I went to Paris with a companion, a whirlwind 3 day trip to a city both of us would experience for the first time.
Subject position: Paris (what little I saw of it) is a beautiful city.
Walking down the wide avenues of the left bank of the Seine, my companion exclaimed:
Hegemonic knowledge: “We’re in the most beautiful city on Earth.”
Being who I am, I had a visceral response that manifested as an extended hum of skepticism. A small, unserious argument ensued. I was branded a killjoy (one of the many things I would be labeled on this trip, almost all of them accurate for better or worse.)
I was then challenged to come up with a list of the cities I most wanted to see, which in a way is a question about beauty as well. All this preface is a means to pose an in-retrospect question: is it possible to uncover (and hence critique) a stadial theory of beauty? I have an impression the enlightenment position goes like this: “beauty is judged by taste, which is possessed by men with reason.”
The beauty of central Paris is one of regularity– there is some unifying aesthetic factor to it, some implicit order even in the labyrinthine intersections splitting the world around you off into a handful of different tangents over and over. someone (some idiotic someone) would perhaps call this the characteristic beauty of civilization. Granted, that beauty is a product of Haussman’s vision, which comes some time after the enlightenment thinkers’ positing of stadial history, but it serves as a high example nevertheless. a city like Paris is able to unashamedly claim the mantle of world’s most beautiful because of several historical contingencies and inheritances that free it of its shame in proclaiming so. one perhaps being this stadial outlook made globally internalized– here is the centre of high culture, of civilization, as they convinced themselves and others for so long. therefore it only makes sense that paris would also represent the height of beauty– the endpoint of a stadial history of beauty.
I am reminded of a reading about Shahjahani architecture, and the Taj Mahal in particular. One visiting white woman in the colonial period recorded that her husband was flabbergasted by the Taj and simply could not accept that it was designed and built by Indians. (aliens!) for those of the colonized, the endpoint was always out of reach. we would never always have paris. since stadial theory relegated us to the medieval period of european evolution, forever almost but not quite, our beauty could only be that of primitive pre-imagined pastiche. until the tourist-theorists were forced to account for beauties they couldn’t medievalize. in that case, it can’t possibly belong to us alone. surely a (european, possibly italian in the taj case) visitor from the future has bestowed such gems on our backward landscapes. or, in those historical present moments, the beauty of the colonized’s art is fragmented, abstracted, and rehashed in the hands of the colonial european architect, combined with myriad western forms to usher in the future otherwise impossible (erroneously named indo-saracenic architecture, lutyen’s delhi).
this, in a messy, incoherent way, is why i don’t think paris is the most beautiful city on earth.