City of lights. Capital of the nineteenth century. The clichés pour down: the cultural metropolis, the imperial center, the capital city of the republic of letters.*
But if we press on this just a little further, we also see the city as conduit, as medium. Perhaps it’s not an accident that the great theorist of Paris (and source of not a few of our Paris clichés), Walter Benjamin, was a media theorist, close reading the very materials that made a medium of the city:
Iron is avoided in home construction but used in arcades, exhibition halls, train stations—buildings that serve transitory purposes.**
Recent research by Nancy Green and Brooke Blower has also thrown into question why the quintessential American expatriate in Paris is usually thought to be an artist: these historians have uncovered the deep networks of American business, philanthropy, and diplomacy in Paris, and Paris’s role as a site of U.S. power.*** The ideologies of aesthetic autonomy and romantic love that have long attached to Paris have also made the city a crucial conduit for U.S. interests.
What, for example, is Paris doing for Fred Astaire’s American character in this video?
[Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire]
The clip is from the 1957 MGM musical Silk Stockings, based on the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch (MGM) film Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo. Silk stockings, here, are the luxury commodity that will seduce a Soviet agent (in Ninotchka, it’s a truly wack hat).
Why is Paris the setting for this Cold War comedy, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, he of the “Great American Songbook”? Why is it the logical scene of a seduction into American capitalism? None of this film is set in the United States (except that all of it is: this “Paris,” and “Moscow,” are built in Hollywood).
At the same time, what genuine pockets of resistance or autonomy were opened up by the Paris myth, especially for black Americans and for pan-African organizations?****
Questions like this drive the “Paris as an American City” project, a new Sussex Centre for American Studies international research network, co-directed by Daniel Kane (AmStuds/English), Katharina Rietzler (AmStuds/history), and me. We are funded by a Sussex International Research Partnerships and Network grant and are delighted to be working with collaborators including Nancy Green, Brooke Blower, Jonathan Eburne, Abigail Lang, Vincent Broqua, Olivier Brossard, and Daniel Katz, in partnership with Stanford Arcade, the Karla Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture at Chicago, and the Musée Franco-Américain at Blérancourt.
Reflecting that American Studies itself has its roots in the extraterritorial extension of U.S. power, we hope that the study of Paris as an American city will open out disciplinary questions as well as historical and cultural ones.
[Ideology at its very purest. Paris, je t’aime, 2006.]
*Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Harvard University Press, 2004).
**Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century (Exposé of 1939),” in The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.
***Brooke Blower, Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars (Oxford, 2011); Nancy Green, The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (Chicago, 2014); Green, “Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept”, American Historical Review 114 (2009), 307-328.
****Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, eds., Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minneapolis, 2013); Fionnghuala Sweeney, and Kate Marsh, eds., Afromodernisms: Paris, Harlem and the Avant-Garde (Edinburgh University Press, 2013); Jeremy Braddock and Jonathan Eburne, eds., Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic: Literature, Modernity, and Diaspora. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).