Oppositional character under capitalism: underground men and beasts 1

“Let the following stand as a remarkable proof of the frivolous nature of the magic art. Of all animals it is the mole that the magicians admire most! a creature that has been stamped with condemnation by Nature in so many ways, doomed as it is to perpetual blindness and adding to this darkness a life of gloom in the depths of the earth and a state more nearly resembling that of the dead and buried. There is no animal in the entrails of which they put such implicit faith, no animal they think better suited for the rites of religion …” Pliny, Natural History

There are two undergrounds in the Modern era, distinguished mainly by who or what inhabits them. One is the underground of the mole or beast; one is the underground of the revolutionary or reactionary. They touch each other, but they stem from different beginnings – one from magic and nature, the other from waste and the order of the city.

The first takes its emblem from this moment in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, after Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of his father, when he swears his friends to secrecy and – as the stage directions say – “the ghost cries under the stage” three times:


Never to speak of this that you have seen,
Swear by my sword.


[Beneath] Swear.


Hic et ubique? then we'll shift our ground.
Come hither, gentlemen,
And lay your hands again upon my sword:
Never to speak of this that you have heard,
Swear by my sword.


[Beneath] Swear.


Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner!

The old mole is, of course, a spirit – the spirit of the dead king, unrightfully deprived of his life and throne. The spirit is, as well, the announcer of dreadful news, not only of murder but of incest. It is the spirit of sovereignty in the underworld, and what it urges is secrecy and action. The phrase is revived in Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy to apply to the spirit of reason:

“For it has taken a long time for philosophy in our time to have been brought forth; so tardily and slowly it [the spirit] works to bring itself to this goal. What we can see in a brief time in memory went by in reality in this long fashion. Because in this the concept of the spirit strives, aptly in itself, with its whole concrete development, riches, external subsistence, to develop itself, advance in itself, and develop out of itself. It always strides forward, because only the spirit is progress. Often it seems to forget itself, to be lost; but inwardly opposed to itself, it is inwardly working forward – as Hamlet says of the ghost of his father, “bravely done, honest mole” – until it, strengthened inwardly, now breaks the surface of the earth, that separated it from the son, its concept, so that the earth crumbles. In such times it puts on seven mile boots where the earth, a soulless, rotten building, has collapsed, and it shows itself in the shape of renewed youth. This work of the spirit, to know itself, to find itself, this activity is the spirit, the life of the spirit itself, Its result is the concept, that by which it is grasped: the history of philosophy the clear insight, that the spirit willed this in its history.”

This sense of the old mole as not only the revengeful sovereign but the spirit of reason – and of history, in as much as history is moved, that is, has its historicity, not in the natural laws that govern time and place, but by the dialectical ones that govern the sense of time and place – puts one underground, of the mole, in contact with another underground, that of the revolutionary.

This is the second underground, that of the sewer and the city. It has a less clear history, since it is stamped with its poetic form after it has existed as a kind of historic legend. Let me propose Marat as the first inhabitant of this underground, which is made not by a creature under the earth, but by a builder under the city.

The underground, here, is more plainly a sewer. And the sewer is not just the mechanism by which the city’s wastes are voided, but also a refuge from power in the city. It mirrors dethroned sovereignty in being the place of abjection. Yet it is also the place from whence comes a threat to destroy the order of the city.

In Donald Reid’s Paris Sewers in Sewerman, there is a useful account of the association between the sewer and Marat. It was known that the sewer served as a hiding place for criminals in the 18th century, and it was also a fact that Marat had, at various points in his life, had to hide from the cops, or – in the days before the Revolution – from angry patrons. Marat’s skin, famously, was covered with running sores, the symptoms of prurigo. He emitted a disturbing body odor. All of which could be taken as signs of some disease contracted in the depths, among the wastes.

And yet, who are the wastes? In one of his malicious anecdotes, Chamfort tells us that Madame, the daughter of King Louis XV, was playing with one of her maids when she looked at the maid’s hand, then at her own, and said, “What? … you have five fingers too, like me? And she counted again just to make sure.” The creatures below, the wastes of the kingdom, the poor and the laborers, these seemed to rank among the wastes. Marat may not have seen this as clearly as a nineteenth century pamphleteer, but he attacked the order of the rulers with an astonishing vehemence, expressing the feeling of being one of those ‘thrown away”.

Hugo plays upon these images in the chapters in the fifth book of Les Miserables dedicated to Pierre Emmanuel Bruneseau, Napoleon’s inspector of the sewers. Hugo’s imagination was seized by the fact that Bruneseau made an expedition beneath Paris to explore the sewers, just as though he were exploring a different continent. For the sewer tunnels had been erected without any systematic order – like the Spirit in Hegel, they advanced, but they were also inwardly contradictory. Bruneseau proposed to map them so that they could be organized, as so the frequent flooding of the streets with filth from the sewers could be averted. This expedition, or really, series of expeditions conducted from 1805 to around 1812, resulted in a published report. Hugo’s account is about details left out of the report, which may be the author casting his fiction in the glamour of journalistic truth, or may be the result of private information he had actually gathered about these expeditions. In any case, at one point the team comes upon a rotting grill between two branches of the sewer:

“The most surprising encounter was at the entry to the Grand Egout. This entry had been closed, in the past, by a grill of which there remained only the joints. On one of the joints was found a sort of shapeless, soiled rag, which, without doubt, arrested there in the passage, had floated in the shadows until it finally came to the point of being almost unthreaded. Brunesceau approached his lantern and examined this bit of cloth. It was of very fine batiste, and distinguished in one of its less eaten away corners buy a heraldic crown interwoven into it above the letters : LAVBESP. The crown was that of a marquis and the seven letters signified Laubespine. They recognized that they were viewing a piece of the winding sheet of Marat. Marat, in his youth, had had his loves. It was when he was part of the house of the comte d'Artois in his quality as doctor of the stables. Of these loves, historically affirmed, with a great lady, there remained to him this bedsheet. A wreck or a souvenir. At his death, as it was the only fine linen that he possessed, he’d been wrapped in it.”

This filthy, stained bit of bedsheet was the veritable flag of the underground man.

A more ordinary story is told by Michelet. ‘The mise en scene,” he writes, “ counts for much in the revolutionary life.” Marat, he claims, liked to associate himself with his hiding place, in the basement – the ‘cave’ – of the Cordeliers.

The chapter before, Hugo had written, about the sewers, sous la confusion des langues il y avait la confusion des caves. Dédale doublait Babel. (under the confusion of tongues there was a confusion of caves: the labyrinth doubles Babel). This notion that, under the great metropoles there was a sort of Venice of shit – an anti-city – comprehends an old mythic idea of the labyrinth. In Tim Ingold’s History of Lines, there is a consideration of those intricate designs, those multiply crossing lines, whose purpose, according to anthropologist Alfred Gell, is apotropaic. “By this he means the practice of inscribing complex and
visually puzzling designs upon surfaces in order to protect those sheltered
behind them from attack by evil spirits or demons.” Gell’s idea was that the labyrinth was the same kind of apotropaic design. Ingold disagrees – this is an instance where the effect of a trace – which is a line on a surface – is confused with a thread – that is, a line with its own surfaces.

“But as an explanation of the labyrinth, Gell’s suggestion is wide of the
mark. This is because it assumes from the outset a kind of ‘demon’s eye
view’ – an aerial perspective from which the overall layout of the maze
may be surveyed and represented in a pattern-like form. Such a perspective,
however, is not available to the terrestrial traveller who is already embarked
upon a journey across the earth’s surface – a journey that is tantamount to
life itself. The entrance to the maze marks the point not at which he touches
down upon the surface, but at which he goes underground. Now as an interface
between earth and air, the ground is a kind of surface that is visible from
above, but not from below. It does not have another side. Thus at the very
moment of going underground, of entering the labyrinth, the surface itself
disappears from sight. It appears to dissolve. This moment marks the transition
from life to death. Thenceforth – and quite unlike Gell’s demon which,
caught in the contemplation of an apotropaic pattern, is glued to a surface –
the ghostly traveller finds himself in a world without any surface at all. Every
path is now a thread rather than a trace. And the maze of passages, never
visible in its totality, can only be reconstructed by those few – such as the hero Theseus, or the Chukchi shaman who drew the sketch for Bogoras –
who have visited the world of the dead and made it back again.

In Custine’s account of his tour of Russia in 1839, he remarks that Nijni Novgorad, a ‘bazaar town”, “reposes on a subterranean city, a superb, vaulted cloaque, an immense labyrinth where one loses oneself, if one penetrates without an experienced guide. Each street of the fair section of the city is doubled by a superior gallery which follows it under the earth over its complete length and serves as the outlet for filth. These sewers constructed of building blocks are cleaned many times a day byy a multitude of pumps which are used to draw water from the nearby river. One penetrates into these galleries by large stairways made of beautiful rock.”

Magnificent filth – the waste that waits for its moment. This is the pole that connects the revolutionary to the reactionary in the formation of the oppositional character under capitalism. It connects the man in the sewer, or, more prosaically, the man in the basement of the Cordelier club, to the man under the floorboards, the man in a mousehold – Doestoevsky’s underground man.