Deflating the Expo: critics of modernity and the Paris Expositions universelles, 1855-1900

Elizabeth Gralton

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The second half of the nineteenth century in France was marked by discourses of bothprogress and decline. The discourse of progress was manifest in five Expositionsuniverselles that took place in Paris during the second half of the nineteenth century.First organised under Napoleon III's Second Empire in 1855 and 1867 and then by theThird Republic in 1878, 1889 and 1900, these Expositions celebrated industry, science,reason and the glory of the French nation under the two respective regimes. They weresites of didacticism but also of festivity, pleasure and consumerism. The Expositionsrepresented the dominant discourse of modernity. This thesis seeks to systematicallyanalyse anti-Exposition discourse in order to enhance understanding of French criticsof modernity in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

While literature on the Expositions universelles abounds, no in-depth study ofreactions to or perceptions of the Expositions universelles has been undertaken. Yet theevents, as one historian has written, were weathervanes "indicating certain currents infin de siècle thought."1 Furthermore, for Parisians they were almost impossible toavoid, occupying as they did vast stretches of the French capital for six-month periods.For these reasons—their representiveness of the dominant discourse and their periodicubiquity—the Expositions were inevitably subject to critique. This critique provides thehistorian with an opportunity to interrogate the ways in which contemporaries engagedwith the optimistic rhetoric of progress and modernity espoused by the Second Empireand the Third Republic.

The primary source material used by this thesis comes predominantly from theParisian press critical of modernity, that is of democracy, republicanism, and the effectsof the French and industrial revolutions. These newspapers and journals were oftenUltramontane Catholic and legitimist but the body of material used also encompassesmore moderate periodicals. Most of the material has been gleaned from periodicalspublished during the Exposition years. Occasionally, and usually as supportingevidence, works of literature have been cited.

This study is organised thematically. The first chapter, 'Modernity and its Critics',reviews the existing literature on critics of modernity and contextualises these thinkersand their values within discourses of progress and decline. This first chapterdemonstrates that the concepts valued by critics of modernity were tradition, socialorder and the sublime. Chapters Two and Three explore accusations that theExpositions universelles represented a repudiation of the sublime typical of modernity.Chapter Two, 'The Search for the Poetry of the Expositions', focuses on the critique ofutility and the ways in which the Expositions seemed to presage a loss of poetry andlyricism from modern life. Chapter Three, 'The Search for God at the Expositions',looks at how the Expositions were critiqued for their laïcité and their celebration ofmaterialism. Chapter Four, 'Spectacle, Consumption and Status', explores the critiqueof manifestations, at the Expositions, of mass culture: visual spectacle and illusion,mass production and consumption, and the aspirations of the petite bourgeoisie.Chapter Five, 'Republic, Revolution and Reason', demonstrates that critics ofmodernity sought to deflate or subvert the political aims of the Expositions byportraying the events as carnivalesque and chaotic fairgrounds promoting debaucheryand neurosis rather than Enlightenment and Reason.

It has been suggested in the late twentieth century that the Expositions of the ThirdRepublic were unsuccessful as festivals of nationhood.2 Many nineteenth-centurycritics of modernity would have agreed. This thesis examines more closely theperceived failures and malignancy of all the nineteenth-century Paris Expositions asfestivals of the French nation. In doing so it illuminates the ways in which Frenchcritics of modernity grappled with the cultural discourses of their time and place.

1 R. D. Mandell, Paris 1900: the great World's Fair, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1967,p.xiii.

2 C. Rearick, Pleasures of the belle époque: entertainment and festivity in turn-of-the-century France, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1985, p.138.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


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