The Beach Beneath The Pavement - 2011 Edition

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At the roadside his colleagues are slipping into blue coveralls and tall rubber boots, putting on helmets. We join them at a manhole beneath an ivy-covered embankment. A dark shaft falls away at our feet. Trespassing cataphiles, like the student above, venture into this buried past for the thrill of it; some draw their own elaborate maps of its intricacies. One by one the members of the team switch on their headlamps and step down the ladder. It is their job to make sure Paris doesn't collapse into the quarries that riddle its foundations.

At the bottom of the ladder we squat in a narrow passage, while Anne-Marie Leparmentier, a geologist, measures the oxygen level. Today there is plenty. We head off into the passage, bent over like trolls under the low ceiling. The limestone walls sweat, and water sloshes around our boots. Fossils of sea creatures peel out of the stone, and in a slick of mud we find a rusty horseshoe—a relic from an animal that worked down here more than a century ago, hauling stones.

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Modern Paris sits atop massive formations of limestone and gypsum. Over the centuries, as Roman Lutetia became Paris, quarrymen burrowed deeper and wider, carving out the stuff of the city's great buildings—the Louvre, for example, and Notre Dame. Open pits evolved into networks of underground galleries. In the beginning the quarries lay far beyond the city limits. But as the city grew, parts of it sprawled directly above old tunnels. This progression happened over generations and without oversight. Quarrymen labored in an unregulated world of torchlight, choking dust, and crushing accidents.

When they exhausted a quarry, they stuffed it with rubble or simply abandoned it. At the surface, no one paid much attention. No one realized how porous the foundations of Paris had become. The first major collapse occurred in December , when an unstable tunnel crumbled, swallowing houses and people along what is now the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau.

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More holes opened over the next few years, sending more houses tumbling into darkness. Slowly teams of inspectors worked through them, shoring them up. To make their job easier they dug more tunnels to connect the isolated networks. Around the same time, when the king decided to close and empty one of the city's packed, putrefying cemeteries, Guillaumot was asked to put the bones somewhere—and so some Parisian quarries became the catacombs.

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Today Leparmentier and her team continue the work of Guillaumot's first inspectors. Nearly a hundred feet below the street, we pause before a pillar, a stack of five or six boulders from the early s. Small collapses still happen every year, she tells me; as recently as , the earth swallowed an entire neighborhood in the southern suburbs, killing 21 people.

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Leparmentier makes some notes. Another tunnel runs beneath us. She makes a plunging motion with her hand. Someday this pillar might fail, and the tunnel we stand in may collapse into the one below it. We go deeper. At the end of a corridor we sit and contemplate the small dark hole I was warned of hours before. It's barely as wide as my shoulders. No one is sure where it goes. A young member of the team stuffs himself into the hole, his legs kicking the air.

I glance at Leparmentier, and she shakes her head, as if to say, No way am I going in there. But she also waves her hand: Be my guest. Some cataphiles go underground only occasionally and stick to well-known routes.

The hard core go oftener and farther. I find my next guides, two dark-haired young men in blue coveralls, lounging in sunlight on a park bench in a quiet neighborhood, with a scuba tank and other dive gear beside them. Mothers pushing strollers eye them uneasily. Dominique is a repairman; Yopie—he'll only give his cataphile nickname—is a computer graphics designer, father of two, and an accomplished cave diver. We gather the gear and head beneath a bridge, where cool air sighs up from their secret entrance.

As we approach, a mud-covered man climbs out like a spider. He's just been setting up a bachelor party, he says. Most of the underground has been mapped.

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Guillaumot's early, intricate maps have been updated many times by his successors, and cataphiles make their own maps. Some, like Yopie, go to great lengths to fill in the remaining blank spots. We wade past many tunnels before we find the object of his desire today: a black hole. Pits and old wells dot many of the tunnels. Some are deep and water filled, some open onto hidden rooms. Yopie has dived into dozens, but he says no one has entered this pit. The water is still as ice, but our light doesn't penetrate far before scattering into emerald oblivion. Yopie checks his regulator, mask, and harness.

Then he straps on his helmet, flicks on two headlamps, and drops in. Portal Sunlight from a boulevard falls on firefighters practicing underwater rescues in the Canal Saint-Martin, whose construction was ordered by Napoleon in The canal runs from the Seine near the Bastille to the northern edge of Paris.

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A few minutes later he surfaces in an eruption of bubbles. This is completely independent of the politics and social concerns of the everyday. I am interested in low theory, which comprise those somewhat rarer moments when, coming out of everyday life, you get a certain milieu that can think itself. It happens in certain spaces that we used to call bohemia. Low theory is the attempt to think everyday life within practices created in and of and for everyday life, using or misusing high theory to other ends. It happens in collaborative practices that invent their own economies of knowledge.

The Situationists are a really interesting example of that but they are not the last. It has been going on for years before them and years after them. So, I was trying to carefully pick through that bit of the story as a resource for people now who are trying to do the same thing. It was not an attempt to fetishise or be nostalgic about the past but show there are real lessons about what these guys did and failed to do if you are trying to be a critical autonomist in the twenty first century.

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How do they do this? MW: They always maintained that there was no such thing as Situationism—it was not a doctrine but more a group that experimented with creative practices. Debord is a provincial petit bourgeois alienated from his family who comes to Paris and goes to university really for the free food and stipend. Here, he is hanging out with delinquents and he starts the whole thing with an ethnography of delinquent life—as life outside of wage labour. So, it is more that it came out of the streets, literally. Debord is not a delinquent, he is an alcoholic, but he is hanging out with delinquents, bohemians, and the dangerous classes.

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This kind of bohemian world often produces things that are aesthetically interesting such as novels and art but it rarely produces theory. This is an interesting example where a group is able to consciously think while practicing outside the space of traditional thought. It has seen better centuries, and the promise of better times to come eludes us.