Crossing the Trenches: The Jungle and its Contentions of the Image

by | 9 Nov 2018

The image is the means by which we both avoid the Other and yet represent the Other. As the rights of movement in the global age demarcates who the Other is, a confrontation with the image becomes necessary to envisage a future based on an equal rights of movement. The Calais jungle over its two decades is a space that enables us to uncover the dimensions of that challenge and to cast another light on the entire edifice of our politics of representation.

The dinner pack; verges of the Afghan Hospital jungle Calais April 2018 © Siraj Izhar

1. Resistance of the Image

As subjects of the jungle, the undocumented of Calais, the san papiers, les migrants de Calais may also be refugees and asylum seekers but thereon it is the status of being without documents to be a part of society and move freely that determines their material conditions of existence. In functional terms, it is their defining distinction. To clarify, there is no visible difference between the me (here as the author) and the them (the undocumented) beyond that I have a document, a ‘First World’ passport from a former colonial nation that grants my freedom of movement to cross borders. To consider a politics of the image from that standpoint is not to deflect from it onto the face of a subject now dependent on humanitarian help. This writing is about the face that underlies that face; the struggle that lies between them which is the resistance of the image.
To speak of the resistance of the image is to invoke the emancipation of the image. The two are entwined in the very conception of the image in which resistance through impenetrability is the means to emancipation. Once we understand its means of resistance and the politics of its exercise we understand why the undocumented are so protective of its space, and why in Calais the space found expression through the jungle.

A jungle is a space of disappearance which shelters the undocumented from the forces of state. The inhabitant of the jungle is thus a refugee from the State in which the refugee has sought refuge. In reverse, the jungle is, for the state, a space that can be disappeared as it wishes.

When I wander through Calais I can now reflect on what was where and when over a dozen years, I can recount the number of jungles disappeared. In an imagined space I can conjecture a project that traverses a past and the present of the jungle. But the jungle resists that reclamation in the way self-negation and self-erasure woven into its existence and resistance. These dimensions are invisibly constituted within the jungle — the trenches in which it resists, trenches in the Gramscian sense in a war between image and existence that implicate us (those with the rights of movement) as much as the undocumented. A war in which an existing politics of representation in its inadequacy betrays the politics of existence. The jungle is where, analogous to the way Gramsci wrote, an old politics of representation is dying yet a new one can not emerge. But in its timeline, through the peaks and troughs of the Calais jungle, we can pull out the contestations.

2. Breaking the Ground of Representation

I complement C from south Sudan on his sartorial elegance, the colour combinations; orange T-shirt, light blue shorts, green clogs. The reply comes, “yes but I live in the jungle.”

C’s jungle is in the bushes behind the black slag heaps and electricity pylons of Rue des Verrotières, a mere walking distance from the vast demolished former Jules Ferry jungle. The average age in this mixed Eritrean Sudanese jungle of about a hundred people, would be about 20 years, with many below the age of 16. A football is being kicked through this jungle by legs in skinny jeans. It’s the ‘calm before the storm’ — of days of surveillance by the CRS, state security forces, before sudden assault and clearance. Any-day, any-time. That means ripping up or removal of tents, sleeping bags, items of clothes, even cell phones, at times accompanied by tear gassing, pepper spraying to render anything tainted unusable — all means justified to prevent the jungle from ‘establishing itself’. Yet two years after the dismantling of Jules Ferry, the Verrotières jungle is still here.

Aside from the ritual of police rounds, there are the visits by solidarity and voluntary groups for food distribution, tents, sleeping bags, medical care, and so on. Sleep deprivation, abuse, interrogation, confiscations thus alternate with solidarity — companionship, warm tea, coffee, hugs and provisions donated by ordinary citizens across Europe. What the State destroys, society replaces. A cycle of de-humanisation, re-humanisation, de-humanisation, re-humanisation … that becomes instituted. It’s the ‘The Government of Humanitarianism’ of “a hand that strikes and a hand that heals” as Michel Agier puts it in his book Managing the Undesirables (2011).

For all its claim to elusiveness, the jungle is laid bare at will by the agencies of state and mass media. Photography as a technology of surveillance and record is indispensable to the making of the undocumented. However the photograph faces an entirely different challenge in any relational practice that engages with the jungle. That is, when a process of dialogue becomes a part of the image as opposed to image capture by the media. It is then that resistance to the image (to its power to transport the human out its context) exposes itself. Out of that comes the differentiation between the consented image and the appropriated image with its unwritten orthodoxies and taboos.

After Jules Ferry, the jungles dotted around Calais have names that say who is there and where they are. Out of sight, in the wastelands of motorway verges or in fields behind long-empty retail warehouses. Afghan Hospital, Lidl, Eritrean Roundabout, and so on. But every jungle, however precarious, is a constituting space, a marker of identity and territory in an alienating environment. Removed from civil society yet each with its channels of civil solidarity. These change in time as does the jungle. It can be useful to try and relate the Calais jungle to other self-made spaces of dispossession like the squat or the slum which also particularise their forms of resistance through image. Protecting autonomy, rejecting consumption of the spectacle industry, resisting media misrepresentation, etc. To illustrate, a squat at least has walls for notice boards and galleries; as we would see in a ‘refugee hotel’ in Athens with images of children and smiling faces. These have a bearing on their social and political capacities. Such dimensions have no relevance at a 2018 Calais jungle but it’s worth saying that the jungle is productive of a virtual space, of Facebook and social media posts. Through them, for instance selfies can get to circulate. G4s smartphones are commonplace but alas phone credit is as sought for as a resource as food — limited and often subject to bust-ups. The virtual jungle, tied to its material reality on the ground, does not contribute to its capacities of representation.

However, in its perversity as an acute form of dispossession (of the undocumented) lies the significance of the jungle in an advanced economy. How deterrence is integrated into humanitarian management to maintain the jungle within a calibrated minimum threshold of existence. Not only can a jungle can be maintained as such over time but the maintenance requires our involvement in a ‘functioning solidarity’ between, as Agier suggests, that hand that strikes and the hand that cares. It can be a harsh reading for at Calais the hand that cares may be itself be offered in resistance to the hand that strikes but what Agier is referring to is a functioning ensemble in the calculations of the State. This connects the jungle with Europe’s reception centres for migrants at the other end of its borders, e.g. as at Moria in Lesbos with the perception of a calibration of life to ensure its conditions are ‘worse than in Africa’.

What is often missed though is that the functioning ensemble determines not only the material conditions of life as we see them but how the ground between representation and existence comes to be re-structured as the two functions of the hand (that strikes and heals) reinforce a bi-partite ‘juridical’ division of the human as migrant or refugee.

At every turn the media labours the mantra of the difference — between the economic migrant (thereby illegitimate) and refugee (quasi-legitimate). In a world where the structural inequality in our global order is economic and the suffering it begets in various scales of war or civil collapse, the migrant/refugee becomes an easily switchable subject.

The migrant/refugee as a driver of European politics has now become so normalised, even naturalised, that we are blinded to the violence and absolutism enacted in its duality. One could not imagine the new European politics without this bivalent subject, its currency summoned at every election to invigorate its democracy against itself. In their visible indistinction the newly arrival humans from the global south become the means to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject (the words in italics I borrow from Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak? [1988]). They are politically mute providers of the image/s by which to both protect the values of the West against and to extend its values through.

By this, and between the two, what is silenced is any possible normativity of debate on migration or how the politics of movement has come to be differentiated. When Viktor Orbán declares at the European Parliament that “migration is not a right” whilst millions in his country depend on that very right, it becomes clear how the right of migration is to be demarcated for Europe, who it applies to.

Football match by the Eritrean Roundabout jungle Calais Sept 2018 © Siraj Izhar

Twenty years ago, we articulated (for solidarity) an even field for freedom of movement at the height of the antiglobalisation movement: No one is illegal. No one is illegal had followed on the political mobilisation of the san papiers themselves in March 18th 1996 when 300 san papiers occupied the Saint Ambroise Catholic church in Paris. Expelled by the police, san papiers occupations of churches continued that year. By their performance of becoming visible, by their coming out, by their declaration of not being illegal but being without papers, what the struggle of the san papiers entailed became clear. That it required the institution “of a new right for the circulation of people, of their residence, their labour and their social welfare, established above and beyond national borders”, as Etienne Balibar (1997) wrote as an afterword to his solidarity speech What we owe the San papiers. But there was something else. By the autonomy of their resistance, the sans papiers were clearly not being empowered by the politics of representation. Whilst there was broad-based sympathy, there were conflicts of agency rooted in both the Eurocentric cultural base of much solidarity activism and in a politics of representation subsumed by identity politics, both almost taboo subjects in the field of solidarity. Recognition of this pushed some of us toward practices of transborder solidarity but met with thin support from European anti-racist antiglobalisation movements. A case study would be the Intercontinental Caravan of farmers from India to Europe in 1999; David Featherstone‘s essay (2003) sheds a perspective on that. But the reading here is that the under-developed question of hegemonies within the practice of solidarity along with a separation and separatism of identity politics formed its own trenches that contributes today to the political stasis of the san papiers in a far more contentious field of migration and identity.

In the meantime Europe has de facto shut out the poor in the south-north migration equation — today there is no way of travel for them other than by “illegitimate” means across the Mediterranean though they have legitimate reasons under multiple articles of the UN conventions. But sealing borders, cutting off the movement of bodies can not work as a stand-alone project. It requires a revision of how our entire society is to evolve and that demands its prerequisites — the progressive neutralisation of the forms of socialisation that stand in its way and to break the ground of its representation.

Not far from Calais, the port of Le Havre in the 19th century was where hundreds of thousands of German peasants and artisans escaped the poverty wrought by industrial change in the Rhineland to the New World. No less than today an enterprise of human transport was lucrative business as aligned to the transport of impoverished European migrants as of trafficked Africans. Dirk Hoerde and Amarjit Kaur’s Proletarian and Gendered Mass Migrations (2013) show how these came about through ‘destructation’ (mass dispossession and relocation) in Europe as much as in the colonies. If we see parallels in this in our globalised age, what takes place now is another form of destructation — of history and representation. A closure that rejects the irrevocably shared destiny of the peoples bound into a common history. That denial requires another destructation today — the destructation of civil life as a necessary response to migration. It manifests itself on one hand through hard social policies like the ‘hostile environment‘ in the UK, reclassifying citizenship in the process and criminalising social interaction with those without documents. And there are soft social policies of the humanitarian that progressively neuter the politics of representation.

So whilst the migrant as the antagonist of globalisation needs to be neutralised, the refugee is the depoliticised Other, an absolutism of depoliticisation through which it makes itself amenable to its representation by humanitarian governance. As affects of representational destructation, they are both a simultaneous withdrawal from and yet an appropriation of the Other — because in the complex of the Other (the migrant/refugee) there are forms of being and agency that are no longer to be dealt with.

“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. We can represent ourselves; we are represented”, writes Rustom Bharucha, in Somebody’s Other (1994). The first part of quote is from Marx on the material conditions of representation for smallholder peasants in 19th century France which Edward Said pulled out to preface his Orientalism on the cultural ground of representation. But between the two lines is a space now productive of its own exclusions, inclusions and of reproduction of hegemonies in almost de rigour exercises of representation and self-representation that valorise the migrant/refugee as the subject of our times. Yet within the parameters of the humanitarian they absolve us from the de- and re-humanisation to which we are compelled to contribute in its maintenance — for as long as required.

La Marche Solidaire pour les migrants Demo, Marble Arch London July 2018 © Siraj Izhar

3. Performing Representation

If we are to look for another narrative to the unfolding tragedy of Europe’s border regime and its humanitarian governance, it can be found in how the broken ground of representation has opened up the switchboards of solidarity to far wider constituencies, both compliant and reactive. Whose agency constitutes an unconstituted populism that says to do what we must do we must step outside the politics that disables our agency on the basis of prior identity. In order to act. Where it’s our relations that define how we act, not who we are. Of course, the asymmetries of the material conditions of relations will assert themselves in time. We swap our numbers only to forget that there is the question of what we do with these numbers in our contacts list when the inevitable comes. Those who represent themselves come and go as they please across borders. Those who can not represent themselves do not have that freedom. They watch us — come and go — as we must. We are in the circularity (of solidarity).

There are ample arguments against such emergence of practice and the imbalances it can be productive of. But given the realities on the ground, its significance lies in that it is a political space that we can access — that we are not denied it. Solidarity lies in being-with, it ‘involves getting closer to others in order to occupy or inhabit the distance between us’ to quote the theorist Sara Ahmed (2000). It re-embodies the image. It enables the performance of what Karen Barad calls agential realism, the space of performative representation, free from constraints of old representationalism

The move toward performative alternatives to representationalism shifts the focus from questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality (e.g. do they mirror nature or culture?) to matters of practices/doings/actions. (Posthumanist Performativity, 2003).

That these ideas and processes came to find space in the conflicted narrative of a refugee crisis emerged out of in situ improvised necessity rather than political strategy. It was their accumulative force that produced the vast Jules Ferry Jungle as a performative space of a mutualising subjectivity evocative of Homi Bhabha’s Third Space, “a new hybrid space of enunciation beyond representation” that “destroys this mirror of representation…, displaces the narrative of the Western nation.. written in homogeneous serial time” (2011).

With that disruption of normative time and narrative came the jungle as community, community as Jean-Luc Nancy’s being-in-common as I have argued in a prior essay, a space where forms of socialisation and representation emerged simultaneously. But the jungle then became a mutation of the humanitarian, whereby the hand that gives became malignant to the hand that hits. By the force of its realisable imagination, Jules Ferry had to be destroyed by the state-police hand. The jungle had to be returned to its fragmented fugitive state.

Post-Jules Ferry, the forces that destroyed the space we produced have moved to increasingly close down any form of social nexus through policing and regularisation. With that also came the climate of recurrent threats to the humanitarian association itself. It may be this that forces the solidarity of the humanitarian to a confrontation that was not a part of its remit, that breaks the unwritten rules and convention of the jungle and image.

At the end of a month long solidarity march from Ventigmilia (on the Italy-France border) to Calais organised by the Auberge des migrants the independent voluntary organisation (one not associated with any radical political stance and harshly critiqued by activists for their absence of resistance to Jules Ferry’s demolition along with their nominal subsidies from the State). When the last leg of the solidarity march from Paris to Calais was extended to London, 25 sans papiers offered themselves to remain on the march across the channel. They were promptly arrested and fingerprinted; 7 were subjected to orders to quit the country, 5 others held in detention centres for referral to country of origin.

In their absence, at London’s March Arch, each one of the arrested sans papiers marchers was represented in his absence by a full face portrait for a performance where the same words were read out 25 times:

“My name is …”
“I am not with you today because freedom of movement only applies to a few and I am not one of them”

This exposure, a willing surrender of self-image that bares the face of the undocumented was aligned to the bare expression of who freedom of movement applies to today. In its directness of message, that there could be a differentiation between political and humanitarian solidarity dissolves when all shades of solidarity come under threat.

The sensitivities around the uncovering of the face were themselves covered by an explanatory communiqué from Auberge des Migrants to address concerns of entrapment into what the undocumented fear — their desire to cross the border without papers came out of the desperation to change the life of a sans papiers. If the consequences for the undocumented became so apparent, it took us right back to the self-declaration of the sans papiers twenty years ago when Madjiguène Cissé, as described in the No Borders archives, “in close-up, recites eye to eye with the audience: ‘We, the Sans Papiers of France, have decided to come out into the open’”. Today we can at least see how little the ground has moved in any conception of a political constitution for the undocumented.

For that the Auberge des Migrants need to be thanked. The rarity of a performative exposure, yet now in the absence of the sans papiers but in the presence of the image, brought to surface the challenges of its coming out in present-day Calais and our means of representing the Other. Linda Alcoff (corroborating Spivak) in The Problem of Speaking for Others (1992), wrote that “the practice of speaking for others remains the best possibility in some existing situations. An absolute retreat weakens political effectivity”.

That being so, and yet, if the state-police hand then comes to extract a price — paid for only by the Other, the undocumented, what is to be done so that price (of the image) in coming out is no longer worth paying.

La Marche Solidaire pour les migrants Demo, Marble Arch London July 2018 © Siraj Izhar

4. Confronting the Image

The purpose of this writing has been to bring the image out of the Calais jungle as a political contention; an exercise that also requires uncovering the ground of its representation. I have written of it in terms of the (hidden) trenches in a war of image and existence. But in its sporadic visibility, in the fragmented attempts of the sans papiers and through solidarity representation, the image is exercised in a way that contrasts with its promiscuous presence in Europe’s narratives of crisis in which the migrant/refugee has to play its part.

That there is a parallel violence of human displacement in this requires recognition and a renewed confrontation with our politics of the image, to open up the image in its contradictions even in its self-censorship. It will help us understand why the undocumented as the Other is so accessible a subject to represent (by power) yet reduced to its invisibility. To correlate the Netflix on-screen refugee with red carpet gala fund-raisers, the pervasive claim of media power to ‘change consciousness’ with the struggles of representation for a face inside a tear-gas tainted tent in a wet industrial dump in Calais. To ask why there is on the one hand, an almost epic valorisation of the ever-present figure of the refugee in high culture and mass media, whilst the conditions for Europe’s undocumented worsen with each year; on the ground increasing visibility, hyper-visibility as the Other, with the resurgence of the stereotypical identifications within which the entire politics of difference has to reground itself.

Is it just as Bell Hooks (1992) said (of the American context) that, “When the dominant culture demands that the Other be offered as sign that progressive political change is taking place, that the American Dream can indeed be inclusive of difference, it invites a resurgence of essentialist cultural nationalism.”

If we can see this dynamic at work openly (parallel to the Spivakian argument of the post-representational begetting the essentialist), how is it to be contested? Is it that in our mediatised age we have become naturalised or numbed into what John Tagg in the Burden of Representation (1993) calls the documentary rhetoric — that turns the “rhetoric of evidence into an emotionalised drama of experience that worked into effect an imaginary identification of viewer and image, reader and representation”. That the entry of the Other as Image into our institutions may only result in institutional echoing, that change in one cultural institution sets off, as Tagg writes, “an inexorable chain of echoing not repercussions in all the others”).

In this echo chamber that the Other is put in, have we reached the point, drawing further on Spivak and Alcoff on the situated imperative to represent, when the need, even demand, for self-representation to maintain a semblance of humanity itself becomes questionable or even oppressive?

Because in a context like the Calais jungle or its clone spaces across Europe, where is it (self-representation) to be located? Trapped in body of the undocumented? In the milieu? In time or across time? Between bodies of represented/ representer.

The answers to these questions lie of course in the trenches — the trenches between forms of agency, the valorised and anonymised, the represented and unrepresented, the forms of Others yet to be deciphered. The trenches in which hides a human we still have no image for in our politics of representation. Maybe we can recognise it (at last) in the language of the migrants on the human caravan from Honduras: “we are immigrants not outlaws”. But to see the political vision in that we have to cross the trenches to an image that destroys the difference between who has to claim a right and who is granted a right. And how that came about.

Siraj Izhar is an activist-artist based in London

Cited Works

Michel Agier, Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow Sacrifice, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Crossberg London: Macmillan Education, 1988
Dirk Hoerder and Amarjit Kaur, Proletarian and Gendered Mass Migrations A Global Perspective on Continuities and Discontinuities from the 19th to the 21st Centuries Brill, Leiden, Boston 2013
Rustom Bharucha, Somebody’s Other: Disorientations in the Cultural Politics of Our Times Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jan. 15, 1994)
Linda Alcoff, The Problem of Speaking for Others, Cultural Critique, No. 20 (Winter, 1991-1992)
Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-coloniality Routledge London and New York 2000
Karen Barad, Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2003, vol. 28, no. 3, University of Chicago 2003
Homi Bhabha, Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences 2011
Bell Hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance in Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press Boston, MA 1992
John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories University of Minnesota Press, 1993

1 Comment

  1. Really interesting read – also reminds me that Le Havre was also the departure point for many Canadians – hence a similarity in the accents there and in the departments of Mortagne au Perche from which the Percheron horses were transported – along with their people – as well as bits of the Orne in Normandy, France.


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