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Urbanisation against urbanity?

Xavier Rubert de Ventós, 1998
 Published in Ciutat real, ciutat ideal. Significat i funció a l'espai urbà modern [Real city, ideal city. Signification and function in modern space]. Barcelona:  Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, Barcelona 1998 (Urbanitats; 7).

The order in which I shall present this talk is as follows: I shall begin with two canonical quotes that relate social conduct with the city. Then I shall offer an etymological review of what we deem to be good manners, after which I shall go on to a definition of the terms urbanity and tact. Finally, I shall discuss whether these good manners have roots that we can regard as urban, strictly speaking, and ask whether the context that gave rise to or fostered them is in crisis today.

 The first of the two quotes is from Ortega y Gasset, who says, "More than anything else, the city is the square, agora, discussion, eloquence. In fact, the city does not need to have houses: facades suffice. Classical cities are based on an instinct that is the opposite of what is domestic. People build a house to live in it, and people found a city to get out of their houses and to meet up with others who have also come out of theirs."

 The second quote comes from Eugeni d'Ors, who says, "I told myself that the city could not perish. Just as the Greek statues constitute the definitive mould of plastic beauty, so too did the European city, also founded by the Greeks, represent the definitive mould of social beauty." Later, and in another context, he adds, "But of the two Hellenic creations, the city and the statue, the city is still the more beautiful. More than lines it has movement. It is both statue and tragedy, and tragedy in the highest sense of the word, the spectacle of movement inserted into freedom."

 In classical Greece, good manners or composure was called kalokagathia, which means being both beautiful and good. Socrates defines this term as harmony between the intimate dimension of a person and his social and conventional dimension. Beauty is important, of course, but it must be complemented with a certain demeanour, a way of being, containment. Theophrastus therefore recommends that when one is talking, "the arms should never go beyond the ambit of the body". One's inner world should never appear as tense or evident, or in opposition to the surroundings and its requirements. Reaffirming this idea, Pericles defines people who have kalokagathia as those individuals who are "capable of the most diverse range of attitudes, adapting themselves to the circumstances with grace and versatility". Roman decorum and good manners added to all this a tone of dignity and official solemnity. Among the patricians there is a deliberate attempt to stave off all that is vulgar, banal or formless (a-morphous literally means without form) and that is transformed into a less relaxed kind of conduct. However, it is only with Christianity that this balance between the personal dimension and the social dimension is definitively broken. On the one hand, beauty is associated with concupiscence (and Tertullian went so far as to say that Christ could not have been beautiful). On the other, social conventions are on an equal footing with hypocrisy. Thus, with the advent of Christianity, the two worlds that the Greeks and the Romans had brought together ―the inside and outside, the inner and the outer, the spirit and conduct― were transformed into two contrasting dimensions that did not readily lend themselves to synthesis.

 On the True Doctrine: a Discourse against the Christians, a book written in the first century AD by an author named Celsus is, to my way of thinking, the first manifesto of an urbane and civilised man against this new trend. In his book Celsus, a well-mannered, eclectic and tolerant man, respectfully addresses the Christians, asking them to behave in keeping with the social conventions. To act as if the emperor was God, he tells them, burning incense to him, does not mean that he really is the divinity. It is simply a convention, a social, external act that does not in the least affect our intimate beliefs. Make the "gesture" then ―Celsus is telling the Christians― but then think or believe what you want. We know, however, that after the Old Testament, the God of the Jews was a "jealous god" and that his grudge against the idols knew no limits, so the Christians did not want any of him. Et pour cause! As we shall see.

 With the triumph of Christianity appears the idea of chivalrous, heroic and roving behaviour. This world is no longer anything more than the circumstantial appearance of reality: the pilgrimage or the côté aventure of the true way to salvation. The heroes of these first road-movies are not characterised by their decorum or kalokagathia any more, but by the spirit of service. The bearing of the cavalier is gauged by his services to others, for example, protecting widows and orphans and, above all, by his services to the beloved ―the always distant and sublimated beloved― which synthesises the new principle of Christian love and the classical imperative of the epic achievement and heroic deed.

 The distance that Christianity introduced between the two worlds, the inner and the outer, obliged therefore a sophisticated interplay of liturgies, allegories and symbols that would connect two such widely separated spheres. Emphasis on the soul, the spirit, the sense of sin, intimacy, has expanded the inner, intimate world, and linking that now with the external world that is so full of conventions and rules requires a refined metaphoric stratagem. Martí de Riquer's work describes and analyses many of these mediaeval metaphors or symbols: behind the sword the cross can be divined, the spear symbolises truth because it is upright and is not bowed, the spur expresses diligence in the spirit of service. Again, the tribunal of medieval honour has not yet come to be the tribunal of pure Christian conscience, which does not become generalised until Protestantism recovers the Augustinian spirit. Here, morality resists abandoning the classical Palestra to penetrate the Abyssus Conscientia and remains at a halfway point: the point of honour. This is an honour that Hegel interprets as the feeling that subjectivity risks everything in any of the external manifestations of the individual: in his figure and bearing, in his name and especially (as Lope de Vega notes) that of his wife, because: "In all the nations of the world / Spaniards have high esteem / for all their honour they deem / in distant opinion is held; and this satisfied sensation […] though it may come from his spouse / means, I see, that his house / is of the most honoured nation." Modified and smoothed over by the symbol, this contiguity between the two dimensions reveals the immense fragility of the subject, the susceptibility of the cavalier, whose honour (dignity, name, etc.) can be tarnished by any contingency.

 With Alberti, Castiglione and, in particular, Erasmus we come to the epoch of urbanity, strictly speaking. It is the time when subjectivity, first Christian and then chivalrous, begins to reshape itself into a bourgeois identity that anticipates l'honnêt home. Even when the arrogance and exuberance of chivalry was still alive and well everywhere, Castiglione was speaking about austerity (the austera strada della virtú) and the spontaneity (sprezzatura) that should govern relations between citizens. Virtue, says Castiglione, needs no trappings, but rather should be undertaken in a way that is honest, kind, clean and simple. Thus it is that a Dutchman (Erasmus) and two Italians (Alberti and Castiglione) are the ones who now speak of a new kind of character that is linked with everyday urban life. In Castile, in contrast, a strict distinction is still made between the inner and outer worlds. As María Zambrano said, the absence of a civil and citizen-based suture between the two worlds means that Castile's standpoint "would give rise to an absolutism of individual existence, a replica of the absolutism of the state". So, what is this new urbanity that comes to take over from the rhetoric of honour?

 Before speaking of urbanity, it should be distinguished from another term that appeared in connection with honour and the spirit of service: I refer to courtesy. The word courtesy comes from court just as urbanity comes from urbs, from city. We often use the words courtesy and urbanity indiscriminately but, in fact, they are very different. Courtesy is characterised by being an attitude that is, on the one hand, conventional and rule-governed, even stereotyped, but also wishing to appear as spontaneous and able to engage the other.1 This is the way of treating people from good families (or better said, simply from the family, because having to add good is to suggest that it is no longer so), in an environment where it is supposed that everyone knows each other. The relations between the members of the circle are easily established so that anyone who does not form part of this group or milieu feels intimidated and excluded as a result of the intimacy with which the other members relate.

 Urbanity is quite another thing. It has been frequently stated that it is not until the end of the 18th century that the city really begins to grow. People who come to the big city at this time are disconcerted, as even Hegel confesses in a famous letter sent from Paris. But we also have statements or texts ―by Mariana de Marivaux, for example― that reveal pleasure in the friendly but quite impersonal and unobtrusive treatment they receive in the city, which does not, however, make them feel like strangers or out of place. It is a kind of friendly anomie, which enables one to relate with people without having to share experiences or exchange confidences. This is what I understand by a relationship based on urbanity: a relationship that is neither stereotyped nor intimidatingly intimate, that does not remind one of differences in class or origin but that enables one to join in with the game of appearances and persona-masks that constitute the city.

 One place where this sense of urbanity has been expressed is, curiously enough, in the films of the 1930s. The classic films of James Stewart or Cary Grant often tell the story of boy-meets-girl ―the girl selling him socks in a department store― where they fall in love, start going out, and eventually marry. But she does not know where he comes from and neither does he know where she comes from. They have to tell each other their life-stories and, before they fall in love, they have to become credible, interpret their own characters for the other. This is, then, a world of representation, which is a long way both from the conventional symbols established by codes of honour and from the intimacy proper to closed milieux: it is within this framework that urbanity is established and functions.

 A new phase or nuance in this attitude is tact, which we might define as a kind of ad hoc urbanity. While mere urbanity supposes respect (respecting others in what is different about them and permitting them to represent their own characters), tact is more concerned with deference towards the other and means, as I have said elsewhere, deference to difference. Tact, then, would be a difficult balancing act where what is at stake is the ability to engage with the other without the stiffness of social liturgy, but also without transforming the relationship into an obligatory complicity of a convulsive exchange of confidences.

 The city from which urbanity emerged consists of a balance between different elements that is none too easy to maintain: between concentration and anonymity, between spatiality and identity, between space and time, between form and memory and between recognition and distance. I shall run through a few clichés about this city while trying not to fall into the temptation, which is so common now that the ideological utopias have been bankrupted, of making of the city ―and we might say of the "Mediterranean" also― a substitute topological utopia. The first of these clichés consists in claiming that the city is a visible, limited and figurative form. In this sense, Pasqual Maragall said that the city, like the State, is certainly artificial, an artefact, but since it is within reasonable reach, it does not need such a powerful mythicising apparatus. Aristotle said that the city should not surpass a certain size, that it should be limited (as far as the bailiff's voice could reach) and finite in its constituents. This did not mean that everyone had to know everyone else personally but, in some way, people did have to be able to recognise each other. For the Greeks, only what was limited, with a clear beginning and end, with a form, which is to say a limit or profile that was known, could be considered as good. The city, therefore, has to be somehow limited but also sufficiently large and concentrated so that, when one goes out, one might find something one has not gone out to look for. So, to the limited and systolic vision described by Aristotle must be added the diastolic and cosmopolitan one that Aristotle rejected somehow when he declared, for example, that maritime commerce should not be treated as a phenomenon of citizen "oikonomia". As we have said, the virtue of the city also lies in its qualities of amorphousness, anonymity, and anomie. Richard Sennett, for example, sings the praises of the anonymity of New York, the place where Jews, homosexuals and other deviants, turned out of their right-thinking and over-homogenous communities and Gemeinschaften of origin, have found refuge. In the city, in fact, there is sufficient anonymity for one to be able to play a part, reinvent oneself and camouflage oneself so as not to have to live with the stigma of one's origins. In this context, the famous pronouncement of Max Weber is always cited, "Die Stadtluft macht frei" (City air makes one free).

 The second cliché refers to the balance between spatiality and identity. I believe that the invention of democracy is, in essence, nothing but the triumph of the democratic space as opposed to aristocratic time. In the ancien régime, in the world ruled by the tribe, by blood ties or filiation, by lineage or by name, what matters is temporal or genealogical origin. In the city, however, what begins to count is the place where one lives, and people no longer define themselves by the lineage they have sprung from. The Oresteia trilogy is the first text that describes this situation, while Cleisthenes is its first technical and political organiser. For Cleisthenes, democracy does not mean government of the people but government of the demos, which are the townships. Thus, democracy means, in fact, townshipocracy. He therefore organises the city in spatial terms ―topological and not genealogical― which is a democratic principle that is characteristically urban, only urban and precisely urban.

 The counterpoint to this coming down in favour of space is what is emblematically expressed at the end of the Oresteia, where Athene negotiates an agreement with the goddesses of ancestral identity, the Erinyes (the Furies), the goddesses of revenge, of fire, of hearth and home, and of the ancestor cult. Athene knows that, with the establishment of civil law and, along with that, order in the city, some principles and traditions that the goddesses represent will have to be renounced. She tries to justify this and to seek forgiveness from the Erinyes for the sacrifice that is required of them:

 "Accept my words; cease your loud laments. You are not worsted or disgraced: with balanced votes the urns have spoken fair. The will of Zeus has shone clearly forth and the god who speaks through the oracle has declared that Orestes should not suffer for his deeds. Will you vomit the rage that torments you on this city? Ponder this and be appeased: I pray you, do not upon this land spill the barbs of vengeance, wasting and marring nature's seeds of growth. And I do pledge to you ―and this is yours by right― a legitimate seat on a gleaming throne hard by your sacred shrine, and honours you shall receive from this land."

 In order to assist with the construction of democracy and civility, Athene negotiates with the goddesses of hearth and home, promising to reserve for them spaces of traditional and family coexistence within this geometrical and civil city. Athene is no 18th-century enlightenment being who, in the name of progress or civility, attempts to sweep all before her ―religion, tradition, uses and vernacular prejudices― for she is aware that one must negotiate and come to terms with the past. Many centuries before Weber or Rawls put it into words, Athene intuits that the new civil or democratic order requires at its base a minimum communal consent, that at the base of each Gesellschaft is its Gemeinschaft, that every capitalism has its Protestantism or Confucianism, and every common law has its traditional uses, which it comes to codify rather than to invent.

 We see now the physical framework for this whole process. If we look attentively at the ruins that have come down to us from the Greek cities, especially the Ionic vestiges, we can clearly see remnants of Hypodamic geometrical schemes. Hypodamus of Miletus favoured the grid and thereby represents the triumph of geometry, of regularity, of predictability in city street plans or, in other words, the triumph of the nomos over the fisis. Nonetheless, to say that Hypodamus is a grid enthusiast is very relative since he does not limit himself to drawing straight lines but is always very aware of the topological accidents and the suture of the city with mountains and sea. Aristotle, however, still finds him too radical and rule-bound, so that in the third book of Politics, he defends a zigzag arrangement of houses and refutes the arguments for the regular grid. In book seven he also criticises the universality of Hypodamus' solution, saying there are better ideas in city planning for defence, and better ideas for the movement of people and goods, or for health … And if Athene seemed earlier to augur Weber, Aristotle seems to anticipate here the style of argument of an Isaiah Berlin. It is curious, too, that this debate between Aristotle and Hypodamus should be reminiscent of what was to come later as a result of Hausmann's reforms in Paris.

 If we now compare the Greek Agora with the Roman Forum, we can clearly see the crisis and modern drift of the former idea of the city. The agora is, in effect, a social and commercial milieu so that ―oh political pudency!― public buildings did not look directly on to the square, which is irregular, but demurely and respectfully, they turn their backs on it or look aslant. The square is a market, a space where people move about so that buildings that are too public or representative, when they are present, face the wall. In the Roman forum, however, there is no commerce (unless one counts the tabernae at the entrance) and symmetry replaces irregularity. Venturi suggested that the baroque Rome of Bernini represents the culmination of this idea of city-capital made more for pilgrims than for citizens, more to impress the foreigners than being a place for the indigenous people to live, move about and recognise themselves. It was a quality that was later established and baptised with the term propaganda fide. In order to propagate the faith, the church had to structure public space in such a way that people would be impressed when they arrived in the city. In this sense, Venturi went so far as to state that baroque Rome was the Las Vegas of its time.

 Can we now pick up the Greek thread and go back to the inductive rather than the deductive city, which is integrating rather than monographic, at once anomic and identity-giving? The modern metropolis brings together a very diverse range of people. This heterogeneity means that everyone must construct an identity for himself or herself on the basis of belonging to different entities, and that his or her particular freedom resides in this construction. I have always had the feeling that the freedom we enjoy is founded in strategic administration of our baggage of origins: our parents, the street where we were born, what we learned from our teachers and friends, etc., when we were children. The advantage of this is that the sources that have shaped each one of us are different, so everyone has to fashion his or her own identity from such a sum of elements. It is very important that, in the constitution of each person, different elements should have come into play. Nowadays, the identity of the Catalan is a result of this blend of sectarian, political party, sporting, personal, intimate, collective … baggage. All this is made possible by the city and it is precisely this factor that confirms the statement, "City air makes one free" because the city enables one to shape or invent one's own identity. This also confirms the words of Robert Musil to the effect that, a European citizen is a man who "has at least nine characters: a professional one, a civic one, a class one, a geographical one, a conscious and unconscious and perhaps even too a private one […] and the ninth character, fantasy, which permits him everything except one thing: believing too much in the eight other characters." This, for me, is a good definition for this urbanity we are talking about.

 Today, there is a set of factors that have tended to put into question the virtus or virtue that city once had as author of this cosmopolitan urbanity. We shall cite just two: first, the internal segmentation of the city and, second, its external metastasis.

 Segmentation: the causes of internal segmentation are many. One only has to see how the traditions and arguments so often cited by modern architects frequently justify the zoning of urban space. If one follows Otto Wagner's industrialism argument, or Camillo Sitte's, which is based on vernacularism, or that of the Sezession on expressionism, or the rationalism of the Charter of Athens … one can see how all of them, advise one or other form of zoning. With their different poetics, they all end up suggesting the same thing. Instead of a city conceived as an overlapping and logical product of its activities, we find a segregation of the commercial centre, the residential nuclei, the industrial zone, and so on. Today there are even more circumstances that might seem to point to this spatial solution ―danger or fear, for example. In his book Defensive Space Oscar Newman says that people do not go exploring in the city because it is dangerous: one cannot go from one neighbourhood to another along unfamiliar streets, and in some neighbourhoods there is such a hyper-concentration of people that any porosity or transparency is eliminated, while others are made vulnerable by their isolation, etc.. (In this regard, I think it is significant that space and hierarchy are two concepts that function like communicating vessels, which is to say that, where people do not have space, they organise a very rigid hierarchy around themselves as happens, for example, in prisons, boarding schools, barracks, etc., where lack of space is replaced with a tightly hierarchised world.) Another factor that favours urban segmentation is the progressive domestication of life, which is further exacerbated today when people can stay at home to work, thanks to Internet and telework (the so-called dentist syndrome now looks like an archaic form of all this). This segmentation also links up with the tendency of people not to share their lives with anyone who might be seen as other, so that they prefer to live with people like us. Even the counterculture movement made cultural poetics of this class-based prejudice: young people had to live in communes with people like themselves (so the elderly go off to the asylum then?). These and other reasons justify or explain this internal segmentation of the city, this loss of complexity in the urban phenomenon which has meant that the traditional virtues of the city and its urbanity are now in crisis.

 Metastasis: I am convinced that many social phenomena frequently develop along the lines of an organic principle that is very familiar to ecologists and biologists: metastasis. According to this principle, when part of an organism or system grows at an exponential rate to become more powerful than other parts of its environment, it loses all responsiveness or homeostatic relation with it. Then, and inevitably, this more powerful part ceases to serve its environment and comes to be served by it. Cancer is governed by this principle: a group of cells in the organism grows more rapidly than the rest and, instead of working together with the surrounding cells, it consumes them so that the system changes from one of symbiosis to phagocytosis. There is an even more general (and no less brutal) ecological principle where, when two systems come into contact, one with more information (the more complex, sophisticated, and less entropic) and the other with less and poorer information, the better-informed system siphons off the little information possessed by the poorer system and becomes still richer, while the poorer system is stripped bare. Ecologists like Margalef call this the "Saint Matthew principle" because of the Gospel fragment (Matthew: 25, 29) that says, "For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away".

 It seems that these principles may be also extrapolated to the urban phenomenon or the informational phenomenon. If we look at the world of communication we can see how today, rather than the raw material of news (let's, say events) what has really burgeoned are the news channels that transmit newsworthy events. The capacity to transmit the facts has grown much more than the number or meaning of the facts: "in the twentieth century", writes Borges, "where there was the superstition that every morning and every night things were happening and it was shameful not to know what they were […]". Information has expanded so much that it has reached the point where it can no longer be limited to conveying news of what is happening but must manufacture what is happening: create the news. This resembles what we see in the urban context: the exponential growth of the city in comparison with the territories that surround it means that the city ends up rapidly transforming the spaces around it into spaces that serve it, merely instrumental spaces: into a park, a farm, a rubbish tip … The city absorbs the energy of this environment, reducing its diversity, dumping its leavings there so that the dialectical relationship that once existed between perimeter and periphery is lost along with its heartbeat: systole and diastole, the movements of opening and closing that comprise the rhythm of any living city.

 

Notes

 

1. This dual nature of courtesy is perfectly described by Harold Nicolson in his (paraphrased below) account of the court of Alfonso XIII: "This convention of royal impassivity or hierophantic inattention I have observed in the etiquette of the Spanish Court. Alfonso XIII was young and naturally exuberant; Queen Victoria was beautiful and urbane. Yet, at an official reception, with both of them elevated on a dais, with a lion of gold flanking each step, they assumed an expression of not realising that there were people around them and gazed through the window at the clouds with vacant eyes while the diplomats, ministers and finally the members of parliament passed in slow procession before the throne. None of their greetings were returned. The eyes of Alfonso and Victoria continued to gaze with languid distraction … However, when the last member of parliament had passed and the guards had struck the floor with their halberds, the royal effigies suddenly acquired life and mixed among the tumultuous crowd, lively and informal, moving from one hall to another hand-in-hand…"