|By Michael J. Shapiro|
|Issue 5||September 8, 2021||Download PDF|
The ‘people’ as a unity, identity, totality, or generality… does not exist.
— Georges Didi-Huberman
Gregg Lambert’s conceptually astute and elegantly composed The People Are Missing offers a double provocation. First, because it is thought-provoking the proper response is a turn to concepts. Second, given that this is a forum for which the response is to write, it enjoins the issue of composition, the creation of a literary space to organize the concepts. Because the richness of Lambert’s text defies synopsis, I am organizing my response with attention to one of the Deleuze quotations among the many that have inspired Lambert’s composition, and one brief but very key quotation from Lambert’s text. In Cinema 2 Deleuze writes,
[The] acknowledgement of a people who are missing is not a renunciation of political cinema, but on the contrary the new basis on which it is founded, in the third world and for minorities. Art, and especially cinematographic art, must take part in this task: not that of addressing a people, which is presupposed already there, but of contributing to the invention of a people. The moment the master, or the colonizer, proclaims ‘There have never been people here’, the missing people are a becoming, they invent themselves, in shanty towns and camps, or in ghettos, in new conditions of struggle to which a necessarily political art must contribute […] The author must not, then, make himself into the ethnologist of his people, nor himself invent a fiction which would be one more private story […]. The author takes a step towards his characters, but the characters take a step towards the author: double becoming.
In The People Are Missing, Lambert picks up an essential part of the Deleuze quotation and writes, “All political interpretation consciously or unconsciously ascribes to the art work a certain power that directly invokes the existence of a people, particularly when the people are missing or yet to come.”
To inaugurate my response, I want to identify two interrelated concepts that emerge from the quotations: temporality and textuality. With respect to temporality what I derive from the quotations is that the existence of the people is episodic; they are events. “The people” are invented (in Deleuze’s language) or invoked (in Lambert’s) in the variety of grammars (verb forms in particular) in which they are given an existence: as having been, as are, as yet to be, or as will-have-been. As Étienne Souriau suggests, to make sense of modes of existence, we must recognize that “we are in a world in which there are no longer things but only verbs and conjugations of verbs.” Accordingly, the texts—literary, cinematic, or otherwise—in which they become present are what I will call (borrowing from Bernard Tschumi’s approach to architecture) “event spaces.” To elaborate on that conceptual framing I turn first to a text I have analyzed elsewhere, Giorgio Agamben’s reading of the famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.
Agamben attributes an enigma to Hobbes’s image and adds a crucial temporality to respond to it, noting that “with the exception of some armed guards and two very special figures situated close to the cathedral,” the city “is completely devoid of its inhabitants.” It appears that the people are missing. Agamben rejects the explanation “that the population of the city has been fully transferred to the body of the Leviathan” and suggests that Hobbes himself clarifies the enigma in his De Cive by “distinguishing between people (populous) and ‘multitude’ (multitudo).” For Hobbes, he argues, the “people” is “single”; it is constituted as “one will,” and it “reigns in the city,” while “the citizens are the multitude.” To resolve that paradoxical binary, Agamben suggests a solution. “The people’s sovereignty is sovereign on the condition of dividing itself, of splitting itself into a ‘multitude; and a ‘people’.”
That solution turns on what Agamben offers as a temporal distinction that he extracts in his reading. Hobbes, he says, “asserts in no uncertain terms in chapter 7 of De Cive [… that] at the very instant that the people chooses the sovereign it dissolves itself into a confused multitude.” His suggestion is that for Hobbes, “The people—the body political—exists only instantaneously at the point in which it appoints [quoting Hobbes] ‘one Man, or Assembly of men, to beare their Person’.” Hobbes’s “city is empty of inhabitants [… because] the multitude has no political significance; […] it is what must disappear in order for the state to be able to exist.” The instantaneity that Agamben detects effectively doubles the temporality of Hobbes’s mythic covenant; it follows the “transformation of temporal consciousness,” which motivates agreement to the covenant, with a qualitative collective moment (the moment when the multitude becomes a people who have become subjects). However, the people, as a sovereignty-making event, exist in a fragile temporality. That they are dissolved back into a multitude means that they have enacted their final displacement; they cannot displace sovereignty again—“cannot lawfully make a new Covenant,” as Hobbes puts it in his people-making and dissolving text-as-event-space, his Leviathan.
Having illustrated the temporality within which the people-as-event appear or disappear within an abstract treatise, my next illustration heeds what Lambert refers to as the power of an art work that “all political interpretation” must recognize. To follow that prescription, I turn to an artistic text, Edna O’Brien’s novel The Little Red Chairs, in which the people she invokes exist in a counter-text to one that fomented genocidal violence. Its main protagonists are an Irish woman, Fidelma (whose story bears comparison with the author’s) and a fictional version of Radovan Karadžić (aka the “butcher of Bosnia”), whose visit to Fidelma’s fictional village of Cloonoila disguised as a holistic healer inaugurates the novel.
To set the historical background of the novel, which is an exemplar of “historiographic metafiction,” as is well known, before the breakup of the former Yugoslavia the boundary separations within its peoplescape were ambiguous. After the breakup, as ethno-national impulses had begun to form and formerly cold identities were slowly heating, there was an ominous intervention by Karadžić, who was running in a 1990 presidential election campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In a campaign speech he uttered “a simple sentence,” which he later claimed “brought me to the fore of the Serb Democratic Party.” “I stated,” he said, “Serbs you still exist and are allowed to be Serbs,” and added (in the same interview), “We are teaching Serbs to be Serbs’.” That “teaching,” which launched Karadžić’s political career, precipitated a patriotic fervor that led to the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the Karadžić-directed ethnic cleansing that ultimately landed him in prison with a 40-year sentence (rendered on March 24, 2016 after a trial at the International Court of Justice in the Hague).
Whereas the decades-long durational event of Yugoslav communism had initiated the disappearance of Serbs as a coherent ethno-national people, Karadžić’s political career was founded on their reinvention. It was a reinvention that trafficked in “big lies” (mythic ethno-histories among other mis-interpellations). As the Bosnian poet-in-exile, Semezdin Mehmedinovic points out, while Karadžić was inventing a pure people whom he insisted could not be intermingled with other peoples, a checking of the Sarajevo phone directory under the surname Karadžić revealed ten Muslims, nine Serbs, and one Croat. “On the basis of such a Bosnian ethnic inventory,” he concludes, “any racist idea—of necessity—becomes grotesque.”
The Little Red Chairs
Invented stories are also inventories of the self; dressed up facts; felt remembered tales.
— James Wood
The title of O’Brien’s novel is based on a commemorative event. “On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in row along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege.” Her character, Fidelma, who moves to London in Part II of the novel is doubtless inspired by another event, the author’s move to London. Describing herself as a “country girl,” whose self-making was liberated and intensified after she moved to London, O’Brien says, “It was in London that I would find both the freedom and the incentive to write.” Her text affirms both Deleuze’s injunction, “The author takes a step towards [her]/his characters, but the characters take a step towards the author: double becoming” and M. M. Bakhtin’s perspective on the author as a becoming subject, one who is “unconsummated,” and thus always “axiologically yet to be.” Moreover, I want to add (borrowing from Souriau’s philosophy) that those toward whom the author steps are temporally and thus existentially incomplete: “There are no longer [individual or collective] beings. There are only processes [… that can always] exist otherwise.”
As the novel’s “double becoming”—for both the author and protagonist—proceeds, it invokes an inchoate people that is largely invisible, immigrant working class office cleaners referred to as “night people.” Such people are pervasive yet hidden in many urban venues. As a commentary suggests, “Every day, in every urban center of the world, thousands of black and brown women, invisible, are “opening” the city. They clean the spaces necessary for neo-patriarchy, and neoliberal and finance capitalism to function. They are doing dangerous work: they inhale toxic chemical products and push or carry heavy loads. They have usually travelled long hours in the early morning or late at night, and their work is underpaid and considered to be unskilled. They are usually in their forties or fifties.”
In Part II of the novel, Fidelma moves to London after her affair with “Dr. Vlad” (Karadžić’s cover name) has been exposed along with his identity as a war criminal (his move is to confinement in The Hague awaiting trial) because she needs to escape the moral obloquy she suffers at home. Among what prepares the reader for her London encounters is a crucial conversation she has with “Dr. Vlad.” After they have sex, he says to her, “We must not get your story mixed-up with my story Fidelma.” When she asks, “And what is your story Vlad?”, he reverts to his Karadžić persona and says “My sacred duty to God and my own people.” While at the point in which Karadžić invokes a “people” (which he has reinvented), Fidelma’s story has not yet found the missing people that O’Brien’s novel invokes. However, one of the people she meets and befriends in London, Bluey from Mozambique, provides a grammatical intervention that reverses Karadžić’s story injunction. As a communal sensibility develops between him and Fidelma, he says, “‘A little bit of your story and a little bit of my story Fidelma,’” implying that people as a collective existence achieve their coherence by assembling a shared story from their disparate ones.
The people—Bluey and others—with whom Fidelma becomes affiliated are the above-noted “night people” with whom she connects in London. O’Brien’s novel therefore thinks well beyond the vagaries of an individual’s experience. Rather than merely narrating a plot in which Fidelma suffers a misfortune and manages to survive it, it establishes an equivalence between what Fidelma has suffered and the broader suffering of London’s migrants, most of whom are invisible in London’s peoplescape. As “night people [… they are] one step away from ghosts.”
Throughout the second half of the novel, the night people whom Fidelma meets are a potential assemblage that is actualized within the novel as it invokes the existence of a people whose collective being is an event that O’Brien’s protagonist helps bring about. The solidarity they achieve parallels the self-actualization of the protagonist, whose successful work on herself enables her not only to return “home” (as Fidelma puts it), as a comfortably self-regarding subject but also to confront Karadžić whom she visits where he is awaiting trial in The Hague. However, rather than narrating the details of that encounter—in which Fidelma’s experience is structured in the form of an auto-ethnography that follows her acquisition of a fortitude she had lacked while victimized back in her Irish village—I want to compare the invented experience of O’Brien’s protagonist with that of a self-described ethnographer, Jessica Stern, whose actual encounter with the pre-trial Karadžić in The Hague required the same fortitude that O’Brien’s Fidelma had achieved.
The Karadžić whom Stern describes closely resembles the one O’Brien invents. And like O’Brien’s Fidelma, she had to ward off’s his attempt to use his “energy healing” tactics on her when she spent 48 hours with him in preparation for writing a Karadžić bio-ethnography. “There were several times during our discussion,” she writes, “that Radovan Karadžić wanted to demonstrate his skill at bioenergetic healing.” Stern’s interviews with Karadžić (meeting him at one point in the “conjugal” room where O’Brien stages Fidelma’s Karadžić encounter) and with those who know him (relatives among others) form the basis of her book My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide. I turn to Stern’s account, not only to validate O’Brien’s incisive political insights into a genocidal mentality (and how to confront it) but also (with Deleuze’s remark about an author not making oneself an ethnologist in mind) to assess the similarity between two kinds of textual event spaces, fictional and ethnographic.
While O’Brien is only compositionally present within her text, shaping it from the outside (even though she is implicitly inside because she shares her protagonist’s process of becoming), Stern is a player within her ethnography of Karadžić. That she has self-consciously written herself into the drama is immediately apparent in the “My” of her title. For purposes of comparison, ethnographies, like novels, are literatures. As such, those who compose them have to face “what it means to convey something” (e.g., in the translation of “field notes” into a written investigation) by being sensitive to “the density of certain words [and] turns of phrase [… in order] to produce worlds of life, worlds of thought, through a convergence with the literary and the lived, the philosophical and the aesthetic.” What distinguishes ethnographies from “avowed” fictional genres (e.g., O’Brien’s novel) is that they are what Jacques Rancière refers to as “unavowed” fictions: a construction of a “coexistence of facts that defines a situation and the mode of connection between events that defines a story.” As regards the specifics of a comparison between a novel and an ethnography, “literature,” as Didier Fassin points out, “is not the only domain claiming to capture life. Anthropology, and to some degree, the other social sciences share the same project […,] writers share ethnographers’ endeavour to ‘life and words’.”  Accordingly, as Jessica Stern solicited the relationship between Karadžić’s life and words, the character that emerges looks very like the one that O’Brien invents. “People like Radovan,” she discovers, “become two people: their original personality—their true self—and the heroic personality they create” (61).
She realizes ultimately that at no point should she relax her guard—for example on two occasions when he unexpectedly calls her on the phone, catching her unprepared, “unclothed,” she says, “of my usual emotional armor.” She then observes, “Until now I hadn’t realized I needed to gird myself in order to speak with him” (195). Summing up the nature of the struggle she was undergoing in their face-to-face interactions, she writes, “Both of us were locked up, together on the project of my learning about him […;] my challenge over time, was to surprise him, even surpass him […;] on the surface, we were polite, but if I examine myself closely, I realize that on a deeper level, we were like two animals fighting for our lives” (197).
Here Stern is acknowledging that despite the struggle between them for control, there is a sense in which they profoundly converge. As they participate in a contentious struggle, they both do so as divided subjects. As is the case with the encounter between Fidelma and “Dr. Vlad” in O’Brien’s novel, Stern finds herself staging a play of identity/difference. Despite her attempt to abject the man she sees as a “psychopath” (271), i.e., to place him within a singularly evil frame, Stern discovers that she shares an aspect of his mentality. While it becomes clear that she is dealing with a divided subject, one who was capable of “instantly mutating his personality and mood to suit the needs of the moment” (111), she becomes privy to her own division. She recognizes that Karadžić was “forcing two parts of myself that normally operate on separate tracks to come into contact, to scrape against each other, to omit dangerous sparks” (197).
With her frequent remarks about moments of self-recognition, which punctuate the interview with Karadžić as it proceeds, it becomes evident to Stern (and her reader) that her ethnography of Karadžić’s life and fate is also an autoethnography. While O’Brien articulates the condition of a becoming subject contending with a cynically manipulative adversary through her aesthetic subject, Fidelma, Stern is her own becoming subject.
Stern’s figuring of her analysis as a search for meaning is assisted by a Karadžić acquaintance, Dr. Angel, who tells her, “He [Karadžić] felt obliged to be a killer because of fear.” At that point the Karadžić mentality falls into place for Stern. “Now Karadžić’s jumbled words come back to me,” she says; “’State of mind is very important… If one is presuming he will be killed he will kill’” (211). Having thus fixed on fear as the extra-juridical part of the Karadžić puzzle, Stern proceeds to elaborate its relevance to her investigation. Observing that “The wars in Yugoslavia had not started with massacres. They started with someone talking about fear [… and that] Stoking fear is a powerful weapon,” she repeats Karadžić’s remark that someone who fears he will be killed may himself kill, and adds that “he knew how to drum up fear” (241-41). Subsequently, listening to Karadžić’s rants about how “globalization” is a threat to “people [who] long for their own cultures,” she becomes attuned to fear’s structural element, which translates into the enmity that some threatened populations develop (244). “Even worse than economic losses for people left behind by globalization are the losses of status and dignity,” she suggests (245). Those insights consummate Stern’s search for meaning. Although O’Brien discloses a similar Karadžić, her literary effort works differently. It should not be construed as a search for meaning.
A Cinematic O’Brien
I want to suggest that in the case of O’Brien’s novel we should heed what it does—and this is the case Lambert makes for artistic texts in general. In contrast with Stern’s (auto)ethnography, what the novel does is create effects rather than search for meaning. To figure the contrast I want to recur to Deleuze’s distinction between movement and time images. Although Deleuze patiently develops his view of the different kinds of image throughout his two volumes on cinema, a single remark on one page of Cinema 2 sets up the analogy I want to stress. Discussing the film, Story of a Love Affair, he says it “exhibits a ‘camera autonomy’ when it stops following the movement of the characters or directing its own movement at them, to carry out constant reframings as functions of thought.” What that remark captures, as it refers to “reframings as a function of thought,” applies well to O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs, which rather than searching for meaning thinks with the way it frames its narrative. Moreover, how and what it thinks invites another cinematic reference. The novel tracks very closely with the Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things (2002), which is set in London and, as in Part II of The Little Red Chairs, treats moments of solidarity among an immigrant population, many of whom are “night people” who are exploitable because they work illegally. Early in the film, one of them, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), a sex worker who meets her clients in the hotel at night, says that she “doesn’t exist.” Similarly, Fidelma’s “night person” friend, Bluey, says to her (after she’s denied something at work), “‘Look, forget it…. as a night cleaner you are supposed to be invisible. You do not exist as a person.” While Frears’ film thinks primarily with images—its diverse parts of the London peoplescape is composed with what Andre Bazin calls “image-facts,” (for example juxtaposing in its montage of scenes a richly ornate, tourist filled hotel lobby on the one hand and a sweat shop with immigrant labor, and a taxi business run by immigrants on the other)—O’Brien’s novel (its cinematic qualities notwithstanding) thinks with literary vehicles, with what Roland Barthes calls “word-thoughts.”
In both texts, portions of the immigrant/refugee populations in London are invoked as distinctive, momentary modes of existence. In O’Brien’s text, her protagonist Fidelma reflects aspects of O’Brien’s biography as she enters the Part II, South London section. Like O’Brien, Fidelma enters a new life in London, taking steps toward a reinvention of herself and thus toward the author (who steps toward her subject, to repeat Deleuze’s injunction). In that task she is enabled by connecting with people who had hitherto been missing from her people imaginary (just as they are largely missing from dominant political imaginaries).
Ultimately, O’Brien’s novel, I suggest, exemplifies Lambert’s insistence that the art work has the ability to “invoke the existence of a people, particularly when the people are missing or yet to come.” However, I hasten to add that such becomings are ephemeral because, to recur once again to Souriau’s perspective on modes of existence, although those “dispossessed of the right to exist” are “instaurated” in the artistic texts to which I have turned, which function as spaces of advocacy that bestow “some sovereign grounding” on those who have been “incomplete” with respect to recognized existence, that ground is momentary and unstable. As is the case for all individual and collective coherences, the people are always already “incomplete.” They remain, In Souriau’s words, always on “the verge of existing,” i. e., yet to come.
Finally, although I don’t address “minor writing,” my turn to literature, in particular the genre historiographic metafiction, constitutes an implicit challenge to Lambert’s manifesto, particularly the following provocation: “‘Literary history’ is a major tautology that alienates the power of the imagination and the act of creation to the past, outside the present where the real situation of minor writing still exists.” Moving from the implicit to the explicit, I want to suggest that the concept of “literary space” that I evoked at the outset operates within a temporality that exceeds a simple past-present binary, a binary implying that to in some way evoke the past is to be alienated from the present. Repeating part of Linda Hutcheon’s characterization of historiographic metafiction, where she states that within the genre, “the intertexts of history and fiction take on parallel (though not equal) status in the parodic reworking of the textual past of both the ‘world’ and literature,” I want to note that this is in accord with Deleuze’s remark about the implications of Bergsonism: “The past would never be constituted if it had not been constituted first of all, at the same time that it was present [….] The past is ‘contemporaneous’ with the present that it has been,” and to add my above reference to the future anterior to suggest as well that the past always “will have been.” When we invoke a parallel between literary history and “history”—where the latter is also (as Paul Veyne famously puts it) a series of writing genres—we’re looking at imaginative ways of turning the (continually changing) past into a resource for thinking the new by having it differently in our (continually changing) present.
 Portions of this text have been adapted from chapter one of the author’s Writing Politics (New York: Routledge, 2021), “A War of Words: Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs.”
 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 217.
 Gregg Lambert, The People Are Missing: Minor Literature Today (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 118.
 Quoted in David Lapoujade’s explication of Souriau’s philosophy, The Lesser Existences: Étienne Souriau, an Aesthetics for the Virtual, trans. Erik Beranek (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 38.
 See Bernard Tchumi, Architecture and Disjunction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).
 Giorgio Agamben, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, trans. Nicholas Heron (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), ebook loc. 420, 453.
 Agamben is quoting from De Cive.
 Agamben, Stasis, loc. 473.
 Agamben, Stasis, loc. 493.
 Agamben, Stasis, loc. 493. The inner quotations are from Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 120.
 Agamben, Stasis, loc. 522.
 Agamben, Stasis, loc. 508 and Hobbes, Leviathan, 97.
 Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.)
 “Historiographic metafiction,” according to Linda Hutcheon, “works to situate itself within historical discourse without surrendering its autonomy as fiction. And it is a kind of seriously ironic parody that effects both aims: the intertexts of history and fiction take on parallel (though not equal) status in the parodic reworking of the textual past of both the ‘world’ and literature” (A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction [New York: Routledge, 1988], 124).
 Radovan Karadžić interviewed in Oslobodjenje, 2 October 1990, quoted in Gerard Toal and Adis Maksic, “’Serbs, You Are Allowed to be Serbs!’ Radovan Karadžić and the 1990 Election Campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Ethnopolitics Vol. 13, issue 3 (2014), 267.
 Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Sarajevo Blues, trans. Ammiel Alcalay (San Francisco: City Lights, 1998).
 From the opening leaf of O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs.
 Edna O’Brien, Country Girl: A Memoire (New York: Back Bay Books, 2012), 138.
 M. M. Bakhtin, “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity,” in Art and Answerability, trans V. Liapunov (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 13.
 Lapoujade, The Lesser Existences, 37.
 Françoise Vergès, “Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender. e-flux Journal #100 (May 2019); https://www.e-flux.com/journal/100/269165/capitalocene-waste-race-and-gender/; accessed July 2021.
 O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs, 102.
 O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs, 173.
 O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs, 175.
 Jessica Stern, “Why Did I Let a Convicted War Criminal Practice Energy Healing on Me?: My 48 hours alone with Radovan Karadžić,” The New York Times, January 16, 2020; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/16/opinion/sunday/radovan-karadzic.html; accessed July 2021.
 Stern, My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide. All further references are indicated parenthetically in the body of the text.
 Paper Boat Collective, “Introduction,” in Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnographic Writing, ed. Anand Pandian and Stuart J. McLean (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 13.
 Jacques Rancière, “Fictions of Time,” in Rancière and Literature, ed. Grace Hellyer and Julian Murphet (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 1.
 Didier Fassin, “True Life, real lives: Revisiting the boundaries between ethnography and fiction,” American Ethnologist Vol. 41, issue 1 (2014), 41.
 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 24.
 O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs, 220-221.
 See Andre Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Reality: Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of liberation,” in What is Cinema, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkley: University of California Press, 1971).
 See Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).
 Lapoujade, The Lesser Existences, 57-58.
 Lambert, The People are Missing, viii.
 Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 58.
 The implications of a future anterior grammar for developing a politics-time relationship are central to my analysis of political temporalities in Michael J. Shapiro, Politics and Time (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2016).
 Paul Veyne, Writing History, trans. Mina Moore-Rinvolucri (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1984).