Sennett, Nussbaum, and the Magic of Cities


Last Friday, Interboro sat through all eight hours of “The 21st-Century City and Its Values,” a symposium held at Columbia University. Chaired by Hilary Ballon, a Columbia art history and archaeology professor, and Ira Katznelson, a political science and history professor (and author of City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States, which Interboro hears is pretty good), the symposium’s intention was to have “distinguished scholars, architects, urban planners, and other expert commentators explore new kinds of cities emerging in the 21st century.”

Sounds promising, but it was actually pretty bad. For one, it presented something of an oddball cast. If it wasn’t already apparent after hearing Martha Nussbaum’s shockingly banal lecture about tolerance, it was hard to ignore once the sardonic Richard Sennett took to the stage. Sennett, who admittedly would be out of place in any symposium that didn’t feature fellow white-ear-haired Marxist urbanists (i.e. Mark Gottdeiner, David Harvey etc.), made his point that the discourse wasn’t up to snuff by speaking to the audience and his fellow panelists as if he was addressing a roomful of children, a clever rhetorical device that enabled him to say things like “You can draw a line on a graph, but China’s growth is not growth,” and refer to a fellow panelist (Marilyn Jordan Taylor, who spoke earlier in the morning), as “that lady from S.O.M.” In a sense, he was right: the discourse wasn’t really up to snuff, but then neither was he. Charged with the task of making some general comments about inequality in cities, he made some claims that to Interboro, at least, seemed patently false.

He began, sensibly enough, by talking about urbanization without industrialization, and about the “specter of uselessness” that greets the rural masses that are flocking to cities in China, India, and Latin America. “Job loss,” he said, “is not labor conduit; it’s job extinction, brought about by atomization.” Or something like that. His second thread, however, was not very sensible at all. His argument was that in the new climate of global finance, where urban space is bought and sold by international investors, a new global consensus of what counts as a safe, low-risk, investment is emerging that is in turn tuning cities into “clones.” Because, for example, banks prefer homogeneous land uses, cities, looking to attract international investment, scramble to write heterogeneity into their city plans. What will be specifically lacking in the 21st century city, argues Sennett, is a certain messiness, the juxtaposition of different land uses, but also income levels, lifestyles, etc.

This may be true of say, Pudong, but it seems more the exception than the rule. What will cities be in the 21st century if not messy? What is in fact most noticeable about emerging metropolises around the world is precisely a juxtaposition of different land uses, income levels, lifestyles, etc. True, the classes might not mix, but if propinquity is what you’re talking about (and that is, from what Interboro could gather, what Sennett was talking about), it seems patently false to say that there is a growing divide. “Clone cities?” This sort of sounds like the international edition of the dreaded “geography of nowhere” discourse.

Nonetheless, Interboro’s harshest words are reserved for Martha Nussbaum, who teaches philosophy, classics, and political science at the University of Chicago, and who writes books with names like Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, and Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. “Shockingly banal” was actually Rosten from the Center For Urban Pedagogy’s expression, but Interboro couldn’t agree with it more. In fact Interboro recalls a speech Nussbaum gave at Bard in 1997 that could be described in exactly the same way. Much of Interboro’s beef has to do with the fact that it doesn’t advocate Nussbaum’s brand of liberal, NPR humanism, but at Columbia, the problem had more to do with her uncritical acceptance of what Interboro calls “the narrative of city magic:” the idea that cities necessarily engender tolerance, and that, if we wanted to make the world more tolerant, we would do well to encourage people to move to cities.

Maybe someday, Interboro will share it’s thoughts about the productive capacities of space (as well as it’s aversion to liberal, NPR humanism), but for now, it wants to say at the very least, that it’s not going to let a humanist scholar such as Nussbaum get away with concluding, in a talk about Locke’s, Kant’s, and Rosseau’s thoughts about safeguarding tolerance against religion, and “radical evil,” that, by taking a lead from Whitman, Roosevelt, and the Civil Rights Movement, we can learn to tolerate each other by spending more time in Chicago’s Millennium Park (really, that’s what she said).

Truly that would be magical.