In February, 2016, the Paris municipal government announced a commitment to eliminate noise pollution from the city. On the surface, this seems like a straightforward and positive proposal. Nobody likes noise pollution. The problems, however, are manifold. Only a few lines into the government’s plan, the officials behind it acknowledged that noise is not very easy to define.
I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, I had an apartment in Paris next door to an older couple who regularly argued. To keep the neighbours from hearing their rows, they would put on Verdi. For fifteen or twenty minutes, my walls would throb with La Traviata while they worked out their differences.
Was that noise? I assume even Verdi’s most passionate critics would concede that his work is not noise in its own right. Perhaps we could say that it’s a question of situation: it was noise because I didn’t want to hear it, because – you might say – we have a right to silence in our own private space if we want it. In that case, regulating noise is not really about policing the soundscape of the city; it’s about the relationship between neighbours.
But what about the biases that manifest in Not-In-My-Backyard disputes? In a 1991 speech, Jacques Chirac notoriously declared that it was reasonable for French whites to hate immigrant neighbours on account of their “bruit et odeur,” their noise and odours. Should a government provide institutional backing to racist cynicism towards another person’s language and culture? Jacques Derrida reminds us in his writings on hospitality that the word “barbarian” comes from barbaros – literally “blah blah person” – a foreigner whose language sounded like noise to the ancient Greeks. In Greek law, a barbarian did not have a right to life. There is a long history of violence towards the other predicated on the insistence that he or she is a noise-producer.
The Paris government sensibly sidestepped these issues by insisting on another definition of noise. Sound becomes noise, they concluded, when it harms the body of the listener. This is a reactivation of noise’s root word: nausea, or seasickness. Noise is sound that makes you ill. Célia Blauel, who was the mayor’s environmental deputy, asserted that Paris was experiencing a public health crisis, with 10,000 deaths per year attributable to noise.
The extra word “pollution” helps with this framing, giving the sense that noise is like smog. Of course, environmental policy is not outside the realm of the political. By reframing the debate around noise as a health and ecology debate, municipal officials were masking, but not really avoiding, the persistence of problems around inclusion and social justice. Most of the government’s proposals concerned automobiles and commuting, heated topics given the racial and economic demographics of Paris’s banlieue or suburbs. Promises to reduce traffic from the suburbs, unless counterbalanced by better public transport infrastructure, can’t help but threaten banlieusards’ “right to the city,” borrowing a term from the Marxist urban theorist Henri Lefebvre.
What seems on the surface to be an aesthetic question about the soundscape of the city turns out to be a set of questions about private and public space; about language, identity, and belonging; and about the health of the individual and the community. This makes it a perfect example of what the French philosopher, Michel Serres, writes in his work, The Parasite. In French, “parasite” has four meanings: a poor person allowed to eat alongside the rich, a mooch who takes what he or she hasn’t earned, a small organism that sucks the life from another, and noise. Serres argues that all of these meanings are connected. When we speak of one kind of parasite, we are always invoking the others. In this case, a promise to get rid of noise is justified on the grounds that these communicational parasites are in fact biological parasites, with the result that people on the margins – parasites in the original, hospitable sense – find themselves banished from the city.
This is the sort of issue I examine in my new book, Paris and the Parasite: Noise, Health, and Politics in the Media City (2021, MIT Press). I argue that Paris has been governed by the drive to eliminate parasites from the city since at least the turn of the 19th century. What makes this urbanism anti-parasitic is the way social politics, media, and hygiene intersect. I see anti-parasitic urbanism in things like the “smart city” approach to urban planning, in which cities are thought of as massive computers whose “bugs” can be eliminated with enough monitoring. I see it in the way the eternal lament that Paris is getting dirtier is weaponized against immigrants, refugees, and the homeless, as well as political protestors and ecologists. I also see it in the massive influence eugenics had on France’s modernist architects and post-WW2 city planners, like Le Corbusier and Jean-François Gravier, whose dreams of a technocratic metropolis were intertwined with their desire to strengthen the French race. Over the course of the book I draw attention to a variety of transgressive practices that appropriate parasitism in a positive way, pushing back against this vision of the city. For example, the pioneering street artists Blek le Rat and Invader both describe their work as plagues disrupting the urban machine.
Serres argues that, try as we might to eliminate parasites, they never go away. “There are channels, and thus there must be noise.” He invites us to reconcile with parasites, instead of exterminating them. This book invites us to do the same: to make space in the city for people and things that don’t pay their way, to be hospitable, to welcome the unexpected. People are often drawn to Paris by its classical beauty and the rectilinear perfection of its gardens. Paris and the Parasite argues for the power, both aesthetic and ethical, of valuing the city's disorder.