The Polis in Post-Modernity (II): Scale and the City
In a comment to my previous post, Art Deco offers several statistics in support of his counter-argument that “Mobility is not so novel.” He is right—and especially, I would say, in America. Huck Finn sets out down the Mississippi; we are continually a nation of immigrants; while Augie March may be exhausted by 1953, but what it is to be Augie, to be an American, Chicago born, is not always at peace with standing still:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
As for me honey I’m with youI always thought Kentucky was just passin’ through
while at the same time,
Somebody’s gotta do itWouldn’t be no Kentucky less you didn’t stick to it
Motion and mobility as part of a search, a quest, for a place to stick. This, too, is not a thing wholly of the past. What has changed is the scale of the journey and the nature of distance. Coleman Bonner may be a “fiddle-playin’ fool,” but he knows that leaving Kentucky means leaving behind everything and everyone he has ever known. In his recent biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow lingers on the Washingtons’ final departure from Philadelphia for Mt.Vernon at the end of the presidency. Such good-byes, he argues, were more momentous then than now: the breaches, even between close friends, were typically permanent.
Dunkelman’s essay looks to the reparation of these factors as the primary cause of the societal change he observes. There is now no technological impediment to being without someone to talk to. But this is not the only factor, I would argue. Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi was neither safe nor easy. Travel, for the first half of American history—and almost all of human history—has had more risks than just relationships. Rivers were once uni-directional conduits. Travel took time, cost money, and was by no means safe. (Consider the trip from New York to California today, and in 1850, and you’ll see what I mean. Then think about 1750.)
The world has, technically, stayed the same size through all this time. But, for the practical purposes of human life, it has shrunk tremendously.
So what does this mean for the question of a polis, or polity in general? That, until recently—though far less recent than in Dunkelman’s analysis—the polis, or the town, or the city was, when compared to the geographic scale of a human life, much larger. More, in a way, a world unto itself than a mere place. The tension in much of Wendell Berry’s fiction stems, in large part, from a difference between those who, enabled by modern technology, see Port William as a “place” and those who continue to view it as a world unto itself. (Simply because of the number of decades covered, this is particularly evident in Jayber Crow: the dozen miles to Hargrave begin as a journey and end as a jaunt to the neighbor’s place.) This matter of scale was true for the Greeks, and, though changed, was still true in 1776—in some parts of the United States, it took until the middle of the last century for the scale to truly change.
The change is not Facebook; the change is mobility; it is scale. Guy Davenport, then, was more accurate, if rather gloomy, when he wrote,
About the time the Romantic poets were being most eloquent about ruined cities, the city itself was undergoing a profound change. The railroad was about to cancel the identity of each city, making them all into ports of trade, into warehouses and markets. Eliot’s Waste Land, Joyce’s Ulysses, Pound’s Cantos, Bely’s Petersburg, all epics of the city, appear at the same time as the automobile, the machine that stole the city’s rationale for being, and made us all gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved.
By “city,” Davenport does not mean some idealized New York or Paris; nor does he mean Classical Athens or a kind of pre-lapsarian Port William. “The unit of civilization is the city,” he wrote shortly before damning the railroads (and the automobiles! Better that we not get him started on the automobiles!). The unit of civilization: the unit for civil, and civic, life, the space in which both culture and politics can be live. It is, some 2500 years after Aristotle, the polis, and though it changed between Athens and 1776—over all that time, over all that space, how could it not?—it was still, as a world rather than a place, able to exist.
While mobility is nothing new, and certainly nothing new in America, (though I do believe there is something new to the nature of our present mobility), the tools of mobility have altered the places to and from which we move. Travel was once more of an undertaking than my ability to hop in my car this moment be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away before anyone knows the difference. And, of course, it was once that the people around whom one lived were the people with whom one had relationships—because there was little other choice. The polis, whether Aristotle’s or Jefferson’s, was place-contingent, given rather than chosen. It could only be such because, by its nature, the first step of citizenship was a recognition of the contingency and the givenness of citizenship. To choose a new place was, in part, to choose the people of that place at the expense the people of the old place.
This is no longer so. The city still exists, but it is a chosen place rather than a given world. The polity has become universal at the expense of local and particular; our opponent is no longer also our neighbor. Technology facilitates wanderlust into something easier. The prodigal son can say good-night to his mother, face-to-face, from half a world away. We are, to borrow the words of the poet Charles Olsen, alienated from all that was most familiar, from the American polis as much as the Greek. They may have been exactly like us in their humanity, but the gulf between their historical circumstances and our own is one that we cannot, in practice, overcome.
Nevertheless, we can make our cities better. We can build stronger communities within them. The wisdom of rural life lately lamented by Berry and (Front) Porchers need not perish. We can maybe even rebuild and restructure those middle-rungs Dunkelman laments. But any attempt to return to the “simpler times,” to the polis, where one’s relationships were inherently political—that is, related to the life of the community—is impossible. So we have lost the polis. And, despite the good (and there has been good along with goods, though it’s too soon, I think, to start loading the scales) that has come with these changes, we should mourn the polis. In one form, it was the foundation of Western thought; in another, it was the foundation of American political society.
Whatever we create going forward, it will not be—because it cannot be—a polis. This, and the changes in scale, technology, and mobility, between 1776 and 2011, lead me to a further conclusion: The “Founding Vision,” whether it was, whatever it was, however noble it may or may not have been, can never be wholly relevant to the American future.
(Next: “Okay… So… Now what?” That is, if I can put together something that’s both worthwhile and coherent.)