Jacques Rancière | Circuit Rounds and Spirals [from ‘Proletarian Nights’]

Chris Marker | Staring Back


ANOTHER FEVER, ANOTHER EXILE. This printer has gone back out the door he just entered: “On the fifth day we got the sinister message—nothing more to do!”1

These mishaps are frequent in the typographer’s trade, one marked by the singular fact that a day at work is not necessarily a day of work: “It is pretty much only in the printshop that one is permitted the revolting and wicked abuse of hiring people and keeping them behind bars or under lock and key, without feeling obliged to give them any work or remuneration.”2 That is the lot of the slip compositors (paquetiers) who populate the book printshops. The foresight of the masters prompts them to hire people all the more lavishly insofar as that costs them nothing. The workers are present in the shop from morning on but paid on a piecework basis, so they simply wait for the contingencies of work to offer them a few hours of remunerative activity.

But even that sort of patchy workday can become a privilege when a crisis hits the printshop. Then the typographer, chased from the paradise of the aristocratic journal compositors on the Right Bank, begins his descent on the road that will first lead him to the proletarian bookwork compositors on the Left Bank and then sweep him into the spiral that winds out from the first circle of printshops administratively tolerated in the quarters (Montrouge, Vaugirard, Montmarte, Belleville …) to the distant wreath of establishments set up by modern entrepreneurs farther and farther away from the taxes and troubles of the capital (Sevres, Saint-Germain, Lagny, Corbeil …).

Our fictional printer has traversed the spiral from the heart of Paris to the heart of hell, driven by some ill whose causes our storyteller deems it irrelevant to analyze right now: “As everyone knows, a noxious influence has battened on industry in general and the printing trade in particular. But this is neither the place nor the time to investigate the cause of this influence, which has been disastrously progressive for some years.”3 A noxious influence, an epidemic, an external ill invading what would be the normal life of the social body: such images may be essential to a perception that refuses to separate the science of doctors from the devotion of lifesavers and the starts of sick people. This convergence itself pinpoints well enough the one and only source of all social ills: the fundamental ill that economics calls competition and morality calls egotism.

It is another and different malady. It is no longer the joiner’s feverish anticipation, but in the slow agony of a life “begged from God minute by minute” and in the round of knocking on the doors of workshops that are closed, deserted, or dormant, it is the same perduring exchange between sufferings of the soul and sufferings of the body. It is another exile, but this one does not take the form of imprisoning the captive soul in the needs of the body and the walls of the workshop. The kingdom of our printer is of this world: not in the clouds of our rebellious joiner, but in the streets, sights, and sounds of the city:

For a long time I had no family, since I lost my mother quite young. So I had created a new family for myself out of the immense population that gravitates around the bosom of the city every day. I loved it as my second mother, still alive after the other one had died. Alive in its patchwork houses and motley buildings, its sky, and its sounds, which I had seen and heard from the moment I was granted sight and hearing. Sitting on a sidewalk stone like a baby in its cradle, I recognized a brother in every passing creature, a familiar toy in every monument, a friendly call in every one of the myriad sounds that assaulted my ears.4

Upon entering the workplace, the orphan who had re-created a family out of the harlequin city was not suddenly and irremediably separated from the pathways of his childhood. The world of our printer–goguettier was not cut in two, as was that of our joiner–poet. And so his exile, before becoming a geographic exodus toward the printshops of the periphery, takes the form of a loss of reality, of a hallucination that robs him of his maternal space:

When the time came that I found myself, at the corner of every crossroad and the threshold of every thoroughfare, a young man already weary of real life and trying to summon up again the illusions of a happy childhood to make of them a pillow on which I might dream, if not sleep, during my long nights of insomnia, and every time found myself anticipated by the filthy and insatiable Harpy called Poverty, the specter that I kept fleeing everywhere and always and that kept pursuing me everywhere and always, I was forced to keep going straight ahead and farther until it had lost my track.5

In these rhetorical figures, borrowed from the models of the day, we sense here more than the effort of our apprentice writer to turn the prose of everyday life into poetry: a certain insistence on using metaphor to move reality into the realm of fiction. That very same year Villerme had taught bourgeois curiosity and compassion to recognize the haunts and scars of poverty. Here it is as if that poverty were entitled to literal and literary existence only in the extenuated form of a spectral destiny pursuing the errant soul—as if the reality of unemployment and poverty were not so much the raw manifestation of the social ill as the hallucination produced by the fundamental sickness of a life dedicated to seeking something it does not desire.

Through the pride of some or the repugnance of others, however, work did seem to present a virtue that was acknowledged by all. It was the means to independence: that is, to a life exempted from the servitude of seeking. But how is one now to describe the life that hangs on the search for work? That life functions as no more than the substitute for its own ideal, a remedy for or a mere derivative of its own illness. In the work our errant printer finally gets, he will find repair for the energies that had been impaired, not so much by hunger as by the anticipation of it, by the constraint of finding some work:

After the incredible surprise of being employed immediately after my arrival, I had again set about … rebuilding my future from day to day, the only one on which we could rely, we other workers.… For me work was then the repairer of the many breaches that long inaction had just made in my position, which was already precarious even in less wretched times. It was a potent topic to set over against the anxious question of how to stay alive, that terrible leprosy that decimates one-third of the population. They pose this question in the morning as a system to beat, but find it still unresolved when evening comes.6

After those four days of freedom from the anxiety of the puzzle and the obstacle course came the verdict of the fifth day, “nothing more to do,” which a voice from somewhere else prompted him to complete with: “except die.”

That is why he is now riveted on the Corbeil Bridge, right where a framework of crossbeams takes the place of the railing that had been destroyed at the time of the foreign invasion. He is not entirely alone, because the storyteller has placed him under the virtual gaze of travelers; they may go by too quickly to pay attention to him, but it is on consideration of them that his gaze at the river hangs:

What would they say, those people passing down there in that coach, heading speedily for Paris on the road that hugs the right bank of the Seine, if I were to reveal to them the idea that absorbs me.…
If they knew why I chose to lean on this barred wooden railing, through which I gaze eagerly at the flowing water, rather than on the stone railing that would prevent me from seeing it; if they recognized the wretched hope that fixes my gaze on the crest of each wave and forces it to follow that wave doggedly until my weary sight loses it in the confusion of all the waves vanishing on the horizon.… The hope is this: that giddiness will carry me away, and the waves as well, toward Paris—unperturbed, gently lulled to sleep like those people in their coach.7

A desire to let himself go without asking for anything more, but also a desire to return from his place of exile, by the most direct route, to his childhood home, his maternal city. “Rivers are roads that move and take you where you want to go.” What we have here is not a decision but an impatience, not any real giddiness but the yearning for it. How could the hasty look of the travelers discern what is at issue here? That night of the laborer by which alone he can match the day of the rich person: a journey without detour or shock, its pomp defining an equality exactly the opposite of that with which the preachers make the rich fear a death as destitute as the life of the poor. Their questions and counsels would necessarily bypass the problem: “What would they say? Perhaps this: he’s mad—does one die for that?”

The question is obviously put badly. One does not die for that, one simply dies of it. It is not a final solution whose excess in proportion to its cause could be denounced. Rather, it is the final end of an illness, of a slow divestment of the real: the advance of empty time on full time, expanding the latter’s intermissions; the leprosy of “how to stay alive”; the erosion of being by nothingness; the limit of that relationship of dependence that makes up “a life begged from God minute by minute.” How could these rich questioners comprehend this complicated identity of ill and deliverance? For people of their class, death has the coarse features of the absolute Other. That is why they clearly differentiate the illnesses or violences to which one succumbs from the reasons for which one may yearn to die. It does not work the same way in the class of men with robust limbs and bronzed faces. The proximity of death is not manifested solely in and through the familiar forms: familiarity with violent relationships (brawls between journeymen guilds or others) that makes the hazardous life weigh less heavily on riot days; the bruising and wearing down of the body by work accidents and illnesses that curtail the hope of life and the calculations associated with it; the morbidity of the common people’s city, which circulates the miasmas of cholera and insurrection at the same speed. There is also that sensitive frailty that tradition more readily attributes to the languors of the idle. When the warden of the Belle-Ile penitentiary gets the humanitarian idea of having the political prisoners bathe in the sea, you witness this strange episode. The model soldier of the people’s army, silkweaver–sergeant–deputy Sebastien Commissaire, whose body as a child had been hardened in the icy waters of the Doubs River, faints; he cannot bear the smell of sea water. The very experience of prison brings out in militant workers a propensity of the soul to amplify the sufferings of the body and of the body to waste away from the wounds of the soul. How many die in a few weeks or a few months from the injustice of a sentence or the abandonment of those for whom they have submitted to it, from the stigma of time spent among thieves and convicts or the opposite rigors of isolation in a cell!

But one need not personally experience prison to die of the fatigues and lacerations of the apostolate. So died ivory-turner Desmartin, languishing away on the morrow of June 1848, and compositor Saumont, driven to despair by the splitup of the typographical society. These political languors are close to the exhaustion of those who succumbed to the impossible task of leading a double life: for example, printer Eugène Orrit, whom the bilingual Télémaque left by Jacotot could not get through his double duties as laborer by day and encyclopedist by night. At the borderline these instances of decay produce a strangely ambiguous image of the exemplary death, a confused intermingling of the effects of hunger and the effects of discouragement, of vanquished resistance to disease and the decision to have done with it, of the price of presumption and the bitter wages of devotion. Every time a worker, often a printer, suffers for what he has said or written—when Hégésippe Moreau dies in the hospital or Adolphe Boyer commits suicide—two legendary deaths are evoked: the people’s poets, Gilbert and Malfilãtre. But no one really knows anymore what exactly they died of: hunger, illness, suicide, or madness. And even at the obsequies for Adolphe Boyer, killed by the failure of his book, the eulogy of printer Vannostal has difficulty characterizing his end. While Vannostal stigmatizes “this epidemic mania of suicide,” he asks God to excuse Boyer for having fallen “into a weakness so common in irreligious ages like our own; for He would be unjust if He were to punish the worker who falls, worn out by fatigue.”8 The suicide of the discouraged militant—the failed writer, say wagging tongues—is the very same as the fatigue of the one who worked too much. And many proletarian deaths have the quality marking the legendary deaths of children of the common people who wanted to break through the barrier: abandon, in both senses of the word—loneliness and giddiness. They are very gentle deaths, which look like a simple letting-oneself-go to the natural elements. The models of our illustrious Charlet do not kill themselves with the sword at all. Like Jules Mercier and Reine Guindorff, they let themselves go in the waters of the Seine; or, like Claire Demar and Adolphe Boyer, they calmly stretch out after having stuffed their stove and blocked up all the openings through which the heat might escape.

Supernant, however, does not let his fictional character succumb to giddiness. This is, without doubt, in his interest as an author—he has no other character. But the sequel of the story will show us precisely that the latter makes sense only by virtue of his other: the double toward whose house he now hastens on the rain-soaked road without giving in to the temptation to let himself fall. Another and the same character, the printer whose time has holes in it, on the one hand, and, on the other, the proletarian of thought, the worker whose time has no measure and who is promised no salary for the order and regularity that the visitor observes in his cold, empty room: “I glanced at his table. Papers and books were arranged on it the way he used to arrange them when he foresaw that he had to tackle a work of some importance. The start of a rough draft lay in front of his one and only chair.”9 Let us spare ourselves the time spent by our hero in detecting, in the dampness of the accumulated ashes and the drying up of the ink, the signs of long abandonment. He then goes over and draws the curtains of the bed on which his friend lies—dead, of course, not from having nothing to print up but probably from having too many texts still waiting to be printed up. The narrator does not tell us exactly. He postpones the sequel and the moral to a subsequent issue.

But there will be no sequel—in all likelihood because our author is one of the militant printers who, in the autumn of 1840, tired of doing literature on worker miseries in La Ruche, will rejoin comrades at L’Atelier who have decided to propose positive solutions and to awaken the moral energies that will give workers mastery over their destiny. So it is up to us to draw the lessons of the fable, which are not so obvious as they might seem. The suspended ending may illustrate the sermons that point up the danger of literary pretensions to haughty proletarians. But the body of the story has already destroyed the antithetical image of the good trade that offers a living to the honest, industrious laborer. At the common boundary of work and non-work, of hand-work and thought-work, one and the same malady renders the destinies of laborer and writer equally deadly. And if the printer who cannot sell the use of his hands resists the cold of the off-season better than the writer who cannot sell the fruit of his thinking, the main reason is this: the nobler the function attained, the crueler the malady.

The principal danger, which will turn the hierarchy of functions upside down, lies elsewhere: not in dying of one’s thought-work but in living by it. That is the lesson of another little tale in La Ruche about a “lost life.”10 The author, Pierre Vincard, brings us back to the scene of a joinery workshop that seems to know nothing of the printshop’s dead periods. There, too, hiring took place at good moments in the dismal decade of the twenties, and it was not always done with discernment. The master sets out to make the rounds of the asylums and lets the orphanage authorities palm off on him young Georges, a boy with neither the taste nor skill for work. In despair that he will make nothing out of him, he entrusts Georges’s apprenticeship to Urbain, a worker who is remarkable for his competence and, even more, for the dignity he gets from his mother “a woman of superior intelligence and a loving, sensitive soul.” Those kinds of superiority give perilous kinds of pedagogy. Urbain turns Georges into a passable worker, but the main thing is that he lends him books. The books are read so avidly that one day the young man declares to his mentor that he can no longer remain a worker, because he has come to realize that “material work was incompatible with serious studies; because if an inspiration comes to you during the workday, you must wait until evening to take advantage of it; and by that very fact it very often escapes you.” The work of thinking cannot be done on a part-time basis. In vain will Urbain remind his pupil that Plautus turned the grindstone and that Jean-Jacques Rousseau copied music. In vain will he try to hold him back from the road to disgrace when Georges, having lived off a young working girl, plans to abandon her when she becomes pregnant because his vocation cannot tolerate any obstacle. Georges will pursue his course to the final scene: Urbain, seeking new lodgings, accidentally comes across the room where Georges is dying, not of hunger but of moral destitution.

The key scene of the story is the one where Urbain comes to remind Georges of his duties as lover and father and finds him in the company of the absolute Other, the man who lives no more by his own thinking than by his own hands but rather by the thinking of others: the feuilletoniste, who in this case has come with cigar and cane to pressure Georges into discrediting the work of an author who displeases his masters. Georges, who had intended to praise the author, would settle for not saying anything good about the author’s work. Nothing doing! The feuilletoniste is a creature devoid of the reserve that allows the joiner to give himself to his master only for his money, to invest in the same action the zeal that acquits him of his work and the rage that liberates his thinking. The man who lives by the work of his hands can play off his arms against the thinking of his master, or play off his thinking against the materiality of his work. But the man who lives by his thinking can no longer use guile on the account books of work well done/rightly done. He must always do more, unreservedly alienating the most precious possession he has. A proletarian of thought is a contradiction in terms, which can be resolved only in death or servitude. The course from proletarian to apostle is unthinkable in terms of a career. And so La Ruche populaire does not allow as collaborators “people whose material existence depends on their way of thinking and writing.”11 It admits only the proletarians who have reached the same conclusion as Urbain: “I prefer to plane my boards, it is less humiliating.”

Less humiliating, undoubtedly, especially since Agricol Perdiguier and George Sand have given the trade its literary dignity. It is again by a trick of literature that the antithesis of the lost worker is to be a joiner–philosopher. The very same chiseler who mocks the mason’s trowel is always ready to exalt the music of “his” plane; but the authentic joiner Gauny, who already mistrusted the spiritedness of Saint-Simonian choirs, does not find satisfaction or recompense in this industrious music. The man who planes his boards does not sell his thoughts to a master, but it is still necessary that the continual practice of this operation leave him a thought; that the noise of the plane, the mechanical use of his arms, and the fatigue of his brain not turn the independence of the journeyman vis-à-vis the master into a mere alibi for his bondage to work.

Now there we have a formidable ordeal every day: hiring out one’s body without alienating one’s thinking, “stealing a few scraps of leisure” from time’s “frenzy of tyrannical activity.”12 The “cancer that gnaws the soul of the day-laborer”13 harnessed to his bench bears the same name as the fatal malady that seizes printer–poet Hégésippe Moreau coming out of the printshop—even though he has made the wise resolve to be “a worker by trade and a poet by fancy,” making his work for a living the daytime drug that he must prolong with opium to escape the agony of nights and Sundays.14 The malady is called boredom: the mutual numbness of body and soul, from which the latter dies more nobly but no less surely than it does from its fall into venality. In the apportionment of labors of body and labors of thought, of daytime occupations and nighttime occupations, of exigencies of body and exigencies of soul, the balancing point presupposes a more subtle geometry than that which presides over journeyman masterpieces.

That geometry could not possibly reside, for example, in the simple reversal effected by Gauny’s friend and contradictor, Louis-Marie Ponty, whose childhood was one of rebellion against school and whose adolescence was one of rebellion against apprenticeship in any and every trade. Determined never to worry about knowing “the time indicated on the clock by the hand of our industrious chain gangs,” Ponty solved the problem by making night his workday and daytime his night.15 Ragpicker, then cesspool-cleaner, he reserves the daytime for himself, to write in the sunlight, dream, and build up his library at the second-hand bookdealers along the river. It is an inversion of time, but also of the relations that classically link worker liberty to the nobility of his task and tool. It is choosing crap as the price of liberty, which he justifies in an ode to a colleague:

Laisse-les donc t’insulter dans la rue,
Vrai lazzarone aussi libre que l’air,
Va! tout outil est un poignard qui tue
La liberte, de nos biens le plus cher!16

To Gauny this liberty is merely the worst of servitudes: the kind that corrupts the night of the soul with the obligations of a task doomed to dejection, accompanied by gross remarks and, under its vagabond appearances, subject to constraining relations with authority. So he will not give up until he has led this bohemian of thirty-five to take up again, as an apprentice, the workshop route that he himself detests:

If you, with your love of fine things and your passion for liberty, were to recoil today from the vexations that other habits always produce in us, you would be a coward. If you were to return to your former occupations—degrading by virtue of the illegitimate forced labors demanded by their exploiters—and again brutalize yourself in your stupefying and fetid nights, you would destroy in your spirit the developmental part that the Great All placed in each of its manifestations so that they might rise, with all their might, above the snares of fate.…
Have courage, and flee abasement, vile degradation, the shameful subordination that your masters will increasingly demand as the years diminish your physical resources—the only supports, untrustworthy ones, that linger in the worker’s old age.17

So one must go by way of the drastic conditions of a true trade. It is in the workday and one’s relationship with a tool, not alongside those things, that liberty has to set up its margins. Though it is an instrument of servitude, the tool is the minimal precondition if the proletarian is to have any independence. Gauny, then, will turn himself into a marginal insider, a floor-layer on a piecework basis, working his own hours in houses without master, overseer, or colleagues. The freedom of the jobber is earned with difficulty, to be sure, because the competition is rough and the price is high:

He is overwhelmed with indifference and unproductive matters. He is the one that the entrepreneur sacrifices to his day-laborers.
Before anything else the entrepreneur readies work for them and neglects the jobber, whose lost time in no way hurts the entrepreneur. If some unproductive piece of work crops up, he imposes it on the jobber; and it is always the jobber that he satisfies last, enclosing him in the exigencies of a finished task without any concern for the hours and pains he expends on it. But in work where he breathes at his ease and is at home!18

Being at home: the ways of realizing this dream have nothing to do with the patriarchal daydreams of those philanthropists who would like to reconstruct the lost unity of work and the family order through the ordered disposition of social palaces, the rural peal of urban factories, or work done at home by little hands/little fairies of the hearth. Being at home means fleeing the workshop of the master, but not for the sake of a place more inhabited by human warmth or humanitarian kindness. Fleeing, on the contrary, to that deserted space that is not yet a residence: a vacant place where the masons have finished their work but the owners have not yet installed their belongings—hence, a place where for this brief interval the constraint is broken that wedges the laborer between the entrepreneur, master of work, and the bourgeois man, master of the proprietary order, so that the floor-layer will be able to arrange a staging of his work that will be both the semblance of his ownership and the reality of his liberty.

The semblance of an ownership. It is in shouldering his insecurity that the worker can affirm an ownership of his work that does not reside in the relationship between his instruments (which are his at the master’s as much as here) and his product, but primarily in the reversal of his relationship to time:

The worker, who has not been winded by the exactness of the hour, considers his task for a moment as he prepares to undertake its sound execution. Nothing about his tools repels him; it is with a sort of affection that he handles them. Abandoning himself to the riches of his liberty, he is never made gloomy by his workplaces or the time he must spend there.… He does not dread the abhorrent gaze of the master or the time signals that force the other workers to break up their conversation and hurry under the yoke. On the job one effort excites another, the movements follow one another in a straight and spirited way. Lured toward the conclusion of the work, he is taken up by the charm as he kills boredom: that awful cancer that gnaws the soul of the day-laborer.…19

Made feverish by action, he finds that the hours roll by quickly. His task, which he fecundates as he accelerates it, is a magnetism that dominates his thinking from morning to evening and ensures that he devours time, whereas the day-laborer is devoured by it.20

This curious reversal is yet again enunciated in terms of a physical constraint and a physiological disorder. Like all the workers who gravitate toward utopian circles, Gauny is an adept of parallel medicines: to the cancer of the day-laborer he opposes the magnetism that dominates thinking in order to free it and the homeopathy that cures like with like, the fever of servile work with the fever of free work. The floor-layer has the same body to feed as does the day-laborer; and his actions to achieve that end should not have any less frenzy. But the mastery of his time and the solitude of his space change the nature of this fever and reverse the relationship of dependence:

As he gives air to his thinking every day, the floor-layer mortifies his body more and more. He must operate with frenzy because piecework has only laminated recompenses. Many workers, wanting to free themselves, try their hand at this specialty of the joiner’s craft and compete with him. The craft bends this man under violent hardships that must be experienced to be appreciated. For it is crawling along on his knees that he lays the floor, tormented by the work, enchanted by the liberty! He mortifies his body to give flight to his soul; all unawares, this jobber is linked to the fathers of the desert by his renunciations!21

The desert, i.e., the infinite given in broad daylight to the solitary gaze of the floor-layer: that is what separates the asceticism of the floor-layer from the mortifications, kindred at first glance, that grounded the daytime liberty of cesspool-cleaner Ponty or the evening pride of a Claude Genoux as he took up his pen again, after having spent the workday at the jobs of mason’s laborer and shoeblack. Argues Genoux:

Those paltry trades, which many people find debasing, abject, and unworthy of a thinking person—for the simple reason that they themselves do not think—seemed on the contrary to raise me in my own estimation. Not unaware of my own worth and perhaps exaggerating my merit, I was proud to be able to bend to every sort of toil, proud of my thousand francs and the verses I penciled on every wall. I would have bet a hundred to one that I was the top goujat [mason’s boy] in the world.22“

This sort of mortification is at once too glorified and too vile. It is not a matter of paying with crap work for the right to fly off to the poetic heaven. There is no elevation of thought where the body lives in ugliness and degradation. The sanctification of the soul comes about by way of the sanctification of the senses: of one’s ear, liberated from the grossness of talk in workshop and street as well as from the imperious ringing of the bell; of one’s gaze, liberated from the monotone gray of the workshop and the hatred aroused by the master’s gaze. “Better than a mirror,” the soul of the floor-layer reflects the sights around him. He cannot earn the purity of his night by debasing the purity of his workday. It is the harmony stolen from this place, from which he will soon be excluded, that makes him feel at home: “Believing himself at home, he loves the arrangement of a room so long as he has not finished laying the floor. If the window opens out on a garden or commands a view of a picturesque horizon, he stops his arms a moment and glides in imagination toward the spacious view to enjoy it better than the possessors of the neighboring residences.”23

The view encompassed is undoubtedly more ample than the tops of the poplars glimpsed through the workshop window. But don’t these possessions presented to the worker’s gaze call to mind those “palaces of ideas” built, says Feuerbach, by philosophers living in thatched cottages? To tell the truth, even this portion is more than the “plebeian philosopher” seems to expect for his old age. Writing to his favorite contradictor, he will soon call to mind the common lot that awaits them: going to die at the old-age refuge and asylum of Bicêtre and “not having a shack of decent size in which to live and die freely in one’s final days, in the company of friends who love us, be it book or engraving, tool or piece of furniture, animals or people … and not being able to live with our books until death.”24

So he is not unaware of the fact that at the end of his “free” course he will have neither chãteau nor cottage, or even those palaces of ideas that adorn the want of them. Apparently it is not on the side of the robust hands and productive work that one must call for the dissipation of illusion: because work, the worker’s possession of his work, is the very heart of the illusion, and also because, at the same time, there is no illusion in the sense meant by philosophers and politicians—that is, something opposed to conscious awareness of a destiny endured or of the right conditions for transforming it. For this “illusion” is completely transparent. It is not unaware of anything about its causes or effects and seals no pact with the enemy it serves:

This man is made tranquil by the ownership of his arms, which he appreciates better than the day-laborer, because no look of a master precipitates their movements. He believes that his powers are his own when no will but his own activates them. He also knows that the entrepreneur is hardly upset by the time he spends at his work, provided that the execution of it is irreproachable. He is less aware of exploitation than the day-laborer. He believes he is obeying only the necessity of things, so much does his emancipation delude him. But the old society is there to treacherously sink its horrible scorpion claws into his being and ruin him before his time, deluding him about the excitement of the courage that he uses for the benefit of his enemy.
But this worker draws secret pleasure from the very uncertainty of his occupation.25

Possession of self through which loss of self is reproduced; an illusion profitable to exploitation that rests on the reality of emancipation. This complementarity does not imprison illusion in the circle of a nonrecognition or even a complicity. The movement here is that of a spiral that, in the very resemblance of the circles in which the same energy is consumed for the benefit of the enemy, achieves a real ascent toward a different mode of social existence. Because a different society presupposes the production of a different humanity, not a destructive confrontation with the master or the bourgeois class, because the healing of the ill entails the singular asceticism of rebellion and its apostolic propagation, the illusion of emancipation is not a nonrecognition reproducing domination but the twisted path whose circle comes as close as possible to this reproduction, but with an already crucial swerve or digression. That the bell no longer makes itself heard or, above all, heeded, that the master is dispossessed of the sovereignty of his gaze and is no more than the accountant of social exploitation: these two little differences cannot be reduced to a trick permitting the productive investment of rebellious energy. The absence of the master from the time and space of productive work turns this exploited work into something more: not just a bargain promising the master a better return in exchange for the freedom of the worker’s movements but the formation of a type of worker belonging to a different history than that of mastery. So there is no paradox in the fact that the path of emancipation is first the path whereon one is liberated from that hatred of the master experienced by the rebel slave. Servility and hatred are two characteristics of the very same world, two manifestations of the very same malady. The fact that the freedman no longer deals with the master but with the “old society” defines not only a forward step in the awareness of exploitation but also an ascent in the hierarchy of beings and social forms. The rebel is still another worker; the emancipated worker cannot not be a rebel. The voluptuousness of emancipation is a fever from which one cannot be cured and which one cannot help but communicate. Attachment to the doctrine of palingenesis and the philosophy of the “ordeal” (L’Épreuve) propagated by Pierre-Simon Ballanche may be peculiar to Gauny, but not this vision that inscribes militant teaching and example in a spiral of the hierarchy of the forms of being.

This initiation establishes a division of time that is the antithesis of the one describing the descent of the printer into hell: a positive presence of nonbeing—absence, illusion, future—in being, where it is no longer death but rebirth that is anticipated. And so the dead time of unemployment is no longer the slow erosion of life, dispossession of the environment, flight pursued by fate. On the contrary, it is the march of a conqueror through the streets of the city, intoxicated with his liberty and receiving from the multitude of slaves the respects due to a superior type of humanity:

This worker draws secret pleasure from the very uncertainty of his occupation, subject more than any other to unemployment. If he is without a bit of work, he looks for it without fearing the torment of diligence. He sets out on the track of work with consciousness of his liberty, sure of encountering among the poor day-laborers, whom he sometimes questions in his explorations, the look of covetousness they send to this worker, whose vigorous retort is a revolt against their existence in chains and whose flame is a probe passed over their slavish miseries. For this man of rebellion is a passionate advocate of propaganda. If his inquiring efforts are fruitless, he puts off his pursuit of work to the next day and walks for a long time to satisfy his need for action and to enjoy, as a plebeian philosopher, the ravishing nonchalance of liberty, which is filled to overflowing with serenity and energy by the pomp of the sun, the breath of the wind, and his own thoughts in line with the impetuosities of nature.26

Our floor-layer’s account (dream) of this suspended time of unemployment, then, will be a point-by-point contradiction of the story of the printer. The latter described “a slow, anguished, intolerable agony of progressive reductions in well-being or in habits that have reached the point of privation of the most absolute necessities.”27 The floor-layer, by contrast, “batters in his savings and, ready to exhaust his last resources, surpasses himself in expedients to husband the little he has, macerating himself to hire himself out.”28

To the destiny of privations endured is opposed the maceration that also has the playful aspect of a calculation designed to prevent the joiner from falling back into the circle of need and day-work. Such an important stake could not possibly be handled solely by the expedients indicated by necessity. A science is needed, and the singular genius of the floor-layer creates it and gives it a name—cenobitic economy; a modern transposition of the rule of Pythagoras’s companions, a science of the ways to manage the budget of rebels, making the restriction of their needs the way to purchase the maximum of liberty at the best price. The preamble of this new science explains its principle forthrightly: it is necessary to break the circle linking claims to the chances of consumption, to turn around the game of a political economy that preaches the virtues of saving to the poor but subjugates them by means of consumption. But it is also necessary to refute the ironic argument of his friend the cesspool-cleaner, who is quick to see in this science of asceticism an unexpected support for the defenders of the existing governmental system, which has its own way of compelling workers to carry out, willy-nilly, “the Pythagorean alimentary system.”29 The cenobite, then, intends to spell out at once his science’s “goal of emancipation”:

Moderation is far from helping the tyrant to subject the worker to the smallness of his wages. The saving that the latter is to make is an intelligent and scorching weapon that cuts the other to the quick. The one who produces must work when and as he feels like it, profiting from the entire gain of his work; and he must legitimately earn a great deal to purchase a great deal of existence and liberty.30

Cenobitic economy is not the “spiritual point of honor” of political economy. In the order of consumption as in the order of production, the problem is not to possess “one’s own” object but to possess oneself, to develop strengths that can no longer be satisfied by any of the bribes that exploitation offers to servility. There again the marvels of illusory possession are not allowed to stand in the way of the “objective” transformation of the conditions of exploitation. The kingdom of Baal will be toppled only by the army of deserters who have learned to put their hearts where their treasure is: elsewhere, nowhere, everywhere. It is not just the search for work that sets the cenobite walking. It is a law of cenobitic economy that links the development of his liberty to this exercise: “When one disposes of oneself in absolute independence, one must walk from morning to night.”31 That law also increases the expenditures for this practice: in the cenobite’s budget, footwear represents 7 percent of the total expenditures. And so the necessary and useless meanderings from workshop to workshop that tortured the printer here take on the form of a tracking game or a hunting party, no longer punctuated by the anxiety of seeking work but pointed toward everything in the stage-décor of the city or the physiognomy of its actors that suggests to the hunter a prey to be captured, to the marginal person a place for his liberty to be lodged.

He imagines, plans, makes suggestions to himself. He pries into every possible corner, traverses the streets, the alleys, and the crossroads. As he scrutinizes the structures of the most sumptuous neighborhoods or strays off on the loneliest circuit rounds, his gaze has the keenness of a bird of prey without food. Finally, he runs into a comrade, a kind of strange cynic made up in sarcasms and a great wine taster.32

A genre scene in the form of animal comedy. The meeting of the bird of prey and the made-up cynic is not accidental. The travels of the rebel necessarily cross, or instinctively follow, the paths of the societally enfranchised intermediaries—and parasites—who make up the mixed, interloping population of freedmen let loose on the shifting frontier between the world of slaves and the world of masters: petty contractors and subcontractors, journeymen who try to undertake jobs on their own, worker–innkeepers or wine merchants, foremen who engage in hiring. It is with one of these rakish characters, whose powers are seated and negotiated in a cabaret, that the ascetic will have to reach an agreement—in an exchange of libations where virtue, in order to seduce vice, pays it the opposite homage of its hypocrisy:

he runs into a comrade, a kind of strange cynic made up in sarcasms and a great wine taster. Since this fellow has under contract a fairly sizable number of jobs, he must hire in spite of himself. Lost in the corruption of society, he cannot and will not master his vile habits. Matter is his aim; he reverences Gargantua in pampering his body. Our floor-layer without work, who knows his concrete tastes, proposes to this favorite of work that they go to a cabaret. Talking shop there, they empty a bottle together, then another if necessary, and our worker manages to persuade this little Machiavelli, who cannot do without a mate, to choose him as an assistant, leaving him with the tacit hope that he will repeatedly shell out for libations according to the duration of the jobs. Moving from one thing to another, and despite their opposite habits, the two men end up spending the day drinking. By evening inebriation is giving them hallucinations. They recount stories, the conclusion of which seems to be a conspiratorial end for some passer-by. But what does it matter to the one? The wine excites him; perhaps he is boasting. As for the other, he would listen to parricides in order to live free.33

So long as the old society imposes its law, the margins of liberty are also the margins of exploitation; and the rebel hunter of shadows there is obliged to pull some of the strings of those workers and employers whom the worker-turned-employer Denis Poulot will call “sublime,” thinking that he is being ironic. In the tropes of language that qualify the ambiguous world of the intermediary freedmen, however, Gauny would have us see instead the optical illusion that threatens the hunter’s quest. The sublime worker is the one who lets go of the shadow for the sake of the prey, taking the intoxication of wine for that of liberty and turning his riotous independence into a new way of renewing the pact of exploitation. The ascending road of the rebel passes through this confrontation with his double, but without relapsing into the “debauchery” that moralists see as necessarily sinking the independence of the jobber: “Those moralists are wrong, or, rather, wrong us. Although this independence has its days of orgy, it adds to the extensiveness of thinking and lavishes around its adept a fluid of dignity that compensates a hundredfold for the aberrations it must endure.”34 The enjoyment of independence would not be capable of fixing the rebel in the compromise with the old society that leaves him so many secret pleasures. For he is the man whose gaze never ceases to command his arms and all his senses. Before being someone who suffers and protests in the face of the situation imposed on him, he is a man who sees the intolerable. When he reascends to his realm of attractive work, it is always the window that attracts him—and those vast perspectives where two blots of shadow suddenly appear. The two blots are two of the buildings that the spirit of enterprise and the spirit of reform have succeeded in erecting in these years: the factory and the cellular prison.

With a circular glance he has taken in everything: the monuments and the prisons, the tumultuous city and its ramparts, the wisps of umbrage beyond the walls and the venturesome clouds in the infinite atmosphere. He goes back to work. But his soul reflects the things going on outside better than a mirror, because it passes through the stones; he perceives the abominations they hide. The prisoners in their stifling cells and the hirelings consumed by factories sweep him into humanitarian fits of rage in which their indignation, accusing society, makes him forget the splendors of space and suffer from the evil he has seen.35

So the free worker can no longer detach his gaze from those two shadows on the horizon of his empire: the factory, where the hirelings suffer, deprived of the means or the strength to emancipate themselves; the prison, enclosing those who lost their way on the pathways of liberty. But the gazes he directs toward the two edifices cannot be identical. Except for its size, the factory is a place similar to the one he has deserted. It encloses only those who give their consent. So it is natural that the rebellious worker would be more interested in the place that has the privation of liberty for its rationale and that encloses, out of principle, those who chose to shake themselves free of the common discipline. And the worker in the building trade quite naturally asks himself questions about this architectural novelty of the late 1830s, the cellular prison. “Quite naturally” is perhaps saying too much. His colleagues do not seem to ask themselves any questions about these new buildings and these new works. That certainly won’t hobble the curiosity of the rebel. He wants to know what is on the other side of the walls that blacken his horizon. His curiosity reaching the pitch of a fixed idea or obsession, he has come to prowl around one of these model prisons—La Roquette, undoubtedly—and has settled down in his customary place for dealing with the agents of the old world, the cabaret, at the hour when they are most easily snared in their own corruption—dinnertime: “When the hour arrived, he caught sight of a master-journeyman mason with a narrow forehead, concupiscent nose, flabby cheeks, and gluttonous mouth—the typical animal glutton yielding to seduction.”36 Lavater’s science of physiognomy rarely fails the hunter of liberty: an inquiry made about an imaginary comrade, a glass of wine offered, and the work boss of the model prison is in the power of his curiosity:

The one expresses his desire to get to know the new system of detention. The other, ensconcing himself in the vanity of his authority, anticipates him and offers to escort him inside the prison as a new employee. The latter wanted to make his kindness profitable for his stomach but did not know how to state his speculation in an acceptable way. The former, guessing this, spared the materialist embarrassment by inviting him to dine after the painful exploration. This offer was accepted. Then they entered the compartments of the immense tomb.37

And so the visitor got to see the “mirage of torments” displayed at the “panoptic center of the abyss,” where one can turn completely around and see “all the spokes of this wheel of torture”: means of torture with which he was already familiar, but with which one could play tricks in the master’s workshop. First, there is the impossibility of a spoken word that might find a response, or even an echo:

No break in the walls, nothing filters through, everything gets lost. One senses there that tidiness and regularity are deadly. The air, circulating comfortably there, reeks of the base tyranny in the divisibility of its powers. One walks without calling up any echoes. Before the jailers, the objects make signs to keep silent and give the order to suffer.38

The outside oxygen … is sanctimoniously replaced by an air-intake setup that, through the arrangement of its flow, loses the voice of the prisoner if he attempts to communicate into his aperture. The latrine area in each cell is also built according to this method of deafness, which buries voice and life without killing them.39

Above all, there is the irremediable subjection of the prisoner to the eye of the jailer, the permanent anticipation of a gaze that is not seen, the absence of night. The doors of the cell

are pierced with a five-centimeter hole furnished with glass and covered with an opaque disk, which disappears into the thickness of the wood at the discretion of the watcher in order to spy furtively into the inside of the cell. This eye of the door, blind and seeing at the same time, pries unawares into the actions of the prisoner who, convulsed by boredom and restlessness, feels entangled in the chain of this hated gaze.40

At night a gas jet lights up the damned. Troubled in his sleep by this torturous flame, he curses his fate even more and, unable to acclimate himself to his hell, peruses his peephole box, fearing to find there the treacherous eye of the jailer moving in the hole of the door.41

The panoptic setup is designed not so much to ensure that the penitentiary apparatus can keep tabs on the prisoner’s deeds and gestures as it is to strip them of anything that escapes knowing, anything that allows them to exist elsewhere or otherwise than in the gaze of the master.

To modern theories (e.g., those of Foucault) that oppose penitentiary knowledge of the individual and rehabilitation of the delinquent soul to the ancient shiver of torture, the gaze of the building-trade worker throws back another image in which surveillance has no function but that of torture. The person under surveillance is not a man you observe and correct; he is a hostage you wall in. The cellular architecture effects this new torture: a prison where the nooks and crannies offer no shadows, where no obscurity permits meditation to escape, where no complicity is exchanged or purchased, where no chance allows for the enjoyment, even the futile enjoyment, of hope—a world without fissures or interstices through which liberty, or merely the dream of it, could pass:

The stones are of the best quality and meticulously installed. Their joints fit together as tightly as possible.42

Astonishing precautions are taken to prevent escape. The coping of the circuit round and the exterior angle of the walls are rounded off so that even the wiriest hand could not clamp onto it. Iron bars, doors, lights, Judas holes, guards, and radiating perspectives threaten, spy, line up, and keep a lookout on the prisoners.43

A prison from which one cannot escape. It seems to be the most natural thing in the world. But at this point in time it is a novelty that gives reason for shock and indignation. It so happens that people do escape from the ancient prisons that chance has adapted to modern forms of detention: Sainte-Pélagie, Madelonettes, la Force. That is in the nature of things. The criminal—or insurgent—has chosen the way of chance and luck. He is entitled to a prison where escape is chancy but not completely impossible. How is it that those who build these flawless structures are not conscious of the fact that they are building a tomb for their brothers?

Every layer of stone they lay is an outrage against humanity, one more weight thrown on the deafness of their conscience. They build these hideous cells against themselves, for it is their race that feeds the monster. The inequality of conditions, long-term unemployment, the repugnance aroused by a job that is too exploitative or against our tastes, the absence of education, an extortion, a comparison, a vertigo: sometimes these things make the weakest and the strongest of the common people wage war against the society that disinherits them in their mother’s womb and forbids them to live in the full employment of their faculties.44

The weakest and the strongest: those who do not have the resources to resist fatality and those who have too much energy not to defy it. The detailed catalogue of the factors that sweep the proletarian into the path leading to prison is immediately denied by this division, which refers the etiology of common crime back to the two extremes of decadence and transgression. The privileged relationship of the proletarian to the criminal passes through this twofold rejection. The disgust and revolt regularly expressed by strikers condemned to endure the abject promiscuity of the degenerate population in the central prisons leave no room for recognition of the convict as an unfortunate proletarian. And, on the opposite end, the mythical relationship of the people to the criminal they see mounting the scaffold exceeds any justification or compassion for the victim of poverty. The overall relationship of the condemned criminal (revealer, mirror, hostage, challenge) to the society that judges and executes him counts more than the etiology of crime or the pathology of decadence. Although worker chronicles quite frequently evoke the spectacle of the guillotine and the figure of the criminal, only rarely do they offer us either real or fictional genealogies of the crime.

The criminal represents not so much a particular victim of the lack of social foresight as the singular agent of an overall protest against that lack. He represents the people less in his suffering than in his hatred, in the excess that denounces a society in which destinies are not in proportion to vocations:

The poor person is born with an ardent soul that he needs to exalt, to lavish on all that surrounds him. But no, he is not born for that! And in the midst of all that, you want hatred not to spring up in his heart, you want him not to envy the lot of his rich neighbor when he is surrounded by all the hideous trappings of poverty.45

The genealogy of crime provided by Marie-Reine Guindorff in these sentences is exemplary. What matters first and foremost is not the neediness caused by poverty or even the covetousness aroused by the spectacle of wealth. At the source we find not a lack but an excess: the impossibility imposed on the proletarian of existing to the full extent of his abilities, and in accordance with his need for expansion, causes the hatred that the environment of poverty turns into covetousness, into greed for the things possessed by those human beings who prevent him from existing.

This economy of repressed power, popularized by the Saint-Simonians and the Fourierists, gives the criminal his heroic literary referent. Just before the Guindorff plea, in the same issue of the Tribune des femmes, Pauline Roland offers “A Word on Byron.” In the crimes of his heroes she points to “an energetic protest against the order of things in the milieu where they lived, where everything was arranged and leveled in such a way that qualities beyond the ordinary measure could not regularly find a place there.”46 Under the two figures—the hero out of place in the juste milieu (“golden mean”) of social values, and the criminal whose transgression reveals the repression of the popular soul—one and the same theme recurs obsessively: the theme of the “strong nature.” It was an enigma that both repelled and fascinated the men who were trying to think about both the future forms of social reciprocity and the forces capable of inducing the transformation.

Even among those who most energetically reject the militant worker’s twisting of strict morality, the question always ends up returning in the form of repentance or an admitted misjudgment. Even the most intractable of the critics putting out L’Atelier, Corbon, will himself end up making a full apology in Le secret du peuple de Paris (1863). His rival at La Ruche populaire, Vincard, had been invited thirty years earlier to this sort of reconsideration. Through others, Enfantin had approached him in 1832 on behalf of his companion in prison, the painter Bouzelin, who had been condemned to death for the Saint-Merri insurrection. Vincard was asked to help get his sentence commuted by providing him with testimonials of good citizenship. And indeed, when Bouzelin was not drinking, beating his wife, or quarreling with his neighbors, he was distinguished by his zeal in fighting fires and pursuing robbers. So Vincard will provide testimonials for this “naughty rogue … drunkard, debauchee, duelist, brawler,”47 but all the more grudgingly because the last “robber” stopped and sabered by the heroic Bouzelin was merely a lover fleeing the noisy wrath of his mistress. Bouzelin does get his sentence commuted, and soon the good luck of a fire in the prison permits him to show off his prowess and win his liberty. But the freed Bouzelin will not escape the fate of those whose rages exceed the social norm. Getting into an argument with his wife, who is reproaching him for his ingratitude toward a benefactor, in a paroxysm of rage Bouzelin will grab a knife and plunge it into his own body: the savage end of a strong nature in the image of a working-class generation that is still poorly civilized.

In the next generation, the alliance of militant devotion and crime will take up more refined figures. The most singular will be Emmanuel Barthelémy, the young mechanic condemned to hard labor for the murder of a policeman: black-gloved commandant of the formidable barricade of Faubourg du Temple during the June days of revolt, escaped prisoner and then exile in London, cultivated member of Louis Blanc’s London salon, a man with seductively good manners. He will drop his reserve to kill one of his June comrades in arms in a duel before committing another murder—crime of passion or political provocation?—and ending up on the London scaffold.48

For the moment, however, the strong natures are still of a cruder stuff, and recognition of this enigma leads Vincard to a fairly clear conclusion:

After the incidents I have just related, I had to fight with all my strength against my habitual tendency to reject everything that seemed to me to deviate from the norm of strict obligations laid down by society.…
These facts relating to the unfortunate Bouzelin, whose life was compounded of so many vices and acts of generous dedication, forced me to reflect deeply on the readiness with which we anathematize these exceptional natures, sometimes the most interesting ones from a general point of view.49

Adhering to sound Saint-Simonian orthodoxy, Vinçard suggests that the solution is a matter of opening careers to these “energetic and passionate” human beings whose sentimental disposition triggers great dedication and great crimes.

On this subject, too, his friend and junior Gauny cannot hold to the single principle of optimizing energies. He may share the common ideal of reeducation—involving the passions if need be—for a convict who is more ill than culpable, but the look he gives “the Attilas of private property” cannot be satisfied with anticipating outlets for people with overflowing energies. The convict is not simply a savage rebelling against the norms of the honest artisan; he also represents the perversion of rebel energy that could destroy the proprietary order. The convict belongs to the family of the rebel, and the latter admits to having in him “the irons of an assassin.” But the assassin belongs to the rebel’s family as his negative image: a recovery of the rebel impulse, the devastations of which do not stir up the flames of revolt but rather represent a relapse into the fever of consumption through which Capital keeps its victims in chains and prevents them from intensifying their powers of independence, which would spell its ruin if they were to develop. The banalized vandalism of these Attilas, then, is caught in the trap that offers the shadow of the prey in place of the prey of the shadow. By contrast, the Tantalus/Spartacus of rebellion withdraws the infiniteness of his desire from the normal mechanisms of need and gratification. With his power of refusal, he uses sublimation to intensify his radical nonadaptation to the existing economic order: the lure of rebel virtue that liberates surplus energy from the vices consistent with the lure of mercantile attraction:

Before he has the capital that is to pay for his gratification, he contemplates the object of his legitimate covetousness, sniffs it as his prey, admires it with shivers of desire, carries away its shadow.… This Tantalus becomes virtuous in his austerity, ingenious in his cleverness. His spirit entertains new studies, extraordinary emotions, and passions that enliven him a hundred times. If he has had only four hundred francs a year of income or salary, he prolongs the service of his footwear by mortifying himself a little, or , rather, by familiarizing himself with the rigidity of the ground. He does the same with other needs and manages to overcome the thing desired by having emancipated his reason and his independence.50

The moral lesson given to the hoarder points to a different economy in which it is no longer a matter simply of transferring energies and goods but of changing their nature. The thief remains this side of it, a would-be rebel who failed, a hostage of the old world. So there is nothing shocking in the fact that he is caught in the shabbiness of his desire. But the new torture of the cellular prison changes the very import of his punishment, transforming the degenerate accomplice of proprietary passion into the exemplary victim of despotism. For it is only liberty that it represses in his case. So one is not absolving the thief or the criminal when one sees in the cellular prison the absolute crime, the crime with one sole aim: that of killing liberty. And below these criminals who have gotten lost in the realms of liberty one must place those who renounced beforehand any and all exploration outside the pathways marked out by the ruse of wages: the beast-men, machine-men, who build cellular prisons.

In their dazed and liberty-killing stupidity, these subordinate members lend themselves to the shameful cruelties of the inventors, following their plan and all its horrors line by line. These human machines are neither for nor against what they are building. They work like beasts to earn their measure of pay without critically examining their task: ready to demolish what they have so solidly built; ready to forge iron collars for all at the risk of injuring themselves; and amenable to any odious work that ensures them a wage. They pile stone on stone, pump air into the lungs of the prisoners, repudiate justice by perfecting the impossibilities of escape, cut off outside space from view, and complicate the inquisition that comes to life in the stone, the iron, and the wood that conceal and watch over the torments of the prisoners. They complete this prison and its blind cavities of a burning court without singeing their souls in this work of the damned.51

The fact is that it is not customary for a mason to wonder about what he is building, a locksmith to wonder about what he is forging, or a joiner to wonder about what he is assembling. At the height of anarcho-syndicalism, a meeting of the Building Trade Federation will reject the question by turning it around: in capitalist society, what building is not conceived by the enemies of the workers and used in the service of the ruling class?

Perhaps, to take the question seriously, one must start with the hierarchy of the forms of existence rather than with class divisions. The cellular prison lays hold of the normal order of wage work at the point where its hirelings are constructing the last circle of hell for their brothers. But it is at this point, nevertheless, that they could best register their power to say no. If an inspiring orator could persuade them to stop their work, you would see this curious spectacle: the architects and all the organizers of the cell system trying by themselves to put their hellish dream on its feet. The important thing is not so much that they would be clumsy at it. It is, rather, that the fantastic forms born of their awkward blunders would reveal, in all their purity, the delirious schemes of tyranny that the perfection of working-class labor conceals in the finish of the final product. In other words, it is the worker’s work that, in the twofold morality of work well done and work for a living, banalizes the insanity of the despotic authority. This accounts for the exemplary value that the “work” would have taken on if it had been left to the care of the conceivers and planners of the cell system:

Wanting to erect their project high in the air, they would have shaped the most incredible Babel in the world. A misshapen ruin pierced with a crushing amalgam of torture crypts. A rough outline in iron and stone of an abominable idea, in which the frenzy and rage of the prisoners would have been guessed ahead of time. A slaughterhouse constructed with so little balance that the people, gazing at this new Moloch, would have feared being buried under its fall; and its hideous and revolting appearance would have forcibly informed them of the strength of their peaceable resistance while handing over the authors of this murderous extravagance to scathing denunciations.52

In a single glance, perhaps the first and certainly the most powerful of the images that will make up the myth of the general strike—certainly not the poor and boastful imagery that pictures the rich as incapable of providing for their needs on their own. Gauny and his brothers are paid to know that one has no need of a special vocation where necessity is in command. The idea of the indispensable proletarian here takes on a completely different luster. In a contradictory image we are presented with the strength of the two parties and a denunciation of their alliance: Moloch–Babel, the monstrous and tottering edifice of a power compelled to carry out the details of its designs by itself because of the desertion of the slaves of Babylon.

An impossible dream, discouraged by the unconsciousness of these workers who know nothing about any work except the abstraction of the wage it promises? But isn’t unconsciousness a simple negation? Wouldn’t it suffice if once someone were to make clear the sufferings of the immured prisoners to these builders who always withdraw from a place before it is inhabited? “If the workers were to form a council before accepting a work of repression, the remark of a single one of them about its detestable side would suffice for it to be condemned by all. Logic is a light that rises high as it illuminates multitudes.”53 A spark is all that is needed. Where might it come from to propagate the light of awareness and the fire of revolt? “Perhaps a famous orator, addressing these assistant jailers without feelings, would have been able to touch their hearts.”54

Our floor-layer, unfortunately, is not an orator. How could he be, when the solitude where he nurtures his rebellion simultaneously deprives him of all conversation that would exercise his eloquence? “The more he exercises his reflection inside himself to seek out the joint of our sorrows, the more his desire imagines common domains for future populations, the less his spoken word feels capable of expressing his utopias.”55 But, as a matter of fact, it isn’t necessary for him to go and speak to the crowds. It is enough that he traverses the city at his usual pace, talking to himself, only a little louder than usual. For he knows very well the flaw that is dreaded by the masters: the Paris worker is a gawking boob. Making a spectacle of oneself is setting the trap in which to catch his good conscience as a worker: “The democrat traverses the city, talking to himself. The sentences of his monologue capture the curiosity of passers-by. Each one grasps some truth in it. Without stopping, he touches the wound of their existence that impoverishes the master’s interest.… at these remarks tossed into the air, the crowd surrounds the revolutionary, who, without addressing himself to anyone, seems to be haranguing a multitude.”56 The wind blows where it wills, and surely some building-trade workers will be found who will hear and understand the description of the cellular hell. There is little chance of success with the masons, of course; they do not permit themselves to be distracted from their work, and they often return home to their lodgings in gangs. But a joiner, a locksmith, perhaps, and the flame will be lit.

The workshops are going to close, the yards are going to come to a standstill. The cenobite begins his evening walk. He now calls himself by a different name: the Philadelphian.




  1. Supernant, “Révélations d’un coeur malade,” La Ruche populaire, Feb. 1840, p. 26.
  2. Coutant, Du salaire des ouvriers compositeurs, Paris, 1861, p. 13.
  3. Supernant, “Révélations d’un coeur malade,” La Ruche populaire, p. 23.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. La Ruche populaire and L’Atelier, Oct. 1841.
  9. Supernant, “Révélations d’un coeur malade,” La Ruche populaire.
  10. Pierre Vinçard, “Une vie perdue,” La Ruche populaire, June 1841.
  11. Pierre Vinçard, “Réponse au journal Le Globe,” La Ruche populaire, 1841, p. 17.
  12. Gauny to Ponty, Fonds Gauny, Bibliothèque municipale de Saint-Denis, Ms. 168, Jan. 22, 1838; in Jacques Rancière (ed.), Louis Gabriel Gauny: Le philosophe plébéien (Paris: La Découverte/Maspéro, 1983), p. 167.
  13. Gauny, “Le travail à la tâche,” Fonds Gauny, Ms. 134; in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, p. 45.
  14. Letter cited by G. Benoît-Guyod, La vie maudite de Hégésippe Moreau, Paris, 1945, p. 228.
  15. Letters of Gabriel to Louis and Louis to Gabriel; in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, pp. 179–94.
  16. “Galerie des chansonniers: Ponty,” La Chanson, Dec. 26, 1880. “Let them insult you in the street/true beggar free as the air/every tool is a dagger that kills/liberty, of our possessions the most dear.”
  17. Gauny to Ponty, May 4, 1838, Fonds Gauny, Ms. 168; in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, p. 169–70.
  18. Gauny, “Le travail à la tâche,” Fonds Gauny, Ms. 134; in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, p. 45.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., p. 48.
  21. Ibid., p. 45.
  22. Claude Genoux, Mémoires d’un enfant de la Savoie, Paris, 1844, p. 167.
  23. Gauny, “Le travail à la tâche,” in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, pp. 45–46.
  24. Gauny to Ponty, April 4, 1856, Fonds Gauny, Ms. 168, in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, p. 176.
  25. Gauny, “Le travail à la tâche,” in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, pp. 46–47.
  26. Ibid., p. 47.
  27. Supernant, “Révélations d’un coeur malade,” La Ruche populaire, Feb. 1840, p. 24.
  28. Gauny, “Le travail à la tâche,” in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, p. 47.
  29. Letters of Gabriel to Louis and Louis to Gabriel; in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, pp. 179–94.
  30. Gauny, “Économie cénobitique,” Fonds Gauny, Ms. 151; extracts in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, pp. 99–111.
  31. Ibid., p. 106.
  32. Gauny, “Le travail à la tâche,” in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, p. 47.
  33. Ibid., pp. 47–48.
  34. Ibid., p. 49.
  35. Ibid., p. 46.
  36. Gauny, “Aux ouvriers constructeurs de prisons cellulaires,” Fonds Gauny, Ms. 116; in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, pp. 65–85. This citation is on p. 72.
  37. Ibid., pp. 72–73.
  38. Ibid., p. 73.
  39. Ibid., p. 75.
  40. Ibid., p. 74.
  41. Ibid., p. 75.
  42. Ibid., p. 73.
  43. Ibid., p. 76.
  44. Ibid., pp. 67–68.
  45. Marie-Reine Guindorff, “De la peine de mort,” Tribune des femmes, Dec. 1833, p. 81.
  46. Pauline Roland, “Un mot sur Byron,” ibid., pp. 73–74.
  47. Pierre Vinçard, Mémoires épisodiques d’un vieux chansonnier saint-simonien, Paris, 1879, p. 143
  48. Malwida von Meysenbug, Mémoires d’une idéaliste, Paris, 1900, II, 20–21, 50–64.
  49. Vinçard, Mémoires épisodiques, pp. 148–49.
  50. Gauny, “Économie cénobitique,” Fonds Gauny, Ms. 151.
  51. Gauny, “Aux ouvriers constructeurs de prisons cellulaires,” in Rancière (ed.), Le philosophe plébéien, pp. 69–70.
  52. Ibid., pp. 70–71.
  53. Ibid., p. 85.
  54. Ibid., p. 70.
  55. Gauny, “Le travail à la tâche,” ibid., p. 46.
  56. Gauny, “Les manufactures,” Fonds Gauny, Ms. 130


VERSO 2012


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