Cities of the Future: A Premature Report

It is not the voice that commands the story.
It is the ear.

An admitted concern for the future is not widespread in the philosophic profession, yet I want to mention three notable exceptions. Chardin sees us exploring and settling the planets; Georg Lukacs insists that though the future comes by itself, progress does not; Helen Merrell Lynd says in her book on shame and identity that all grow but not all grow up. Scientific and social advance as well as the reaching of personal maturity can be shown as depending on the ability to be open toward the future; to anticipate and even precipitate changes one expects will be for the better, to have a sense of possibility and hope. Individual as well as group attitudes are co-determinants of events yet to come. Almost needless to say, change involves loss and when a state of affairs is experienced as sufficiently rewarding, change is resented and expectancy and anticipation easily superseded by fears.

Today’s fear of change is not just fear of the unknown and fear of losing accustomed comfort but a disguised panic in the face of much discussed threats, including global crowding, revolution, anarchy, and mass-starvation. The need to be in control, or to be controlled tends to mount in proportion to our fears and leads to an excessive faith in power, system-building, planning: thereby further aggravating the situation.

Margaret Mead has taught us among many other things that people have a better time when change is swift and complete rather than piecemeal and protracted. In today’s world both modes are endemic and tend to overlap. Our Western civilization is the one which has institutionalized change and exported it universally through its religion; its science and technology; banking, commerce, and industry; its philosophy of history; its theory and practice of revolution; and its theory and belief in natural and cultural evolution. Now that a global transformation through population increase and urbanization is well under way we least of all have a choice but to make the transition to the next new world. We will have to undergo deep-reaching changes in response to the fast-paced developments so that the crisis is not unto destruction but can resolve itself into a more abundant, more accepting, more freely flowing life for all.

It may seem frivolous, or idle to contemplate the question “What kind of changes?” Is our mind not fixed in its structure? known? analyzed? predictable? I wonder. Transformations of consciousness, judging from history, philosophy, as well as from psycho-analysis, only occur under pressure of internal conflict and pressure engendered by changes in the environment. All such transformations are responses.The differences in their adequacy depend on the kind and degree of responsiveness with which the pressures are met. Let me say here already that adequacy of response to needs, to wants, to messages, to desires will, in my view, be the major yardstick of a new civilization of inter-communication.

Can adequate responsiveness and sober responses be generated? developed? defined? And what must be unlearned, and left behind, so that we can go on? Three prejudices, though obsolete, are still pervasive. The same holds true for three traditionally characteristic modes of Western thought on levels of common sense as well as abstract intellection. The prejudices, all favorable and self-serving, hold that our civilization is superior; that we constitue the universal human norm; and that without permanent form there can be no beauty, nor anything else truly worthwhile. E. M. Forster says about Fielding’s return passage from India: “… and then came Venice. As he landed on the Piazzetta a cup of beauty was lifted to his lips, and he drank with a sense of disloyalty. The buildings of Venice…stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong. He had forgotten the beauty of form among idol temples and lumpy hills; indeed, without form, how can there be any beauty? Form stammered here and there in a mosque, became rigid through nervousness even, but oh these Italian churches…In the old undergraduate days he had wrapped himself up in the many coloured blanket of St. Mark’s, but something more precious than mosaics and marbles was offered to him now: the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting…The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake…they approach the monstrous and extraordinary..” We, today, may no longer agree; yet we may still have twitches of nostalgia.

But to return to the three characteristic modes of mental operations which are hampering us severely in the transition:

In brief: the primacy of a presumably masculine rational order over feeling and mythic creativity; the prevalence of a binary and polarizing logic; and the propensity for repressive sublimation for the sake of the illusion of permanent formal perfection.

The severance of the analytic rational faculty from the rest of the mind – the major offense against ourselves’ according to Blake – is still perpetuated in the work of Freud and his followers; the logic of oppositions also persists and we continue to embrace misleading juxtapositions like thought and action, mind and body, word and deed, self and other, success and failure, order and chaos, good and evil, and, in philosophic discourse, consciousness and world. These polarities will soften and give way to a scale of sliding gradations; and the same will hopefully happen to the oppositions of rich and poor, city and countryside, and form and life.

In Italo Calvino’s reflections on “Invisible Cities” Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are perusing the pages of the great City Atlas starting with Jericho and Ur. They see San Francisco as a second Constantinople “which might blossom a millennium hence as capital of the Pacific, after the long siege of three hundred years that would lead the races of the yellow and the black and the red to fuse with the surviving descendants of the white in an empire more vast than the Great Khan’s…The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins. In the last pages of the Atlas there is an outpouring of networks without beginning or end, cities in the shape of Los Angeles, in the shape of Kyoto-Osaka, without shape.” But can there be a form of dwelling wholly shapeless?

Why, at least for the Western mind, is the concept of the city so inseparable from the concept of form? Why is the form seen as more important than life? Life is holy, says Blake, muddled, exuberant, ever-changing, self-perpetuating. And exuberant energy is beauty, not form. This insistent and pervasive formalism carrying along a disgust with and contempt for disorder, the fear of chaos, is at the very root of our cities, of our civilization. “Sad is Eros, builder of cities, and weeping anarchic Aphrodite…” says Auden in his poem on the death of Freud. And Eros, or self-well and desire, is the energy behind all building and making. But our desire, from the Hellenic period onward, has been nostalgic, trying to compensate for loss. The city building and institution building passions have been continuously searching for the structures of remembrance, for the Platonic world of forms with its unchanging perfect and eternal order of descending hierarchies. The splendor of Plato’s transcendent vision was able to attract our desire away from living life toward the sublime world of lifeless forms because it grips us at our most basic fear: the fear to change, to decay, to die. Our cities, our aesthetic preferences, our hierarchical institutions originate in our failure to either accept or truly believe in an eternality of consciousness. They are, strictly speaking, compensations and difficult to give up and leave behind. How difficult can be inferred from the current use of terms like Kenneth Boulding’s post-civilization, a term which places a strange burden on the future and takes its clues from too simple an extrapolation of current trends. Terms of this sort actually pretend knowledge of the unknown: the future and the range of human responses to largely self-made changing conditions. The new may well hold promises for a vastly different and better way of life. It may surpass us in the qualities we now wish for but lack. Under the pressures of population increase and urbanization (a term which may be totally misleading, for the urban migration brings closer the dissolution of the cities), nobody can afford not to relate to others in accepting terms. We are indeed in my opinion engaged in the making of a world community of communication which may evolve into a global civilization of inter-communication. The workings of a global network of inter-communicating parties depend on voluntary participation of the “communicants”, a participation which can be only invited, not forced, and which leads to a diffusion of all forms of organized power. And does not all true communication depend on partnership, on patience and empathy in decoding the “message”? on attention, availability, receptivity, and responsiveness? Inter-communication depends on mutuality, on cooperative partnership, openness and discernment. The absence of such mutual self-regulatory communicative processes produce MMM (media-mind-management), which is the Orwellian possibility. Mutuality grows from acceptance, and acceptance as I use it here does not mean closeness, or attachment, but rather the absence of prejudice and of dismissive or rejective attitudes. One might define it simply as a via negativa of love.

The new cities, dwellings habitats, settlements, what have you, will no longer have to be impressive and intimidating structures of defiance and defense, symbols of empire, wealth, glory, where arduous refinement goes hand in hand with brutal neglect. In a communications world all conflicts become internal and deal with structures of self-will, guilt, shame and aggressivity and their attendant pathologies. Do we believe we want to make and can contribute toward a transition from a civilization of the frustrated and outrageous Eros, kept in check by the augmenting burden of guilt, to a new world ruled by a Dionysian Logos who heals the splits in our lives and minds? Though we barely can envision a new world we may yet grope for an imaginative opening. The cities of the future, whichever shape they take, may become places where human need and human response meet in concerted alleviating action and where desire flows with the rhythms of life.