By Brendan Gleeson, University of Melbourne.
The old German saying Stadt Luft Macht Frei (“urban air makes you free”) is the defining injunction of modernity. Modern western cities were launched as the vessels of liberation from a human era darkened by power and enchantment.
The link between the urban and the urge for emancipation goes back to much earlier times. And to other parts of the globe, what we know today as the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. In its primordial, post-Neolithic forms the city was the expression of that most basic freedom, from natural necessity, from subsistence and endless toil. City walls protected, and thus freed, their populations from wilder human compulsions, for acquisition, dominance – for war.
Later, in Classical Antiquity (the ancient Greek and Roman eras), the city expressed a deepening political imagination and a strengthening instinct for collective expression and development, res publica. New cultural flows followed the courses of urbanisation. In Marx and Engels' memorable words, cities “rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life".
The city was the escape raft from a life of servitude and grubbing. Modernisation has, however, failed miserably on many accounts and in many quarters.
For the German sociologist Ulrich Beck and his colleague Edgar Grande, globalised modernity hums with urban disenchantment, especially amongst “those for whom cosmopolitanism is not a lifestyle choice, but the tragic involuntary condition of the refugee or otherwise dispossessed”.
The “wild impulses” of market expansion, political ambition, and cultural aspiration have driven an ever urbanised modernity towards the precipices of risk, uncertainty and self-doubt. Second modernity is nothing less than “a historically new, entangled Modernity which threatens its own foundations.”
The city, a powerful beacon of hope and opportunity through modernisation, is now indissolubly linked to natural risk and human endangerment. Urban sustainability researchers Mike Hodson and Simon Marvin of the University of Salford highlight the “dual and ambivalent role of the city, as both a victim and cause of global ecological change."
A series of natural and human catastrophes in recent years have underlined the vulnerability of cities to sudden endangerment. The sources of urban crisis are both endogenous and exogenous – a tsunami or flood being an instance of the former; a resource system failure (water, power) representing the latter.
The 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan’s highly urbanised coast exemplified how endangerment can unfold in a series of catalysing exogenous (tsunami inundation) and endogenous (nuclear plant failure) shocks that drive human threats to precarious scales – especially when potentially lethal technological systems are disrupted. Global warming will vastly increase the tempo and power of these natural furies.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans, mythically loved city in the world’s richest nation, descended into anarchy — no less than a time of civic terror. The internal fragility of western modernity is tested further by enemies that wage their war from within. Second modernity is countered by Islamist (and other) counter-modernities that use cities as terrifying stages to attack Western assertion.
The Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek rejects the naturalism inherent in many scientific renderings of the Anthropocene; viz., the idea that “because humans constitute a particular kind of species they can, in the process of dominating other species, acquire the status of a geologic force."
He counters that “this shift from Pleistocene to Anthropocene is entirely due to the explosive development of capitalism and its impact.“ It is the universal threat to existence that now binds humanity for the first time as a "species”, not the potency that generated the crisis.
Beck and Grande offer: “When a world order collapses, that’s the moment when self-reflection should begin.” Reflexivity is taken as birth cry of the second modernity. And yet, this compelling injunction of the time echoes wordlessly in a post-political age. No common cause, or new dispensation, has emerged to arrest epochal decline or to assay global threat.
It seems evident that rapid, epochal global change is not conducive to human deliberation about “common dangers”. At least not to now. Where are the stirrings of the “natality” that the influential political theorist Hannah Arendt has promised us? What stands against the tide of endangerment? It is surely collective will that must arrest the slide to disaster. In the face of power and its many arrogations, the human right to a good destiny must be reasserted.
The city, the new human heartland, is where this battle for human renewal must be joined. It can and must be won. The consequences of loss are unthinkable, indeed as yet unknowable. The city air must once again nurture the cause of human realisation. To restore human prospect, Homo urbanis must dismantle its own work, the material and ideological apparatuses of Promethean modernity.
They must be held to account through critical scientific interrogation and brought to heel by politics. Where to begin? So much of contemporary modernity seems like dangerously flailing pieces of machinery, uncoupled to wild play by a disintegrating industrialism.
The collapsing natural order surely points to first priority, a political economy that is hard wired for growth. It is a death machine that endangers Homo urbanis and all that depends upon us.
This article is an adapted extract from The Urban Condition by Brendan Gleeson.
Brendan Gleeson receives funding from the Australian Research Council.
Lead image credit: chrisriedy.me