1. bookVolume 21 (2022): Issue 2 (December 2022)
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year
Open Access

Affective agencies of discomfort

Published Online: 22 Dec 2022
Volume & Issue: Volume 21 (2022) - Issue 2 (December 2022)
Page range: 143 - 174
Journal Details
First Published
05 May 2002
Publication timeframe
2 times per year

Discomfort, trouble, disturbance, unsettling, gêne, inconfort, perturbation… echo from the visceral emotions and atmospheres of my learning with two commoning projects in European cities, in what I call concrete environments (Hoover, 2021). In this article, I explore the generative potential of discomfort(s) felt in relation to commoning practices for “staying with … troubled times and places” (Haraway, 2016, p. 29). I do so by drawing (primarily) on my ethnographic fieldwork with Les Grands Voisins in Paris between 2017 and 2019, diffracting it through fieldwork with The Common House in London during the same period (Hoover, 2020).

Les Grands Voisins was a collective experiment in temporary occupation in Paris’ 14th arrondissement on the site of a closed-down hospital, and The Common House a volunteer-run social space for radical left activism in East London. While different in their size, objectives and explicit political positioning, the projects were both imperfect attempts at practising what Povinelli calls a ‘social otherwise’ (2011, p. 29). Projects at the boundary between autonomous social centres often run by radical left activists (Chatterton, 2010; García-López, 2013), and those projects focused on building community without any reflection of the ecological or social politics that are necessary for considering this otherwise. Projects inspired by the notion of life in common, or commoning, as a set of practices that seek to resist privatization and to address social inequalities and environmental concerns (Kirwan, Dawney and Brigstocke, 2015; Bollier and Helfrich, 2015).

What can be learned from such collective projects in terms of cultivating relational worlds in concrete environments? These questions guide my research, and I argue that attending to discomfort(s) as affective resonances and affective practices offers some learning for cultivating more ethical relationalities in and beyond such projects.

Scholars writing about commoning projects are increasingly interested in the uneasy relations that are constitutive of such projects (Huron, 2015; Moragues-Faus, 2017). While most write in terms of a human-centred understanding of sociality, the social otherwise that individuals and collectives involved in such projects seek out is more than (just) human. This is perhaps most evident in the role that other living beings take in the projects: chickens, bees, cats, turtles, weeds, trees and edible plants in Les Grands Voisins, or a lone geranium at The Common House. It also emerges through the role of spatial design, of walls, of cultural events, of disposable plastic, of moveable chairs… of screen-printing equipment, of computers, of fire hydrants, of bicycles, keys, art, of repair… of poetic practices, of governance structures, or of care.

Feminist political ecologists and have more recently begun to draw explicit attention to the troubling dynamics of more-than-human sociality. Andrea Nightingale, for instance, calls for ‘keeping in view the exclusions, others, and power over that commoning practices create’ which involves decisions about ‘which humans, which non-humans and which socionatural relations to attend’ (2019, p. 31). However, most of this work is done in non-urban contexts, where such socionationatural relations can seem more evident.

This article adds flesh to an emerging body of work, particularly in feminist scholarship, on the concept and practice of discomfort (Ahmed, 2014; Slater, 2017; Petillo, 2020; Chadwick, 2021; García-González et al., 2021), bringing it into conversation with material feminist approaches to earthly relationality (Barad, 2007; Alaimo and Heckman, 2008; Dixon, 2014; Åsberg, Thiele, & van der Tuin, 2015) and its possibilities for respectful engagements with Indigenous and anticolonial perspectives (Willey, 2016).

The compositional techniques used in this article are also part of this contribution. Inspired by feminist writers, they seek to disrupt and unsettle the reader at times–through fragmentation (Spahr, 2001, p. 129), the use of punctuation (brackets), resisting resolution through ‘the unfolding of question after question’ (Dixon, Hawkins and Straughan, 2012, p. 265), and the use of multilingualism… somewhere ‘between dialogue and translation’ (Spahr, 2001, p. 134). The first section, With discomfort, examines the notion of discomfort in relation to a concrete example from my fieldwork (the community café at Les Grands Voisins). Then follows a section on Practising discomfort, where I elaborate on actual commoning practices identified through my fieldwork and the generative potential they hold. I then open with some implications of embracing discomfort(s).

With discomfort

Discomfort started to trouble me early on in my fieldwork. This meant I was attentive to feelings of unease and discomforting reactions while in the field– knowing these were also influenced by my position as a white, woman, doctoral researcher, moving in and between Paris, London and my home in Brighton, UK. My fieldwork involved recording affective experiences through different ethnographic techniques: fieldnotes, conversational interviews, sound recording, object gathering, and sketching. When turning to analyse various manifestations of discomfort across these materials, I identified those affective experiences that were expressed collectively; that is, either finding overlapping references to a situation, relationship, space, object… or expressed (implicitly or explicitly) by multiple people in the same space.

Affective resonance

Discomfort is used across a variety of disciplines. In my work, I approach it as the (implicit or explicit) expression of material and discursive relations, not an objectively or subjectively measurable condition (as in ergonomics, engineering and research on thermal comfort, or medical anthropology for instance).

1See Bissell (2008) for accounts of some of these approaches. Other examples include recent work in geography by Rodó-de-Zárate (2017) who implicitly defines discomfort as a subjectively measurable emotion that queer individuals will be able to identify in the context of a survey instrument about how they feel in heteronormative spaces.

Indeed, my research on more-than-human relationality led me to focus on discomfort as an affective experience precisely because affect invites researchers to examine how interactions that characterise relationality are made sense-able to humans, either directly or through their effects on bodies, where bodies are not necessarily human or delimited by flesh.

Drawing on explicitly Spinozist and Deleuzian ways of theorising affect, I understand it as the not always visible expressions of how bodies are of the world, ‘the expression, reflection and enactment of specific relations within some form of relational configuration’ (Anderson, 2014, p.10). While Spinozist approaches to studying affect have been influential in the development of ecologically-oriented new materialist (Bennett, 2010) and posthuman (Braidotti, 2006) relational philosophies,

2A crucial critique to hold onto in relation to affect is the universalising claims that it makes. This is why I take work on affect as an orientation rather than a theory or unique framing for my research, and argue that when considered in a critical lens it can be part of a respectful engagement with a more plural or ‘pluriversal’ understanding of relational worlds (see Esteva, 2014 for more the pluriverse and commoning).

my guides are scholars that theorise affect in relation to more ethnographically-grounded contexts in nonrepresentational and postphenomenological geographies (McCormack, 2003; Bissell, 2008; Anderson & Wylie, 2009; Crang & Tolia-Kelly, 2010; Ruddick, 2017), and feminist anthropology and cultural theory (Stewart, 2007, 2017; Navaro-Yashin, 2009; Ahmed, 2014; Singh, 2017). In this article, I explore ethnographic experiences through the echoes of two scholars who have specifically engaged with discomfort and affect: Bissell’s (2008) materially grounded work on comfort through acts of sitting and Ahmed’s (2014, p. 144) writing on discomfort as a ‘queer feeling’.

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La Lingerie was the first building that the architects’ collective (called Yes We Camp) involved in co-creating Les Grands Voisins started to bring to life in the summer of 2015. At that stage, a few buildings on the 3.4-hectare site of the old Saint Vincent de Paul hospital were already home to social housing shelters run by Aurore (one of the longest running French NGOs dedicated to addressing social exclusion). Part of the impetus for the project was a desire from directors of Aurore and the local authority to foster ‘mixité sociale’

3The term mixité translates to ‘social diversity’ though it is a more institutionalised term linked to social policies in France since the late 1990s around integration and respect for different cultures; it is more akin to the use of the term ‘(social) cohesion’ in the UK.

by having artisans, artists, socially and ecologically minded businesses and third sector organisations, as well as members of the general public, coming together in a shared space.

Yes We Camp’s role was to create spaces for this mixing to happen, and this started with approximately fifteen volunteers working and living on site; Sage was one of them. The idea with La Lingerie, he says, was to create something friendly, unpretentious and joyful ‘un café associatif, cantine, buvette, salle polyvalente, cafétéria, ce genre de chose’ that would bring optimism and beautiful energies to a place where people were living in difficult conditions. The outcome was playful. One of the rooms had an upside-down table hanging from the ceiling with a pump system to move water around a maze of test tubes and laboratory ware salvaged from the site; another room had a lamp made with leftover medical equipment from the former hospital. There was no overarching plan: one person wanted to make the longest table ever, another a lounge area for giants, another to make stones visible by drilling away bits of plaster to see the texture of the iron structure underneath.

After the public opening in October 2015, La Lingerie became a space of socialising among those working and living on site as well as the main space for hosting regular events. The first assembly in December 2015 was a recurrent mention as one of the first collective moments when different people involved in the project voiced that the space was not welcoming to all. One of the questions (which echoed throughout the life of the project) was: ‘pourquoi les résidents ne vont pas à la Lingerie?’.

4’why don’t the residents go to the Lingerie?’

It even made its way onto one of a series of provocative postcards created as part of an art-activism initiative led by one of the organisations hosted on site.

Two years after that first assembly, Lou (who joined the coordination team in 2017) tells me that some social housing residents (still) feel awkward there, ‘pas assez à sa place, mal à l’aise’. The physical nature of the space itself (needing to go upstairs to enter, and an elevated terrace compared to street level) also became a materialisation of the feeling of inferiority for certain residents–often trapped in paternalistic state bureaucracies of control and empathy.

Such feelings were not reserved to social housing residents alone: people working or volunteering also told me that at times La Lingerie did not feel like a space for everyone but a ‘Yes We Camp space’. Charlie tells me this didn’t happen on purpose–‘mon bar, mes copains… it’s because we live here’. Members of Yes We Camp recognise the unease their presence creates for some. Charlie continues: ‘on est beaux, blancs et bien éduqués’–even though La Lingerie is an alternative type of venue in the context of Paris, it was tied up with images and imaginaries of white, good-looking, educated bodies, with certain privileges; of bodies able to create a ‘cool home’ for themselves in a site left empty with the agreement of public institutions. Some residents I spoke to referred to the new spaces as a ‘legal squat’ (an oxymoron to signify their disapproval of people in positions of privilege co-opting more radical urban occupation practices).

Discomfort was also created in the tension between multiple objectives of the space: needing to curate a programme of events that would attract Parisians, depending (largely) on the sale of alcohol for funding part of the project in a space where many are recovering from addiction, the desire to take pleasure in producing good quality (professional level) events, the desire to create a space for those working and living on site to organise their own events (such as game nights, film screenings, sports…) and that might not the same attention to production quality. This led, for instance, to implied hierarchies, with external-focused events being more desirable for some involved in the coordination team than events led by or organised for those on site.

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Discomfort can be felt individually as an emotion (expressed in conversations or interviews). It can also be felt as collective affective experiences that entangle humans and non-humans involved in the project, sensed without necessarily naming an emotion or specific emotional state: the recurring presence of La Lingerie, tension in the air, a prickle on the surface of my skin, someone shuffling their chair, pinching in the stomach, a gaze averted, the trouble of alcohol, the steps, absent bodies, spaces avoided… (Note, I work with a fuzzy distinction between affect and emotion as a pragmatic separation of categories, not a way to diminish the importance or value of emotion.)

Bissell’s work on comfort is helpful in articulating this affective attention: based in geographies of mobility, he draws (implicitly) on Deleuzian and (even more implicitly) Spinozist conceptualisations of affect to theorise comfort in the act of sitting. He identifies three affective registers of comfort: the attribute of an object, such as ‘a comfortable chair’, the aesthetic sensibility towards said object, and the affective resonance that circulates ‘between and through both objects and bodies’ (Bissell, 2008, p. 1701). He shows how sitting comfortably is an active process that involves the agentic capacities of human bodies and chair, shifting between experiences of pain, discomfort, movement, and getting comfortable again–and thus, discomfort is ‘contained within and is always immanent to comfort’ (Bissell, 2008, p. 1707). With Bissell, I conceptualise discomfort as a ‘set of anticipatory affective resonances’ (2008, p. 1701), emphasising the way in which can be felt collectively through relations to an environment.

The notion of anticipation also points to the fact that such affective resonances are ‘not wholly predetermined’ by a space or material assemblage: they are ‘reliant on bodies themselves to facilitate this circulation’ (Bissell, 2008, p. 1701). Thus, while discomfort can be felt in relation to a space (such as La Lingerie) or material assemblages (a concert in La Lingerie with sale of alcohol, young Parisians, elevated steps, stylish colours…), it is not the property of the space or materials themselves that leads to discomfort but how these exist in relation to histories of social, racial or gendered violence and exclusion, and what Le Blanc (2009) calls ‘social invisibility’. This echoes Sara Ahmed’s work on the Cultural Politics of Emotions (2014): drawing on her experience of coming out and living as a lesbian and on the experience of queer (human) bodies in heteronormative public spaces, she argues that while discomfort can be provoked spatially, it is not the property of a space. Public space is not in itself heteronormative: it is the stories, imaginaries and discourses that accompany such spaces that can create the feeling of being ‘out of place’ for queer bodies. In the case of La Lingerie, these are stories and imaginaries around privilege, exclusion, whiteness, and ideas of quality in cultural production.

Understanding affect as actively circulating also acknowledges the agency involved in feeling comfort/discomfort. When discomfort resonated in Les Grands Voisins, it often led to ongoing reflections (How to create spaces that would be more comfortable for those who are routinely excluded from public life, namely the residents?) and collective actions (the art-activism project mentioned above, generating new spatial arrangements that would be perceived as less exclusive, starting a weekly pay as you feel meal where different people would get the ingredients and serve each week, starting to work with more residents in the kitchen and behind the bar, or creating more space for community-led events). This is what I call practising discomfort, which I examine in more detail below.

The contours of unevenness

Not all those involved in spaces of commoning experience discomfort in the same way. Attending to discomfort in commoning practices–as affective resonances that can be (but not always) expressed as individual or collective emotions (such as fear or anger)–is a way of not getting caught up in internal processes or micro-politics of spaces. Understanding discomfort as embodied individual and collective experiences can thus be a way of examining how an expanded understanding of the social operates; that is, how the discomfort that characterises the contexts of commoning projects (what I call concrete environments) manifests–but in an uneven way–in relational practices within such sites.

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Stealing is a source of discomfort within and outside of La Lingerie. During my first meeting in Les Grands Voisins Pierre and Justice comment that because the project is about being in common this means ownership is understood in different ways, ‘les choses appartiennent à tous’, though ‘you’ll see keys on office doors’ ‘lock the office when you go down the corridor to the toilet’ (when I arrived for the first long visit, laptops had gone missing from offices replaced with new ones with a lock system, lunch boxes full of food go missing, Yes We Camp seem to be constantly losing kitchen utensils–most important was to develop a system to keep track of the knives). In The Common House, keys are not so much stolen but go missing – then they reappear or get replaced again.

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I choose to use the term ‘uneven’ for several reasons: unlike unequal, uneven does not have the same normative meaning (we generally strive for equality rather than inequality): uneven has both material and metaphorical meanings, it conjures multiple images of social and geographical terrain: the best French translations would be irrégulier or rugueux – rough, rugged or unpolished: unevenness can help to describe rather than judge a complex situation: Povinelli uses unevenness to diagnose the effects of material assemblages (what she calls carnality) as opposed to the mere description of material assemblages (what she calls corporeality) (2011, p.108): these uneven effects echo the different capacities of bodies to feel discomfort mentioned above.

Examining discomfort as affective resonances allows for what Karen Barad calls the provocative practice of ‘jumping scales’ (2007, p.245), a term she borrows from geographer Neil Smith (1992). Indeed, ‘different scales of individual bodies, homes, communities, regions, nations, and the global […] are intra-actively produced through one another’ (Angelo & Wachsmuth, 2015). The examples taken from Les Grands Voisins have been carefully composed with reference to fieldwork at The Common House and broader socio-cultural contexts. This is a practice of looking ‘away from the sites and sources identified for our research, to be purposefully misguided, to be carried away’ (Navaro-Yashin, 2008, p.170). Hollin and colleagues (2017, p.925) remind us, though, that doing this calls for examining ‘the frictions experienced when jumping scales’ – and ask: What is lost during the jump?

Practising discomfort

Listening to affective discomforts is not only a way to examine the materiality of relations between bodies, imaginaries, spaces, discourses, etc., it is also a way of attending to the effects of affect. Indeed, attending to affect is linked to a shift in attention from ‘what things mean to what things do’ (Whatmore, 2006, p.604); examining the role of affective practices in shifting sedimented bodily patterns, empowering individuals or developing new relational subjectivities with the nonhuman world (Krzywoszynska, 2017; Wijnendaele, 2014). In this vein, I examine not only how affective discomforts make power and exclusions visible, but also how they might inspire and guide ways of being and acting: a move from politics to ethics. How can affective resonances of discomfort inspire and guide an ethical orientation towards otherness? How can discomfort be ‘generative, rather than simply constraining or negative’ (Ahmed, 2014, p. 155)? How can discomfort be generative in terms of cultivating critical relational worlds?

5While I started using the notion ‘generative’ prior to encountering it in Ahmed’s writing, I found it useful to articulate the emancipatory thrust of my work.

Below I explore these questions by examining generative practices of discomfort, trouble, perturbation, gêne in five fragments drawn from ethnographically grounded experiences: creating spaces that shake us up, being à cœur ouvert, doing things seriously without taking ourselves seriously, welcoming deliberate unevenness, and the crazy and… interrupted by a cautionary section as a way of reminding us that discomfort can also reinforce violence towards otherness.

Spaces that shake us up

There was a deliberate attempt in Les Grands Voisins to create material arrangements that allowed uncomfortable juxtapositions. Freddie, who was there at the beginning of the project, calls these spaces ‘that shake us up… des espaces qui secouent, déstabilisent’. For those who were more involved in the construction work, this meant spending nearly all their time getting to know the dynamics and rhythms in the old hospital site. Camille tells me that this is part of their approach in Yes We Camp to always having people inhabiting the space. This allows them to identify which spaces could create opportunities of unusual encounters (a concrete pad or a fire hydrant or a garden or a building), to observe the way in which the sun lands at different times of day, where chickens might be able to live, where to build compost bins. This constant presence ‘also brings stress because you sleep, you work, and you live always in the same space, so at the same time it’s really rich and so demanding, it’s tiring’.

Another practice was a more diffuse resonance of existential unease. For Camille those who join the project are motivated by a frustration with living in a social context that ‘qui ne te permet pas trop, so we’re more in the dynamic of trying to allow things, we want to create a context that is enabling’.

Such practices create temporal juxtapositions. In his forties, Dominique tells me (unprompted) that he ‘followed the good old capitalist system… and here, to do things otherwise it’s unsettling’. As he maps experiences of sharing in Les Grands Voisins he stops his pen over La Lingerie and draws a star. He talks about taking part in assemblies there and other practices he had not experienced before such as: being given equipment and paint to set up his new office; sharing ideas with others involved in organising the project; sharing his workplace with bees and their hives. ‘On est inclus dans la vie sociale, on profite du partage et du coup on a envie de partager. C’est assez perturbant’. For Dominique it is unsettling to be included in the social life of a project, take part in assemblies, share a space with lefties, utopians, weirdoes… talking about sharing leads him to bees. For Dominique it is unsettling to see bees on his way to work in Paris ‘c’est perturbant de… it’s nice too! but still, it’s unset- … the first thing is that, the first reaction, the first sensation c’est que c’est bizarre…’. It is both beautiful and frightening to see bees every day, it reminds him that human activities are leading to the death and destruction of bees and ecosystems. ‘J’ai vraiment peur….les abeilles’ he clarifies ‘I didn’t say wasps, or rats, or cockroaches, but bees…’

Many responses to uncomfortable affective situations led to a reorganisation and mobilisation of people, objects, materials, and qualities of the spaces. Understanding the transformative potential of discomfort through such juxtapositions extends agency and includes people or groups not usually involved in activism or alternative social projects; bees, cats, bacteria, furniture… This perspective helps to address what Ahmed identifies as the danger of disruption becoming a ‘political imperative’ (2014, p. 153) for queer subjects; it (dis)places response-ability within specific spatiotemporal arrangements from their usual imposition on certain individuals; it places this response-ability, this generative potential of discomfort, on material assemblages that create or welcome/allow uncomfortable juxtapositions.

à cœur ouvert

September 2017. On my first long visit to Les Grands Voisins, I arrive during a celebration. Grilled merguez and chicken thighs with baguettes served on disposable plastic plates. Champagne served in single-use plastic cups. I don’t remember the cutlery. I join a group of familiar faces and I learn that it is the leaving party for Aurore’s local head of operations. Those I am chatting with realise he was quite well known for recuperating and reusing materials–mostly to save costs but ‘it’s also more ecological, though we don’t really emphasise that but it’s important!’ I don’t remember who initiated the conversation topic, but a few people reflect on the fact that they don’t necessarily pay attention to ecological aspects when they organise events at Aurore.

A few days later, the characteristic thin opaque-white plastic returned to my attention at another event organised on the theme of the future of social housing, making a second appearance in my fieldnotes.

The materials catch thin bodies easily cracked captivate …… my attention.

As I make marks on the page, I notice grooves and edges, sketch two different models to process my apparent unease at the abundance of plastic in a project where re-use and ecological practices are part of the essence of the project.

Disposable containers reappeared as a kind of refrain. Plastic cups, plates and cutlery at events or activities organised by or for residents or volunteers. Over lunch, people from the coordination teams often commented on the wastefulness of some takeaway options available on site and in the local neighbourhood. Many of us also modelled this concern by using reusable containers and utensils (wood, plastic, glass or metal), bringing lunch and even home-made yogurt. Lou or Alix often voiced the shared concern, being careful not to judge individuals yet sustain an awareness for such practices. I also brought up my discomfort in conversations. In May 2018 I was invited by a street-dweller to share lunch from one of the hostels: cafeteria food in plastic containers with plastic cutlery. When I comment on the amount of plastic my lunch companion recognised this unfortunate fact and also said that cardboard boxes are for the privileged: ‘trop de plastique ? … c’est vrai … les bobos

6Short for ‘bourgeois bohême’ [bohemian bourgeois], to refer to left-leaning well-off people and typically used in reference to ‘responsibly-minded’ Parisians.

mangent bio dans des boîtes en carton’. I also had conversations with residents selling food at stalls during market days or one-off events about the use of disposable plastic, they would tell me that unfortunately it was the cheapest containers they could buy.

In one of our long conversations, as Kim reflected on the importance of imagination, the refrain of disposable plastic containers returned. ‘It might seem trivial’ (important enough to bring up) Kim says, telling me some residents felt that being served meals in disposable containers was ‘like being in prison, ou être traités comme des animaux’ (because the norm is for animals to be treated as inferior)–so they did a ‘little revolution to get served food in real plates’.

7They did this by getting access to lunch vouchers, allowing them to eat out or buy their own food.

While some of the examples above relied on making my own discomfort audible, it was a discomfort that was shared (and made audible by others too) with a spirit of openness and never presented as an individual criticism–rather a topic of conversation. Responses from my gentle provocations and Kim’s example show that discomforts resulting from wasteful consumption practices are not reserved to ecologically minded middle-class individuals. Discomforts stem from individual and collective imaginaries relating to the use of disposable plastic. For instance, the relationship between the use of disposable plastic and growing quantities of plastic in the world’s oceans (Lebreton et al., 2018), in food chains, and ground-and-tap water (Kosuth, Mason, & Wattenberg, 2018). (In fact, during my fieldwork and following years of pressure, the European Commission proposed to legislate against single-use plastic). Another is the unease, frustration or anger felt in the way in which disposable plastic is often associated with poor, marginalised, or ‘inferior’ bodies.

Here imaginaries of ecological connectedness and the violence and disregard towards human and non-human otherness are juxtaposed. The common space allows for these imaginaries to collide without being content with a normalising judgement of ‘using disposable plastic is bad’. They show how the presence of disposable plastic unsettles multiple bodies in uneven ways, mirroring uneven socio-economic contexts. Attending to the discomfort of colliding imaginaries and the imbrication of materials and affective relations already present in commoning projects welcomes a more-than-human version of sociality.

Uncomfortable questioning, uneasy reckoning, and disquieting reflection include an openness (ouverture) to what we might call onto-epistemological discomfort: questions about location, multispecies relations, cultural norms, uneven socio-economic contexts, privilege, the planet…

doing things seriously without taking ourselves seriously

Starting in autumn 2017, one of the organisations with offices in Les Grands Voisins and involved in the project developed an initiative called Face Cachée.

8This project was part of a European-Union funded project called Artivism with other strands in Spain, Hungary and England (see http://artivism.online/).

It brought together art and activism through workshops with residents to look at the ‘hidden side’ of Les Grands Voisins. In October 2017, I heard from several people that those involved in the initiative were overzealous and too critical, focusing on problems that people knew existed, picking up easy criticism and potentially instrumentalising discontents: ‘just look at what they called it!’. The initiative surfaces in a conversation I have with Justice, a member of the coordination team, in April 2018. Her first impression was that the content wasn’t nuanced enough ‘les textes prix brut de brut’ showed one-sided interpretations of what were more complicated situations, ‘it gives the impression that everyone was exploited et c’est pas vrai quoi’.

I attended the celebration event marking the end of the initiative, sharing materials produced, including a magazine, postcards, booklets and a short film. Justice decided to go to the event too. Given her initial impressions, she was surprised to experience a joyful atmosphere; there was music, laughter, playfulness and complicity. She could tell ‘ça a aussi fait du bien’, that good relationships had been created in the process. It wasn’t just a bunch of people complaining and pointing fingers. This was most apparent for her in the short film that was produced, where residents explored some of the contradictions and tensions in Les Grands Voisins. Justice remembers a scene of a steering group meeting that really hit home. She was in a lot of those meetings: ‘it was a scene where they were preparing, actually they had reversed the situation, as if–it was people from Mali, Senegal… –they were acting as if they were going to welcome a, um, a French shelter, and so they were talking quite a bit, and saying things like “so, what kind of meal could we serve them?” “oh, maybe a bœuf bourguignon… avec beaucoup de vin… et de fromage!”’.

9Cassoulet is a white bean casserole dish, traditionally from south-western France – the ‘popular’ pre-made versions are also available in cans, a bit like a French version of baked beans.

I remember this moment. How it made everyone in the audience laugh. It flipped clichés, exposing how stereotypes had shaped well-meaning decisions during the project. Justice tells me it was funny because ‘that’s exactly what we did’, making her realise how many decisions were taken with good intentions without involving those concerned, including the choice of couscous (typical dish from northern Africa and the diaspora in France) for the weekly pay-as-you-feel meal prepared and served with different people from the project. Although the content was uncomfortable for many–especially those coordinating Les Grands Voisins–the event revealed that it wasn’t created with malice. It included a playful and destabilising intent and atmosphere. Justice tells me how the role-playing scenes helped her re-evaluate the seriousness with which they had taken their relationship with the role of ‘welcoming’ and coordinating.

The Face Cachée initiative should not escape criticism (for instance the fact that Elan Interculturel worked mostly with young African men in one specific shelter, or that they might have used the project as a political tool to develop their role as cultural mediators within Les Grands Voisins). Nevertheless, many of those involved brought a lightness and playfulness to the critiques that they were making, while not holding back on creating discomfort. The Face Cachée event was one of many such practices witnessed in my time in Les Grands Voisins. The affective resonances of generous humour towards the discomfort of contradictions and inconsistencies echo Haraway’s writing: ‘the world’s independent sense of humor […] is not comfortable for humanists and others committed to the world as resource’ (1988, p.593).

In Les Grands Voisins, deliberate practices that welcomed these reminders took place by having artists in residence and acknowledging the autonomy of any individual or group on site to develop their own projects (with(in) or beyond the sites). Researchers were welcomed (by the coordination team), knowing this would bring up opportunities for reflecting and asking difficult questions. Les Grands Voisins also organised retreats to learn and reflect at critical moments throughout the project (after the first months of opening, after the first year, before the second phase of the project), and these were spaces where people felt able to express their unease, anger or frustrations. Andrea tells me ‘le monde associatif is a space where we try to get out of ideological shackles, actually we constantly need to be reflecting… which is the case here.’

10In French ‘le monde associatif’ encompasses the English meanings for voluntary, non-profit and community sectors, combining the collective or ‘associative’ dimension with broader ethos of not-for-profit activities, but can include charitable work as well as social enterprises for instance.

This openness to dissent, disagreement and awkward conversations also echoes the more explicit intentions and practices at The Common House, which draw on ideas of commoning and the multiple and non-linear genealogy of intersectional feminist and left political activism. Such constant critical reflection can be destabilising. Foucault reckons with this critical quality of ‘the Left’ and its relationship with philosophy in his short essay For an Ethics of Discomfort (1997). He writes in response to journalist Jean Daniel’s book L’Ère des ruptures, published in 1979, in which the latter attempts to make sense of the loss of a vision for the Left in the late 1970s and the eternal challenge of having a self-critical political position; to ‘have trust in no revolution’ even if one can ‘understand each revolt’’ (p. 142). Foucault ends his short piece asserting (inspired by Merleau-Ponty) that to ‘never consent to be completely comfortable with your own certainties’ is ‘the essential, philosophical task’ of any scholar (1997, p. 144). I read ‘philosophical’ and ‘scholarship’ widely here, as the task of any person who studies. This is entirely the case for those involved projects such as Les Grands Voisins and The Common House. For Ash and those they organise with, The Common House ‘about how we need to change our relationships with one another and in the way that we work together to challenge the underlying structures of power in society’ and this also requires investing time in becoming ‘familiar with the people you are organising with’.

▪ ▪ ▪


Cynicism, sanctioning ignorance, perpetuating exclusionary practices… this interruption draws attention to intermittent undertones in the potentiality of discomfort.


in reference to the coordination team: ‘c’est tous des bobos’

11‘they’re all bobo’

in reference to potential hot-deskers: ‘rich hipsters with beards’

in reference to Yes We Camp: ‘une bande de gouines et pédés’

12‘a bunch of lezas and poofs’

in reference to residents: ‘c’est des bons à rien’

13‘good for nothing’

in reference to alternative projects and in self-reference: ‘the front line of gentrification’

in reference to… ‘they think we’re all middle-class millennials doing shmanarchism’

These are some things that have been mentioned (to me or in wider group conversations) in Les Grands Voisins and The Common House. When my one-time lunch companion tells me ‘les bobos mangent bio dans des boites en carton’ his truthful evaluation of the exclusionary dimensions of many eco-friendly behaviours came with a cynical tone. We’re having lunch on a newly built bench, and he continues: ‘it’s treated wood from the local council’ implying it is expensive and bought new from council money. When I say a portion of the sales of beer is reinvested in the project, he says ‘it gives them the impression that they’re doing something good’. I hear resentment in his voice and try to resist my urge to dispel what I sense are myths in the making. As I listen, I realise him (among others) have probably had too many traumatising experiences with public institutions and figures of authority, forming individual and collective memories of often legally sanctioned segregation and prejudice. Nancy Tuana reminds us that such memories can indeed give rise to ‘plausible suspicion’ (2008, p. 206). Our conversation is like a drop of water in a desert where trust and hope once lived. If at all.

At The Common House, cynicism was sometimes used as a rhetorical device or provocation, for instance when reflecting on the contradictions embedded in applying to funding bodies with very different values, or aligning some of its activities with the term ‘gentrification’. In Les Grand Voisins, cynicism was used as a reminder that there are ‘real debates on the issue of meanwhile leases’. However, this only works for those of us who have the capacity to laugh or see beyond the rigidity of such statements, those of us who have enough joyful experiences to counterbalance the potentially depressing effects of cynicism. If not used carefully, it can poison collective endeavours.

Sanctioned ignorance

I. Several young women in Les Grands Voisins shared with me instances of feeling uncomfortable and even being in dangerous situations. But they don’t want to create more prejudice towards migrants, young men, alcoholics, or to seem like they are complaining too much. Kim tells me there are ‘some things we should know quand même’ when joining the project. Then continues: the focus on ‘everyone is important, everyone is interesting, everyone is worthy, we shouldn’t stigmatise and all that… je sais pas si c’est conscient de vouloir tout lisser…’ And when expressed, these discomforts were dismissed– ‘t’inquiète !’

14‘don’t worry about it!’ captures the colloquial tone of the statement.

–by (slightly older, white) women who did not have to work in proximity with such behaviours.

II. When reflecting on what might lead to inconfort or gêne, Sasha identifies ‘les contrastes de situations de vie’ and gives an example: one day, in one of the residences, there are screams, a resident coughing up blood. Not being qualified to address the medical emergency, Sasha goes out to meet the ambulance. Walking through the site ‘c’était super inconfortable… au même moment il y avait du people de partout, c’était l’été’; a jarring juxtaposition of a life-threatening situation with people having fun on a sunny summer afternoon. Sasha screams ‘aidez-moi à faire de la place!’ and people around her respond ‘ouai tranquille, chill out!’. How could she ‘chill’? Someone. Was. Dying. People didn’t even seem to grasp that such a situation could be happening a few metres away.

Both vignettes show how experiences within commoning projects cannot be separated from the wider social environment–a wider environment that values invulnerability: a desirable demonstration of strength in the face of gendered violence, structural racism or knowledge about anthropogenic climate change, a stance that allows one to ‘ignore those aspects of existence that are inconvenient, disadvantageous, or uncomfortable’ (Gilson, 2011, p. 313). In Paris, the wilful ignorance of young women’s experiences takes place in a context a broader ignorance from the part of women in positions of privilege: sanctioned ignorance that ‘allows the perpetuation of silence about on-going colonial violence’ (Sundberg, 2014, p.39). Decolonial French feminist scholar Françoise Vergès (2019) identifies this ignorance as part of a French ‘civilizational feminism’ that only sees issues of violence, exploitation as being a problem of ‘third world women’, thus ignoring such issues among supposed peers.

Kim and Sasha’s experiences of discomfort, in contrast, show a vulnerability to ‘constitutive relations’ with people, environments, ‘social norms and structures, economic forces and so on’ (Gilson, 2011, p. 329)–an affective entanglement that can be violent for some (see Roberts, 2017). While those involved in commoning projects will not all experience discomfort in the same way, the point is that some discomforts are not recognised. And there is a violence to not talking about these: ‘tu vis des choses et en fait t’en parles pas’, Andrea tells me: ‘cette violence-là elle est là, elle est présente…’. Then vulnerability becomes a burden.

Perpetuating exclusionary practices

When Andrea insisted on working alongside residents behind the bar he was told ‘ouai chais pas quoi la caisse’, something about the till, stealing, it getting full on busy evenings, it’s complicated. For him, letting the discomfort of this complicated situation guide decisions leads to perpetuating exclusionary and racist practices. The very way Les Grands Voisins was set up creates uneven conditions for participation: those coordinating are mostly French nationals with recognised educational and professional backgrounds and socio-political networks, while residents–a large portion of which were immigrants–were de-facto dependent on, and often perceived in relation to, an increasingly under-funded and often mis-managed institutionalised social care system.

Drawing on examples from social justice and feminist pedagogical activities, Barbara Applebaum (2017) warns us that discomfort can create rather additional barriers among those who benefit from dominant socio-cultural structures. She calls this ‘white discomfort’. Now a central concept in critical race pedagogies and decolonial approaches to feminist and critical social justice pedagogies (see Leonardo & Porter, 2010; Zembylas, 2018), Gilson (2011) argues that such discomfort often results from the abovementioned desire for invulnerability. Shifting away from earlier work that focused on individual emotions (such as guilt, evading questions, silence, anger, or avoidance), scholars such as Zembylas (2018) call for understanding white discomfort ‘as embedded in broader affective, material and discursive assemblages of race, racism and whiteness’ (p. 88). If we are to examine the generative potential of discomfort, this must come with a critical understanding of the ‘material/structural conditions of inequality’ (Zembylas, 2018, p. 97). It involves asking: What practices perpetuate violent and discriminatory exclusions? How can we make sure discomforting affects don’t lead to closing-up or reinforcing the very kinds of relations such projects seek to challenge?

▪ ▪ ▪

the crazy and…

2 February 2018. La Seine est en crue. Flooding is still affecting RER-underground rail in central Paris. I arrive with my backpack and a slight delay. There is a meeting to collectively define a new common space for those working and living on site. I follow my ears, reach the courtyard where activities are underway, put my backpack down, and join in.

Throw. Thump. A ball hits the ground after a limp throw. Pick it up, say your name. Confusion marks the pace. Throw. Thump. Shuffle. Throw. Thump. The ball doesn’t make it to my hands. The game is cut short to move inside and continue the participatory process: “Things are changing and we have invited you here today because we want to define the use for this new space together, and what we’re going to call it. We know one of the rooms will be the Trocshop (clothes rails and boxes have already been moved in), but there is still a lot to define together. We’re going to be split into small groups to brainstorm ideas…


… then come together to identify themes, and where…


Energy levels are mounting the room, interruptions, tension.

A well-known resident says ‘on est tous des paumés du petit matin’.

15This sentence has several layers of meaning; ‘des paumés’ can translate as ‘losers’ and ‘nutters’ and in this context holds both meanings, while ‘du petit matin’ translates to ‘of the early morning’. Then ‘des paumés du petit matin’ could then translate as ‘early rising losers/nutters’; knowing the zeal for political references of the person saying this, it is most likely a sarcastic reference to ‘la France qui se lève tôt’, which was an important reference in Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign, referring to those who wake up early as the ‘hard-working’ people whose work should be better valued. This sentence has since been used ironically by citizen collectives to denounce the idea that all ‘early-risers’ support or should be supported by neoliberal economic policy-making that Sarkozy is associated with.

It sounds derogatory, I wonder whether everyone in the room would accept that judgement, is it his to make? The contestations turn into muddle and the facilitators are doing their best to create working groups, a facilitator assigned to each. I join one nearby. We split up to brainstorm ideas: ‘so what would you like to see here, in this new space?’. Silence. ‘What would you like to do?’ Silence. Demandes. Demandes. Demandes. My ear tunes out of the conversation and to a man (black, African, migrant, sans papier) on the outer edge of the somewhat-circle. He asks in a quiet voice to those of us nearby: ‘why did they have to do the game with the ball? Don’t most people work here and already know each other?’ Plastic plates are passed around with junk food. Plastic cups with junk drink. Some paper plates with junk food. The plates come full circle food virtually untouched, sauf les arachides. Peanuts are appreciated. Eventually… everything is gobbled up.

▪ ▪ ▪

After this event, Harney and Moten’s (2013) undercommons echo through my fieldwork, a frequency that helped me hear it in different tones and pay more attention to approaches that resist making or responding to demands.

▪ ▪ ▪

‘Je te gêne’–it is an affirmation from my one-time lunch companion after nearly two hours of conversation. I feel frustrated. He senses it well, I am uncomfortable. Is it his presence? My contributions to the conversation only seem to fuel more conspiracy theories–or are they conspiracy theories?–or ‘plausible suspicion’ (Tuana, 2008, p. 206)? I recall Justice who tells me how a resident used to come by their offices and have ‘des discussions qui sont un peu délirantes,

16“you’d go off into quite crazy conversations”

it didn’t help you advance on any of your work’ but it was clearly understood as something that was part of living the project. But they only had to change offices and no longer be on the ground floor for the former street-dweller’s world to darken again. Charlie tells me it’s challenging to measure how close to get, some people are ‘so fragile, it’s really hard, c’est bien beau mais… they have problems that we can’t understand.’ Dominique mentioned Les Grands Voisins was full of ‘huluberlus, des hippies, nutters too’; ‘nutters’ refer to themselves as ‘lost souls’; other refer to ‘nutters’ as ‘crazy’; those who call out ‘nutters’ feel unsettled.

▪ ▪ ▪

How to relate to ‘crazy’?

▪ ▪ ▪

In The Common House, members know that some things cannot be fully understood no matter how much empathy one has; Mental Health Under Capitalism (one of the member groups) runs peer support and discussion groups for people who hear voices; this is not dismissed as “crazy”; the group knows concrete environments create conditions that affect people with mental health issues worse. I join them for the monthly cleaning day, Whiskey in the jar is playing as I come in. Cleaning black gunk off the toilet door a member tells me the tidy squareness of the Boxpark shipping-container mall down the road in Shoreditch is maddening, and not just because it accompanies gentrification and hyper-consumption.

▪ ▪ ▪

For Moten, the ‘zone of the crazy’ (Harney and Moten, 2013, p. 137) is where they want to go, but it is not sense-able to the ‘mainstream’. The undercommons is an eminently human(ist) project in its articulation; some of the individuals and groups in Les Grands Voisins might be welcomed into the community; many interlocutors in my research, however, would not (myself included). Yet, attending to uncomfortable resonances shows a disposition among those involved in urban commoning projects towards not dismissing ‘what doesn’t make sense’. This is a practice of generative discomfort. Commoning practices (at times) rasp the edges of the undercommons. Though not always guided by ‘the crazy’, some practise modes of uncomfortable and partial coexistence with that which does not make sense, extending it to include the affective resonances relating to box-shaped buildings, ball games, peanuts and plastic cups.

Embracing discomfort?

The force of Les Grands Voisins was to enact the commons rather than debate its meaning: ‘we’ll never all agree on words, so we tried to create spaces that shake us up’, spaces where intimate exchanges can be had, ‘à cœur ouvert’, ‘doings things seriously without taking ourselves seriously’, the ‘crazy’, the awkwardness of that which might not make sense but still rasp at the edges of our sensibilities. The explicit attention to the politics of collective practices in The Common House helped tease apart the generative potential of such practices… and their limits.

I have explored in this article how discomfort can be felt both individually and collectively, not as the property of an object or body, but as an affective resonance that emerges from unsettling juxtapositions, from the coming together of bodies in urban commoning projects conditioned by the wider (concrete) environments they exist in. The fragments above show how attention to discomfort can reveal the unevenness that infuses urban commoning projects and make audible how such unevenness can be unwillingly reproduced or indeed subverted. Attending to discomfort as an affective resonance also offers a way of anticipating individual feelings that might turn into more rigid emotional conditions (such as guilt or shame) and the closing up characteristic of ‘white discomfort’ (Applebaum, 2017).

Attending to discomfort also requires reckoning with the ethical positions and awkward judgements that this unevenness entails: reflection and action that are constitutive of discomfort as an affective practice. Practising discomfort can generate attention to human otherness, but also to bees and insects, buildings and beer, laptops and disposable plastic… It echoes Tsing’s notion of friction across more-than-human assemblages: ‘the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference’ (2005, p.4). It echoes Lisa Slater’s words in her work in northeast Arnhem Land: ‘if one stays with the discomfort, a space opens for questioning the taken-for-grantedness of the world’ (2017, p.339).

Yet different bodies have different capacities to be aware of and thus reflect on feelings of discomfort. Practising discomfort requires taking into account material histories, the socialisation of comfort linked to colonial and capitalist consumer practices, and the difficulties of letting go of what one has access to/ownership of. Stealing? ‘Of course!’ Andrea exclaims ‘ben oui le vol évidemment, ben c’est nécessaire, c’est le prix, le prix!’. Is it the responsibility of bodies that have benefitted, directly or not, from the extraction of materials and humans elsewhere to embrace discomfort?

Practising discomfort requires challenging certainties. For Foucault, this is not just about shifting perspectives ‘like arbitrary axioms’: it is about questioning one’s position while knowing our location: ‘the most fragile instant has roots’ (1997, p. 144). In other words, for such questions and reflexions to be ethical, they must be accompanied with a sense of grounding. This grounding is present when onto-epistemological discomforts relate to embodied experiences. Indeed, roots are not only the way a single tree has of attaching to the earth: they are embedded in webs of relations, in nutrient and information exchange (Tsing, 2018).

How generative can discomfort be? Practising discomfort in collective projects that are cognizant of the politics of everyday actions cannot always unsettle sedimented relations to property and attachments to jobs, careers, objects, consumption patterns, or imaginaries… such unsettling is not accessible to everyone and especially challenging in projects embedded in concrete environments. Attending to comfort/discomfort requires work, and such work might be easier for certain bodies to do than others. What about those bodies for which even uneven practices of discomfort are excluding, for whom structural violence lads to plausible suspicion, for whom discomfort threatens a desired invulnerability, for whom commoning will always inevitably involve a kind of violence? Jamie Lorimer reminds us that awkwardness cannot be felt or practiced with ‘absence’ or ‘ignorance’ (2014, p. 196).

The undercommons returns as a refrain. It destabilises my apparent certainties about the generative potential of practising discomfort. It returns with Indigenous scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) for whom even such collective projects must be subject to an anticolonial move. For them, practices of ‘(temporary) occupation’ or ‘commoning’ are inadequate: what is needed is a ‘labour of de-occupation in the undercommons, permanent fugitivity, and dispossession’ (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p.28). The implications of such an anticolonial move is perhaps clear in settler colonial contexts (land reclamation, stealing, acknowledging stolen land, an ethic of incommensurability rather than one of reconciliation…) (Tuck and Yang, 2012; Harney and Moten, 2013). What does this mean in European concrete environments? A context where the entangled temporalities of environmental and health crises have enhanced cynicism, and made identitarian and structurally racist political practices all the more visible (Gorostiza, 2020). Is the potential for cultivating emancipatory affective relations through awkwardly uneven response-abilities already foreclosed? Should we be content with embracing discomfort?

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