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An intriguing and convincing argument: modern affluent societies suffer from a malaise. People are tending to isolate themselves into communities of other people whom they judge to be just like themselves. But the homogeneity of these "purified communities" is as much a myth as the threat from outsiders who are different. These myths are in fact convenient excuses for not undertaking the difficult and painful process of really getting to know each other. The capacity for developing such myths arises during adolescence; the ability to persist in believing them derives from affluence; and a peculiarly modern intensification of family life propagates them into the society at large. The design of our communities has come to reflect and to reinforce these myths. The model for a community so afflicted can be found in American suburbia.
The result: people in affluent, technological societies are frozen in an adolescent stage of development, unable to see each other as individuals behind the preconceived abstractions of that stage. They are disinclined to get involved in their communities, except to lash out in violent reaction against feared outsiders.
Equally intriguing, but less convincing, is the proposed solution: destroy the myths of purified community. Destroy them by designing our cities in such a way that they force diverse people to encounter one another under conditions of conflict. Reduce the municipal bureaucracy's control of schooling and zoning. Stop central planning of land use in advance. Increase the density of urban environments; integrate socioeconomic and racial groups. By turning control and policing over to the residents of dense, diverse urban communities, by thus forcing people to work together to "survive," we can force them also to get to know each other as individuals, to break through the stereotypes formed by groups in isolation.
These new "survival communities" will not necessarily be happy places. Tension and conflict are to be expected; there will be no general sense of "belonging" or of "fitting in"--only an endless succession of encounters with diverse individuals whose collaboration one needs in order to solve problems in the community.
What will make someone want to live in a survival community? The primary motivation that Mr. Sennett identifies is boredom, "a specifically modern kind of boredom" with the sterility of purified suburbia: " . . . the tiredness with routine that men now experience will be the conscious force moving people step by step into encountering social diversity (p. 187)."
Bored as I may be, I remain skeptical of the power of this "force." I lived for ten years in east Rogers Park in Chicago--the same kind of dense, diverse, unstable neighborhood that Mr. Sennett advocates. In much the same way as Mr. Sennett describes, its urban "richness" appealed to me when I was young. After a few years, however, the "encounters" with people engaged in littering, illegal parking, trespassing, drug dealing, and a host of other obnoxious and inconsiderate acts wore me down. I freely admit to using the police force and the city government to help me with a lot of these problems. Even if I had the will to be a community activist, I certainly did not have the time.
I moved to Oak Park (a suburb on Chicago's western border) six years ago. Oak Park prides itself on being "diverse," but I believe that "diverse" is just one more attribute of the "purified myth" that this community subscribes to. It is just another word for the refreshing discovery that underneath the superficial differences of skin color there are after all lots of people "just like us." But who knows? Maybe I like it that way. My life is certainly a lot easier. The only community action that threatens is the yearly block party, where our differences remain submerged--in a keg of beer.
At any rate, if a person like me--having a choice and having, I believe, more than the average taste for diversity--can't hack it in the survival community, I doubt whether there are significant numbers of people who can. Intellectually, I sympathize, but practically I'm just not up to it.
Now, it is true that my big city neighborhood did not have ALL of the attributes of Mr. Sennett's "survival community." Certainly, it had none of the independence from central bureaucratic control that he prescribes. Maybe I would have liked it better had city government not assumed every power but the power to complain--and then again, maybe not.
Aside from my skepticism over the power of boredom to push us into the survival community, I found this book to offer a compelling hypothesis for the cause of a social phenomenon that is all too easy to see.
There are many fascinating subordinate observations and arguments that my synopsis above overlooks. Particularly interesting is the psychological explanation of the development of "purified identity" during adolescence and its extension through the "intensified" family into a myth of purified communal identity.
Perhaps even more interesting is the author's explanation of the psychosocial dynamic of the "constructive failure" whereby the individual's purified adolescent identity breaks down in the face of unmanageable complexity. From this failure comes a strengthened selfhood that paradoxically awakens one's concern for others. The goal of the survival community is to trigger this constructive failure in every citizen.
I was surprised by the resonance between Mr. Sennett's ideas and others circulated much more recently by authors on a subject as seemingly remote as software development. Just as Mr. Sennett's "adult" personality, these authors have recognized the impossibility of controlling complexity--in the form of a software development project. Like him, many of them are also urging discontinuation of traditional, centralized, task-oriented direction of any group of people engaged in a collaborative effort in a complex environment. Superior results will emerge, they argue, if the group is left alone to work out its own solutions in the presence merely of a clear goal and a few simple rules.
So enough said. Read it yourself. It's worth the trouble.