Revolutionary Geography & A Sinister Typology

April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

“J’ai entrepris un sujet moderne, une barricade et si je n’ai pas vaincu pour la patrie au moins peindrais-je pour elle”  (I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade and even though I have not fought for my country, at least I will have painted for her), wrote Eugène Delacroix to his brother in 1830.

Barricades map

Ledoux’s Barrières

Also a modern ‘subject’ — Some time in the late 18th century Antoine Lavoisier, famed chemist and fermier general, came up with the idea of drawing a barrier around Paris in order to prevent the evasion of the despised octrois, or internal customs duties. Charles Nicolas Ledoux, official architect of the ferme générale swiftly designed more than 6 watchtowers and 50 solemn neo-classical structures that would be the collection offices—these variations on a theme provides perhaps one of the best examples of the late 18th century obsession with architectural typology, an obsession that followed the greater attempt to classify nature, after Linneaus and Buffon (perhaps best illustrated by JNL Durand’s AMAZING Recueil et Parallèle). This architectural exercise, however tackled a new type, and Ledoux was ostentatious in his departures from Classical language.

Construction began in 1785 on what Ledoux would bombastically refer to as “les Propylées de Paris.” Predicting popular protest, most of the wall and collection offices were completed within the short span of three years.Unlike previous defensive walls built around the cities, (the form having been perfected by Vauban under the auspices of le Grand Dauphin) this was the first circumscription designed not to protect the city from external threat, but rather as a way to manage the internal affairs of a city. Ironically, Ledoux’s propylaea performed a function completely opposite of those that guarded the entrance to the Greek city-state. Here we see the perfect functional (as opposed to formal)[1] inversion of Arendt’s polis . The new wall besieged a concretely redefined urban enceinte, as a gathering of men who observed economic duties as opposed to a gathering of men bearing political rights. This was the monarchical state’s attempt to capture the wealth of the city, but it was a grave mistake. At this moment the menu peuple could not only view the totality of the system, they could not avoid the very image of their own over-determination.  Any remaining illusion of the city as the space of political appearance had suddenly given way to the reality of the city as pure function of the monarchical household (oikos— Greek for house, but as Arendt reminds us, also the origin of the word economy). Clearly, this transformation had taken place long before the wall was even imagined,[2] but the construction monumentalized reality. Unsurprisingly the wall concentrated the energies of the menu peuple. whotook to repeating the aphorism[3] “Le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant” (The wall walling Paris keeps Paris murmuring). The year that saw the completion of the wall was also the year of the storming of the Bastille. The perfection of the city as a pure economic function of the state required this physical enclosure. Without it the city’s undisciplined merchants and farmers would always find a way of evading the duties imposed upon them. That perfection, however was also its demise. The men of fermé generale understood that the wall, from its moment of conception was a target—a testament to the already outdated nature of the wall as a technique of control, but paradoxically also ‘taught’ or, as it were stood as a reminder (the barricade was hardly new by 1789) of the powerful effect of walls.

Despite their power, I would argue (after Wendy Brown) that walls are in fact a signal of flagging power and waning sovereignty (if we can


[1] Because in fact the form the polis remained relatively unchanged, and as Ledoux himself indicated was in fact reminiscent of the Ancient polis)

[2] A general transformation from the Ancient city; the city as a community of citizens,  into the modern city, which as an image has only an representational relationship to society and a merely illusory connection the Ancient city.

[3] Today the phrase is a popular French tongue twister of apocryphal origins.

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