The politics of the House and of the City… New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

‘… an ongoing commitment to revolutionary politics have pulled me up and enabled me to appreciate that 280 odd years ago Montesquieu identified what was vital and, in terms of social relations, revolutionary about the city. His heroes, were a couple of expat Sultans (what else), caught up in the thrall of the street where everybody is unveiled. “Here everything speaks out; everything can be seen; everything can be heard; the heart is as open as the face”. And it wasn’t long before the fact that “everything can be seen” exposed the Bourbons and the aristocracy in general as emperors with no clothes’.

Thanks to Tom Griffiths for this contribution.

* * * *

New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

And the rest goes…

 

New York, New York, all the scandal and the vice …

I love it.

New York New York, now isn’t it a pity

What they say about New York City?

 

I loved this song when it came out, its cheek, irreverence and capacity to laugh at itself. And I couldn’t help being reminded of it as I was reading the late Marshall Berman’s On The Town, One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. Both seemed to be singing from the same song sheet.

 

While this post has been prompted by my reading of Berman’s final book my point in doing so springs from my view of how important the city – urban life and experience – is in human development and how ‘missing the boat’ much of the left has been in accepting both the opportunities and challenges this development has thrown up.  The politics I will be drawing attention to (and where the left is, or should be in relation to it) can be summarised in the distinction to be made between the politics of the House and the politics of the Street. And let me be clear, I’m for the politics of the Street. I will give some space to the House further down, but first lets go for a walk because the modern city creates an essential link in providing individuals, in particular working class individuals, with opportunities for personal development and growth (they are individuals as well as members of a class, remember) opportunities for them to break free of the constraints imposed by the House.

 

What impressed me about Berman’s book – the spin Berman puts on the maelstrom that is the modern world generally and of which Times Square is a highly concentrated symbol – is its vitality and its liberating aspect. And in saying this I in no way wish to downplay or ignore the challenges that have accompanied this. Berman makes no claim to being the first to highlight this and makes reference to two French writers of past centuries to point out that the link between modernity and the Street, while an essential feature of modernity,  is not new. A key Enlightenment figure, Montesquieu wrote of it in his Persian Letters (1721), and over a century later the poet Baudelaire identified the modern urban centre as a space where old (pre modern) boundaries were broken down and new possibilities opened up, coining the term “the heroism of modern life’ in the process. Times Square, the flawed hero of Berman’s book has lived, or should I say enabled, Baudelaire’s heroism in concentrated form since the 1890’s.

 

Berman gets down to business straight away describing the modern city as a place that enables an individual to be both oneself and someone else. Being social animals we carry the seeds of curiosity, a desire for growth and an empathic sensibility within us and the possibilities described by Berman enables their germination and growth. What is made possible here is to expand beyond oneself, beyond formerly socially or family imposed boundaries and constraints, to be able to transcend these limits and grow.

 

In the early 21stC the Islamic fascists are acutely aware of and threatened by this possibility and this helps explain their violent hatred of modernizing influences that disrupt and transform social and family relations. Please note that social and family relations are not being spoken of here as abstract relations, but as relations that still have pre modern or medieval hooks embedded in the flesh of the men, women and children who are the real life players in those relations. Those who identify with the left should not be too smug about this because although what now passes for the left have never approached the loony killjoy levels of the Islamic fascists or Islamic fundamentalists generally, it  has historically contained a strong current of killjoyism of which the odd parallel can be drawn – that being the antipathy and mistrust felt about the unconstrained individual, let loose from the ‘safe’ bonds of the House where, historically, the teaching and maintenance of family and social hierarchy were enacted.

“One of the primary human rights is the right to the city” argues Berman, the right to a space and an opportunity for individual and social transformation. But how does the city enable this, what makes it happen? And, in any case, anticipating mutterings coming from the background, aren’t there casualties, I mean cities are hardly beds of thornless roses and many with progressive pretensions think thorns is about all they have or have come to have.

Enter Times square, what it represents and opens up.

Times Square as we know it – an entertainment and commercial centre – came into its own with electrification and by the 1890’s had already developed a ‘reputation’ that scandalized the morally precious of the day by giving them innumerable reasons to hyperventilate and complain about falling moral standards. It takes little imagination to write their script – the denunciation of public spaces like bars, theatres, dance halls, cafes and the like as “brothels” or to understand it as a voice belonging to the House.

Initially this group had, to rope in modern terminology, some diversity, being a collection of traditional moralists, including secular moralists and evangelicals. Low hanging fruit one might think. But by the early 20thC their number came to include secular intellectuals with left politics “who wanted the masses to be radical and militant and to struggle for their rights…” [just so long as these rights didn’t extend to expressions of individual and sexual freedom] “…who believed that commercial mass culture was corrupting their minds”. In spite of the cultural shift in social attitudes to sexual mores this whinge remains a very contemporary trope. And it wasn’t just (or even, if we are to be honest) commercial mass culture that was the main corrupting element, it was sex. No surprises here of course.

Both men and women had good reason to be drawn to the Square’s promise, to be able to break free of the rigid stereotypes and expectations of the House, stereotypes and expectations that had been particularly constraining on women. A good way of looking at the complaints of the moralists (of whatever hue) – the Mary Whitehouse set and the Iranian and Saudi  moral police being more contemporary equivalents – was that they were complaining about the breakdown between the rigid separation of the House and Street and the power relations between the sexes that were reflected in this. This distinction rang bells for me in two ways. Most importantly (and most recently) it summed up a lot of what I have seen in the work I have been doing in the family violence arena and the refugee/new settlers arena where individuals and families have come from regions where the transition from the traditional to the modern is unfinished business. Here women are supposed to belong in the House; it is not only their domain, it is where they belong and where they have been kept.

In western societies women have been on the Street and fighting for their right to be there for a considerable period as the examples of Montesquieu, Baudelaire, Jacques Brel (see below), amongst others and Times Square indicate, but for many coming from backward or relatively undeveloped regions this fight is in its early stages. By way of example a former colleague had recorded a series of interviews with three former refugees from Africa dealing with family based violence and “upside down families”. The female interviewee, entering middle age and with dependent children, had likened traditional marriage in Africa to “a prison” where she was obliged to obey her mother in law and submit to the overall authority of the men of her husband’s family. She initially found the situation in Australia so different and confusing that, she explained, “for two years we go mad”. She meant by this that the breakdown of the rigid and hierarchical boundaries between the House and the Street was so exhilarating and discombobulating that it took, in her experience, two years for the penny to drop that with this new freedom came the opportunity for personal growth and, contained in this package, personal responsibility. That being said, she was under no illusions that upside down was the right way up.

 

Baudelaire’s ‘heroism of the street’ spoke of this development in the mid 19th century, but over a century earlier Montesquieu had noticed that the cat was already coming out of the bag in his Persian Letters. Montesquieu and I go back a long way, to my first year at university and we parted company soon after (read almost immediately) and too soon for me to really get was he was on about when it came to urban life and modernity. Time, Berman and an ongoing commitment to revolutionary politics have pulled me up and enabled me to appreciate that 280 odd years ago Montesquieu identified what was vital and, in terms of social relations, revolutionary about the city. His heroes, were a couple of expat Sultans (what else), caught up in the thrall of the street where everybody is unveiled. “Here everything speaks out; everything can be seen; everything can be heard; the heart is as open as the face,”” And it wasn’t long before the fact that “everything can be seen” exposed the Bourbons and the aristocracy in general as emperors with no clothes.

And this brings me to the second bell ringing aspect of the distinction between the House and the Street and that is the overtly political aspect, that which should be the bread and butter of those holding revolutionary or radical pretensions. Here I found Berman’s take on Times Square (and by implication its equivalents elsewhere) refreshing, thought provoking and speaking directly to the synthesising sensibility that sits at the analytic heart of Marxism – or, rather, should sit at its heart. Above I had touched upon the modern cities transformative qualities, qualities that enable growth and that throw up new challenges. Berman describes Broadway street culture as being created by the sons of migrants, especially from the more backward areas of Europe, who had come to America seeking a better life. With them they not only brought aspirations that challenged the old ways, but constraints that contained them, a cultural drag from the old times, representing the mores of the traditional House. One of the aspirations of the sons was for this street culture to include women. Women also wanted that space and stepped in, although not yet as equals. It was a task of the daughters (and granddaughters …) to begin to renegotiate the rules of the dance.

But from the word go the daughters were part of the action and as early as 1892, a mere eight years before the formation of the International Ladies’ Garment Union in New York, a writer wrote of working class women, lonely after a working day venturing out of their hall bedroom, cold and lonely ”to lose herself in the unending procession on Broadway.” Berman points out that “there may never have been such a vast variety of women thrown together in any one place before.”

The square emerged as a place where men, women, kids from all over the world dreamed of ‘making spectacles of themselves’, of being unveiled. Picking up the same theme late Belgian singer/songwriter, Jacques Brel, in his song Timid Frieda picked up in the mid 20thC where Montesquieu and Baudelaire had left off in the preceding two. And in doing so he was able to highlight the tensions and challenges of the politics of the Street that had now fully matured. Timid Frieda:

Will they greet her

On the street where

Young strangers travel

On magic carpets

Floating lightly

In beaded caravans

Who can know if

They will free her

On the street where

She comes to join them

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Will life seize her

On the street where

The new dreams gather

Like fearless robins

Joined together

In high-flying bands

She feels taller

Troubles smaller

On the street where

She’s lost in wonder

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Won’t return now

To the home where

They do not need her

But always feed her

Little lessons

And platitudes from cans

She is free now

She will be now

On the street where

The beat’s electric

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

Who will lead her

On the street where

The cops all perish

For they can’t break her

And she can take her

Brave new fuck you stand

Yet she’s frightened

Her senses heightened

On the street where

The darkness brightens

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands

Timid Frieda

If you see her

On the street where

The future gathers

Just let her be her

Let her play in

The broken times of sand

There she goes now

Down the sidewalk

On the street where

The world is bursting

There she goes

With her valises

Held so tightly in her hands.

 

It is a fabulous song. As one would anticipate after 200 plus years Brel’s lyrics picks up Montesquieu’s identification of early promise and Baudelaire’s more developed 19thC depiction and exposes a fully developed dialectic. The left I identify with walk with Timid Frieda offering encouragement if asked for – although she seems to be doing pretty well under her own steam. The square, the Street simultaneously liberated women and presented them (and the guys) with new challenges. But there was no turning back. If the rules of the dance were to be renegotiated you needed to be on the dance floor.

As touched upon above revolutionary parties or organisations (or those with pretensions), have a pretty chequered history when it comes to jumping onto the dance floor, letting their hair down and encouraging others to join in. And when it comes to understanding the transformative possibilities inherent in this they didn’t even make it onto the dance floor. The irony here is that the proverbial masses – and most were working class remember – were showing us the way and embracing “the street where the future gathers.” In doing so they ignored the cautionary, if not disapproving tones coming from comrade central about bourgeois frivolity and self indulgence undermining class solidarity and commitment to ‘the struggle’.

Breaking out and having fun, especially where sex is stirring the pot, has been more House than Street with communist parties and organisations stepping around the issue rather than embracing it. Class struggle and revolutionary politics were serious business (this aspect is true) and demanded a commitment that found the ‘letting one’s hair down’ side of things diversionary (read, with Russian Accent) petty bourgeois individualism. This aspect is not true and is a false antithesis; it is a voice coming from the House.

This is not to suggest that the tension between the serious aspect and being “on the street where the beats electric” is ever in abstract balance. Letting one’s hair down for those revolutionaries in occupied Europe during WW2 was not an option and needed to be put on ice while confusing right wing bourgeois democrats as ‘fascists’ and drawing parallels with Nazism is simply nutty and a sign of isolation. Please pass the bucket of cold water.

What the politics of the Street does, in effect, is ‘invite’ us to look forward, to grapple seriously with the contradictions inherent in its development, those affecting personal development, our place in the dance, in particular and to try and identify the synthesising processes that take us forward, that open up new possibilities and new challenges. But this remains an invitation; free will, choice and responsibility cannot be avoided whether we accept the invitation or not. While it would be drawing a long bow to say that the left’s collapse has been due to its inability to transcend the politics of the House and embrace that of the Street – its failure to get on top of economic challenges and present credible revolutionary alternatives having a bit to say about this collapse too – the left’s conflation of the development of individuality with bourgeois individualism has seen it trailing rather than leading.

This aspect has been a primary interest of mine since my work as a relational and group therapist has forced me to confront the place of choice and personal responsibility within the context of group and family dynamics and by implication social dynamics. This has taken a sharper form with the work I have done over the past 10-15 years with individuals and groups from within what is called new and emerging communities – primarily refugee communities – where the politics of the House, the traditional understandings or role and place, have been predominant. The link between this and the transformative possibilities of the Street became impossible to ignore. Nor was the link to the left’s ambivalence and its failure to confront and transcend its own assumptions regarding individual growth and development, especially as this related to the place of women. We need to get back onto the dance floor and formulate a few moves of our own.

* * * *

 

2 thoughts on “The politics of the House and of the City… New York, New York, So Good They Named it Twice…

  1. Great stuff Tom!

    I haven’t read Berman for ages. Must catch up.

    Don’t be so hard on the Russian (and Chinese and 17th Century English/American) Puritans though. Same problem with frivolity as you mentioned in occupied Europe (and “secular” autocracies of the middle east today).

    Putting my teenage apparatchik’s hat back on, the 60s hippies message to drop out WAS a bourgeois distraction from the REAL fun to be had then from “serious” rebellion. As for “individualism” nah, they travelled with the tide, like schools of fish.

    Same goes for today’s “politically correct” heroic anti-fascist killjoys. Pseudoleft are vicious opponents of the left. Product of our absence, not of any genuine leftist attitude to individuality.

    BTW an excellent early analysis of killjoy pseudoleft came from Samois “Coming to Power”, a lesbian Sado Masochist literary polemic against the conversion of women’s liberation movement back into Temperance Leagues decades before it ended up in the current PC muck.

    Its no coincidence that green left pines like the church for rural peasant life.
    In medieval england escaped serfs became free after city residence for a year.

    Cities are bad for people who like servility.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good work Tom.

    As the urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, in making the city man has remade himself. It is his most successful attempt to remake the world after his heart’s desire. I’ll add that the city takes us well away from the green yearning for a mythical/mystical past of living out, ‘self sufficient’, in the sticks.

    I find David Harvey is the best when it comes to urban issues, in particular the ‘Right To The City’. As we’d be cognisant cities have very much arisen from a need to invest surpluses at work somewhere. We have the contradiction in modern cities of large investments in properties,many of which remain empty,whilst at the same time there are increasing numbers of homeless and /or those living in temporary accommodation. How do we reclaim the city as a place to live, learn and play?

    I remember talking with Ruth Crow back in the 1990’s about urban issues and the way Melbourne was coming on. Sadly i can’t find any of the material her and Maurie wrote. It will be archived somewhere but i no longer have any of it in my collection.

    Glen!

    Like

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