Drancy–La Muette: Concentrationary Urbanism and Psychogeographical Memory in Alexandre Lacroix’s La Muette (2017)
2. Relearning to Look at a World Contaminated by the Concentrationary
La cité de la Muette, 1935, l’une des plus grandioses tentatives de logement social de l’entre-deux guerres.
La cité de la Muette, 1941–1944, camp de transit vers la mort.
La cité de la Muette, 1989, HLM décrépite.
La cité de la Muette, pièce en trois actes. Cité radieuse, cité de la mort. Cité banale.
Banale, banalisée. Et bientôt: réhabilitée.
[The cité de la Muette housing estate, 1935, one of the grandest social housing projects of the interwar period.
The cité de la Muette housing estate, 1941–1944, transit camp to death.
The cité de la Muette housing estate, 1989, decrepit low-income housing.
The cité de la Muette housing estate, play in three acts. Radiant city, city of death. Banal city.
This short overview aptly captures the ambivalence of such a site, which once represented a hopeful time of social progress and that has now become the epitome of the dark years of the collaboration of the French State in the Holocaust. By describing the history of La Muette as a ‘play in three acts’, Maspero implicitly puts forward the idea that the different phases of La Muette are to be understood as part of the same, wider (hi)story rather than as three independent, separate stories. Yet, unlike traditional theatre plays that end with a ‘dénouement’ (literally, unknotting) bringing about a resolution of tensions, it is, herein, impossible to unravel the different histories that intersect at La Muette. However, being now ‘banale, banalised’, its normalisation within the everyday landscape means that, although La Muette is the result of a complex intertwining of past and present, the multi-layered nature of the site has become invisible.Banal, banalised. And soon: rehabilitated.]
3. Concentrationary Urbanism
où les relations sont toujours plus fonctionnelles, où l’on cesse même d’être poli parce qu’on n’en voit plus l’utilité. Moi, j’ai un problème avec la froideur parce qu’il me semble qu’elle peut inspirer la main qui guérit comme celle qui tue, qu’elle peut conduire au meilleur comme au pire, justement parce qu’elle est aveugle.
What Elsa expresses in terms of ‘coldness’ is the abstract rationality criticised by Bauman and Adorno, whom I discussed earlier. Her reflections concur in particular with Adorno, who urges the need to reflect on coldness as a condition of possibility of the Holocaust. According to the latter,[where relationships are always more functional, where we even stop to be polite because we can’t see the use in that anymore. I personally have a problem with coldness because it seems to me that it can lead the hand that heals in just the same way as that which kills, that it can lead to the best and the worst alike, precisely because it is blind.]
In her discussion of coldness, Elsa insists on its dual nature, which, as mentioned previously, plays out in the paradoxical history of La Muette: principles of rationality and efficiency, which drove the construction of the housing estate in the pursuit of the betterment of people’s lives, were also the ones, that ‘made the Holocaust thinkable’ (Bauman  2013, p. 17). Importantly, Elsa further describes this coldness as being ‘blind’. As I will discuss in the following section of this article, counteracting this blindness requires a different mode of perception, which relies on the affective power of space to bring to light the intertwining of different stories and histories that would otherwise remain obscured by the coldness of the estate. Like Elsa, Nour, the other protagonist, also uses the idea of coldness when describing the urban environment that surrounds him, likening the housing estate to an assemblage of Tetris blocks (Lacroix 2017, p. 41). This is a telling comparison, for Tetris, whose goal is to fill in an empty rectangular box by stacking variously shaped geometrical blocks, is a video game devoid of any trace of human life. Such a comparison thus reinforces the idea that La Muette is inhospitable to human life.If coldness were not a fundamental trait of anthropology, that is, the constitution of people as they in fact exist in our society, if people were not profoundly indifferent toward whatever happens to everyone else except for a few to whom they are closely bound and, if possible, by tangible interests, then Auschwitz would not have been possible, people would not have accepted it.
Dans ses lettres, il me parlait de la maison qu’il comptait faire bâtir. Il voulait que nous ayons un poste TSF, une baignoire en fonte, une cuisine aménagée, que sais-je. Parfois il allait même jusqu’à me décrire des motifs de papier peint ou de rideaux.
Her lover’s promise of a future together is conveyed through material symbols of modernity pertaining to the domestic sphere, underlining the extent to which faith in modernity and progress became intricately linked with the possibility of a safe, comfortable, domestic living space. Such an equation between modernity and the possibility of a better future was embodied by La Muette at its inception. Indeed, the sort of modern living described by Albert was exactly what La Muette, as an icon of modernity, stood for just a decade earlier. Each flat benefited from its own bathtub, independent W.C., and modern kitchen, including an ‘évier-vidoir’ (a sink with a kitchen waste disposer)7, representing state-of-the-art development. Ultimately, however, Albert’s betrayal of his promise uncannily mirrors the history of La Muette and its unfulfilled promises. Once more here, it is the two facets of La Muette that are highlighted, for just as the housing estate carried a hopeful promise of better lives for all, like modernity, it also held a dehumanising potential, which was activated during the Second World War when it was turned into the Drancy internment camp. Elsa picks up on the fundamental ambivalence of the site upon her arrival at the housing estate now turned internment camp, noting ‘ce mélange de sophistication et de gravats bruts’ (p. 20) [this mixture of sophistication and raw rubbles].[In his letters, he talked to me about the house he intended to have built. He wanted us to have a radio, a bathtub, a fitted kitchen, or whatever else. Sometimes he would even describe wallpaper or curtains patterns.]
Dernière formalité, l’enregistreuse m’a prié de retenir par cœur trois numéros: j’avais le matricule quatre cent trente et un, j’étais assignée à l’escalier quatorze, chambre trois. Elle a répété en articulant bien chacun des numéros, il ne fallait surtout pas les oublier, ils composaient ma nouvelle identité à Drancy.(p. 26)
Herein, the spatial organisation of the camp is shown to participate fully in the dehumanisation of the inmates.[As the last formality, the woman in charge of registration asked me to remember by heart three numbers: I had the matriculation number four hundred and thirty-one, I was assigned to the staircase number fourteen, room three. She repeated, articulating well each of the numbers, which I should absolutely not be forget as they made up my new identity in Drancy]
Sur le seuil de la chambrée, j’ai reculé. J’ai revu, avec un serrement de cœur, ma chambre de Lyon. Ce n’était pas un palace, ça non, imaginez une petite pièce mansardée avec un lavabo, mais rien n’y était agressif. J’avais posé des brise-bise aux fenêtres, j’avais cousu des coussins de brocard qui recouvraient le lit, j’avais un gros traversin qui me tenait chaud l’hiver. C’était un nid douillet, qui sentait toujours le propre. Dans cette chambrée de Drancy, au contraire, on aurait dit que tout à coup les choses et les objets étaient hostiles.(p. 35)
In Lyon, where she lived prior to her arrest, Elsa was able to exercise, to a certain extent, her ability to shape her own space through a creative process. In other words, she was able to ‘inhabit’ this space in the Lefebvrian sense of the term. Moreover, her enumeration of the few things that formed part of her practice of space, such as making cushions, suggests that space is the result of an imaginative process rather than a mere product.[At the threshold of the dormitory, I took a step back. I saw once again, with a heartfelt pang, my room in Lyon. It wasn’t a palace, far from it, imagine a little attic room with a sink, but nothing there was aggressive. I had hung some half-curtains at the windows, I had sewn brocade cushions that covered the bed, I had a big bolster that kept me warm in winter. It was a cosy nest, that always smelled clean. In this dormitory of Drancy, on the contrary, it seemed that suddenly things and objects were hostile.]
4. Spatial Poetics of Affective Resonances
En sixième, le prof d’histoire nous a raconté la disparition des dinosaures. Je m’en souviens encore, comme j’avais mal pour eux. Y a une météorite qu’a percuté la Terre et du jour au lendemain plein de cendre flottaient dans l’air. Le soleil passait plus au travers. Les plantes se sont mises à crever à cause du manque de lumière. Bientôt les dinos ont plus rien trouvé à grailler et ça s’est mal terminé, la story. Après le drame, dans l’appart, j’avais comme l’hallu de les voir moi aussi, les cendres qui volaient partout. Je me sentais dans le noir, comme si la nuit venait de tomber en plein jour. A peine si j’arrivais encore à respirer.(p. 17)
[In Year 7, the history teacher told us about the disappearance of the dinosaurs. I still remember it, how deeply I felt for them. A meteorite crashed into the earth and overnight tons of ashes floated in the air. The sun couldn’t shine through it. Plants started dying because of the lack of light. Soon the dinos couldn’t find anything to munch on and it ended badly, the story. After the tragedy, in the flat, I too was like tripping I was seeing them, ashes were flying everywhere. I felt I was in darkness, as if night had fallen in broad daylight. I could barely breathe anymore.]
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Conflicts of Interest
Rousset’s political reading of the concentration camp system is shared by Robert Antelme and Jean Cayrol, who were also political prisoners in the Nazi camps. These ideas were also later further developed by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt 1951).
English town planner Ebenezer Howard developed the model of the garden city at the turn of the twentieth century. Howard’s garden city model promoted the establishment of communities in the countryside for working-class people. In England, Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City were built according to Howard’s vision in 1903 and 1920, respectively. In their analysis of Howard’s model, Clevenger and Andrews (2017) underline the ‘unapologetically eugenic and biopolitical objectives articulated within, and through, Howard’s schematic’ (p. 142). In this respect, the cité de la Muette, though formally departing from the garden city, may be understood as part of a broader tradition.
The current housing estate looks decidedly different: the towers were demolished in 1976, and only the horseshoe-shaped building remains.
In La Ville radieuse for instance, Le Corbusier (1935) elaborates on his vision of the ideal city—the ‘radiant city’—that he had started to develop from 1922 onwards. Such a city would be hierarchical, vertical, and functionalist. In this book, he shares his ambition to remodel Paris according to this model, which would allow for the ‘ville-lumière’ to live on (although such a transformation entailed the demolition of most of the city, to be replaced with skyscrapers). His description of the resulting Paris in the following terms echoes the hygienist discourse of fascism:
Although there exists vast evidence of Le Corbusier’s fascism and antisemitism (including his active involvement in fascist groups, publications in fascist journals, and personal correspondence), they have been rarely discussed in France. Nonetheless, in recent years, several books tackling the dark aspects of Le Corbusier have been published, though this has caused some controversy in France, see, notably, Perelman (2015). For an insightful overview of this debate, see Brott (2017).
The Milice was the fascist paramilitary police force created by the Vichy regime in 1943.
For a low-income housing estate such as La Muette, HLM (Habitation à loyer modéré) agencies are in charge of selecting applicants and managing the allocation of housing.
Over seventy graffiti by Jewish internees in the stairwells of the housing estate were discovered during renovation work in 2009.
In her discussion of affect, Sendyka draws on Brian Massumi’s theorisation of affect (itself derived from Gilles Deleuze, who was himself influenced by Bergson (together with Spinoza)).
The invisibilisation of sites of violence through their normalisation also applies to sites of colonial violence. Such sites include, for instance, the ‘Jardin d’agronomie tropicale’ [Garden of Tropical Agronomy]) located on the outskirts of the Bois de Vincennes in Paris. The site, which was transformed into a ‘colonial village’ as part of the 1907 colonial exhibition wherein indigenous people from the French colonies were put on display in ‘human zoos’, has played an important role in France’s colonial past. Yet, despite being ‘one of the most evocative colonial lieux de mémoire in France’ (Aldrich 2020, p. 161, original italics), the Jardin d’agronomie tropicale (reopened to the public in 2006) remains highly ambivalent as traces of the colonial past are left for the visitors to uncover.
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Otosaka, D.M. Drancy–La Muette: Concentrationary Urbanism and Psychogeographical Memory in Alexandre Lacroix’s La Muette (2017). Genealogy 2023, 7, 23. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy7010023
Otosaka DM. Drancy–La Muette: Concentrationary Urbanism and Psychogeographical Memory in Alexandre Lacroix’s La Muette (2017). Genealogy. 2023; 7(1):23. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy7010023Chicago/Turabian Style
Otosaka, Diane Minami. 2023. "Drancy–La Muette: Concentrationary Urbanism and Psychogeographical Memory in Alexandre Lacroix’s La Muette (2017)" Genealogy 7, no. 1: 23. https://doi.org/10.3390/genealogy7010023