I went to see my friend and writing partner Richard Bender earlier today, and we talked about where to take this. We both feel that, with these three essays, we’ve exhausted Slow as a topic. Yet it’s a potent metaphor, as is terroir. Where do they point?

Ivan Illich surfaced while I was writing the third essay. His willingness to make fundamental critiques of received wisdom on education, healthcare, transit, water, gender, and, behind them, of modern life itself, and to pose radical alternatives, makes him the man of the hour. When I read David Cacey’s interviews with Illich, I got a better sense of his ideas and posiions. I was struck by his assertion that modernity erodes human-centered proportionality. Gigantism or inhuman scale is one result, but this can also take the form of grandiosity—our modern belief that we run the world. The current unwinding of the world economy reflects, once again, the exposure of this fallacy.

Capitalism may be under attack, but modernity is the actual elephant in the room. The current crisis is like the loss of faith that swept through the intellectual and professional classes of mid-Victorian England and Scotland in the 19th century. Abandoning their belief, they put their energy with a vengeance into creating modern life. Maynard Keynes wrote that their work ethic made it possible for his generation to be modern without being dissolute. His generation notably valued the pleasures of everyday life. They were Slow before the word gained this connotation.

Modernism sought to bend humanity to pared-down notions of a healthy life. Blaming the ills of society, like tuberculosis, on defects in city form, it proposed to sweep it away and substitute new patterns that leveraged speed, but also sought through rational planning to guarantee everyone a place in the sun and access to supportive public infrastructure. Its legacy is bits and parts that worked, and a powerful aesthetic, risible in certain ways, enduring in others. Or we could say that its legacy is one disaster after another, from fascist embrace to postwar redevelopment. The question, similar to the one that Hayek raised about socialism, is whether or not modernism leads invariably to disaster.

Modernity is not quite modernism. It’s where we’ve ended up or, more accurately, how life has been led all along as people lived their lives in and around the modern program. The famous relook at the Domino project that Corbu designed in Pessac, like the infamous Wall in Kowloon, suggests that people will assert themselves if they can. Abandoned public housing blocks, a late-20th-century phenomenon in Europe and the US, make the point that they’ll destroy them or desert them if they can’t.

Dwell captures the seductive part of modernism. Retrospectives on the modernists at the VA and of Corbu at the Mori Art Center reinforced the humane character of the modern aesthetic up to a certain scale. Late modernism is valuable in part for its willingness to experiment with the limits of scale, but this does not yet add up to real patterns or a sense of how cities can densify and still retain urbanity.

Modernity is not really an aesthetic, but—as Illich points out—the abandonment of common sense. The current crisis may shock us sufficiently to wake us to this fact, restoring proportionality to modern life and giving us a clearer sense of the proper limits of human intervention. Put an end to grandiosity and much else may find a human scale and a renewed demotic spirit. It will take time, because cities in an official sense, institutions, and corporations are conditioned to their hubris. It’s clear, though, that we can’t afford it. This used to be argued in human terms, but now it’s financial, too. What’s in front of us is a massive adjustment—not going back, but going forward from a deeper past.

— John Parman, Berkeley, 1 March 2009

Copyright: 2009 John J. Parman (unless otherwise noted)



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