Book review: Les sauvages de la Civilisation: Regards sur la Zone, d’hier à aujourd’hui and The People’s Hotel: Working for Justice in Argentina

Book review: Les sauvages de la Civilisation: Regards sur la Zone, d’hier à aujourd’hui and The People’s Hotel: Working for Justice in Argentina


Reviewed by Vincenzo Maria Di Mino

First Published:

22 Dec 2023, 2:16 am


Book review: Les sauvages de la Civilisation: Regards sur la Zone, d’hier à aujourd’hui and The People’s Hotel: Working for Justice in Argentina

Jérôme Beauchez, Les sauvages de la Civilisation: Regards sur la Zone, d’hier à aujourd’hui, Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2022; 464 pp.: ISBN: 978-2354802424, £20.62 (paperback).

Katherine Sobering, The People’s Hotel: Working for Justice in Argentina, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022; 272 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-4780-1826-1, £22.99/US$26.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4780-1563-5, £90.00/US$99.95 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-4780-2286-2 (eBook).


The Mutating Metropolis

The metropolis has always been the collector of collective life, not only as a spatial and urban agglomeration of subjects but also as a vector for the spread of fashions, styles and stereotypes: in the words of Max Weber, city air always makes one free. The contact between subject and metropolis redefines the former’s spatial and cultural horizons, enriching its ‘life of the spirit’ and inserting it into social networks that expand its own horizons.

In this sense, talking about urban space by decentring the gaze from the narrow urbanistic and architectural component allows for a closer look at anthropological dynamics and also at the categories with which urban phenomena are analysed. The metropolis appears even more than a machinic assemblage in which economic activities, political activities, subjective flows and analytical discourses related to it converge. Operations of disciplining spaces and operations of economic valorisation of spaces, besides defining a true neoliberal production of space, further define it as a striated space, as a layering of multiple operations that often diverge in modality but find a foothold within the more general frame of urban governance. Starting from this theme, a reading hypothesis can be further advanced that prefigures the substantial continuity of certain assumptions of metropolitan governance, aimed at the progressive elimination of popular areas in the face of conspicuous real estate investments attractive to emerging social and political elites, capable of neutralising alternative forms of management of the same urban spaces. On the other hand, within these same long-term dynamics both working-class and antagonist political forces and the subaltern classes have tried to deconstruct these forms of domination, moving ‘haphazardly’ through the flourishing of specific metropolitan subcultures and with organised political projects. Through the tensions that, therefore, run through the metropolitan machine, it is possible to consider them fully as a mutant machine, traversed by different thrusts that continually redefine its forms and structures, both historically and in actuality. The two volumes to be discussed in this text address, in different forms and ways, the multifaceted set of dynamics hinted at earlier straddling processes of social differentiation, disciplining and conflict dynamics. The scope of the latter, within the pages of these two mighty books, ranges from subcultures and folk traditions to the attempt to build a countervailing power from below through cooperation. The first book is that of J Beauchez, entitled Les sauvages de la civilization, which discusses the transformation of the ‘Zone’ of Paris over three centuries. The second book, that of K Sobering, entitled The People’s Hotel, analyses and narrates the experience of collective self-management by the workers of the Bauer Hotel in Buenos Aires.

Before getting into the folds of the discourses brought forth by the authors, preliminarily we can highlight the main analytical key that also serves as the main thread of this text, namely the concept of the ‘revanchist city’. Geographer N Smith, who highlighted the proprietary redemption within Western metropolises following the global rise of neo-liberalism, hypothesised the latter frame. Placing the spatial dimension of the proprietary individual at the centre of his analysis, Smith pointed out how urban transformations were characterised by political and urban planning choices focussed on security and security of tenure, the financial enhancement of specific portions of the city and the marginalisation of the working classes. The revenge of the speculative and private dimension of urban spaces at the expense of their fruition and accessibility erga omnes, thus, brings to fruition that type of urban revolution whereby, borrowing Lussault’s words, the class struggle – in this case waged from above – took the form of the struggle for space, in this case for the form and substance of neutralised urban spaces, disciplined and ready to be inserted within the financial operating machine.

The Paris case, studied by Beauchez, lends itself as a fitting example of the historical genealogy of this governmental perspective on the urban. The ‘Zone’, in fact, is a huge waste land within the urban heart of the French capital, initially used as a parade ground and more generally as a space intended for military exercises, which, by gradual abandonment, becomes a high-density popular zone. A popular zone that, as in the old tradition of the faubourgs studied by Chevalier, is a high-density working-class and proletarian zone, where the threshold between legality and illegality is historically porous and identities are shifting. In the author’s analysis, the Zone is that inner edge of the bourgeois metropolis, the materialisation of the nightmares of the Parisian upper-class and a space that can serve as a container for different social issues. In this sense, the biopolitical diagram that sagittally cuts through the history of this space can be summarised in the two polarising and antithetical positions:

the first is the one that the author ascribes to the dimension of the emergence of the social question, for which politicians, legislators and intellectuals, pressed by the powerful emergence of workers’ struggles, try to find a solution. The second position is the one that emerges in the book’s course through the tight socio-anthropological analysis that Beauchez conducts by different means. Thus, on the one hand, there is the production of the Zone as a marginal space inhabited by deviants and dangerous classes, to be kept as far as possible from the heart of the city; there are those antagonistic subjectification dynamics, even if not necessarily politicised, and the continuous creation of marginal subcultures. The margin, in these analyses, is simultaneously a spatial and social issue. It is a specific portion of urban space to be governed, inhabited by a multiple and diverse social composition. As a result, the city grows and changes around the Zone through a kind of wall of decorum, which separates it but unites it with the remaining portion of urban space. In short, the Zone becomes a veritable heterotopia in the Foucauldian sense, capable of making visible forms of control and exclusion and also being a portion of free urban space in which existing hierarchies are subverted by those who pass through it. Beauchez’s approach is like the one Benjamin uses in his magnum opus on the Passages of 19th-century Paris, careful to capture the ideological and cultural nuances, the marks left by subjectivities, the sometimes mythological and exaggerated narratives created about that specific portion of urban space. The central analytical element of the book, apart from the meticulous historical reconstruction of the passages that characterised the life of the Zone, is the analysis of the production of space as a narrative and symbolic element. It is the product of a specific symbolic dimension that shapes a real concrete localisation of a social elsewhere, of a fantastic dimension that is projected and adapted as much to the portion of urban space as to the social composition that inhabits them. In this sense, the symbolic production of the Zone is linked to the construction of an ideological device that identifies space as an unhealthy element to be governed, neutralised and returned to the whole city. The osmosis and urbanistic frenzy that, set up by Haussmann and reinforced by the political restoration following the Commune’s revolutionary attempt in 1871, also found its own vector, paradoxically, in the construction of a ‘wall of decorum’ with which to separate the Zone from the rest of the city centre. The Zone, in fact, is perceived and analysed as an ‘outside’, not only to the urban but also to French civilisation itself, inhabited by savages, that needed a specific colonial-style disciplinary orthopaedic. This reading in the terms of anthropological difference parallels the ‘culturalist’ analysis of subjectivity: both encapsulate the liberal project of breaking the socio-spatial bonds of the inhabitants and waging war on the poor, conducted under the false flags of hygiene and liveability. But beyond governmental analyses, Beauchez highlights popular social dynamics, and frames them through an interesting device he calls ‘archeo-graphie’. By comparing textual, linguistic and visual elements, the author can trace the genealogy of the traditions of the inhabitants, so that the Zone can be defined not only as a concrete space but also as a space of the imagination, a concrete everyday habitus:

Car si elle est un espace, la Zone est aussi un style de vie. Tandis que le premier (l’espace) a été peu à peu effacé des entours immédiats de Paris – d’abord par l’éradication progressive des baraquements, puis par les grands travaux du périphérique urbain (1956–1973) installé en lieu et place des derniers vestiges de la Zone – le second (le style de vie) s’est transmis à de nouvelles générations de marginalisés, de ‘nomades’ et de ‘bohémiens’ qui otn essaimé au-delà des anciens foyers parisiens. (p. 257)

From Beauchez’s pages emerge what are the infrastructures of the everyday life of the inhabitants in contact with the constant mutations of space, fundamental elements with which to compose and construct a history of the Zone from below: the grey zone of legality and civilisation is transformed into a teeming space, populated by a multitude of bodies, which construct a cultural before political countervailing power. The author calls ‘fantastique social’ this ontological force that emanates from the margins, the dimension of restlessness of the Zone’s inhabitants that has made them historically surplus to both theoretical analyses and political forces. The set of these marginal histories encounters both literary and artistic bohemianism, which draws on them with full force, and subcultural analyses. While not dealing strictly with urbanism, Beauchez’s book reconstructs a specific history of urban and anthropological transformations in the face of more general historical transformations. Basing his research on the knowledges directly and indirectly produced by a Parisian heterotopia, geographically central but socially marginal and peripheral, the author shows not only how it is possible to write the history of a metropolis from its margins, but how the very actions of the excluded can implement the development of another use of the city, more inclusive and untethered from securitarian and economic governance.

Also moving in this thematic vein is sociologist Katherine Sobering’s book, an ethnography of the transformation of a private space into a collective space in which to experiment with labour cooperation and different social justice practices. Although this text is thematically and disciplinarily distant from urbanism, it expresses and makes visible, through its specific viewpoint, what can be considered a common urban experience of transformation. The specific object of Sobering’s study is the self-management of a hotel structure located in the heart of the Argentine metropolis, the Bauer Hotel, put up for sale by the multinational corporation that owned it following the devastating economic crisis that shook Argentina at the turn of the new century. In this context, downgrading the workforce employed in the hotel went hand in hand with the process of devaluing the property and the urban area in which it was located, making visible, with extreme clarity, the destructive force of deregulation policies, both in the sphere of economic activities and in those more concretely urban. The workers’ struggle to get the structure back on its feet, and thus survive, is a struggle for the transformation of the city from below, albeit a different point of view from that of the urban planning discipline: it is a struggle that speaks of the reuse of empty spaces, of cooperation and the invention of management structures, of the transformation of labour relations. It is a struggle that directly invests power relations, setting up economic and social countervailing power and can serve as an example for a different city government. Moving on the terrain of active, concrete and immediately situated social research, what emerges from this research is a stimulus for what has been called ‘sociological imagination’, that is, of a gaze that allows for broadening reflections beyond the concrete terrain of inquiry. Here, the practice of self-management of a working space can become a model to be reproduced within the metropolis, as an alternative form of government to the existing one, based on the principle of sharing, cooperation, active participation and socialisation. Imagining a radical urban plan, in fact, cannot be separated from the study and reproduction of these models and the practices they set up. Sobering, in the book’s methodological appendix, points out the close correlation between the critical dimension of the theoretical operation and the immediately political dimension of research aimed at direct action, the productivity of a direct positioning of the researcher within the terrain being researched. The ‘life’ of the hotel, the concrete dimension of what happened inside it daily during the work-research period, is the material subject that speaks in the book, which takes on multiple forms and multiple nuances, which, directly, questions the readers’ imagination. From the strictly urban planning point of view, if one can say so, one of the most interesting practices that emerges from Sobering’s study is that of expropriation, the attempt made by the workers’ cooperative to re-appropriate the structure by taking advantage of the state legislative infrastructure. By requisitioning the property, in fact, the state authority would have acted to reaffirm the public interest, in this case that of the workers, to continue in their pursuit of recovering the facility and the activities pursued. In the words of the sociologist:

Expropriation, also known as eminent domain, involves a state agency taking property from private owners for a purpose deemed to be in the public interest. Practiced around the world, expropriation is often used to acquire the land needed to build a road, a dam or even a border wall. In the case of the BAUEN Cooperative, advocates proposed that the powerful city of Buenos Aires should expropriate the Hotel Bauen and render it a public resource, thereby resolving the cooperative’s legal uncertainty – To expropriate all the companies that workers control is a prerevolutionary process. (p. 150)

The insistence on this legal procedure makes it possible to emphasise two aspects. The first is social and concerns the workers’ cooperative’s attempt at social legitimacy vis-à-vis the inhabitants of the Argentine capital. In a social context of growing poverty and unemployment, with the widening social gap between social elites and the increasingly impoverished social composition, the Hotel Bauer experience could serve as an example of countervailing power in the labour market, of reinventing spaces and services through cooperation. The second is political and points to the practice of expropriation as one way to strengthen direct democracy on a collective and community basis. In urban theory and critical urbanism, the expropriation and reallocation of abandoned property to inhabitants not only stimulates experiments and practices of the right to the city, the social reappropriation of urban spaces and their removal from the processes of speculation, but also stimulates a specific urban imaginary, capable of shaping an alternative design. The imaginative institution of urban spaces subtracted from real estate rent and made functional for other forms of use, linked to the needs of the citizenry and, above all, co-managed between official political agencies and the institutions constituted by the inhabitants, contributes to the production of an alternative and antagonistic urbanism, capable of rethinking the collective dimensions of urban living. In this sense, Sobering’s annotations on forms of internal hotel democracy, egalitarian division of labour and wage improvement can be seen as modalities of an urban countervailing power, localised but capable of extending its political effects over the entire metropolitan tissue. In the words of Peter Marcuse, these practices can empower the transition from the utopia of the ideal city to the real force of urban transformation plans capable of defending not only the right to live, but to radically change urban forms of life, in perpetual tension with the capitalist governance of the city. Sobering’s study, to summarise, restores, through analysis, the subjective dynamics behind the decision to self-manage a workspace and the desire to transform it into a cooperative space that can serve as a contagion vector for the production of urban counterpower.

In different terms, and to conclude, the two books point the finger at the violence of capitalist urban governance. Beauchez traces this analysis from a historical perspective, analysing the processes of differentiation operated by the other through the urban transformation of a popular urban space, the Zone and the proliferation of subcultures, which serve as vectors of subjectification of the counter-conducts of subalterns and inhabitants. Sobering, using the tool of ethnography and active research, photographs a process of workers’ democracy in the making that arose through the self-management of a historic hotel in Buenos Aires, highlighting its merits and limitations, but underscoring its constituent force, the set of attempts aimed at combating growing social inequalities through the constitution of a decision-making pole from below. Both studies, however, focus on certain metropolitan social dynamics. The first of these concerns the set of processes of social differentiation pursued through urban restructuring policies that operate an aesthetic and political separation between urban areas for the affluent classes and those intended for marginalised populations. Yesterday as today, the ‘sauvages’ become targets of the policies of geographic exclusion and are forcibly fed into the production circuit of urban deviance, requiring specific police and urban infrastructures to contain their vitality. Today’s standards of urban civilisation, in fact, go towards what Italian urban planner Bernardo Sechi has called the ‘city of the rich’, cities of services and leisure for the wealthy classes that tend to produce inequalities through the spatial distribution of resources and wealth. Urban space, as a result, becomes an extremely polarised space, in which the gaps between the centre and the suburbs increase and are not governed, so that social explosions in the suburbs are reduced to mere law and order events to be managed through the deployed use of force. The second concerns the force to imagine and practice other forms of living and aggregating in urban space, with the economic and cultural self-valorisation of urban margins and abandoned spaces, as with self-managed factories between Greece and Italy, theatres occupied and transformed into cultural forges, and public spaces abandoned and brought back to life by neighbourhood dwelling collectives. In conclusion, urbanism as social justice lives in these practices, both spatially and politically. Rediscovering the aggregative sense of metropolitan spaces, multiplying the nuances of meaning in urban design, empowering social experiences that imagine another city, to date, constitute useful indications of the method to try, collectively, to shape collective projects to affect more in the management of cities to and transform antagonistic urban imagination into a form of power.


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