The dilemma of hypermodernity (Part Two)
By Mark Wegierski
An earlier, academic version of this essay has appeared in This World: Religion and Public Life (Culture and Consumption) no. 31 (2000) (New Brunswick, USA and London, UK: Transaction Publishers), pp. 29-45. This is the 16th anniversary of the appearance of the academic version of the essay – which had also appeared in various, different, non-academic iterations in the 1990s, including in Polish translation. The essay had also appeared in three parts on its 15th anniversary, in Quarterly Review (UK).
The trend through all of history has certainly been towards increasing urbanization and technologization in urban areas, but, in premodern societies, there were definite natural checks on such growth. The contemporary problem of excessive urban growth affects all parts of the Earth -- the Western world, the ex-Eastern bloc, East Asia, and the vast South of the planet. What, for example, can be done today to prevent BosNYWash (Boston - New York - Washington) from swallowing up the entire North-Eastern seaboard of the United States? What is to prevent Mexico City from having a population of 30 million in ten years or so? The traditional society -- like all societies of the South of the planet -- continues to be dislocated by overpopulation arising from cheap, band-aid infusions of Western technology -- resulting in greater misery, disease, starvation, political corruption, and environmental degradation for virtually everyone afterwards. The faster the growth rates of the American and world-economies, the more enticing the images Western advertising firms offer the desperate poor in the South and ex-Eastern Bloc, and the greater the needs of the transnational corporations (TNC's) for cheap labour pools, the faster such behemoth-cities will grow, in every part of the world. (Only East Asia shows some evidence of being able to cope with burgeoning urban populations -- as typified by the authoritarian but very environment-conscious Singapore.) In terms of human social existence, the contemporary urban environment virtually always turns out to be one where, as in New York, the social bonds and ties of "small-town" family, community, and country, are largely lost, to be replaced by the "razor's-edge" excitement of the big city.
In their hey-day from around the 1880's to the late-1960's, it could be argued that America's big cities -- New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, etc., had evolved a unique, fairly liveable, many-cornered community-structure which somehow dealt, however imperfectly, with the problems of living in these urban agglomerations. This system was partially described in Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Prominent in these structures were civic politicians and "ward-heelers"; the big factory-owners; leading small businessmen; the municipal police; the Catholic Church, which represented large numbers of non-Protestant white ethnics; the virile, heavy-industry, blue-collar labour unions; the editors and reporters of the big independent papers of the city; as well as traditionally-situated organized-crime groups and youth-gangs, both exceedingly mild in their social consequences by today's standards. This kind of urban milieu can be seen in any number of movies (especially older movies) set in this period.
However, in the following decades, as the commodity, advertising, and "instant gratification" culture increased its grip on society, there came an explosion and expansion of various vicious groups, for example, greedy developers, ruthless advertisers, the parvenu rich, drug-pushers, etc., that refused to play within the rules of the big-city, resulting in the near-complete breakdown of the urban social consensus, and the turning of large sections of downtown American cities into hell-zones. Although the city vs. country distinction has existed throughout much of history, nowhere has it been thrown into such sharp relief as in America.
One could argue, in fact, that there are two, distinct America's: the big cities -- dynamic, pulsating, heterogenous, and cosmopolitan; and the heartland -- simple, quiet, and home-spun. There is, however, a serious imbalance of power, ideology, and resource-consumption between the urban centres and the rural periphery, which parallels, it could be argued, the relations between the Western world and the South of the planet, as described in node-periphery theory. The big cities siphon off the people and resources of the heartland to create an environment which, while certainly exciting, is brazen in its artificiality -- gleaming corporate skyscrapers, condo-towers, and ugly housing complexes rising out of the detritus created by the death of old neighbourhoods and old town-centres -- possibly the last places of civilized life in the modern city (from the Latin civis, suggesting the public-spirited "citizen") -- which had continued to exist in the context of the older big-city structure.
And then, there are the suburbs, neither city nor country -- the developers' creation, "Ye Olde Victorian Homes" -- thrown together at impossible densities, produced with all the care and craftsmanship of an assembly-line, and centred on those vital modern institutions -- the shopping-mall and the public high school -- though one sometimes wonders which of these performs the greater "educative" function. In the suburbs, one finds neither the "cutting-edge" excitement of the inner-city, nor any real sense of community and country values. Indeed, the suburbs continually devour the real countryside, forming a sterile "inter-zone" between the various urban conglomerations.
And what now increasingly emerges is the West Edmonton Mall scenario -- which is today the world's largest mall -- human beings living in huge, totally manipulated environments, cut off from earth and sky and sea and wind. Life in such an environment would eventually come to resemble the existence portrayed in such movies as Logan's Run or Outland -- meaningless, monotonous work relieved only by perverse, polymorphous ecstasies. In fact, as the efficiency of control techniques increased, one could reward workers with less and less, until they literally became happily mindless drudges, as Jacques Ellul warns.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.