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« Reply to Innes: Methodological Impasse? | Main | Cities in the Pincer »

Modernity and the Metaphysical Trap

Hello Martin, and thanks for your response.

The latter [Sephardim] might be seen as a violence that arises out of the complex overlapping jurisdictions of religious authority. This would be different to the violence of Bosnia which might be understood as the genocidal activity of a majority group seeking to legitimise self-determination through homogenisation ( a dynamic historically specific to modernity). But I would be interested in Marc’s thoughts on this.

Honestly, I think I would have to disagree with you on several points. I would suggest that the expulsion of the Sephardim, along with other similar conflicts (e.g. the destruction of Provencal and the Cathars), is actually the same dynamic you identify in Bosnia, i.e. "a majority group seeking to legitimise self-determination through homogenisation". Personally, I suspect that overlapping jurisdictions of religious authority is secondary, a useful excuse as it were, to the more general dynamic of in-group homogenization.

Obviously, I don't think that this is unique to modernity :-). My suspicion is that it is actually a derivative factor of how one group incorporates other groups. The modern concept of citizenship is but one example of this, but there are others (e.g. marriage between competing gods, subjugation, outright annihilation, incorporation of kinship lineages into an expanded clan system, etc.).

More importantly, I would want to argue that urbanisation has historically specific dynamics that give rise to distinctive forms of violence. Cities have of course been the target of violence in the past (siege warfare being a good example), but I would tentatively argue that there is something distinctive about the violence against buildings in an era where the built environment is globalised.

I would certainly agree that there is something qualitatively different in the current globalized situation, I'm just not certain if it is totally distinctive of modernity and globalization. I suspect that part of this is definitional and we may, in some ways, be discussing apples and oranges. I would argue that urbicide has been present well before the modern era, but I wouldn't argue that it was the dominant form of urban violence. Really, I'm taking a frequency distribution type of argument and saying that it existed before as one type (and probably a fairly low probability), but I can certainly agree that it is getting more frequent and, certainly, we are more aware of it as a result of global communications technologies.

I do think you are correct when you argue "that urbanisation has historically specific dynamics that give rise to distinctive forms of violence." I would, however, tentatively suggest that the dynamics of urbanization and globalization are only a part of why such a dynamic is on the increase. My suspicion is that another dynamic is the global rise in revitalization movements, usually along ethnic and/or religious lines. While this dynamic draws its impetus from the changes in production, distribution and communications that have come to be the hallmarks of "globalization" (via a shift to a "network Society" to use Manuel Castel's term), it is also playing out in an increasingly urban stage.

Secondly, more importantly, I am uneasy invoking the ‘soul’ of the community. This is not a secular vs. theological issue but rather a methodological one. Let me explain:

  1. This invocation only works if we look at buildings defined as cultural heritage. In this sense the bridge is a misleading place to start, I admit. I also admit that extant accounts of what is occurring in the destruction of cultural heritage seem satisfactory to me. The question is what happens when shopping malls, car-parks, non-descript office blocks and so become the target. Are these really repositories of the ‘soul’ of a community?

Oh, I do agree that it is a methodological (and metaphysical) issue.

I suspect we may be using the term "cultural heritage" with quite different connotations ;-). Let me answer your second, rhetorical, question by doing what Anthropologists do: telling a story. Back before I got married and my wife and I were dating, she lived in New Jersey and I lived in Ottawa. This led to us spending maybe a week together every couple of months. Whenever I would visit her, I asked myself almost exactly the same question about shopping malls, parking lots etc., and I came to the conclusion that yes, it did speak to the "soul" of that part of the US (not its "spirit" in the sense of axis mundi, but to the day to day lived reality and conceptualizations of her life-world). It was quite an eye-opener for me, as it was for her when she moved to Ottawa.

Which brings me to your second point that "The invocation of spirit falls into the same anthropocentric trap that I am trying to critique". I'm not sure it does, although I can certainly understand why it would appear to do so. Personally, I would argue that humans and their built environment live in a symbiosis, with potentialities for influence flowing both ways. Actually, a really good example of a non-Anthropocentric influence of architecture to people would be the Aztec discovery of Teotihuacan and its subsequent effects of the Aztec Conferedacy (i.e. shifts in perceptual structures and social organizations). This discovery changed the lifeworld of the Aztecs significantly, along with their pattern of relations to other tribal confederacies in the area. In effect, by existing it changed the "soul" (or 'spirit") of the Aztec people.

The potential problem that I see with a totally non-Anthropocentric approach comes from a totally metaphysical objection: do buildings in and of themselves have "souls"? In less religious terminology, are they independant actors capable of action if no humans (or other sentient beings) are around for them to act upon? It strikes me that this would require a complete revision of the metaphysics upon which materialist analyses are predicated, rendering it much less "material". I don't believe, although I could be wrong, that treating people and buildings together, even using the peotic / theological language of "souls" requires such a radical re-working of metaphysics.

Now, having said that, I totally agree with what I believe is your critique against Anthropocentric reductionism. To reduce the built environment to a set of tools is, IMO, ridiculous. But, I would suggest, that the obverse is equally ridiculous unless one wishes to argue that objective "meaning" can be constructed and transmitted without human agency; which gets us into that metaphysical trap I was talking about. It's why I tend to argue along relational lines.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to your thoughts on this.

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