properties and relations

A few days ago, I got back from my first ever visit to Europe. It was just a few nights in Paris, where I attended a conference held by the Consortium for the History and Philosophy of Biology. It was world-expanding (as one would expect) but I’ve had some trouble saying how and why. Here is my best shot at characterizing the experience.

Coming downtown from the airport, the train was initially full of a very diverse crowd. It was typical of what one would see on a Toronto subway – a variety of ethnicities, and a few different languages. But most of that diversity faded as we neared the heart of Paris. It was just us tourists who got off at the last stop, or perhaps white Parisians returning home.

Along the way though, something struck me about the scenery we passed. As is typical along a train route, there was copious graffiti on the walls and sheltered places.  But unlike in Toronto, there were no drawings, or even abstract figures. There were only names, mostly in black and white. Standard bubble-lettered tags were everywhere, and nothing else. Here, there are of course disenchanted young men (mostly) who know of no other way to see their name in lights than to paint it on the side of the train-station and wait for night-time. But there are also public artists, muralists and cartoonists. They improve their space, even at their own risk. But that wasn’t what was driving whoever was writing on the walls in the suburbs of Paris. The only imperative working here was for some kind of identity – they just wanted to have a name.

Arriving in the city that morning, I can’t claim to have immediately understood what I saw on the train. I was simply blown away by the ancient grandeur of the place. Like we have Starbucks’, they have awesome churches, antique houses of state and learning. But even the banal workaday buildings were gorgeous. Every one done in Haussmann style, with attention to detail and built to last. Every detail of the city showed a kind of care and grooming that one only finds in the most sculpted quarters of my beloved Toronto.

Over dinner, one of my colleagues from the IHPST in Paris asked what my first impressions of the city were. I told him that everything looked as though someone had been looking after it for a long, long time. It struck me then that the graffiti of the suburbs and the polish of the downtown were related. There were no cracks in Paris, no spaces into which one could insert oneself. If one were trying to start from nothing as a newcomer, it would be a hell of a task. The fabric of property there was just too tightly knit.

Consider, for contrast, Detroit. There, you can find everywhere houses burned out and simply left. There is no caution tape, no signs that someone cares about the wreck. The burned couches and worthless artifacts of whoever lived there last are left scattered on the floor. Copper wire will have been ripped out of the walls, but there is absolutely nothing to indicate that this place belongs to anyone anymore. It’s an incredibly chilling sight – the fabric of property, which had appeared continuous to me all my life, was actually torn open there. Of course I had been in nature, but always in provincial or national parks – they ‘belong’ to everyone, or perhaps the government. Here, the logic of ownership and care simply failed to obtain anymore.

This perhaps won’t be much of a surprise to you, fair reader, but Paris was approximately the opposite of Detroit. Instead of the fabric of property relations being ripped open, in Paris is was woven so tight as to be almost imposing. One had the feeling that to make it there, it would have been better to start three generations ago. Or at least, you’d better get in with someone who started that long ago. Toronto is somewhere intermediate between the two extremes – there is a degree of care everywhere, and the logic of property is everywhere in effect. But an empty store here, an abandoned lot there, tell you that there are spaces for new things to grow here.

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