Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Urban Monstrosity


Mark Featherstone

In Mathieu Kassowitz’s 1995 film 'La Haine' the outskirts of Paris are represented as a strange savage wilderness characterised by alienation, despair, ethnic tension, and low level criminality. Fifteen years on the characters may have changed, so that the ethnic aliens in Kassowitz’s film have been replaced by a new ‘other’ in the form of the Romanian immigrant, but the general condition of ethnic tension and class division remain the same. On my recent trip to le banlieues with the French cultural studies journal D-Fiction, I walked through the dystopian ruins of modern Paris, the spaces of Le Corbusier, a failed utopia, which has now decayed to a kind of anomic non-space.

But how can we understand the condition of urban monstrosity which has seen the modernist utopia become a post-modern dystopia in the context of contemporary Paris? How can we understand the contemporary nature of urban alienation in Paris, and the situation of the new ethnic alien, the Romanian or Transylvanian other, the vampire who threatens the life-blood of the French nation in Sarkozy’s neo-liberal imaginary? In my forthcoming work on urban monstrosity, I seek to explore the contemporary French urban condition through a discussion of Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, on the notions of decay, utopia, and dystopia, and a visual ethnography of the contemporary Parisian suburb. While Cioran spent much of his life in Paris, his dark works are important because they can shed light on the condition of urban decay, dereliction, and ruination. By contrast, images of urban graffiti and tags communicate the meaning of the contemporary suburban condition in the French capital, a neo-liberal dreamworld, the city of light, which is also a city of exclusion, marginality, and darkness.

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