What did it feel like, literally, to live in a city during a period of rapid modernization? This question propels Nicolas Kenny’s transnational study of Montreal and Brussels from approximately 1880 to 1914. He argues that the modern city and the modern body (through the senses of sight, smell, sound, and touch) were “mutually constitutive,” challenging interpretations that render modernity as a phenomenon of individuality, isolation, rationalization, and desensitization. As such, the book is about the complex relationship between space and the body. Kenny’s fascinating work is indebted to both recent historiographical trends toward the sensuous, as outlined in Canadian history most clearly in Joy Parr’s 2001 article “Notes for a More Sensuous History of Twentieth-Century Canada,” and modern sociology’s attempt to reckon with the dialectical nature of urban modernity.
Kenny focuses on Montreal and Brussels as cities on the periphery. Unlike the often-studied London, Paris, and New York, Montreal and Brussels allow for a nuanced discussion of more modest centres of regional import and their connection to the great modern cities. In doing so, Kenny has amassed a huge number of diverse sources from which he tells a richly sensuous history focusing on factories, homes, and the street in individual chapters based on the ideal segmentation of a modern worker’s day into thirds, including work, rest, and leisure (118).
Given the supremacy of the visual under modernity, it is not surprising that Kenny begins his analysis with the panorama and the labyrinth and the men who used those representations to debate the progressive or destructive tendencies of urban modernity. The panoramic view associated with the rational detached viewer was largely at odds with the corporeal messiness of the smells and sounds of the labyrinth. If the panorama emphasized reason and order, it did so in part because it omitted the industrial quarters. Kenny’s work is far more interested in the labyrinth and the bodies that negotiated it. Subsequent chapters guide readers through it in detail.
According to Kenny, industrialization and the body were at the centre of analyses of the modern city. In both Montreal and Brussels, citizens wrote in passionate terms about the changing industrial landscape and the shifting patterns of movement and mobility within the city. People reacted to changes in smell, sight, and sound that infringed on their ability to sleep, work, pay their bills, breathe freely, and move around the city. For those men and women working within factories, the experience of pollution, accidents, and distress was more acute. Popular images of their bodies, however, never accurately captured the fullness of their embodiment of industrialization.
Kenny explores in detail the relationships between modern cities, homes, hygiene, the body, and class. In teasing out the voices of working people on their own living conditions, Kenny adds a critical perspective on social and moral reform that shows the role the body played in shaping notions of space, especially private space. He argues, “Middle-class observers participated in a transnational circulation of ideas premised on evolving standards of decency, privacy, morality, and gender to inscribe social identities and relations upon the landscape of the modern city” (121). As much as the observers’ reports and disclosures tell us about working-class homes and urban poverty, they tell us equally (if not more) about their own perceptions of the body in a modern world. Kenny’s teasing out of the relational corporeal aspects of middle-class reformers and the working-class families they studied or witnessed leads to a brilliant analysis of the urban slum.
From the home Kenny turns his attention to the multifaceted and cacophonous street, analysing everything from crowds and automobiles to urinals and funeral processions. The streets of modern cities provided potential for leisurely delights but also painful threats and moral risks and, as a result, captured a range of modern emotions. Kenny argues that the street’s multiplicity reveals shifts in the conception of the body itself and how bodies—alive and dead—in turn shaped and negotiated new public spaces.
The Feel of the City superbly fleshes out the modern city as an embodied place of multiple spaces, perspectives, and senses. It will be essential reading for anyone interested in urban modernity and its negotiation, not only by sight, but also smell, sound, and feel. Overcoming the limitations of traditional “top-down” or prescriptive sources, Kenny lets the working industrial poor speak for themselves and their bodies whenever possible. Kenny adds to the historiography on the body in ways that largely address issues of class. Gendered bodies, especially those of women, get brief mention as factory workers and garner the most attention in the discussion on home. I was left wanting to know more about how bodies crossed (literally and metaphorically) at work, home, and in the street in cities with ethnic, religious, and racial differences inflected by gender, class, and age. Nonetheless, Kenny offers a unique and refreshing perspective of the relationship between cities and bodies that is richly imagined and sensuously evoked.