(Specters) Jean-Baptiste Vidalou: Être Forêts

Jean-Baptiste Vidalou. Être Forêts. Habiter des Territoires en Lutte. Paris: La Découverte / ZONES, 2017.

Territories in upheaval. Fighting territories. Resisting territories. The French expression en lutte can be translated into many nuances, and they all fit Jean-Baptiste Vidalou’s book Être Forêts, “to be forests”. While this title quite literally describes the main locus of interest, the forest is for the heavily Deleuze & Guattari inspired Vidalou more than just a place. It is a term for a plenitude that resists and inspires resistance to the forever sprawling forces of technocracy and cybernetics, it is the environment from which specters and spectrality emerge to resist, haunt and subvert our cybernetic regimes.

Tracing several centuries of the interwoven histories of forests, territorial planning, western rationalization, colonization and preservationist discourse, Vidalou shows how the contemporary capital/control nexus is rooted in the modern economic mind’s efforts to strip everything of its individual and non- (or rather not-yet) standardized forms of life so as to render it measurable, exchangeable and controllable. In this context, to be forests is not simply to exit the cybernetic regimes by escaping into the wilderness. Rather, it is the opposite: to let oneself be invested or inhabited by chaosmotic forces which not only break standardization and quantification, but resist them even before they take hold, and in so doing preserve places and forces, create and preserve communities outside the smartified worlds and their logics of doing and making sense. This subversive rather than escapist understanding of forests, then, inspires Vidalou to write:

What the counter-insurgency strategists are preparing themselves for with a certain fright is, then, the return of the forest into the city, into the very heart of the metropoles. As if its specter came to haunt them anew. They repeat to themselves as if to conjure up destiny: civilization was built on the ashes of the forest, and it will built itself again against his forest […]

And is it not this specter that our governors raise when they panic at the sight of a ZAD [a ‘Zone to Defend’], of “quartiers” [the lived city as opposed to the district as administrative unit], and other “spaces lost to the Republic”?

One can only grasp this doctrinal dispositive by looking at the history of Rome. (136)[i]

Cybernetics. Specters. Rome. The rise of the West and the dynamics of its decadence. Vidalou’s writing is an exemplary exploration of the GhstRmnEmpire. His book is at its best where it offers concrete examples of spectrality–often in connection to preservation or creation of commons–drawn from current and historical struggles based and lived on and through territorialities. One such example is that of the inspiration of “King John” to contemporary territoires en lutte:

The Black Act was the bloody response of power to the resistance of peasant communities to the enclosures. One could see in Hampshire a band of armed and masked men lead by a mysterious “King John”, badger the forest guards […]

These revolts speak to us in the present tense. Bits of these tales that the past carries constitute as many lines of force that traverse us, that help us think, to see differently. Those who elaborate new communal forms, that battle to defend a zone, know that certain buried historical figures resurge in certain moments of high intensity. As a few friends said with force: “The stories written in the ZAD and the Val Susa are not only those of two territorial struggles the like of which have–maybe–existed before. They are a form of struggle and a form of life both novel and irremediably linked to a past that has rediscovered it force. Their very existence shakes this fallacious real, this best of all possible eternal presents that constitutes our décor and our horizon.” (104)

King John, then, may be reminiscent of Robin Hood in his resistance to the rich and powerful, but he his territorial and temporal rather than a redistributor of capital. This precisely is the main proposal of Être forêts: to think resistance to capitalism not primarily through materialist modes of redistribution, but literally from the ground up, up from:

An outside that is not a utopia, but that can be joined. (137)

An outside Vidalou thinks from a place outside the city but not against the city. Vidalou does not turn to the forest as a romantic or primitivist counter-ideal to the both capitalist and socialist archetype of the (post-)industrial urban environment as the locus of History and Politics. Rather, again and again, he refers to the forest as “a form of life”, a life to be understood as in vitalist excess of structure, a quality opposed to quantification and beyond dialectical materialism. The spectral, here, is the insistent activity (not the return, as it was never gone) of this excess repressed by modern modes of making sense or place or thinking the political. The spectral is that which cybernetic regimes could neither assimilate, nor accept as outside its control, and therefore chose to forget, erase or repress from representation. The forest and its specters are forms of life, therefore, that become spectral for the cybernetic regime, because they remain opaque to it, not because they disappear or flee. But this opacity and its plenitude are not exclusive to forests. It was the same opacity that motivated Haussmann to raze the worker’s quarters and built boulevards instead, and it can be found elsewhere:

The mountains are less an affair of relief than of relative opacity, which can also appear as swamp, desert, dense forest, moor or even in some districts in the banlieues, or on the occupied squares of the metropoles.

[…] This is about creating paths, weaving gestures like a texture of the world against the infrastructures themselves. (42)

Opacity and spectrality are thus intimately tied, with opacity not simply being a place from where specters arise, not just a quality of specters, those undeniably but unreadable presences. In Vidalou’s Être forêts, the term specters refers to this unreadability, but it also proposes to move into the spectral areas that the cybernetic regimes create for themselves. Spectrality, thus, is not simply just a vitalist quality of life that needs to be defended from colonization, but it is first and foremost a strategy of struggle that moves beyond the spectacle. This can be defending a zone, such as the ZAD in Notre Dame des Landes, which begins as an unreadable terrain for city trained anti-riot police (thought it learns quickly, of course). But it can also be a consequence of deconstructing spectacles of forest preservation as veils for capitalist exploitation of terrain for resources or concealed infrastructure and acting accordingly:

To occupy at a certain place these “imperial technological zones”, these homogenous spaces of the standardization of bodies and affects, is to render visible the real disposition of this world. (179)

Vidalou explores multiple facets of how to do this, how to become forest, harness opacity and spectrality, to haunt and resist what this blog calls the GhstRmnEmpire. Yet, the opposition of standardization, structuralization and positionality to singularity and situationality is a returning tenor that ultimately leads him to put relationality at the center of his always implicitly commons-bend theory:

Everyone, each group, must start from its singular situation. It is only from these singular situations that relations can be lived in a common manner. And no longer from a political position that has been preestablished since forever. The time has come to no longer respond to the ongoing war with the constitution of a legitimate universality, but through another plan of perception. (186)

[i]All quotes are translations from the French original.

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