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Switched-On Modernism

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 52, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 556-564 | 10.1353/cli.2011.0030

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Near the end of La Haine (1995), Mathieu Kassovitz's excoriating drama of life in the banlieues of Paris, the three young protagonists—Vinz (a working-class Jew), Saïd (a Maghrebian), and Hubert (an Afro-French boxer)—are smoking a joint on a rooftop following a long night stranded in the alien center of the city, shooting the bull and staring at the distant Eiffel Tower. Finally, Saïd announces that he's going to switch off the lights. He snaps his fingers several times, and nothing happens. His friends taunt him: that gag only works in the movies. Turning their backs in disgust at the glowing tower, the trio heads toward the station to take the first morning train out to the miserable suburban projects. The camera, however, remains fixed on the iconic monument as the voices fade offscreen, and we watch while the lights do, in fact, switch off, but only for us, the audience. It is a key moment in the film, but I'd always taken it primarily as a metacinematic moment, a meditation on pop culture. When it showed up in movies before La Haine, the switching-off-the-Eiffel-Tower trick allowed the beau to establish his mastery of the world by magically flicking a switch with the snap of his fingers, turning off the lights at the climax of a romantic night of seduction of his female love interest. Like other intertextual moments in this densely allusive film, the episode underlines the disjunction between the youths' acute cultural awareness of the world from which they are excluded and their equally acute awareness of their exclusion from it. And, also typically of the film, the ironic punch line of the episode suggests that there's nothing structural about the exclusion; it's only the matter of a few seconds' timing that prevents them from resolving the aporia of their lives.

I thought of this scene again while reading Michael Rubenstein's wonderful new book Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial, when, in his innovative and dexterous analysis of the Shannon Scheme that provided the Irish Free State with the first national electricity grid in the world, he describes the staged spectacles of rural electrification. In the "great switch-on," the entire community would gather in the village hall, local leaders and humble citizens alike. A clergyman would pronounce a blessing, relevant language from the Gospel of John would be read, the presiding government minister would press the switch, and brilliant electric light would suddenly illuminate the hall, the streets outside, and on into the countryside. As Rubenstein argues, these spectacles were a modern literalization of the Enlightenment promise of light out of darkness (and, before that, of the biblical promise), deployed as a potent metaphor for the birth of the modern nation-state of Ireland, an image of collective belonging simultaneously material and symbolic. It's the precise counterpart, in other words, of the exclusionary moment in La Haine, which, after reading Public Works, I now see is not simply a case of metacinematic intertextuality but cuts straight to the crux of the banlieue crisis. These three young men articulate their sense of exclusion via the discourse of pop culture ("like in the movies"), but that articulation invariably invokes the literal fact of their disempowerment. Shut up in the concrete ghetto of the distant banlieue, they feel off the grid, and they desperately want to be on it, to be able to take for granted the apparently simple act of switching off the lights. The irony—and this is what distinguishes the postimperial version of Rubenstein's topic from its more strictly postcolonial context or geography—is that they are in fact on the grid. They are citizens, they have housing, their apartments have water, gas, and electricity, and yet they experience the world as if they did not. That's why the lights go off the moment their backs are turned, and that's why the world really could be theirs (as a graffito in the following scene in fact asserts).

Rubenstein doesn't discuss La Haine in Public Works—he chooses instead to conclude his book with the bastard...

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