Gender relations are rooted in everyday life, and as I went about my research, I discovered Saint-Denis as a lived space, full of families and ex-relationships, sociability and homosociality. Much of this centered around my closest friend in the field — a loquacious white French doctoral student who, when asked to pick his own pseudonym, said “Call me Ishmael.” So I will call him Ishmael: a self-conscious literary reference that colors this ethnographic work with an unavoidable theatricality. At one point he was close to his male professors, being known for his forceful presence, but after many internal clashes, he fell out of favor. As I write, Ishmael still lives in Saint-Denis, where for the past decade he has been finishing his doctoral dissertation and facing intense economic precarity. I am no longer sure whether he will ever finish his dissertation, although no doubt he ought to write this book instead of me, since I owe him a great deal of my local knowledge.
My friendship with Ishmael was premised on social exchange and mutual recognition (or was it misrecognition?). When Ishmael moved into a new home in September 2010, I volunteered to help him move in. The apartment was in a newly renovated, high-security building on a broad avenue near downtown Saint-Denis. The street was bright as a dream, the sidewalks dotted with proletarian wanderers. Young men ate together in little cafes, while shops sold cigarettes, shaving supplies, croissants and gyro sandwiches. Ishmael’s moving van, crammed tight with boxes and furniture, was parked beside a produce shop. As I arrived to offer my modest services, I was introduced to Ishmael’s father, his father-in-law and his brother-in-law. Our mutual friend Marcel, another philosophy doctoral student, also showed up to carry boxes, which is how I discovered that Marcel and Ishmael, whom I had often seen together on campus, were close friends. Ishmael’s partner Anne arrived a bit later, with their baby strapped to her chest in a white sling. It was a conventionally gendered scene: men carried boxes while a woman cared for a baby.
Abandoning ourselves to the hasty flux and semi-chaos that accompanies big moves, we left the doors propped open and moved boxes into the foyer, circumventing all the security systems. The furniture left little craters in the walls of the elevator; the box of Jacques Rancière’s famous journal, Révoltes Logiques, was inordinately heavy. Ishmael, in a rushing state of stress, was uncharacteristically untalkative. The two fathers worked together closely, while Anne’s brother managed to squeeze the bookshelves into the low-ceilinged elevator, twisting them at odd angles. In idle moments, I gnawed on a sandwich I’d bought across the street, which inspired Anne and her brother to go out and look for food of their own. Anne, Ishmael and the baby had arrived in Paris by train, while their fathers had brought the moving van from southern France. It had been a major family endeavor.
After we finished the lobby, I finally got to come upstairs and see the apartment. People were eating homegrown tomatoes and pre-sliced lunch meats. A thicket of boxes covered the living room like a cubist spectacle. Anne was disappointed to find that the apartment lacked sunshine, facing north. “Still, you can see the sky, there’s a lot of light,” Marcel added reparatively. The light splashed up and over the facing buildings across the street. In all the commotion, I was never officially introduced to Anne, which left me feeling shy and then self-conscious. The two fathers meanwhile investigated the apartment’s electrical system, flipping circuit breakers back and forth to map them to outlets.
The apartment was typical of how French social life gets divided into public and private spheres. The public-facing living room, with a kitchen nook in a corner, was separated by a door from the private realm, which had its own tiny hallway, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a toilet. In the kitchen nook, bare wires dangled where an overhead light should have been. Little carpentry projects began. Someone proposed hooks for a clothesline. I told Marcel about breaking up with my partner that summer; he made sympathetic noises.
Ishmael and Anne only relaxed when everything was brought in from the truck. The baby woke up and nursed. Conversation drifted. A friend from the Philosophy Department had checked into a psychiatric hospital. We got to talking about the worst students that Marcel and Ishmael were teaching; they were among the small minority of doctoral students who got teaching fellowships. One of Marcel’s students had turned in an analysis of Deleuze that got everything completely backwards, and even attributed Nicholas Sarkozy’s legislative victory to the Jews. “Don’t waste your time on this guy!” I said. “Well, we’re not going to be friends,” Marcel explained, “but Paris 8 has lots of people like this — it goes with the territory.”
When I was finally ready to go home, Marcel decided to set out as well. Ishmael kissed us both as we left, with the cheek kisses (les bises) that, among straight French men, are generally reserved for women and close male friends. The kiss was masculine homosociality at its best (Hammarén and Johansson 2014): full of inarticulate, unquestioned warmth that flourished in the absence of any label more specific than “friendship.” Such a gesture was new to me at the time, and thus memorable. It was a highly ritualized gesture: the intimacy of a faint brush of skin was carefully regulated by habit and convention. But in this context, the bises started to give me a feeling of being, momentarily, inside a volatile, guarded ring: the guarded world of masculine reproduction in the departmental milieu. If you were inside that ring, its homosocial warmth could easily start to feel comfortable, ordinary, and natural. In a bise, social relations are ratified. Naturalization sets in motion.
This zone of masculine homosociality was not internally homogenous. Does it change your sense of it to know that Marcel was a child of a Franco-Algerian family? The zone of sociality at the heart of the Philosophy Department remained predominantly white and French, but it included certain kinds of social difference. Though not all. I asked a female professor once if we could meet and talk about the life of the department. She responded tersely that she had nothing to do with the life of the department. Her response resonated with a longer history of women’s exclusion.
On walking in the banlieues, see Silverstein (2004). ↩