One of the things I realized while reading The Arcades Project: I don’t know squat about French history. There was this revolution at the end of the 18th century; I don’t think I care about French history before then. (1789? Yes, says the wikipedia; I guess I should read that article, shouldn’t I?) It’s supposed to be very important, but the only facts that stuck are that lots of people were guillotined, and Napoleon came to power soon after. There was also a Napoleon III at some point (1840 or so?), but no Napoleon II worth mentioning; I don’t think their terms were consecutive, and for that matter I think Napoleon I’s term had a gap in the middle, but I don’t know what happened in the gaps. When I started reading about anarchism, I heard favorable mentions of the Paris Commune, but I never hear about it from mainstream sources. (I did get a book on it when I was there this summer; who knows when I’ll get around to reading it.) There was l’affaire Dreyfus some time around the turn of the century. At some point they turned into a standard democracy; I’m not sure exactly when, or what the key events were. I could mutter vaguely coherently about a few facts related to the world wars, but I won’t if for no other reason than the book in question doesn’t directly address that time period. (Though its writing was certainly affected by it…)
At this point, I imagine my European readers are rolling their eyes and muttering something about ignorant Americans. To which I would have to plead guilty. (Or maybe they’re not; maybe Europeans focus on the history of their country just as much as we focus on the history of ours.) I imagine that Americans approach other countries’ history from a particularly bizarre standpoint: we have this idea that a country’s history should basically start with a revolution, after which its political structure is more or less fixed. Which is, of course, not the norm in many parts of the world; for that matter, it’s not necessarily accurate even as a picture of American history.
Anyways, The Arcades Project cast a rather different light on French history, or at least Parisian history. It makes it sound like a constent hotbed of revolution, affecting the structure of the city itself. For example, according to the book, the streets were paved in cobblestones until the citizenry started using them as weapons (dropping them on the heads of the police or soldiers or whatever from high on buildings); and while I’d heard something about Haussmann and his boulevards, I had not heard that one of the reasons for widening the streets was to make it harder for people to build barricades across them. (Is it true that one of the motivations behind the architecture of Harvard’s Currier House was to make it easier to control student revolts?)
And the book is full of references to revolutionaries that I’ve never heard of. This is, I think, a systemic flaw in history as it’s taught in American schools; we can hardly help mentioning Marx and Engels, but we avoid putting them in any sort of context whenever possible, preferring to see them as an eccentric and tragic aberration in the course of human progress. Similarly, various utopian writers get mentioned, of whom Fourier is the only one that I’ve heard. (Should I read him at some point? I’ll probably never get around to that, but who knows.) Judging from A People’s History of the United States, we have similar blinders even towards our own history…
Really, just understanding the French Revolution would be a good start for me: like I said, American schools can’t manage to avoid talking about it, but it’s usually presented in a context of mindless bloodshed. Which begs the question of why the French stubbornly insist upon its importance. I think the subtext here is that, while of course we revere the American revolution, we also revere elites, and we don’t like it when they get killed. (Is it true that twenty times as many people were killed when putting down the Paris Commune as were killed in the French Revolution? But of course the deaths of the citizenry is hardly worth mention.)
All issues of politics aside, the book is wonderful. The book had been sitting on my shelf unread for a couple of years: it’s big, and I wasn’t that thrilled with Illuminations. But Samuel R. Delany has written interestingly about The Arcades Project, and of course Trilectic is enough to make me give Walter Benjamin another shot, so I finally gave it a try. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy books written as a series of disjointed paragraphs; it pulls out all sorts of fantastic tidbits (about things I’d never thought I’d care about: expositions, use of glass and steel in building construction, arcades, paving stones, boulevards, utopias, the stock exchange, …) vaguely relating the paragraphs but also letting them stand quite well on their own as interesting curiosities.
And the RIAA (and its other content-producer allies) would like to make books like this impossible to write in the future. Sigh. Just a month or two, I’d been reading some books that, among other things, emphasized the importance of sampling in creative works; at the time, I agreed intellectualy that sampling should be legal but wasn’t convinced that its loss would be so tragic (aside, of course, of idiocies like preventing people from having a snippet of a TV show appearing for 5 seconds in a movie background), but now I see how wrong I was…
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