AUGUST 2, 2013
IN HIS NEW BOOK No Fixed Abode: Ethnofiction, the French anthropologist Marc Augé sets out to explore the life of Paris’s working poor. The book is not a standard work of social science: it is, rather, a first-person narrative in the voice of a fictional character. No Fixed Abode is, as its subtitle states, not a novel but rather an “ethnofiction,” a combination of ethnography and fiction, or, in Augé’s words, “a narrative that evokes a social fact through the subjectivity of a particular individual.” The story is crafted “out of the thousand and one details observed in everyday life,” but the social fact it illuminates is very real.
Ethnofiction (also known as “ethnographic docufiction”) is an experimental genre, primarily associated with visual anthropology, particularly in France and England. It has its roots in the cinéma vérité tradition of anthropologist-filmmaker Jean Rouch, whose early films like Les maîtres fous (1955) blurred the line between art and documentary. Such work raises ethical questions about the treatment and manipulation of truth and reality. By introducing fictional elements into accounts of real conditions, ethnofiction approaches the idea of truth from another angle. At times, such work straddles a fascinating overlap of anthropology, film, art, and ethnography, while at others it seems to slide into anthropological fanfic dressed in academic jargon.
Training and working as an ethnographer deeply affects observation, perspective, and writing style. The goal of an ethnography is to present an in-depth account and analysis of daily life. Ethnographers spend a great deal of time — often months or even years — with the people who are at the heart of the research in order to get as “inside” a perspective as possible. Maintaining a level of detachment is key for the researcher, but this is not always easy: How does a person get close to other humans, even those who may be unsavory or reviled, and maintain a detached perspective? How is it possible to present the words of another without orchestration, bias, or a shift in meaning?
The structural, rigorous work of ethnographic analysis provides some measure against such bias, but it is never enough to eliminate the influence of the observer entirely, as most social scientists acknowledge. To this end, the sociologists David A. Snow and Leon Anderson, in Down on Their Luck (1993), their account of homelessness in Austin in the mid-1980s, emphasize that, “It is our book, not our homeless informants’. We are the choreographers or narrators, so to speak. We recognize that our discussion provides second-order interpretations of their experiences.” Nor are ethnographers the only ones choreographing and narrating: even in providing accounts, participants often construct and reconstruct narratives. In order to understand the social situations ethnographers study, we must understand the extent of this construction and the larger stories on which these everyday narratives are based.
Ethnofiction has the virtue of making explicit the delicate balance between literature and science that is a feature of all ethnographic research. But, of course, ethnography is not alone in working through these tensions between truth and fiction. All histories are, in a sense, novels by necessity, if only because of what they must omit, and memoirs and biographies alike routinely venture into fiction, if only through the recreation of narratives past and composite memories that may not be precise. And what of fiction that has its basis in social reality? Augé suggests that novelists often take a theme from anthropology and use it to launch themselves into fiction, whereas he, the anthropologist, uses “the novelist’s mode of exposition to suggest the fleshly totality of emotion, uncertainty or anxiety concealed within the themes he has picked out, the words he has used and the concepts he has tried to develop — in this particular case, for example, those of place and non-place” (concepts first introduced in Augé’s 1995 book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity to describe “place[s] of transience”, such as a supermarket, a bus station, a freeway, a motel, or an airport).
How, then, does an ethnofiction differ from a novel that deals with a social issue? Unlike the novelist, according to Augé, the writer of ethnofiction
does not want the reader to identify with or “believe in” his “protagonist” but, rather, to discover in him something of their times and in that sense — and that sense alone — to recognize themselves or see something of themselves in him. The character round which an ethnofiction is built is, in any event, a witness to his or her times and, in the best of cases, a symbol.
Traditional fiction makes a narrative pact with the reader by presenting us with a believable protagonist, whose thoughts must be entered. Ethnography makes a different pact: observations and analysis of a “social fact” or culture through the subjective perspectives of not one but two people; it must always be understood as a combined perspective of subject and researcher. Ethnofiction falls between these two domains — and this is precisely where the trouble begins.
The protagonist of No Fixed Abode is an unnamed older gentleman in Paris, a retired tax inspector whose divorce has left him with combined spousal support payments and rent that exceed his monthly income. Unable to find an affordable studio, he gives up his apartment, sells nearly everything he owns, and begins to live in his car. He is not destitute — he has earned a pension and receives money from the sale of his life’s possessions — but he finds himself unable to regularly pay for life’s basic needs each month. For a time, he continues to live in a large old Mercedes, in and around his original neighborhood in the 15th arrondissement, learning what it means to be not precisely “on the street” like a homeless man he meets but “on the ground level,” a regular who does not rise and disappear into the apartments above the shops, cafés, and sidewalk life.
Augé’s narrator describes his transition from domiciled to Sans domicile stable (SDS) in a series of diary entries that detail both his experiences and internal narrative. The entries are at first regular and dated. As days stretch into months, the registration of time changes: the day and exact date fall away, and entries occur sporadically, marked only by the month, occasionally qualified with a “mid-.”
As the protagonist’s concept of time shifts, so does his sense of identity. One entry describes his need to break free of the need to consume media, to keep up with the news on a daily basis — which, he comes to realize, is merely an excuse to feel some connection to his past and to society, however faint. What emerges in Augé’s account is a man with a strong sense of propriety, who possesses both a need for belonging and a longstanding dream of escape. When his fortunes turn after his retirement and divorce, he finds himself with almost no relatives except a cousin and only a few colleagues he considers friends. With nowhere to go and almost no one to call on, he packs up his few remaining belongings in the Mercedes, puts on one of his two suits with the Order of Merit ribbon visible in the buttonhole, and begins to learn what it means to live SDS. The diary weaves between internal monologue and descriptions of living in his car.
As the diary closes, the protagonist travels beyond Paris. Here, in mid-August, five months into homelessness, he finds he cannot “bear to hear [himself] speak the words” describing his homelessness to a very old friend. Yet, on the trip, Dominique, a woman who has become his lover, proposes he come with her to a little house she’ll be renting in a province outside Paris. It is at this moment the protagonist must make a choice: “start anew” with Dominique or “face up squarely, without evasion or illusion, to the final reckoning — that reckoning which deprived even the word ‘loneliness’ of all meaning.”
Augé’s nameless, conflicted protagonist is clearly supposed to be a figure of identification for the reader. We are meant to imagine ourselves in his position — Could this be someone I know, a neighbor or a relative? Could it one day be me? — and to realize that we share the same desires: to flee and to fit in, to be alone and to be accepted, and, above all, to be treated in social situations as a good, upstanding member of society. But this sense of fellow feeling, while effective, does not do what Augé claims is the real purpose of ethnofiction: to direct the gaze outward onto the social totality. Instead, it draws the view inward. The reader identifies with the protagonist, not simply as a symbol of this particular time, but as an “any man.” We are committed to thinking, as we ultimately do in most novels, of the individual rather than the collective.
Augé ends his introduction with two characters from literature he claims for ethnofiction:
You only have to have moved house once or twice in your life to be able to imagine, without too much difficulty, the destructive effects wrought by the loss of spatio-temporal markers. It is no longer just psychology that is at issue in the situation of the homelessness but, directly, the essence of relationship, identity and being. Voltaire’s Candide or Montesquieu’s Persian were characters from ethnofiction but they looked at the world and were amazed by it. Today it is in looking at himself that the ethnofictional character discovers the world’s madness.
Novels have an ethnographic or ethnofictional bent to them insofar as they force us to think as much about the social conditions that burden and even destroy the protagonists as we do about the protagonists themselves. But it is not clear how the unfortunate tax inspector is a witness to his times any more than any other typical character in a play, a poem, a film, or a novel. Augé does not promise rigorous, scientific insights into the phenomenon of homelessness, but he does want his literary efforts to turn our gaze outward. Instead, we turn repeatedly to look inward.
This is not to say No Fixed Abode fails completely; on the contrary, it is a lovely book. The difficulty, really, is with the genre of ethnofiction itself, which has yet to produce an example that clarifies its raison d’être the way the great works of fiction did with the novel in the 18th century. Where, then, do we place Augé’s text? Tucked in with the fiction, feeling proud to be in alphabetical order near Austen? Or alongside more straightforward ethnographies like Jay McLeod’s Ain’t No Makin’ It and Snow and Anderson’s Down on Their Luck?
In my view, No Fixed Abode belongs squarely in the realm of the novel. Despite all his protestations in the introduction, Augé has created a romantic, sympathetic character. The distance he tries to create between himself and his tax inspector by setting the word “protagonist” apart in quotations, and by declaring himself a scientist rather than a novelist, is oddly parallel to his protagonist’s faith in the literary to sustain him socially and in his own sense of self. One April day, he considers a cryptic fragment from Franz Kafka’s “Meditations”:
“You keep talking about death and yet you do not die.”
“And yet I shall die. What I am writing is my swansong. One man’s song is longer, another man’s song is shorter. But the difference is only ever a matter of a few words.”
Commenting on this passage, the tax inspector writes,
Taking writing seriously, taking it “at its word” — doesn’t that mean writing as though you were to die the minute you stopped?
But what am I talking about? Who do I take myself for? I prefer not to answer, so as not to give in to despondency.
Who does Augé take himself for? This passage, like much of No Fixed Abode, speaks of an anxiety familiar to any writer and researcher, especially one invested in documenting lived experience and the literary myths that inform and even create it. Just as his narrator has no fixed abode, Augé’s book has no fixed genre; its claim to authority as precarious as its protagonist’s existence. We must keep writing, Augé suggests, in order to create the world and ourselves within it. If we stop writing, does society die? More personally: If the writer, the anthropologist, the novelist stops writing, does he or she become irrelevant? Perhaps this is why Augé’s book feels balanced between ethnographic detail and a fictionalized but very real inner conflict: it is less a reflection of society than a deeply personal meditation on the act of writing.