UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Dispatches from Second Empire Paris: Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and urban modernity Duckworth, Grant


In this thesis, I examine the socio-spatial transformations which occurred in metropolitan Paris during the Second Empire (1852-1870). Although the reign of Napoleon III only lasted seventeen years, it constitutes an important threshold in the history of France and the French capital. This was the age of imperialism, industrialism, commercialism, and science; a time when the emperor deliberately set out to modernize the country, its economy, and its cities. At the center of this aggressive modernization scheme was Paris. For decades, critics from all walks of life had been calling out for massive urban reforms. The chilling spectacle of political rebellion, growing concerns about the threat of contamination, mounting congestion, and urban decay, and the rise of mass consumerism were the primary forces behind the "strategic beautification" of Paris. The responsibility of modernizing the capital was delegated to Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Between his appointment in 1853 and his unceremonious departure in 1870, Haussmann turned the rabbit-warren network of filthy medieval corridors into an elaborate panorama of architectural splendours and magnificent boulevards. I argue that Haussmann's civic improvement scheme should be remembered as a grand Utopian experiment which produced its own share of failures. The historical philosophies of the Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin and the French academic Michel Foucault inform much of the discussion. Both Benjamin and Foucault resided and worked in Paris but at different times and under completely different circumstances. For Benjamin, nineteenth-century Paris was a dreamworld of phantasmagoria, a City of Mirrors, and a labyrinth of reflecting images. Foucault, who never wrote about Paris specifically, was concerned with an entirely different set of questions. According to him, the major socio-spatial changes of the previous century were representative of institutionally sanctioned strategies of surveillance, discipline, normalization. Like Haussmann, the experience of living in the French capital had a profound effect on Benjamin's and Foucault's geographical imaginations. I argue that in order to understand Benjamin's and Foucault's ruminations on nineteenth-century notions of space, power, and, knowledge, it is important to first place those arguments in the context of their personal experiences, the urban geographies through which they moved, and the times that they belonged to. Thus, Paris is not simply an object of historical analysis, it is also a context for comparing and contrasting the intellectual thought of Benjamin and Foucault.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.