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Popular culture and suburbs Marc Hatzfeld - Transcription by Jean-Marc Génuite

As a starting point, I would like to specify that suburbs constitute complex, plural and variable territories, where realities differ from one site to another, from one time to another and where cultural diversity among its inhabitants is greater than in the rest of the social space. Suburbs are places where identity bundles that can be expressed through several and at times contradictory memories make the most sense.

In addition, when approaching suburban popular cultures, prudence is required for they cannot be considered as places exclusively popular. They intertwine ; they match scholar or bourgeois cultures, but also general, transnational and globalized cultures.

With the time that I have, I am going to try to focus on a few ideas and to make sure that they are understandable.

The first cultural element that I will approach concerns languages. Recently, a minister claimed on the radio that Verlan (French slang formed by inverting the syllables) is not a language, not a respectable practise, that it is even somewhat shameful to use it. However, Verlan is a language. It is even a rich and complex linguistic set that differentiate from the French language while belonging to it. It vigorously “clings” to French while altering it. Verlan can even create some recognised literary events. Among the books written in Verlan, or in “verlanised” French, we find Dit Violent by Mohamed Razane recently published by Gallimard. Apart from this publication by a publisher famous in institutional circles, Verlan remains essentially a spoken language and in this regard, has the charm, the vigour and the plasticity of an oral language. Very imaginative, this language varies from one suburb to another, from one time to another, sometimes even from one year to another, and not only words undergo changes, but expressions too, the ways to pronounce them, postures, accents. Verlan is an extremely metaphorical, inventive language, in which funny and shimmering expressions succeed one another.

At the exit of high schools, it gives birth to wonderful contests in which young people skilfully challenge themselves to speak as quickly as possible, showing as much vividness as is found in poetry.

Verlan, as were regional dialects in the past, is often regarded with contempt ; a manifest lack of culture if one considers the multiple ways in which it penetrates the French language. If, for instance, you look at the way people speak in daily life, you will notice that they are often influenced by turns of phrases, accents that come from Verlan.

After Verlan, I would like to talk about Street arts whose lot shows how difficult it is for popular arts to be admitted among real arts. They only reach some sort of consideration once they have previously been recognised by the art business. It can be noticed that at the last selling of Artcurial, a prestigious contemporary art gallery in Paris, where paintings by Picasso, Braque, Degas where proposed, credit for the most important sale in financial terms was to be given to the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. As an American of Haitian descent who has been quickly recognised within the art world of New York, J-M Basquiat started in the 50s by painting in the street. He actually kept on painting there until his death, still following the terms of the street arts, at times strongly “loaded” with stimulating substances in accordance with the strength of his temper.
Among the complete sets that form Street Arts, Tag or Graph can be mentioned, but also Break Dance and Smurf, which incorporate choreographic street arts in the body of recognised or established production. There is also Rap, a rich and complex set that, with its several forms, abounds in different music mixed together and songs, creating so many poetic forms of expression that it could outdo some great poets from the 19th century.

Let’s not forget that street arts do not exclusively emanate from popular environments as testified by the bourgeois background of a great number of Graphic or Tag artists. However, all these artists are united in their practises since they run the same risks.

In many respects, street arts impose themselves as a trespass. They first do so by exposing themselves conspicuously, almost aggressively, within a public space using free forms of expression. They claim responsibility for this gratuitousness as opposed to contemporary artistic productions which become always more expensive and controlled by an even-restraining market. Mostly the relation to the Author, often based on a proud claim of anonymity, is at the opposite of what prevails in major or recognised arts.

The third cultural event that emanated from the suburb and that I would like to talk about cannot be considered as an artistic event. The word culture must be considered as anthropologists mean it, as symbolical social practises, more or less conscious. In this sense, practises from popular environments take from prevailing cultures while nurturing them at the same time. I would like to evoke three or four events that emanated from popular culture and that remain closely connected to prevailing cultures.

First, what is called “resourcefulness”. Rather than a system based on wages, which remains the instituted practise at work in our societies, “resourcefulness”, with all its eccentricities and transgressions, establishes itself as a real daily culture. It manifests itself as a shift in rules and habits. In a world where market relations are overestimated in a quasi-religious way, gratuity as it is said and often implemented in the suburb needs to be reflected on. In the suburbs as well as in many Third-World countries – which shows a penetration of Third-World cultures into a developed Europe – gratuity manifests itself through donation, exchange and other solidarity events in daily life.

Finally, as last aspect of popular culture expressed in the suburb, contrary to what is commonly thought or conveyed and supported by images on television or by comments from public figures, daily and neighbourly relations in the suburb are often marked with great politeness. Those who know these popular areas know that one can be welcomed there with relational refinement, showing thus an art of cultural adjustment, a necessity in itself in a time of globalization. Indeed, in districts where populations with distinctive cultural backgrounds live together, and where sometimes ten or twelve different languages are spoken, inhabitants do not always know the values of each one of them. The got used to talking to one another with caution, avoiding offending anyone. This gives birth to a certain delicacy in relations that highly educated social categories from city centres could be jealous of.

It seems to me that this form of politeness is the sign of a singular culture. It is certainly the backside of great brutality of and in daily life and sometimes of a rudeness whose limits we do not suspect, but these two extreme forms cohabit and coexist.

The art of relational adjustment rests upon a demand for respect that has strongly developed within the past two decades in France but also in some other immigration countries such as England, the United States or Brazil. Respect, as it establishes itself nowadays, comes mostly from globalised popular environments. This is not the same respect based on hierarchies and conventions that philosophers or moralists talk about. The contemporary and popular notion of respect, one that is horizontal and reversible, is one of the manifestations of the fact that popular environments, with all the cautions on which I insist, also form a mixture of values loaded with philosophical meanings that can nourish those of so-called major cultures.

Marc Hatzfeld - Transcription by Jean-Marc Génuite