To encounter a place so alive was thus a shock at first. As always, it takes time to arrive in a radically different scenario. You have to tune in and listen, not just hypothesize. Bit by bit, as the sun came out more in the Paris sky, we entered into the flow of the square: the conversations, the congregations, the digressions, the logistics, the waiting, the radical openness of it all.
Every collective movement has its complex rhythms, just as any language and place does: its singular ways of flowing. To understand and engage with collective assemblages such as a temporarily occupied square or an assembly, it takes time to watch and listen into the flows in and out, the processes, dynamics and tensions within.
Watching the square fill up on Saturday is what did it for me. The morning was calm, sunny — nothing but a few of us from abroad gathering to discuss by a small tent, some passersby stopping for a bit. Yet we knew that the particular flow of Nuit Debout consists in afternoon, evening and nightly gatherings, which temporarily take the space without camping there.
Then the clock struck 6pm and silently, almost imperceptibly at first, bodies began to flow in and gently fill the vast Place de la République. Tents went up, people helping each other and chatting, and tables with radio equipment, coffee and tea, flyers and books, lots of small sound systems around which people started to gather in circles.
Before I knew it, the square was pulsating with political debates and encounters, a vast array of thematic and practical endeavors, hundreds of people sitting, standing, watching, moving around or passing by. Their faces open, listening, interested and exposed. When you move in an open space of anonymous sociality, in a space radically open to conversation between strangers, your body takes on a certain posture and attitude, of intense attention and relaxed friendliness at the same time. My body had forgotten.
My body had forgotten a lot of things; sitting on the dirty concrete of a public square, for example. Our bodies — I daresay not just mine — were reactivated with a certain memory, of relationality and affect. It’s those embodied memories that are the most powerful for creating collective ways of being together, forms of subjectivity that come to last because they build on shared new habits in space.
We all still had traces of those memories and habits with us, from the various movements of the previous cycle, but we had also forgotten a lot. Being able to get to recharge on the energies of a square full of people in buzzing encounter, I felt in a strange place between past and present sometimes, slowly overcome by this wild happiness of finding back a precious collective way of being.
The appearance of messiness gave way to seeing a lot of collective intelligence, listening, respect and humor. Observing a collective breaking out of loneliness, alienation and fear, in this tough city and its super tough current moment. Little leaps of faith, small efforts of patience, minor gestures of generosity all the time. For those of us who came from abroad, it was quite something to witness hundreds and thousands of people break through such deep darkness to find each other in the streets and squares, to fill the dead silence with hundreds of singular manifestations of being together and needing to connect and talk.
Paris had been so dark, so tough and stuck. I remember it well from regular visits: the harshness and alienation of people rushing through the tunnels of the metro, the brutal separation of the white center from its post-colonial banlieues, the repression of the forms of expression emerging from the suburbs, the fake discourse on the veil, now also the simmering fear of extremist attacks, the mourning and deeply uncomfortable celebrations of national togetherness, the hushed sense of resilience and the racist policing flourishing in the current state of exception…
The state of exception as state of silence, as dead point of collectivity, degree zero of solidarity, brutal alienation — and then the importance of France historically and politically, for struggles and also within the European Union. The breaking open of all that, in humble gestures of walking into a square, setting up tents, kitchens, a radio and TV station, play area, music sessions, protests, assemblies, people just lying on the ground talking, all of it “debout”, with one common sense and objective, namely to break out of this deadly silence and survive collectively.