Paris: Invisible City

Please post your response to Latour and Hermant’s Paris: Invisible City here. Please review the website as well.


16 thoughts on “Paris: Invisible City

  1. In “Paris : Invisible City,” Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant combine words and images to demonstrate the impossibility to capture all of Paris in a single glance. Paris, the City of Light, is in fact so luminous that it blinds everyone who tries to grasp its essence, thus becoming invisible. Following the structure of a photographic scenario, the text is cryptic on its own, as it was conceived and has to be understood with the website of the same name. The mysterious images support the themes of fragmentation, montage and scale which are at the core of the text. Paris, as a representation, is saturated. Visiting or inhabiting the city invariably results in the confrontation of expected and lived, personal and collective experiences. This ambivalence, as the authors point out, can never be resolved: “[…] my gaze dominates the gaze that dominates me.” (10) Paris is incredibly kaleidoscopic as it changes constantly with the excess of signs and circulation of images, in and about the city.

    I am fascinated by the authors’ claim that Paris has neither a “[…] foreground nor a background – in fact there is no longer a ground.” (44) Has Paris disappeared because it was too present in visual culture? Is it gradually becoming a virtual concept instead of a real city? Paris still exists as a tangible city, but offers radically different experiences, either one-to-one or mediated through books, films, movies and other media. Other metropolises – certainly New York, London to a lesser extent – are facing the same fate as the City of Light in transforming into a space of scattered virtualities through the accumulations of views and perspectives. If space is a series of coexistences, to fully understand Paris one has to experience the whole spectrum of its representations, the embodied experience remaining essential.

    Camille Bédard

  2. Tanya Southcott

    Simultaneously a photographic and written exploration of Paris, the web-based project Paris Ville Invisible by Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant focuses on the interconnectedness of minute urban experiences to the complexity of urban infrastructure and networks, challenging a vision of the city as both fragmented and static, and the limitations of social theory for understanding urban life. According to its authors, the objective of this ‘sociological opera’ is simply “to wander through the city, in texts and images, exploring some of the reasons why it cannot be captured at a glance”. To this end, the team finds itself in places like the offices of Meteo-France, Paris’ Ordinance Survey Department and the SAGEP control room documenting the processes by which the invisible is made visible. They focus on making the privileged or specialized vantages of individuals (like Mrs. Baysal at the Ecole des Mines, or the food analyst Eric Engel) accessible by tracing the attachment of all Parisians to each other.

    Central to the project is the idea of the ‘Oligopticon’. Unlike the all-seeing eye of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the gaze of the oligopticon is narrow and specific. It relies on the interconnectedness of “countless techniques making Parisian’s lives possible”, and a version of the city that can be considered in its entirety, but is best understood at its most localized and intimate experience, those immediate elements of daily life that make living in a metropolitan area of over 12 million people possible.

    Inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as it layers the many imagined versions of a single city, this exploration moves “from the entire Paris set in one view to the multiple Parises within Paris, which together comprise all Paris and which nothing ever resembles”. In many ways it is an alternative guidebook to the inner-workings of a metropolis, through traces of the underlying structures responsible for the functioning of this City of Light.

  3. Noémie Despland-Lichtert

    Paris Ville invisible describe, in an poetic manner, the ungraspable character of the over changing, fluid, city of Paris. It links social theory to notion of images, icons, panorama, photograph and tourism. It compare the symbolic Paris of tourist to the one’s of the Parisians.
    To me, the structure of the text mirrors the one of Paris. The text goes in every directions, is heterogeneous and unforeseeable. Even if it seams very organised in categories and subcategories, one read its structures appears less clear. Once experience, Paris’ structure appears less clear than in plan.
    This article also seam to me to a certain extend inaccessible to someone who would have never visited or even lived in Paris. The text is full of cultural shared references it reminds us than more than the touristic destination, Paris is also a town were more than 2 millions of people live year long.

  4. Similarly to Debord’s Dérive of Paris, Latour and Hernant seek to convey the essence of the city through the use of different mapping techniques, from texts to an overwhelming montage of numerous photographies of the city, while drawing a parallel with Calvino’s ‘Invisible cities’. In other words, it highlights again the impossible task of capturing a city’s beauty within a single glance, map or drawing and in this case, even through a profusion of them. The passage where Mr. Henry, the senior officer at the national police responsible for public safety in Paris, explains why he uses the Monopoly-like figurines on a 7,500 to 1 map of Paris was quite enlightening. It plainly explains the constraints of mapping: “Because SURF gives an image that’s too precise! All the traffic problems in Paris have a ripple effect spreading over several kilometers. No computerized map enables us to vary the scale fast enough: either it’s too big or it’s too small; the frames are always too rigid. Here, with the figurines, I can see both the whole and the details, anticipate better and spread out my forces more effectively”. (p.54) I also thought it was interesting how the sociologist and the photograph observe banal public objects and furniture and perceive them as elements controlling the flow and movement of people within the urban landscape. ‘‘Anyone who moves about comfortably and takes obstacles in their stride is clearly authorized by these objects to live in Paris.’’ (p. 65) The Carte du Tendre represents this labyrinth where walls are overlooked barriers carefully installed and planned by us.

    I must admit that this reading was initially difficult to fully grasp. I found this article which gave a summary as well as some background information on the authors which other might find useful: (The page is in French.) But what the author comprehensively explains is that Invisible cities and the photographic explorations are the research methods. Hence, the book itself is not a ‘finalité’, similarly to the city itself, constantly changing and the possibilities of what it could be. On the website, the plans subdivided into categories, ‘cheminer’, ‘dimensionner’, ‘distribuer’ and finally ‘permettre’. ‘Permettre’ proposes an answer, another more ‘breathable’ version of the city. ‘Quand il fait chaud, Paris s’allège.’ As temperature increases, the warmth allows for social activities, or at least, this is what I understand from this. The city can finally breathe. The last plan suggests Paris can: by translating some of its beauty through the photographic explorations, one becomes aware of the potential. The surveillance, networks of authorities (comparison between Paris and the Cimetière du Père Lachaise) only scratch the surface of the city.

  5. Latour, used the Actor-Network-Theory as a methodology to understand and unravel the complexity of Paris and its evolution over time. Paris: Invisible City, is a collaborative work amongst Latour , Hermant and Reed incorporating both visual art and sociology.
    The challenge of understanding a metropolis like Paris can be daunting, with its multi-layered history, its complex social construct and diverse cultural context. Through the use of web-based visual account accompanied with textual narrative the authors were able to present Paris from the inhabitants point of view – its everyday life, its hidden infrastructures and its complex institutions.
    This highly nuanced view of Paris unfolds upon the audience through both the narrative and hypertext imagery. A city rich in history, stratified over time juxtaposed against the Eiffel Tower with glittering lights and industrial promise can be easily misinterpreted as any other normative urban center. However, the work invites us to scratch the surface and get into the depths of Paris, not to be fooled by the “gaze.”
    I find this methodology quite intriguing as day-to-day life with its complexity presents – an invisible fragmented Paris full of promise and adventure. However, It also questions the state of urban metropolis at the present time vis a vis – social, cultural and political issues.

  6. Paris: The Invisible City by Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant is very interesting in its execution. The reading investigates the state of Paris as socially fragmented and to some extent fragile. However there is a feeling that “the totality [not presenting] itself as a fixed frame” (51) is how Paris should be experienced, it is the essence that allows one to breathe easier. This text is essentially a Psychogeographic mapping of Paris. It takes you through a series of experiences, very acutely unraveling the Invisible City, a revealing a life of ‘lavish splendor’. What is interesting is that the question posed, “Does that mean that the social will never be able to be gathered together? Should we resign ourselves to the permanent fragmentation of lived worlds?”(47), is addressed by the creation of this oligopticon. The text becomes the thread connecting all the narrow views of the whole, what is essentially the social gathered together. Paris is flattened in this way, its vibrancy realized on a more democratic platform.

  7. Mylène Carrière:

    “Paris: Invisible City” is a project from Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant, which is quite intriguing. They propose an unconventional and fragmented discovery of Paris, which mean not being a tourist with a guidebook, with text and succession of images through the lens of sociology.

    Through the virtual trajectory, the authors are criticizing Paris’ society where everybody is working in “the darkness of their cave”. In other words, in front of their computer avoiding human relationships. The citizens are mainly working with the help of technology, to produce more. But what are they producing? Signs, information, … Why? To allow strangers to orient in their city without even talking to a single Parisian and thinking that they saw everything of Paris.

    Latour and Hermant are exploring this ideas further through different citizens, a meteorologist, a biologist studying rat’s neurons, the Mayor, an artist at a café, etc. Every human being as a name and they are, sometimes in the text, put in relationships even if they never notice the existence of each other. The fragmented character of the path of traces that the authors are producing is mainly reflecting the specialization of our society.

    This text does not provide a solution, and do not intend to it, but is only trying to make the invisible visible through the virtual world. The discovery of a city, such as Paris, is really complex and probably a never-ending process.

  8. Nicki Reckziegel

    In their text “Paris: Invisible City,” Latour and Hermant illustrate, through both social theory and photographic inquiry, that Paris cannot be captured in a single image or glance; rather, to truly “see” Paris, and more importantly its invisible sides, requires an extreme layering of information. “The visible is never in an isolated image or in something outside of images, but in the montage of images, a transformation of images, a cross-cutting view, a progression, a formatting, a networking. […] There has to be a trace linking them.” (29)

    There is the idea that “nobody has seen anything in its entirety” (7) and yet an overall order exists that keeps everyone running smoothly, by defining “the general framework in which [people] set [their] point of view.”(10)When using maps and images to “see” the city, “the frame has the same dimension, in a sense, as the object it frames.”(9) We can never see more than what is set out in front of us. When any giver person uses a map or an image to make sense of something with the city, “[they] hold in [their] hand what holds [them] at a distance; [their] gaze dominates the gaze that dominates [them].” (10) “After learning how to wander along these traces, to proportion relations without ever going through the myth of Society, after learning how interpretations are formatted, we can now go a little further and try to understand how this social theory can empower.” (96)

    The authors suggest that if we attempt to understand the city in terms of its “invisible” elements, we may learn to find space to breathe in what seemed to be an over-crowded and congested setting, not to mention, “to give back, in a little beauty, some of the lavish splendour that the City of Light has in store.” (103)

  9. Due to the size of Paris, it is impossible to encompass it in one glance. Claiming Paris as the invisible city, the authors bring up the difficulty in understanding a metropolitan. The authors recorded the city in experiential segments of moments in different locality in the article and created an interactive website.

    The website is the manifestation of their exploration, a method to link the virtuality of Paris to a user in a virtual environment. While the short articles in the essay provide one means of experience, the website allows Paris to be experience both psychologically and virtually. The digital realm enable another level of understanding of Paris, an interactive way that is more subjective and passive.

    Although the website is a newer form of exploration, the experience is limited in terms of its content. After all, experiencing Paris from another observer’s perspective is biased as the contents are selected and filtered.

    Paris should be experienced through sequential embodiment in different medias, not limited to physical or digital representation, in order to increase one’s understanding of the city. Like the authors realized in the end, it was an impossible task to fully understand Paris; it is best to immerse oneself in Paris to attempt to grasp its essence.

  10. Latour travels through the city and attempts to unravel the hidden network of invisible systems that allow the city to function and that secretly facilitate the lives of its citizens. The sites that the author focuses on are usually unaccessible for the general public, and he claims that these ‘oligopticons’ can serve as lenses through which society and the city can be better viewed and understood. The only way to grasp the city is to He is essentially saying that Paris can only be seen thought maps, representations, models and networks that represent it. Its essence is ‘invisible’ because it can only be grasped through an observation of the various relationships between its parts, a succession of events rather than a static image.

  11. In the book “Paris: Invisible City”, Latour using written text and a photographic montage attempts to show how the complex socio-material layering of Paris cannot be explored and comprehended in a single glance, but rather requires a wandering through the city – “No bird’s eye view could, at a single glance, capture the multiplicity of the places which all add up to make the whole of Paris “ (21). The author conveys his understanding of the complex layering of the city through a series of disjointed and fragmented events. In doing so, Latour creates a connection with the virtual world of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, showing that the city of Paris has innumerable facets, which are neither visible nor explored within the framework of our current social theory.

    Following the previous observation, Latour contends that the multi-layer structure and functioning of the city cannot be understood within the framework of the “all-seeing” gaze of Founcault’s Panopticon. According to Latour, the idea of the oligopticon, which underlines “multiple connections, criss-crossing” and a stream of viewing of disjointed events, is much more appropriate in discovering and analyzing the socio-material nature of the city.

    Yousef Farasat

  12. “The taste of the apple is neither in the apple itself – the apple cannot taste itself – nor in the mouth of the eater. It requires a contact between them”. Jose Luis Borges was referring to the work of Bishop Berkeley, who rejected the existence of material substance, claiming that objects cannot exist without being perceived: they are only ideas in the minds of perceivers. This empiricist belief is at complete odds with Latour’s belief in the agency of objects: non-human actors form an essential part of the networks which occupy a city. Many of these networks operate largely without the perception of the individual: the entire concept of the invisible cities within Paris hinges on these networks. Through the text, the apricot is brought up as an actor in far more relations than merely the taste: the price-fixing of markets, the trucks which drive through the cities. “Although I felt an apricot, weighed it in my hand and tasted it, I was still unable to extract a price from its juicy flesh.” The apricot as an object can only inform so much: as an actor, the apricot becomes an irreducible event that has implications throughout a series of larger networks. A living city is made up of endless contacts between these networks: however both human and non-human actors play a role, and often pass each other without colliding. However, in his constantly reducing everything to its component parts, and in elaborating these networks throughout this text, perhaps Mr. Latour should take some more time to enjoy the juicy flesh of the apricot while it lasts.

  13. The interactive text, “Paris: Invisible City,” attempts to demonstrate, through photographic mapping and inquiry, that the city of Paris cannot at any point be seen or understood in its entirety through a single image. Rather, the authors argue that it takes a series of layered images/information to understand the city as a functioning whole. They believe this is such due to the fact that one can not really see more than what is framed before them. Therefore, only through experiencing the city at a number of different levels and through a number of different perspectives can one begging to understand it as a whole. It is the interconnections between all these perspectives that render the city cohesive.
    The text brings into light and contrasts the workings of the panopticon versus those of the oligopticon. Where the panopticon focuses on seeing all, the oligopticon allows one to see only a slice of the whole. Again, the author reinforces the idea that though city of Paris is no greater than the sum of its parts, it is only through the limited and layered view through multiple oligopticons that one may grasp the essence of the city.
    Latour sets up a number of examples throughout the text, with actors that appear and reappear in different scenarios, to underline his hypothesis. For example, we meet the character of Alice at the voting pole and then again at the café. I believe that what Latour is trying to do here is challenge the reader’s perception of the actor; placing the actor in different location at different times and allowing the reader only a glimpse of the actor here and there, forces the reader to find the underlying network or connections which drive the actor in his/her/its actions. Again the reader is forced to confront the idea of the overlaying/overlapping/reconstituted relationships making up the image of the whole.

  14. The structure of Latour’s essay reflects the notion of Foucault’s Panopticon.
    The Panopticon was originally conceived by Jeremy Bentham as a prison design concept in the late 18th century wherein a circular building contains a “watchman” or a “guard” who is able to survey the inmates stationed around the perimeter. According to Foucault, the Panopticon set about a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind which is reflected in modern disciplinary society of creating a permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination anymore. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals, and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon.
    On the flipside, Latour’s Oligopticon does exactly the opposite of Bentham’s panopticon, “they see much too little to feed the megalomania of the inspector or the paranoia of the inspected. For what they see, however, they see it well… From the oligopticon, sturdy but extremely narrow views of the whole are made possible–as long as connections hold.” Latour also contrasts the absolutist gaze from the panoptica with the more democratic, mutable and vulnerable gaze within the oligoptica.
    In the early eighties, Bruno Latour was also developing his actor-network theory (or ANT). ANT holds that human and nonhuman actors comprise of networks that interact with other networks of various scales. For example, a human acts as a network for parts of the body (heart, lungs, bones, etc.), just as the heart is both an actor within this network and a network in its own right. A human can also be part of a more extensive network such as an airplane, corporation or building. According to ANT, networks communicate through their actions. This communication can be verbal, nonverbal, intentional and unintentional. An example in latour’s essay, he refers to a group of tourists who are observing a Parisian couple in love. Because the tourists are currently navigating within the ‘tourist network’, there personal oligopticon sees the Parisian couple according to that framework. Similarly, Latour refers to an apricot, which to him cannot be given a price based on its colour or taste but through the daily flux of market prices. Thus, Latour suggests that to better understand cities such as Paris, which is comprised of several small frames, the actor must lead his/herself through a network of continuous flows with diverse influences that cannot be fully represented in Euclidian space.

  15. Alexandre Hamel

    “Paris: Invisible City”, the publication and later website by Bruno Latour is an attempt to illustrate how such a complex and multi-faceted city as Paris cannot be encapsulated into one singular map, image or panorama. Instead, the author suggests that it has to be experienced through a series of discrete microcosms in order to grasp the larger macrocosm. By breaking down the city into layers of smaller experiential events, one can understand the larger scheme of things and get a more complete sense of Paris as a whole: “ To take it all in at once, to ‘dominate it at a glance’, to calculate the flows, Paris first has to become small.”(4)

    Following the same logic, Latour argues that the structure of the city cannot be understood through the all-seeing eye of Foucault’s Panopticon. On the other hand, the notion of the oligopticon framing multiple connected but fragmented views becomes a more suitable way of uncovering the intricacy imbedded in the city fabric.

    This opposition can be compared to Google maps and the contrasting ways in which we can explore a virtual city space. The aerial satellite map and the street view could be juxtaposed to the panopticon vs the oligopticon. In this case, both views of the same milieu build up on each other in an attempt to provide an understanding of space. Nonetheless, a fundamental distinction persists between the virtual and the real. The virtual will always and only be a representation of the real limited by the artificial frame and flattened onto a 2D screen. Even as technology improves and representation becomes increasingly precise and ‘real’, nothing can totally emulate the truth.

  16. Paris the invisible City, in its interactive web-based simulation, takes the readers through different types of “derives” of Paris, seeking to encapsulate the essence of the city through a succession of images and text. It rightfully shows the complexity and unpredictability of encounters which shape our perceptions and create both an image and memory of places.

    As the reader moves through the thumbnail maps, connections and new perceptions of people, places and objects are made as it traverses territory, with repeating references within the different stops, described with muse-like reflections of the writers’ observations. Challenging the notion of the all-seeing eye and panopticon sense of capturing the city in a single view, the oligopticon looks in deeper to the elements that make up a city and the sequential links between them. A major symbol of Paris would be an image of the Eiffel tower, but for the authors, things like street signs and school teachers are seen as instances which together make a whole of the sentiment of a place, capturing social links.

    In one description of a school environment the authors note that “it’s been a long time that Society hasn’t seen itself entirely in a single glance”. There is an inherent need to understand everything quickly and efficiently, which makes this depiction of a city an attempt to capture the complexities that no single view can. However this commentary of giving a fixed manipulated glance of a city and perception is still just done in a more convoluted way, while a recreation of an experience is still not the experience of actually being there. If everything is essentially subject to individual perception, does that filter bar any tool from properly capturing the essence of a space at a distance?

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