PRINT Summer 1994


SINCE HIS FIRST PUBLISHED WRITINGS appeared some twenty-five years ago, Marc Augé has progressively turned his attention toward the Western society from which he comes, and which is now as much an object of study as the African societies he initially examined. There is nothing surprising about this: when the ethnologist returns to the place he started from, how can he logically abandon the habits of observation and analysis that underlie his practice? It was inevitable, then, that Augé’s field of research would be as broad as possible, and that his work on himself and his own culture would also reflect his desire to know the other. This back-and-forth is at the heart of his anthropological project, and is most strikingly illustrated in the dialectic he has continuously stressed between alterity and individuality, and between collective representations and individual ones, as something like the two sides of the same coin. “It is not just because the representation of the individual is a social construct that it is of interest to an- thropology; it is also because any representation of the individual is necessarily a representation of the social bond consubstantial with it. By the same token, we are indebted to the anthropology of faraway societies, and even more so to those it has studied, for this discovery: the social begins with the individual, and the individual comes under an anthropological [pur]view,” he writes in Non-lieux (Nonplaces, 1992).

Like Augé’s books, the conversation that follows may call to mind the practices of many different artists: Robert Smithson, incomparable exegete of the mutations of contemporary space, and inventor of the “nonsite”; or Lothar Baumgarten, who discovered the colonizing impulse, and its characteristic obliviousness to the other, even in the Paris subway system (in a 1986–87 exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, “Accès aux quais” (To the trains). Art has long been one of the objects of the “anthropological view.” That it should become an agent of that view now seems freshly urgent.

JEAN-PIERRE CRIQUI: Your new book, Le Sens des autres (The meaning of others), is both an overview and a program: one can see in it your concern for an anthropology as much of the nearby as of the far away. Before I come back to this double concern, I’d like you to recall your beginnings. How does one become an Africanist?

MARC AUGE: I’d love to say you become one by accident, but if I must elaborate, let me say that being trained in literature, I wanted to get away from strictly academic study and to pursue more speculative thinking. That and a curiosity about other cultures put me on this path. There were, of course, other determining factors, like meeting Georges Balandier.

You must realize that for people of my generation, who were students in the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was no special curriculum in ethnology. We all came to it from somewhere else—mostly from the humanities and philosophy, sometimes from history. This was a time when the possibilities for practicing anthropology professionally broadened a bit. The dominant intellectual tendency of the time was antifunctionalism, characterized by Structuralist research and by a condemnation of any simple teleology derived from a narrow focus on correspondences between various levels of a societal whole.

Obviously, the reintroduction of the individual into the social sciences, which to me seems the most significant event in the field in the last twenty years, led to a certain distance with respect to Structuralism. We should, however, be clear what we mean by Structuralism, for the idea of defining an object of study on a strictly logical level—of devising a system through which one can understand the logical dimensions of, say, matrimonial alliances, with all the generality and abstractness that project supposes—still seems to me a legitimate undertaking.

JPC: Starting with Génie du paganisme (Spirit of paganism, 1982), you seem to be approaching an ethnology of contemporary industrial society. That book is about not only polytheistic thought in African societies, but also the paganism inherent in traditionally Christian ones.

MA: Yes, that book came at a moment after my fieldwork in Africa, when I began to think about it from a distance. To put it briefly, I’d been trying to understand the interpretive systems of the lagoon-dwellers of Ivory Coast—the local way of seeing that makes ideas about the individual, the social relation, and the event so difficult to dissociate from each other. I was particularly concerned with representations of individuals and of the human body, and with how to link the logics of practice, behavior, and actions of power and influence to the logic of representation.

The interpretation of death or of illness occurs at this level, on which the analysis of language, representations, and actions constitutes a kind of unified whole. I had studied African systems of prophecy, focusing on figures from the beginning of the century who, reacting to contact with the civilization of Europe, established a new practice for individuals caught under colonialism—displaced, troubled, and searching for meaning. It seemed to me necessary at some point to look at paganism again, and to see how its particular combination of meaning and knowing can always be found in industrialized societies.

JPC: At the beginning of Génie du paganisme you write, “Western looking [regard] ceased to be contemptuous only to become esthetic.” Is this a judgment allowing of second thoughts?

MA: The fact is that with respect to others, this regard was rather quick to void anything on the order of representation, anything that had a propositional value. The ideas inherent in African objects were considered curiosities; the ethnographer might explore them as a set of world views, but they really didn’t exist in the contemporaneity of the observer, for whom they were not intellectual propositions but simply information. The esthetic domain is an exception, however, and it is the dissociation between an esthetic point of view, arising out of looking from outside, and an ignorance about the rest that justifies the sentence you quoted. There is, of course, no reason to deny the early ethnologists our respect for the systems of thought they discovered; I’m thinking, for example, of Marcel Griaule, and his reconstitution of Dogon cosmology. But it is the beauty of the system, and its coherence, that strikes us. We admire Dogon thought the way we do a beautiful myth, like Plato’s “beautiful lie.” We don’t make it into an idea we would argue in discussion.

As far as African so-called “art” objects go, everything begins in ambiguity, and stays there. Some of them go into a museum, but at least in countries like France, into an ethnographic museum, not a fine-art one. Yet the market in these objects as art continues to develop.

JPC: Recently we saw the suggestion to put African art in the Louvre giving rise to all kinds of debates.

MA: My own feelings are quite clear on this subject: I was one of a group that signed an appeal, saying, If there is an African art, then it obviously should go into the Louvre, not an ethnographic museum. But for connoisseurs, the definition of the “beautiful” African objet d’art is quite surprising. Three criteria seem to come into play: the object must be beautiful; it must be authentic, that is, it must have been used for something; and it must be above a certain age. If we combine these criteria we see that they are half ethnographic, or what we suppose to be ethnographic, and half esthetic, for there is no reason for an object to be more “beautiful” just because it has been used for sacrifice.

There is always some uneasiness and flux in this kind of appreciation, where the criteria are rather confused. On the market right now there are Baule statues, very beautiful ones, that appear to be very old and have a magnificent patina—yet one that is quite artificial. Even specialists can he fooled. Here it is the criterion of authenticity that becomes a problem—the fact that these objects were made for sale and not for use. But does this change anything as far as their beauty is concerned?

JPC: I’d like to talk about your analyses of space and its uses. It seems to me that these analyses are a kind of thread that winds through your work.

MA: Africa helps us think space. I realize this when, for example, I look at what I’ve called the “therapeutic itineraries,” that is, the routes taken by people who wish to be cured of an illness or malaise the circuit from the prophets I mentioned earlier, to healers, to the hospital, in short to whatever is available, whether in magic or in medicine. In Africa you also encounter the question of space in the organization of the village, with its demarkation of certain boundaries between the different worlds, and of the home, with its threshold, its central room, and its spaces for the gods that guard it. It is also through an analysis of space that we grasp what the course we set through the world of the nearby has in common with courses through the world of the faraway. La Traversée du Luxembourg (The crossing of the Luxembourg gardens, 1985) was the first in a series of essays where I imagined my reaction if I were, so to speak, the native I am questioning. It was a kind of self-ethnology—a fiction in which I recounted the day of a man who crosses the Luxembourg gardens on his way to see a doctor, runs into different people, watches them, and tries to reconstitute for each of them the simultaneity we all have of on the one hand looking out onto the world and on the other being exposed to an internal revery of images and fantasies. That simultaneity makes us always somehow both inside and outside ourselves as we move about. In this way I raised both the question of city space and more classically ethnological questions of birth, illness, death, kinship, and filiation, and asked how they might he relevant to an individual today.

JPC: You continued this work in Un ethnologue dans le métro (An ethnologist in the subway, 1986), where you examine the master network that organizes Parisians’ travels.

MA: What interested me first of all in the métro was the play between the subway map—which is there, and is imposed on us—and the various ways we find to move through it. The métro is an integral part of Parisians’ lives, and anyone who has lived in the city for any length of time has been through different métro “periods,” in the way we use the word “periods” when speaking of certain painters. On the map of the métro, everyone—and this is a mystery true of all—can find the memory of different moments in time. There is thus the presence not only of the network, of the reality of its different routes, but also of the past, or a part of the past, contained in it. The word “correspondances,” found in the lexicon of the metro as in Baudelaire, puts it well: the métro correspondance of changing trains at a station relates to the Baudelairean correspondance of changes in activity, of symbolic changes in our existence, since this is the way we pass from our professional to our private lives.

JPC: The anthropologist in you picks up two more things about the métro: first, that it constitutes an experience of otherness, and second, that its use supposes, in Marcel Mauss’ term, “body techniques.”

MA: Yes, it’s an experience of otherness, or in any case of coexistence, since when you’re in the subway car you’re there without communicating with the people around you. “Body techniques” are closely connected to this presence of others, if only because during rush hour your ways of standing, sitting, and moving are directed by the density of the crowd. And, more broadly, there’s the ability to play the métro as a sport—to tell whether the sound you hear is your train coming into the station, and to judge whether you have time to make it by running down the stairs four at a time. There are real virtuosos of these body techniques, and that’s not even to mention the people who jump the turnstiles to avoid buying a ticket.

I was also struck by the names in the métro—by its onomastics, if you will, which show how we give ourselves over to ancestor worship. In France, the historical dimension is always being affirmed in a thousand different ways. It’s very clear in the métro, where the distribution of names of course reproduces the surface map, but with twists of its own, resulting in some beautiful couplings that we seldom bother to deconstruct or analyse. “Charles de Gaulle—Étoile” (Charles de Gaulle—Star) is one such, interesting in its symbolic overdetermination. It always leads me to a vision of de Gaulle going down the Champs-Élysées, radiating light. On the other hand, from the point of view of their names, the métro’s journeys in space often translate into strange journeys in time: from Bastille to Alésia, or from Michel-Ange—Michelangelo—to Émile Zola.

JPC: In one striking formula, you call the métro “the collective without the celebration, and the solitude without the isolation.” The notion leads directly to what you call “nonplaces” in your book of that title, where you outline an “ethnology of solitude.”

MA: There are spaces, and they are characteristic of our contemporary condition, in which we are numerous but the numbers don’t make sense, don’t create any fusion. One cannot analyze an airport check-in area, for example, in Emile Durkheim’s terms, because no collective as such is created there. Unlike places where one has roots (the places we call in French terroirs), the “nonplace” involves no sense of identity, no ability to establish relations with others. The waiting room and the supermarket are nonplaces; so are the car, the train, and the plane. (One must of course respect the nuances: for certain people, a nonspace can become a space. Working in an airport is not the same as passing through it.) Even more aptly, “nonplaces” are various abstract spaces we don’t see—the spaces of the cable, the wire, of media communications. When you put your credit card into a bank machine, you come in contact with an impalpable space—a nonspace.

More broadly, I would say that looking can create a nonspace. It is often said that today’s abundance of media images creates a screen between the individual and the world. Thanks particularly to television, we now have some idea of what the whole world looks like, and we are easily accustoming ourselves to the experience of considering reality only through the images of it that are put before us. The same phenomenon occurs when we pass a sign on the highway that tells us we are near such-and-such a place and shows us a picture of it. So we “leaf through” the trip, and are made into pure passersby—no longer travelers, just passengers.

The same abstraction occurs in tourism, and in the representations of others that tourism procures for us. The same man on a television game show who is overjoyed to win a one-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Morocco may also say that he can’t stand his North African neighbors. For him, the issue is an idea of Morocco, one that has nothing to do with reality. The tendency to constitute the space of others as an abstraction is a pretext for discovering not the other but only oneself, and also for being able to describe oneself as one who has crossed that space. One must add that implicit in all this is the greatest disregard for the other.

JPC: The subtitle of Non-lieux is “An introduction to an anthropology of the overmodern.” What can you say about this phrase?

MA: The word “overmodern” is an attempt to suggest the logic of excess at work in our present-day modernity. There is first of all an excess of information, making us prisoners of the news—as if history had caught up with us in the form of news. Yesterday’s news becomes history, already just barely perceptible. It ages even more rapidly than fashion, of which it is an accelerated form.

There is also an excess of space that paradoxically amounts to a shrinking of space: we now feel we live on a finite planet where all we can do is go around in circles. (Pascal’s anguish is democratized, so to speak.) I think this awareness of being in a limited space plays a definite role in the struggles around identity, the exacerbated forms of nationalism, and the intolerance of immigrants that we see today.

Finally, there is an excess of individuality, and of the individualization of public references. We all agree on the weakening of what Durkheim called “intermediate bodies”—parties, unions, churches. One could say that where we used to have mediations we now have media. The difference is that mediations laid down the conditions for symbol formation and the institution of relations to the other, whether in the couple, the family, or professional bodies, while the media give us images of everything—but only images. This is the source of the frequent impression one gets of seeing everything but being able to do nothing. So it is in the nonspace, also: the nonspace may concentrate a great deal of information but generally leaves the individual alone, or literally undone. As ethnologists know, in every ritual system it has clearly been sensed that the administration of otherness is what allows for the definition of identity. This is why I wouldn’t call what we have today an identity crisis, as it is often called; rather, it’s an alterity crisis, an inability to think the other, which in turn makes identity hard to think.

JPC: At the beginning of Le Sens des autres, you ask, Can one do ethnology at home? The answer you give is categorical: one not only can, one must. It’s a duty, you say, since a free society ensures its members only “a freedom with a set of keys for which there is not much choice of locks.” Can you be more specific?

MA: Very simply, I mean that we are the objects of messages and “treatment” that we must absolutely be aware of and learn about. The images “addressed” to us “preform” us, giving culture an appearance of naturalness that we must be vigilant about. Distance and observation are permanent necessities.

I think the time has come for a generalized anthropology. Obviously the world remains diverse, but today we are on a planet of which there is no part that cannot be viewed from the same vantage, and where there are phenomena everywhere that derive from the same logic. Thus the problem is not really to go somewhere else and then come back home, but to measure the standard by which the categories of self and other are established wherever one may be. There is no longer much possibility of a great divide. The division between those who observe and those who are observed was no doubt always something of an error, but today even the possibility of that error no longer exists.

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.