Back to top

Harvey's Paris, Capital of Modernity.


Paris, Capital of Modernity.

Harvey, David. New York: Routledge, 2003. 384pp., $20.40, hardcover. ISBN: 041594421X.

This is an inarguably beautiful book. Slightly textured yet sleek, the cover depicts the "Street of Virtues" (that is, Rue des Vertus in the Third Arrondissement), a picturesque pre-Haussmannian Parisian side street, all decaying buildings, dark corners, and muddied cobblestones. Taken by Marville in linear perspective, the photograph features, almost as an afterthought, a down-at-heel horse and carriage at the vanishing point. The casual Francophile browsing in the bookstore will flip through and feel his heartbeat speed up at the sight of so many period photographs and illustrations. Harvey appears to have written a love letter to everybody's favorite city; he has actually written the antidote to the Paris culture industry. Those muddy cobblestone streets, Harvey informs us later in the book, are actually glazed with raw sewage. We have before us a romanticized image of vieux Paris. By the end of Harvey's volume, the same streets run with the blood of the Communards.

Harvey interrogates these frozen historical moments in order to find in them both the seeds of the future and of the past. warns readers who find their way to Harvey's book online to look elsewhere for a breezy history of the City of Light, and this is exactly the myth that Harvey takes apart. Paris is one of the most elaborate and entrenched myths cherished by our culture, and the romantic Paris our culture has enshrined today was born in the nineteenth century. Elegant boulevards, charming streetlamps, a well-ordered uniformity of trellised bourgeois apartment buildings -- Haussmann called this unity out of the chaotic medieval city at the dawn of the Second Empire. Or so popular history has it. "One of the myths of modernity," Harvey begins, "is that it constitutes a radical break with the past." He has set himself the task of making it clear that modern Paris was created by neither cataclysmic historical shifts, nor by a monomaniacal prefect from Bordeaux, but rather by a slow process of modernization. His Marxist reading owes much to French socialist thinkers Saint-Simon and Fourier, as well as to Benjamin, and his restructuring of the city space provides a much needed antidote to the overdetermined mythic Paris which gets reproduced in so many histories of the period. He carefully locates the antecedents to the developments of the Second Empire in the work of Balzac and other social and cultural monuments of the Restoration landscape; then, in anticipation of the chaotic birth of the Third Republic, he charts the transformation of French society in the 1850s and 60s.

Harvey thus proposes an alternative theory: "no social order can achieve changes that are not already latent within its existing condition." In this vein of reasoning, the boundaries between past/present/future, between neighborhoods and classes, between genders and business interests, become porous. The legend of the Haussmannization of Paris originates in Haussmann's Mémoires, which, according to Harvey, are "full of dissimulation." Harvey draws on the recent work of Casselle (2000) and Carmona (2002) to distinguish legend from fact. Haussmann's predecessor, Berger, had already begun to carry out the Emperor's tasks as early as 1848. A commission, appointed by the Emperor under Count Simeon in August 1853, which delivered a complex plan to the Emperor in December 1853. The Emperor's original plans did not include an overhaul of the irrigation system or the annexation of the suburbs; both accomplishments were initiated by Haussmann.

Harvey does not question Haussmann's contributions to urban planning -- he admires Haussmann's enlargement of the spatial scale "of both thought and action," and recognizes the Baron's application of new technologies and organizational forms. But it is significant that a mythic discourse has arisen around Haussmann. According to Harvey, Haussmann needed to construct a mythic air of radicalism around his plan in order "to show that what went before was irrelevant." Haussmann's self-mythologizing was therefore a strategy for empowerment; if one subscribed to his "founding myth," then there seemed to be no alternative to Empire; therefore, "the republican, democratic, and socialist proposals and plans of the 1830s and 1840s were impractical and unworthy of consideration." Harvey stresses that the feasibility of the plan was "embedded in the authority of Empire," and argues that the Empire used the renewal of Paris as a tool of social control. Therefore, he concludes, "If the break that Haussmann supposedly made was nowhere near as radical as he claimed, then we must search (as Saint-Simon and Marx insist) for the new in the lineaments of the old."

This material history of Second Empire Paris includes detailed examinations of the financial institutions which restructured the urban space to create a geopolitics of urban transformation: credit, rental economy, the State, labor relations, etc. Harvey is convinced that we can view the creation of modern Paris as a fractal representation of the evolution of modernity everywhere. At times we feel Paris does stand in for the modern city, and at times we feel it is not quite representative in the way Harvey supposes it to be. One could argue that London and New York were equally as important in their own sectors. More importantly, it seems to me that to agree with him would be to obliterate Harvey's own meta-argument, which strives to avoid effacing historical and geographical specificities in order to create or reaffirm a myth of a place or a history.

He is not trying to rewrite history; rather, he wants to rewrite our perception of history. Even bolder, he wants to transform the way we write history.
An admirable goal, though not exactly a new one; nevertheless, he offers a new suggestion for where we might take Benjamin's injunction to write history "against the grain." Harvey declares at the outset that the method of historical-geographical materialism which he has evolved recently (and which he uses in this book) is designed to "go against the grain of much contemporary academic practice, which concentrates on the discursive constructions that permeate supposedly factual account in order to understand the latter as cultural constructions open to critique and deconstruction." Harvey intends to bring a range of observations and inquisitions into the kind of dynamic synthesis achieved by Carl Schorske in his landmark work on fin-de-siècle Vienna. Such a work of synthesis, he asserts, "must perforce construct its own rules of engagement. It cannot stop at the point of endless deconstruction of the discursive elaborations of others, but has to press on into the materiality of social processes even while acknowledging the power and influence of discourses and perceptions in shaping social life and historical-geographical inquiry."

That's perfectly valid. But the only difficulty I found with this new methodology is that the result here, while certainly dynamic, is diffuse and lacks the kind of focus and guiding vision found in "contemporary academic practice," as Harvey calls it. As one might expect from a method derived from historical materialism, Harvey makes ample use of dialectic reasoning, which I found effective some of the time and maddening by the end of Part Two. He s clearly inspired by his subject, but his reading of the complex permutations of social and economic forces in the Second Empire becomes repetitious, avoiding the heart of the subject by tracing rhetorical circles around it. Harvey wants to avoid endless deconstruction of discourse and to actually get somewhere with his criticism; he gets there temporally (that is, he makes it to 1871 from 1830), but not critically.

This is partly due to his clinging to certain aspects of contemporary academic practice. His polished use of Marxist terminology is refined to the point that it reifies a mythologized reading of history as a Manichean struggle between the good guys (the working class) and the bad (the bourgeoisie). This contributes to the impression that we are on a walking tour of nineteenth century Paris with an extremely gifted guide: we appreciate the architecture, but cannot venture inside any of the buildings. This, I believe, seems to stem from Harvey's reluctance or refusal to delve too deeply into primary sources. Literary critics and historians may find frustrating this obscuring of textual nuances; however, geographers and urban anthropologists may find nothing amiss. For example, I found his discussion of the development of the department store lamentably brief. It seems to me the perfect place from which Harvey's argument might be launched, in order to consider the effect of space on social economy, as well as the rise of the credit industry. Instead, Harvey makes barebones references to Zola's Au bonheur des dames, then footnotes Michael Barry Miller, whose 1981 The Bon Marche is a classic on the topic, in order to make succinct observations about the relationship between public and private consumption and the unifying role of spectacle.

Harvey is at his best in the final essay of the collection, appropriately set off from the rest of the book by its classification as a "coda." First published in a 1979 essay, then integrated into the 1985 work Consciousness and the Urban Experience, the essay in this latest volume has been extended and revised. In its elegant narrative and commitment to a central argument, it is a departure from the methodology of the majority of the volume. In it, Harvey examines the various myths and historical pressures which converge on the site of the Basilica du Sacré-Coeur, and the events behind the construction of the church erected to purify France of her sins. The essay is well placed at the end of the work, but rather than an afterthought, it is the culmination of the themes, movements, and forces which Harvey lays out in the first three hundred pages. The mastery of this essay is a testament to the value and efficiency of narrative criticism, and somewhat undermines the new methodology Harvey so wants to succeed.

The work's other strengths lie in his discussion of the "psychogeography" of the city -- what gets invested in certain locations and how that is maintained; how social identity is created around geographical orientation and how that determines human behavior; how class ideologies -- Marxism for example -- vary from the student revolutionaries on the Left Bank to the workers of Belleville. What keeps you reading, however, is the fact that Harvey is by turns stunningly evocative -- for example when he observes that "the boulevards…are the poetry through which the city primarily gets represented." He concludes that he has tried to "lay bare the complex modes of transformation in the economy and in social organization, politics, and culture that altered the visage of Paris in ineluctable ways." He has, simply, done just this. There is must to be admired in this volume, and much that we can learn from Harvey, but not entirely in the way he envisions.

Lauren Elkin
CUNY Graduate Center