Slightly late for its inclusion in Mapping Society, I’ve come across this quote from Max Weber, writing about the stockyards of turn of the twentieth century Chicago as a landscape of “lowing, bleating, endless filth”. His likening of the city as akin to ‘‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work”[i] is an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities. Not only is the use of graphic imagery a means to convey the urgency of the problem, (and in this instance to reveal the extent of the problem just as a dissection might do), but also to argue for its solution: whether to cleanse, or to separate it out.
Separating the unclean from the cleansed is not of course a new idea. David Sibley has written how the Greeks and the Romans saw themselves as standing at the centre of the civilised world, so that the farther away a group was from the imperial hub, the ‘greater was its “vice”’.[ii] Any civilisation that was inferior to the Greek or Roman culture was in effect deviating from the mean – or the norm – in its statistical as well as its physical sense. A map of prostitution, he argues, provides essential information about ‘the social topography of the town. The basic principle of medieval regulation was to designate certain areas to prostitution, either inside or outside the walls, and limit vice strictly to them.’ This was a form of ‘social hygiene’, locating prostitution in poor districts, ‘often close to the river’ or beyond the city walls.[iii]
By drawing boundaries around people other from themselves, European powers defined the separation of the centre from the periphery. This analysis recalls similar ideas put forward by Richard Sennett regarding the treatment of the Jews of Venice. Sennett writes of the ‘fear of touching’ that led the Christian community of Venice five centuries ago to seek to isolate its foreign inhabitants, as if they were ‘isolating a disease that had infected the community . . . with corrupting bodily vices’.
Despite the complexity of the subject, many nineteenth-century texts continued to use powerfully negative imagery to describe the poor, foreigners and other people viewed as marginal to society in emotive, sensual terms – emphasising their moral contagiousness. David Sibley has described how a distinction was made between the ‘pure bourgeois and the defiled proletarian’ in mid-nineteenth century Paris as part of an effort to ‘deodorize utopian city space’ during the reshaping of the city under Baron Haussmann.[iv]
Minority groups are typically not the only people to be marginalised spatially. So too are the poorest classes. Despite the slum clearances that took place throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the increasing numbers of people moving into the city from the countryside, coupled with a lack of organised city planning, led to the formation of poverty areas constituted by an ‘almost endless intricacy of courts and yards crossing each other . . . like a rabbit warren’.[v] Robin Evans has commented that the campaigns to clear the slums were due to their being viewed in the public eye at the time to be breeding grounds for indecency ‘. . . as if the homes had been one great block of stone eaten by slugs into innumerable small chambers and connecting passages’.[vi] Overcrowding was linked with immorality, while poverty was associated linguistically with the animal (in this instance, the insect) world, suggesting the poor to be non-human in their behaviour. At the same time, likening the city’s morphology – its physical form and layout – to a rabbit warren shows how the city was itself viewed by people as a source of the immorality of its inhabitants.[vii]
No language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels’.[viii] This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well.
[i] “(Weber, 1904, quoted in Nolan J. L. What They Saw in America: Alexis De Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016), p. 72.
[ii] D. Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (London; New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 50.
[iii] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 87. Bronislaw Geremek has similarly described how the city walls of medieval Paris were seen as a purifying device, defining territory within and without the walls, and placing the prostitutes beyond them. B. Geremek and J. Birrell, The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[iv] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 57. For more on Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris, see section on the contemporary mapping of disease, in Chapter 2 of this volume (p. 000).
[v] H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor vol. 4 (London: Griffin, Bohn, 1861); Penguin Classics reprint edition, ed. V. Neuburg (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp. 299–300.
[vi] R. Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space,’ in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, ed. R. Evans (London: AA Documents 2, 1997, first published 1978). ‘Rookery’ is a term dating from the 1820s to describe a particularly low quality of housing, closely packed with people of the poorest class (it refers to colonies of rooks, which nest in trees in large populations during the breeding season).
[vii] Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings’.
[viii] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York and London: Panther Edition, 1891 (first published Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 57.