Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lewis Mumford - The City in History

 Mumford is such a lovely writer, and it's easy to think that what he lacks in primary research he more than makes up for in thought-provoking speculation.  He's a utopian thinker who advocates a balance between humans and their environment in the form of decentered, thoughtful, federated social structures. He also writes a lot about the relationship between space and technology.  This book is a ginormous grand narrative of "the city" in Western civilization, from the very dawn of time to the present, so here are just a few of my notes:

In an era shaped by white flight, deindustrialization/ suburbanization, not to mention the fear of nuclear war, Mumford calls for a return to city building instead of destruction.  He argues that cities serve two main purposes: religion and the state.  Biology is a (distant?) third, though really cities are for the people, so people should come first.  The shrine and the citadel are its two dominant structures, carried over from villages.  The city exists to nurture human biological and cultural reproduction, not to use technology to tame whole populations into submission.  The city is the stand-in for society, and he is very adamant that spatial forms and social forms interconnect.  Also, space and the built environment are articulated with technology; humans shouldn’t be afraid of their own inventions or let a few wackos use technology to control them.  The city should be humanity, magnified; communality, nurturing, love.  I sense Hardt & Negri here, where a surplus of love and community lead to a radical democracy, and also the dread fear of totalitarianism and technology, which apparently went hand-in-hand in WWII, what with the Nazis and all.  

It does have its issues, of course.  There is the obvious one of trying to create a grand narrative about all cities ever based on the high points of Western history; also, he has more than a little nostalgia for the ancient village as a model for future societies.  And we won’t even talk about the gender essentialism that’s going in in this thing – I guess he’s sort of feminist in a Kristeva or Irigaray way, but really, it’s offensive now.   

Nonetheless, this book is fascinating – think about what he’s dealing with – the remains of turn-of-the-century industrialization and centralization, run amok with over-centralization in Germany, the US, Soviet Russia, a few powers trying to speak for the whole world, with human lives taking a back seat to the posturing; massive standardization, ideological dominance… jesus.  I would want decentered, federated structures and living situations so that I could matter in day-to-day life but also get the higher-level resources I needed, too.  I just like that he’s not saying fuck centralization – he’s advocating balance, global bodies more as coordinators than as rulers; and I like the lending library model, with its local, regional, and global coordinating levels - though what, he's advocating bureaucracy?  What would he have thought about the internet?  

He’s modernist – grand narrative, Western-focused, etc – but in a Berman kind of way – where modernism also means exchange between the rulers and the ruled, where the ruled have a lot of power in how things work, where he actually thinks all people are equal and have the ability and desire to rule themselves, and where he wants to set up the physical, social, political, cultural, technological landscape in a way that enables them to do so.  If cities are political relations writ large on the landscape, then he wants a federated, democratic structure – not totalitarianism, but not communism, either.   

I am pleasantly surprised by the respect for humanity that Mumford has, as well as by his hopes for technology and his belief that good city planning – which involves both centralized planning and two-way communication with community residents – can help create a more democratic society.  People help build their own society! Balance!  Sustainability! In 1961!
Mumford, Lewis.  The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects.  New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1989(1961).

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