Purple Magazine
— Paris Issue #31

emanuele coccia

people of paris

text by EMANUELE COCCIA

Like many foreigners, like most non-Parisian French people, my first contact with Paris dates back to the years of my studies. Not that I had in mind the names of people who would have to be followed. I wasn’t even sure I knew what I wanted to do for my PhD. But I had spent the last few years in Berlin and Florence, and I had the impression that it was only in Paris that you could understand what to do. I arrived here, as said in ancient times, to visit the oracles. As if only within the perimeter of this city could knowledge (in its most different forms) find its relationship to desire and passion — to every form of it, even the strangest, the most absurd, the most neglected. After all, that’s what this is all about: something like a strange contract with the desire to know, something that allows you to eventually know better what you are looking for, something that allows you to desire knowledge and objects whose existence you did not suspect.

My story is not unusual or peculiar. Paris is not only the city of fashion and style, revolutions, and revolts. It is also the city that has identified with the lives of its students so much that it has elected them as protagonists of one of the most important events in its recent history. Not that the city is invaded and populated exclusively, or mostly, by people who come there to study, do research, teach, or hear teachers from all over the world, as can be the case in any European or American university center. They’re not even students in the technical sense of the word. Most people who come here are looking for a kind of knowledge that has probably not yet been invented. They are students in the original sense of the term — people looking for a rare, secret knowledge whose existence they are not even sure of.

It’s not a coincidence. It all started here. Almost eight centuries ago. You might even risk an exact date: 1231. In that year, historians say, the modern university was born. This is not the invention of a new way of teaching: schools of this type already existed. But from that year on, the students of the schools in Paris enjoyed a very peculiar legal status: extraterritoriality. Being a student meant no longer being subject to the authority of the mayor of Paris, but to that of another political institution (in that case, the bishop, who controlled the university).

Since then, living in this city has coincided with this strange experience: to consider the status quo (the norm) as something that does not concern you; to know that it is necessary to reach an idea that nobody knows yet in order to live better; to desire more than anything to be able to relate to these ideas; to be able to share this desire and to know that there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of other people like you in the city. Paris is above all the evidence that the affinity that binds you to these strange and unexpected fellow travelers goes beyond belonging to the same nation and class, but instead has a lot to do with living in this same city.

It is an association that has forever marked European history. To study, to dedicate one’s life to research, to the invention and the production of new ideas and knowledge, different from those that guide the life of others, means to be politically different from the others. It is from that moment that the will to know and the desire and need for political freedom have become synonymous. And Paris has been able, for eight centuries now, to find each time the ways and forms of this synonymy. Paris, after all, is above all the city that invented the freedom to know, to know differently from others, to know without having to obey those in charge of power in the city and elsewhere. Paris has invented knowledge as disobedience and vice versa, has made a science out of disobedience, something that has nothing to do with violence, with the stupid revolt in the street, with the ignoble show of gunfire in the square. If Paris is the libertine city par excellence, it is not because nobody does what everyone should do. On the contrary, libertinism here is synonymous with being enslaved to this indefatigable divination of the idea that will change the life and the way of looking, feeling, listening of all others. That idea that will disrupt all the senses. This freedom is not necessarily linked to the university. It can be expressed in art, in a museum, in fashion, as well as in commerce. For at least 60 years, fashion has perhaps expressed this freedom more than any other sphere. Haute couture has inherited this task and taught the freedom to know and the knowledge of freedom to all the other arts. Paris, the capital of fashion, was a metamorphosis of Paris, the capital of knowledge.

It is not likely to happen again in the next few years. It is likely that the witness, who has passed from philosophy to fashion, will pass into the hands of other forms of knowledge. To other students. But if Paris wants to remain true to itself, it must continue to fuel this strange paradox. You need to know in order to be free, but you need to be free in order to be able to know all the way down. And you can only be free when you are a foreigner in your own land, a sort of migrant who has become one without ever having to cross the border. People in Paris all tend to become students. They are unrecognizable in their way of dressing and talking. They are unassimilable to a professional or social category. Parisians, especially outside the university, have no discipline. They do not belong to any class, to any race, to any religion. They are the anonymous gold of this city, its most perfect expression.

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[Table of contents]

Paris Issue #31

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