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Vanessa R. Schwartz’s _Spectacular Realities_

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Modern Times, Real Spectacles

In her book, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, Vanessa R. Schwartz examines the spectacularization of Parisian everyday life and its connection to mass visual culture in fin-de-siècle Paris (Schwartz 2). She focuses on how Paris in fin-de-siècle became the innovator of modern mass cultural forms. She argues that the new urban crowd and Parisian everyday life were created through the space of boulevards, newspapers, wax museums, panoramas, and cinemas, where urban reality was presented as “the present, the ephemeral, fugitive and contingent” (Schwartz 4).

Schwartz claims that the 19th century Parisian boulevards became spectacles of urban life (Schwartz 19). She looks at the “visuality of a modern boulevard culture and its connection to the mass press,” which “used sensationalism to frame and represent the everyday as spectacle” (Schwartz 202). Through fait divers, feuilletons and reportages, newspapers presented reality and city as “both remote and strangely familiar to the vast majority of Parisian readers” (Schwartz 43). This shared spectatorship created a modern “imagined cosmopolitan crowd,” in which people had a sense of belonging to a particular modern urban collectivity (Schwartz 43). The Paris morgue functioned as a free theater and became a gendered lively neighborhood spot where people from different classes gathered to see unrecognized bodies as discussed in the news, where they became “an event” (Schwartz 59). The wax museum, Musée Grévin, represented “the reality” reported in the boulevard press and became another outlet for sensationalization through its modern and innovative advertising technics and through its frequently changing collections, updated to mirror the news of the day (Schwartz 91). Thanks to advanced technology, panoramas captured and represented the city and nation as a multisensory experience, and early cinema emerged as a part of broader visual culture in the late 19th century (Schwartz 203).

While telling the story of the development of visual culture in the late 19th century Paris, Schwartz aims to show how these visual practices and institutions reshaped and represented the ephemeral, fugitive and contingent “spectacular realities” of Parisian everyday life; they also created a new modern “non-revolutionary crowd” as opposed to revolutionary crowd in 1789 and 1871. Reality, in this sense, meant something created and produced for mass consumption by the new urban crowd. Paris was not a place for exhibition anymore; it became an exhibition itself. In opposition to the modern male, bourgeois, and urban spectatorship of the flâneur, she presents the democratic urban spectatorship of the flâneuse, who was not only a part of the spectacle but also had the power to direct it. She claims that due to the rise in the working class’s wages and the relatively low cost of exhibitions and advertisements, Parisians, regardless of their gender identities and class backgrounds, could be part of the city’s spectacles, and their interests could shape the spectacles, too. In other words, instead of the Foucauldian concept of a disciplining panoptican, she argues that “urban spectacle” empowered but tamed the collective urban crowd in fin-de-siècle Paris. Rather than looking at the state control over the society in the late 19th century France, she focused on those who worked to please the public.

In my opinion, the author’s assumption that the rise in the working class wages, the relatively low cost of exhibitions, and advertisements aroused public interest and formed a crowd with people of different social backgrounds should have been supported with additional statistical data. I doubt that working class people of both genders went frequently to these exhibitions, though their wages had improved. In this sense, the heterogeneity of this crowd should be re-evaluated. Furthermore, Schwartz only mentions the visual mass culture of France during the daytime. She does not account for the Parisian night life which directly affected the mass culture and mass consumption of Parisian crowds. Night clubs, variety theaters, bars and cabarets were all parts of the urban mass culture of the 19th century Parisian crowd. In addition, Schwartz’s representation of the daytime “peaceful crowd” could be challenged by a discussion of the nocturnal “criminal crowd” of the 19th century Paris. Fin-de-siècle Paris hosted night workers, prostitutes, drunks, gangs, homeless people and criminals, who were checked and controlled by the police. Schwartz only shows the “good side” of the modern age, overlooking the “dark side” of it.

In this sense, who was the modern Parisian crowd according to Schwartz’s representation? In my opinion, Schwartz’s fin-de-siècle Parisian crowd was composed of urban and heterogeneous spectators living in unity, apolitical and curious consumers interested in reading newspapers and in viewing ocular representations. Schwartz claims that people who constituted the crowd were not “alienated and detached individuals lost in the crowd,” but rather, that they were happy members of this new collective unit, which she equates with Parisians (Schwartz 44). However, I think that this “new crowd” became alienated from what the “real” was, even from the representation of the real. For example, people who constituted the crowd were alienated from the reality of death, or from people in general. They did not really care about what happened to the bodies displayed in the morgue, but only went to the exhibition to view the corpses as a consumer commodity. They were alienated from politics, and they were represented as people who pursued only their pleasures. While interested in the representation of the reality, the crowd became alienated from reality and the dark side of modernity, which meant poverty, sadness and displacement.

The modern disciplinary presence of the state in late 19th century Paris should also be reconsidered while examining the “pleasing function” of the spectacles. For example, the morgue had a disciplinary function. By displaying unidentified bodies, it gave a silent message of “everybody could be one of these one day, so be careful!” However, people who went to the morgue to see the bodies did not really care about what happened to these unrecognized bodies, they simply enjoyed being part of this spectacle. In fact, this was one of the causes of the closure of the morgue. As Schwartz says, the display of the dead indicated the transformation and desecration of body, and the morgue was closed on the pretext that this bloody spectacle made people disrespect human life (Schwartz 48, 84). In my opinion, the morgue was closed because it did not function in the way that the modern state wanted. It was closed when “the duties of urban life were thus transformed into a spectacular entertainment” (Schwartz 63).

Moreover, Schwartz does not account for the relationship between Parisian politics and art. Schwartz presents the managers of the Musée Grévin as profit-seeking entrepreneurs whose main aim was to make money. However, I argue that some of these exhibitions also had political agendas. For example, Schwartz discusses the wax museum’s panoramic diorama of Tananarivo in Madagascar, which had just become a French protectorate, and its Orientalist tableaus and ethnographic spectacles such as the Javanese dancers and a Cairo street from the universal exposition of 1889 (Schwartz 137). However, she does not explain how these representations created public opinion, which perhaps helped to justify the imperial acts of the Third Republic in the eyes of its public. Even though she points out the government’s interference in Castellani’s panorama to delete General Boulanger, “whose political popularity had recently challenged the stability of the Third Republic,” and she underlines the government’s prohibition of the opening of the panorama due to the refusal of Castellani to change his panorama, overall, she does not question the relationship between the state and arts (Schwartz 166). In my opinion, in the late 19th century Paris, the modern urban crowd was tamed through modern spectacular realities but still under the surveillance of the modern state.

Schwartz’s success in showing her readers the development and evolution of visual culture and mass consumption in the fin-de-siècle Paris is worth mention. Despite her blindness to nocturnal Parisian life in the late nineteenth century, she clearly portrays how the urban Parisian crowd was created and shaped by the urban spectacles that offered a representation of Parisian everyday life. It is a fact that these spectacular realities could be familiar to the 21st century readers, too, considering reality shows on television. Like the Parisians who went to the morgue to see the corpses and read about them in the newspapers, we are also watching the people in the reality shows such as Big Brother and Survivor. What we consume are “the spectacular realities” of the people in these shows. Time, place, mediums and people have transformed but some practices still remain.

——-
Ayse Zeren-Enis
PhD Student in History
Binghamton University
Posted November 2014

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