- Michelle Grangaud’s GesteAn Anti-Epic of Everyday Life
In his 1977 “La vie des hommes infâmes,”1 the preface to a planned collection of parallel lives gleaned from seventeenth and eighteenth-century archives of internment, Michel Foucault writes:
Ce n’est point un livre d’histoire. … C’est une anthologie d’existences. … Vies brèves, rencontrées au hasard des livres et des documents. Des exempla, mais—à la différence de ceux que les sages recueillaient au cours de leurs lectures—ce sont des exemples qui portent moins de leçons à méditer que de brefs effets dont la force s’éteint presque aussitôt.(237)
Appropriating the topos of Plutarch’s multi-volume history Les Vies des hommes illustres, Foucault points to the traces left by the lives of ordinary individuals in the formal petitions and lettres de cachet that sought to proscribe those individuals to confinement. The paradoxical nature of this early discourse on the everyday consists in signaling out particular existences at the moment that it banishes them from the sphere of the quotidian: these insignificant (“infimes”) lives exist for us today only through the discourse that made them infamous (“infâmes”), stripping them of the right to communal life. As Foucault suggests in his piece, the imbricated relations of power and discourse secreting a “fable de la vie obscure” (252) depart both from the traditional focus on heroic characters deemed worthy of emulation and from the dark, legendary figures of Gilles de Rais or the Marquis de Sade. This series of micro-narrations presages the advent of an ethics of immanence in modern literature, manifest in its focus on the everyday and the overlooked—“aller chercher ce qui est le plus difficile d’apercevoir, le plus caché, le plus malaisé à dire et à montrer, finalement le plus interdit et le plus scandaleux” (252). [End Page 67]
Four years prior to the publication of Foucault’s preface, Georges Perec issues a short text, “Approches de quoi?” as a call to engaging with the ordinary in its most banal and repetitive forms: “interroger l’habituel.”2 Drawing attention to everyday practices rather than singular events—“chercher en nous ce que nous avons si longtemps pillé chez les autres. Non plus l’exotique, mais l’endontique” (12)—Perec’s injunction shares in the abovementioned imperative of modern literature to track the everyday, in particular our modes of being in common in all their overlooked aspects. Take note of trains, he says, not at the moment of a derailment—the spectacular stuff of fait divers—but when they run on schedule. It is to this end that the various techniques of contemplation and classification at work in a text such as Perec’s Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien zoom in on the fabric of everyday life in an urban milieu.3 What finds itself at stake here is less the moment of rupture caused by isolated events than the experience of rhythms found beneath the seemingly monotonous flows of pedestrians coming and going.
We bring these two texts together for they appear emblematic of the way in which the particular and anecdotal aspects of the everyday come into focus in a series of post-1980 writings of ethno-biographic bent—Marc Augé’s Un ethnologue dans le métro (1986), Annie Ernaux’s Journal du dehors (1993) or Jacques Roubaud’s Tokyo infra-ordinaire (2003), among others. More specifically, our two texts call attention to the fact that for the experience of the outside to become graspable in its intensity, a particular style of enunciation—operating on the basis of brevity, for Foucault, or the logic of the list, for Perec—must take hold of it first. Not only that, but the two texts’ reticent classification on the whole anticipates the genre-bending swerves in post-1980 ‘reality texts’ with their appropriations of conventional frames and lieux communs—for example, Augé’s ‘proximate ethnography’ of the metro construed as topos, or Roubaud’s preparatory notes for a Tokyo haibun that undercuts the exotic allure of the city emanating, for a Western reader, from nineteenth-century japonisme.
Underscoring the mix of techniques and generic transgressions...