Cities are now home to more than half of the world’s population. We look to cities to meet a range of economic, social, environmental and political expectations. For decades, sociologists, urbanists and pundits have planned, theorized, analyzed and, sometimes, eulogized the city. Yet we often fail to ask the most basic question: What are cities for?
The summer issue of The Hedgehog Review, an interdisciplinary journal published by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, addresses that fundamental question in four essays focused on its central theme, “The Meaning of Cities.”
Like many other things in our time, cities are supposedly becoming “smart.” But what does the fulfillment of this highly technocratic urbanist vision really mean for daily life? What are we losing by surrendering our autonomy to the blandishments of the optimized smart city?
“A regime of optimization stamps out the broad, diverse array of conditions that make human life vital,” writes sociologist Joshua J. Yates in “Saving the Soul of the Smart City.” “Conviviality, family, friendship, serendipity, play, dependency, trust, calling, and yes, even happiness: These are just a few of the things that make life meaningful and which wither in the soil of optimization.”
Some expectations for cities may be running too high, says political scientist Noah J. Toly in “The New Urban Agenda and the Limits of Cities.” Habitat III, the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, held in 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, produced a daunting list of goals that cities should take on in order to assume “a central role in social, political, and economic life and perform many of the functions that have recently been monopolized by the nation-state.” Toly cautions that such an all-embracing faith in cities could be dangerous, pushing our already globalized world even further down the road to inadequate governance.
Many U.S. cities are experiencing an urban renaissance as America’s most talented and creative young professionals opt for life in metropolitan hubs rather than in the suburbs that drew their parents and grandparents. These new city dwellers hope for richer community life, but the reality is that they too often find themselves living and working in close proximity to people they barely know. In “Next-Door Strangers: The Crisis of Urban Anonymity,” writer Marc J. Dunkelman asks whether urban communities will “retain all the magic of close-knit diversity absent the benefit of neighborly familiarity” and warns that we “should consider the possibility that some of what we would want from a new age of cities won’t materialize.”
Even as cities evolve and prosper, they are becoming increasingly distant from outlying rural and small-town regions. Deep cultural and political fissures have appeared, and it is increasingly apparent that America is at war with itself. In their essay “Cosmopolitanism vs. Provincialism: How the Politics of Place Hurts America,” historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein look at this rancorous divide, relate some its history and suggest how, through a renewed regional spirit, we might begin to “escape the trap of labeling and acknowledge that the old categories of smug and heartless cosmopolites and bigoted and benighted provincials only obscure the struggle over power and resources.”
Beyond the issue’s thematic section, three essays range ambitiously over different aspects of modern culture. In “The Metaphysics of the Hangover,” literary critic Mark Edmundson reflects on the many aspects of over-indulgence. “Alcohol is a muse of fire. It burns away what is mucky and slothful in us. It takes what is airy within and turns it to crackling potential power. ... Sometimes alcohol raises the spirits too high. Then what we have is mayhem: broken bottles, busted knuckles, a face-down in the street, a car wrapped around a telephone pole.”
In “The Ideology of Anti-Ideology,” author Donald Dewey delivers a spirited and witty examination of Americans’ historical resistance to acknowledging their guiding ideological assumptions, and indeed tendency in recent times to blame ideology for virtually every ill currently besetting us.
“Americans have always had a tough time with ideology. When they use the word at all, they tend to do so with a ready sneer that lets others know they would rather be discussing something more suitable for democratic adults. Yet the word has become unavoidable of late. … there has been an effort by the same sages who never saw November 2016 coming to typify the results as yet another form of ideology, ‘populism,’ a term that has been pressed into service relentlessly to intellectualize moods spanning the ugly, the cavalier, and the passive-aggressive. If ideology were market merchandise, populism would be what has made it indiscriminately available, but at ruinous prices.
What ails modernity? At least in part, it is a widely shared intuition that the fullness of the human person has been diminished, reduced and even marginalized by the norms and expectations of modern society. In “Animal Spirits and the Vitalist Currents in Modernity,” cultural historian Jackson Lears explores the vitalist tradition, in which “animal spirits” becomes synonymous with “life force,” running through Western thought and culture, calling it a powerful counterpoint to the reductive, instrumentalizing tendencies of the Enlightenment project.
“Cultivating animal spirits can promote therapeutic or tribalistic agendas for remaking the broken self, the pursuit of personal fulfillment, or the immersion of separate identity in a roiling mass movement. Whatever particular form it takes, this vitalist impulse embodies profound human urges that are left largely unmet in modern societies dedicated to market utility, and that are missing from many contemporary accounts of human motivation.”
For our regular Signifiers feature, historian Wilfred M. McClay offers a timely meditation on one of the more used (or abused) terms in our contemporary political lexicon: populism. “Scholars have not always been the most objective students of populism,” he writes, “partly because their own interests are at stake, scholarship and expertise being so often numbered among the chief targets of populist abuse.”
Books reviewed in this issue include “Habermas: A Biography,” by Stefan Müller-Doohm; “Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought,” by James T. Kloppenberg; “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters,” by Tom Nichols; “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” by Laura Kipnis; and “The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness,” by Walter Benjamin.
The Hedgehog Review is published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The fall issue (due out Nov. 1) will look at the crisis in liberal democracy.
To subscribe, visit The Hedgehog Review order page. The journal is for sale ($12) at select Barnes & Noble bookstores, UVA’s main bookstore and online. Read more in the journal’s summer issue and follow its blogs, THR Blog and The Infernal Machine, at www.hedgehogreview.com.