Monday, June 20, 2005

In the city

I’m not sure where the fascination with capitalism and American’s woeful understanding of economics originates. While it would be (and is) fun to lay the blame at the feet of our educational institutions, I’ll refrain from doing so, at least for now.

Free markets act irrespective of people, environments and sentiment. They are cold and calculated agents that more-and-more, steamroll anything and anybody in their path.

A recent book I picked up at the library, Mike Davis’ Dead Cities, has stirred in me a once more, a fascination with urban environments and their influence in our country, as well as other parts of the world. In the same way Mumford’s The Culture of Cities opened up areas of understanding I had never entertained before, so does the writing of Davis. Using cities past and present as his stage to engage in tales of infinite greed, urban neglect and political scandal, Davis lays waste to the 1950’s Howdy Doody caricature that many Americans are still wedded to.

His takes on the southwest and in particular, the environmental deterioration of that former beautiful and unspoiled region of the United States are eye-opening to say the least. With this mirage city’s water gluttony fueling the extravagances of the casinos and other tourist meccas, it stretches my incredulity regarding others greed and capitalist excess.

In the preface of the book, he begins with, “Lower Manhatten was soon a furnace of crimson flames, from which there was no escape. Cars, railways, ferries, all had ceased, and never a light lit the way of the distracted fugitives in that dusky confusion but the light of burning. Dust and black smoke came pouring into the street, and were presently shot with red flame.”

What? Someone’s eyewitness description of the events of September 11, 2001? No, actually, H.G. Wells, from The War in the Air, written in 1908!

As I said earlier, capitalism and its markets care not at all about people, places and personal predilections. As Naomi Klein’s article in The Nation reaches the conclusion, disaster and human suffering is good for business—misery loves capitalism!

With all the talk about God, morality and the anathema of one’s personal sexual conventions, the basic root of all evil is conveniently left out of the discussions.


Richard S. said...

Those happen to be a couple of my own favorite writers. I discussed Dead Cities, focusing on the same preface, in a blog post a year and a half ago (back when I shared a blog with our friend asfo_del), found here:

I'm also always finding things from Dead Cities to bring up to people in coversations. (Actually, I think I mentioned "Berlin's Skeleton in Utah's Closet" during my post of mixed feelings about Ward Churchill, which sparked that interesting debate between us.)

Lewis Mumford was positively brilliant. His book The City In History is one of my very favorites of all time. (Technics and Civilization is also very good, though a little harder to get through.)

Along similar lines, I highly recommend Murray Bookchin's Urbanization Without Cities and David Harvey's collection, The Urban Experience.

Jim said...

Dead Cities is my introduction to Davis' books. I'd read some of his essays, but never one of his books. I can certainly say with authority that I'll be reading more.

It amazes me how much our design and layout of our living spaces affect us in every aspect of our being, but how little anyone is aware of this.

City design 150 years ago gave us large open spaces in the form of parks such as Boston's Common and NYC's Central Park. Today, modern cities (Davis writes about Las Vegas) such as Atlanta, older cities like LA (Davis' "home" city) and others are impersonal, gray and designed exclusively for the automobile.

Like you, I find Mumford intriguing and find myself going back to his books often.

Thanks for your recommendations. I'll check them out.

BTW, have you read any Jacques Ellul?

Richard S. said...

No, actually, I haven't read any Jacques Ellul. What would you recommend?

Jim said...


Here's a brief synopsis on Ellul.

For books, I've read the following:

The Technological Society (recommend)
Propaganda (recommend)
The Subversion of Christianity

The last one helped me tremendously, as I attempted to deconstruct much of what I had been programmed to think about xianity. Interesting reading, but I'd say the first two are excellent introductions to Ellul.