Sunday, December 25, 2016

Urbanist existentialism?: "At the Existentialist Cafe" and other stuff I've recently read

Works discussed:
Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2016)
David Bosworth, The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America: The Moral Origins of the Great Recession (Front Porch Republic, 2014)
Ben Kaplan, "I Love You, Cedar Rapids," Corridor Urbanism, 28 September 2016
Brandon Kendhammer, Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy and Law in Northern Nigeria (University of Chicago, 2016)
Katie Kennedy, Learning to Swear in America (Bloomsbury USA, 2016)
Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Paragon, 1989)
Kate Wagner, "A Pictorial History of Suburbia," Welcome to McMansion Hell, 18 December 2016

Heidegger and Sartre, drinking poppy tea
I could have sworn last night I passed out in my van
And now those boys are pouring one for me

I first encountered existentialism in high school French class--L'Etranger by Albert Camus--and it was not a happy encounter for either of us. Learning an unfamiliar worldview in a foreign language magnified its apparent weirdness to this Midwestern suburbanite. In In Search of Authority (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), Henry S. Kariel describes Camus's "ideal of the absurd man" as the ultimate realizations that we are unable to impose meaning on our lives, that "there is nothing in the end except extinction," and that "our plans are simply ours and not derived from God, History or some transcendent Rationality" (pp. 172-173). I don't know what would have happened had I adopted those realizations at age 16, but I was not willing to risk even giving them serious consideration. My high school experience probably had more in common with the unfortunate M. Mersault than I was willing to admit; simply to make it through the absurdity of each day I needed desperately to believe it would somehow make sense in the end when my efforts would pay off. So, no existentialism for me!

That lesson unlearned, I've come to urbanism with a strongly utilitarian-positivist bent. I always want to know what things are good for, what works, to see the data. When I first read Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, 1961) on how cities work and the disastrous effects of urban renewal, it was her piles of evidence that spoke to me. When Jeff Speck in Walkable City (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012, pp. 179ff.) commends one-way-to-two-way conversions because studies have shown they're better for businesses and safer for pedestrians, that speaks to me. I like books like The Smart Growth Manual (McGraw Hill, 2010) and Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic (Knopf, 2008) and websites like Strong Towns and Place Makers and Human Transit, and speakers like Ellen Shepard of Community Allies. Alongside the utilitarianism are the ethical concerns of my Christian upbringing, though truth be told I think my utilitarianism has influenced my religious beliefs as much or more as the opposite.

But there remains some of the urbanist message that speaks to a soul I wasn't sure I had. Thanks to Sarah Bakewell's lively and intelligent At the Existentialist Cafe, I'm thinking I might have at some level been speaking existentialism all this time without knowing it. Urbanists, take note! The story of existentialism even begins over drinks at a third place, the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris. Bakewell's biographical approach to the story highlights the conflicts among this group of philosophers as well as individual twists and turns, but one theme that runs through all of this is the quest for authentic existence. On the other side of the same coin, to be truly and fully human is to be free. Moreover--unlike the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) who found his freedom in the isolation of his cabin in the woods--for most of the existentialists authentic existence required not only engagement with other people as individuals but with rectifying conditions in society. It was surely difficult to remain in a free state of consciousness while engaging publicly, if only because public action requires compromise, and they were many of them difficult people. Bakewell pulls no punches in this respect, but it's inspiring to see great minds at work getting toward the root of things amidst the noise and harangue of conventional wisdom, and then trying to live their conclusions.

Existentialists might agree on one thing: There's got to be more to freedom than driving your SUV to Wal-Mart to buy a gun. Or being able to deny your employees health insurance coverage for birth control.

In Katie Kennedy's young adult novel, Learning to Swear in America, physics prodigy Yuri Strelnikov is summoned to the United States from his native Russia to help save us from being wiped out by an asteroid. He faces threats to his freedom from governments: American security agencies have decided he's learned too much and are determined to prevent his leaving, while at home Putin's government has helped itself to credit for his advisor's research. But the biggest threat to his freedom is his own lack of authentic existence, because he's been living in a scientific bubble (to which is now added a security cordon). It's an unplanned encounter with an eccentric girl--an urbanist event that is set in a very un-urbanist parking lot--which begins his quest for himself that drives the story. "You gotta learn to live life, not just save it," she tells him on page 108.

Photo accompanying Ben Kaplan's essay. I will probably get around to asking permission soon.
The non-fictional Ben Kaplan knows this. Ben has a mind like a steel trap, and can cite the relevant studies on any urbanist topic. But at the core of his connection to his city is the authentic experience of ongoing engagement with his neighborhood:
It felt like as I grew up the city grew up with me. A futon and Ikea tables got replaced with real furniture from Mad Modern. I met people who owned their own businesses, who volunteered, who had great big dreams for what this place could be. I got to follow the first cohort of the Iowa Startup Accelerator as an embedded journalist. I’ve had two serious boyfriends while I’ve lived down here. I’ve stormed out of CSPS during intermission in anger and I’ve watched the sunrise paint the skyline pink from my balcony while I rested my head on someone’s shoulders. I have a built a group of friends whom I love and who I can’t imagine my life without. I have learned that I will never make better falafel than what I can get at Zaytoon’s.
Authentic existence through engagement with others drives Ray Oldenburg's urbanist classic on third places. Oldenburg bemoans "the lack of community life in our residential areas" (p. 4) as American counterparts of the Bec-de-Gaz fell victim to the suburban development pattern and longer work hours. (They may well be making a comeback, though, which he celebrates in a later work, Celebrating the Third Place [Marlowe, 2001].) The negative aspects of this loss are partly empirical--higher levels of individual stress including heretofore-unheard-of childhood depression, crime, marital stress and divorce--but also spiritual: "The processes by which potential friends might find one another and by which friendships not suited to the home might be nurtured outside it are severely thwarted by the limited features and facilities of the modern suburb" (p. 8). Too much structure, however willingly accepted, means a less free and less authentic existence.

David Bosworth's book is about virtue not being, and he doesn't call himself an existentialist, but as he documents the many ways "Evangelical Mammonism" has perverted America's core principles ("virtue"), they invariably involve a gradual surrendering of engaged, authentic existence. Writing in the wake of the 2008 recession, which surely was as much a moral failure as a financial one, he dissects ways that the stories we tell ourselves obstruct us from authentic existence by pretending that the most imminent threats to our freedom aren't making our choices for us.
The problem hasn't been just a few "bad apples," nor even a mismanaged orchard on the left or the right, but the long-term revision of a cultural environment whose "moral field" we all share and for whose current ill health we are collectively, if not equally responsible. To make sense of that decline, we need to consider instead a broader set of ruling ideas, managerial decisions, and architectural designs that, taken together, have slowly revised the underlying logic of everyday experience and so, too (if often cryptically), our conventional beliefs about the good, the true, and the beautiful. (p. 2)
We have medications to combat sadness (ch. 4) and aging (ch. 7) which may not make us feel any happier or younger but surely are making some people richer when we buy them. Disney World (ch. 3), nostalgic political ideologies (ch. 5) and various stripes of electronic media (ch. 8) all peddle fantasies of how good life could be when purged of the messiness of other people.
The virtue of [Disney's] moral logic depends, finally, on the truth of its Mammonite claim that more (profits for the seller, consumption for the buyer) must equal better. It requires that we agree to believe in the Magic Moment and in the Fable of Innocence, and that we heed the crooning voice of its animated conscience that "no request is too extreme." (p. 77)
 And so much manufactured noise penetrates public spaces, like the banks of televisions in the airport lounge where he tries to read, that the clear message is "THANK YOU FOR NOT THINKING" (p. 17).

Swiped from
Urbanists trying to mitigate the suburban experiment will note the marketing of housing developments similarly elevated consumption at the expense of virtue: clean, leafy and safe spaces in which you could build your dream house with its dream den and dream television. The Federal Housing Authority and local zoning, as well as official eagerness to flatten neighborhoods to make room for interstate highways, bear a lot of responsibility for the suburban development pattern we've inherited (Wagner). But a lot of people were eager to buy what they were selling. (And, I've been finding, are pretty defensive about how what they've bought is responsible for the state of the world.)

The struggle for free, authentic existence also goes on in the predominantly Muslim sections of northern Nigeria, where Brandon Kendhammer did the fieldwork documented in Muslims Talking Politics. His interviewees are voting to impose Islamic law on themselves, seemingly an odd choice from a Western perspective. Yet these Nigerians are working out in their political conversations what it means to be both democratic and faithful to Islam. While rejecting a society unmoored from what Bosworth calls "virtue," they also reject the more imminent threat to their freedom represented by the would-be totalitarians of Boko Haram. (See chapters 6 and 7. By the way, Kendhammer's early chapter bring Americans up to speed on political Islam, particularly shariah law which has been made a bogeyman in our security policy discussions. You're not thinking freely if you don't understand what you're being made to be afraid of.) Kendhammer concludes: "Based on the evidence I've gathered here, what Nigeria Muslims seem to want from a reconstructed system of Islamic law is not (with the exception of Boko Haram's small community of participants and supporters) the creation of an 'Islamic state' governed according to some harsh reimagining of the Arabian past but a political and legal system that renders the outcomes of a new and unstable democratic government a little less uncertain and a little more just" (p. 22).

The threat to freedom in the West does not come from radical Islamists--although, just to make sure, some state legislature (Oklahoma?) has recently barred the use of shariah in the state's legal system. Our Boko Haram is a more subtle enemy, the cultural messages that seduce us away from seeing the probability that our freedom--our most authentic human experience--lies outside the gates, physical or psychic, that we've bought for ourselves. We can invite people into our homes, however remote their location, but a hand-picked group of friends in a private setting is hardly all there is to life. In the gospels of the New Testament, the risen Christ almost always appears to people outside of their safe spaces (outside an Empty Tomb, after a long night of fruitless fishing, on the roads to Emmaus and Damascus). Can it be that authentic engagement with others, like authentic engagement with God, also requires us to get out of spaces where we think we are in control? Our consciousness needs to be free from government coercion, but also from seduction by commercial power, and maybe most of all from our own desire for comfort! And from ambient noise.

Bakewell shows us the existentialists didn't agree on much, changed their minds a lot, and were often wrong. That's all okay, as long as we take on the strenuous work of asserting our free consciousnesses against corporations who are selling us individualism and politicians who are selling fear. That's a project for each individual, but implies a role for government in removing those barriers (one-way streets, lack of sidewalks, exclusionary zoning, commercial policies that disadvantage small businesses, and so forth) to walkability, which is prerequisite to engagement with others.

"Existentialism," The Cry,
C.S. Wyatt. "The Existential Primer,"

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