Fiction, illustration, discussion – interesting weirdness for all the senses. Well, almost.

Mourning can bring us together

Pure Bylex "tourist city", copyright Goethe Institute

Pure Bylex “tourist city”, copyright Goethe Institute

Images from Goethe Institute and from Virginie Echene

Text by Elise Billiard

Utopias are often based on architectural models,[1] or on rules about the division of labour and the ownership of land for instance. However, it seems to me that little is being written about the need for the powerful binding that keeps people responsible of each other, and that make them feel part of a same common society. My postulate here is that a society cannot last if it is deprived of a certain affective commonality that binds citizens together.

We currently live in nation-states that have worked hard to make us believe that nationals have something “cultural” in common, something which is more than the administrative and political inward looking system of our respective state. We are made to believe that there is a way to be Maltese, like there is a distinct way to be American, a distinct culture acquired through centuries. Historians have played an important role, but although many have taken an active part to weave the sovereign tapestry (or carpet!) of the nation to justify its existence, some have criticized its instrumentalisation for nationalist aims, getting “history wrong” in the process, as British historian Eric Hobsbawm famously stated (quoting Ernest Renan) “Forgetting, even getting history wrong, is an essential factor in the formation of a nation, which is why the progress of historical studies is often a danger to nationality.”[2]

I think that by now, it is understood as a fact, at least in social sciences that a nation is an “Imagined community”, a term coined by Benedict Anderson, meaning a make-up community, a political construction sold by the education system and reproduced by the national media. This critical deciphering of the national culture as an illusion does not damage its efficacy, which costs numerous lives today as it did yesterday. Indeed most wars in the 20th century can be argued to have been nationalist wars, at least in their official justification, in which a nation wanted to get rid of people who were not culturally or racially part of it. Today, non-nationals suffer the consequences of such an illusion, being rejecting at the borders of European nation states, not because they are not legal citizens of Europe, but because they do not share the same “culture”, which constitutes them as a threat for the illusive national and European community.

Although nations have demonstrated their tragic implications, one should not discard all together the need for an imagined community. Or so I pledge. The main difficulty I foreclose here is to find a common sensible (not a common sense) that does not, in any way, preclude any one from entering the society and taking part of it, a unifying common that would not be discriminatory.

I would like now to discuss two different propositions, which might provide a necessary inspiration in our search for a common. I am seeking the help of the artist Pume Bylex and the philosopher Judith Butler, to propose an equal grievability that would provide for a common affective, which is essential for the radical ethos of utopia. Using the words of Butler, I would like to give a quick overview of what could be “a political imaginary of radical equality of grievability.”

The sculptures and models that Bylex fabricates in his house in Kinshasa and which are exhibited all over Europe, are perhaps more a support to his fantasies than containing meaningful signs in themselves. A look at his utopian city for instance can prove deceptive without the explanations of its creator. Bylex is indeed as prolix with words as he is with plastic and cardboard. His work, generally futurist, is led by a strong utopian drive.

Bylex Tourist City

Bylex Tourist City (from exhibition POURQUOI PAS BYLEX ? PUME – Maison Revue Noire © Virginie Echene)

The work I would like to discuss is his “tourist city” which Bylex rendered as a model (see images above) and a documentary “the world according to Bylex”[3]. First it should be mentioned before any description, that the artist’s city is not one for sedentary people but on the contrary for migrants, as this is a city of passage, an urban form that is fundamentally transitory, which Bylex calls “the tourist city”[4]. One could therefore say that Bylex’s imagined city is not only a non-place – the etymology of “u-topia” –  but also a non-place as “non-lieu”, a term coined by Marc Augé referring to the “soulless” places of transit of our supermodern societies[5]. In both cases, Bylex’s model has strong anchors in the real and following this perspective it can be argued that his architectural model is a critic of crowds of holidaymakers enjoying leisure activities in a characterless tourist resort. A resort deprived of commons.

As I have argued elsewhere[6], the influx of travellers, coming for business or leisure purposes, reconfigures completely the modes of regulations of everyday behaviours in public spaces. In a small country like Malta (which population lies around four hundred thousand people and where about one million tourists come each year) the implicit norms of good behaviour in public, the dress code for instance, but also the gender relations, all the norms of behavior in public are learnt through mundane interactions and imposed by the acknowledgement that in every street there will be someone that knows you somehow. We can easily understand why tourism is detrimental in such context. As we have all witnessed around the world, the cities colonized by the tourism industry lost their permanent population to the benefit of short-term visitors lodged in hotels and rentals. In such places, the architectural heritage might be carefully restored, the facades might provide perfect backdrops for selfies, but the demographics have dramatically changed. Residents are leaving, if they have not left already. One of the major consequences of this reduction of the permanent population is the loss of social cohesion. The constantly moving population of vacationers which is taking most public spaces and private homes (transformed in airbnb or boutique hotels) is not fearing gossip or any damaging of their personal reputation. The old means of social control become useless and consequently the use of violence and legal coercion grew to be the only solution to limit the tourists transgressions.

I have contended that more than the immigration of African or Middle eastern people, who settle in a sedentary life when they are permitted, it is the increasing flux of, mainly Western, travelers who are only coming for a few days, that has overlooked impact on the social cohesion of the transit city.

But all this is my interpretation of the artist’s work since far from criticizing tourism, Bylex is reclaiming it as a universal right. His argument is that the tourist city is for everyone. Its nine luxury hotels and giant swimming pools are for any visitor, and this is definitively where its truly radical stake appears. Bylex, who lives in a shantytown in Kinshasa, does not content himself by making consumerism accessible to everyone (including himself and his fellow Congolese proletarians), but dares to ask for even more. To discover what makes Bylex’s utopia a forceful model in my opinion, we need to look what he chose to place at the center of his Tourist city.

Once the tourist has rested his body and mind in the highly secured hotels of the city, replenished his suitcase with all the delicacies that the giant shopping malls provided, he must be curious to enter in the giant white dome which lies at the heart of the city, a majestic temple surrounded by multi-color grass, impeccably trimmed.

The royal Dome is, in Bylex’s terms, a temple where the tourist comes to reflect on what he has seen in the hotels, the shopping malls, the swimming pools; he is invited to meditate on what his recent experience of abundance has brought to him. To understand the mechanisms of meditation that the Dome imposes on its visitors, one needs to know that the Dome is also the repository of the world knowledge (a sort of museum) and the repository of dead souls (a cemetery). Once in the Dome, the visitor does not only find himself alone with his own thoughts, but he is also pushed in the darkness of the afterworld, communicating with the dead through intuition, and learning the relativity and immensity of knowledge directly from his environment, in a neo-Heidegger fashion (kind of).

Importantly, knowledge here is transimmanent and experienced, more than acquired. Knowledge comes from communicating with the after-life world. Knowledge of the world, encompassing everything from the technological inventions, the laws of nature, to the wisdom of literature, is experienced by the visitor of the tourist city as a revelation, in communion not only with the other tourists around, but also with past and future lives. In this utopia, knowledge is not any more reproducing inequalities as Bourdieu and Passeron have, among others, claimed[7]. There are no schools, universities or even books. Knowledge, according to Bylex, is transimmanent and universal. It can therefore be a platform for a necessary common.

How does Butler help us understand Bylex?

The direct communication with the generic ancestors of the generic city that is the tourist city, open to all, or more generally the direct communication with the after world, might be evident for most Africans as much as it might be hard to believe for most Europeans (I imagine). This is where Butler’s work comes in handy. Using Sigmund Freud’s theories about the death drive and violent impulses, or Melanie Klein’s observations about the process of identification to the other in (always) dependent relationships, Butler offers a way to use psychology as a moral tool for utopia, which I would like to use as a political cohesion weapon.

Butler began her speech by stressing the tragic unequal ‘grievability’ of lives today[8]. The example that comes to mind is the actual “migration crisis” and the fact that while some people can travel where they wish to, others cannot, that some people can perish at sea while others have access to visas to circulate easily. Butler points out that the fact that some lives are the subject of grievance while others are less so, entails guilt of the privileged that may paradoxically inspire a resentful violence towards the victims. One feels guilty because psychologically one cannot allow violence without knowing that one day one might be in the victim’s situation. The acceptance of acts of violence towards some lives implies the acceptance that violence can be also turned against any lives. The reciprocity of violence makes us realize our dependence to each other.

In short, if we value the life of the others, we value our life as well. Using Melanie Klein’s psychological analysis of mother-child relationship, Butler argued that caring for the other meant caring for oneself and recognizing that our reciprocal dependence can be the source of necessary compromises once one understands that one’s life is vitally dependent on the life of the other. The ultimate example, being the baby that although he/she would like to destroy his carer (probably his/her mother) in order to be free, he/she knows that this automatically implies death since he/she is dependent on the carer for survival.

Guilt therefore is the recognition of the other in oneself and the acceptance of dependence as vital for our survival. With this observation, Butler offered a radically shift reminding us of the positive side of dependence, which starts by acknowledging the equal ‘grievability’ of all lives.

In a global world, in which what we eat in Europe is cultivated in far away continents, and the production of our computers implies the death of thousands of Congolese; in a global world where the major problems (global warming, financial crisis, war) must be resolved internationally and cannot any more be solved within one nation-state, we need to be aware of our reliance on others, and we need to change the rules accordingly.

Interestingly, at the individual level, dependence is also condemned although we all know that humans cannot live alone. Emotionally they thrive in complex relationships moving from dependence to independence. For every activity they need one another, to laugh as much as to eat. But our societies only value independence, financial and emotional independence; freedom and personal achievements being the common illusive mantra.

Butler offers a principle that can be applied transversely from the global to the individual, from the geopolitical to the psychological. Acknowledging and accepting our reliance to the riches of the supposed third-world countries as much as accepting our dependence to our beloved ones, is crucial to renegotiate with oneself and the other, a positive compromise.

This renegotiation is only made possible when the price of life is taken into account, only at this condition can the risk of death provide a platform for encounters. It is only when standing at the door of the after-world, in the darkness of the royal Dome, that one can hear the deep call for truth: we are all dependent on each other.

Mourning, then, reveals itself to be the condition for social and political life among others. Like in the Royal Dome, it is only when people become aware of their vital need of each others that they can find the way to respect themselves as much as the others. Mourning is, then, the moment and place where a common appear.

[1] With examples such as the Phalanster of Fournier, Chandigarh of Le Corbusier, Broadacre city of Frank Lloyd Wright.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, “On History”, New York, 1997, p.350

[3] “The World according to Bylex. Percer les Mystères de l’Invisible” Film by Pume Bylex, presented by Filip De Boeck & Koen Van Synghel , published by KVS & Africalia, Brussels, 2008.

[4] Translation of  “la ville touristique”.

[5] Marc Augé “Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity”, New York, Verso, 2009.

[6] Take the example of Paceville, which I discussed at length here.

[7] Jean-Claude Passeron & Pierre Bourdieu “Les héritiers: Les étudiants et la culture”, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1964.

[8] The lecture was given on the 6th April 2016, and entitled “To Preserve the Life of the Other: Psychoanalysis and the Ethical Claim”. See article in Newspaper Maltatoday.


Elise Billiard holds a Ph.D in Anthropology and is visiting lecturer at the University of Malta. Her belief in the uniting power of grief was reinforced during the commemorative walk for the tragic shipwreck of the 17th April 2015 which had killed over 600 people at sea near Malta. She thinks that the refusal from the Maltese government to put a commemorative sign on the grave is also a political choice. See more here.

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