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Exhibiting utopia : religion, utopia, and modernity at the Paris universal exhibition of 1867 MacNevin, James Alexander

Abstract

This paper explores the intertwinement of religion, Utopia, and modernity in nineteenth century French culture, through a study of the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867. The international exhibitions that began with the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851 were among the largest and most important cultural events of the nineteenth century. They aimed to be both didactic and entertaining; their displays were intended to be simultaneously encyclopaedic and celebratory. In recent years, a sizeable body of historical literature has grown up around the exhibitions, illuminating the role they played in propagating the culture of modernity and the faith in progress that were so hegemonic in the nineteenth century. The Universal Exhibition of 1867, however, stands out as something of a peculiarity among these exhibitions, and previous histories of exhibitions have not adequately accounted for this peculiarity. Organised primarily by the social Catholic Frederic Le Play and the Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier, it contained pronounced strains of religiosity and utopianism intertwined with the usual reverence for the products of modern industry. Through an examination of the Exhibition and the debates surrounding it, this paper argues that religious utopianism was a powerful current in nineteenth-century French thought and culture. In particular, it will be argued that the Exhibition of 1867 reveals the shift from the Utopian socialism of the early nineteenth century to a kind of Utopian capitalism under the Second Empire of Napoleon III. In making this argument, this paper seeks to reassess the role of utopianism in modern culture, and also to problematise the assumption that modernity and religiosity are incompatible.

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