Boutin on Smith (2021)

Smith, Macs. Paris and the Parasite: Noise, Health, and Politics in the Media City. The MIT Press, 2021, pp. x + 285, 37 illustrations, ISBN 9780262045544

The striking cover image of a rat holding a baguette by the French graffiti artist Blek le Rat effectively introduces Macs Smith’s examination of urban hygenists' attempts to rid the city of parasites, despite the impossibility (not to say the undesirability) of ever attaining a sanitized, unmediated, and univocal representation of modern and contemporary Paris. Building on the work of Michel Serres, with its interconnection of concepts such as noise, health, politics, and media, Smith considers how “the pathologization of parasites underpins fundamental structures of the modern city and of modern politics” (227). In many colorful and thought-provoking examples, Smith argues that social parasites, like their biological counterparts, can only be temporarily suppressed or displaced, not fully eradicated, as they are integral to the living city’s ecosystem.

The book’s argument on the anti-parasitism at the heart of Parisian urbanism is built around close readings of illustrative examples taken mostly from contemporary French culture and examined from rich interdisciplinary perspectives. Architects, writers, filmmakers, graffiti and parkour artists, and political demonstrators are mentioned, though one might expect more musicians to figure in a book on noise (Cité de la Musique, however, is discussed in the final pages of the book). The book is cleverly organized around distinct but interconnected spaces, such as the apartment, the wall, the street, and the underground. Chapter five identifies “bodies” as a noisy element that destabilizes the movement from private to public space. This chapter shifts focus from architectural to biological or biopolitical models for thinking about the parasite and questions the relationship between individual and collective identities on which the concepts of immunity and vulnerability depend.

The analysis adopts an historical lens that traces developments from the nineteenth century to the contemporary era. Although most of the book's core examples are from twentieth- and twenty-first-century texts and cultural phenomena rather than from the preceding period, attention to nineteenth-century Paris makes sense given that a discourse on hygienics emerged there in the late eighteenth century and efforts to cleanse the city of bad smells, disease, dingy alleys, vagabonds, and the poor pervaded Haussmannian public health policy. At the same time, ways to make the city legible such as the development of statistics and increased levels of demographic data collection in the modern period opened the way to our contemporary media era. In fact, Smith is careful to point out the degree to which contemporary Paris continues to build on its history as an “incubator for the development and urban integration of new technologies of transfer” (13) in its present quest to become a smart city. “Paris's legacy as a center for urbanist innovation throughout the nineteenth century, and its planners’ continued reflection on that legacy, make it a particularly enlightening case study for understanding how mediatic changes currently taking place in the city will reshape community” (13). Chapters two and three, for example, usefully reach back to nineteenth-century France to situate their arguments about domestic spaces and façades.

Although its history as a smart city is shorter, Paris has a long history as a “media city” (mediated by writing, painting, film, photography, and information technologies), and Smith frequently returns to the role of media in the pathologization of the parasite. A utopic view of the mediatic city, Smith explains, would have its efficient hyperconnectivity leave no room for error or informatic noise. Instead, Paris and the Parasite’s focus on “noise” aims to bring attention to the marginalized aspects of contemporary Paris. Rather than define “noise” in sonic terms, Smith builds on media and network theory and specifically on Serres’s use of the term as interference, disturbance or distortion of the signal or the channel. The result at times is a fairly visually-focused treatment of “noise” (walls and façades, smart billboards, parkour videos, architecture, and cartography) as a form of “informatic thinking.”

Chapter two, “Apartment,” focuses on the home’s increasing separation from the outside world, tracing the origins of domestic privacy in the nineteenth century (as demonstrated in the now classic Apartment Stories by Sharon Marcus, 1999) and examines the desire to immunize the home against parasites, with examples from Le Corbusier's designs and Michael Haneke’s film Caché. Chapter three, which considers the wall as a media environment, briefly touches on Notre-Dame de Paris’s blindness to the medium of the façade before delving into the parasitism of contemporary street art, including Blek le Rat. Graffiti is noisy in that it draws attention to the channel making the wall present in all its materiality. Through references as diverse as Jacques Réda, Philippe Vasset, Jules Romain, the Nuit Debout protests (2016), and the Charlie Hebdo attacks (2015), chapters four through six turn to contemporary issues of marginality or exclusion of individuals or groups identified as “parasites.” Practitioners of dérive, parkour, or Hébertisme, or protestors, indeed, encapsulate the complex dialectic between host and parasites: they can try to express a univocal protest message, but it might end up scrambled or coopted by the host; or they might infect or run interference in mainstream channels of communication with the unintended consequence of entrenching themselves as parasites in the media run by the host. The last chapter, “Underground,” takes a closer look at these theoretical entanglements; the philosophical implications of the host/parasite dialectic are further parsed in an engaging analysis of the immigrant as parasite in Rachid Boudjedra’s novel Topographie idéale pour une agression caractérisée.

Paris and the Parasite will appeal to scholars interested in the mediatization of contemporary Paris or the aftermath of Haussmannization in modern and contemporary Paris. Throughout the work, Smith makes a strong case for the need to critically reevaluate the dialectic that too often violently opposes Paris and its others in the media.