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1 Paris: Place and Space of Revolution
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Paris: Place and Space of Revolution

1789. Depuis un siècle bientôt, ce nombre est la préoccupation du genre humain. Tout le phénomène moderne y est contenu.
Victor Hugo, Paris-Guide

1789. For close to a century, this number has preoccupied the human race. It contains the whole phenomenon of modernity.

The Revolution made Paris unique among the great cities of the world. Other cities may be more impressive, more important, more beautiful, but none can claim revolution as its very principle. For the whole of the nineteenth century, Paris could make that claim, and it did. The storming of the Bastille in the northeast corner of the city on the 14th of July 1789 announced the first modern revolution, and the perception of the modernity of the phenomenon has a great deal to do with the decidedly urban character of the most central events of the 1790s. The Revolution played out in an urban spectacle of unparalleled and willful drama. Revolutionary governance took place in public, in the street, in the square, in the assembly hall. Its urban setting—from the trial and execution of the king to officially staged ceremonies like the Festival of Reason—set the tone of the Revolution at the time and for the century to come.

Urbanity was not ancillary to the Revolution. Quite to the contrary, the role that devolved upon Paris turned out to be absolutely crucial to the profound reconceptualization of French society that followed. Neither the English Revolution of the seventeenth century nor the American Revolution of the 1770s sought to redefine the individual and the whole understanding of society with anything like the fervent conviction that animated the entire political spectrum of the first French republic. Still more significant in the long term, the concentration of people and the intensification of energies in the city merged revolutionary ideals into the practice of everyday life. The language of the urban center set the standard for the rest of the


country, as it had during the ancien régime, but thenceforth it was sustained and incomparably magnified by the educational institution's established in the crucial first decade of the republic. Taking over cultural as well as political supremacy from Versailles, Paris determined the course of the Revolution by always being the place of revolution.

Paris could represent the Revolution because the Revolution, in its turn, remade Paris in its image. The dramatic temper of revolutionary events fixed powerful new images and associations in the city, associations that shaped public perception for the better part of a century. Whatever other associations it might acquire, and whether it was feared or revered, Paris persisted as the city of the guillotine, the city of popular riots and coups d'état, the city that staged revolution as a matter of course, and of principle.

Paris bore the conspicuous marks of its monarchical origins. The monuments, buildings, palaces, churches, the very streets of this revolutionary city, kept in full view a social order that the new age worked so sedulously to consign to the past. It was inevitable that revolutionaries should seek to remake the city in the image of their revolution, a Paris that reached beyond its most obvious role as the site of revolutionary incidents. The new Paris would constitute the space in which the Revolution was inscribed. In a word, Paris was meant to signify the Revolution.

Altering topography offered the most evident answer to the dilemma of imposing the new city on the old, and a number of buildings besides the Bastille were in fact destroyed. Yet, despite the visions of barbarians sacking Rome raised by the neologism vandalism, Paris saw far less destruction than some had feared and others had desired. In any case, short of building a new capital altogether (the route followed by the American Republic) or razing the city and starting from the ground up (such a suggestion was, indeed, ventured), reconstructing Paris as the pure signifier of revolution was quite out of the question, even if one could achieve agreement on what that signifier should look like.

By shifting topography to toponymy, from the relatively fixed to the inherently mobile, revolutionary fervor converged on phenomena particularly susceptible to modification. Energies were not directed at things themselves so much as at the ways those things were conceived, perceived, and used. Rather than destroy aristocratic pal-


aces, the new government was more likely to convert the property to properly revolutionary function as a public building. With their inscription of the revolution on the cityscape itself, words, names, and eventually texts, offered an immediate and economical means of turning urban space to revolutionary account. The many texts of a revolutionary urban discourse produced in effect a new, revolutionary landscape.

Every regime thereafter followed this paradigm of redefinition. Each of the major political revolutions of the nineteenth century—1830, 1848, 1871—reconfigured the landscape to fit the altered structures of power. Writers joined architects, urban planners, and government officials in molding the distinctive cultural practices of the new city. For the city was at once text and pre-text as it engaged writers in a concentrated effort of reinterpretation and re-presentation. In the very act of bearing witness to the transformations of the city, writers and their texts pushed those transformations further.

The insistent rewriting of the city was at once the result of the experience of modernity and an agent of that modernity. For the city was far more than the place where central revolutionary events occurred. Paris became the archetypical city of revolution not because the Bastille fell in one corner of the city and the guillotine rose in another but because so many different kinds of texts infused this space with an aura of revolution. The urban discourse that evolved over the nineteenth century in the novels, the articles, and the literary guidebooks that poured into the literary marketplace sought to contain revolution and to fix change. The names bestowed on the city over the century continually revised and in revising retold the neverending tale of Parisian revolution.


Je remplis d'un beau nom ce grand espace vide.
J. Du Bellay, Les Regrets

I fill this great empty space with a beautiful name.

To create is to name. The reverse also holds. To name is to create, since nomination presupposes as it signifies the right no less than the privilege of creation. Whatever form it takes, nomination makes a primal gesture of appropriation. The Book of Genesis accordingly


makes nomination at once inseparable from, and a requisite of, creation. Adam's naming of God's creatures (including Woman) is the act that places them under his dominion. Genesis similarly insists upon the intrinsic connection between language and space. Although Adam names the creatures of the earth, God alone names the earth and does so before every other creation. Bestowed before the Fall in both instances, the first names given by God and Adam bespeak a perfect world, and every nomination since harks to this harmony between the creator and the work. Every naming holds out the hope of starting anew, for every creator wants to say, in essence, "and, behold, it was very good" (Genesis  1:31).[1]

The biblical vision of nomination, with its power justified and sustained by unimpeachable authority, haunts every act of nomination. It is especially relevant to the naming of space. For spatial nominations express as they formulate a certain sense of the collectivity. More or less obviously, they fit within a larger system of representations through which the collectivity defines itself, to itself and to the world beyond. Names crystallize identity. But the space that they create can open into conflict as well as community. Whose space for whose community? These names play out the tensions between the individual and the collectivity, between the ideal and the real. While these tensions play out in every spatial nomination, they are, perhaps, most pronounced in cities. Small enough to make the whole visible and large enough to accommodate a multiplicity of parts, the modern city articulates its history in the network of names that signal possession of space.

Cities require names for many purposes. They need to name the whole, and they need to name the parts. But a single name cannot comprehend the polyphonic, polymorphous, polysemic city. If it identifies, the single name offers no entry into the intricate urban text. The ordinarily fixed name of the city contrasts sharply with the mobility, and the volatility, of the names for the parts within a city. In one sense, the single name comprehends all the others. But these others do not project an image. They tell tales, the tales of the city. Names within the city recount its history, its heroes, its battles, its culture. They spin the threads of the evolving urban narrative, woven over many years, decades, centuries.

There is perhaps no better single gauge to the larger significance of these nominatory connections than city street names. Like the other signs of urban civilization—from obvious icons like statues, monuments, and buildings to the grid of streets and districts—street


names confer meaning on urban space. Obvious signs to the city, street names are at the same time signs of the city. Certainly, the naming of streets affords a crucial opportunity to affirm, or to contest, control of the city. It arrogates the authority to fashion the city. Beyond identifying location, names on streets socialize space and celebrate cultural identity. They historicize the present and preserve the past. They mediate between local and ambient cultures, between individuals and institutions; they play politics and articulate ideologies; they perpetuate tradition; and they register change. In sum, street names offer a privileged field to examine the continual process of recording and interpreting the city. In the extensive notes he made for his unfinished magnum opus on nineteenth-century Paris, Walter Benjamin stressed precisely this kind of linguistic definition of space. The city, for Benjamin, accumulated a privileged class of words, a nobility of names. Through language, the ordinary—the street—becomes extraordinary. The city thus becomes a universe of language or, in Benjamin's dramatic conception, a linguistic cosmos.[2]

A linguistic cosmos? Or, more modestly, a text to be read metaphorically as well as literally? Names narrativize the environment and in so doing concur in the construction of a properly urban text. To speak of the "urban text" is to do more than indulge in metaphor. Or, rather, the metaphor makes good theoretical sense. We can read the city because of the properties the urban text shares with other texts. The one and the others display the never-ending dialogue between author and text, between text and reader. Each exhibits the contest of fabrication and interpretation; each exemplifies the shifting relations between text and intertexts.

Should we object that the city has no author, we would see that the commonsensical dichotomy is open to question. Although cities themselves are the work of many hands, planned cities have authors of sorts, and urban planners certainly have ambitions that can only be seen as authorial. Meanwhile, for the written text, contemporary criticism directs us away from the author to the many different intertexts. Written texts, like cities, unfold through long, and often painful, processes of creation. In both cases the text changes. With cities, the basic text has to change to accommodate the requirements of new users—a dynamic not always present for the new reader of an old written text.

Names make important connections between these two kinds of texts. For names appropriate the urban text much as an author marks


a written text. As the biblical model makes clear, nomination presumes authority, and it supposes as well an agent to exercise that authority. Its many names make the city a striking illustration of the multivocality, or heteroglossia, that Bakhtin assigns to prose and, particularly, to the novel. The basic contours of the urban text as of the written text are determined by the tensions between the authority of the nominator and the interpretations continually fabricated by the users of those texts. The heteroglossia of the text contests the authority of the author. Every reading of any text must balance the competing claims of authorial constraint and interpretive freedom. Reading the city is no exception to that rule.


Habiter Athènes, Corinthe, Sienne ou Amsterdam, c'est habiter un discours. . . . La ville est un langage.
Jean Duvignaud, Lieux et non lieux

To inhabit Athens, Corinth, Siena or Amsterdam is to inhabit a discourse. . . . The city is a language.

That streets should have names is not self-evident. For centuries, most villages and towns felt no need to name their streets, and even today a major urban center like Tokyo manages to do without them. The rethinking of urban space entailed by the naming of streets suggests a relatively extensive geographical area, a population of a certain density, and a varyingly complex array of social and commercial activities. Street names were one outcome of this (re)conceptualization of the urban whole. The debates over street names during the Revolution became so strident because the monarchy had so strongly marked the Parisian text. Rewriting that text to make the city consonant with revolutionary ideals was an enterprise all the more fraught with conflict because the monarchical text proved impossible to efface. Contrary to the way the American revolutionaries were able to proceed at about the same time when they built a capital city from the ground up, French revolutionaries had to contend with the past on every corner.

In their beginnings many towns made do with one or a very few names—la Grande Rue, la Petite Rue, la Rue Basse, la Rue Haute, or, in early American settlements, the inevitable Main Street. Street


names became general in Paris beginning in the twelfth century, but elsewhere in France the written record indicates few names before the thirteenth century. No other city at the time came close to the population of Paris. By the end of the thirteenth century, the city could boast over two hundred thousand inhabitants and over three hundred streets—three hundred ten "real streets" according to the testimony of Guillot's poem Le Dit des rues de Paris.[3]

How were these early streets designated? As in older cities generally, streets in medieval Paris bore "local" or descriptive names, that is, names that made some sort of connection to the site. Consider the following names in Paris and their often tangled origins:

Location—Contrescarpe (on an escarpment), Saint-Denis (the road leading north to Saint-Denis), Grève (near the bank, i.e., la grève, of the Seine)

Topography—Rosiers (rose bushes), Serpente (serpentine street), Pavée (paved, therefore remarkable)

A building or domain—Louvre, Monnaie (the mint), Notre-Dame; or owners thereof—Capucines (Capucin monks), Croulebarbe

Merchandise sold or trade exercised—Mégisserie (tanneries), Ferronerie (ironmongers), Verrerie (glassmakers)

A store sign—Epée-de-bois (wooden sword), Croissant (crescent moon)

Inhabitants—Anglais (English scholars in the Latin Quarter), Mauvais Garcons ("bad boys" or ruffians), Grande Truanderie (big-time ruffians and criminals).

These often colorful names satisfy on several levels. The evident link between name and space renders the name essential, a manifestation, as it were, of the space. The name justified the space, which in turn authorized the name. In the perfectly harmonious world these connections implied, signifier corresponded to signified, sign coincided with referent.

The evident connection between name and place enabled another, between place and history. In their original form, such names were so many features of a genuine popular culture. The users, that is, the inhabitants, took care of the names. But when another generation of users took over, street names shifted to reflect their use of the space.


Orality makes popular culture singularly unstable, so that until street names entered the written record, they were subject to the vicissitudes of population movement and topographical alteration and to the vagaries of human memory. Semantic corruption set in almost as soon as the original basis for the name vanished.

The name that we see on the street today may have no connotative connection to the original, despite the tales that may be (and usually are) advanced to sustain a connection. In the Paris of the thirteenth century, the street Gilles-Queux told of an important inhabitant, Guile-Queux, that is, Guy the Cook. Without the cook and his cooking to anchor the name, Gui-le-Queux turned into Gille-le-Cueur, which metamorposed into Gilles-Coeur (Gille Heart), then to its present name, Gît-le-Coeur (Here-lies-the-heart), the last generating innumerable stories about a putative mistress of Henri IV who supposedly lived there when the name entered the written record. Egyptienne, taken from the chapel of Sainte-Marie l'Egyptienne, became Gibecienne and later Jussienne; and among the most savory, Pute-y-muse (Whores' Walk) became the Petit-Musc (Little Musk) that we come upon in the fourth arrondissement today.

The list could go on and on. Moreover, so strong was the sense of placement, so powerful the belief that word and object ought to correspond, that early chroniclers of Paris made a point of tracing back through topographical and semantic changes to reestablish the authentic connection. By the early fifteenth century there was already a need to set the record straight. The historian Guillebert de Metz, for example, had frequent recourse to the phrase "properly speaking" to disentangle the subsequent narratives and establish what he determined were the true origins of certain Paris street names.[4]

The expansion of Paris occurred along with the consolidation of the French monarchy. Indeed, royal appropriation of the city marked the entry of Paris into the modern age. Street names were its insignia, yet another sign of royal power, a means of impressing dominion on topography itself. The force of the revolutionary reaction on the streets a century and a half later was very much a function of this initial exercise of what can be taken as symbolic eminent domain, the creation of a "sacred geography" designated by and dedicated to the monarchy. This sacred geography was at the same time a "landscape of power" that inscribed the power relations of the larger society.[5]


The ascendancy of Paris took a decisive turn with the decision of François I to settle in Paris. In 1528 the impecunious king notified his "Very Dear and Well Loved Friends" in the rich municipality that his intention from then on was to reside in "our good city of Paris" more than in any other part of the kingdom. To this effect, the Louvre was to be repaired and made fit for royal habitation.[6] Once the definitive conquest of Paris seventy years later ended the wars of religion, the first Bourbon king, Henri IV (1594-1610), went about making his Paris the symbolic center of a reunited France. He and his energetic minister Sully launched the first Parisian urban renewal, building some sixty-eight new streets and developing whole new areas, most spectacularly the Place Royale (now the Place des Vosges) and the Place Dauphine on the Ile de la Cité.

Fittingly, it was Henri IV who introduced the honorific model of topographical nomination, which removed nominatory powers from the users to the government, where they have resided ever since. As it reached further and further into the quotidian, the state assumed the expression and almost the constitution of a collective consciousness. The new streets of the new Paris confined their honors to the royal family: the rue Christine, named for the daughter of Henri IV and Marie de Médicis; the rue and the Place Dauphine, for the then Dauphin, Louis XIII; and at one remove, the rue Sainte-Anne, named for the patron of the queen, Anne of Austria. Aristocrats close to the Crown might fall under the royal mantle of honorific recognition (the rues Richelieu, Mazarine, Vendôme, Colbert), as did certain especially important entrepreneurs who opened new sections of the city (the rues Charlot and Villedo, the Pont Marie). Glorious happenings completed the roster of nominatory possibilities (Place des Victoires, and Place des Conquêtes for the Place Vendôme). In the eighteenth century, the municipality added city officials (the rues Vivienne and Feydeau, the quai d'Orsay). But though those honored came to include "lesser" individuals, dispensing that honor remained a royal prerogative.

So strong was the sense that the city belonged to its masters and its makers that the dramatist, essayist, and seemingly ubiquitous journalist Louis-Sébastien Mercier predicted outrage on the part of the city fathers when the first honorific street names fell outside of these official categories. It is logical, Mercier agreed, that the streets sur-


Plate 1. 
The Porte and Place Porte de France. An engraving of 1640 taken 
from a 1615 design for the Place de France, a synecdoche for France. Henri 
IV planned the Place for the area near the northern city wall, but it was never 
built. Each of the twenty-four approaching and connecting streets was to bear 
the name of a province, the significance of the province determining the size 
and centrality of the street. The eight main streets leading into the place 
represented the largest provinces; the seven concentric connecting streets 
took the names of the lesser provinces; and the smallest interconnecting 
streets were allotted to the smallest provinces. No wonder a later commentator 
called it "the most national, the most French idea that any French sovereign 
had ever conceived . . . a sort of national Pantheon." (Photograph courtesy 
of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.)

rounding the new Théâtre de l'Odéon in 1779 should bear the names of illustrious French dramatists. But as he foretold the brouhaha, Mercier confidently insisted that the scandal would not last. City officials, he conjectured, would soon get used to seeing Corneille and Molière as the "companions of their glory."[7]

The royal practice of urban nomination found its clearest expression not in any site or name that we can recall today but in Henri IV's extraordinarily ambitious project for the Porte and Place de France. In this vast semicircular place to be located immediately inside the northern city wall, each of twenty-four approaching and connecting streets was to bear the name of a province. The size of the street correlated with the geopolitical importance of the province: the eight main streets leading into the center of the place bore the names of the greater provinces (Picardie, Dauphiné, Provence, Languedoc,


Guienne, Poitou, Bretagne, Bourgogne); the seven concentric connecting streets stood for the lesser provinces (Brie, Bourbonnais, Lyonnais, Beauce, Auvergne, Limousin, Périgord); and finally, the smallest interconnecting streets signified the smallest provinces (Saintonge, La Marche, Touraine, Le Perche, Angoulême, Berri, Orléans, Beaujolais, Anjou).

Perhaps the Place de France represented royal hegemony too perfectly; or perhaps its conception of toponymical relations was too abstract for the early seventeenth century. In the event, Henri IV was assassinated before he could proceed, and his successors let the venture drop. The plan was not even printed for another thirty years. But it is a remarkable document, striking for the modernity of its conception; for the Place de France, in effect, reduced to a single text the political program that concerned all of the regimes over the nineteenth century. It was, to take the exalted terms of a nineteenthcentury commentator all but overcome with patriotic fervor, "the most national, the most French idea that any French sovereign had ever conceived." Had it been realized, this observer enthused, France would have had "a sort of national Panthéon" before the fact, a monument to "strike the imagination" and propagate edifying "moral and political ideas" among the populace.[8]

Whether these pedagogical considerations were those of the first Bourbon monarch or, more likely, those of a nineteenth century fairly obsessed with creating national unity, the moral and political idea that drove this experiment was indubitably the integration of France and its capital. The Place de France made synecdoche visible, since it, like the honorific model of nomination more generally, tied the street to ideology. As a consequence, the Place broke the link of street to site and severed the connection between toponymy and local urban practices and personages. The Revolution changed the ideology, but the first rebaptism of a Paris street in 1791 followed the principle of symbolic control established by the monarchy over a century and a half before.

In turning into an act of state, the naming of streets reverted to the adamic model. Nomination presupposed creation. Presumably, usage followed. But how do city dwellers know their streets other than through usage? Registration of street names entered them into the public record, but those early records were unlikely to affect many users directly. Moreover, the scarcity of reliable maps and their lack


of portability complicated inordinately any venture out of one's immediate vicinity. The Swiss visitor to Paris in 1663 who took three hours to reach his destination was neither the first nor the last to find himself in such a predicament. The colorful, striking store signs helped only after one reached the right street.

Hence, the single most important measure for the integration of the street and the neighborhood into the city, and the first step toward rationalizing use of the urban text, was the decree that the name be fixed on the street itself. The first real street sign dates from 1643, when the Dominicans requested permission to mark the street on which their convent was located "Rue Saint Dominique formerly Cow Street." Surprisingly perhaps, not until 1728 did the lieutenant général de la police order names placed on the first and last house of every street in Paris. The often vehement resistance to the decree revealed the still very weak sense of the city as a whole to which individuals subordinated their personal affairs. To foil the recalcitrant owners who tore off the metal plaques nailed onto their houses, an ordinance in 1729 directed that the name of the street and the number of the quartier be chiseled in a stone set into the wall itself. Many of these inscriptions can be seen still today, some with the same name as on the contemporary sign, others with names that invoke the older city. In 1823 metal plaques with white letters on a black background replaced the names in stone, and beginning in 1844, enamel plaques with white letters on a blue background replaced the first plaques. The current signs in Paris are flimsy metal imitations of these blue and white enamel plaques.

The formal street sign dealt the final blow to popular nomenclature. Although registration tended to sanction usage, in the long term it was inscription that decided usage. The written language fixed the urban text, quite literally writing that text. The evident disdain for and fear of popular culture come to the fore in the "sanitizing" of some of :he earthier appellations. The Dominicans did away with the cows that had once pastured in the area, and some two hundred years later Voltaire campaigned (to no avail) to replace cul-de-sac with impasse. Tire-vit (Pull-Prick) had already been euphemized to Tireboudin (Pull-Sausage) by the fourteenth century, but some found even that unseemly. Obscene names were, first of all, unworthy of a civilized society. From his position as a spokesman of the Age of Enlightenment, Mercier peremptorily declared that the obscene names of the older streets "attest to the turpitude of our ancestors." On the


other hand, with his characteristically titillating rhetorical flourish, Mercier held out little hope to change the ways of people who gave "obscene forms" to the pastries they baked![9]

The Revolution made the divide between past and present even more absolute, for the old regime was not simply the past, it was a past that had been repudiated. The sense that a new society required a new toponymy is especially acute in a guide to Paris published in 1801  by one J. B. Pujoulx, man-about-town and all-purpose man of letters. More anxious than Mercier to break with the inappropriate past and more aware of the larger mission of Paris in the world beyond France, Pujoulx worried that from the "obscene names that dirty the corners of certain streets" visitors would infer the immorality of the present inhabitants.[10] Naturally, Pujoulx roundly condemned Tire-Boudin, although he had to admit that it was a decided improvement over the previous name, which he declined to specify. (Tire-Boudin soon became the rue Marie Stuart.) Thus modernizing Paris went about the task of civilization, of making itself into the image of the new world fit for the new century. As Norbert Elias argues in The History of Manners, such measures demonstrate that the march of "civilization" compelled dissociation from the (inferior) past and eradication of practices that did not measure up to the standards of the present. The present day was clearly superior in the eyes of contemporaries, and every precaution had to be taken to make that superiority evident to all.[11]

Pujoulx, good son of the Enlightenment that he was, deplored the "incoherence" and "bizarreness" of Paris street names as a whole even more than he did the indecency of one or another street. They were a "ridiculous assortment," a "salmagundi," and the present name was almost always at odds with the present situation or destination of the street. To straighten out the streets by providing "reasonable" names, Pujoulx endorsed turning all of Paris into a geography lesson. All the streets would bear the names of major towns and cities in France. The size of the street would correspond to the size of the city, with the longer streets running through several quartiers reserved for the major rivers. Through its street names, Paris would be France, and topography would once again signify as it had in the medieval, descriptive names.

The difference was crucial. Henceforth, the city would signify not as nature but as ideology. Two centuries after the fact, Pujoulx extended to the entire city the rationale of Henri IV's Place de France


(to which Pujoulx seems to refer, if rather elliptically), transforming the streets of Paris into the map of France. The eighteenth century transformed this preoccupation with coherence into a system for the entire city. Pujoulx's proposal of 1801 stands as a clear demonstration of the strength of these convictions and the force of this vision of the city as an integrated, intelligible whole, as a distinctive testimony to the forward march of civilization.

Pujoulx, apparently unwittingly, reiterated a project a half century old. The Géographie parisienne elaborated by the abbé Teisserenc in 1754 had elevated the principle of Henri IV's Place de France into a system to. comprehend all of Paris and all of France. (The enthusiastic abbé went so far as to suggest that the system could be carried to every state in the whole world!) The typically prolix eighteenth-century subtitle told it all (or almost): En forme de dictionnaire, contenant l'explication de Paris ou de son plan mis en carte géographique du royaume de France, pour servir d'introduction à la géographie générale; méthode facile et nouvelle pour apprendre d'une manière pratique et locale toutes les principales parties du royaume ensemble et les unes par les autres. (Dictionary, Containing the Explanation of Paris or Its Map Turned into a Geographical Map of the Kingdom of France, to Serve as Introduction to General Geography; An Easy and New Method to Learn in a Practical Manner and on the Spot All the Principal Parts of the Kingdom as a Whole and Each Through the Others ) Because he recognized that names are "arbitrary signs" and easily altered, the abbé Teisserenc held strongly for a system that best suited the public good. Pujoulx admitted that an acquaintance had made the connection between his plan and another "about like it," but disavowed any knowledge of such a project. Still, he readily conceded that the basic idea was so elementary that it might have occurred to a good many others. He was, in any case, less interested in being first than in being the one to bring a rational system of nomination to public notice. Perhaps his plan would work.

The key word is system. Rationalization showed up on the obverse of the coin of royal appropriation of the city. Not just a few streets or a square, however splendid, but the entire city was intended to signify within a larger urban strategy. All Paris was to serve a larger, nobler purpose. The jumble of street names made all too obvious the inevitable discrepancy between the actual city and the city as project, between the real and the ideal. The utopian nature of these nominatory projects became clearer in the plans drawn up for new cities. The grid


on which so many new cities were laid out in Europe as well as in America from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries was the very emblem of a rationalized topography modeled against the norm. But with their roots in the densely populated and overbuilt central sections and intricate network of medieval streets, the older cities thwarted every attempt at rational planning. Even in the early seventeenth century, the Place Royale and the Place Dauphine had to be constructed on vacant land distant from central Paris. The work of centuries and of many hands, these old cities were irrational in the extreme. The poorly designed layout, the odd proportions, and the crooked, uneven streets prompted Descartes' observation that these old central cities looked more like the work of chance than reason.[12]

A comprehensive name scheme provided a signal means by which to negate, or at the very least camouflage, topographical irregularity. It suggested the unification of the city around a grand design, which would turn it into a product of reason rather than chance. This newly coherent city would achieve human mastery of nature and society. The ideal city would be rational, and it would be ideologically coherent. The Revolution offered an unprecedented opportunity to do just this, to redesignate, and thereby, to redesign the city.


Nous aurons toujours un Voltaire, et nous n'aurons plus jamais de Théatins.
Marquis de Villette, 1791

We shall always have a Voltaire, and we shall never again have Théatin monks.

The most immediately striking aspect of revolutionary nominatory revision, which was also the Revolution's nominatory legacy to succeeding generations, was the intense politicization of everyday life. Children were given first names taken from the revolutionary calendar (Floréal), revolutionary virtues (Liberté), heroes (Franklin, Voltaire, Ami du Peuple, Brutus), or a combination (Brutus-sans-culottemarche-en-avant). Among the over forty models of revolutionary playing cards, one set had Voltaire as the king of diamonds and Rousseau as king of clubs; Justice, Temperance, Prudence, and Force took the place of the queens of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs. One "rev-


olutionized" chess game replaced the king with a tyrant, the queen with an adjutant, and castles with cannons; checkmate resulted from a "blockade." Over three thousand communes (out of forty thousand) brought their names into line with revolutionary order—Villedieu became La Carmagnole, after the popular revolutionary song, and Saint-Denis became Franciade. Revolutionary conviction transferred to language and invested discourse with a veritable mystical power. In this process of politicizing, the everyday street names played their part. From instruments of symbolic social control, street names became one more weapon in the intense battle for ideological allegiance waged over the nineteenth century. Well before 1789, Mercier complained that street names did not instruct inhabitants as they ought to.[13]

The Revolution provided that opportunity. The original reforms were born of enthusiasm and a passionate will to inculcate the Revolution by example. In 179 , the marquis de Villette, in whose house Voltaire had died in 1778, solicited formal approval for his own alteration of the street name on his house from Théatins (after the religious order located nearby) to Voltaire. "We shall always have a Voltaire, and we shall never again have Théatin monks," went his impeccably revolutionary reasoning. Moreover, the marquis urged the "good patriots" of the rue des Plâtrières (Plasterers' Street) to honor their titular republican deity: "It is important for sensitive hearts and ardent souls crossing this street to know that Rousseau used to live there on the fourth floor, and it scarcely matters that plaster used to be made there." Villette's enthusiasm fired others. Royalty and saints were swept away by authentic republican saints (Montmartre to Montmarat, Hôtel Dieu to Mirabeau-le-Patriote, Sainte-Anne to Helvétius) and republican virtues (Princesse to Justice, Richelieu to La Loi). If there was an association between site and name, as with the streets honoring Voltaire and Rousseau, the attachment invariably translated ideological considerations. It was perhaps inevitable that republican habitués of the Café Procope reportedly submitted names of royalist writers for all the sewers![14]

However well intentioned, piecemeal alterations violated every notion of system. They could never satisfy a regime that sought, as the abbé Grégoire put it in his later report to the Assemblée Nationale, to deal with "every abuse" and to "republicanize everything." Moreover, driven by the passions, enthusiasms, and manias of the moment,


these changes ran the risk of being made incorrectly in a climate of such volatility. Mirabeau-le-Patriote was an appropriate substitution for Hôtel-Dieu in 1791; a mere two years later, the disclosure of Mirabeau's counterrevolutionary activities made it a dreadful embarrassment. Mirabeau quickly lost his street (along with his place in the Panthéon). La Fayette posed similar problems. Neither he nor Mirabeau, Grégoire noted, had withstood "the purifying vote of posterity."[15]

The chaos and uncertainty introduced by myriad namings and renamings brought dissatisfaction all around, prompting several motions for total nominatory reform. There exists no more striking emblem of revolutionary utopian impulses than these amazing proposals for extensive reform of street nomenclature. As nomenclature could reform topography, it could rewrite history. The entire city would be renamed and, hence, recreated. One Citoyen Avril despaired of the "barbaric or ridiculous or patronymic" names of Paris streets. Worse still, these names were "insignificant" and left the whole with no "motive." So anarchic had the renaming become that Avril urged the suspension of all naming until a comprehensive plan had been adopted. His own scheme combined great men whose memory would "perpetuate the revolution" with a variant of the abbé Teisserenc's geographical toponymy. The next year Citoyen Chamouleau went even further in his proposal to rename every street in the whole country. Each street was to bear the name of a virtue: Notre-Dame would become the Place de l'Humanité républicaine, surrounded by the rues de la Générosité et de la Sensibilité; la Halle would become the Place de la Frugalité républicaine, and so forth. "Thus the people will ever have virtue on their lips," the idealistic orator intoned before the Assemblée Nationale, "and soon morality in their hearts."[16]

The Comité de l'Instruction Publique responded to these instances with a charge to the abbé Grégoire to consider the problem, and it adopted his report in January 1794. After a review of the history of street naming from Peking to Philadelphia, Grégoire made several recommendations. He agreed that patriotism required new names. However, he insisted that "calm reason" establish not a name here and a name there but a "combined system of republican nomenclature." First, Grégoire emphasized, names should be short, comprehensible, euphonic, and appropriate; and second, they should be morally correct: "Each name ought to be the vehicle of a thought,


or, rather, of a sentiment that reminds citizens of their virtues and their duties." System got citizens to the proper place and got them there properly, that is, with a lesson in mind. "Is it not natural to go from the Place de la Révolution to the rue de la Constitution and on to the rue du Bonheur?"

Lessons compelled system. Reasonable street names would instruct more effectively than a salmagundi of names with no necessary connection to one another and less connection to the whole. System alone enabled the mind to connect the parts and the whole. The whole would then present an ensemble such that the first name led directly to the other. Grégoire was by no means dogmatic. He advocated system, not a particular system, and exhorted each commune to choose the system best adapted to its particular situation. Every commune in France was "invited" to put these recommendations into practice, and a fair number did. If relatively few streets were involved in these changes—no more than 6 percent according to one estimate—these alterations included a large number of the major thoroughfares. The sense of disruption was considerable if not extensive.

All of these plans for nominatory reform testify to the pedagogical thrust so conspicuous in revolutionary enterprises. The elaborate revolutionary fêtes staged in Paris and in the provinces similarly sought to mold consciousness. The indefatigable Grégoire also wrote an immensely influential report on the French language, which insisted on an idiom common to all citizens as a vehicle of patriotic sentiment and state power. Every one of Grégoire's reforms responded to the twin demands of a modernizing state, ideological control and administrative efficiency. Street-name reform would dot the urban landscape with "emblems capable of exercising the mind, acting on the heart, and bolstering patriotism," and it would do much more, Grégoire hastened to add, by facilitating business and travel, postal service, police surveillance, and tax collection. To this end, he advocated placing signposts at entry points into cities and numbering each house on a street (street numbering did not occur until 1805). These various acts only seem to be unrelated. In fact, they all aim at tightening republican unity. That rationality was in a sense the prime republican virtue made opposition to the rationalization of the city tantamount to protesting the republic. Irrationality was counterrevolutionary. There could be no objections to the numbering of houses as there had been in the ancien régime by aristocrats who, as


Mercier tells it in his article on street signs ("Les Écriteaux des rues"), disdained the "vulgar numbers" that would lend "an air of equality" to their streets.

The highly self-conscious manipulation of symbols made manifest the ambitions to move beyond reform to creation. Symbols entered practical politics, and they did so marshalled under the banner of reason. The Revolutionary calendar gave new names to months divided into equal units of thirty days, themselves divided not into semaines of seven days but into décades of ten days, with names derived logically from the numbers (primidi, duodi, etc.) rather than the gods of another era. The day was divided into ten units, some new clocks showing both the twelve and the ten hour divisions. Money was put on the decimal system and "nationalized" (the franc taking the place of the pound); weights and measures were standardized. The passion for system went hand in hand with the obsession with symbols. To be effective, the Revolution required both.

Thus, to the royal concern for creating a city in the image of the monarchy, the eighteenth century joined its own brand of didacticism. The abbé Teisserenc's model brought the user into the picture not as the source of significance, in this case, street names, but as the recipient of a superior wisdom. Grégoire modified the expression of this sentiment to suit revolutionary times, but the key attitude did not change. "The people is everything, everything is to be done for the people." Details exhibit the "paternal solicitude of the government toward citizens and philanthropy toward foreigners." Iconography was one of these details of representation. The users—the people actually in the streets—were to have no interpretive latitude in reading the authoritative text, which was to direct their lives as well as their footsteps. More than ever in these toponymical utopics, the Revolution imagined the city as a sacred geography. More visibly than ever, the city reproduced by the Revolution projected a landscape of power.

Street names and other symbols, Grégoire reminded the Assemblée Nationale, provided the revolution with the means to do what no regime had ever done—institute reason and popular sovereignty, each as a term of the other. Grégoire urged legislators to seize the unprecedented opportunity, to establish a system of republican nomenclature. "No model for such an enterprise exists in the history of any people."[17] If the layout of the streets could not be


rationalized—that would await Haussmann more than a half century later, and then rationalization would be partial—nomenclature might yet proclaim the revolution. If it could not be the heavenly Jerusalem, Paris might nevertheless approximate the heavenly city of the Enlightenment. A comprehensive system of names might then just possibly realize what Descartes thought impossible a century and a half before; it could build the city anew.[18]

These attempts to suppress the multivocality of the city were bound to fail, and they did. Descartes was enshrined in the Panthéon, but his ideal city, as far as Paris was concerned, belonged to the realm of the ideal. The inherent heteroglossia of the urban text won out, as Pujoulx's postrevolutionary lamentations confirm. Urban renewal at midcentury notwithstanding, nineteenth-century politics dissipated dreams of a rational city. From revolutionary nominatory practices subsequent regimes took the lesson of overt politicization, not that of system. Streets became weather vanes in the political winds. As successive governments strove to repudiate the past and legitimate the present, the honorific system of nomenclature became as unstable as the medieval one that it had replaced. Mirabeau's displacement from the Panthéon was only the first of many dislocations. (Surely, it was meet and fitting that the abbé Grégoire be accorded the ultimate honor of interment in the Panthéon during a ceremony in December 1989 marking the end of the bicentennial of the French Revolution.)

The new city envisioned by the revolution was not to be. It was not, properly speaking, a dream so much as a utopia, or the discourse that Louis Marin has labeled "utopic." This discourse, or narrative, designates a place that exists in, through, and as a text. The more coherent the text, the more integrated the system and the weaker the correlation between toponymy and topography, that is, between the "inside" and the "outside" of the text. Beyond the obliteration of particular names, revolutionary schemes rejected the very idea of connection between site and sign. Despite the stress laid by Grégoire and others on the practicality of these nominatory systems, these schemes impress the modern reader by their abstraction. The text obscures rather than illuminates topography, the name hides the place. The requirements of the system, and of the text, override the desires of the users, the readers, whose room for maneuver is more and more narrowly circumscribed. Blueprints for an ideal society, these comprehensive plans for rationalization gave no heed to urban practices


and disregarded entirely the strife to which these practices invariably lead.


L'espace possède ses valeurs propres. . . . Cette quête des correspondances. . . propose au savant le terrain le plus neuf.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

Space possesses its own values . . . . This search for connections . . . offers the scholar the newest of territories.

The vision of a unified, rational city projects the new beginnings that are, in one sense, what revolution is supposed to produce. But if the past can be condemned, it cannot be so easily eradicated from everyday life. Like most of the institutions that touched daily life in the city, Paris streets negotiated past and present as they continued to act out the Revolution. However many projects aimed at transforming the urban text into an ideological whole, the city resisted. Paris, like French society as a whole, was almost equally consumed by the past and the future. A very different revolution was needed to create a capital city truly emblematic of the new country, a revolution that could face resolutely forward. Washington D.C. was what Paris could never be, a city that figured the republic. It is precisely the differences between these two capitals that tell us why, if Washington is the city of the republic, Paris is the city of revolution.

The rational city came closest to realization in the new, planned cities. Only previously unsettled terrain could offer the unencumbered space necessary for Descartes' engineer to sketch out an urban ideal. While the French talked endlessly about rationalizing cities, it was the Americans who effectively built most of those planned cities. America offered up for settlement an entire continent, which had, comparatively speaking, few vestiges of the past to encumber the present. These cities of the New World obeyed a different aesthetic from that of the archetypical European city, with its layers of settlement; its dirty, crowded central section; its crooked, winding streets; and its multiple-dwelling, and often multistory, housing stock. The aesthetic of containment that enclosed the European city between a center and fortifications around the periphery was quite foreign to the aesthetic of expansion that presided over the American town.


To put this aesthetic into operation, American cities relied on the grid of right-angled streets, recommended by the ease with which lots could be surveyed, built up, and sold. Like the heavenly city described in such luxuriant detail in Revelation 21:16, which many city fathers certainly had in mind, the archetypical American city "lieth foursquare." So strong was the presumption of suitability that the grid was imposed even where the irregular terrain did not especially lend itself to such geometric severity (most strikingly in San Francisco). Expansion was written in this text from the beginning. Barring natural obstacles, American cities had only to follow the logic of the grid and push forth in every direction. The vocation of the city, the grid announced, was commerce and communication, not magnification of the great. To be sure, the American town was a landscape of power, but the power relations inscribed by the grid were more diffuse, less striking than those in cities designed around dramatic vistas and imposing central squares.

Street names played their part in this aesthetic, and they too heeded the logic of the grid. American cities owed their characteristic combination of numbers and greenery to William Penn's plan for Philadelphia in 1682, which rejected names of prominent personages for streets as unworthy of a Quaker creation. In the city itself, High Street (now Market Street) and Broad Street, which figured on the original plan, were augmented by numbered streets going in one direction and by cross streets named for, in Penn's words, "things that Spontaneously grow in the Country." The names from the country tied the city to the surrounding area. The numbers too served double duty, First Street, for example, recalling First Day, the Quaker Sunday.

The abbé Grégoire, concerned with devising logical systems of nomenclature, was greatly impressed with the way that Philadelphia Quakers had "imprinted their dignified character even on their streets." Quaker disapproval of glorification and distrust of patronymics resonated broadly in the new world. To be sure, American streets carry the names of individuals. But if American streets honor, they seldom glorify. As de Tocqueville recognized, the democratic impulse levels rather than raises, and Americans manifestly have felt uncomfortable with the hierarchy so salient in Paris street names replete with full names and titles.[19]

Moreover, the American Revolution entertained a very different relationship with the past than did its French counterpart. There was


no urgency to eradicate vestiges of the past. The nominatory conservatism characteristic of the American Revolution is worlds apart from the symbolic radicalism of the French Revolution. No one paid much attention to the radical revisions suggested from time to time, and the royal titles mostly remained in place. Responding in 1794 to a correspondent who urged eradication of prerevolutionary street names, the editor of a New York newspaper sensibly, and prudently, maintained that all streets and their names belonged in the historical record. Popular sentiment evidently concurred with Thomas Jefferson, who revealed a keen sense of a sacred geography that one tampers with at one's peril: "I am not sure that we ought to change all our names. And during the regal government, sometimes, indeed, they were given through adulation; but often also as the reward of the merit of the times, sometimes for service rendered the colony. Perhaps, too, a name when given, should be deemed a sacred property."[20]

The striking exception to the usual course of American urban planning was, and is, of course, Washington, D.C. With its name taken from the "father of the country," the capital city recalled the paradigmatic patronymic origins of the city, precisely the connections that William Penn had so emphatically rejected for the City of Brotherly Love. Washington himself was very much involved in the planning of the city that would bear his name (which he always referred to as the "Federal City"). He chose the site, and he chose the planner for the capital that was to exemplify the new nation and the very structure of the new government. The plan that Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant submitted to President Washington in June 1791 started with the Philadelphia grid but superimposed broad avenues like the ChampsElysées in Paris, as well as diagonals and multiple focal points reminiscent of those in Christopher Wren's plan for rebuilding London.

The originality of the plan struck everyone, one commentator going so far as to praise the "genius" that had made an "inconceivable improvement upon all other cities in the world." The same observer accorded particular praise for the avoidance of the "insipid sameness" that made Philadelphia so dull.[21] The vistas, the broad avenues, and the monumental public buildings inscribed the plan of Washington within the tradition of Saint Peter's Square or Versailles. But, instead of pope or prince, this city of the New World glorified a republic.


Contemporaries readily grasped the symbolic significance of the planned city. "Un citoyen des États-Unis," writing in French in 1795, elaborated a striking semiotic interpretation of the new federal city. L'Enfant, noted this author, had made visible the relations between city and country and those between the three branches of the government. Placing the Capitol on a hill with several broad avenues radiating outward made it unquestionably the center of the city, much as this city was to be the center of the new country. As former President (and then Chief Justice) William Howard Taft noted in 1915, L'Enfant's capital city was the very image of the federal Constitution adopted in 1788, infinitely adaptable to "the greatest emergencies and the most radical crises that could possibly confront a nation."[22]

In this projection of nation, nomenclature played its part. The plan impressed the regularity of the grid upon topography even more forcefully than in Philadelphia by dividing the city into quarters and placing letters on north-south streets in addition to the numbers for east-west streets. To counter the monotony of the numbered grid, the diagonal avenues that cut through plazas or converged on a central point like the Capitol and the president's house bore the names of the then fifteen states. The location of these avenues followed their geographical location in the country, north to south (which was also the order in which delegates from the several states signed the Constitution in 1787). The three longest avenues, which traversed the entire city from east to west, represented three of the largest states, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Jefferson's own Virginia.

The layout of the streets may or may not have been Thomas Jefferson's idea, but like the plan of the city as a whole, it gave emblematic expression to the republican ideal that he and the Founding Fathers sought to establish in the new United States. Whatever the origins, the streets of Washington constituted a dazzling symbolic ploy to reconcile the states of the Union to the federal city that figured as it sustained their union. The nomenclature wove the states into the very fabric of the city just as the Constitution merged the states into the federation. It was this city in the New World, not Paris, that executed Henri IV's conception of the Place de France almost two centuries after the fact. The city and its grid, like the Constitution, resolved what remained unresolved in Paris and in France. They settled the nature of the relationship of the part, the province or state, to the whole, the nation. Toponymy and topography joined in a grand


national scheme of unity. Surely, the abbé Teisserenc and the abbé Grégoire would have been pleased.

The uncontested brilliance of Washington lay in the exceptional coherence of a design that, like the Constitution itself, was exceptionally suited to future needs, symbolic as well as urban. L'Enfant conceived the space in terms not of enclosure but of organic expansion. To the rationality that the eighteenth century so ardently desired and the ideological coherence that French republicans struggled to effect, L'Enfant joined a distinctively American preoccupation with growth. The Federal City, he reported to President Washington, would "soon grow of itself, and spread as the branches of a tree." Like all city plans and like the original Utopia, L'Enfant's plan for Washington was itself a utopic, that is, a place that came into existence not simply through a text but as a text in the strictest construction of the term. As such, it is emblematic of all texts, an edenic vision of a world to which words and works give form and substance.

In no way could the new, planned city of Washington serve as a model for the many-layered urban palimpsest of Paris, with its legacies from so many regimes, its vestiges of so many events and so many populations. L'Enfant's plan proclaimed Washington's vocation as capital of the Republic. In contrast, every map of Paris pronounced it as much more than the capital of France. The singularity of Paris as a city of revolution resides in its torturous relationship to the past, to the many pasts of the city and of the nation. The existing society and the existing city had to be made over in the image of the revolution, and yet could not be. The past was too conspicuous to be elided and too conflictual to be assimilated.

The modernity commonly ascribed to nineteenth-century Paris is rooted in this sense of movement, the perpetually unfinished, always provisional nature of the present and the imminence of change. Paris, not Washington, figured the age of revolutions. The battles on and over Paris streets strike a vivid contrast with L'Enfant's peaceful vision of organic growth for the American capital. By inscribing conflict onto the urban text itself, the Revolution of 1789 set the stage for the revolutionary Paris of the nineteenth century. The sense that change was at once inevitable and unpredictable translated into a veritable obsession with revolution, with fixing change, with arresting movement into order to make sense of the city and of the revolution by which it had come to be defined.


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