New Orleans was founded in the midst of ferocious competition between the British, Spanish, and French empires for control over the Americas during the early eighteenth century. France had established a powerful position in the Caribbean with its control over Saint-Domingue (the western part of Hispaniola now known as Haiti). French Louisiana was a massive territory which extended north from the mouth of the Mississippi 3,000 miles to Canada, thus forming a crucial buffer against the British colonies along the eastern seaboard. The location of New Orleans at the conjunction of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River made it a vital commercial center for trade and competition with the Spanish and British colonies in the Caribbean. Settlers had already established the cities of Biloxi and Mobile at the southern end of French Louisiana, but New Orleans would quickly emerge as the most important city in the colony. 

The founding of New Orleans originated with one of capitalism’s earliest and most notorious financial investment schemes, perpetrated by a Scottish economist and former professional gambler named John Law.  In 1717, the French government had given proprietary rights over Louisiana to Law’s joint stock trading company, popularly known as the Mississippi Company. The construction of New Orleans, whose location at a crescent of the Mississippi was believed to offer protection from flooding, commenced the following year. At least initially, New Orleans was imagined as a model colonial city where nascent Enlightenment ideals about urban planning and social control could be realized. New Orleans would function as a kind of urban laboratory where principles of rationality were to be applied in facilitating, differentiating, and regulating the city’s various commercial, administrative, residential, and military functions. Early settlers were confident in their capacity to tame the inhospitable ecology of the lower Mississippi, including the thousands of Native Americans who populated the region. While New Orleans would be a city for commerce, it would also include symbolic monuments to glorify the monarchy and empire while representing the French architectural style of the garden city. As cultural historian Shannon Lee Dawdy put it, “Planners and colonials seem to have hoped that New Orleans would have elements of all: it would be a well-fortified town, an orderly port city serving mercantilism, a symbolic metropolis representing the king in a vast new territory, and a garden city of simple pleasures.”

In Henri Lefebvre’s terms, the planning of New Orleans was representative of an ongoing shift from the “historical space” of the militarized city-state to the “abstract space” designed primarily for the circulation of commodities. Lefebvre resituated the historical processes of capitalism’s development into a spatial model of change, with the abstract space of capitalism progressively absorbing and supplanting historical (political, imperial), sacred (religious), and absolute (natural) forms of space. Abstract space is pulverized and partitioned into geometric plots and pieces so that, like abstract labor, it acquires quantifiable exchange value. Abstract space is homogenous yet fragmented, a collection of interchangeable parts with fractured connections to one another. The principles of quantification, standardization, and symmetry had achieved preeminence in the engineering of urban space by the time of New Orleans’ founding, and they would be realized in the rectangular grid of the French Quarter. Michel Foucault described this newly dominant conception of urban space in the Age of Enlightenment: “Broadly speaking, what was at stake in the eighteenth century was the question of the spatial, juridical, administrative, and economic opening up of the town: resituating the town in a space of circulation.” Foucault discerned that urban space was designed not simply for the circulation of goods but of people, to secure control of the population and regulate its conduct, spread of disease, and sexual relations through the ensemble of institutions and procedures he called “governmentality.” In sum, New Orleans was originally conceived as a city whose rational utilization of space would result in a steadfast social order and more civilized population.

Instead of an orderly colonial city, of course, New Orleans developed into a notoriously chaotic hub of hedonism and illicit intermingling. The early history of New Orleans was mostly comprised of disasters and failures to achieve the aims of its imperial founders, and France eventually abandoned the Louisiana colony as a failed experiment. The value of shares in John Law’s Mississippi Company suddenly plummeted in 1720, forcing the company into bankruptcy and Law into hiding from ruined French investors in the events later studied by economists as “The Mississippi Bubble.”  As the colonists were struggling to develop and maintain a settlement, most of the buildings and houses of New Orleans would be destroyed by a hurricane in September 1722. Far from taming their forbidding natural environment, colonists were regularly beset with flooding and typically walked in streets with mud above their ankles, conditions which facilitated deadly outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, malaria, and yellow fever. The volatile climate and swampy terrain of southern Louisiana created major difficulties in the early efforts to cultivate tobacco and sugar for export, so the colony remained impoverished and prone to bouts of famine. The construction of levees began in 1722, but no less than ten years later they were overwhelmed and demolished by another powerful hurricane. Meanwhile, the colonists’ expropriation of land and mistreatment of the Native American population created the conditions for violent retribution. In 1729, a coalition of tribes and newly arrived African slaves launched a surprise attack at Fort Rosalie in Natchez—about 100 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans—which culminated in the destruction of the entire French settlement and massacre of more than 250 colonists.

Almost immediately after its founding, New Orleans came to represent a catastrophic failure to achieve Enlightenment ideals of social control and mastery over nature. Instead, the city quickly developed a reputation for disorder and savagery, earning frequent comparisons to Babylon. The faith in knowledge underpinning colonization ensured that enormous volumes of travel writing, personal correspondence, and ethnographic observation flowed from French New Orleans, but rather than an orderly metropolis, they more often depicted an environment of social disorganization, self-indulgence, and sexual promiscuity. In short, New Orleans became an urban Other for the Age of Enlightenment: a place consistently represented in dark tones as unruly, amoral, and overrun by nature. The theme of destructive natural forces overpowering the instruments of civilization was especially applicable to the French residents of New Orleans, who were represented in travel writing as people ruled by their passions and unrestrained appetites for sex, eating, drinking, and violence.  As it was difficult to recruit people in France for migration to Louisiana, the colony was almost immediately used for the deportation of delinquents, thieves, beggars, orphans, prostitutes, and other undesirables. Deportation to Louisiana was a strategy which followed the period that Foucault called the Great Confinement, when a wide variety of social outcasts were institutionalized, evaluated, and disciplined for everything from madness to unemployment; these categories of alleged moral failure functioned as antitheses in defining the age of reason. Nonetheless, it was hoped that such individuals might be reformed by changing their spatial environs and imposing advanced means of correction and discipline. As New Orleans earned a reputation for disorder, the obvious failures of population reform solidified its standing as a city of darkness where Enlightenment ideals were inverted.

  If New Orleans was a calamity by the standards of the French empire’s enlightened absolutism, its dissolute atmosphere would eventually prove to be good for business, especially for smugglers. The frenzied sea trade of the eighteenth century linked New Orleans—not just economically but also culturally—to the Caribbean Islands and South America, particularly the port cities of Havana and Veracruz. After being essentially abandoned by France in 1731, New Orleans was characterized by a form of “rogue colonialism” where the imperial state’s laws are routinely disobeyed and undermined in the trade of goods and contraband. This local sense of independence would be endangered, however, when Spain was preparing to take possession of Louisiana in 1768, in the aftermath of the Seven Years War and France’s withdrawal from North America. The Spanish empire threatened to impose a number of new restrictions on the people of New Orleans, but its stated intention to get tough on the smuggling economy emerged as the primary source of popular anger. On October 29, 1768, an enraged crowd gathered in New Orleans and forced the newly installed Spanish governor to flee for Havana. Louisiana remained an effectively sovereign territory for the next 9 months, until the Spanish returned in July 1769 to reclaim New Orleans in a brutal show of force that concluded with the public execution of key figures from the previous year’s rebellion. Nevertheless, the period of Spanish rule would be distinguished by an increasing liberalization of trade, so that by the end of the eighteenth century New Orleans was poised to finally become a major metropolis while continuing to flaunt its status as a kind of rogue colony.        

A spirit of resistance which is more cultural than political pervades through New Orleans and is essential to its distinct metropolitan identity. For nearly 400 years, it has maintained its original reputation as a rogue city where scoundrels engage in shady business deals, libertines feed their exotic appetites, and vice peddlers seduce curious visitors. The local culture of New Orleans is permeated with what Foucault called “counter-conduct” that arose in “the struggle against processes implemented for conducting others.” Could there be a starker example of spatial contradiction and counter-conduct than the French Quarter, the perfectly rectangular urban center where hedonists have sojourned for centuries, effectively transforming it into a space for public intoxication, nudity, and fornication?  For Lefebvre, such contradictions of space in capitalist societies are rooted in a fundamental conflict between the exchange value of abstract space and the use value of places for people to live, work, and socialize. He links this Marxian contradiction between the exchange and use values of space with a complementary basis for conflict which is especially relevant to New Orleans: a Nietzschean tension between Apollonian forces of order and rationality and Dionysian forces of desire and ecstasy.  In theorizing a “differential space” where music and festival facilitate an eroticized setting for alternative social relations, Lefebvre could indeed be describing New Orleans: 

Thanks to the potential energies of a variety of groups capable of diverting homogenized space to their own purposes, a theatricalized or dramatized space is liable to arise. Space is liable to be eroticized and restored to ambiguity, to the common birthplace of needs and desires, by means of music, by means of differential systems and valorizations which overwhelm the strict localization of needs and desires in spaces specialized either physiologically (sexuality) or socially (places set aside, supposedly, for pleasure).