Ethnographers of Ourselves

What would you be willing to do for a friend from 20-odd years ago if you suddenly learned they were on the verge of becoming homeless or found them ...

What would you be willing to do for a friend from 20-odd years ago if you suddenly learned they were on the verge of becoming homeless or found them living on the street? Vernon Subutex begins on the day its titular character is evicted from his apartment and finds himself with a duffle bag’s worth of possessions and nowhere in particular to go. In days gone by, he had owned a popular record store and had connections in the music world, including a friendship with an immensely successful singer, Alexandre Bleach, who has just died of a drug overdose. Bleach had sometimes paid Subutex’s overdue rent for him, helping him stay afloat. Now Subutex has next to no safety net; he does, however, possess a few tapes on which Bleach filmed himself talking one night in Subutex’s apartment.

The social questions that shape Vernon Subutex go well beyond relationships between individuals. The novel also asks what happens to a group of people defined and held together by age and interest as its members evolve over time. What binds you in your 20s to people your age who, as was the case with Vernon and his friends, happen to like the same music and live within a subculture built around that music? How durable is that bond? It turns out that even in a close-knit group, your own singular position in social space, your orientation and direction, various characteristics that are yours but not others’ (or others’ but not yours) all make it improbable that your associations will last.

When Subutex ends up on the street, he has no choice but to try to reactivate social connections that have lapsed over the years, to see if they can provide resources that might help him out of his predicament. As the novel’s cast of characters expands, we learn about the social processes that have affected the former members of Subutex’s circle, and the kinds of personal and social evolution they have or have not experienced. We also gain a clearer sense of the particular alternative musical subculture to which they belonged, its proximity to or contiguity with worlds of drug use, sex work, the porn industry, film and media circles, and the suspect forms of financing that sometimes lie behind such cultural enterprises.

Any number of individuals, once they hear of the Alexandre Bleach recordings, have any number of reasons to want to lay hands on them. The plot thickens. But my guess is that for most readers, even more interesting than the novel’s plot will be the social world that it carefully unfolds: not just the people who are in it but their experience of the way the world connects them. Reading a novel is a chance to test your sense of the structure of the social world, to put it into relation with the understanding of the social world the novel offers.

“Literature isn’t a branch of sociology,” wrote Adam Mars-Jones recently in a review of Paul Theroux’s Mother Land in the London Review of Books.1 Such a clumsy, even silly, observation cannot help but oversimplify complex questions and seem to denigrate some of the most compelling ways of reading and writing novels. Mars-Jones’s point appears to be that if sociology is a discipline that observes phenomena like the declining incidence of large families in European nations, then literature cannot or should not subserviently take this kind of information into account if it wants to succeed on its own terms. Even when large families were common, “they didn’t loom large in fiction … drama favours a stage without too much human clutter.” Mars-Jones finds Theroux’s novel “disconcerting” because it deals with a family of seven, coming too close to a sociological reality the critic finds more demographically accurate than aesthetically suitable to the novel form.

Despentes’s work suggests that to recognize characters as detailed individuals with distinctive voices is also to recognize them as social phenomena.

Yet surely novelists may share interests with demographers and sociologists without betraying or failing at the specificities of their art form. Indeed, given the sorry state of many of the social worlds around us, the idea of novelists and progressive sociologists making common cause might have a certain appeal.

The principle of sociology is that there is a social world (as opposed to a material world) that, while not immediately perceptible to our senses, is nonetheless consequential in our lives. That world can be investigated in ways that teach us something about our own experience. Pierre Bourdieu defined the social world as a “space of immanent tendencies”; that is, it has propensities that create inertia and barriers, so that “not everything is equally possible or impossible for everyone at every moment.”2 How might a novelist model the fact that possibilities and impossibilities are unequally distributed for different social agents?

Here is an eminently novelistic as well as sociological question: How do the immanent tendencies of the social world contribute to the ways humans are grouped together or pushed apart? When, twenty years later, you find yourself distant from someone to whom you were once close, how do you understand what produced that distance? Would some other outcome have been possible? As Vernon and his friends reencounter one another, they have to confront the rich amalgam of social and personal tendencies (of course not distinct) that have pushed them in different directions. They are forced to revise their sense of the past, to see their present in a new light, and somehow to understand the differential effects of the social world on each of them.

Virginie Despentes’s trilogy is cluttered with characters, mostly without any family relation to each other. With a few notable exceptions, each chapter is written in free indirect discourse from the point of view of one of those characters:

The music is sick! This guy’s a genius. Always trust Gaëlle. When they first saw him, everyone thought who is this ageing freak, then he hooks up his iPod—the man’s a fucking God—it’s like holy water in your ears. The Klipsch speakers are pumping out Rod Stewart—this guy is fucking crazy, he’ll play anything, but it works. He’s the Nadia Comăneci of the playlist. After tonight, he’s going to be Kiko’s D.J. in residence.3

We are in Kiko’s mind, the mind of an endlessly wealthy coke addict who throws fancy parties in a fabulous apartment where, thanks to a few odd connections, Subutex has managed to find a bed for a few nights and ended up providing the music for the parties—only to be kicked out a few days later after being caught in bed with the beautiful trans woman Marcia. The reasons for Kiko’s jealousy remain difficult for Vernon to fathom. As readers, we piece the story line together bit by bit. That Kiko kicked Vernon out because of some unspecified possessiveness about Marcia is something we learn well after the fact, when the novel is spending more time inside Vernon’s head as he tries to assess everything that is happening to him.

Some of the novel’s characters appear and offer their point of view only for the space of a chapter or two; others occur more regularly, and their voices—with all the social content they carry—thereby become more resonant. Despentes has said that part of her goal was to give voice to people who normally don’t find representation in novels, and in particular to those who lost out in the financial crisis of 2008, the “socially vanquished” whose livelihoods disappeared, often along with their homes and their futures; people of all political positions from extreme right to extreme left. (Kiko, being wealthy, is a bit of an exception.)

In interviews, Despentes has emphasized one aspect of her chosen narrative technique: by moving from one point of view to another, Vernon Subutex offers no unifying perspective from which to examine her characters. Her activity during the writing of the novel, she has said, was a practice of listening, collecting manners of speaking, learning to inhabit different voices. When she began writing, she would read deeply for a day or two in a certain author’s works, then write a chapter in one voice, read for a day or two in another author’s works, and then write in a different voice. “It’s bizarre, because you don’t at all find the author I was reading [in what I wrote], but I felt that each time it produced a kind of rhythmic effect.”4 We learn the contours of the world she offers by learning to hear the different voices she produces. Her effort as a novelist has been to understand how producing salient differences between voices and between points of view could produce an image of a social world.


The Book That Made Me: A Sociologist

By Howard S. Becker

Xavier, one of the people reasonably far to the right of the political spectrum represented by Despentes’s cast of characters, mutters at one point, “But what everyone really wants is to be with their own kind. You don’t want to have to put up with people who aren’t like you. No outsiders. And the easiest glue for when you want to hold a group together is always gonna be a common enemy.” His own biography would seem to belie this observation, particularly his experiences over the course of Despentes’s trilogy, in which a new group slowly forms around Subutex. Its members have little in common other than their association with him and the inexplicable social and musical atmosphere that surrounds all of them.

The novel consistently juxtaposes unpredictable aspirations toward inclusive communities, often around shared musical experiences, with tendencies that drive people apart. Sexual violence, racial tensions, economic inequality, right-wing forms of populist nationalism, wild attempts by various characters to take justice into their own hands: these are the social phenomena that work against inclusive communities and produce the plot structure. Particularly intriguing is the way the representation of these phenomena interacts with Despentes’s decision always to have the narration focalized within the consciousness of one character or another.

In 1993 Pierre Bourdieu and a team of researchers published a collective volume, The Weight of the World, of interviews and commentary dealing with the difficulty of people’s existence in the world of that moment. In the introduction, Bourdieu wrote of the formal effort he and his collaborators made to arrive at

a complex and multilayered representation capable of articulating the same realities but in terms that are different and, sometimes, irreconcilable. Secondly, following the lead of novelists such as Faulkner, Joyce or Woolf, we must relinquish the single, central, dominant, in a word, quasi-divine, point of view that is all too easily adopted by observers—and by readers too … We must work instead with the multiple perspectives that correspond to the multiplicity of coexisting, and sometimes directly competing, points of view.5

Such multiperspectivalism was important, Bourdieu insisted, because what made living together difficult in many circumstances then, as now, were the “clashing interests, orientations, and lifestyles” that arise within the social contexts in which many of us are obliged to exist.6 Bourdieu and Despentes are dealing with different moments in the history of what we might call neoliberal-induced precarity, and both are interested in how people forced into various forms of precarity understand what has happened to them, and how it affects their ability to live alongside the people around them.

When, in the early 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were working on their novels She Came to Stay and The Age of Reason, respectively, they were very much engaged with the practice of free indirect discourse that they had discovered in the novels of John Dos Passos. In her memoir, The Prime of Life, Beauvoir comments that Dos Passos had “worked out a bifocal perspective for the presentation of his main characters, which meant that they could be, at one and the same time, drawn as detailed individuals and as purely social phenomena.”7 Sartre emphasizes a similar idea in his essay on Dos Passos’s novel 1919, where he writes that in the novel, “Acts, emotions and ideas suddenly settle within a character, make themselves at home and then disappear without his having much to say in the matter. You cannot say he experiences them. He notices them. There seems to be no law governing their appearance.”8

Both Beauvoir and Sartre used a technique similar to Despentes’s: writing each chapter in the voice of a specific character, and in the novel as a whole collecting these limited points of view without ever commenting on them. Sartre describes the technique in terms that make it sound like what is often called stream of consciousness, which emphasizes the randomness of the ideas coursing through characters’ minds, as if any thought could come into any mind. Despentes’s work suggests that to recognize characters as detailed individuals with distinctive voices is also to recognize them as social phenomena. She creates situations that challenge the reader to identify where, sociologically speaking, voices come from. She has said in interviews that part of what she does as a novelist is “ramène,” to gather and assemble.9 She brings things back from the world to the page, as a kind of collage artist.

Given the sorry state of many of the social worlds around us, the idea of novelists and progressive sociologists making common cause might have a certain appeal.

Among the items Despentes assembles are “lots of things I’ve heard,” “expressions,” “reflections,” “gestures,” but also “places where you find these people.”10 She provides a set of coordinates to allow readers to localize each speaker-character within social and physical spaces. For Despentes, a voice, a gesture, an expression corresponds, in ways we often understand only subliminally, to actual places in the world. If she or any other author provides the right information, then a reader with appropriate experience of the world should be able to localize the voice: “Two or three good clues … three objects on a table, a couple of elements of speech, and a particular smell, and then we the readers have already done all the work.”

“I have a practice of listening,” Despentes has observed (“j’ai une écoute”), and she emphasizes the practice of “writing by ear” (“écrire à l’oreille”).11 This seems to mean that a novelist can be attuned to features of language in which speakers emit information about who and where they are, socially speaking, while talking about anything at all, and use that attunement to encourage a certain kind of sociological cognition in the reader. She creates a chorus of voices of people who are normally absent from novels yet present in the world most of us experience.

This makes us aware as we read that in our social lives, we hear many voices that we might almost actively neglect to notice—as when, toward the end of the third volume, Marcia walks by Subutex sleeping on a bench in the Metro and has, somehow, to choose to notice him: “I recognized you there in the Metro, but I thought I must be going crazy so I kept on walking … but then when I was just about to get on the train I came to my senses and I turned around and went back. I didn’t want that weighing on my mind. And then there you were. And darling what a state you were in!”

Vernon Subutex seems to switch genres several times toward the end of the third volume, in ways readers may find disconcerting. It may also be the case that particular voices seem less convincing, less true to the world as some reader hears it, than others. For different readers, different voices: we map ourselves by encountering our sensibilities as we read. What is most interesting about the novel is finally not the plot itself—the odd turns it takes as it comes to a close or the credibility of this or that voice, about which different readers will disagree.

What is remarkable and affecting is the interactivity between the plot, with its interest in homelessness, precarity, marginality, different kinds of subcultures, and the role of music in producing affiliation and community, and the interlocking network of voices that requires us to engage with zones of our internalized maps of our social world(s) that we tend to pass through too quickly, choose to forget, avert our eyes and ears from. Despentes’s novel asks us to be ethnographers of ourselves and our world; it strives to teach us to listen more attentively to what we already hear as we move through the world. To read and listen sociologically can perhaps then be the first steps toward doing justice to what is happening around us.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. Adam Mars-Jones, “Endocannibals,” London Review of Books, January 25, 2018.
  2. Pierre Bourdieu, Sociologie générale, volume 2: Cours au Collège de France (1983–1986), edited by Patrick Champagne et al. (Raisons d’agir/Seuil, 2016), p. 1168. Except where otherwise noted, all translations here are my own.
  3. I cite here from Frank Wynne’s English-language translation of the first volume of Vernon Subutex.
  4. See the interview of Despentes by Sophie Joubert at the Maison de Poésie on June 13, 2017.
  5. Pierre Bourdieu et al., The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, translated from the French by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 3.
  6. Ibid., p. 4.
  7. Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated from the French by Peter Green (Harper & Row, 1976), p. 113.
  8. Jean-Paul Sartre, “John Dos Passos and ‘1919,’” in Literary and Philosophical Essays, translated from the French by Annette Michelson (Criterion, 1955), p. 91 (translation modified).
  9. See the author’s presentation of the trilogy’s first volume at the Librairie Mollat, Bordeaux, in 2015.
  10. Ibid.
  11. See the previously cited interview of Despentes by Sophie Joubert.
Featured image: Record Store in Paris, April 2010. Photograph by Kat... / Flickr