The Polis in Post-Modernity (II): Scale and the City

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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8 Responses

  1. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    J.L., are you familiar with the works of E.L. Doctorow by any chance?Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      Not especially. I read “City of God” a few months ago, but that’s it. From what I understand, that book’s pretty different from most of his works, so I don’t want to guess from that alone where you’re going — why do you ask?

      (Sorry about the lag; I’ve been packing for a move.)Report

      • I think you’d like “Welcome to Hard Times”, his first. A lot of the themes you’ve explored in this series are in that novel. Doctorow seems to suggest that this rootlessness is a quintessential characteristic of American culture. Here’s an excerpt:

        Every time someone puts a little capital into this Territory I’m called in by the Govenor and sent on my way. It doesn’t matter I suffer from the rheumatism, nor that I’m past the age of riding a horse’s back. If a man files a claim that yields, there’s a town. If he finds some grass, there’s a town. Does he dig a well? Another town. Does he stop somewhere to ease his bladder, there’s a town. Over this land a thousand times each year towns spring up and it appears I have to charter them all. But to what purpose? The claim pinches out, the grass dies, the well dries up, and everyone will ride off to form up again somewhere else for me to travel. Nothing fixes in this damned country, people blow around at the whiff of the wind. You can’t bring the law to a bunch of rocks, you can’t settle the coyotes, you can’t make a society out of sand. I sometimes think we’re worse than the Indians… What is the name of this place, Hard Times? You are a well-meaning man Mr. Blue, I come across your likes occasionally. I noticed Blackstone on your desk, and Chitty’s Pleadings. Well you can read the law as much as you like but it will be no weapon for the spring when the town swells with people coming to work your road. You need a peace officer but I don’t even see you wearing a gun. I look out of this window and I see cabins, loghouse, cribs, tent, shanty, but I don’t see a jail. You’d better build a jail. You’d better find a shootist and build a jail.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Half baked thought. The people most concerned about the lost of communitas are the people least likely to be attending church on Sunday. (or temple on Saturday or mosque on Friday etc).

    Even less baked thought. People most concerned about the lost of communitas are least likely to have any experience as a member of an ethnic community.

    More fully cooked thought. Both posts point to 1776 as a touchtone. I think the events of 1776 (and 1787) are quite orthogonal to the themes elucidated in both posts. The American revolution (and subsequently establishment of the Constitutional government) was pluralistic, (which is why it worked) but was also a considerably top-down affair. You can honestly say (that is, I’ve had somewhat politically conservative high school history teachers say) that the American revolution was of the elites, by the elites, for the people. (where the trend between Jefferson and Lincoln, with Jackson taking a lead role, was to eventually get ‘people’ as the object of each of preposition).Report

  3. Avatar Rob says:

    “Whatever we create going forward, it will not be—because it cannot be—a polis.”

    Maybe someone will come along and make me think otherwise, but my initial reaction is that this is both well-said and very important. Thanks for this post J.L.Report

  4. Avatar Anderson says:

    The first part of this post reminds me of the Wendell Berry essay “An Entrance to the Woods” (1971), especially when Berry writes [forgive me for the length, it’s a wonderful idea]:
    “We seem to grant to our high –speed roads and our airlines the rather thoughtless assumption that people can change places as rapidly as their bodies can be transported. That, as my own experience keeps proving to me, is through traffic to the freeway, and then for a solid hour or more I drove sixty or seventy miles an hour, hardly aware of the country I was passing through, because one may drive over it at seventy miles per hour without any concession whatsoever to one’s whereabouts. One might as well be flying. Though one is in Kentucky one is not experiencing Kentucky; one is experiencing the highway, which might be in nearly any hill country east of the Mississippi.

    Once off the freeway, my pace gradually slowed, as the roads became progressively more primitive, from seventy miles an hour to a walk. And now, here at my camping place, I have stopped altogether. But my mind is still keyed to seventy miles an hour. And having come here so fast, it is still busy with the work I am usually doing. Having come here by the freeway, my mind is not so fully here as it would have been if I had come by the crookeder, slower state roads; it is incalculably farther away than it would have been if I had come all the way on foot, as my earliest predecessors came. When the Indians and the first white hunters entered and experienced fully everything between here and their starting place, and so the transition was gradual and articulate in their consciousness. Our senses, after all, were developed to function at foot speeds; and the transition from foot travel to motor travel, in terms of evolutionary time, has been abrupt. The faster one goes, the more strain there is on the senses, the more they fail to take in, the more confusion they must tolerate or gloss over—and the longer it takes to bring the mind to a stop in the presence of anything. Though the freeway passes through the very heart of this forest, the motorist remains several hours’ journey by foot from what is living at the edge of the right-of-way.”

    Not sure what this means for the polis, but it does make you realize how dramatically different and global our existence is when compared to our ancestors. Does our politics lack a stronger sense of identity because the vast expanse is at our fingertips?Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Anderson says:

      Well, I think our POLITICS still have a sense of identity — but our places, certainly, have a different and, I’d say, diluted identity. I don’t think I’ve read that particular Berry essay, but I’ve read pieces where he’s discussed highways — and if my piece made you think of him, it just goes to show how long they’ve lingered in my mind. (As a frequenter of a certain interstate highway, I can’t help but think of him when I’m on it — but, on the other hand, I can’t help but think how many fewer times I’d see my hometown without it.)

      But what has really illustrated it for me has been the relationships between/among individual places and cities in American letters before and after WWII. Particularly if you’re reading fiction written or set in the South in the first half of the 20th century. The assumptions about place are just drastically different.Report

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