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  • What a Wall Wants, or How Graffiti ThinksNomad Grammatology in the French Banlieue
  • David Fieni (bio)

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>> Nomad Grammatology

The now infamous series of inflammatory remarks that Nicolas Sarkozy, as interior minister, repeatedly unleashed during the summer and fall leading up to the banlieue riots of 2005 sparked a swift and fierce public outcry. Commentators in both the French and foreign press were quick to criticize Sarkozy’s vow to “flush out [the thugs of La Corneuve] with a Kärcher [pressure washer]” (il faut [les] nettoyer au Kärcher).1 It was pointed out by Azouz Begag, as the newly appointed minister of equal opportunities, that such “warlike” language indiscriminately victimizes young people in the banlieue, while journalist Doug Ireland argued that Sarkozy’s comments conveyed hints of ethnic cleansing by equating urban youth, largely of Maghrebi origin, with dirt that needed to be violently removed from the otherwise smooth and clean civic spaces of the French Republic.2 The populist rage that Sarkozy articulated by using the term racaille (rabble, scum) received most of the attention, including an essay in Le Monde that explored the word’s etymology (intended as a lesson in the politics of language for the French interior minister).3

It is the Kärcher reference, however, that most interests me here. Kärcher, a company based in Germany, whose own website touts it as “the most recognized and trusted name in high-pressure cleaning equipment,” manufactures machines used to clean city walls and public latrines. By proclaiming that he wanted to “kärcherize” the “racaille,” Sarkozy evoked a specific technology of urban cleansing that vividly illustrates the increasingly brutal approach to the banlieue that marks French urban policy since the 1980s. The Kärcher water blaster is not a mere metaphor, but an actual machine used to scour graffiti from a variety of hard-to-clean surfaces. Sarkozy’s comments thus equate banlieue youth (la racaille) with their signs of passage through urban space (le graff, as graffiti is often called). The young banlieusards themselves become illegible signs on the new smooth spaces of the HLM housing estates. The rhetorical dehumanization of young people from “troubled neighborhoods,” combined with hostility to graffiti, reveals the neo-logocentrism operative in the penal republican state that reiterates colonialism’s pseudo-scientific rationale for depriving supposedly illiterate peoples of history, reason, and even the very capacity for thought, a rationale that ultimately justifies their exclusion from the entire chain of civilizational benefits and rights attendant upon literacy and reason. One piece of anti-Sarkozy graffiti in Brest near the port de commerce, depicting Sarkozy as the national cop wielding a billy club, displays an explicit awareness of this interpretation of what nettoyer au Kärcher means (fig. 1). Text accompanying the cartoonish caricature reads, “Article 1: Nettoyage des graffitis au Kärcher” (Article 1: Cleaning graffiti with a Kärcher).4

It would be an error, however, to suggest that the category, “banlieue youth,” exists independent of the statements that construct it as an identifiable group. Mustafa Dikeç’s recent demonstration of the way that French urban policy “produces” the banlieue as a space to be policed and contained also extends to the way that specific groups within these spaces are produced through the media, statistics, law, and other techniques.5 The [End Page 73] act of naming the racaille effectively produces them as a social category precisely at the same moment that the necessity of cleansing their living inscription from the cité is asserted. I am calling this nettoyage or erasure of these groups “neo-logocentric” because part of its target is graffiti, which, as I hope to demonstrate, represents an important emerging global practice of inscription that produces multiple transnational connections among ghettoized spaces around the world. Graffiti functions as a kind of alternative literacy that operates within a plane that connects with literacy in the narrow sense of the term, but remains independent from it. The strong reactions that graffiti elicits, as adduced by Sarkozy’s remarks (and one could cite dozens of other examples), suggest that the new technologies of thought, mobility, and inscription that graffiti engineers are what make it...