Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 18, 2011
David Harvey Paris, Capital of Modernity New York: Routledge, 2005. 384 pp. $44.95 (9780415952200)

David Harvey is best known as the author of The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, published in 1989 (London: Blackwell), and a bestseller from the beginning. Without seeking to belittle the role of culture, Harvey underlines in this book that a comprehension of the economic basis of postmodernity is vital to any sound understanding of this phenomenon. A geographer by degree, he turned to social geography after an initial positivist period. He then adopted a more critical and socially oriented stance, with a strong Marxist component. Within this more materialist approach, one of his leitmotivs is the spatial effects of the accumulation of capital, an issue that his Social Justice and the City (rev. ed., Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009) in particular convincingly tackles. His study of nineteenth-century Paris also epitomizes this focus. It first appeared in 2003 and bears the title Paris, Capital of Modernity.

One good reason for reading this book might be a simple historical interest in what took place in Paris throughout the larger part of the nineteenth century. Discussing first the mentality leading up to the 1848 revolution and the subsequent failure of the republican regime, Harvey then devotes all of his attention to Second Empire Paris (1852–1870) and the way it eventually led up to the Paris Commune in 1871. The most extensive part of his book, entitled “Materializations: Paris 1848–1870,” indeed perfectly allows for a reading of the purely historical kind. In it, Harvey gives a highly detailed and passionate account of the concrete events and social forces that stirred the French capital under the imperial reign of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, also known as Napoleon III.

Harvey’s account of this period in Parisian history relies on a tremendous collection of factual data drawn from previous historical enquiry, as well as from primary sources, which range from statistics on employment rates in different social strata and before-and-after photographs of Baron Haussmann’s urban projects, to a series of drawings by Honoré Daumier. Along with political policies, fluctuating class relations, and physical transformations of the city, Harvey equally, and apparently with the same ease, invokes novels by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Émile Zola. In dealing with all these sources, Harvey is critical, nuanced, and draws his conclusions with caution. Quite rightly, he shows a certain distrust of statistics and their interpretation, and he exhibits a discerning mind in dealing with historians’ views on the purport of an event like the Paris Commune.

His approach is not so much merely kaleidoscopic but rather an attempt to render the constantly altering production of the urban space of Paris as the city evolves throughout the Second Empire. And this “produced space” should not only be understood in its physical, geographical meaning as Paris’s infrastructure, monuments, housing facilities, socially segregated quarters, and the like; it equally refers to the production of social space, in its broadest sense. Indeed, in Harvey’s Marxist account, both physical and social space are but consequences of the material base, that is, the economic relations of production.

He thus tries to grasp the evolution of Parisian space through the changing economic order, and he does so in a very thorough way. The reader marvels at the web of interconnected processes that Harvey disentangles thread by thread. In a sophisticated manner, he shows how altering economic circumstances influence the most diverse phenomena—varying from the rent of houses to the construction of roads, from shifting class relations to governmental strategies, from immigration flows to the role and view of women. The years of the Second Empire were stirring ones, and it is quite fascinating to get a glimpse of how diverse, seemingly unrelated phenomena are interlinked, and together create the social and urban space of Paris in ever-changing ways. The Parisian space that Harvey seeks to describe is not a static one, but instead is nothing other than these interrelated processes, this incessant mutual influencing, this constant drive toward yet a new Paris.

Through this in-depth view of a gradually altering Paris, Harvey can track how developments under the Second Empire connect with the years preceding and following them. In the briefer first part of the study, “Representations: Paris 1830–1848,” Harvey seeks to dispel the assumption that the 1848 revolution, which was in the end merely a prelude to the Empire, constitutes a drastic disruption in French history. With the help of Balzac’s magnum opus La comédie humaine, Harvey portrays a number of myths that surrounded Paris during the years leading up to the revolution. One of these is a peculiarly modern myth, Harvey claims: that of the radical break with the past and with tradition—not unlike Walter Benjamin’s “eternal return of the new” and Fredric Jameson’s “fetish of the new.” In spinning out the revolutionary body of thought that preceded 1848, Harvey shows that the revolution itself did not come out of thin air, but was actually a culminating point of what preceded it. In much the same way, his description of Paris under Louis Napoleon already contains all the processes instigating the 1871 Paris Commune.

This historical account of both the real and the imagined, both the built and the lived Paris, is one reason for reading Harvey’s book. But there is another. In a very real sense, his study gives shape to a phenomenon that is often rather absentmindedly referred to as the “modern capitalist world,” and he does so by seeking out a timeframe (the Second Empire) and a place (Paris) in which this phenomenon first infiltrates into society. In this way, Paris relates closely to The Condition of Postmodernity. By outlining in both works how the material base influences daily life, Harvey gives a real and concrete face to the conditions of, respectively, modernity and postmodernity. In Paris, he manages to do so, not by describing the modern condition at its peak, but—along a Benjaminian line of thought—by seizing it in its infancy. Reading Harvey’s depiction of Second Empire Paris is very much like seeing a modern, capitalist organization of society gradually seep into a pre-capitalist one. Grasping modernity at this nascent stage allows for a contrast with what came before. Readers can start to comprehend how capitalist modernity actually changes urban space—both physically and socially. Caught in its moment of transition, Paris offers a concrete example of this. It shows what is specific about a modern urban space organized according to a capitalist rationale.

Time and again, Harvey stresses the ambivalence of the urban condition: Paris is in the process of changing its material base. There thus seems to be another way in which the Parisian space depicted is anything but static. Not only is it understood as a dynamic space of production processes rather than as an assembly of unchanging entities, but this space as a whole is also in transformation, because it is increasingly adopting new production processes—those typical of modern capitalism. More specifically, Paris’s labor and production is trapped between authoritarian imperialism, on the one hand, and capitalist liberalism, on the other. Increasingly, labor and capital become disconnected, labor gets specialized and abstract, credit and finance assume different proportions, speculation starts to proliferate, the market is liberalized, and prosperity comes to depend on other regions’ economic conditions. Harvey explains that it was Louis Napoleon’s “genius and misfortune that he sought the implantation of modernity in the name of tradition, that he used the authoritarianism of the Empire to champion the freedoms and liberties of private capital accumulation” (257).

In observations on Louis Napoleon’s vacillating policies, it becomes evident how ambiguous the latter’s position was when gradually liberalizing what was in fact an imperially governed state. On the level of Paris, the prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann suffers a similar fate. This character constitutes an important connecting thread in Harvey’s understanding of the urban tissue. A legendary figure in the world of urbanism, Baron Haussmann was charged with the reconstruction of the street system in Paris. Following a grand master plan, he blankly wiped out the “degrading” labyrinth of “unhygienic” narrow streets, substituting it with illustrious broad boulevards running straight lines. In doing so, he not only sought to display imperial pomp but also wanted to usher the city into modernity. His boulevards were to be loaded with the spectacle of commodity, leisure, and consumption. To finance these public works, Haussmann mobilized capital on a large scale in ways utterly foreign to traditional forms of landownership and use. At the same time, however, his administration was of the authoritarian kind, and his power derived directly from the emperor, so “it stood to reason that he could not long survive the transition to liberal Empire” (152), and neither could Louis Napoleon, as it would turn out.

Harvey’s approach is a bottom-up one, and he warns his readers about the danger of losing track of the intricate web of the whole. He argues, “I must put a burden upon the reader, to try to keep the themes in perspective as part of a totality of interrelations that constitutes the driving force of social transformation in a given place and time” (102). True, there is always some risk involved in proceeding in this way, and given that his writing presupposes a quite educated reader, he probably has every right to count on the latter’s participation in constructing the whole. Yet, some of the shreds that constitute the picture of Paris seem to be recurrent enough as to deserve a few summarizing final notes on how to put them together. Paris, Capital of Modernity seems to bear the cross of assembling a number of previously written essays (though these are often revised and extended). This means that each of the chapters is self-contained and can thus be read in and for itself, but, on the down side, it may discourage a burdened reader who desperately tries to grasp the totality.

Nevertheless, this book remains an essential supplement to the vast corpus of modernity studies, and is certainly recommended to Walter Benjamin scholars, since it crystallizes much of the ideas the German philosopher touched upon in The Arcades Project.

Sofie Verraest
Doctoral Researcher, Department of General and Comparative Literature, Ghent University