catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 5 :: 2005.03.11 — 2005.03.24


Down a dead-end road

The January 1st, 2005 edition of The Economist ran one of the typical new year editorial cartoons in which the old year, represented by an old man, hands over responsibility for the earth to the new year, represented by a child in diapers. This cartoon was particularly grim, however, published barely a week after a massive tsunami spread devastation in the Indian Ocean, and well before final estimates of the extent of the damage will be made public. The figure of the old year is about to collapse under a globe weighed down by two images of Death, one labeled ?tsunami?, the other ?darfur?, giving each other high-fives across the Indian Ocean; an exploding Iraq; a pugilistic Kerry and Bush armed with buckets of mud; and images of unabated pollution. The baby year asks, ?So!! How?s your year been?? and poor, exhausted, 2004 replies ?Don?t ask…?

Don?t ask. It?s a tempting reply for so many reasons. There are a lot of things about the current condition of our world that we might prefer not to think about. Natural disasters, diseased agricultural flocks, new and ever more potent human diseases, war, growing religious fundamentalism, increasingly polarized political dynamics—it?s no wonder many people prefer the canned ?reality? of television programmers to the messy reality of, well, reality.

We have a responsibility to ask, however. To look hard and honestly at what we see taking place around us and to begin to articulate, however provisionally, some sense of where our global culture is at, and where we might be headed. Fortunately, we have the help of women and men who have made it their vocation to attempt to understand the present, and to express what they think it means, for good or for ill. In addition to the many fresh causes for anxiety that landed on our doorsteps in the newspapers of 2004, the year also provided us with new books from several thinkers who have spent time and energy reflecting on ?the way things are? and ?what it all means.?

One of these books was Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs, long-time commentator and activist on urban issues and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her new book is a warning that we are very near the kind of cultural dead-end that historically has meant the disappearance of entire ways of knowing and being in the world. We are accustomed to thinking of these incidences of cultural amnesia as ?dark ages.?

The first sentence of Dark Age Ahead states, ?This is both a gloomy and a hopeful book?—gloomy in that everywhere she looks Jacobs sees symptoms of impending cultural breakdown that are not being adequately addressed. Jacobs? opinion is that if this ?downward spiral? is not checked, our culture shows every sign of entering a new Dark Age.

Dark Ages are ?extreme examples of cultural collapse.? We as a culture are accustomed to thinking ?of a Dark Age as happening once, long ago, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire,? according to Jacobs, but she draws on the work of historian Jared Diamond to demonstrate that Dark Ages are a more common phenomenon than we generally assume. She points to the cultural amnesia experienced by the aboriginal communities of America as examples of the devastation that sudden and violent alterations in worldview can generate. Her purpose in writing this book

is to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end, by understanding how such a tragedy comes about, and thereby what can be done to ward it off and thus retain and further develop our living, functioning culture, which contains so much of value, so hard won by our forebears.

Jacobs is not the first thinker to express concern over the state of human culture. Susan Sontag wrote in Against Interpretation that ?the inhuman acceleration of historical change has led every sensitive modern mind to the recording of some kind of nausea, of intellectual vertigo? and went so far as to claim that only those philosophers who address this feeling of ?intellectual homelessness…have an urgent claim on our interest.?

The novelist and critic V.S. Pritchett wrote an essay in 1980 titled ?As Old as the Century? in which he quotes Louis Mumford?s argument in The Culture of Cities ?that social betterment has been outstripped every decade by technology? and argues that, as a result, ?we have become, or feel we have become, anonymous items in a mass society at once neutral and bizarre.? Pritchett reflects on the marginalization of the printed word and the possibility that writers whose work does not find a film or television audience

may have to live in the conceit of being like the lamenting figures in the chorus of the Greek drama… chanting the general dismay as they watched the impersonal and violent passions murderously at work on a stage without backcloth.

He allows that a core group of committed readers may remain, ?just as Latin remained for the medieval clerks,? but overall he finds contemporary culture to be in a serious downward trend. Later in the essay his reservations give way to outright pessimism:

At eighty I look at the horrible state of our civilization. It seems to be breaking up and returning to the bloody world of Shakespeare?s Histories which we thought we had outgrown… The Third World is reliving history we have forgotten and indeed brings its violence to our cities… We have now to school ourselves to deal with danger and tragedy.

This pessimistic outlook was a common theme among writers in the twentieth century, particularly in the generation born prior to 1920, to which Jacobs belongs. Even the author of so ultimately hopeful a book as The Lord of the Rings wrote in a letter to his son that humanity ?is free not to rise again but to go to perdition and carry out the Fall to its bitter bottom.? Northrop Frye expressed similar sentiments in a letter to his fianc? in the thirties: ?Read William Blake or go to hell. That?s my message to the modern world.? Claude L?vi-Strauss, the poster-boy for modernist pessimism, wrote with back-handed hopefulness in Tristes Tropiques that ?the darkness through which we are groping is too thick for us to make any pronouncements about it; we cannot even say that it is doomed to last.?

The mournful strains of this elegaic chorus became increasingly common through the twentieth century. In 1998 poet Anne Carson was quoted in the Toronto Star

of December 12 as saying, ?We?re heading into a Dark Age. When learning goes dark, everything becomes more selfish, more materialistic, more hopeless. That?s where we are.? We in western culture became comfortable dismissing such ominous pronouncements as millennial angst. Now Jacobs is asking us to consider whether our unease may have had its source in more than simply a little anxiety over what might or might not happen to our computers on the eve of the year 2000.

The heart of her book is five chapters in which Jacobs examines symptoms of decay in what she terms the ?five pillars of our culture.? They are community and family (too closely intertwined to be considered separately); higher education and the shift in emphasis in universities from educating to ?credentialing?; the effective practice of science and science-based technology; tax policies and government powers that are out of touch with the communities they are intended to serve; and self-policing by the ?learned professions,? such as medicine, law, and architecture.

Jacobs acknowledges that her choice of cultural pillars may seem arbitrary, but argues that familiar subjects of cultural scrutiny such as racism, environmental degradation, crime, political apathy, and the increasing disparities in lifestyle between rich and poor are symptoms of decay in the areas where she has chosen to concentrate her attention. She fears that these ?pillars? are in the process of becoming irrelevant in our culture, and that their deterioration has brought us ?dangerously close to the brink of lost memory and cultural uselessness.?

The move towards cultural sustainability is all about clarifying the direct connections between local possibility and global reality, of seeing the opportunities for global responsibility and action in our local environments and communities. Its absence manifests itself at every level of our culture. The breakdowns in family and community life that Jacobs describes are, in large part, attributable to the economic and personal unsustainability of our lifestyles and the demands it places on parents, while at the same time eroding the community-based support networks that traditionally served to assist families through the sharing of resources, information, and personal relationships.

This is familiar territory but Jacobs does a good job of bringing some of these issues into focus, particularly in her demonstration of how unnecessary it all is. The symptoms of ill-health our culture suffers from are not, as is perhaps the common conception, matters of simple economic determinism, but the result of deliberately conceived and executed long-term strategies to generate wealth and power for a few people at the expense of many.

It is not surprising, for someone who has devoted her career to monitoring the health of our urban environments, that Jacobs keeps returning to the automobile and the environmental and cultural issues impacted by it. Jacobs? critique of car culture and traffic ?engineering? form significant parts of four of the five central chapters. General Motors receives stinging criticism for its long history of deliberate and inexcusable attacks on public transportation.

If an economist from a neo-conservative think tank wants to deny the community destruction wrought, he will probably point out that the American people, through the workings of the free market, decreed the supremacy of the automobile and its public appurtenances and the demise of public transit. Not true. To claim that and be believed is to rely on mass forgetfulness of persistent corporate attacks on public transit for the sake of selling oil, rubber tires, and internal-combustion vehicles.

Jacobs goes on to describe the way in which General Motors? Bus Division led the way in deliberately and systematically purchasing and demolishing efficient electric streetcar systems in over eighty cities and towns from the nineteen-twenties through the forties. U.S. Congress and the antitrust division of the Department of Justice were finally alerted to this deliberate campaign against public utilities and in 1946 issued the requisite slap-on-the-wrist.

Nine corporations and seven of their executives were indicted for illegal acts in restraint of trade, tried, and convicted. The executives were punished with $1 (yes, one dollar) fines each, and the corporations with $5,000 fines each.

The destruction of clean, efficient and effective streetcar systems contributed to individual families? dependence on the automobile and helped lay the foundation for the post-war urban sprawl that continues largely unabated today. ?Inhumanely long car-commutes to work? is only one of the many stresses contemporary families have had to bear as a result of suburbanization and the resulting erosion of communities. Suburban monoculture is also related to the mass migration of people ?within national borders and across them? and the failure of communities ?to assimilate and cushion so many unprecedented circumstances?. She draws a parallel here with the collapse of Rome and the fact that ?the onset of its famous Dark Age also coincided with a great migration of peoples? as well as the decay of some of the same cultural pillars she is addressing.

The parallels between contemporary western culture and the late Roman Empire are clear enough however, and Jacobs doesn?t dwell on these. She does point out that cultural loss is not always as abrupt and dramatic as the fall of Rome or American aboriginal cultures. She uses Jared Diamond?s examples of China and Mesopotamia in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel to illustrate the fact that cultures can enter into long periods of decline, almost without realizing it, and that these can be as devastating in the long run as an abrupt collapse. She cites cultural xenophobia as a major cause of cultural decay and cites Karen Armstrong?s description of ?a fortress or fundamentalist mentality? as

a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit… to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.

This concern is expressed most vividly in Jacobs? chapter on science and technology. Her description of the erosion of scientific method could serve as a definition of dogma.

If a body of inquiry becomes disconnected from the scientific state of mind, that unfortunate segment of knowledge is no longer scientific. It stagnates. Intellectually, it is poisonous, because thereafter almost everything the stagnated and warped knowledge touches is harmed by it.

Emphasizing reason at the expense of the imagination, or mythos, is not the solution to our problems however. A healthy culture understands and balances the roles of science and imagination, giving each their due. As soon as we start to confuse imagination with science we stumble into the murky waters of pseudo-science (Jacobs? favorite example is the simplistic generalizations of traffic engineers). We begin to think we can explain mystery by coating it with a veneer of rationality. This attitude is always destructive, whether it find expression in Christian systematic theology, neo-pagan historical revisionism, or neo-conservative manipulation of scientific research. As soon as we believe we can explain mystery, we believe we can control it. When we confuse the role of science with that of the imagination we run the risk of going the other way, of making our science into our religion. Stephen Jay Gould argues in his book Rocks of Ages that there is room for both a religious and a scientific perspective in a healthy culture, and that each has its appropriate sphere of influence without being mutually exclusive.

Jared Diamond points to the year 1433 as a decisive moment in China?s history, when that country faced its own mythos/logos dilemma. China at the time was a world leader in technology, navigation, and trade, yet it quickly lost its lead to ?formerly so backward Europe.? The reason was ?almost whimsical? as Jacobs describes it.

In the early fifteenth century, a political power struggle was waged between two factions in the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. The losing faction had championed treasure fleets and taken an interest in their leadership and well-being. The winning faction asserted its success by abruptly calling a halt to voyages, forbidding further ocean voyaging, and dismantling shipyards.

In 1477 when an attempt was made to ?revive intercontinental ocean trading, the vice president of the War Ministry not only forbade it but destroyed all the documents regarding previous trading voyages.? The mythos informing this retreat into a fortress mentality was an over-emphasis on Confucianism ?which was believed to contain all necessary precepts for the conduct of human beings in their relationships with one another and with their environment.? A spirit of curiousity and exploration was apparently not one of these precepts.

The consequences of centuries of cultural stagnation are vividly rendered by Paul Theroux in an essay titled ?Down the Yangtze?, about a trip on the river taken in 1980. He describes how, a hundred years previously, Abb? David ?saw very few birds on the Yangtze… and, as a naturalist, he was looking hard for them,? and quotes David?s ?prophetic? diagnosis:

A selfish and blind preoccupation with material interests has caused us to reduce this cosmos, so marvelous to him with eyes to see it, to a hard matter-of-fact place. Soon the horse and the pig on the one hand and wheat and potatoes on the other will replace hundreds of thousands of animals and plants given us by God.

Theroux goes on to add his own observations.

Down the Yangtze the awful prediction has been fulfilled. You expect this river trip to be an experience of the past – and it is. But it is also a glimpse of the future. In a hundred years or so, under a cold uncolonized moon, what we call the civilized world will all look like China, muddy and senile and old-fangled: no trees, no birds, and shortages of fuel and metal and meat; but plenty of pushcarts, cobblestones, ditch-diggers, and wooden inventions. Nine hundred million farmers splashing through puddles and the rest of the population growing weak and blind working the crashing looms in black factories.

The best many modernists could do in the face of such overwhelming bleakness was to take a kind of Lucretian comfort in honestly acknowledging the pessimism they felt. The impotence of the ?comfort of knowledge? in the face of disasters like the recent tsunami can lead to despair however, or, at best, a dignified sadness, something like the feeling Pritchett describes at the end of his essay.

…lately falling into the habit of reading Gibbon?s Decline and Fall? on Sunday evenings, ?evaporates the disagreeables? of history that now advance on us: the irony of the learned Gibbon excites the sense of tragi-comedy and is, except for its lack of poetic sense, close to the feeling I have about the present and the past.

Jacobs is, fortunately, more optimistic. She has a strong understanding of the interdependence of culture. This is a theme she returns to from time to time in the book, and she finds some hope there. Change is a good thing, she says, and affirms that ?a living culture is always changing without losing itself as a framework and context of change.? She believes that positive change is still possible because ?each correction benefits others,? but she warns that the

time for corrective action is finite… The collapse of one sustaining cultural institution enfeebles others… Beneficient corrections of deterioration are not guaranteed.

The future of our culture ?depends heavily on its educated people, and especially upon their critical capacities and depth of understanding.? The greatest obstacle to positive change is something we are all too familiar with—the willful ignorance of power.

Powerful persons and groups that find it in their interest to prevent adaptive corrections have many ways of thwarting self-organizing stabilizers… Or circumstances may have allowed cultural destruction to drift to a point where the jolts of correction appear more menacing than downward drift. Gibbon?s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is stuffed with instances of drift that became monstrous and ultimately proved impossible to correct.

Jacobs is that rarest of thinkers who has developed an ability to see both the forest and the trees simultaneously. It may seem paradoxical to use a ?natural? metaphor to describe someone whose life and work have been so thoroughly identified with urban studies, but Jacobs? perspective is ecological in the deepest sense. She sees things whole. We can say of Jane Jacobs what Hannah Arendt wrote of German critic Walter Benjamin:

In his concern with directly, actually demonstrable concrete facts, with single events and occurrences whose ?significance? is manifest, Benjamin was not much interested in theories or ?ideas? which did not immediately assume the most precise outward shape imaginable.

We are not, yet, accustomed in our culture to dealing with thinkers who do not proceed by a process of reduction until they have isolated their data from its living and breathing context and then present it as an artificial ?whole?. Jacobs proceeds by analogy. She begins with her experience and works outwards, making connections and developing insights about the macrocosm based on how she sees it being played out in the microcosm.

Thinkers who are accustomed to more abstract and specialized modes of thought can be condescending towards those who take a straight-forward interest in what they see going on around them. Theodor Adorno referred dismissively to Benjamin?s ?wide-eyed presentation of actualities? and Jacobs has also at times been criticized for what some see as a simplistic perspective. It is, however, precisely her ability to refer theory to practice, to articulate the relationships between aspects of culture that we are accustomed to consider separately, that has made her the most influential commentator on urban issues of the past fifty years.

Ultimately, what Jacobs is trying to teach us is wisdom. She believes, with Thoreau, that our philosophy should and can make our lives better and she is not willing to settle for less.

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