Should we look to develop a renewed vitalism of the city?

Tom Osborne, Professor of Social and Cultural Theory, Bristol University

The Neurosocial City

Should we look to develop a renewed vitalism of the city? This is one of the possibilities that Fitzgerald and Rose invoke in their important and wide-ranging paper. But perhaps such a vitalism would not sit quite as easily as they suggest with some of the postmodern perspectives recruited for their argument. Certainly, any vitalism worth the name has to be an organic vitalism, centred on the trials and provocations that animal or human organisms are faced with in tense polarity with their world. Vitalism in this sense might be a critical means of excluding some of the romantic temptations of postmodern theories of certain sorts. This might even be a form of vitalism at some odds with other perhaps more fashionable kinds. It is, anyway, worth attempting to develop a less eclectic and exorbitant vitalism, one based – precisely as Fitzgerald and Rose say – on minimalist principles rather than on the kinds of approach familiar from, say, the post-Whiteheadian sociology of recent years. This vitalism would be minimalist, yes, but in the sense that a razor is minimalist.

Moreover, such a vitalism would have to start in effect from scratch. It would have to distinguish itself rigorously from the idea that the city itself is a kind of organism. This idea has a longer-standing pedigree than one might think. Today we are beset by rather breathless discourses of urbanism that hold that the city itself is vital, creative, processual, active, dynamic. Here the city is treated as an agent in its own right and with its own attributes. But this is lazy anthropomorphism of the worst sort and no such cities exist. A minimalist vitalism would rather see the city as a heterogeneous and overlapping series – not even a loosely joined-up assemblage – of diverse and often contradictory attempts to cut milieus out from various difficult and intractable environmental material. For Canguilhem and von Uexkull the milieu is not an environment; the milieu is what is ‘extracted’ from an environment. Few if any cities consist of a singular milieu. Perhaps only Dickens’s Coketown – abstract paradigm of the industrial city – would be an exception, since Coketown was presented by Dickens as simply and only a milieu for industrial dehumanization. But for the most part cities, especially contemporary cities, are heterogeneous and self-contradictory spaces: milieus for some and not others, milieus for the rich, milieus for certain kind of business enterprise, milieus for consumption, and so on but not a single milieu of any sort. And for the excluded and dispossessed, cities are indeed simply environments.

Sometimes, however, as in Jane Jacobs’s Greenwich Village, cities are even milieus for something like real, ordinary people. Urban theory of a vitalist sort would need to lower its gaze from ‘the’ city as a whole to investigate, so to speak, the unit-level of the make up of milieus; the street perhaps (though cities are not only made from streets), the office unquestionably, but even more so the unaccountably neglected domestic dimension of the city. Jacobs’s work, for example, is about the city only in so far as it is about the neighbourhood and a vitalist urbanism can still learn more from Wilmott and Young on Bethnal Green than from the capacious tomes of Stengers or Sloterdijk. Good neighbourhoods – and vitalism intrinsically entails evaluative categories – embody a certain equilibrium between security and freedom, where people do not feel either threatened nor completely determined. Von Uexkull’s tick inhabited a highly constrained and determined milieu. Humans generally prefer more openness; as Canguilhem observed, humans tend to resist the absolute finality of ends. Cities can be good places to live if you are made uneasy by finalism and Fitzgerald and Rose are surely justified in invoking a certain degree of humanism allied to their vitalism in this respect. Canguilhem had a term for this: milieus, he wrote, can be ‘labile’; they provide for latitude as well as determination or closure. And perhaps the pathologies and stresses of urbanism can be understood in the context of this lability. Urban stressors can lead in different directions; in some to more resilience or to Simmel’s blasé attitude, nicely glossed by Fitzgerald and Rose as a sort of second-nature of the urban dweller; but in other contexts such stressors can lead to a narrowing of one’s vital capacities. Humans ‘centrate’ on a milieu, but centration can be negative to the extent that its boundaries are so narrow and confined, its constitutive habits so diminished, that we call it mental illness. A vitalist urban perspective would see mental illness as much as an active response as a passive reaction to the stressors of the city; mental pathology, like illness generally, is less a lack of norms than the active institution of a diminished order of norms, one that in comparison to others is less open, less normatively labile, more monolithic, more solitary and disconnected.

Comment author:

Professor Tom Osborne, Professor of Social and Cultural Theory, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, Bristol University