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Notes: “Vice, Crime, and Poverty: How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld”

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In 1958, Louis Chevalier published his Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes

  • A study of urban change & poverty in Paris
  • Blend of sources that provided a way of understanding the terrors the Parisian middle classes experienced in response to the dramatic post-revolutionary swelling of the capital’s poorer population.
  • Inserting fiction as fiction into his analysis
  • Chevalier pioneered what historians call the study of the “social imaginary”

Dominique Kalifa is the leading historian in France of the “social imaginary”. Book is a survey and analysis of Western literature and media of the “lower depths” looking over London, New York, Buenos Aires, and Algiers with a time span that extends from the 1830s into the early decades of the 20th century.

“The Social Imaginary” is ‘a coherent and dynamic system of representations of the social world, a sort of repertoire of collective figures and identities that every society assembles at given moments in its history.” 

  • What matters is not only which ‘collective figures and identities’ recur insistently but exactly why they appear and cluster at a certain point, and when and why they wane and disappear. 
  • Why did the period btw 1830 & 1930 in the Western world produced so many descriptions and stories of the miserable, corrupt and dangerous para-societies said to exist beside or below the normative urban world of safe and respectable folk?
  • Fears of urban vice goes back to Biblical times between the heavenly city of Jerusalem and the degeneracy of Sodom & Babylon, medieval and early modern gueux, picaros, and other menacing paupers and of the Courts of Miracles they were said to form; the bas-fonds motif survived in the fears of cartels and other crime syndicates, the construction of a late 20th century American “underclass” & the contemporary fascination with gangs and prisons. 

Images of the criminal underworlds always mirror the salient power structures of their time: early modern “courts of miracles” and their rulers mimicked actual royal courts, the early 19th century idea of “dangerous classes” spoke to new understandings of bourgeois social dominance, while later obsessions with ‘armies of crime’ reflected burgeoning nationalist militarism, and “crime syndicates” got their moniker from labor unions and industrial cartels. “These representations are particularly propagated in periods of social opacity and confusion”. Myths of the underclass perform a ‘normalizing role’, helping to define the normative core of society in periods of deep social change. The age of political and industrial revolutions with its massive patterns of urban growth upset longstanding social landscapes; the mythology of the lower depths both expressed and helped manage the resulting fears among the well-to-do. 

Social realities gave birth to these narratives/fantasies but it’s not the real purpose behind them.

  • Metaphor for a dangerous underclass is stagnant, putrid water – swamps, sewers, all of the stinking overflow of civilization –  poorer sections of cities were often located “lower” near rivers and ports. 
  • Link between imperialism and the mythology of the underclass.
    • French conquest of Algeria in 1830, proceedings countless analogies between the “dangerous classes” and native Americans, then shifting to metaphors of Africa (“darkest London”) starting in the 1880s. 
  • Waves of eager professionals – policemen, philanthropists, reformers, journalists – all contributed to describing and sensationalizing the lives of the poorest citizens of the West’s major cities. 
  • Growth of “underclass” mythology has everything to do with the birth of mass culture produced for the benefit of emerging groups of middling readers both fascinated and repulsed by the culture of poverty they themselves had escaped. 

The “lower depths” did exist, but they were often pressed into the mold of upper-class fantasies.

  • Elite practices gave birth to recurrent images of misery.
  • Upper – class men and women “produced” the poor by trapping them within taxonomies, elaborate classifications of denizens of the underworld that criminologist Eugene – Francois Vidocq likened to “the Linnaen method”
  • Aristocrats, journalists, and philanthropists acted out the fantasy of the “prince in disguise”, going undercover ostensibly as agents of justice and reform but often mostly to indulge their voyeurism. 
  • Other members of the elite did early forms of slum tourism or “Grand Dukes’ Tour”. Entrepreneurs would stage barroom brawls and erotically charged nightclub scenes to profit from it. 
  • Anxieties over class relations.
  • Fantasies of urban life peak during times of revolution and industrialization and recede during times of mass warfare. 

Vice, Crime, and Poverty


The “lower depths”…we instantly understand this expression. Unfortunately, we can easily imagine the reference to hovels and slums: limp bodies living in dives that smell of dirt and urine, existences degraded by poverty and alcohol, poorhouses and prisons, the morbid flesh of prostitutes – intolerable situations in which deprivation mingles with immorality, desperation, crime, and incest. The lower depths connotes the hell down into which hordes of vagabonds, wretches, mendicants, “lost” girls, criminals, and convicts seem to be constantly dragged – all of them hideous figures in a hellish landscape that is partly real and partly fantasized.

The lower depths stretch across the fluctuating wasteland, and the underworld contains the worst of realities because it is partially linked to the imaginary – a terrain in which the “social” is constantly redefined by the “moral” and in which flesh-and blood beings merge with fictional characters.

The social meaning of “the lower depths” did not emerge until the 19th century. It refers to a “class of vile and contemptible men” writes Emile Littre in 1863; a “class of men degraded by vice and poverty” said Republican encyclopedist Pierre Larousse 3 years later. The lower depths always correspond to places – hovels, underground Courts of Miracles where outcasts thrive, nighttime refuges, basement sweatshops – marked by a natural propensity to sink even lower.

3 traits define this fallen state: poverty, vice, and crime: 

  • Recurring terms in An Inquiry into Destitution, Prosstitution, and crime a Scottish doctor exploring sordid places in Edinburgh in 1851. 
  • Vice, Crime and Poverty were the terms used by American journalist Edward Crapsey to define the New York lower depths he toured in 1868
  • In 1896 an editor of a French penitentiary journal described the police prefecture’s storage basement as the “great receptacle of vice, poverty, and crime in the capital”.
  • Novelist Pierre Zaccone called it a place “of theft, debauchery, and crime”
  • Journalist Maurice Aubenas in 1932 called it “the pit down into which Paris shakes its vices, its crimes, and its poverty.”
  • How do bas-fonds occur?
    • “So poverty initiates the misery of everybody. Then vice arrives, and crime is not far behind” – novelist Octave Fere.
    • The reverse: First vice, then crime, and finally poverty.
    • All combinations are possible, The invention of “degeneration” came to legitimize this in the middle of the 19th century. 

Triad: places, states of existence, and (finally) individuals. 

  • People of bas-fonds are classified into an endless list; legion of miscreants includes all those prostitutes, beggars, thieves, assassins, prowlers, rag-and bone men, convicts, and so on who are all born from the unclean cross-fertilization of vice, crime, and poverty.

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