Saturday, 27 November 2010

Krugman and the Irish

Paul Krugman's written a good article to read à propos today's protests against the Irish austerity plan.

I wish more economists would think like this. Above all, I wish they would devote some time to figuring out a way for national economies to be rescued or bailed out without at the same time rescuing the financial elite that by rights ought to have been hit hardest by the mess they've caused.

What's most depressing about all this - including the earlier protests in Portugal, France and Britain - is the utter helplessness of the protesters. The big political parties as well as the big newspapers have already agreed that the poor will have to be sacrificed again. There's contempt in the air, and it's so thick it's suffocating. The crisis that ought to have been visited on the rich is turned into yet another occasion for transferring wealth to the rich from the poor. The is class-war, no doubt about it - and it's waged from above, by an almost invulnerable elite against everyone else in society.

While this sad war is raging, in Sweden the government coalition is more popular than ever (the conservative Moderate Party alone getting an all time high 37% support in the latest opinion survey). Uh-hum, yes, a remarkable number of Swedes seem quite happy about things! A smug feeling is gaining ground. We think we've been spared. We're feeling grateful to Reinfeldt and Borg for their superior handling of things. And we've totally forgotten that the unemployment rate is still close to 10%. This is how hegemony works. There are convictions everywhere, but they rest on amnesia and stupidity - and in their fringes one feels the smell of cynicism and timidity.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Reading Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City

I’ve just read Kevin Lynch’s classic treatise The Image of the City (first published in 1960). I won’t write anything here about the five elements in the city image that are quoted so often: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. Instead I will discuss the peculiar way the book has of making the city into a work of visual art.

Lynch’s emphasis is clearly on cities as aesthetic objects. Moral or political concerns are bracketed: the form of the city is focused; as for people they figure either as part of this form or as audience – an audience which, one feels, is primarily that of a spectator moving around in the city, rather than an inhabitant living or working there.

Furthermore, the aesthetics is of a peculiar kind: ”This book will consider the visual quality of the American city [and especially] one particular vusal quality: the apparent clarity or ’legibility’ of the cityscape” (Lynch 1960:2). By legibility he means the ease with which parts of the city can be recognized and people orient themselves through sensory cues from the environment, for instance by identifying districts, landmarks or pathways. Clarity or legibiliy, he argues, are vital for creating the impression of beauty, offering emotional security and spiritual well-being, and thus heightening the ”depth and intensity of human experience” (ibid 5).

Here already, one feels Lynch is taking a bit too much for granted. How about the beauty of labyrinths, for instance – the beauty of passageways in which to get lost? How about the brutality of clarity?

And why this emphasis on the visual quality? Remember Henri Lefebvre, who affirms all senses except the visual in appreciating the city and for whom the visual is linked to the ”space of representation” of urban planners and social engineers, to an official space imposed from above on the lived or perceived space of everyday users and inhabitants.

To the extent that Lynch urges us to privilege the visual perspective, isn’t he in fact urging us to be content, as users, to adopt the perspective of the planner, identifying with the master? To be sure, Lynch admits that ”there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment”, but he hastens to add that this can be so only under two conditions: that there is no ”danger of losing basic form or orientation, of never coming out” and that the labyrinth or mystery ”must in itself have some form that can be explored and in time be apprehended”. ”Complete chaos”, he adds, ”is never pleasurable” (ibid 5f). Admittedly, he agrees that planners shouldn’t fill in all details. What is needed is not a ”final but an open-ended order” in which the ”observer himself should play an active role... and have a creative part” (ibid 6). Clearly, however, he thinks that the main, defining features of the city image should be provided by city planning.

Maybe he is right that complete chaos is not pleasurable, but he makes it sound as if such chaos would result unless planners didn’t exist to guarantee overall visual legibility. But is that really true? Does our fear of chaos really mean that we must rely on city planners creating such legibility for us? Surely, order can also be created from below. We all find our favorite paths, neighbors tell us where to find things we are looking for, and in unfamiliar surroundings kind strangers often help us find our way. The question is: ”legibility” for whom and provided by whom? What ”legibility” tells a homeless person where to find shelter for the night?

I look forward to reading his last work, Wasting Away, which promises to be a very different work.

Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City, Cambridge, Mass. & London, England: The MIT Press.

Herodotus and hubris

After all I’ve read and heard about Greek historians using the ideas of hubris and nemesis as a recurrent explanation for each and every disaster, it comes as a pleasant surprise to read Herodotus’ chapter on Egypt in his Histories.

Take Amasis, the pharaoh who finally – after a long and succesful reign – has the bad luck to be invaded by the Persian king Cambyses. Not only is he wholly lacking in hubris; he’s also the epitome of a relaxed and likeable fellow without desire for glory or power and without self-conceit. When his advisors berate him for his frivolous afternoon amusements, he gives a sensible reply which calls to mind modern theories of the advantages of ”slack”:
"Archers", Amasis replied, "string their bows when they wish to shoot, and unstring them after use. A bow kept always strung would break, and so be useless when it was needed. It is the same with a man; anyone who was always serious, and never allowed himself a fair share of relaxation and amusement, would suddenly go off his head, or get a stroke. It is because I know this that I divide my time between duty and pleasure."
In addition, and in contrast to many of the other kings depicted in the histories (take Deioces who cunningly engineers his own rise to the status of God-King or Cyrus who already from childhood likes to commandeer others around), there is something almost comically unplanned in Amasis’ rise to power. By the same token, he appears to have done nothing to deserve the catastrophe that befell him as Egypt was swallowed up by the Persian empire.

Herodotus may not always be very reliable, but I still like stories that don’t fit with the dominant ideas in a work. Whatever fails to fit dominant interpretations and theories always have the feel of reality.

An interesting paradox: Contrary to ideas of truth as coherence, it’s not those facts that fit with a theory or an overall pattern that give the strongest impression of reality, but facts that don’t fit and must be left unexplained.
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