CITIES, how the world works

Moral Order of a Suburb vs Critical Dialogue

Dear reader, please bear with me while I am having German hayfever (in mid-summer, also, due to the endless cold we have had here when we were supposed to have spring and summer) and am incapacitated from all writing.

Meanwhile, I have been doing some research on something called ‘suburban mentality’, trying to find out whether it exists or not. I have compiled lists of ‘crazy NIMBYisms’. All this was done with another goal in mind, something urbanism-related and not directly theatrical. But, while finding out that ‘suburban mentality’ is (at least in sociology) a Really Existing Fact, I have also found vast swaths of material on how it shapes attitudes to conflict.

How? Badly. According to one classic text, M. P. Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb, it fosters avoidance at all cost (not merely conflict avoidance, but person avoidance). If this does not make the conflict disappear, the next tactic is ‘waiting for someone to move away’. If there is a stranger involved, the next step above is calling the authorities; if it is a neighbour, an anonymous report (even if the anonymity reduces the chance of successfully solving the conflict); if it is an intra-family conflict, bereaving the person of something important (such as grounding the child). If the conflict has not been solved by now, the remaining two measures are both extreme and non-confrontational: “A party to such a dispute may show signs of emotional distress, such as depression, agitation, poor performance in school, or self-destructive behavior.” Or, the ultimate sanction, the ‘permanent avoidance’: the spouses divorce, the child moves out of home.

The other text I found looks at how this suburban space provides no public space (what it provides is ‘common space’, a utilitarian, aesthetically neglected, affectively poor, space for getting in an out, collecting rubbish, etc), and, in turn, no ‘public reasoning context’ – the lack of which shapes a non-discursive culture, which leads to a non-conflictual culture.

The importance of conflict in social as well as individual ego-development cannot be overstated. When I use the term ‘conflict’, I do not mean violent or in some way threatening forms of confrontation but forms of sociation where individual interests and world-views confront one another. Conflict is generally seen as dividing segments of any population, but this is generally not the case. More likely, as Georg Simmel pointed out in his analysis of the phenomenon, ‘Conflict (Kampf) itself resolves the tension between contrasts. The fact that it aims at peace is only one, as especially obvious, expression of its nature: the synthesis of elements that work both against and for one another’ (Simmel, 1955: 14). In this sense, conflict gives the individual a stronger sense of self; it develops in tandem with challenges to the way he thinks, reflects, and forms his identity. Lacking conflict, one seeks privacy in order to avoid the public realm which can be a place of conflict. Therefore, conflict performs an integrating task: the individual becomes more integrated into social life through certain forms of conflict and antagonism. In avoiding these forms of conflict, the individual becomes detached from the pulse of public life (Baumgartner, 1988; Greenhouse, 1992). He does not wish to engage it, to enter into it, but rather to shun it creating a more atomized society as well as a deeper sense of anomie within
the subject himself (Sennett, 1974).

Michael J. Thompson, Suburban Origins of the Tea Party: Spatial Dimensions of the New Conservative Personality, Critical Sociology 2012 38: 511

With a relevance and incidental accuracy that is absolutely fantastic (considering that Thompson is theorising about the Tea Party in the US, and I am applying his theories to the Australian theatrical debate), Thompson concludes with the concept of ‘anomic provincialism’:

This detachment from others is not absolute; rather, what happens is that individuals form narcissistic senses of self where their social relations also become linked by what is familiar to them – closed structures lead us not only to avoid public life, but also to forms of self which are alienated from public life and become under-socialized, lacking the capacities needed for public life.

This has an important impact on group-affiliation. These forms of self will seek protection but also a reflection of themselves with others who share similar world-views. As a result, group affiliation becomes tighter, limiting itself to the known. Relations need to be personal; the impersonal (i.e. public) is shunned and feared (Sennett, 1971). The maintenance of certain world-views can therefore be maintained by homogeneous kinds of group-affiliation. Disruptions in the ways of life, in the world-views held in common by such communities, will be seen as existential threats and, many times, provoke strong personal and communal reaction. When individuals are prevented from diverse forms of interaction, unaccustomed to conflict and challenging the self and its predispositions, and relate to one another in ways shaped by anomie and alienation, we begin to see a more genuine picture of the self that emerges within suburban space.

Suburban life can erode the democratic capacities of citizens because they contain, or better yet, are specifically designed around the notion of closed social space. This is very different from mid-nineteenth-century urban planning which placed a primacy on public space. The result of this is a set of spatio-structural constraints upon forms of interaction and intersubjectivity which then lead to a limiting of interpersonal consciousness. The specific character of interpersonal consciousness, as I argued above, therefore leads to an under-developed or mal-developed reflexive consciousness thereby rendering public consciousness either non-existent or so underdeveloped as to be almost practically useless.

Lacking these forms of public consciousness, public reason too becomes impossible and, with time, democratic capacities of open discussion, public debate, toleration, and inclusiveness are all

I have been observing the strange trajectory of the Queen Lear debate, and it seems to me too many speculations from above apply, for sociology not to be relevant.


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