Theories and History of Police: Notes on Cesare Birignani’s ‘The Rational City’

What is a city?“The Paperholder,” drawing by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1749), in: M. Guillauté, Mémoire sur la Réformation de la Police, soumis au roi en 1749
1. On November 26, 2010, titled “The Rational City: Urbanism and Police Science in the Ancien Régime
How is it constituted? What are its functions? How is it to be governed? Who are its citizens? How should it look like? In the 18th century European and, in particular, French intellectuals proposed novel formulations of such questions and conveyed a wealth of competing arguments, radically changing the practice of urban planning and ultimately redefining the very idea of the city. Cesare Birignani, teaching fellow at Columbia University and visiting professor at Versailles and UIUC, offered an alternative reading to revisit the common understanding of the rational city and the emergence of Urbanism under the rubric of ‘Police Science’. In the seminar he held at the Berlage Institute[1] he explored a series of historical transformations in the way the city was problematized in the ancien régime by discussing both a series of administrative and juridical practices developed to manage the city of Paris, and a corpus of texts produced in the period between the end of the seventeenth century until the Revolution. As part of a series titled “The Historical Project: Whatever Happened to Operative History” Birignani’s seminar was also an occasion to discuss his methods, radically opposed to any attempt to make history “operative.”

Birignani’s thesis examines two historical phenomena and their mutual relation: first, the emergence of a new “rationality” of the city, as it developed in the discourse and practices of police, the institution that mostly controlled urban transformation; and second, a profound cultural change in the way the city, in both its material and political sense, was conceived. Such an analysis can help to revisit some of the basic assumptions in the study of the city of the Enlightenment (e.g., the very notions of Enlightenment, rationality, order) and consider anew the long-standing question of the relationship between architecture and society.

Terminologically, until the mid-eighteenth century, the term police did not refer to a kind of organized administrative agency or specialized body of men; police designated not really an entity but an act. Indeed, it is more convenient to read it as a verb: ‘to police,’ rather than ‘the police.’ By this definition police stands for a set of functions instead of an actual institution. In 1694 the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defined police as ‘order.’ Later the Encyclopédie-the key text of Enlightenment-equated police with ‘government.’ As a whole, eighteen-century definitions of policing focus on the “governing human beings and making them happy in light of the general interest. […] The public interest was thus linked to the idea of ‘civilisation’, which permitted a nation to live according to orderly and reasonable customs.”[2]2. Arlette Farge, “Police,” in Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, ed. Michel Delon, trans. Philip Stewart and Gwen Wells (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001). In 1752 Diderot used the term ‘police’ in the article ‘beau’ (beautiful) in opposition to the term ‘sauvage,’ since policing was to draw people away from barbarism and encourage civilisation; so the state, the city or the people were promoted to be ‘policé’ (policed).[3]3. Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie: articles ‘Âme,’ ‘Beau,’ ‘Certitude,’ ‘Droit naturel.’ For a century, police stood for the rational regulation that kept the society and the city in a clearly defined power structure and juridical framework. At that time it certainly did not have those negative implication as it has today; most writers like Voltaire and Rousseau used the term in a very positive sense: a policed state, a policed city or a policed people indicated a civilized city or a civilized state.

At the rise of the Enlightenment ‘police science’ was born to formulate a new rationality of the city in order to make it knowable, readable and therefore manageable. While the European city was described as an irrational body of settlement[4]4. See Jean-Jacques Rousseau,Confessions, Book IV, and René Descartes, Discourse on the Method: Part II ‘police science’ turned the city as such into an object of knowledge. Consequently, Birignani traces the emergence of urbanism in the mid-eighteenth century in the form of an autonomous discipline. He described two key projects which have theoretically and practically established the police as a new paradigm: the reform of the police during Loius XIV in 1666,[5]5. This project is extensively documented by M. Guillaute, the police officer of Île-de-France, in the manuscript Mémoire sur la Réformation de la Police de France first published in 1749. and the publication of the book series Traité de la Police by Nicolas De La Mare in 1705.

Until the mid-seventeenth century Paris was not a homogeneous juridical space. There was an attempt to reduce Paris to a limited consistent juridical and political domain, and ‘police science’ was a guarantee to carry out this project. In 1666, Louis XIV and especially Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the prime minister of the king, decided to centralize police functions in order to solve the institutional conflicts. They established a council for the reformation of the police in the form of a committee to redraw fundamentally the juridical environment of Paris and to clarify who had the police function. A new post was consequently established by this committee, the lieutenant general of police.

In 1675 Nicolas De La Mare, a French police commissioner, started a monumental project to compile urban regulations as a Traité. The first volume of Traité de la Police was published in 1705. He succeeded to publish only two other volumes during his lifetime.[6]6. A part of the series was published after his death by Anne-Louis Lecler du Brillet who took over the notes that De La Mare left from the unpublished materials gathered them in the book Continuation du Traité de la Police that deals mostly with Urbanism (De la Voirie).
7. In the 18th century the term Urbanism did not exist. The term that was used most often was embellissement which did not have any precise juridical meaning. But the term that bore the closest meaning was the term voirie.
He divided the police domains into eleven major scopes of action in which it should intervene: religion, morality, public health, food supply, urbanism,[7] commerce, etc. De La Mare can be seen as the one who formulated the ideology of police by writing a systematical history of jurisprudence in France. As Birignani puts forward, police functions not only by means of violence and power but primarily by ideology. The fundamental object of police, according to De La Mare, is to leave man in the most perfect happiness that he can enjoy in his life. Nevertheless, in police ideology, man’s happiness is not antithetical to the idea of control; on the contrary, it is control and management that guarantee individuals’ happiness and social welfare.

The new conception of the city that emerged from ‘police science’ constructed a new rationality of the city. This holistic understanding can be seen, according to Birignani, as the origin of Urbanism: the knowledge of the management of the city. The city, which previously had been approached just by punctual interventions, now became a complex object of study. Paris began to be projected as a network of nodes and links in an urban system. This knowledge was not just to make the city clean with straight streets and smooth circulation; in fact, it was to limit and thus to define the city by documenting and numbering every single object. As a result, the city was mapped and projected in fundamentally new plans. The map of water network, published in 1738 by Lecler du Brillet, can be seen as the first infrastructural map of Paris. In 1765, Pierre Patte combined all the projects that had been submitted for the competitions and future projects into a single map of the city. This is one of the first attempts to illustrate the city as a cohesive system based on simple multiplication of an archetype (the royal square). In these projects the city was redesigned and perceived as a whole, to be defined not through walls but by application of a certain rationality.

Birignani sees the De La Mare’s Traité as a remarkable breakthrough towards shaping a new consciousness about the city. However, the utter pragmatism of ‘police science’ is strongly underlined. It was Françoise Choay who first denied any theoretical status of De La Mare’s project: “De La Mare’s attempt to reveal the logic behind the decisions and regulations as the logic was an illusion.”[8]8. Françoise Choay, The Rule and the Model, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997) Police dealt with the contingency of the city; its object was not to cope with the necessities of the ideal city of the utopian writers, but to deal with the city that actually existed with all its messiness and complications. Thus, ‘police science’ is an outlook to manage the city in the most expedient way; it no longer aims to project a new city but to maintain and improve the status quo of the city in its utmost better condition, it performs to make the machine function better.

Birignani’s contribution voluntarily stops here. Birignani hesitates to confirm any mutual relation between the political machine and the ‘police science,’ and to see the latter as an apparatus-a permanent state of coup d’état which is able to secure the stability of society and at the same time providing happiness to individuals. In other words, Birignani resists the temptation to theorise ‘police science’ as an example of a diffused, bureaucratic governmentality opposed to a centralized model of sovereign power, as Michel Foucault attempted to do in one of his last contributions.[9]9. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: lectures at the College de France 1977-1978, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

In his desire to extract ontological categories, Foucault is responsible, according to Birignani, to suffocate the individuality of the figures found in historical evidence to a faceless, anonymous murmuring. Instead, Birignani chooses to render history through an exposition of the statements and the utterances as they are found in the archive, against any attempt to interpret and organize them. The historian is no longer a narrator but someone who fundamentally acts as a mediator to purify a particular historical episode from present ideological or political commitments. In this sense, history is considered as a form of resistance, which has to remain autonomous. The quest of the “true meaning” of a determinate historical event, and the “objectiveness” of its rendering can only be achieved through the renunciation of any attempt to make history living: as Carlo Ginzburg declared, to make a history that is “really dead.”[10]10. Keyvanian, C., “Manfredo Tafuri: From the Critique of Ideology to Microhistories” in Design Issues journal, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2000) p. 3-15.

Despite the architectural historian’s scholarly obsession not to manipulate the facts by theorising them, the death of history is still loaded with operative potentiality. Another historian obsessed with objectivity admitted that “an elaboration of mourning” might be proposed “with the aim of enlarging the scope of those questions that operate critically within contemporary architectural culture.”[11]11. Manfredo Tafuri, Interpreting the Renaissance: Princes, Cities, Architects (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), emphasis in the original. Indeed, the Art of Police is today even more pervasive and efficient in the management of the city than it was in the eighteenth century. In this light, Birignani’s project, with its “weak power of analysis,” might be read as a retroactive manifesto of police: the one that De La Mare did not succeed to finish.