Wednesday, 21 April 2010
I've just come back from a few days in Paris, where I lived from 1990 to 1999. It can be hard to discuss one's perceptions of foreign places, because there's no other subject on which confirmation bias more acutely skews and finally devastates any attempt at rational debate. People build up from the culture around them a set of assumptions and beliefs about other countries or cities or peoples over a period of years or decades; they then go and visit the actual foreign place for a couple of days, and in practice don't have time to do much more than note confirmations of those stereotypes. The dominant English myth of France and Paris is overwhelmingly positive, to the degree that it constitutes what Orwell described as "transferred nationalism": considering France/Paris the flower of civilisation, culture, sophistication and beauty, the English tend to be fervent patriots for another country. They also tend to have a lower opinion of French politicians and their policies, but then French nationalists who are actually French share this bifurcation between a worship of "France" and a hatred of its current political elite. It's integral to the Francophilia that prevails in England that it should consider itself radical and non-conformist, proudly and individualistically going against the supposed grain of English Francophobia. In practice, England is absolutely packed wall to wall with Francophiles, each of whom fondly imagines him/herself a fearless rebel. This is reinforced by a tendency of the British media only to report on European news when there is violence involved (avalanches, train wrecks, terrorism, riots), or when it can be contrasted with Britain as a stick to hit the latter with. So we hear a lot about France's "cafe culture" as a superior alternative to British binge drinking; but we don't hear that road deaths in France are far higher than in Britain largely due to a greater social tolerance of drunk driving. As I found in the 1990s, anyone telling the English things about France that don't fit into their preconceived myths of a sub-Channel paradise is taking their life in their hands (figuratively speaking, on the whole).
Still, this is my blog, and I'd like to mention a few perceptions I had of Paris when I visited it this month. For one thing, I noticed that Parisians were considerably fatter than in the 1990s and much less well dressed. The first of these can be attributed to the recent and worldwide wave of obesity which, though it may have struck America and Britain hardest, will necessarily also hit everywhere else to the extent that it's caused by economic pressures. The second may be due to the globalisation of fashion standardising dress worldwide and thereby eliminating any local advantage; it wouldn't then be so much that the quality of Parisian style had relatively declined, as that it had become much the same as the dress anywhere else. The point here is that economic globalisation has changed Paris too; this is not Paris as mythical paradise but as another place in the same world (it has far more CCTV now, too).
More relevantly to the subject of this blog, the most startling perception I had was that the material substance of Paris, its architecture and look, had not changed at all. In Oxford where I live buildings are constantly being torn down and areas redeveloped; I was in London twice last summer and both times noticed how vastly different it looked to when I lived there in 1986-89, both through redevelopment and through cultural and social change. Paris, on the contrary, looked, at least in its centre, exactly the way it did when I arrived there 20 years ago; it seemed to be set in aspic. Many French expatriates I know would link this to the conservatism they now think typifies the country. The rhythm of change in France tends to be either non-existent or brutal, and just as central Paris was mostly and traumatically invented by Baron Haussmann in the 1860s, and just as it was revolutionised culturally in the 1950s-70s by the mass displacement of the white working-class (the people seen in Doisneau's photos and pre-war films) out of the city into the suburbs, and just as the city is periodically subjected to grandiose Presidential building projects, so Paris seems incapable of any kind of gradual evolution. Either total overhaul, or stagnation. And while Paris is certainly beautiful enough already not to need drastic reshaping, it looked to my eye shabby, dilapidated, in desperate need of some kind of rejuvenation.
Why does this matter for digimodernism? Because Paris was the undisputed home of modernism, and the slightly disputed home of postmodernism (it certainly provided the latter's theorists - see the Ecole Normale above - though most of the cultural and social developments were better exemplifed in America or Japan). In the late 19th century, when Haussmann's Paris was dazzlingly new, it provided the perfect backdrop for an all-new art; in the interwar years and even in the 1950s-60s the city offered museums full of the old culture while embodying an instance of the modern overthrowing the past which funnelled into revolutions of all kinds. Today, Paris seems like yesterday's city, a feeling reinforced by the post-1997 movement of hundreds of thousands of young French people to London and England as well as by the corresponding shift of so many middle-aged and elderly English people to France - demographic shift over the past ten years has constructed England as the location of energy and enterprise and France, to put it rudely, as the home of the clapped out.
Where then is digimodernism's home? It may well not have one; or rather, it may be integral to digimodernism that physical location is of minor importance. The epitome of this might be the message board, with its pseudonymous contributors posting their views via computers across the planet. Textually digimodernism is everywhere and nowhere, and it has no geographical centre. Visiting the capital of the 19th century (in Benjamin's description) and of most of the 20th brought this home very vividly.