Alternative Modernities in French Travel Writing: Engaging Urban Space in London and New York, 1851–1986

By Adel, Abdel-Fattah M. | Transnational Literature, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Alternative Modernities in French Travel Writing: Engaging Urban Space in London and New York, 1851–1986


Adel, Abdel-Fattah M., Transnational Literature


Gillian Jein, Alternative Modernities in French Travel Writing: Engaging Urban Space in London and New York, 1851-1986 (Anthem Press, 2016)

The experience of travelling to a city may not be just a matter of crossing geographical boundaries, it can become a process of creating new forms of identity especially when these cities have their unique spatial significance. Gillian Jein finds herself obliged at the beginning of her book to answer some fundamental questions that will certainly arise in the reader's mind. To answer the question: 'Why the French travellers?' she sets the main concern of her book to be an understanding of 'urban modernity': 'the prismatic interrelation of travel writing and the urban environment as open, mutually engaged modes of making meanings for modernity' (2); a task that can be achieved by ' [tracing] the emergence of networks of representation ... as a mobile constellation of intersections, or "crossings", between different national, cultural and historical identities' (2). As the traveller usually brings into awareness a set of alternative interpretive positions from which to view the modern city, the 'French traveller' represents someone who brings to bear on London and New York 'perspectives of political, historical and ideological difference, which combine to weave threads of externality into the fabric of these cities' modernity' (2).

The discourse leads to more questions like 'why the traveller?' and 'why the city?' The traveller stands out as the outsider who enters, engages and departs the city within more temporally and spatially restricted frameworks that differ from the spatio-temporal borders of the inhabitant of the city. Cities are conceived of as spaces where social, political and historical relations undergo constant negotiation and where the realities and representations of urban life are in persistent and dynamic states of becoming: 'cities constitute one of the most complex spatio-temporal sites of identity formation' (2). Hence, travel writings are discussed as some experience to explore the notion of exchange out of which 'narration' emerges as a moving, spatial practice.

Another question comes out: 'why London and New York?' The author finds in the 'French perspectives' of London and New York 'a contextual mesh' that is so relevant to the themes of interest to the book: 'exchange, movement, meaning-making and their bearing on urban modernity' (3). Such a reading of urban modernity, represented in these two capitals of modern Western culture, will help her unbind other traditional or monolithic readings that represent it as a homogenous, undifferentiated entity: 'in this way, we will speak of "modernities" in the plural to challenge better universalist notions of "civilization" and of "modernity"' (3). From the French perspective, it becomes clear that London and New York represent alternative models for the cultural, visual and architectural expression of modern Western civilisation (4). Whereas London represents 'the architectural manifestations of England's constitutional monarchical government' (3), New York 'brings into awareness yet other tensions inherent in French conceptualizations of the modern self on an increasingly transnational and technologically mediated global scene in the twentieth century' (3).

Thus, Jein, a lecturer in French Studies at Bangor University whose research in French urban cultures focuses on the aesthetics and politics related to the articulation of urban spatialities, embarks into some spatial practices of French travel writing from London's Crystal Palace in 1851 to the skyscrapers of New York in the 1980s. …

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