Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Zygmunt Bauman on envisioning the "city"

Here are some thoughts from, "Globalization: The Human Consequences," by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman that I've been contemplating a lot as I've watched Steve and Luella Pavey fight so hard for the plight of the "Dreamers" in America; and as I've considered, prayed and participated with the efforts of so many other friends working to envision and build the spaces in which we live. Though it probably wasn't his intent, Bauman brings a profound and searching analysis to the myriad issues surrounding the two simple commandments that Jesus left us:

“The lesson which planners could learn from the long chronicle of lofty dreams and abominable disasters which combine to form the history of modern architecture, is that the prime secret of a ‘good city’ is the chance it offers people to take responsibility for their acts ‘in a historical unpredictable society,’ rather than ‘in a dream world of harmony and predetermined order.’ Whoever feels like dabbling in inventing city space while guided solely by the precepts of aesthetic harmony and reason, would be well advised to pause first and ponder that ‘men can never become good simply by following the good orders or good plan of someone else.’

We may add that human responsibility, that ultimate and indispensable condition of morality of human intercourse, would find perfectly designed space to be an infertile if not downright poisonous soil. Most certainly, it would not grow, let alone thrive, in a hygienically pure space, free of surprises, ambivalence and conflict. Only such people could face up to the fact of their responsibility who would have mastered the difficult art of acting under conditions of ambivalence and uncertainty, born of difference and variety. Morally mature persons are such human beings as grow ‘to need the unknown, to feel incomplete without a certain anarchy in their lives’-who learn ‘to love the ‘otherness’ among them.’

The experience of American towns analysed by Sennet points to one well-nigh universal regularity: the suspicion against others, the intolerance of difference, the resentment of strangers, and the demands to separate and banish them, as well as the hysterical, paranoiac concern with ‘law and order,’ all tend to climb to their highest pitch in the most uniform, the most racially, ethnically and class-wise segregated, homogenous local communities.

No wonder: in such localities the support for the ‘we-feeling’ tends to be sought in the illusion of equality, secured by the monotonous similarity of everyone within sight. The guarantee of security tends to be adumbrated in the absence of differently thinking, differently acting and differently looking neighbours. Uniformity breeds conformity, and conformity’s other face is intolerance. In a homogenous locality it is exceedingly difficult to acquire the qualities and character and the skills needed to cope with human difference and situations of uncertainty; and in the absence of such skills and qualities it is all too easy to fear the other, simply for reason of being an-other-bizarre and different perhaps, but first and foremost unfamiliar, not-readily-comprehensible, not-fully fathomed, unpredictable.

The city, built originally for the sake of security-to protect residents inside the city walls against malevolent invaders always coming from outside-in our times ‘has become associated more with danger than with safety’-so says Nan Elin. In our postmodern times ‘the fear factor has certainly grown, as indicated by the growth in locked car and house doors and security systems, the popularity of ‘gated’ and ‘secure’ communities for all age and income groups, and the increasing surveillance of public spaces, not to mention the unending reports of danger emitted by the mass media.’

...... “Not togetherness, but avoidance and separation have become major survival strategies in the contemporary megalopolis. No more the question of loving or hating your neighbor. Keeping the neighbor at arm’s length would take care of the dilemma and make the choice unnecessary; it staves off the occasions when the choice between love and hate needs to be made.”

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