Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Notes on "Can the Polis Live Again?"

Contemplating the so-called "Tiny Town" project -- not literally "small" towns but installations designed to generate paradoxical perspectives of public life in miniature -- I find myself imagining my next book, my next new course, and certainly the next stage of my thinking as unambiguously "post-omnitopian."

For a time, I felt that I'd prefaced my work on City Ubiquitous with a healthy establishment of my fear, if not contempt, for contemporary environments and their impacts on self and society. Yet some of my interactions at a recent conference convinced me that I risk appearing as a champion of omnitopia, not its critic.

I note with some irony that this risk follows almost any articulation of the term in public. My enthusiasm for the chance to share my work in a live forum can all too easily be confused as enthusiasm for the ideas I'm trying to convey. So I appreciate the opportunity these days to slow down and disengage from talking so much. And certainly I have plenty of reading to cover in the next few months, which will demand silence and thought.

Starting slowly, I finally took the opportunity to read Michael Knox Beran's City Journal piece, Can the polis live again? His essay raises fairly typical assertions -- one representative quote: "Rock concerts and iPods we have in abundance, but our public spaces are unmusical." -- but he also does a fine job of presenting his articulation of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition before critiquing her apparent reliance on politics as the site of meaningful public life.

Beran recall's Arendt notion of the banality of evil -- I instantly flash to Steven Spielberg's depictions of the meticulous production of bureaucracy in Schindler's List: all those tables to set up, all those forms to fill out -- before conveying Arendt's statement that fascism is merely the absurd extent of all large states that transform discipline into virtue, even into fashion. Beran summarizes:
"Public space, small and polis-like, is for [Arendt] the school of civil courage and distinctive individuality. Yet no polis can withstand the might of the nation-state. Build a nation-state to save yourself, however, and you sacrifice the humanity and civic vigor of the agora, the forum, and the town square. The nation-state, because of its size, requires a people to undertake the very kinds of social administration that degrade the civic artistry that makes them strong and self-reliant."
Beran then turns to Arendt's affirmation of political discourse -- one imagines Pericles extolling the virtues of Athenian democracy under a piercing blue sky -- as the site where we transcend both the state of nature and the totalizing state. To Beran, Arendt's choice to valorize the political figure as one who transforms potential into words and then into action is overly romantic and historically incorrect. The political animal, from Pericles to Blagojevich, is inevitably a play on a singular theme, self-aggrandizement masked by pomp and platitudes:
"[Arendt] was looking in the wrong place. It was almost certainly the art, not the politics, of the old spaces that made them prime begetters of civic culture and individual distinction... Arendt attributed the decay of public space to the degeneration of politics, but her case would have been stronger had she fingered instead the decline of public poetry."
Beran concludes with a brief flourish of examples that illustrate the potential for public life to be found within the nation-state, concentrating on Jefferson's University of Virginia -- "one of America's most beguiling public spaces" -- and the various experiments in New Urbanism that have sprouted since the 1990s.

As longtime readers may recall, I described my own encounter with New Urbanism in my dissertation of Disney's Celebration, and I was not sold on the vision. To me, Celebration offered yet another means toward enclave, despite the appearance of its Town Hall whose farcical proliferation of columns sought to evoke a dozen Athenian City States.

Even now, I remain unsure of where to find meaningful public life. But over the next couple years I hope to think further on this question. Maybe I might even propose a few answers whose implications find root in this blog.

Some books worth reading or re-reading

• Democracy in America - Alexis de Tocqueville

• The Human Condition - Hannah Arendt

• The City in History - Lewis Mumford

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

December 2, 2010 Update: Florida new urbanist town built (and once run) by Disney confronts its first murder. NPR considers implications: Town That Disney Built Has 1st Killing Since Start

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