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David Harvey’s _Paris: Capital of Modernity_

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Echoing Walter Benjamin’s phrase that Paris was the capital of the nineteenth-century, David Harvey’s Paris: Capital of Modernity aims to reconstruct “how Second Empire Paris worked, how capital and modernity came together in a particular place and time, and how social relations and political imaginations were animated by this encounter.” (18) For Harvey, Paris was no longer the capital of the nineteenth-century but the capital of modernity itself. Furthermore, Harvey seeks to challenge the notion that modernity constitutes a radical break with the past in which the world is viewed as a blank slate upon which a new world can be created. The tumultuous events of the 1840s seem to lend credence to this argument but, for Harvey, this “modernity as break” offers very little explanation for why change occurred in the first place.

The “myth of modernity” that Harvey seeks to dispel is heavily grounded in some of the most famous literature of the 1830s and 1840s and is largely a result of the political turmoil of the mid nineteenth-century. The uprisings of 1848, for writers as varied as Balzac, Baudelaire, and Marx, were viewed as a distinct break from the past. By studying literature, planning, and socio-economic forces, Harvey is able to draw continuities across the 1848 divide, rooting Haussmann’s plans in the ideas of the reformers who preceded him. For Harvey, the political changes taking place in mid nineteenth-century Paris, while important, were not nearly as important as changing economic circumstances.

After dispelling the notion that the events of 1848 represented a radical break from the past Harvey turns his attention to perhaps one of the most important figures in the development of post-1848 Parisian urban development, Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Following Louis Napoleon III’s ascension to power Haussmann was appointed the Prefect of the Seine Department and was charged with carrying out a massive program of construction aimed at creating new boulevards, parks, and public works. Although Haussmann is typically imagined as the chief architect of modernity in Paris, Harvey argues that finance capital–which reshaped labor markets, distribution, spatial relations, class relations, and consciousness formation–marked Paris as the capital of modernity.

Therefore, the dramatic transformation of Paris was by no means due completely to Haussmann. As Harvey argues, “Though he had authoritarian powers and frequent delusions of grandeur, he also recognized that he had to liberate more than just the flow of goods and people from their medieval constraints if Paris was to be transformed. The force he had to mobilize—and in the end the force that mastered him—was the circulation of capital.” (114-115) The “Haussmannization” of Paris concentrated wealth in the center of Paris, which drove wage earners out and into newly developing neighborhoods where a working class consciousness espoused a radically different understanding of modernity. This polarization of the city’s inhabitants eventually found its outlet in an explosion of class revolt that was the Paris Commune.

What makes Harvey’s work so fascinating and important is that it moves the conversation concerning modernity away from the abstract and grounds the term and discussion in a discussion of the city as a material and physical space. For example, although the Second Empire attempted to use the new boulevards to showcase its power through imperial spectacle that might transform active citizens into passive spectators, capitalism distributed and presented commodities on the boulevard as spectacles that wielded their power in the new department stores. In short, the boulevards became public spaces where the fetish of the commodity reigned supreme. As time went on the spectacle of the commodity overwhelmed the spectacle of the imperial state. It is here that we arrive at Harvey’s main argument: “The raw materials for the Commune were put together by the slow rhythms of the capitalist transformation of the city’s historical geography.” (308) In the end while historical actors such as Haussmann, Louis Napoleon III, and Guizot were certainly important to the changing face of Paris, it was the combination of urban design, finance capital, commercial spectacle, and class struggle that truly made Paris the capital of modernity.

Similar to Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air, Harvey argues that modernity itself is a process, a dialectic, that cannot be avoided. However, whereas Berman highlights the human impulses guiding modernity by placing Haussmann’s building projects alongside those of Robert Moses, presenting both as signs of a Faustian desire for development for the sake of development, Harvey places capitalism at the heart of these changes. While writers such as Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, and Marx saw themselves in distinctly modern ways, the real changes were the economic circumstances. In this way perhaps all that is solid does in fact melt into air, yet at the heart of this melting is the creative and destructive forces of capitalism. Although Haussmann was eventually swallowed up by the forces of capital that he himself helped to unleash, these were forces that he could never have hoped to contain. In the end the “break” which marked the birth of the Second Empire and the rise of Haussmann was in fact never a break but the continuation of economic processes that had begun to stir long before the barricades of 1848.

—————-
Chris Byrum
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted October 2014

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1 Comment

  1. Reggie Byrum says:

    Excellent article! Well written! (Although I may be a little bias 🙂 )

    Like

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