AUGUST 6, 2019
“THE HISTORY OF MANKIND,” Victor Hugo wrote in his best-selling 1862 novel Les Misérables, “is reflected in the history of its sewers.” In his new book Vice, Crime, and Poverty: How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld, translated into English by Susan Emanuel, French historian Dominique Kalifa swaps the sewers for the “cesspool” of humanity — les bas-fonds or “lower depths,” those milieux populated by beggars, thieves, convicts, prostitutes, and pimps. He examines how these milieux came to constitute the history of the modern “underworld” and how bourgeois society defined itself in opposition to this cesspool — “a hellish landscape that is partly real and partly fantasized.” Though he dates the social conception of les bas-fonds back to the Middle Ages, Kalifa focuses primarily on the 19th century, the period in which the term shifted its meaning from “lower depths” to “underworld,” the latter imbued with greater moral reprobation — and more spectacular appeal.
For Kalifa, les bas-fonds is a “social imaginary,” a carnivalized reflection of society’s depths — “a sort of repertoire of collective figures and identities that every society assembles at given moments in its history.” Defining the social imaginary as it relates to issues of poverty and class has been at the center of Kalifa’s scholarship throughout his 25-year career. For the most part, his inquiries have focused on criminals, police, and their representations in mass culture and the press. This particular book was first published in 2013 by Éditions du Seuil as Les Bas-fonds: histoire d’un imaginaire, and it earned its author the Prix Mauvais genres that same year, as well as the French Voices Award in 2016.
Kalifa’s conception of the social imaginary as a system of representation at times converges with Foucault’s analyses of social discourses and the way they instantiate structures of power. This is especially the case when it comes to Kalifa’s work on judicial and police histories, such as his 2008 book Le Commissaire de police au XIXe siècle. In other studies, he employs a less top-down model that privileges the representations proffered by popular culture — see, for example, his 1995 study of faits divers and crime fiction, L’Encre et le Sang: Récits de crimes et société à la Belle Époque. In Vice, Crime, and Poverty, he shoots from both hips, considering at once the official and the popular systems whose representations served to create the reality they describe. As Kalifa puts it, these representations “produce and institute the social more than they reflect it.”
What Kalifa gleans from the stories of the underworld analyzed in this book is not so much an understanding of the pimps, whores, and convicts who populated the bas-fonds as of those peering down at them from on high. Philanthropists, sociologists, police, charity workers, journalists, novelists, poets — these were the players whose representations of the underworld at once designated the terms of bourgeois culture and produced the conditions for excluding the constituents of the bas-fonds. Why did this particular social imaginary prevail in the 19th century? Though Kalifa’s study spans several continents, encompassing Paris, London, New York, European port cities, and colonial metropoles, the answer is consistent across these locales, highlighting urbanization, the explosion of the printing press, upwardly mobile class arrangements, and the advent of mass culture.
The term bas-fonds was initially a topographical expression referring, first, to “a shallow depth of water” and then, later, to “low and sunken terrains” often flooded by water. According to Kalifa, the lower classes were not only conceived as situated beneath the upper socioeconomic strata but were further plunged into a symbolic underground. This holds true regardless of whether the settings for les bas-fonds are in fact subterranean — the oubliettes or dungeons of Gothic novels, tombs, catacombs, and sewer systems — or above ground, in brothels, prisons, gambling parlors, and the like. The humidity with which these places were historically described recalls classical representations of the underworld: in Greek mythology, Hades was reached via the river Styx; in the Bible, the apocalypse includes widespread flooding.
Kalifa dates the “heyday” of the underworld from around the 1830s until World War II. He presents the cultural craze for les bas-fonds as at once paradoxical and logical, involving a fascination with those left behind by 19th-century “advancements” — positivism, industry, democratization, and mass culture. The positivist impulse, along with naturalist trends in social science and literature, encouraged the naming and classification of social groups. The 19th century “invented the concept of class,” Kalifa writes, and thus identified for the first time the “criminal classes,” “predatory classes,” and “dangerous classes” as categories unto themselves. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was consigning more and more workers to urban slums, as a result of which not only the indigent but also the working classes came to be equated with danger and delinquency. The movements of democratization, according to Kalifa, were only equalizing insofar as they excluded those incapable of working by casting them as criminals.
The advent of mass culture enabled the dissemination of salacious underworld tales through the “swelling print production”; one of the most famous publications in this genre was Eugène Sue’s novel Les Mystères de Paris, published serially in the Journal des débats from 1842 to 1843. The most intriguing part of Kalifa’s book is his explanation of how this crime genre came into being: the story of the evolution of lists into literature. In the Middle Ages, inventories began to be assembled by towns and villages to keep track of “false” poor people, “fake” pilgrims, “faux” blind persons, along with thieves, “converted Jews, counterfeiters, pretend lepers,” and other shady characters. These inventories were valuable not just to those looking to safeguard themselves against roguery; in fact, their main function was to serve philanthropic practices by distinguishing the “good” poor from the “bad” so that charity would not be wasted on the latter. In the 18th century, this classification system took a turn toward entertainment in the form of “scaffold literature” — glorified biographies of the most infamous criminals. In the 19th century, the taste for newspaper crime reports and sensational faits divers was served by a burgeoning genre of crime fiction and detective novels.
Vice, Crime, and Poverty employs the very method it describes: it’s a taxonomy of taxonomies. The breadth of sources Kalifa deploys in relation to each idea he puts forward is at times inordinate; the book bursts at the seams with citations and details. Enumerating the recurring tropes of les bas-fonds, Kalifa writes that “[d]irt is the omnipresent motif,” before citing half a dozen novelists, sociologists, and historians who all confirm that poor people did, indeed, live amid filth, garbage, muck, rot, and vermin. His proof that the underworld was associated with bad odors is even more thorough: after explaining that “most tenacious odors” were those emanating “from sex or from excrement,” he leads the reader through several nauseating pages of description of “mortal miasmas” such as rotten meat, chronic diarrhea, “warmed muck” (blame the weather in Algiers), and slums and prisons featuring broken toilets (or, sometimes, shit-covered floors). Kalifa’s research is virtuosic, incorporating every type of source under the sun — poetry, sociology, films, popular songs, literature, journalism — and is endlessly entertaining, even when proving the obvious.
In Kalifa’s view, the social imaginary of the underworld faded into obscurity primarily as a result of the arrival of the welfare state in the mid-20th century, but also because, as gangsters and Mafiosi began to amass wealth and emancipate themselves from poverty, they came to be associated with fantastic fortune rather than destitution. In the role of the demonized “Other,” the criminal rogue was eventually replaced — especially in European and American societies — by the foreign immigrant. Terminology has also changed: les bas-fonds and the underworld have all but disappeared from our vocabulary today. Since the end of the 1970s, the lexicon of neoliberalism has opted for “the underclass” in place of “the underworld.” But whatever word one chooses, some elements of the story Kalfia tells persist up to the present.
First, there is the way the underworld has been constructed, by the middle and upper classes since the end of the Middle Ages, as a highly organized counter-society, “an inverted monarchy” that functions according to its own precise hierarchies and moral laws. As a teenager in Italy, I remember my Romanian friend grabbing my hand as I dropped a coin into a Roma beggar’s cup and hissing, “They’re not actually poor! They live in castles outside the city!” The same assumption — that a person who asks for help is bound to be engaged in some sort of heist — has been at the heart of attacks on the safety net since at least the 1980s, from Reagan’s myth of the “welfare queen” to Trump’s “bad hombres.”
Second, the social imaginary of the underworld is particularly powerful during periods of political crisis. The Parisian insurgents of 1848 were called the “moral and physical scum of society.” Likewise, when young rioters in 2005 protested living conditions and police violence in the Parisian banlieues, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy responded that he should karcherise the ghettos of la racaille. The former word refers to a brand of high-pressure cleaning that blasts away hard-to-remove filth (bird shit, for example); the second translates roughly to “scum.” Kalifa’s long meditation on the significance of dirt to our conception of the underworld was perhaps not overstated after all.
Finally, Kalifa shows that the neoliberal deregulation that has characterized the last 50 years is in fact a repetition of the political battles raging in mid-19th-century France. For Eugène Sue, the underworld tale was, at its heart, a project that envisions an integration of disreputable characters into the productive bourgeoisie. Not only was he one of the most prominent raconteurs of the underworld, Sue also became, in 1850, an elected official — mocked by Karl Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, as the “April Fool of March 10” (his election date). Sue’s pet project to start a Poor People’s bank was further skewered by Marx and Engels in The Holy Family, where they exposed the arrangement as little better than a heist mounted against the indigent, given that “during the time the worker is employed as much will be deducted from his wage as he needs for his living during unemployment.” Today, on the screens in the backseats of New York taxicabs, a banner sometimes runs that reads, Want to help the poor? Make them a bank customer.
Hadley Suter is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Cultured Magazine, the Brooklyn Rail, Counterpunch, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and the Nineteenth-Century French Studies Journal. She holds a PhD in French from UCLA and is a lecturer at Barnard College.