Friday, January 14, 2005

Are the Cities Outdated?

Oswald Spengler, in The Decline of the West wrote:
"World history is city history."
What he meant by this, of course, was that the countryside never really changes, while the city determines the direction that a civilization takes. England is London. France is Paris. Islam is Baghdad. The city drives history.
Yet, we should also remember that Spengler was writing in 1926. At that time, what he was saying had, more or less, been true from Mesopotamia to the then-present-day. World history had been city history.
But, after World War II, a massive historical change took place that has been relatively uncommented upon; the center of Western culture gradually moved to the suburbs. Today, technologies, such as the Internet or ever-improving food storage systems, are driven by the needs of the suburban home. Markets are geared entirely towards the desires of suburbanites, while city dwellers' needs become increasingly capricious and trivial. Politicians respond entirely to the fears, dreams, and needs of suburbanites. Cinema recreates the suburban childhoods of directors like Steven Spielburg and politics reflects cinema. It also seems odd that so few have noted that the most successful New York City artist after WWII was Andy Warhol, a man whose paintings most fully captured the values of suburbia.
As for the cities, they seem sadly antiquated. J.G. Ballard has said that he regards the city as a semi-extinct form. Watch films of Manhattan and you start to realize that, after the 1920's, nothing ever changes. Even the habits of mind of Manhattan residents remain unchanged year after year. Somehow, the metropolises became more provincial than an isolated English hamlet in some nineteenth century novel; the Village Voice reads like the mimeographed gossip sheet of the smallest town in America.
Meanwhile, the suburban mentality becomes the national myth. The War on Terror is the gated community writ large. What I see, every day, in these kids in their teens, twenties, and thirties is that the mall follows them everywhere. Perhaps their greatest act of rebellion against that fact will be in re-establishing a sense of the passage of time.

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