- Aesthetic Citizenship: Immigration and Theater in Twenty-First Century Paris by Emine Fişek
Emine Fişek's timely and compelling study examines immigrant theater activism in France as a dynamic point of friction between French republican ideals and the embodied performance of citizenship in public life. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research, she situates the work of her subjects within the broader history of immigration and aesthetic trends in French theater between the 1970s and today. The book is an exemplary study of theater and politics that draws productively on points of convergence in a wide range of recent scholarship (especially in anthropology and performance studies) to glean insights about the stakes underlying the aesthetic dimension of political belonging in contemporary France.
By "immigrant theater," Fişek refers to artists (amateur and professional) devoted to staging works that explicitly address migration and immigration. This includes groups founded in the 1970s to promote the rights of workers and women, recent workshops in neighborhoods with a large population of people of immigrant descent, and specialists employed by the French nonprofit organization Cimade and other humanitarian organizations to work with undocumented immigrants. She also considers the Théâtre du Soleil, whose relationship to migration, French humanitarianism, and personal narrative "parallels the dynamics structuring these smaller ventures" (167). Fişek asks [End Page 1427] how we are to understand the broader social and political agency of this kind of theater. She is especially sensitive to the varied influences that complicate overly celebratory portraits that focus only on empowerment. She explores the troubling and contradictory ways immigrant and more recently "humanitarian" forms of theater have relied on narrowly defined (often gendered and racialized) representations of immigrant and refugee experience that may hinder efforts to gain greater justice, recognition, and inclusion.
What is especially distinctive about Fişek's approach is her focus on embodiment as a key lens through which to view the interrelations between the aesthetics of theater and the aesthetics of citizenship. To introduce this, she describes the classroom scene in the Abdellatif Kechiche film L'Esquive (2003) where the young protagonist Krimo struggles to perform Marivaux and faces the withering criticism of his teacher who urges him to "have fun!" and "free yourself!" He fails not only to present the text but also to present himself adequately to his audience. Here we see theater as both representational practice and site of subject constitution where embodiment is the fundamental medium. Similarly, in touchstone conflicts in France regarding the wearing of headscarves or gendered separation at swimming pools, these forms of embodiment are held to be both representative and constitutive of identity—with some forms held to encourage attitudes and dispositions associated with a collective identity based on secular republicanism (laicité), and others seen as signaling allegiance to competing sources of authority. Throughout the book, Fişek examines the conflicts and interrelations between theatrical and other settings where citizenship is defined and performed, showing the advantage of looking beyond familiar republican settings (e.g. primary schools) and underlining the distinctive aspects of French theater as a mode of engaging with these values. The book raises questions that might be fruitfully explored in future research, such as the range and scope of French immigrant theater activism outside Paris, and the extent to which participation in immigrant theater activism has been a point of entry (or not) into the world of professional theater for artists of immigrant descent in France.
Some of the five chapters are more heavily dependent on archival research, while others draw from ethnographic data, interviews, and analyses of productions. Chapter one is based on interviews with the founders of two Arab-French theater troupes created in the 1970s, one troupe more focused on immigrant workers, and the other on the experience of Algerian women on both sides of the Mediterranean. Fişek shows how the evolution in immigrant theater activism (from animation to intégration) is related to political changes in the early 1980s such as the right of association accorded to immigrant groups, and the influential 1983 March...