist, militant circles as well as scholars and thinkers, threading together the two groups by hosting the likes of writer Françoise Vergès, artist and editor Pascale Obolo, philosopher Seloua Luste Boulbina, and economist Felwine Sarr.

When Attia launched a crowdfunding campaign to reopen the space elsewhere, Olivier Marboeuf, an artist, writer, and editor wrote him a letter on Facebook stressing how they both create “organisms, collective bodies that grow, live and die” in the act of building “not monuments, but lifeforms.” In 2004, Marboeuf founded Espace Khiasma, a similar space dedicated to producing and exhibiting artists’ films until it was forced to close for financial reasons in 2018.

In an interview he was generous enough to grant me when Espace Khiasma was still running, Marboeuf explained how the “inequality, humiliation, and domination [is] disguised by the neutral figure of the citizen” and how universalist institutions have been preventing the emergence of a racialized intellectual elite. Regarding Khiasma, he emphasized how the space reflected the need for excluded communities to invent their own tools—as he himself had by refusing to become a curator in existing state-run institutions. “We don’t need them to validate what we create,” he said. “The [goal] is not to be against those big institutions, but not to depend on them anymore.”

Since early 2019, Khiasma’s former space has hosted new initiatives led by a collective structure of volunteers and various associations that gather different projects and undertakings. The name given to this experimental “house for all” is A Place to Breathe [Un Lieu pour respirer]. Marboeuf says such spaces mark “a new form of presence through flight.” The act of organizing independent, autonomous, and horizontally interconnected spaces that grow like mangroves puts different forms and practices on the agenda while transcending traditional cultural programs and politics.

Assa Traoré at a demonstration in memory of her brother Adama, July 2020.

Assa Traoré at a demonstration in memory of her brother Adama, July 2020.

Even as the former Khiasma space continued to be A Place to Breathe, the “post-Covid-19” period that Mbembe wrote about in early April was tragically followed by what he called another “premature cessation of breathing.” In France, the wave of anger that spanned the world after the killing of George Floyd in America found its voice through Assa Traoré, who since her brother’s death in police custody in 2016 has managed to turn her advocacy group, Justice for Adama, into a widespread social movement and herself into an important political figure.

The protests in support of Black Lives Matter shined new light on questions of equality—something that riots in France in 2005 in response to the fatal electrocution of two teenage boys fleeing the police had not, or at least not to the same degree. In July, the New York Times published an in-depth article under the headline “A Racial Awakening in France, Where Race Is a Taboo Topic.” The author, Norimitsu Onishi, interviewed several key intellectuals and public figures—from Maboula Soumahoro and Binetou Sylla to Rhoda Tchokokam and Rokhaya Diallo—who represent a younger generation bringing debate over race to the fore.

Brick-and-mortar spaces like A Place To Breathe have recently been joined by virtual spaces working toward a shared cause. In March, Seumboy Vrainom :€, an artist and self-described “digital shaman apprentice,” put up on Instagram and YouTube the first video in what he called his Histoires Crépues (“frizzy histories”), a series meant to explore “our shared colonial history” as “complex and frizzy” as his hair. Each video explains a concept or event through cross-reading sources and references accessible free online; collectively, the videos will eventually form a database.

Screengrab of Seumboy Vrainom :€’s Instagram page.

Screengrab of Seumboy Vrainom :€’s Instagram page.

In French schools, Seumboy Vrainom :€ recalled, the only education he had about racism referred to American history, as though French and European colonization had never happened. In Histoires Crépues he analyzes such topics as Africa’s debt, police violence, and racist monuments, showing how French colonial history still shapes society—all while avoiding American and African-American concepts as sole references.

Another example of an alternative digital space is Qalqalah قلقلة, a curatorial platform founded by independent curators Virginie Bobin and Victorine Grataloup in reaction to “a political and intellectual context and media coverage marked by reactionary, authoritarian, and discriminatory speeches and acts.” Dedicated to the production, translation, and circulation of artistic, theoretical, and literary research in French, Arabic, and English, the site’s online editorial space launched in March with the mission, as expressed by writer and theorist Sarah Rifky, to expand beyond “monolingual activists.”

Initiatives of the sort show how a younger generation continues to move beyond universalism by encouraging alternative, collective discourse and by refusing to surrender to total legibility. The pandemic allowed nimble experimentation to take place, as state-run institutions struggled to adapt.

It has also made only more clear the importance of Mbembe’s “universal right to breathe.” The global crisis, he writes, should be an opportunity to “reclaim the lungs of our world.” To do so, the voices of those already suffocating should be those we listen to more and more. For all of us, this is vital if we are to survive.

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Breathe In, Breathe Out.”

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