Jungle the word

Post revised December 2016 following demolition of Jules Ferry

Reading the Jungle through the word that names it. A sort of double reading on one of today's most misunderstood subjects. In its evolution the jungle in Calais is uniquely a 21st century political entity that defies easy categorisation. It fuses improvised modes of existence and production of precarious architectures to parallel new globalised realities of human relations. The Jungle, symbolic and real, is many things but we can use its naming as a guide to lead an understanding of its multiple facets.
 

The word Jungle by itself has an evocative force, an immediacy. In Calais it leads us to the entanglement of European modernity with the colonial jungle as in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It recalls a colonial primal scene. Across the span of history and geography, this jungle now claims its place in a listing port town that is an unwitting node in the migration trails of postcolonial geopolitics and globalised labour relations. The Jungle claims its place here if only through the violence routinised in each day. In its capacity to resist and outlast the violence, the jungle becomes a subject. With it, the word Jungle acquires an agency over time. This agency is a form of guerilla existence based on an asymmetry of power. And in such asymmetry the jungle acquires the currency of a survivor subject that overcomes the violence rather than an object of policing in the current order.

 

Flimsy migrant shelters began to appear in Calais towards the end of 20th century where they accumulated at Sangatte a vast disused hangar once used for the channel tunnel's construction. This new territorial continuity between England and France was always predestined to be linked to the jungle's making. Administered by the Red Cross, Sangatte was seen as a magnet for migrants. Its closure in 2002 by France and the UK through a mutual border accord was meant to be a sort of final solution to the question of 'les migrants de Calais'. But instead the border accord resulted in recreating the need for the jungle as the migrants were forced into hiding in the woods outside the town. It was only then that 'the jungle' came to find its self-recognition as such - through an act of self-naming via the Pashtu word dzhangal. The Jungle as a distinct identifiable mode of existence.

 

Over a decade, jungles crept back into Calais, nesting in a myriad of spaces, in local parks, empty industrial buildings, barren patches of land, in a diffuse furtive state always subject to punitive State violence. Then came the Syrian civil war and another human deluge. With the sudden increase in numbers, all jungles were uprooted from Calais town to a wasteland at Jules Ferry. This produced the vast Jules Ferry jungle that in its scale of destitution magnified the jungle in public imagination bringing far wider constituencies of solidarity and media interest. With this broader exposure the word jungle began to jar with the humanitarianism of the refugee crisis along with calls to stop using the word jungle.The argument was that it dehumanises its inhabitants. Substitute names came forward but none were adopted by the undocumented.
Such re-naming rituals may be part of the swing of time but the forced clearances within Calais over 2013 altered the relationship between the town and the jungle. Through the clearances the identification between the word Jungle and the migrants was reinforced. We then learnt that the jungle's identity did not depend on size; the jungle may be a small huddle of tents or a defacto township with thousands - which is what in effect it was forced into.

 

But to know the jungle is to know that it has no claim to a particular form or duration; that it is a temporary fluid entity that can assume any shape. With the monstrous scale of Jules Ferry, just as it fed tabloid hysteria, the jungle became a bloated 'body without organs', a sprawl without an organising structure. But the organs of the jungle have always been in a set of deeply embedded human relations across multiple borders. It's the radically contemporary nature of these relations that is most overlooked in readings of the jungle's making. Whilst the shelters are flimsy, most migrants are highly dependent on the use of their cell phone and social media for coordinating with associates and relatives often in England. That's why the jungle is in proximity at Calais and why it can not be uprooted so easily.

 

At Jules Ferry, the jungle in its concentration and diversity, its multiple cultures and nationalities turned inwards into itself. The jungle then ingrew its organs inside out; vestiges of social institutions along with purpose-made places for religious congregation and specialist social functions. It became recognisable as an urban settlement with diverse functions. Into this self-produced 'illegal/ unofficial/tolerated' jungle, then there came the insertion of another dimension, an officially designated container camp, gleaming white in disciplined rows. A crude surgery of organisation cut into anarchy. Whilst most migrants are distrustful of any officialdom, by its insertion 'the camp within the jungle' brought yet another layer to an understanding of the jungle. In effect, the jungle evolved in stages into a complex paradigm of containment in modernity: a semi-open, semi-closed camp that produced a Russian doll containment penetrated by variegated layers of structure and unstructure, hidden pockets of shared spaces, lineaments of arteries and corridors. A spatial prototype different to its multiple historical precedents that needs to be analysed as such.

 

 

Through staggered phases the jungle at Jules Ferry was dragged through the single lens of the camp and of collecting spaces by which humans are trapped in an indeterminate relation to the law. Why modernity is so productive of such spaces Georgio Agamben in Homo Sacer has described; on why the camp is integral to the nomos of the modern, nomos meaning the structure of law and order. But equally for Agamben the camp is a transgressive space, transgressive of the borders of humanity. The borders between bios, in Greek, life in full sense for those entitled to participate in political life, and zoe, as the 'innocent' life of the excluded. Camp, for Agamben, is a mechanism, a machine of segregation between bios, citizens within the law's protection and zoe, the undocumented, san papiers, non-citizens with nothing but bare life. But alongside the methods of segregation and containment, the scale of internal difference and the capacity of its population to come and go made Jules Ferry a contradictory and unstable example of a camp.

 

Within this assemblage, in the language of the migrants, the word jungle was used to reference another word: freedom. In effect through the jungle, the undocumented in Calais excluded from its political life lay a claim to an autonomy of their own making. How this politics is expressed comes through incongruous forms of commonality given the demographic and cultural range in such an impossible concentration of humans. Whether as 'jingil' for the Sudanese or as 'jangal' for the Afghans, only then could we see the jungle as a self-ordering commons, a space that absorbs all who arrive without eroding their identity and yet a space disconnected.

 

Each and everyone of the undocumented at Calais, as migrant or refugee or whatever name, is unique in so far as each through adversity arrives in a state of dispossession by law. Each individual has a breathtaking story spanning seas, borders, deserts and forests. This is the jungle of stories and human experience of mythic dimensions. The jungle with its infinite capacity to gather and absorb trauma in its manifold forms. The question of commonality refers us to what, if any, notion of society or community can bear such weight of reality. In that sense the jungle is (just as Conrad's jungle of the Heart Of Darkness), a metaphoric symbolic space. A jungle that increasingly becomes something unmeasurable, uncontainable, a vast living coral sponge dowsed by tear gas and water canons but which endures in the vastness of the trauma it contains. The jungle as a trauma collectivised (“the horror, the horror”) in the face of the indifference of the modern political structures (to its trauma). The indifference we see for example with the former Prime Minister David Cameron's parliamentary references to a bunch of migrants or even a swarm. Words that may subliminally draw out the human-animal distinction that Agamben describes as a necessary step for the denial of political rights but refers as much to the paralysis of modern politics to address the reality of the jungle.

 

This paralysis led to the Jules Ferry Jungle where the undocumented created an architecture of a shadow society whose political form was unaddressed. It was described by words like Township, Settlement, Slum, but again like camp, each of those words presents us with shortcomings. None would hold as the jungle is not for containing. Its purpose is to be a site of passage. It is meant to be a transit point, not a holding centre. The jungle exists only through its collision with borders - territorial border, the border of humanity, the border of words. The word is a symbol of the desire of bare life as nature to expose the nature of modern borders through the artifice of the modern State. And the more it is stifled by borders, the more the reason for its existence in the flows of 21st century global movement.

 

Specific forms of containment as a means of managing the unmanageable at the intersection points of colonialism and modernity govern the flow of humans in the 21st century. Critically the effect of the containment is unidirectional but has its roots in a dual flow of humans. As the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (in his commentary on Conrad) put it, “Tragedy begins when things leave their accustomed place, like Europe leaving its safe stronghold..”. The tragedy of the jungle today (thus the word) is very specific to this flow, in reverse, in the cycle of time.

 

This has its significance in a recasting of Europe, dreaming of a historical closure to the question of colonialism mediated by the closure of territorial borders. In that the jungle is a constant reminder of a geometry of colonisation in the equation of borders. But in the face of the immediacy of the human tragedy of the refugee crisis against the backdrop of a reconstruction of Europe, other narratives dominate. With the need to alleviate suffering, we enact a 'symbolic castration', cutting off the jungle from its place in the political schema (even to the extent of erasing the word jungle).
The tragedy is that the jungle is a promethean subject necessary to the politics of our times; but what prevents it from formulating the politics of its embodiment is fear and rejection. The fear of it as a Subject, exactly as Conrad's jungle but in a new world. In the case of 21st century neoliberal globalism, “the horror, the horror” today is the possibility of a borderless modernity for humans. Its pre-emptive fear is played out daily through the body of the undocumented. Thus rather than reading the jungle as a political organ that upholds the undocumented human as a protagonist subject of a future universal modernity, it is easier, in the name of humanitarianism, to exalt the undocumented as the suffering subject of the camp. Through namings and renamings, a pawn in a larger game in which it plays no part. “The horror, the horror” remains as it were. So the contemporary jungle not of vegetation but of humans without documents unable to cross the political threshold. The political stagnation, which is a part of its containment, denies a reading of the jungle as a ground for new forms of agency and settlement vital to the 21st century. But in this Jungle the word, in the number of ways written above, is both real and symbolic, a cocktail of resonances that leads us to other directions.

 

 

/ Images Calais 2011 to 2016