I’ve been looking again at In the Metro, Marc Augé’s book about Paris’s underground system. Augé began his career as an ethnographer of tribal societies on the west coast of Africa, and his analysis of the Paris métro is part of what he calls a ‘reverse ethnology’: a response to ‘the death of exoticism’, the discrediting of anthropology’s traditionally hierarchical relationship to a primitive ‘other’, by finding new areas of ethnographic investigation closer to home.
Augé sees the métro as an especially fruitful place for ethnographers, because it brings the middle classes together with people on the fringes of society such as impoverished artists, buskers, homeless people using the concourses for warmth and shelter, and more active beggars patrolling the carriages with children in tow, all brought together in a kind of collectively experienced solitude. On the métro we meet ‘proximal others’, who are not so different from us that they can be reassuringly exoticized, but who still force us to reflect on the extent and limits of community.
Augé notes the ways in which commuters exchange fleeting glances, or the flickers of emotion that can sometimes be detected behind the apparently blank faces of daydreamers. These silent acts show how much the métro is based on both peaceful co-existence and the impossibility of knowing anything about the lives of one’s fellow passengers. Augé admires the ‘virtuosity tied to habit’ of the metro users. The movements of regular métro passengers, he suggests, have the balletic economy of endlessly repeated actions, with no unnecessary or redundant effort. They will get set and on their marks before departing from a carriage; will know whether or not to quicken their pace based on the noise of a train whooshing through the tunnels; or will stand on the platform at the exact spot at which the train doors will open, and which will deposit them near their exit on the destination platform.
The fundamental quality of the métro is its ordered and contractual nature, which is found not simply in its explicit rules (the ban on smoking, for example, or the regulation of travel through ticket types) but also in its ‘collective morality’, the complex etiquette necessitated by its cramped and warren-like environments. Although it is true that certain people remain indifferent to these rules, Augé write that what is ‘most astonishing is that there are not more of them’.