from ‘protection’ to destruction (2.5)

heads in a cage
Cleansed by the “iridescent soap bubbles of empire”?

Do cities spar like they used to? While we share a history of war between cities, do we still see them in active, violent conflict with each other? There are the rankings: the best cities to live in, the city with the summer Olympics, the city that reads the most, the city with the best cycling infrastructure.

Recently in Moscow, I read into the remarkable improvements in pedestrian, cycling, and park infrastructure a competition with New York City. Later, I was corrected by an acquaintance who said London was the real object of Moscow’s aspirations.

Cities seem tightly woven these days by the networks of workers in the creative and managerial industries and of the intense flows of financial capital and commodities. Cities are perceived this way for particular classes of people. The cultural connection between the highly mobile, creative and managerial class in major international cities is stronger between each other than with their immediate neighbors of a different, less mobile class (an argument Jonathan Haidt makes).

The contemporary city then appears to be set apart from the history of city growth and expansions predicated on conflict and conquest. We experience each great city after the model of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – as a difference of degree and not kind, each a reminder of another city or our home city.

Begone, Plato! For it is no longer as you say: “every city is in a natural state of war with every other.” Our consciousness is cosmopolitan. The bundled network of cities will only intensify. An intensification of the edges between the nodes. Edges defined by shipping routes, telecommunication lines.

The line between cities have replaced the fortification of cities in much the same way ring roads and subways replaced the city’s ancient walls. Gone with the walls, an “expression of intensified anxiety and aggression.” Hark the network infrastructure, an expression of stability and co-operation.

Mumford writes at a time when two cities, Moscow and Washington D.C. were at war with each other. Both represent countries where activities within, the organizing principles, are rational and benign – as Mumford puts it. Yet, outside the interior condition is an “irrational and malign” relationship between the cities. An accumulation of nuclear armaments and the aggression and hunger for power to feed a will to use it. The imagined line between these cities is that red telephone between the White House and the Kremlin.

So is this progress? Is the stability of our connections and the intensity of our exchange give the conditions for truly symbiotic and cooperative extensions of the human spirit and potential? Are we finished with the black mass, “the death-oriented myths which attended, and perhaps partly prompted, the exorbitant expansion of physical power” of the ancient city?