the forest and the address

Yes I'm lonely
wanna die

About the time Rousseau was meditating on the original men in the forest of St. Germane, in the 1750s, the French government was beginning to assign numbers to buildings in various cities. This was a two-fold process. According to David Garrioch, it was not only about assigning a number, but also about a great loss of names: the names of houses. For before the number address, houses were found by their name on the street:

“In the cities of early modern Europe the houses and shops almost all had names and signs. There were red lions and golden suns; names of ships, trees and plants; figures of history and myth; every conceivable saint.”

Garrioch questions a history that sees these names solely in terms of identifying marks. Firstly, the names could be, and were, changed; secondly, there was no system to the marks. There was no succession  of suns, for example. While they may have played a role in identifying the house or shop, the name or sign played more of a role in expressing something about the possessor of the house or shop, from the owner’s loyalties to the owner’s family:

“Yet the signs and house names, like heraldic symbolism, might have more than individual significance. They might act as links between generations, between the namer of the house or the fhounder of a dynasty and that person’s descendants. This is exemplified by the arms of Albrecht Duerer, the painter, which bore a door. The sign outside his father’s workshop in late fifteenth century Nuremberg had been an open door, an obvious pun on the family name, itself a traslation into German of the name of the village the family had come from, Atjos, meaning ‘door’ in Hungarian.” (Garrioch 33)

The Ancien Regime, we are learning, did not fall with the French Revolution. Even after the system of number addresses – first decreed in “military’ towns in France in 1768 – was normalized all over France, including Paris, in 1805, the house names and signs continued for a while. But that advance of numeration had an organizing effect on the city, much like the Prussian method of ‘organizing’ forests by culling certain species, taking out dead wood, creating allies between trees to allow for cutting, etc.

Recent research has shown that the numeration devised by the Revolutionary government had two functions: one was to fix a correspondence between the house and taxes, and the other was to fix the house on the street for police purposes. In fact, the Ancien Regime attempts at numeration often left the system of numeration as confusing as the system of names. The father of the modern system of addresses in France was a certain Ducrest, who submitted a memoir on the subject to Fouche, Napoleon’s minister of the police, in 1804.  In his memoir, he touted the system of numeration (for identity cards, houses, etc.) as an instrument of total observation, a police dream: “The objective of the project is ‘to be able to follow, so to speak, step by step all  citizens.”[Quoted in Vincent Denis, Entre Police et demographie, Actes de recherche en science social, 2000]

The great bonfire of the names of the nobles, which has always been seen as one of the most important symbolic moments in the Revolution, was paralleled by this other bonfire of the names – a slower one, granted. In Milan, the Parisian system of numeration by the street – instead of numeration by the city quarter – did not start until 1857. But the point is that it did get started.    

Evidently, to balance the forest against the address, which is symbolically pleasing, is not exactly accurate. And yet, it does give us, at least as far as we use this to understand Rousseau’s sense of the individual, a good starting point for understanding the nature of  Rousseau’s great objection to the social. It was, I think, an objection to its tendency to totality: its non-intermittance.

The thematic that brings this out is solitude. In an essay on the romantic writer as victim, Eric Gans adduces Rousseau as the prototype, quoting his remarks from the Reveries: “Here I am, then, alone in the world, with no longer brother, neighbor, friend, or society other than myself. The most sociable and the most loving of humans has been excluded from society by a unanimous consent.” Gans is quite right to interpret this as Rousseau’s claim to being a victim: the solitary and the victim are jointed together in one semantic field in Rousseau’s work, and, in fact, in society at large: to make solitary, to put in solitary, was, even in the 18th century, a form of torture inflicted on certain prisoners. At the same time, from Rousseau’s viewpoint, it was characteristic of the corruption of the society that he wrote to ‘improve’ that it could imagine solitude in no other way than as a punishment, even as it was beginning to imagine the individualism that corresponded to the private sphere of exchangers.

The thematic of solitude that winds its way through Rousseau’s autobiographical works is, as well, at the heart of the Discourse on Inequality.

The first human beings, in fact, are natural solitaries, according to Rousseau. He imagines their state as one in which the natural and the voluntary are joined in a life form that is pre-social. True, Rousseau’s grasp on this state goes in and out of focus, just as his periodizations have a tendency to become misty or contradictory as he wants to make this or that observation about the course of human socialization. Language and other collaborative human things – religion, for instance, and, importantly, division of labor – are absent at this point. The Discourse then provides a sort of kaleidoscopic analysis of how the social came about, which is equivalent to the rupture with the first, natural solitude and the first, natural sense of the self.

Since forests are my theme, here, it is interesting that one of the aspects of the emergence of the social and of inequality, for Rousseau, comes about with the fall of the forest:

“ So long as men are content with their rustic cabins, so long as they limit themselves to sewing skins together with thorns or with bones, to ornament themselves with shells or feathers, to paint their bodies with diverse colors, to perfect or embellish their bows and arrows, to carve fishing canoes or awkward instruments of music out of tree trunks with sharpened stones, in a word, as long as they apply themselves to what a single man can do, and to arts which have no need for the help of several hands, they live free, healthy, well and happy, as much as their natures allow; and they continue to enjoy with each other the sweetness of commerce. But in that instant where one man has need of another; in the moment that someone perceives that it is useful for one person to have provisions for two, equality disappears, property is introduced, work becomes necessary, and vast forests change into smiling fields that it is necessary to water with the sweat of men, and in which one sees germinate slavery and misery, which grow with the harvest.”

Rousseau is, perhaps, the first European thinker who can truly imagine backwards – but he requires a reader who can imagine backwards, too. It is easy to think of the primitive man of his description as a self-conscious individual. But this gets Rousseau’s conjectural history utterly wrong. He is, rather, an unself-conscious solitary. He does not know the contours of his individuality. His independence is a lack of need, not a principle. The individual of modern theory only emerges when the primal state of solitude is broken. The individual can be consciously independent, but in having that awareness of dependence and the social tie, even in rejecting it, the individual exists in a society which has taken a turn against primal solitude. The new solitude, the touchy solitude that emerges in a society that is organized according to division of labor, and thus of work, and property, is a different kind of human being:

“It is reason which engenders self-love, and reflection that strengthens it. This is what folds man back upon himself; that separates him from all that discomforts and afflicts him. It is philosophy that isolates him. It is by this means tht he says in secret, at the look of the suffering man: “perish if you want to – I’m safe.”

This, as Rousseau sees, is one of the hidden mottoes of civilization, a canon that nobody can afford to ignore – and survive.