Lewis Mumford – The City in History
“The metropolis, in its final stage of development, becomes a collective contrivance for making this irrational system work, and for giving those who are in reality its victims the illusion of power, wealth, and felicity, of standing at the very pinnacle of human achievement. But in actual fact their lives are constantly in peril, their wealth is tasteless and ephemeral, their leisure is sensationally monotonous, and their pathetic felicity is tainted by constant, well-justified anticipations of violence and sudden death. Increasingly they find themselves “strangers and afraid,” in a world they never made: a world ever less responsive to direct human command, ever more empty of human meaning” (pp. 239-240).
When I read this I wonder what we have done. Chekhov’s statement that we have exchanged beauty for ugliness is becoming all too real.
“Their lives are constantly in peril” – first it was the cold war and the prospect of total war. At that time in history consumption was a patriotic thing, now consumption exists for its own sake, to construct a way of life. The last few readings have been about the addiction and drunkenness caused by technology, but for me the real drug is home and garden magazine. It of course pictures things that I don’t have, and things that I do have are never good enough when I lose myself in a magazine at the checkout; it isn’t a conscious distaste for what I have, just a desire for what I don’t have, that is the foundation of our society. Post cold war the peril is our own consumption, and the tastelessness of our wealth is that same insatiable desire that drives it.
Last night I was watching a documentary on China and they were saying that China has learned one lesson from the west, the economy duh. Every problem can be fixed with economic growth. Mumford refers to this as building the machine and sacrificing human development. Soon Genesis will have to be rewritten saying that first there was the economy then God created man and woman to serve the economy. But I suppose that won’t happen because any problem will be solved by economic growth, including ideological ones.
“Ever more empty of human meaning.” Mumford makes and really good point about the automobile. He recognizes that everything is built around the vehicle, instead of parks there are parking lots, people have to drive everywhere. He must have visited Calgary, the city with the highest per capita number of vehicles in Canada (a fact I read on a real estate advertisement, I need to get some help). I was recently at Deerfoot meadows, where the new Ikea is, you have to drive between the stores, and the ten acres in between the stores is all parking. Cars dictate how we interact with our city. This is significant because they are private spaces that allow us to get farther away into our more private homes. Our environment has become artificial, from the office to the car to the house, where we do homework, or sit and watch TV all night till its time to go to bed and we have to get up and do it all over again.
Maybe the movement toward teamwork in the corporate world is so popular because people need connections and we just don’t know how to connect with people unless there is a common problem that we are forced to deal with. We no longer get this in social action being citizens because we are too busy and isolated to be informed about the issues in our communities, not to mention the fact that we only live in the same community for a couple years. Mumford also mentions that everything is processed by the machine. This applies to work teams v. citizenship. In work teams there is a boss telling us what the goal to achieve is, he tells us what is expected and what we resources we have to complete the task. Being a citizen there is freedom, a group of neighbours can go after any issue they choose; whatever issue is pertinent to them.
It comes back to freedom and the fact that the easy way is having someone tell us what to do instead of coming up with our own criteria of success. This tribal experience is getting out of processed education, it has given us freedom to set and gauge our own success. What would happen if we looked at the world as free instead of a set of criteria? Maybe we would find beauty.