# 83 | Poor People’s Things | Arlette Farge

       Arlette Farge has always made one want to go into archives to do research. There, she has been able to find the minuscule signs of lives complicated by poverty—indeed, her thesis was on food theft in eighteenth-century Paris. Here, she returns to the interest in the poor that emerged in the wake of the movements of 1968, when historians and philosophers began to think systematically about them, about those at the margins, and about delinquency. In asking her to summon up for us “the things” of poor people, what is at issue is not to deprive the latter of their thought but, rather, to see in material life the traces of their reflections, of their feelings, and of their action.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
CHSP Seminar of October 21st, 2015

Relationships Between the People and Things
in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Arlette Farge

One has often reflected upon the great events of the Age of Enlightenment and many studies have been conducted about the behavioral attitudes of the population, whether among craftsmen or, on the contrary, the destitute. Police archives have allowed one to rediscover popular expressions, singular existences, and minuscule facts that shed new light on such hitherto buried areas in the field of history as the family, women, public opinion, popular thinking, people’s bodies, and so on. Of course, when one speaks of “the people,” one must know that one is always speaking in its stead, and the ethical and philosophical stakes in such studies are glaringly obvious.

For some time, it has appeared to me that history (at least history as a discipline) is no longer for “enthusiasts.” Slowly and surely, it has taken a tranquil turn, going from commemoration to commemoration.  In a way, history no longer disturbs us; in these troubled times, when the questions have become more and more pressing and anguished, history has little by little been erased, even though it is still alive. Quite Franco-French in its orientation most of the time, it hardly ever looks for connections, links, and interactions. Topics are carefully defined so as to preserve their autonomy, without one coming across other approaches, other disciplines (philosophy, sociology, or even art, film, etc.) and without one looking deeper into moments of rupture, even minuscule breaks in time, lively interstices wherein life and history themselves are forged.

“To do a close reading of social life,” as the anthropologist Albert Piette (Ethnographie de l’action [Paris: Métaillé, 1996]) invites us to do, obliges one to accomplish that upon which Michel Foucault had set his deepest hopes: analyzing minute situations, the details of people’s relationships, rediscovering the speech patterns, gestures, and bodies of the most deprived.  In a situation, there are human beings, presences, gestures, acts, words, and thoughts, along with objects, things, and writings. Thus, thinking in terms of the relationship between the nonhuman realm (whether living or not), human beings, and things sets up another way of understanding individuals’ shared lives (Piette). It also has appeared to me important to shift the historian’s usual gaze in order to look into his relationship with things, basically street objects. In what way do such objects determine new forms of conduct; in what way do they “perpetuate” traditions? In what way do they themselves create ephemeral gatherings and social communities? What kinds of objects can create discord and disgust, leading to conflicts or serving as the bearings for broader collective movements (whether religious, recreational, or political)?

Moreover, while street objects, which were so multivarious in the eighteenth century (since life was lived out of doors and domestic space had little existence), allowed people many different ways to appropriate and innovate, many transformations lived on. Human reality is made up of to-and-fro activities: objects formulate behaviors; men “give” them multiple, imaginary meanings, assigning negative and positive emotions thereto.

At bottom, what our knowledge lacks is the history of such back-and-forth movements among inanimate objects, men, women, and events. Indeed, the nonhuman realm can sometimes be treated as generative of social facts, a source of inventive, regressive, or repressive human attitudes that go to form varied types of popular public opinion. Unable to treat all street objects, I have chosen two specific themes: nature and leisure activities, and repulsive objects. I have left aside objects that circulate, not that these would be unimportant, but because they are undoubtedly better known on account of the customary descriptions of eighteenth-century Parisian city life.

Vegetal Paris: Nature and Leisure Activities

 The phrase vegetal Paris is a paradoxical one in this city of tumultuous and deafening urbanization. Paris was half urban, half rural. There existed an “urban countryside,” as it was called. Nature dotted the City with its bushes, fallow lands, planted areas, copses, wheatfields, and vegetable patches. The population took advantage of this natural city: following the seasons, one went ploughing and harvesting. During the day, people were employed in various labors: they lived an uneven temporality, encumbered with all sorts of different tools, some of which were used for quite varied urban employments. Their relation to objects was many-sided, and their links with objects were quite strong because those ties were necessary to their survival. As time passed, new objects appeared that aided them in their tasks. Moreover, in the incessant to-and-fro between fallow lands and street life different modes of sociability were created that brought about an overall perception of urban and rural reality and therefore of social and political life as a whole.

Another paradox of this link with nature is that there were so many places where muck and mire and dark water were so repulsive that the population, despite bans on such activities, decided to set up balconies or even maintain small enclosures filled with flowers and plants. Such social practices were being born each day, whereas the unbearable filth itself created moments of insurrection.

As living city objects, promenades (at the Palais Royal or along the Champs-Elysées) were themselves highly valued. The numerous objects populating them served a mixed population. A sign of royal magnificence, a promenade was also a site for the humblest of people to come “see” the great men of the realm, fascinated as they were by gowns, horses, and carriages. They also came to sell things, for a number of objects served commercial purposes. Yet it must not be forgotten that promenades were also a vast site for rumors, news brought by post horses, aristocratic libertine licentiousness, and less elegant forms of prostitution. Homosexuality prevailed there, hidden in the bushes, while the police tried to keep an eye on both such frolics and schoolboy riots, as well as the damages to trees from carriage horses.

In the act of strolling may be glimpsed forms of interaction among different circles of people, rivalries, strategic games for power grabs, and several forms of language. The objects present served as relays for all these attitudes and ways of acting. Animals, objects of a technical nature, ceremonial objects, and small buildings created a mosaic of language, a system of signs and symbols, desires, and subversive activities, as well as certain forms of mastery over women. Bushes were leading objects on this score. They concealed acts of indecency, especially those of pederast priests, so much so that they became the symbol thereof. By contrast, the large avenues fostered a desire to be seen, heard, and informed. Avenue signified appearing, while a road’s shoulders signified the place where the most salacious rumors were spoken. “Reality” took shape in the midst of all these objects, and correlations between encounters on benches, affectation and contempt for the most wealthy, rumors, and accusations created an atmosphere in which one could witness the birth of a certain kind of culture toward the end of the eighteenth century. Through extant things, nearby animals, trees and foliage, and jeering class confrontations, the social individual beheld tokens of life that usually existed in differentiated form.

Thus, every object has something material and something that is not so. Likewise, a thing is in (or has) a form, even if it is caught within a complex infinity of objective relations.

Repulsive Objects

In Paris, repulsive objects were so numerous and visible that foreigners often hesitated to enter the city. Smelling from the hilltops the fetid odors and seeing smoke rising to the heavens, they were filled with a desire to turn back around.

Some of these objects must be described: the streets full of rubbish were cesspools; out of drainpipes came rats; stray dogs left their excrement everywhere. Slaughterhouses and other places for butchering animals were undoubtedly the most repugnant objects. People butchered animals on rue du Roi de Sicile, and bits of animal flesh filled the Seine, spreading a putrid odor. Horse manure, saturated with rainwater, became unbearable; “it is the catch-basin of the life of the people,” what living beings leave around themselves, unable to do otherwise. Some neighborhoods were quite foul, with nauseous and noxious vapors escaping from workshops and factories. What is one to say of suet and remains of boats, of a Seine saturated with tannin and filled with animal heads? Bodies of corpses were sometimes found on roadways, and one also found abandoned fetuses.

What was one to make of this confusing commotion of objects, if not a desire to see the situation improved through police ordinances and bans? Thus, a quantity of ordinances, restrictive orders seeking to eradicate disorder and disgust were slapped on these objects, each one inevitable. Yet the hoped-for progress came but quite slowly, and through subversive forms of sociability a few events were organized, while other sorts of communities turned a profit from these places of dread and horror, connecting them with an utterly impoverished world in which blood, brawls, and prostitution were mixed together. Relations of force as well as images of struggle and confrontation took the stage with each revolting, disgusting scene. One sees what certain objects do to men and, at the same time, what certain men decide to do with these objects in order to draw a profit from places of shame, putrid fumes, and garbage. Some attractions may form, others may come undone. And some events may be transformed: to take one example, the chain gang. I call it a thing because it is one; with each person being attached to the other, an object is formed that personifies shame. People come to see it as a walking object in its own right, their eyes wallowing in the misery. So it was that in the early eighteenth century this spectacle of the “chain gang-thing” became a disgraceful spectacle, and the crowd began to boo the “drivers.” The thing transformed the man; the same would go for the “execution-thing” and the rack. The repulsive and repressive object was transformed into a need to sympathize, offering a new set of feelings. Such bursts of compassion spread as people came to cry out at injustice.

The same reversal in situations occurred in the case of animals: the herds of cattle, sheep, turkeys, swine, and horses that traipsed through the city were horribly mistreated by their drivers, and sometimes animals were struck so hard that they were left for dead on the shoulder of the road, thus giving rise to repulsive filth. A 1762 ordinance demanded the demolition of stalls where these animals were piled up to be sold at a later date. Moreover, inhabitants’ indignation at the cruelty of those accompanying the animals prompted passage of an ordinance that banned physical cruelty against and beatings of beasts. The “sin” of cruelty toward animals was set in place.

Thus did objects provoke events at the same time that they were provoked by events. These interactions lead history to follow a quite nonlinear path, sometimes taking refuge in minuscule instants, moments, and interstices of time. As Tristan Garcia wrote quite rightly (in Forme et objet. Un traité des choses [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2015], p. 181), “at bottom, events are objects that concern not things but the presence of things.” This presence concerns living beings, and when things appear, disappear, and change, man changes along with events.


GARCIA, Tristan. Forme et objet. Un traité des choses. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2015.

PIETTE, Albert. Ethnographie de l’action. Paris: Métaillé, 1996.

Arlette Farge is a director of research emeritus at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). A former professor at the École Des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), she specializes in popular behavior in eighteenth-century Paris, which she studies with the help of neighborhood police captain archives.  A historian of women and gender and the former director of the History of Women group at EHESS, Farge is the author of numerous works, including Vivre à Paris dans la rue au XVIIIe siècle (Gallimard, 1979) and Le peuple et les choses: Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Bayard, 2015).

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