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Left, Right, Left: A Historical, Parisian Tale of University Graffiti

I came across graffiti while working at two very different Parisian universities.  They gave me  pause to think about how graffiti, as a sensory tool, is a powerful mechanism that engages – or maybe even ‘politicizes’ our sense of sight.

Graffiti can challenge the beholder on several levels – as a critique and legitimator of the existing social order, as a historical tool and a gauge of the present –  all through  the sense of sight.

Graffiti proves just how much our senses are  subjective and conditioned  – our judgement of graffiti as ‘ugly’, ‘beautiful’,’offensive’ etc.. – are all ideas that we receive or that we decide to hold as true.

Left, Right: Graffiti at University A

This university has become a home of conservative student politics but was at the forefront of radical left activism in May 1968.  Thanks to online archives, one can explore how graffiti has changed/remained the same since.


Source: Romani, Phototheque du mouvement social.

Source: Romani, Phototheque du mouvement social.

It was all about justice, solidarity with the weak, an inclusive social and economic order.  Graffiti offended the eye as a means of offending on other levels: it sought to destabilize an unjust order through visual discontinuity. The visual aggression of graffiti in May 1968 was much more than a visual effect but a violent act of protest.


A polite anti-immigrant poster that is careful to note that the poster may look racist but it is not.

A polite anti-immigrant poster that is careful to note that the poster may look racist but it is not.

Yes, Everybody Hates François these days. But, in this formerly leftwing bastion, the call is not for a more far left president but a much more conservative one.

Yes, Everybody Hates François these days. But, in this formerly leftwing bastion, the call is not for a more left wing president but a much more conservative one.

At the university that used visual assault to protest in May 1968,  a neat set of  smug, passive-aggressive stickers attack immigration, support far right politics, and calls for the dismissal of the centre-left French president. It is still a challenge to power, yes, but it comes from a right leaning student body. The visual is now deployed to call for a more exclusive social and economic order.

University B:  Oh So Very Gauche

The second university was also at the core of the student protests of May 68. Here  is student graffiti and posters then and now:


Students assert their solidarity with workers and peasants. Source: "Romani" at phototheque du mouvement social",

Students assert their solidarity with workers and peasants. Source: “Romani” at phototheque du mouvement social”,

Graffiti was used to declare support for causes belonging to the left – solidarity with those excluded from the socioeconomic order.


Walls filled with debate, but the politics is still left leaning.

Walls filled with debate, but the politics is still left leaning.

The picture above is of one of several academic scribblings written onto various walls throughout this university. A lot of it was a commentary on the state of left wing politics in Paris of 2014. It was clear that the general tendency was toward the left.   Graffiti is still an optical tool for social critique.  Sight as a sense was still used here to provoke other levels of questioning and critique.


City of love graffiti

So, one of the enduring myths about Paris is that it is a – no, make that the , city of love.

I had to take a picture of this piece of graffiti, a declaration of love, a literal writing on the wall.

The graffiti basically is from someone too afraid to reveal his/her true feelings, and feels unable to ever dare say it.. A love that dares not say it loves.


Paris and Reckoning

It’s a moment of reckoning again. Or not.

The current furore surrounding the French  political ‘earthquake’  –  brought about by significant far-right party gains in recently held European elections –  seems to be the cusp of one of many moments of ‘reckoning’ that have shaped French political life and Parisian history.

Indeed, the theme of ‘reckoning’ appears at many key turning points in the dynamic trajectory of French (and Parisian) history.

There are a few, striking images that come to mind in reflecting upon the theme of ‘reckoning’ in French political life:

Place de la Bastille

It is a poignant monument  within the city that signifies this theme of ‘reckoning’ in Parisian history and French political life. It symbolizes not only a moment of reckoning for the old order but also one  of redemption. It is as much a symbol of the Parisian bourgeoisie’s determination to dismantle a system that was no longer supportable  as it is a symbol of other key themes (progress, human flourishing, innovation).

Marie Antoinette


This image of Marie Antoinette on her knees in the St. Denis Basilica is quite striking. It seems to capture one of the most severely ‘punished’ figures in Parisian history. Here, she is in a position of piety that ultimately did not seem to assuage the Parisian bourgeoisie’s determination to enforce chastisement and reckoning.

 Basilique Sacré-Coeur


This also captures a moment of reckoning of one political order and the birth of the third republic. It signaled a key moment of change. (see this recent blog post).

Place de la Concorde


This was the place were  guillotines were set up to mete out justice against the old order but it was later re-appropriated to symbolize other themes – unity, tolerance, progress.

A contemporary reckoning?


Anti-European sentiment was strong on both the left and right but ultimately

it was the far right that garnered most support. The far left needs a rethink!


France seems to be on the cusp of a potential moment of ‘reckoning’. However, it may be premature to assert that this is definitely the case.

A few things make the gains of the far-right more of a warning than a true reckoning – chief among these is that the far right’s gains were mostly buoyed by high voter absenteeism and high working class support.

The leader of the far right, Marine Le Pen – hate or love her – is one of a few figures articulating a clear political position (how well those positions stand up to sound economic reasoning is questionable). She is able to tap into raw  political sentiment regarding the aftermath of financial crisis, fear of globalization, unemployment,  and so forth,  by coming across as genuine and convinced.

Furthermore, Paris was one of the places were the far-right did not perform too well (relatively speaking).  In a highly centralized country, Parisian political sentiment  is very important.

While it is a significant moment,  a much higher level of political participation is needed to declare a genuine moment of reckoning.  With close to 56,5% of voters staying away from the European polls, perhaps the right-wing friendly result is at best a measure of political temperature. And boy is it sizzling.



Imagining Central Paris of the Middle Ages: A comment on bells and the medieval soundscape

If only one could time travel – the sensory experience of Paris of the middle ages would be interesting to have, but as a 21st century being. This little advertisement for a DVD tour through Paris of the middle ages had to serve as the next best thing to a time machine, it offers a useful tool to begin to imagine how Paris could have been experienced, through the senses, at the time.

In terms of trying to determine the sounds of the time, it seems especially important to be attentive to the church bells of Notre Dame that was one of the more key, distinguishing landmarks – if this imagined representation is anything to go by;

In an era where there was no recorded sound,  the bells offered a consistent sound effect to scenes of daily city life: a  sound of a predictable quality and tenor. This predictable sound stands in strong contrast to our world where several programmed sounds form part of our city soundscapes. In addition to the programmed sounds that we may carry with us to create our own auditory experiences of the city – iPods, our phones and so forth – the city’s sounds are  more organic, varied.

The bells of notre dame were also tied to the broader rhythm of life of the medieval city: Sound was intricately tied to a sense of time and the cycles that shaped the day.  Today,  artificial sound (arguably) plays less of a functional role, and is predominantly linked to entertainment and noise pollution.

And, of course, there is a much wider democratization of sound experience of the city, we all beat to different drums in today’s city and have more tools to define, cancel and customize how we experience sound as we go about our days.

The short video in French also gives an interesting tool to  visualize the interaction of the city with other senses –  the city’s color scheme that has since changed to a large degree and perhaps the sense of touch ( the building materials used seem to suggest a particular tactile experience, quite different from todays sleeker experience of touching steel and other smoother surface).

And, there is of course, the opportunity to try to imagine the smells of the age: the smell of grass, sand, the building material.

However, as one imagines these different dimensions of sensory experience, it is also worth thinking about whether the senses at the time were actually socially and otherwise conditioned. To what degree did ideas of ‘smooth touch’, ‘good smells’, ‘beautiful colors’, ‘pleasant sounds’ and ‘noise’ depend on socially determined meanings.

This is perhaps why a time machine is of the essence because experiencing Paris of the middle ages would be a much more interesting experience for a 21st  century person –  our senses are most definitely very much differently conditioned.


The Basilica of Sacré Coeur as dialectic

The Basilica of the Sacré Coeur On Montmartre is a Parisian landmark that has long inspired debate and divided opinion – both on superficial grounds (is it hideous or comely?) to more profound discussions about its meaning.

The site of the Basilica draws linkages to pre-Christian religious practice, later Christian martyrs and modern France trying to grapple with church/state relations.

The Basilica itself  dates back to the late 19th Century. It emerged out of yet another interesting period in Parisian and French history.

The early 1870s were a moment of more soul searching for the city and France: A third republic had been declared on the back of discontent with the finer details of democracy at the time. The performance of France against the Prussians on the battle field was lackluster and seen as divine punishment for France’s sins by Paris’s leading cleric at the time. According to the archbishop, France had committed too many sins against the church and as such, had lost in battle as divine retribution.   He also added that the rise  anti-clerical sentiment in France since 1789 required repentance.

These fault lines had led to eruption during the commune of Paris in early 1871. (This is that event when Parisians, once again, challenged the political elites of their time and took power into their own hands. The commune was distinctively working class).

Some writers link the decision to construct Sacre-Couer directly to the Paris commune, although the initial decision to build it was a bit earlier as a votive national act. At the least, the commune certainly fed into the context and subsequent resolve to execute its construction.

The Commune

Needless to say, the Paris Commune was a complex thing. It was intricately tied to struggles for a ‘right to the city’ among the working classes who expressed disgruntlement with a political system that had not yet translated  democracy into bread and butter.  It was basically a struggle between labour and capital. There was also the complex relationship between tax paying working class Parisians and the military apparatus of the state. There was a decisive discontent with the channeling state funds into an ill planned war against Prussia while  the city’s poor suffered.

Parisians decided to force democracy out of a ‘republic’ that seemed to reserve its benefits for a few. They decided to force the benefits of state trickle down. Paris of the commune  sounds like a perpetually electric atmosphere: People were voting for their own community based committees , working class and middle class city based meetings discussed the politics of the day and came up with solutions to problems..  A  social protection system, compensating widows and families that had lost fathers and breadwinners to war. It was leftwing political heaven.

‘Marx’ speaks on the Paris Commune

For the church, the commune was disastrous. There was a sense  among the disgruntled Parisians, that the church was compromised for its links to the status quo and ruling classes. The church was seen as  intricately tied to the inflexible and oppressive hierarchies of city and state. Heads had to roll (quite literally). The archbishop was taken hostage, many other clerics killed.

Beyond these acts, the commune also revisited laws from the early 19th century that protected Catholicism as the majority religion of the French. Calls for ‘laïcite’ – an untranslatable notion that roughly equals to ‘secularism’ –  became more pronounced.

A  strict separation of church and state was called for – which at the time meant cutting out some of the special budgetary allocations to the church, and a revision of the church’s status in state life. It was a call to take power from the church and  government and give it to the people.

The basilica was erected in the aftermath of the commune. By then, it had certainly  become a dialectical symbol, a response to secularism. Interestingly, the façade of the basilica is dominated by two figures noted for their devotion to both church and state: Saint Louis, the great French King known equally for his piety and devotion and his dedication to socially just public policy and Joan of Arc, that powerful figure whose mysticism fed into French military strategy and international relations.

These statues offer an imposing visual to the basilica while also adding to an overall formidable piece of architecture. In the context within which it emerged it  certainly evoked debate.   Today, as we take in this sight, its imposing architecture it is imperative to approach the basilica as  a response in a dialectical process.

Sacré Coeur is a reminder to ask whether such historical ‘visuals’  in the city are actually comments, responses, architectural ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ buttons.  Sacré  Coeur is a reminder to ask what does this sight respond to? Who was it speaking (back) too? What was it a sign of?

Whatever one makes of Sacre Coeur, and however divided opinion has been on the basilica it goes without say that Sacré Coeur offers a fabulous view of the city.

Information on Directions and Access to the Basilica here


Music and (renaissance) History – La Salle de Bal, Château de Fontainebleau


The palace of Fontainebleau  is not quite in Paris, but it is a great place to take a quick and dirty lesson in French history.

It bears the footprints of epochs from the middle ages to the mid 19th century. A few of the pre-visit readings also seemed to say that the history covers at least 900 years, one of the large coffee table books in the Château’s bookshop simply rounds off these numbers and s talks about the 1,000 years of history of the Palace.

Whatever the case,  it is clear, there is a lot to take in. This is a great thing – one can increase their history literacy pretty quickly. But, it can also be overwhelming. The Chateau is rich in detail and demands attention to details from several time periods, a constant agility to jump through time in just one visit.  It is a rich concentration of history and demands several revisits.  This blogger will  certainly rerun. Many times, starting off with an exploration of its many gardens that could not be fitted into the first visit.

Overkill is always the way to go…

The Château is delightfully over the top

La Salle de bal

Among the hundreds of things to appreciate at the Chateau, is the famous ‘Salle de bal’, i.e. ballroom.

A significant amount of the construction of the palace took place during the Renaissance. And, the ballroom is the fruit of the hands of renaissance royals, Francis I and his son Henri II. It testifies to the power and inspiration of the music of their age – from the mid 1500s to the early 1600 – upon space.

The renaissance seemed to have produced a sense of,  and a craving for ,liberation in art, architecture, literature, music.  Humanist thought experienced a major comeback. Where the middle ages had produced beautiful, rich  – and  largely biblical  art and philosophy, the renaissance  seemed to have inspired a hunger for more than the orthodoxy of its time. Both sacred and secular music sought to be more expressive and attentive to the affective experience inspired by musical forms.

There was also a renewed appreciation of music as entertainment, as  people became wealthier, new worlds opened up, and  as music became more complex, deliberate, and delightful.

This attention to human experience, greek mythology, detail, and pleasure  in music are clear in the ballroom that reflects the kind of music that was to be played within it.

One of the most delightful scenes (and this is saying a lot, given that each inch of wall is covered in beautiful detail) is a homage to the pleasures of music. The ballroom reflects an era that relished music as a complex product not only to be consumed but to be attended to, carefully registered, and internalized enough to provoke an intense emotional response.

I guess the lesson to learn from the chateau and this stunning homage to music is that one way of reading the history of places is through the music that people listened to, the sense of hearing and how it produced the places that people lived in.

Paris, I suppose, within this period, would have been undergoing the liberation of ideas  that one can see increased into the walls and ceilings of the Salle de bal.  It is clear that a growing bourgeoise in Paris was becoming  as complex and as expressive as the music of its age.  In 1588, for example, we see an increasingly powerful, catholic, bourgeoisie mobilizing against a lax monarch in the context of religion wars. There was a new liberation reflected as much in this Salle as on the barricades of 1588 in Paris.

In Fontainebleau, the ‘School of Fontainebleau’ was deliberately indoctrinating new renaissance converts and bringing the  renaissance to France.

Music and art were producing an increasing appreciation of complexity, detail, beauty and was spreading rapidly thanks to the invention of printing .

As one explores the history of Paris, it is clear that  the music people listened  to – and the sense of hearing – may be a productive way of discovering this city’s fascinating history.


A History of Paris through Plants

Who needs museums to read history? Just take a walk through a forest.

Well, this is a dramatic  and silly proposition that  does not  deserve response and that would lead to a slow spiritual death for this blogger if it were affirmative.

Yet, there is something to be said for observing the oldest inhabitants of Paris: its plant life. 

While walking through the Bois de Vincennes, a former royal hunting ground,  I was reminded of an article I came across in the New Yorker some months ago.

The article basically spoke to the underrated intelligence and endurance of plant life.

How do these thoughts join up, you say?  I do not know. But I would venture to say that to understand the history of the city, it may be interesting to work through some natural history of Paris textbooks.  The resilience of plant life may offer within it clues to some of the city’s history and key turning points, who knows?

It struck me during a sublime and beautiful walk through Vincennes that these former royal hunting grounds retain some of the very life forms and sensory experiences – the smells, sounds, tastes that shaped the lives of people far removed from ours – at least in terms of time. 

Developing a solid sense of history, it seemed to me, necessarily needs some dialogue or understanding of the natural environment that is not just superficial. This isclearly a task too extensive for a blog post, but one that will be pursued by this blogger.