In 1867 Emile Zola, a young journalist, dedicated one of his articles to the upcoming inauguration of a public space. The piece is entitled “The Squares” (Les squares). It begins: “The gates to the new Parmentier square, built on the site of the former Popincourt slaughterhouse, will soon be opened to the public.” Then come two pages of sarcasm directed at the absurdity of urban landscaping, where lawns try to recall nature for consumptive city dwellers. “It looks,” he says, “like a bit of nature that did something wrong and was put in prison.” A square is not a museum, but it too is a place for soft expenditure; it is an enclave through whose gates Parisian workers escape the implacable law of work: they take the air (regenerating their lungs just as do the museum visitors observed by Bataille). For lack of an animal they kill time. Today’s cultural reconversion of slaughterhouses, the transformation of a harsh expenditure into a mild one is, therefore, not an absolutely novel phenomenon. This event is programmed in the logic of the modernization of urban space. It has not changed since Haussmann: the Popincourt slaughterhouses, like all slaughterhouses in the various districts of Paris in the Second Empire, were swept along in the concentration of the alimentary track of the city that culminated with the simultaneous creation of the central market of Les Halles and the slaughterhouses at la Villette. The small neighborhood slaughterhouses were recycled into green spaces, urban parks, just as the central slaughterhouses of la Villette are being recycled, a century later, into a park of science and industry. Thanks to this conversion a kinder and gentler expenditure takes the place of a dirty one, and the visitor takes over for the worker. Doing in the slaughterhouses makes room for educational parks, spaces where workers on holiday see demonstrated the meaning of their work.

Denis Hollier, Representations, No. 28, Special Issue: Essays in Memory of Joel Fineman (Autumn, 1989), p.82

“Zola descends into the sewer to bathe in it, I to cleanse it.” — Henrik Ibsen


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