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Marc Augé, No Fixed Abode: Ethnofiction, trans. Chris Turner, Seagull Books, London, 2013; x + 80 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8574-2-096-1.
French anthropologist Marc Augé’s book No Fixed Abode follows the plight of Henri, a retired tax inspector and aspiring writer living in Paris. He has become homeless after his recent divorce left him unable to continue paying the rent for his flat. Balancing the modest income from his pension against the monthly spousal support he owes from his first failed marriage, he calculates that if he sells all of his furniture and begins sleeping in his car he will be able to get by. He watches as the antique dealers assess the financial value of each item in his flat and take them away one by one. He experiments with sleeping in his car parked in the garage at night, hoping that none of his neighbors catch a glimpse of him before he sneaks back to his almost bare apartment early in the morning. Soon the lease expires, all but his old Mercedes and most basic possessions have been auctioned off, and he no longer has a home. Henri must simultaneously adjust to his new life while attempting to maintain a façade of normalcy by keeping his condition from friends and former colleagues. He perpetually struggles to find a place to park his car (the “golden age” of streets with no parking meters are no more); he drifts from café to café to do his writing (he no longer owns a table or chair); contemplates where he will next be able to shower or use the toilet; and witnesses his savings gradually dwindle. He meets Dominique, an artist who is sympathetic to his circumstances and at first seems to offer an escape from them. But he comes to the realization that this is a false hope and ultimately accepts the reality of his new life.
This synopsis might read like the plot of a novel or short story, or perhaps (if you are familiar with Augé’s earlier work) the opening anecdote of an ethnographic study of homelessness. In fact, it is neither of these. Augé’s book does not characterize itself as a novel, nor is this an ethnography. Rather, it is “ethnofiction,” an intermingling of the two, blending together both ethnographic research and fictional narrative. Augé, it’s worth observing, has incorporated elements of fiction in his academic writing before. His best-known work, Non-Places (1995), opens with a fictional account of a businessman, Pierre Dupont, who arrives at the airport to catch a business class flight. He engages in various, mundane transactions and interactions—with an ATM, tollbooth, check-in hostess, duty-free shopping counter, in-flight entertainment control panel—that encapsulate the experience of everyday life in the contemporary era of “supermodernity” critiqued throughout that book. But although Non-Places plays with the conventions of ethnographic research in its prologue, the remainder of the book is a straightforward work of scholarly critique. No Fixed Abode, in contrast, presents at first glance a much more radical break from academic convention. Its subject is what Augé describes in a brief preface as “a new category among the poor”: people who have a job, but whose “income is insufficient to pay rent. They live wherever they can—in hostels, with friends or even in their cars” (page vii).
Henri, readers are told, is not a real person. Rather, he is the embodiment of many real people; a composite constructed “out of the thousand and one details observed in everyday life” (page vii). He exists in the narrative as a representative or “symbol” for this new class of people. Through his story, readers are encouraged to contemplate the conditions that lead people to give up their home and try to eke out a dignified existence with what little possessions they manage to retain. The book attempts “to imagine how one of these new drifters gets into this position” (page vii).
Henri’s story unfolds in the form of a diary written in the first person, spanning a period of six months or so. The frequency of Henri’s diary entries parallels his own growing apathy and gradual withdrawal from society. At first, Henri updates his diary on an almost daily basis. He documents his latest movements, the state of his affairs, and comments on the political news of the day; he diligently labels each one with the exact day and date (“Wednesday, 19 March”; “Friday, 21 March”). Gradually the delay between entries becomes longer; he no longer specifies the day or eventually even the date, only the month (“June”; “Mid-August”). He writes of his growing distance from the people around him and from his former existence:
“My loneliness isn’t something new. What is new, and gives me a mild sense of intoxication or dizziness, is the certainty that I can do whatever I like without anyone knowing” (page 11).
At first, although he finds it rough living out of his car, the newfound freedom he describes provides Henri with new possibilities and affordances. He is recognized at cafes, shops and the drycleaners, becoming a regular and striking up conversations with the owners. He befriends a homeless man, Francois, whom he shares his experiences with and gives the odd bit of cash. He becomes more familiar with the streets in which he once lived, viewing the buildings in a new light and finding “neglected elements of beauty in the most ordinary of them” (page 49).
Gradually, though, these things become less and less able to provide his daily life with meaning; eventually they become merely a burden. Henri stops conversing with strangers and breaks off his friendship with Francois, who he sees as a “tramp” (perhaps reflecting his own anxieties about what he might become). One night Francois taps on his car window hoping to take shelter from the rain and Henri ignores him. Some time later, he is found dead on the street. As Henri is gradually dislocated from the material and social connections that sustain most people, it is clear that the only result of homelessness is a steady withdrawal into apathy and alienation. He meets Dominique, the artist. Her work depicts scenes of “non-places” (airports, malls, supermarkets and so on) in a thinly veiled nod to Augé’s earlier book. At first, she seems to promise some salvation. But ultimately the book leaves their relationship unresolved and closes with Henri deciding to give up his literary ambitions and seek out “a change of scenery.” Dominique comes across as an underdeveloped character who mostly serves as a foil for the protagonist as well as a self-reflexive reference to the book’s exploration of rootlessness and the erosion of identity that unfolds with the detachment from place.
The narrative, although brief (it is 80 only pages long), presents readers with an insightful and sympathetic account of the conditions faced by those who are sans domicile stable (of no stable abode). Chris Turner’s occasional footnotes (which, as he makes clear in the translator’s note, are his own additions to the text) are mostly superfluous. They merely provide brief biographical statements about an artist or painter mentioned in the narrative, stating facts that curious readers could easily find themselves or expanding on minor details in the text. In fact, they almost seem to be there solely to remind readers that they are reading an academic text; as though the book might be mistaken for a purely literary work without a few footnotes here and there to make it appear more scholarly. But their very inclusion by the translator points towards the ambiguity and confusion that surrounds Augé’s approach in his book. Is it primarily an academic treatise of homelessness in contemporary Paris written as fiction, or is it a novel with a critical agenda to put forward? Are we reading ethnographic research in the form of a novel, or a novel that was researched using ethnographic observations? Or is it all of these things simultaneously?
Augé offers a few pointers in a short précis before the main narrative, titled “Why Ethnofiction?” But this does not provide a cohesive outline of the approach nor much insight into the methodological practice undertaken for writing and researching the book. It begins by defining ethnofiction as “a narrative that evokes a social fact through the subjectivity of a particular individual”; one who does not exist in the biographical sense but must be created “from scratch” (page vii). Differentiating ethnofiction from traditional novels, he contends that novelists sometimes borrow a “theme, word or concept” from anthropology and use that as the basis for a work of fiction. Here, Augé is “doing the opposite. [He is] using the novelist’s mode of exposition to suggest the fleshly totality of emotion, uncertainty or anxiety concealed within the themes he has picked out” (page ix). His justification for using this format is based on a critique of sociology and its claim to objectivity. He argues that sociological studies, whose participants merely “reply to the questionnaires designed for them,” are always contrived and manufactured—not unlike works of fiction. “The sociologists who gather their responses transform the answers into objective data,” he writes. “But the selection of the items and the exploitation of the responses mask narratives that will never emerge into the light” (page viii).
This is a theme Augé has dealt with before. In the introduction to Non-Places, he writes that despite its claims to objectivity, “all ethnography presupposes the existence of a direct witness to a present actuality” (1995: 8). It is a familiar refrain: all non-fiction is ultimately a subjective reconstruction of reality, not an objective, indelible record of it. But here it is intriguingly applied to the conservative world of humanities research, which more often than not invests in studies that provide a slightly new take on findings that are ten years old, or relies on empirical data from a small sample that has been carefully selected to support the author’s predetermined argument. In light of this, Augé’s concept of ethnofiction seems to offer a different, exciting approach to ethnographic research, and a refreshing antidote to universities’ increasing conservatism. But the more I thought about Augé’s criticism of sociology and its presumed objectivity, the more questions I had about the book’s approach. If one accepts Augé’s premise that sociological research always has an element of fiction in its constructedness, how does ethnofiction redress this except by further complicating the boundaries between fact and fiction? If the aim of the book is simply to give readers an insight into the life of the working homeless, how does labeling it ethnofiction make it any more “rigorous” or relatable than a novel? Especially if there is no indication of what research it was based on, no way to distinguish the fragments of ethnographic observation from novelistic invention?
Augé’s use of ethnofiction ultimately feels more like an evasive attempt to get around these issues than a solution to them. Despite the interesting conceptual dilemmas it raises, No Fixed Abode is essentially a novella with some scholarly-looking footnotes and a preface along with the subtitle “Ethnofiction” tacked on in an attempt to differentiate it from this form. The book admirably tackles academics’ tendency to assume empirical research is mostly detached, objective and unbiased. But the final product is more like a comment or statement about this dilemma, rather than an alternative to it. What is most interesting about the book is that it poses this question at all, that it pushes readers into thinking about these concerns, even if it does not really address them.
As a scholar, I felt like the book needed a clearer outline of its approach. I felt the author should have explained how he conducted his research and to what extent this shaped his narrative; and he should have offered a more comprehensive discussion of the problems with empirical research and how he sees the book addressing them. As a general reader, though, I thought the book would be more appealing if it did away with the preface and subtitle altogether and presented its story simply as a fictional account of an existing social problem, without the added complication of the dilemmas faced by ethnographers. But perhaps this is the purpose of the book after all: to draw our attention to these issues by complicating any attempt to categorize it and refusing to satisfy the expectations of either of type of reader.