Wall Street Persians and the Washington Egyptians

cities of the plain (3.1)

Wall Street Persians and the Washington Egyptians

Cats always have a place in the comparison between cities. (Image from Library of Congress, Copyright 1907 by Keppler & Schwarzmann)

Cities of the Plain is an interesting name for the section starting Chapter 3 in Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. The two prominent urban areas emerging in the chapter are that of the Nile Delta and the Mesopotamian plain. The comparison of these two urban areas tell of the city rising from the villages as a new form of organization. Mumford emphasizes that the transformation from the village to the city cannot be explained by difference in scale and size. The city is something altogether new, something that unlocks the “explosive powers” of the collective unconscious. Subsumed in the city, a new form of agency is released from the villager’s “inhibiting conformity and paralyzing sense of their own pettiness.”

Although not mentioned in this section, the Cities of the Plain often refers to the Biblical cities from the Jordan river plain that include Sodom and Gomorrah. Did Mumford intend the allusion to these cities by way of writing about the binary conditions of the Nile Delta and Mesopotamia? Perhaps not, but Mumford’s metaphor of nuclear implosion to describe urban development does pair under this shorthand for those “evil” cities destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone.

Much of the chapter is about the human organization that stabilized life against nature’s volatility. This meant regulating water supply, establishing stable transportation links, and clearing marshland. The city marks the transformation of humans through a new form of organization. Where the Neolithic Age granted us the ability to contain and store, the Bronze Age added the human machine to the equation. And through this equation is produced a surplus – not only security against hostile forces in nature, but improved cotton and wool production, of food production – a surplus of human energy. Through the division of labour and centralization of power, even the earliest cities could build at a scale and speed that would rival the works of any city in history.

Mysterious are the forces that the city wields as a machine of human organization. This organization itself has a logic to it that a few people have mastered in order to produce immense works, often in their own name. I’m reading The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s epic biography of Robert Moses. The massive public works that Robert Moses built in the State of New York involved a competency with the logic of social and economic organization. As contemporaries living in the same city, Mumford may have thought of Robert Moses when he wrote of the “magnification of centralized power and release of communal energies.” Whether it is the image of the hundreds of thousands relocated for his road projects or the thousands employed in his park projects, with authority centralized in Moses came the image of explosive development.

Moses’ projects were mobilized to have great appeal to the public. No one could argue against parks. Highway projects were developed as an extension of park programming and so the proliferation of parkways around the State of New York. Obscured by this unobjectionable service to the public good were considerable cost overruns and efforts to prejudicially limit access to these public works. Parkway bridges to Jones Beach were intentionally too low to accommodate buses – a mode of transportation for many of the lower classes.

Moses’ projects were seen to advance the liberty of the middle class: granting access to beaches, parks. The way to these parks through parkways were part of the recreational program. Today’s great projects that involve the magnification of centralized power mobilize upon the principle of security not liberty and because the perceived vulnerability is so great, the importance and immense cost of the infrastructure of security similarly lack scrutiny.

The mechanism of growth deserves scrutiny upon the principles of … What? What matters more than security? Of short-sighted immediate security? “Eternal life was the highest imaginable good,” writes Mumford of the ancient Nile Delta. The balance today has tipped towards security. Security is the highest imaginable good. Yet, the costs alone (we don’t even need to talk about principles) are high and irresponsible – with far too many issues classified under security. It is the trillion-dollar question: will any politician question security costs?

At what point does the costs of tipping the scale of security back into balance with liberty become too great? At what point does the security agenda become too big to fail?  With millions employed in the industry and many through private companies that depend on lucrative government contracts – the debate between big and small government consistently avoids the subject of security spending because it is untouchable. While the Conservative Canadian government promised to trim government spending, they’ve placed more money into the military and prison system. In the United States, the gap between prison and education spending will stay large and probably grow because prisons keep us safe.

And so, back to the sets of Cities of the Plain. I mentioned the potential reference to the Biblical story, not because of that favourite topic, but because of the uncanny and explosive transformations told in the stories/histories of these cities. Lot and Abraham try to court these forces and broker a deal to secure a life for the city, but a supreme otherness in the city and of the heavens will not have it. The machine that emerges with the cities of the Nile and Mesopotamia is better tuned to the crises that the their cities bordered upon. What are we near? What immanence do we count as incalculable and so concentrate all our civic energies? The trauma of 2001 instilled a fear for our security that is singular ideology (never forget) and unquestionable in purpose (never again). Enough to make us forget the hope in the mountains and our fear of the valley’s shadows.

The ancient Egyptians embalmed cats to offer them eternal life, writes Mumford. We embed them on the internet.

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