City and Mind

September 18, 2012 § 11 Comments

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[Image: Ward Roberts]

The city takes us over. More than an environment it penetrates us; more than a fixed enclosure it shifts with our every behavior. The city, like a giant octopus swimming in the deep, swallows us whole and begins to shape us along its grooves and edges. It swims through the surrounding boundaries thrashing into rock, water, and sand. So much steel and glass metabolizes in our minds and shades the contours of our perceptions. It assigns to us new notions of speed, velocity, and distance; we expand along its metallic curves moving upwards into the condensing droplets of clouds. Its infrastructure percolates with the flow of oil, gas, and concrete; its hum sounds like cancer; its electronic lights glow like a million terrestrial stars. The city is vast, but it rests on the edge of continents like a small nebula floating in deep space.

We breathe the city air and its chemical refuse becomes our own. We inhale its chemistry; its molecules become us as our organic fibers trail through its rusty corridors; a wandering carnival of automobiles and spent fuel spill into the street. What is city and what is human is not clear—the threshold between parasite and symbiont is crossed ten thousand times a day, both recklessly and intentionally. But it’s not just the human that is affected by cities, even though it was humans who built them. The city is enmeshed in larger ecologies—perhaps extending like the barnacles on some fertile archipelago or small rocky island. But the city is itself an ecology; an ecology of communication systems, power grids, bridges, terminals, data, and screens. All of these are part of the human ecology of perception and material well-being. To be sure, the city is also a multispecies ecology of organisms that inhabit its causeways and hide within its industrial undergrowth. 

Lewis Mumford tells us, “The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind” (CoC p. 5). Surely, the city emerges from the molten core of that rumbling blue diamond we call earth; cities are geological facts. But it’s a troublesome statement: the city is a fact of nature. Troubling because cities are centers of violence and exploitation, of excommunicated laborers and strung out addicts. Surely things can be otherwise. In the awareness of other possible worlds, there is nothing inevitable about the city’s social strata. Here the idea of nature is a specter that is, “getting in the way of properly ecological forms of culture, philosophy, politics, and art” (EWN p. 1). Nature is an indefinable emptiness, everything and nothing all at once. 

A city is haunted by its comparison with this indefinable nature. Within the idea of nature the city is caught in never ending battles between the sacred and the profane. Either the city is the city on the hill—a beacon of a utopian future that turns a blind eye to its oppression and pollution—or, conversely, the city is the city of the damned—something out of balance with the surrounding landscapes of trees, oceans, and hills. In both of these senses “nature hovers over things like a ghost” (EWN p. 14) and prevents a more radically ecological vision from coming through. To Mumford we might then say that, yes, the city is a fact, but it is a fact of the earth and not a fact of nature, and we must learn to love the city’s most forgotten strata, its most unnatural temperaments, in order to understand what ecology means for the human mind.

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