Friday, May 14, 2010

Flesh and Stone: Sennett on Café Society in London and Paris

Flesh and Stone: the Body and the City in Western Civilization (1994)by Richard Sennett ‘is a history of the city told through people’s bodily experience: how women and men moved, what they saw and heard, the smells that assailed their noses, where they ate, how they dressed, when they bathed, how they made love in cities’. More specifically it considers how architects and urban planners have impacted on all this through their influence on how people come together and move apart, for ‘The spatial relations of human bodies obviously make a great deal of difference in how people react to each other, how they see and and hear one another, whether they touch or are distant’.

There is an interesting discussion of the changing forms of café society in London and Paris from the 18th to the 19th century:

Cafés on the European continent owe their origins to the English coffeehouse of the early eighteenth century. Some coffeehouses began as mere appendages to coaching stations, others as self-contained enterprises. The insurance company Lloyd’s of London began as a coffee house, and its rules marked the sociability of most other urban places; the price of a mug of coffee earned a person the right to speak to anyone in the Lloyd’s room. More than sheer chattiness prompted strangers to talk to one another in the coffeehouse. Talk was the most important means of gaining information about conditions on the road, in the city, or about business. Though differences in social rank were evident in how people looked and in their diction, the need to talk freely dictated that people not notice, so long as they were drinking together...

The French café of the Ancien Regime took its name from and operated much like the English coffeehouse, strangers freely arguing, gossiping, and informing one another. In these years before the Revolution, political groups often arose from these café encounters. At first many different groups met in the same café, as in the original Café Procope on the Left Bank; by the outbreak of the Revolution , contending political groups in Paris each had their own place. During and after the Revolution the greatest concentration of cafés was in the Palais Royal'.

Sennett argues that the wide boulevards of Paris, as designed by Haussman, encouraged cafés to sprawl into the streets, with café owners beginning to put tables outside. Two main centres of café life developed, ‘one clustered around the Opera, where the Grand Café, the Café de la Paix and the Café Anglais were to be found, the other in the Latin Quarter, whose most famous cafes were the Voltaire, the Soleil d’Or, and Francois Premier’. He suggests that outside tables fundamentally changed the atmosphere of cafés:

‘These outside tables deprived political groups of their cover; the tables served customers watching the passing scene, rather than conspiring with one another... At an outdoor table in the big café one was expected to remain seated in one place; those who wanted to hop from scene to scene stood at the bar....the denizens of the café sat silently watching the crowd go by – they sat as individuals, each lost in his or her own thoughts'.

The working class was discouraged from these boulevard cafés by the cost and atmosphere, preferring the cafés intimes of the sidestreets. The café as haven of subversive sociability was gradually undermined:

'The exterior crowd composing itself into a spectacle no longer carried the menace of a revolutionary mob... in 1808 , police spies looking for dangerous political elements in Paris spent a great deal of time infiltrating cafés; in 1891, the police disbanded the bureau dedicated to the cafe surveillance. A public realm filled with moving and spectating individuals – in Paris as much as in London - no longer represented a political domain’.
Interesting, but not sure the reality fits quite so neatly into this narrative. After all cafés remained hotbeds of radicalism in Paris for much of the 20th century - see for instance the history of surrealists, existentialists and situationists.


Skillet said...

thought this was kind of fascinating comparing to American cafes, where we're mostly past the tables on the street era and into the hiding behind laptops one. the internet also seems to have this division between experimenting with random communication with strangers, or with just putting your thoughts out there to be seen and not responded to. but there are a lot more cafes so to speak and I wonder if that makes either kind of communication harder to sustain.

Transpontine said...

You're right the internet cafe is a whole new layer - in the extreme instance a space where everyone is simultaneously connected to the whole world and disconnected from the people physically close to them. But I am wary of putting all this into tight historical periods - there have always been many cafes and now as in the 18th century there are some where people know each other and chat, some which are conducive to strangers chatting, some where nobody is saying much. In fact in many cafes all three of these may occur depending on the time of day and who's in.

Nylon Cube said...

I''d be interested to hear what sennett says about developments since the 19th C. The developmetns mentioned above as well as ither changes in the nature of cafes: takeaway culture, the prominence of bars as well as chain-store models.

I certainly wouldn't go to a most caes expecting to socialise with strangers. I suppose the older style cafe is reflected in places like Cafe Boheme in Soho which feels like a pastiche.

I saw Sennett speak at the LSE on Friday night on Narrative and Ritual alongside Rowan Williams, stimulating stuff.

Transpontine said...

Perhaps there's a kind of romanticisation in positing a cafe where everybody interacts with each other as some kind of ideal (as somebody who goes frequently to the same cafe and sometimes just wants to be left in peace to read the paper!).

Skillet said...

I think there probably is. I rarely interact at or even go to cafes so this article made me wonder about where these mythical spaces are that everybody interacts with everybody. (Other than raves!) Because it seems like a lot of communication that people encounter daily is just defined by their neighborhood, job, etc, not all that random. Recently read the book Out of Control which was talking about how large networks function well when each node is only connected with a small number of others, which got me thinking on the internet thing, what kind of social distance people's connections are spanning compared to those in real life, what the network as a whole is doing...