On a Certain Blindness in Urban Planners: New Urbanism, Romanticism and the future of the Western city

In his essay ‘resuscitation ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings'” href=”http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/jcertain.html” target=”_blank”>On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings‘ the American thinker William James  relates a trip across North Carolina in which he passed a series of valleys whose forests settlers had torn down in order to make room for simple log cabins and a patch of land to grow corn on. James was horrified:

“The forest had been destroyed; and what had ‘improved’ it out of existence was hideous, here a sort of ulcer, psychotherapist without a single element of artificial grace to make up for the loss of Nature’s beauty.”

Yet a brief yet revelatory conversation with his driver caused him to see the valleys as the squatters saw them, and caused his attitude to be reversed:

“Because to me the clearings spoke of naught but denudation, I thought that to those whose sturdy arms and obedient axes had made them they could tell no other story. But, when they looked on the hideous stumps, what they thought of was personal victory… The clearing, which to me was a mere ugly picture on the retina, was to them a symbol redolent with moral memories and sang a very pæan of duty, struggle, and success.”

We each have our blindnesses to what is valued by others. This post is about a kind of blindness that may be extremely common amongst urban planners and about why very predictable cultural changes mean that blindness has to be overcome.

Urban design literature usually takes the desirability of building a ‘sense of enclosure’ for granted, often commenting that it can make urban spaces into an ‘outdoor living room’, that a sense of enclosure is ‘pleasing,’ or that it is ‘comfortable’. What I cannot find asked is this: ‘pleasing and comforting to whom?‘ Are we sure it is pleasing to everyone?

In his legendary BBC series ‘Civilisation’, Kenneth Clark introduces the rise of Romanticism and its rebellion against Enlightenment values with a splendid riff on this crucial word ‘enclosed’:

“A finite, reasonable world. Symmetrical, consistent — enclosed. …

Enclosed! That’s the trouble. An enclosed world becomes a prison of the spirit. One longs to get out. One longs to move. One realises that symmetry and consistency (whatever their merits) are the enemies of movement.

And what is that [music] I hear? That note of urgency, of indignation, of spiritual hunger. Yes, it’s Beethoven! It’s the sound of European man once more reaching for something beyond his grasp.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBe1sMySPXU#t=0m45s

It seems irrefutable that cities are not only an essential feature of any civilisation and the order that that implies but also the place where society ‘bursts its banks’ and reshapes itself. The city of Pericles and the Parthenon was simultaneously the city of Socrates and Alcibiades. A city is also a place of adventure, danger, of anonymity, of people sloughing off old identities and trying on new ones, an untameable place of misfits and outlaws. A city promises a rejuvenating freedom that to many is worth abandoning their old lives for, perhaps to risk their lives on perilous journeys to remote cities. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!” I cannot doubt that this protean quality of cities forms part of many people’s attraction to them.

And yet might not planners have a certain blindspot about this? It doesn’t seem controversial that people who are attracted to planning as a profession may have a pronounced temperamental bias towards enjoying a plan that comes to fruition, and valuing what the consistency, reliability and lack of surprises that help such outcomes. Planners, surely, tend to be ‘children of the Enlightenment’ rather than ‘children of the Romantics’. As a consequence they may be liable to neglect the Romantic temperament’s characteristic existential longings for those of the Enlightenment. Planners may ignore the Romantic urge for self-creation and reinvention, for stripping off the encrusted customs of upbringings and living out their supposedly true natures independent of society’s mores (and, paradoxically, the urge to lose that Self in the anonymity of the crowd) because the Enlightenment temperament longs for something very different: the creation of new knowledge, the formal and informal institutions capable of generating it, and a community that is non-anonymous because of frequent social contacts characterised by such qualities as civility and tolerance (qualities which for all their manifest merits involve a certain superficiality of human relations and an obeisance to social convention.)

That planners may be disproportionately possess the Enlightenment temperament is borne out by the planning orthodoxy of the last generation, New Urbanism, which is solidly based on Enlightenment ideals. It is in favour of a community defined by the socially-constructed (built) environment and ideally organised around entirely non-natural transport nodes that ferry commuters to work, ideally in the creative industries. Developments can be judged according to the efficiency of their use of land, their effect on land values, and the extent to which the developments foster a social ideal. For New Urbanism envisions a highly sociable and tolerant cosmopolitan community living in close proximity to each other and using such ‘Third Places’ as coffee houses as social hubs. The community is to be so arranged to maximise social interaction in the hope that such serendipitous encounters can both increase social capital and spark creativity so as to lead to the creation of new knowledge.

Since the competing ideals of the Enlightenment and Romanticism are notoriously hard to reconcile (the latter largely being a rebellion against all that the former represents) planners may transform cities according to their Enlightenment-derived values and, being convinced that they are idealistically doing the right thing, may be eradicating in the built environment what the heirs of the Romantics value. It’ll be argued that we are moving from an Enlightenment-style culture to a Romantic-style culture, and that consequently there may be a strong reaction against Enlightenment values. Therefore this blindspot may be disastrous.

Although the Enlightenment and Romantic ideals seem incompatible, the one ideal seems to compensate for the flaws of the other, and a too great a stress on one may be disastrous. This may be seen from the biographies of two of the greatest figures in post-Enlightenment European history, both of whom pursued one of these ideals to the brink of madness and came to see aspects of the other as the cure for their sickness. Later I’ll suggest that both biographies are highly relevant to the state in which we find ourselves.

J.S. Mill

J.S. Mill, by John Watkins

As a boy, the incredibly gifted John Stuart Mill had seemed assured of a smooth and brilliant future. However, he disclosed in his autobiography that at the age of twenty he had a mental breakdown as a result of his upbringing by his utilitarian father. The elder Mill had devoted himself to making John Stuart the embodiment of his Enlightenment ideal of the rational, analytical person calculating the best course of action, i.e. the one that would most increase happiness. J.S. Mill became a prodigy of remarkable intellectual prowess utterly devoted to increasing the happiness of his fellow men and women. Yet when he was twenty he asked himself this question:

“Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

Mills Senior and Junior had spent their lives acting on the theory that what we find pleasurable and painful is the result of the happy or sad associations that each thing has for us, and that therefore happiness could be created by attaching the strongest possible pleasurable associations to what is beneficial to us: rewards for doing good, punishment for doing wrong. Yet the very act of determining what is truly beneficial involves rigorous analysis of cause and effect, separating the action or the thing itself from its various associations in order to clearly and prudently see its objective effects irrespective of whatever prejudices we might have accumulated. This analytical habit became so entrenched in J.S. Mill that he started to realise that the associations created by such rewards and punishments were entirely arbitrary prejudices, created by the use of mere manipulative force rather than connected by any natural tie. His loving father to whom he owed so much had essentially been brainwashing him through reward and punishment to find somethings pleasant and some things painful.

Yet surely Mill, with all his formidable powers of analysis, could find some solid, rational basis for what could make him happy? With mounting horror Mill realised that he could not: not in spite of his analytical powers but because of them. His profoundly entrenched habit of mentally separating the thing and its associations not only dissolved the associations that clouded the correct discernment of cause and effect but also acted as an acid dissolving his ability to attach any feelings to things or activities. He had, he said:

“no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else. The fountains of vanity and ambition seemed to have dried up within me, as completely as those of benevolence… Thus neither selfish nor unselfish pleasures were pleasures to me. And there seemed no power in nature sufficient to begin the formation of my character anew, and create in a mind now irretrievably analytic, fresh associations of pleasure with any of the objects of human desire.”

Nothing could make him feel happy. His life was ruined and he could find no foundation to reconstruct his life. Mill had spent his life devoted to the pursuit of happiness; he now realised that this pursuit of happiness had rendered him utterly incapable of happiness.

With existential force he had run into the question that has haunted Western thought since Hume: the extreme difficulty of finding any rational link between an ‘is’ and an ‘ought’, a link between the fact of something’s goodness and finding rational motivations for why we should act ethically.  Suppose it’s conceded that a course of action is in fact ethically good; if the next question is ‘and why should I be good?’ then most commonly we can only offer explanations such as some kind of reward or avoidance of punishment, whether from a god, a society or from the workings of the individual mind. These have an entirely arbitrary connection to the ethical fact in question, and each of these motivations may be rejected by those of a sufficiently Romantic temperament: ‘I care not a bit what Man or God think of me – I am my own warrant. I cannot be bought by the prospect of reward — I am prepared to suffer.’

Moreover the Romantic can go further and question just how rational that fact of the goodness of the particular course of action is. For how can it possibly be rational to decide something is a fact? After all, there is always more information that could be searched out, sources to be checked or rechecked for accuracy and for previously overlooked information, reasoning to be checked and rechecked, experiments repeated – at any point in the process of research just one more piece of information, or the realisation that just one mistake has been made, could entirely overturn the conclusion the researcher is reaching. How, then, could it possibly be rational to declare that a fact has been discovered and that the research can therefore be called off? (There may be practical reasons to call a halt, there may be a feeling of satisfaction with what has been accomplished, there may be a feeling that ‘it’s so elegant that it must be true’, there may be a sense of exhaustion or a need to meet a deadline, or any of a number of thins, but these are all decidedly different.)

As just pointed out, the justification cannot be that the investigation has exhausted all possible avenues of research; a procedural justification thus being ruled out, the only alternative is a substantive one concerning the content of the claimed fact — the end of investigation is justified because the conclusion is clearly correct.

Yet as Plato’s Meno pointed out, in order to recognise something as a fact someone must have independent knowledge of it (just as to recognise someone you must have seen them before); and if a researcher has knowledge of the fact independent of the investigation then the investigation must be a charade, since the researcher already knows the conclusion the research will eventually reach.

The essential point is that there is no, and can be no, rational reason to act rationally; any application of Reason crucially depends upon something non-rational. This was what skewered Mill: Reason cannot justify itself but can only be a tool of the non-rational; since what is non-rational cannot be rationally justified, to subject the non-rational to the control of Reason can achieve nothing but a weakening of both the non-rational and of Reason itself.

Mill’s life up to that point had been precision-engineered to become ‘happy’ by the standards of the Enlightenment; that project had now ended in disaster. He was only saved by a new appreciation for Romanticism, in particular the nature poetry of Wordsworth. The poet’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’, a poem of particular significance for Mill, concludes:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

In Wordsworth’s poetry Mill discovered a world of emotions beyond the acidic power of rational analysis to dissolve. Wordsworth’s poetry was, he fondly said, “a medicine for my state of mind.” Mill emerged from his breakdown with the famous conviction that happiness could never be achieved if directly pursued but must be a simple by-product of activities pursuing some other goal, and he would spend his life trying to reconcile the utilitarianism of his upbringing with the cultivation of the kinds of sensibility he found in Wordsworth.

Goethe

Goethe, by Stieler

The young Goethe, meanwhile, had little time for Enlightenment views of happiness. Rather than happiness being calculable, produced equally through a variety of methods and its increase being a viable goal of social reform, to him the passions were beyond the conception of reason and so intensely valuable that they should never compromise with reality. An unrequited love affair pushed him to the edge of suicide, a fate he claimed he only avoided by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and killing off his hero in an attempt to purge himself of his suicidal urges: Werther effectively ‘died in Goethe’s place.’ Werther’s immense sensitivity, pursuit of infinite joy and defiance at a world which frustrated his longings struck a deeply influential chord. The publication of the book was a continent-wide sensation that prompted a spate of ‘copycat suicides’ by lovelorn youths dressed identically to Goethe’s hero.

Yet Goethe too saw the limits of his ideal, making a pilgrimage to Italy in order to escape Romanticism and seek refuge in the ruins of classical civilisation. He was particularly impressed by the geometric symmetry, consistency and harmony of Palladio’s architecture and the art criticism of the Enlightenment figure Winkelmann, who praised the subordination of passions to a strict framework. Goethe spent the rest of his life exploring the clash of such ideals in his drama ‘Faust’  and became so devoted to science that he believed he would be chiefly remembered for his scientific works, which influenced Darwin. “Romanticism is sickness,” Goethe famously concluded, “classicism is health.”

Can that sentence really stand as Romanticism’s epitaph? I think it can, because of the contradiction between two of the strongest impulses within Romanticism, the drive to develop the individual Self to the highest degree and the drive to lose oneself in ‘the Infinite’: Nature, Humanity, Nation or God, to give a few examples. I say two drives: in reality it is only one, for the full-on Romantic has a sufficiently zesty egotism to believe that if his unique self is of infinite value then what is Infinite must be a reflection of himself. If Christianity tells us that God created Man in His own image, the Romantic creates a Self of infinite value, and expects to find that God has been made in his own image. The clearest and most extreme example of this is Adolf Hitler’s self-conception: that he had developed his Self to such a degree that his Volk was a mere reflection of his Self, and therefore he was the only person capable of interpreting its Will. A very much more minor (and incomparably less malevolent) example is the individualistic rock star longing to hear his words pouring out of every radio. The double-sided nature of this Romantic drive is demonstrated by even common beliefs, such as that if you follow your heart then the universe will in some way be receptive to your actions and help you, and the related belief that each individual Self is mirrored in just one other individual Self called a ‘soulmate’, that Destiny will somehow bring them together, and that thereupon each soulmate will view his or her ‘mirror’ as being of infinite value.

Although at the beginning of the Romantic revolt against the Enlightenment both sides of the drive can be seen as different ways of rejecting Reason, as the Romantic quest progresses and the hold of Enlightenment culture recedes the contradiction inevitably must come into focus. The more the uniqueness of the Self is developed the more distinct that Self is from both other people and to the ‘external world’ and the harder it is to commune with anything larger than or beyond that Self; the more one loses one’s Self through communing with the Infinite the less distinct that person is, and therefore the less the uniqueness of their Self is developed. Absent truly extraordinary situations, such as that which accompanied Hitler’s rise, the Romantic must choose between the two sides of the drive. If he chooses to develop his unique Self and reject communing with something larger than himself then he is effectively condemning himself to perpetual solitary confinement — not within the walls of a prison cell but within the walls of his skull — which reliably leads to madness. If he chooses to obliterate his unique Self in favour of full communion with the Infinite then, too, the body must become seen as a prison, for the body inevitably both physically separates him from full communion with the Infinite and ties him down to the mundane, anything-but-Infinite activities of eating and excreting etc., and that road leads the Romantic towards suicide. The Romantic begins his quest with the word ‘freedom’ burning in his soul; he ends it in a prison of his own making.

These days we are accustomed to celebrities being idolised for their uniqueness yet who spend much of their time trying to obliterate that unique Self through an often fatal drug habit. So accustomed, perhaps, that we forget that this ‘self-destructive genius’ archetype is largely a creation of the Romantic impulse. Generally speaking, the Romantics that survive renounce Romanticism (‘sell out’, if you like); the ones that are Romantic to the end tend to encounter that end tragically early, often as a direct result of their own actions.

If the ‘dirty little secret’ at the heart of the Enlightenment is that there is no, and can be no, reason to be rational, and that rationality therefore depends upon some non-rational source, the ‘dirty little secret’ at the heart of Romanticism is that those who pursue it are inevitably skewered on the most fundamental of all Reason’s laws: the law of non-contradiction. For this reason, the continued development of Enlightenment ways of thinking inevitably lead to a focus on the non-rational and the continued development of Romanticism inevitably leads to a new appreciation for Reason. Whilst Enlightenment and Romantic ideals are difficult to reconcile, then, each compensates for the flaws of the other and each ultimately implies the other. In many cases an excess of one is likely to generate a reaction against it. The greater the excess, therefore, the more likely that a successful reaction against it will overshoot to the opposite excess through sheer force of momentum.

A Pendulum of Western Culture

This does not just apply to individuals but to Western civilisation as a whole. Indeed, Western history since the French Revolution has been characterised by alternating periods of Enlightenment and Romantic supremacy; they seem to follow each other with regularity.

What we think of as ’60s culture’, for example, shared many themes with the original Romantics. It was a revolt against a deadening set of conventions, instead advocating a profoundly individualistic search for the Self; it advocated a return to nature; it quested after the infinite, whether through psychedelic drugs, meditation, occultism or other means;  it proclaimed the value and transformative power of passions; it considered some artists, in this case particularly rock musicians, to be possessed of wise insight and capable of transforming the world through their performances.

Woodstock festival poster, 1969

However, in familiar fashion this Romantic upsurge skewered itself on the familiar internal contradiction: the communes that it established to demonstrate to a watching world the  power, beauty and viability of the Romantic ‘hippie’ ideal failed spectacularly. The communes, populated by people who were all trying to develop their unique Selves to the highest degree, proved not to be oases of free love and altruism but vipers’ nests of intrigue, enmity and power struggles. The development of uniqueness had undermined their commonality and in the intense setting of the commune this had disastrous and swift results.

In the wider world the hippie movement became gripped with despair at its inability to overthrow the State, and as the Romantic impulse retreated it increasingly became commoditised. Rebellions — no matter how uncompromising — were swiftly divorced from their contexts by the markets and commoditised into lifestyle niches, providing a forlorn echo of What Might Have Been.

Che Guevara, as seen on coffee mugs and shopping bags

The Romantic impulse became increasingly subsumed into ‘bourgeois bohemianism’ in which bohemian cultural preferences are expressed within the structure of a career ladder. Rather than the Romantic dream of the highly-developed Self communing with the Infinite and finding the Infinite an echo of that Self, the bourgeois bohemian develops his unique Self through signifiers of lifestyle choice, and finds in the toaster and the lawnmower of his heroic choice the echo of his unique Self.

This Romantic swing of the Western pendulum thus having played itself out culture then swung towards the Enlightenment.

This era, from the 1980s until almost today, was characterised by many Enlightenment traits. There was a belief in progress towards a universal culture, ‘globalisation’, characterised by such things as liberal democracy (although the spread of an equally ‘Enlightenment’ scepticism meant that even political institutions in the most established liberal democracies suffered from crises of legitimacy), human rights and free markets.

Just as in the Enlightenment itself, technological developments allowed the dissemination of information on an unprecedented scale and at unprecedentedly low cost. Just as in the Enlightenment, one of the era’s landmark projects was to use this new publishing ability to create an Encyclopaedia of all the world’s knowledge and make it available to all, in the hope that it would provide a model for how society could work and so change the way people think. Just as in the Enlightenment, the publishing explosion enabled unprecedented numbers to publish pamphlets to log their ideas and experiences. Although the initial hope was that this publishing explosion would create a high-minded and academic ‘Republic of Letters‘ or ‘information superhighway‘, the most read such logs involved writers desperately grubbing for a readership by taking extravagant pot-shots at the rich and famous. And just as in the Enlightenment, coffee houses became a major focus of the new culture, places where ‘knowledge workers’ would spend all day participating in the development of ideas in the company of those of similar goals (whether in person or over a wifi network.) There was an explosion of interest in museums and art galleries, with many museums becoming amongst the most popular attractions in their countries. Some pondered whether museum-going to view the finest products of humanity was turning into a kind of religion, with surging museum-going replacing collapsing church attendance. Museums were even ascribed almost mystical powers, for it was believed by many that the construction of a single museum had the power to give new life to an entire city.

The Guggenheim, Bilbao. In passing, we should note the religious overtones of the word 'iconic.'

The intellectual mood was one of general scepticism and undermining of hierarchies and authority; and yet it was a period of such consensus on the major matters of how a country should be governed that elections to the planet’s mightiest political office could be greatly affected by questions such as whether the candidate looks silly in a tank, whether he windsurfs or whether he was the kind of person with whom you would go for a beer.

There was an increasing expectation of constant steady progress, whether it be (in the consumer sphere) the continuing miracles of Moore’s Law in exponentially reducing the cost of digital processing whilst exponentially increasing its power, or (in the economic sphere) the ‘Goldilocks’ economy of 1990s America and the Non-Inflationary Constant Expansion (NICE) economy of the 2000s that led to a belief that the age old capitalist problem of boom and bust had been solved.

Such economic optimism was largely based on faith in Adam Smith’s Enlightenment idea of an ‘invisible hand’ governing markets so that they self-correct, on the belief that risk could be minimised through various types of insurance (a preoccupation of Ben Franklin) and (in contrast to the Romantics) that risk should be minimised. It was also based on economic models that in many cases heavily relied upon an idealised, Enlightenment-type figure, homo economicus. This figure was a self-interested, basically atomised utility-maximiser.

This conception of the ‘rational’ individual was echoed in the dominant self-conception of the age: that of being a consumer. The consumer’s activity had much in common with the utilitarian attitudes of the Enlightenment. Not for the consumer were the passions beyond the control or understanding of reason, so constitutive of her being so that when two clash then tragedy is inevitable: instead desires could be precisely quantified by determining how many currency units the consumer was willing to offer for the satisfaction of those desires. Competing desires could thus be compared through the medium of the currency unit and trade-offs arranged.

The products purchased as a consequence of such decisions had little sentimental value in themselves: they were identical to millions of other products and a frenzied desire to upgrade to the latest model of even the most desirable products could be manufactured. However, the brands that marked those products held great importance, in that each brand had certain associations that the purchaser hoped would ‘rub off’ on her so that others would perceive her as having those associations. Enormous industries devoted to attaching good associations to products and detaching bad associations from them, such as advertising and public relations, grew ever more powerful, and political campaigns often seemed to focus on attaching the maximum strength of bad associations to the opponent. Mill would have recognised a lot from the last couple of paragraphs.

Such was the recent period, perhaps the most peaceful and prosperous in Western history. In nostalgic hindsight it may well come to be seen as a golden age.

It is likely that this period of Enlightenment dominance is over. Rather than expecting constant progress many expect a long period of economic stagnation or decline. Globalisation is falling out of favour, whether that is shown by the failure of the latest round of free trade agreements or the horrific problems caused by trade imbalances between countries within the same economic area (such as that between different parts of the Eurozone) and, potentially, between the USA and China. The idea of self-correcting markets has been dealt a massive blow by successive bubbles, as has the notion that it is possible to use maths to effectively eliminate risk. Homo economicus is increasingly under attack from behavioural economics, which posits a very different conception of human nature, and it seems that the days of exuberant consumption that allowed such a strong self-identification with the role of the consumer may be over.

Given the recent dominance of Enlightenment ideals and given its latest manifestions’ catastrophic, systematic and highly public failure it would belie two centuries of Western history if there were not a major Romantic revival over the next generation. What type of Romanticism is it likely to be, and what are the implications for cities?

Romantics and the Future of the City

First, a bit of context about the rising generation. The young generation of today are the generation most adept at the digital world that increasingly shapes our world, the best-educated in history (if the proportion of university graduates is our standard) and the generation with the highest IQs in living memory (if the Flynn Effect is true). And yet it is likely to be the first generation in centuries to have a worse standard of living than its parents. Not only is the ongoing economic crisis likely to blight its prospects for a long time to come but according to the MIT economist David Autor the jobs market is polarising into high-wage, high-skill jobs and low-wage, low-skill jobs, with huge numbers of middle-wage, middle-skill jobs disappearing. This is mostly due to the replacement of these jobs by software, and therefore we can expect this trend to continue irrespective of how the economy does.

The bitter news is that a young generation has been raised to be ‘knowledge workers’ possessing and processing information, and yet the staggering development of information technology has rendered software both able to access a greater range of information than any human memory can contain and able to process it far faster than any human brain. Software can now do many white-collar jobs faster and more reliably — and much, much more cheaply — than any human. The Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman presciently noted in 1996 that:

“When something becomes abundant, it also becomes cheap. A world awash in information is one in which information has very little market value. In general, when the economy becomes extremely good at doing something, that activity becomes less, rather than more, important. Late-20th-century America was supremely efficient at growing food; that was why it had hardly any farmers…”

The economy is also supremely efficient in manufacturing objects; that is why manufacturing has ceased to become a mass occupation. The economy is also supremely efficient at accessing and processing information…

The young generation has patiently and (relative to previous generations) docilely jumped through the various educational hoops set by the older generations because they were promised that this was the path to a good and prosperous life, and they have become superbly equipped to access and process information. Now, as they emerge from education many will discover that the skills they have spent all their lives attaining are not the promised keys to success; instead those skills are increasingly economically redundant.

It is as if the older generation has raised its young to run as quickly as possible and imbued them with the belief that to the swiftest runners go the glory and rewards, and as soon as the youths become old enough to compete they are suddenly told ‘oh, sorry, did we mention you would also be racing against cars?’ The fury of this generation may be significant.

When the ‘voice of the 1960s generation’, Bob Dylan, wanted to damn his society he sneered “twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift” — i.e. a stable, well-paying and secure factory job with a comfortable pension. Many of the young today are likely to spend much of their working lives in unstable jobs without pension provision that are low paying, either because they are menial or because they are competing against people willing to work for free in order to gain entry to the elite. It may well be that, given mass unemployment, being employed becomes seen not as something easily obtainable to those who wish to find work but as a privilege to be grateful for irrespective of the job’s quality.

Many highly-educated people forced into menial occupations are likely to conclude that they must face facts, that this is the best they can do and that, whilst it’s not what they dreamed of, who are they to question the market’s valuation of them, and they will cut their ambitions accordingly. Although the job is unfulfilling and involves many indignities, it is best to stoically endure what fate has dealt.

However, there are also likely to be those who, though no more conventionally successful than those who have ‘accepted reality’, conclude that if the world values them lowly then there is something wrong with the world. Rather than reducing themselves to the limits of their world, this type becomes ‘larger-than-life’, cut off from conventional society and defiantly refusing to adopt their values on the basis of a claimed higher sensitivity and sophistication. Condemned by authorities for arrogance, he responds with cynicism, contempt and an assertion that his passions will never be tamed. This is the Romantic antihero whose prototype was Byron, and this kind of character is likely to be the folk hero of the next generation, idolised not only by rebels but by those who have accepted their fate yet vicariously live out the path not taken through their lives.

After all, we have a generation raised to believe that self-belief is of fundamental importance as a means for securing success, yet it has been raised amid an atmosphere that questions the institutions that conventionally represent success.  This generation is coming of age at a time when the older generation has (it could be perceived) been comprehensively discredited yet shifting the pain for its own mistakes onto the younger generation. It isn’t hard to see that this could flip into a complete rejection of society’s definitions of success and an assertion of titanic self-belief as a good in itself.

Consequently, such a type — or those perceived to be of such a type — is likely to crop up frequently in the next years, and is likely to be highly influential. In fact, it is probably false to write that in the future tense, for on 18th December 2010, in a part of the world that is outside the traditional West but which, though globalisation, has recently been immensely influenced by it, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. Why his death caused such convulsions is not immediately clear: after all, it is distressingly common to hear about Arab men committing suicide in a conflagration.

What made the suicide of an obscure man on an obscure street in an obscure town in a small and relatively peripheral Arab nation inspire revolutions across an entire region, when the unimaginably spectacular suicides of men acting on the orders of one of the most infamous Arab men, totally destroying a nerve centre of the world’s mightiest economy on live TV, inspired so little action?

If the mere fact of spectacular suicide is not sufficient to cause revolutions then the cause must lie in how the suicide was interpreted. Significantly enough, although he had never completed high school, the myth that Bouazizi was a university graduate who had been ‘reduced’ to the role of a fruit-seller spread like wildfire. To Tunisia’s unemployed graduates he was one of them: someone ‘made for better things’ who had been forced to accept menial work yet would act in defiance of his fate. Bouazizi could have stoically endured humiliation and sought small pleasures that would sustain him through his allotted lifespan; instead he treated such pleasures with contempt.

Many Arab men have committed suicide to demonstrate the infinite importance of their religion, and left the Arab world unmoved. One man committing suicide to demonstrate the infinite importance of pride and the region is set in tumult. A life without pride is not worth living, is the message of his spectacular suicide. Bouazizi was a classic Romantic hero, a Werther for our times (and just as semi-fictional).

The fact that Bouazizi’s story struck such a chord across the Middle East is incredibly important. If our attitude to the Arab Spring is to wonder ‘where is their programme for Enlightened social reform so as to increase the general happiness? Where are their proposals for us to engage in debate over? I mean, these people are young, and young people have strong feelings. But I’m afraid that they are too naive to realise the importance of painstaking preparatory work building the institutions of civil society in making revolutions ultimately successful’ then I submit we miss the point entirely and will not be well-suited to the coming culture. The Arab Spring is primarily a mass, personal assertion of self-worth amongst graduates and others unwilling to accept what Fate has seemingly declared and willing to — at the risk of death — challenge the hitherto indomitable dictators of their world and aim for the hitherto unthinkable dream of democracy in the Arab world. It is a classic Romantic revolt, and we are likely to see many more.

It is therefore worth considering (amongst so many other things) what a haughty, sneering and floridly emotional Romantic antihero contemptuous of petty pleasures might have to say about the current ideal of urban planning. Perhaps it would be something like this:

“How nice! How pl–easant! How com-fort-a-ble! You have taken a city, with all its infinite pleasures, adventures and dangers, all its sublimities and its terrors, and turned it into a world safe for shopping. And where does this shopping ideally take place? Ah yes, in outdoor living rooms. How bourgeois! How contemptibly bourgeois! You have taken a city and utterly domesticated it! This, this, is your idea of what a city can be? Mere pale imitations of what people don’t even have to leave their sofas for?”

“This encouragement of shopping; what has been the result? The habit of shopping has become so entrenched that the resulting debt has rendered them unable to shop.”

“And what have we been left with? Just look at all this accumulated stuff that you never really needed — you’re well aware  that that money could have saved many impoverished lives. Ah yes, but — but — it made you happy. It made you happy to purchase these interchangeable pellets of pleasure. But why? Isn’t the truth that you were buying things because they had pleasant associations for you — they made you feel good about yourself? And how were these associations created? Is there any necessary and natural connection between most of these products and the associations they have? No, they are merely arbitrary associations created by advertisers and PR suits intent on brainwashing you into believing that buying their product would make you a better, more attractive individual.”

“Well, no matter. You can use that intellect honed by years of calculating the best deal to cut through the associations created merely by advertising and found your decisions on solid ground.”

“Ah, but this idea of the rational, calculating consumer has eaten so deeply into your soul that you cannot believe in anything else, can you? Tell me — can you hear the word ‘virtue’ and not immediately suspect hypocrisy? The words ‘the common good’ and not laugh into your sleeve? Talk of loving something not in terms of expressing a consumer preference ripped from a McDonalds commercial? Or loving someone without suspecting that this madness of love is caused by a biochemical trick of the genes? Can you see an act of self-sacrifice and altruism without wondering about ‘selfish genes’? Can you find any solid basis on which to found a new set of values? Can you? Can you?”

However convincing or otherwise we find this purple-prosed assault (and certainly there are reasons to question it) I fear that something vaguely like it may become quite a widely-heard critique of postmodern cities and culture.

The Future of the CIty

This has implications for cities: children of the Enlightenment planners may be, it looks extremely likely that the pendulum will swing the other way and that the next generation will be dominated by the heirs of the Romantics, probably of the pessimistic type. To reject that entirely may be to become a little Byronic ourselves. It would be foolish to be blind to the appeal of Romantic antiheroes; it would also be foolish to try to win a battle framed in Enlightenment terms — appeals to rationality are not likely to be successful to those who claim the supremacy of the passions, and given that the wider culture is likely to prefer Romantic values taking such a course risks becoming outmanoeuvred. It would furthermore be foolish to try to directly answer the above gadfly’s questions, for to do so would be to implicitly accept his premises, from which starting point it may be impossible to convincingly answer. Yet it would surely be unwise to fully follow the gadfly, for every equal and opposite reaction is likely to overshoot, and Romanticism is intrinsically self-destructive. And yet it may be possible to outmanoeuvre such criticisms.

It is said that the trees that bend in the gale are the ones that survive. I suggest that the best course of action for those of an Enlightenment persuasion may be to beat a strategic, generation-long retreat and try to incorporate aspects of the natural into the design of our built environment. Whilst defending what is most important about our ideal communities, increasingly our streetscapes should be defined by the natural rather than by buildings.

We should do this not only to preserve as much as possible of New Urbanist ideals until the culture swings back to Enlightenment thinking but also to try to counter the destructive impact that Romantic antiheroes may have on our environment by making cities less clearly Enlightenment and therefore less of a target against which to rebel. Ideally, just as J.S. Mill found the sweet lyricism of Wordsworth the medicine for his crisis of Enlightenment values, we should build very many ‘Wordsworths of brick and plant and stone’ that speak not merely of the Enlightenment but of things beyond it, and therefore, in their own tiny ways, act to salve a crisis that may soon be upon us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *