# HISTORY /// Abject Matter: The Barricade and the Tunnel for LOG 25


As I wrote in a previous post, I was lucky enough to be included in LOG 25 Reclaim Resi[lience]stance, edited by Cynthia Davidson and curated by François Roche. My essay consisted in a historical philosophical interpretation of the two very specific architectures that are the barricade and the tunnel. As said in the text, the title Abject Matter, is both communicating my will to read them through a materialist philosophy, as well as my questioning of the recurrent terminology of counter-insurgent strategies that tends to associate insurrections and social movements with filthiness and infection. I concluded my text with a short introduction to Gilbert Simondon’s concepts of form and matter, that I am hopeful to develop a bit more in the near future.

Abject Matter: The Barricade and the Tunnel
by Léopold Lambert

Seen through a materialist reading, the built environment can be a way of contextualizing political struggle. Architecture, as a modification of the material world, allows us to observe the political implications of such transformations. Whether intentionally or not, it has been recurrently used as an instrument of control upon bodies, and considering architecture’s ability to transgress a given system’s rules, the discipline seems inherently in collusion with this same system. Given this conundrum, is it possible to conceive of a resistive architecture? Two different operations on matter – aggregating and digging – can be seen as acts of creation toward two potentially resistive architectural typologies: the barricade and the tunnel.

Aggregating Matter: The Barricade

In 2011, the Arab Spring and various movements questioning representative democracy (the Indignados in Spain, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, the student protests in Chili) all had a strong impact on the use of public space and revealed the importance of the body’s presence. The forces undertook against these movements differed in their means of suppression; each movement had to invent strategies of physical defense. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Christians formed protective walls of bodies around Muslims at prayer; in New York City, the first order of eviction was cancelled when hundreds of people formed a protective human barricade around Liberty Square to prevent police intrusion. Various material forms of encampment and barricades were also necessary to sustain these movements’ presence on the public spaces they activated.

Throughout history, urban insurrections have used urban matter as a means of defense and, by transforming its form and function, created excess that had to be suppressed by the various forces of policing that served the dominant powers of the era. In 19th-century France, for example, two figures on opposite sides of the power structure – Louis August Blanqui, a political activist, and Thomas Robert Bugeaud, a marshal of France – exhibited oddly similar techniques in their fight to control the city. In 1866, Blanqui wrote a clandestine instruction manual for armed insurrection in Paris,[1] explaining in detail how to build a barricade by modifying a block of buildings and thus to transform a neighborhood into a veritable fortress. He also described a process of mining within the mass of housing, by cutting stairs, digging through floors, and piercing the walls.

Similarly, Bugeaud wrote a short pamphlet entitled La guerre des rues et des maisons[2](The War of Streets and Houses) in 1848, for distribution to army officers on ways to prepare for and conduct urban warfare, based on his successes in Algeria. (He transformed the heavy and slow French army in Algeria into a mobile and fragmented attack force that ultimately defeated Abd el-Kader and his smala, a veritable walking city/army.) The manual explained how soldiers could seize barricades and suppress any form of rebellion within the city. It called for the occupation of barricaded houses in a strategy similar to the one adopted by insurgents in the 1830s and 40s – and later theorized by Blanqui – and also advocated tactics in which soldiers could move between buildings by piercing through walls. Bugeaud’s tactics, however, were rather unpopular in the army as they implied a complete repartition of power within its hierarchy, giving various squads in an otherwise paradigmatic imperial army an important sense of initiative and improvisation.

Cities are often understood by the transcendental powers that oversee them – both technocrats (including architects) and suppressive forces (police, army) – as a two-dimensional representation of space that can be modified by the transposition of lines in reality. (Georges Eugène Haussmann’s radical transformation of Paris is a prime example). On the other hand, insurgents – who experience the city rather than represent it – interpret it as a mass that can be infiltrated, transgressed, and weaponized. Likewise, some historical representatives of transcendental power have advocated for regular armies to adopt insurgent techniques of urban warfare as an efficient way to counter uprisings.

What occurred with Bugeaud and throughout 19th-century Paris in a sense continued with Colonel Marcel Bigeard, who was responsible for the counterrevolutionary strategy in Algiers’ Casbah in 1957, and with Israeli Major-General Aviv Kochavi, who led the siege on the Nablus refugee camp in the West Bank during the second Intifada in 2002. Bigeard’s methods to annihilate the FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) considered the labyrinthine Casbah as a porous mass of matter that the French paratroopers needed to partition, surround, and suddenly strangle. Similarly, the narrative of the Nablus siege, as Eyal Weizman recounted after interviewing Kochavi,[3] depicts the Israeli Defense Force’s infestation of the Palestinian refugee camp. Israeli soldiers operated within the camp by penetrating through the walls and floors of Palestinian houses, thus using the dense mass of the environment around them to surprise its own inhabitants.

This manipulation of matter used to form and infiltrate barricades in counterrevolutionary tactics was also implemented against barricades via a technological invention that became systematically applied in most European cities during the 19th century. Macadam – named after its inventor, John McAdam – was installed to replace the paving stones used in the streets, stones that were also a fundamental, local element for constructing barricades. It would be inaccurate to claim that the use of macadam was introduced exclusively as a counterrevolutionary strategy, but several testimonies from that era leave no doubt it was an important motivation. A solid mass that prevents any form of permeability, macadam refuses reformation as an insurgent, weaponized landscape. About two decades later, macadam was replaced by the even more solid and nonporous matter of asphalt. These characteristics were celebrated by Robert Smithson in his 1969 sitework, Asphalt Rundown, which dramatized a flow of asphalt on a slope of earth, suffocating the earth in a black anti-matter. Unlike the traditional use of asphalt in an urban context, Smithson’s work celebrates the formlessness of the asphalt flow and, therefore, the impossibility of absolute control over its behavior.

The idea of formlessness is recurrently associated with dirt and excrement. Excess, when unable to be reinjected in the cogs of a system, is then declared as waste. This explains why hygiene and cleanliness constitute recurrent arguments to legitimize the suppression of insurrectional movements. Haussmann’s hygienist discourse in favor of his plan for the transformation of Paris is evocative in this regard. Likewise, the announcements that were made by various American and English mayors in 2011 and 2012 to justify the eviction of public protestors have insisted on the sanitary purposes of their actions.[4] This rapprochement between salubrity and social order can be interpreted as a decoy for political and social suppression, disguised as a consensual concern for public health. It also reveals an association between order and hygiene in the dominant imaginary.

In her book Purity and Danger,[5] British anthropologist Mary Douglas defines dirt as a “matter out of place,” arguing that such a definition implies a system that orders the placement of matter which dirt transgresses. This definition can be applied to every entity that does not respect such order, as Julia Kristeva affirms in her Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection: “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order.”[6] The sanitary argument against insurgents is therefore misinformed in attributing abjection to a literal lack of hygiene. Rather, it stems from excessive matter produced by the insurgency, and its disturbance of a systematic order.

Digging the Matter: The Tunnel

In their Treatise on Nomadology,[7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari recall historian Elie Faure’s description of the creation of Indian caves: a group of people reaches a cliff of granite, carves into it, and eventually exits it on the other side of the mountain four centuries later, leaving behind a multitude of sculptures that fascinate Faure for their material expressivity. “Here man confesses unresistingly his strength and his nothingness. He does not exact the affirmation of a determined ideal from form. He incloses no system in it. He extracts it in the rough from formlessness, according to the dictates of the formless.”[8]

The act of digging into matter is indeed an exploration in itself and remains absolutely dependent on the matter’s characteristics (solid or friable) and its composition (metal, stone, sand, ore, clay). The subterranean and transterranean cities of Cappadocia are exemplary of the pact obtained by humans with matter and its characteristics for defensive purposes. Several civilizations, from the early Christians to the medieval Turks, have dug into the tractable volcanic ground/rock to create gigantic underground cities from which to defend themselves against invasion. The vast yet sinuous subterranean complexes are made out of a single surface, a direct result of the action of carving the earth. The careful weaponization of this topological surface in preparation for conflict guaranteed a strong advantage for its inhabitants – for example, narrow corridors that invaders could only enter in single file.

During the Vietnam War (1955-1975), the Viet Cong, who were disadvantaged in both manpower and technology, organized part of their resistance by digging miles of tunnels to form numerous labyrinthine, subterranean complexes. In their book The Tunnels of Cu Chi,[9] Tom Mangold and John Penycate describe the Vietnam ground as friable, like sugar during the Monsoon season, yet able to carry the weight of a tank during the dry season. That the solidity of the matter could vary constituted the essence of its potential weaponization. Its friability allowed for its composition while its solidity provided a necessary defensive strength in conflict.

This strategy was particularly important to the Viet Cong because it constituted their own land. Using it as a form of resistance could be seen as a call to the earth’s forces to fight on their side. The Vietnamese poet Duong Huong anthropomorphized this earth in a venerable ode to nature: “Your entrails Mother, are unfathomable.”[10] The American “rats” – soldiers that carried out underground search and destroy missions – lived in these entrails. The unbearable smell produced by the various bodies living in the tunnel – blood, excrement, sweat and urine, contained by the earth – composed a substrate that seemed to function as an additional defensive strategy against the intrusion of foreign bodies.

Those same foreign bodies therefore had to adapt to and embrace abjection just as the Viet Cong had. One American “rat” is enlightening in his description of such a transformation process: “I was just an animal – we were all animals, we were dogs, we were snakes, we were dirt.”[11] The act of assimilating oneself with matter recalls Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition of the viscous in Being and Nothingness as a blur of limits between a body and the matter with which it interacts. “The viscous is a state half-way between solid and liquid. . . . It attacks the boundary between myself and it.”[12]  Sartre follows this by questioning the notion of holes: “The ideal of the hole is then an excavation which can be carefully moulded about my flesh.”[13] Here the body becomes matter within matter, and we can attribute to an individual a potential becoming-matter in the same way that Deleuze and Guattari described becoming-animal.[14] Such an idea of becoming can be defined as the embrace of one’s own marginalized characteristics in the construction of resistance against the powers that created that marginalization. In a Cartesian world, in which men think of themselves as the masters of nature, such becoming-matter consists of the acceptance and expression of the autonomous behavior of the matter that constitute both one’s self and one’s environment.

In his novel Cyclonopedia,[15] Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani associates the discipline of architecture with exhumation in what can be read as a Middle Eastern interpretation of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of Holey Space, a space carved into matter as an alternative to smooth and striated spaces. Negarestani sees vermicular lines as the vectors of ungrounding the earth, thus providing a new defensive terrain. Abjection cannot be escaped, as Negarestani describes the very act of digging as polluting and infecting.

While Deleuze and Guattari associate Holey Spaces with the purity and inertia of metal, Negarestani calls for an embrace of the earth’s dark depths in a powerful pantheist psalm: “Disturb and irritate, dilate and contract the repressed cavities of the Earth: Tunnels and tubes, burrows and lairs, acrid bungholes and perforated spaces, its fanged vaginas, slits and the schizoid skin. Unclog and squeeze the earth; exhume its surfaces; make an earth whose conundrums cannot be solved by recourse to their origins or causes.”[16]

This difference can be partially explained by the regional discrepancies between the Eurasian troglodytes and the merciless Middle Eastern desert that Negarestani describes. In his narrative, the sand has been created by the entity Middle East to develop a nomadic economy – and therefore the existence of Deleuze and Guattari’s War Machine – by considering that no sedentary artifact would survive the degenerating characteristics of this ubiquitous matter.

Towards an Allagmatic Architecture

Since Aristotle, an object can be described as a combination of form and matter.[17] In this model of hylomorphism (which derives from the Greek terms hylo, matter, and morphē, form), matter represents potentiality and form represents the actuality – or the shape – of matter. The French philosopher Gilbert Simondon dedicated the first chapter of his book, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique[18](Physico-Biological Genesis of the Individual) to a critique of hylomorphism. In a precise description of the fabrication process of a brick – what he calls the individuation process – Simondon points out how the hylomorphic scheme fails to describe the energy that formation requires. Although he never uses the term magic, it is fundamental to his critique of hylomorphism, for magic describes the process of formation from the outsider’s point of view, one who is able to abstractly understand form but prefers to “stay outside of the workshop.”[19] For Simondon, hylomorphic interpretation is “the operation ordered by the free man and realized by the slave.”[20] The invention of geometry allowed the free man to describe a form and to design matter for its realization “without seeing it, without manipulating it, without appreciating it.”[21] This describes the architect as traditionally defined, making him or her complicit within a hierarchical system of production.

To remain outside of the magical hylomorphic scheme, it is necessary to consider the energy that the formation process requires and, by extension, the physical effort that produces this energy. Simondon defines the “allagmatic operation”[22] as one in which energy is considered as a fundamental element in the production of an individual object or body. The individual is no longer a being, but an act that requires energy to exist. In this act, “the becoming of each molecule resounds on the becoming of all others.”[23] Such a definition can also be applied to various insurrectional movements because a collective action of political emancipation precisely constitutes an act of individuation. The barricade and the tunnel are physical productions of such an act. Their forms, or rather their formlessness, are the direct result of energy applied to matter.

The insurgents who are involved in the manipulation of matter are material profaners who dig, cut, pierce, accumulate, throw, punch, push, pull, spit and patch hylomorphic matter, transforming it into an abject, allagmatic architecture. The insurrectional city of the future sees these insurgent profaners armed with shotcrete guns, pumping a viscous concrete onto piles of objects assembled in its streets. The slurry oozes across each surface before drying eventually, and forming the solid mounts and slimy caves that compose the new landscapes of resistance.


[1] Auguste Blanqui, “Esquisse de la marche à suivre dans une prise d’armes à Paris,”in Maintenant, il faut des armes, ed. Domonique Le Nuz (Paris: La Fabrique, 2007).

[2] Thomas Robert Bugeaud, La Guerre des rues et des maisons (Paris: Jean-Paul Rocher, 1997).

[3] See Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (New York: Verso, 2007).

[4] See Carly Schwartz, “Occupy San Francisco Deemed A Health Hazard As Protesters Vow To Relocate,” Huffington Post, October 26, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/26/occupy-san-francisco-health-hazard_n_1033733.html

[5] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo (2002; repr., London: Routledge, 2009).

[6] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

[7] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari,“1227: Treatise on Nomadology – The War Machine,” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[8] Elie Faure, Medieval Art, trans. Walter Pach (New York: Garden City, 1937).

[9] Tom Mangold and John Penycate, The Tunnels of Cu Chi (New York: Random House, 1985).

[10] Ibid., 65.

[11] Ibid., 106.

[12] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness; An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 606.

[13] Ibid., 610.

[14] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

[15] Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Melbourne: Re.Press, 2008).

[16] Ibid., 51.

[17] Aristotle, Physics, trans. Robin Waterfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[18] Gilbert Simondon, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (1964; Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995).

[19] Ibid., 40.

[20] Ibid., 48.

[21] Ibid., 48.

[22] Ibid., 43.

[23] Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2005), 33.