Cities of the Imagination

March 29, 2010

The Wrigley Building, Chicago is
The Union Stockyard, Chicago is
One town that won’t let you down
It’s my kind of town

I love Paris every moment,
every moment of the year.
I love Paris, why, oh why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.

If I can make it there
I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York

All of these well-known song lyrics have something in common, and no, it’s not just that Frank Sinatra has sung them all. They all sum up the idea of the cities they describe: a hard-working town that “won’t let you down”; a city of love; a place requiring gumption but well worth the effort. They are the lyrical equivalent of the montages that open every episode of the CSI series. They are but a few of the millions of references – words, images, or feelings – that make up the way we imagine cities. And they are powerful enough to dictate how we feel about places we’ve never been, and channel the experiences we expect once we get there.

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read recently was uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto. A collection of short essays, it looked at Toronto’s past, present, and future in a way that was intriguing, thoughtful and – perhaps most importantly – hopeful. Covering everything from proposed dedicated bike highways to greenroofs to the necessity of public washrooms (I could take or leave that one), it made me realize the possibilities that exist for this city. (If anyone is interested, it’s sold by Coach House Books, available at major monopolistic Canadian bookstores which shall remain nameless, and many libraries, I’m sure.)

Perhaps my favourite essay was by Bert Archer, entitled “Making a Toronto of the imagination.” (I’d actually recommend that you buy the book for these 10 pages alone, they’re that good.) In it, he discusses why Toronto has no real “global city” status whereas, say, Montreal does (because of its comparative difference from the rest of North America and its low tuition fees making an international alumni diaspora); the kinds of “layers” and networks in which we get to know our cities (the work area and the home area and a few others thrown in); and how cities become vested in our minds. He talks about how authors, directors, or other artists pluck areas – like, say, the Prince Edward Viaduct from In the Skin of a Lion – to use in their works, which then serve as reference points in a constantly reinforcing cycle. We feel more attached to the places and spaces we love because we know other people love them too, and then more people want to sing or write about them, and so on. This is how cities become stories.

The idea of imagined cities is one that has been percolating in my brain since long before I started the posthistorical blog, but a film review by Liam Lacey in the Globe & Mail today pushed it right back to the top of my mind. In it, Lacey reviews Chloe, a new ‘erotic thriller’ by Canadian director Atom Egoyan – but his review is more about Toronto than the film. This is Toronto’s chance to finally stop being the city that has “a distinct iconography that audiences in other cities feel they recognize but can’t quite identify, because they’ve seen it in the movies,” he says. But he notes that this is a glossy, unrealistic Toronto, with none of the “suburbs, strip malls or ethnic neighbourhoods” locals love.

The trouble is, art can’t portray cities as they really are, in all their complexity and contradiction. It sells a simplified version of what people think they are. And it is a self-reinforcing cycle. Chicago is a great example of this, the wild and dangerous “second city” of the United States, where uncouth lawlessness (i.e. wanton murder, licentiousness, and trains!) was, and maybe still is, the order of the day. Live in a safe neighbourhood with no trouble in Hinsdale? Doesn’t matter: audiences want to see the six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail. Paris? Come prepared to fall in love, or fall in love again. In this light, even the rude waitstaff seem charming. And New York is an example of simplicity from diversity, as it has been portrayed as a kind of microcosm of all the hardship and potential of America. Only within this uniting vision is it allowed its complexities: extreme poverty next to extreme wealth, immigrant families and established American dynasties, joy and sorrow, the past and the future, all side by side.

Toronto doesn’t have a unifying vision yet. In part this is because of the country in which it is located. Nobody quite knows how to characterize Canada either (sitting inside or outside of it). Not quite the US, not quite Britain, Canada doesn’t really have a clear and coherent image that it stands for yet, and even if it did at one point, it’s constantly in flux. In part, I suspect that this is because Canada, and Toronto even more so, is a place people go to, a hope, a destination. It is by definition about many different things, what one great blog post I read recently called “multiculturalism – a legal reality.”

Will Toronto ever have the status of a city of the imagination, shared amongst a global audience? Perhaps it will follow from Canadians’ growing sense of national pride, the idea that yes, we do have something to celebrate, an identity, a pride of place. The first step is surely to achieve some form of unity from diversity. I did a little research into what’s out there in the popular imagination, and stumbled upon the Toronto Unlimited website, which seeks to brand Toronto for purposes of travel and tourism. According to this project, Toronto is, “in short … a city built with and for the limitless imaginations of the people that come here. And it is these people that make Toronto the city of imagination.” Interesting. [Ironic, too, as I just looked this up toward the end of writing my post.]

The font of the brand is also intended to convey this limitlessness, it seems, by being sans serif in the extreme. Yikes. (Look out for it on t-shirts near you. But not on me.)

Now, I think it’s difficult to “brand” a city outright – if anything, a city brand should be iterative, evolving from many years and countless stories that are told about it – but in the age of the commoditization of all things, perhaps this is the way to start the process. What I do like about the project is that the slogan/phrase Toronto Unlimited was created to “celebrate the unlimited potential of the people and the endless opportunities they offer the city” – not a bad message to get behind, considering that it is the people who make the city before the city can make the people, really. Now all we need is a schmaltzy Broadway number, and we’re set.

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Upon This Rock I Will Build My Condominium

March 28, 2010

It’s been a very wordy, theory-laden week with all of this talk of progress and history, so I thought I’d end the week with something light: a post about religion. Kidding! Not actually religion, per se, but the visual effects of religion in our cities: churches.

Churches are such a common part of the cityscape that I doubt many of us even notice them. And yet it’s hard not to notice that as more and more condos go up (especially here in Toronto where it seems every spot of vacant or ‘underutilized’ land has been co-opted for another residential building) they are the last bastions of low-level architecture. They strike a stark, and beautiful, contrast to the glass and concrete boxes around them. They are often stunning buildings with the appropriate amount of age-grime to make me really interested. And they are a common visual reminder of the place that religion used to hold in this city, and country generally. There is a church on almost every corner (indeed, there are almost as many as there are Tim Hortons), but they do not reflect the city as it is today. Most are Anglican, but with only about 7% of the city population followers of that church (and more arriving every day with a different religion entirely, or none at all), many sit empty most of the time.

Bloor Street in Toronto. I know there's a church in there somewhere...

Quite frankly, it seems miraculous to me that more churches aren’t torn down. Why aren’t they? Is it that there is a great public attachment to historic places of worship, even if they are barely frequented anymore? Toronto is not so hesitant to tear down other older buildings to make way for the new. Or are churches still relevant in some way? And will they continue to be? I’ve certainly never seen a new one being built, so they must be accommodating the changing needs of the city as is.

Ah, yes. There it is!

Churches have actually adapted fairly well, if one considers that they are not only there to shepherd the flock toward redemption/holiness, but also to serve as the space in which communities come together. Some have continued to have services during the week for the few who still attend them, though many only host them now on Sundays. One Lutheran church near me offers services in German, Latvian and Korean in an attempt to bolster its numbers, but the majority of activities attempt to build communities in other ways. Many now offer ESL training, yoga classes, day care, or basketball during the week, which certainly serves the second purpose well. And why not have your next corporate meeting in the chapel? Others now rent out the space to corporations that aren’t squeamish about the religious overtones and not concerned about strict objectivity or the separation of work and religion. (And who, after all, wouldn’t want to look at a crucifix during their next meeting about vendor selection? Would really liven things up.)

A break-out room at St. Paul’s on Bloor, the largest Anglican church in the diocese. Personally I require fancy windows at all my corporate meetings.

Many churches have also turned to innovative architecture and development partnerships to preserve their land. Consider the Church of the Redeemer, which has been all but eaten by a Four Seasons Hotel. Why not just build your building around a church? Redeemer has also adapted in other ways: it now hosts rock concerts as part of nuit blanche, as well as opening its doors to everyone the church would normally exclude. Very open-minded.

The Church of the Redeemer has managed to cling on to its space at one of Toronto's busiest corners...for now.

The spire of the Cathedral of St. James, Toronto’s oldest congregation, was once the dominant feature on the skyline, but now shares air space (and has sold some of its land to) the new and appropriately-titled Sp!re condominiums next door.

The Cathedral of St. James in the 1930s.

And today, with the Sp!re condos sharing the skyline.

Other churches have been converted directly into condos themselves, like the Victoria Lofts in the west end of the city, on what was once the West Toronto Presbyterian Church.

Site of the Victoria Lofts

It makes me wonder how much of a building’s purpose is tied up in its structure. Will churches always be churches in the popular imagination, even after many have been divided up into apartments, or rented out as generic corporate meeting rooms? What effect will this divvying up of public, communal space into private compartments have on city dwellers?

And how will churches adapt in future? Will they remain religious strongholds, or will their presence largely fade to one of historical significance? I suspect many of these questions will  be answered as Toronto, and Canada more broadly, decides what kind of identity it wants to have – as a nominally and historically Christian city/country, or a new “multicultural” one. In the meantime, consider a steeple for your next condo purchase – I hear they get great nighttime city views.


The Modern Good Life, Part 3: The End of Progress

March 25, 2010

What is the modern “good life,” and how do we know if we are living it?  Is what we have now “good”? Can we honestly look to the past and say that the way we live now is better? And can we reasonably expect that things will continue to improve? These are the questions that started me thinking about this series in the first place.

In Part 1, I wrote about our peculiarly modern bias to action, and in Part 2 I discussed the different ways in which can become slaves to history. In Part 3, I will address our unconscious and seemingly unshakeable assumption of human progress and how our current historical “moment” is unsettling because it may be challenging its dominance.

Gen Y is supposed to be more optimistic than past generations: according to a recent article in Time magazine, 88% of its members believe that one day they will lead the lives they desire.  The “hope gap” (presumably the ‘gap’ is with reality) increases with age, apparently, as people get more disillusioned — but deep down we all remain, at heart, subscribers to a fundamentally optimistic narrative of our present. It is the progress narrative, articulated no better than by John Stuart Mill, its eternally optimistic Victorian proponent, when he said that the goal of progress was for individuals to live long, happy lives without physical or mental suffering, including “indigence, unkindness, worthlessness or premature loss of objects of affection.” Who can argue with that?

I’m sure many of you have heard of Whig History, the idea that humans are progressing toward an ever more liberal and enlightened society: freer, more peaceful, more democratic, more comfortable, and more convenient. Historians like to scoff that Whiggish histories are teleological, Eurocentric, and poorly sourced. We criticize the philosophies of Mill and G.W.F. Hegel, among others, who argued that modern European (now “Western”) society was located at the apex of historical development, and was its logical conclusion. We laugh that Mill and his contemporaries considered nineteenth-century British society to be the most advanced on the scale of civilizations, a trajectory based on liberal criteria such as constitutional checks on rulers, and freedom of the individual enabling the full use of his faculties. But in reality, we think the same thing in our own time.  We know that things been continually improving, and expect that they will continue to do so. And we expect that too will always be at the apex of historical progress.

Amongst all of this certainty, the past few years have been a stumbling block. Suddenly, the balance of media coverage is negative. Is it a temporary setback, we wonder, or a lasting trend? We feel a deep-seated unease as a reputable voice – or collection of voices – begins to think that the past was better than the present. And the main area in which we have concerns is ethical, societal, moral. We can see that technology is advancing, making us smarter (perhaps), wealthier, and more comfortable. But we are no more able to solve society’s eternal ills – poverty, violence, want, fear – than before. New technologies, government policies, or even human kindnesses still have not managed to create our Utopia.

Of course, it isn’t rational to expect Utopia. We all know that. But secretly, we hope that we can achieve it, and we have a vision of the future as “the best of all possible worlds,” as our Panglossian friends would say. And we want to be a part of it, and we want to help it along. We have a bias toward action.

So the question becomes, has the West become a slave to its own idea of progress? I wrote in my last post that today we are unique in seeing history and linear and cumulative. But have we been fooled, and is the “progress” we have seen not really progress at all? Could our technological progress be in fact contributing to a moral decline?

This line of thinking has certainly had its supporters. Several centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau contested the established idea of progress in his time: economic development, the creation of a state and protection of private property, and the ability to live comfortably. (It appears not much has changed since the eighteenth century.) As he wrote in his Second Discourse:

Due to a multitude of new needs, [man is] subjected…to all of nature and especially to his fellow-men, whose slave he becomes in a sense even in becoming their master; rich, he needs their services; poor, he needs their help.

It certainly isn’t a powerful exhortation to buy that new flat screen TV. Though it is perhaps a given that having more things engenders a need for more things, it doesn’t seem to say much for our evolution as a species. In Toward a History of Needs, Ivan Illich writes that “The model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour.” Most of us can walk almost that fast, with a lot less effort spent selling our souls for a salary.

Nietzsche continued this anti-progress train of thought in the Geneaolgy of Morals, deriding those who thought comfort and luxury were the end of life:

The diminution and leveling of European man constitutes our greatest danger…We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent…there is no doubt that man is getting “better” all the time.

For both Rousseau and Nietzsche, the economic and technological progress that had led to large societies, sedentary means of acquiring food (i.e. non-hunter-gatherer communities), and the general ease of life that Mill had in mind had caused humans to lose something along the way. This something was morality. They had different definitions but meant something of the same thing.

In truth, I don’t think morality is declining, not even with the advent of sexting, or video games, or La-Z-Boy recliners. It’s natural that, by measuring it against objective progress in so many other areas, the presence of our human constants of good and evil will inevitably make us feel like failures. Because there certainly is evidence of objective progress. Are we, the middle class in a developed country, better off today than 25, 50, or 100 years ago? In a multitude of ways, absolutely: we have extended many basic rights to larger populations (de jure and de facto), have much more advanced medical care (and likely better access to it), use a host of labour-saving devices which reduce the amount of manual drudgery we have to endure day to day, have technologies that allow us to control our reproductive output (and therefore our careers, financial situation, etc. better), and, perhaps most importantly, can access vast amounts of information near-instantaneously.

Utopia? Certainly not. But I feel pretty good about being part of a society that is free, and liberal, and generally supportive of those who can’t support themselves. And I have a recurring dream in which (dork alert!) John Stuart Mill comes to visit me in the present, and he’s pretty pleased with how things have turned out as well, though of course we still have a lot of work to do.

In an excellent article on the idea of progress, a columnist in The Economist writes that our constant striving for morality is like aiming for an “unattainable horizon,” and the eternal battle between forces of altruism and selfishness keep society on an even keel (clearly, this author also has a bias to action). I think it’s more important that we keep up the faith that we’ll get there. Gen Y has it right: optimism is one of the keys to happiness. Society may not be perfect, but we have to believe we can keep improving it.

I started this post series with Madonna, so it only seems appropriate to end with the Beatles: I’ve got to admit it’s getting better; a little better all the time.

Read the other posts in this series:

Part 1: The Bias to Action

Part 2: History and its (Ab)Uses


The Modern Good Life, Part 2: History and its (Ab)Uses

March 24, 2010

My brother was a history major 10 years before I ever was, and I distinctly remember one weekend when he was visiting from university and asked me why we (as a people) study history. “Because we need to know about the past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future,” I answered, quite proud of myself. (Not the most inspiring answer, but I was 8. Give me some credit here.) I think he was impressed too – little did he know I would grow up to write a nerdy history blog! Ha HA!

What I said then is not a novel idea: historians have long advocated the necessity of knowing about the past in order to inform our decisions in the present, and justifying those decisions once made. And everybody loves history, because they love the stories of overcoming great odds, or seeing how much things have changed (or, indeed, stayed the same), or thinking about how with one small shift things could have been very different.

But we tend to forget that our fascination with the past is unique. Other worldviews don’t see it this way. To the followers of many Eastern religions, and humans from most of human history, the past was just a series of fluctuations around the same human constant. I’ll go back to John Gray’s Straw Dogs to where he argues that attempting to make sense of history and giving history meaning that has the potential to inform the present and future is just a “Christian folly,” part of Christianity’s central, mistaken assumption that humans are different from other animals and can direct our lives. “History” was never before considered cumulative, or linear, but cyclical. It was not studied. It was not important. It was as much an unknown as the future. And it certainly did not direct anybody’s actions in the present.

There is a concept within the discipline of the “silent referent,” a particular narrative or idea that acts as the standard against which something else is measured. The narrative is usually the European, Marxist master narrative that charts the “progressive” transition from a feudal, mythical, communal past to a capitalist, secular, modern present. This narrative is celebratory, teleological, and complete. It wraps us all up in the confidence that we have trod a good path that has ended in a happy, modern present. [More on this in my next post.] The idea of the “silent referent” is often used in postcolonial history, most notably in a landmark book by Dipesh Chakrabarty titled Provincializing Europe. Chakrabarty argues that Indian history needs to escape from this master European narrative in which it was never a part and can never measure up.

We would all do well, I think, to take note of his caution. I’m not sure even we can measure up. We run the risk today of being so tied to this celebratory history we have told ourselves that we can barely function without referencing it, or live outside of its temporality. The silent referent of our lives today is the past.

Perhaps this is a simplistic statement. It is natural that the future we imagine for ourselves is a direct output of the past we have experienced. We can hardly imagine anything else. (This is why aliens in movies look like small, green people.) But our high regard for preserving our history – even if it is largely unconscious – is unique to our species, our culture, and our age. We live very historically contextualized, temporized lives. The title of this blog (elitist meta moment alert!) is an ironic note that even those who are trying to escape “time” or “history” by adding the prefix “post-“ to things are still temporizing themselves by saying that we are in the temporal phase that comes after it and thus reinforcing the idea that linear time is of paramount importance.

There are two traps in particular that we might fall into: overspecialization, and overgeneralization. The first can occur when we endlessly analyze, categorize, and pull apart the past in an attempt to preserve it for future generations. This kind of history in the end takes everything from the past as equally worth preserving, with no distinction (historians specializing in German shoemakers from Frankfurt between 1522 and 1523, take note!). Wallowing in the “good old days” is a recipe for disaster, especially because even the most objective historical narrative has a bias and an angle. Nietzsche wrote about this tendency in The Genealogy of Morals, warning that it can effectively prevent any innovation or aspiration for the future.

I have written before about the dangers of over-specialization: information overload leading to a societal inability to discern what is really important, and even paralysis by analysis – the inability to do anything for fear of breaking too strongly with the past. This is exactly what Nietzsche was talking about. Individuals become slaves to history and cannot act outside of or without it. Is this, perhaps, some of what plagues us today?

Maybe. I do suspect we as a population need to be wary of those who seek to ‘preserve’ a traditional way of life, or go back to it – and I don’t mean that we should stop the trend of going back to 80s fashion before it really takes off. I mean that factions arguing for “traditional family values” or established religion carry mistaken and destructive beliefs that contribute to our present woes.

However, I think we are more often slaves to the past in a different way, and another that Nietzsche considered problematic: overgeneralization. This is the kind of history that seeks out role models and teachers from the past when we feel unable to find them in the present. And it can, in excess, create typologies to serve as standard scripts for the present, which, as Herr N. wrote, “generalize and finally equate differences” and as such it does a disservice to the past in masking its historical (and geographic) particularities.  Think of how many times you’ve heard “the worst economic climate since the Depression” or “the largest deficit we’ve ever seen” in the past two years – is this contextualization helpful? Does it help to know that Hillarycare failed in 1993? It isn’t 1993. How many other unchecked assumptions about the past are we dragging around and using as props to justify not changing or trying something new?

History is an anchor, and a necessary one, but it can also be a deadweight that prevents us from moving on. Being tied to the past, afraid to spend more money because we have never spent so much before, unwilling to make bold moves in favour of merely speculating over our downfall as a society doesn’t serve us well because we have no script that prepares us for the present. History never repeats itself, except in overwhelmingly general terms.

There is much to learn from the past. We can find the human characteristics that will inspire us in the present – perseverance, ingenuity, humility, and many more – but not the right political or economic blueprint for the future we’re trying to build.

Previous post in this series: The Bias to Action

Next post in this series: The End of Progress


The Modern Good Life, Part 1: The Bias to Action

March 22, 2010

As the great Madonna once asked, “Where do we go from here?”

It’s hard to avoid bad news these days. I read an extensive and very depressing article in the Atlantic last week about the “long shadow” that the current recession will leave on America. On the back of a decade-long employment slump, the current rate of unemployment will not really get better until at least 2014. A whole generation of young people, unable to get jobs now, will never achieve the same level of material wealth that their parents and grandparents had. A third of college graduates refuse to even engage with the job market, preferring to live at home with their parents. Another third are seeking refuge in graduate degrees that won’t help them find jobs later. Men everywhere, but especially in low-income families, have been disproportionally hit by labour force reductions (in manufacturing, construction, and the like) and are now the minority in the workforce. Their accompanying feelings of emasculation cause them to be more likely to abuse their wives and children, become addicted to some substance or another, or generally act out in other violent and destructive ways. Even the basic social fabric is weakening: in times of economic decline, populations become less tolerant and open-minded, and more rights are taken away; consequently, social progress is halted or reversed.

Serious problems all. And it isn’t just the Atlantic. The general tenor of world news these days is that the sky is falling: employment is down, crime is up, terrorists are everywhere, earthquakes and tsunamis are destroying whole countries, we are crumpling under the weight of our own debt, politicians are even slimier than usual, China is poised to rule the world, and cylons are going to nuke us! It’s a terrible time to be literate, really. The apocalypse is upon us.

But is it really? Are we to believe these prophecies of doom, spoon fed to us by our trusty news media on a daily basis? Are things really that bad? And if so, what is good?

Over the next few days I will be releasing a series of posts that examine the underlying assumptions that we hold– about human action, about history, and about progress – and exploring how they contribute to our current feelings of helplessness, decline, and a general sense that something has gone terribly wrong. I don’t mean to say that our most fundamental societal beliefs are wrong; merely that they are unexamined.

I suspect that much of our nebulous sense of “wrong” relates to our feelings of powerlessness. We are being manipulated by forces we can’t control, or even understand in some cases, and we have no idea the effect they will have on our future as individuals or as a society. (Indeed, the future is so uncertain, some of us have taken off our shades.)

The desire for action is one of the traits that characterizes our age, and the ability to change the world is a fundamental assumption twenty-first century humans hold. But it has not always been this way. The ancient philosophers thought that contemplation and understanding were the goal of life, constituting what they referred to as the “good life.” We have much more ambitious goals now: the “good life” today, it seems, is not only to understand but to effect positive change.

In the excellent and thought-provoking Straw Dogs, John Gray discusses the idea that we have adopted a “humanist” faith in progress and scientific innovation as a way to solve the age-old ethical and moral dilemmas that challenge us. This humanism bases itself on a perverted idea of Darwinian theory, he argues, and has picked up right where Christianity has left off, with the central tenet that humans are special, and different from other animals. We have destinies, special capabilities, the power to change things.

Gray disagrees on all counts. While we have certainly seen progress in science and technology, giving us more knowledge and more power than ever before, humans’ morality and ethics have remained at the same level. I will go one step further and say that the feelings of power that science and technology have engendered are also accompanied by a greater sense of scope (i.e. that life has to mean something) and responsibility (i.e. that we personally can change things).

The societal structures in which we live embody this sense of scope and responsibility. Consider democracy, or capitalism – belief systems that favour choice, and, as part of that choice, action. We must cast the vote, or buy the best product, in order for either system to succeed. And if enough of us vote with our ballots or with our feet, things will change.

It is no coincidence that both ideas really took off in the Victorian era, when action – or work – was glorified as good, honest, and respectable for the first time. Before that, work was always something to be abhorred, given to slaves or serfs if possible, deserving of contempt. At best, work was a means to an end of rest, or contemplation. But after the nineteenth century, “good work” became an end in itself. The idea originated in Christianity, but was never fully adopted until it became a part of the secular worldview of the capitalist, meritocratic nations that have effectively run the world for the past 200 years. (So if you’re feeling overworked, don’t blame the Americans; blame Martin Luther.)

It’s no wonder we feel lost these days, when we are unable to find a job, or feed our families, or predict what our personal living situation will be in six months. It is the natural fear that comes from instability, but also the idea that we are powerless. Gray would say that it is a reminder of our own insignificance and mortality, which normally are hidden behind a guise of action for the sake of it. It may also be a blow to the pride we feel in being able to control our worlds.

So how to fix this feeling of helplessness? Gray contrasts the modern Christian/Western idea that the “good life” is a struggle, swimming upstream in order to make our mark, a “perpetual striving,” with that of Taoism, in which the “good life” is living effortlessly, as we really are, and letting the current carry us. It certainly sounds more appealing, doesn’t it?

Next post in this series: History and its (Ab)Uses


High-Speed Rail and Globalization: On the Right Track?

March 18, 2010

Like any good student of British Imperial History, I adore trains, which is why I’m particularly excited about the current trend toward building high-speed rail (HSR) capability in the developed world. For the past 50 years, Japan and France have been at the forefront of high-speed rail innovation – today Japan has trains that run at almost 200mph and carry over 300 million riders annually, which is impressive given that their population is 128 million – but now the US, UK and China are getting in on the act as well. I spent some time reading government policy proposals (scintillating reading!) to understand the reasons behind the plans, and whether this trend marks a new era in the history of transportation. But my conclusions were more about people’s fears for the past and hopes for the future, played out in changing feelings about trains.

The history of train travel is a rocky one. Initially heralded as one of the major breakthroughs in transportation technology (and indeed, technology in general), travel by railroad was, in the nineteenth century, the quickest and often most cost-effective means of getting places. The effects of train travel on language, culture, and industry were profound (far too much so to get into here), not least for creating the sense of, as Marx once said it, “the annihilation of space by time.” Intercity rail travel precipitated one of the first major waves of thinking about global interconnectivity and “globalization.”

However, after a century of dominance, train travel went out of fashion. Almost as soon as cars became affordable enough to be widely accessible, in the very first part of the twentieth century, they became the primary means of transportation. By 1916, automobiles – albeit rather dangerous, primitive ones – were being used for recreational purposes, and as the Ford Model T decreased in price to $360 (a bargain for the middle classes even then), the number of automobile owners rapidly increased.   

Suddenly trains were inconvenient, expensive, and restrictive. (Just think about how you feel now about the TTC, but worse.) And as national funding for interstate highways and air travel steadily increased, the number of riders on inter-city railroads decreased.  Today there are few private corporations in an industry that was once dominated by Vanderbilts, and both funding and riders are scarce.

So why the return to train, in the form of high-speed rail networks, and is this a case of history repeating itself?

One of the key benefits cited by the government proposals is energy efficiency and environmental responsibility. The charmingly-titled Command Paper issued by the UK Department for Transport cites three key “green”-themed benefits (out of four total): “building a robust, green economy, gaining energy independence, reversing global climate change, and fostering more livable, connected communities.” I find this ironic considering that the popular mindset toward railroads a century ago was that they took people away from nature.

In my previous life as a grad student I studied travel and tourism in the American West in trains and automobiles (no planes, though I do know a fair bit about flight attendants ).  I discovered that for many travellers, cars were a means to get a sense of closeness to nature that was not possible through a train window, on a set schedule, from a rail line. (I suppose ‘off-roading’ was more of a thing back then.) Early car travellers referred to themselves as “gypsies” who could wander at will, on their own “natural” schedule.  Of course, the way “nature” was understood then is not the same as the how the “environment” and “environmental sustainability” is understood now – and, accordingly, cars are seen much differently too, but I find the complete role-reversal of cars and trains very interesting. It indicates that environmentalism now is less feeling a part of nature than helping to preserve it, a much more active, and less passive idea. 

The new HSR kick is also evidence that our attitudes toward technology and industrialization have changed in a big way in the last century. In the early days, cars were seen as the “rugged” and adventurous way to travel, more natural and democratic than taking the train. (The irony, of course, is that cars were equally cutting-edge technologically, if not more so.) While technological advancement certainly always had its advocates, there were many who felt as though humans’ dependence upon it had made them weak. Nothing exemplified this idea better than the comfort and luxury of rail travel.

Today, this idea that relying on technology is bad has all but disappeared. Reliance upon technology in the developed world now is ubiquitous and barely raises a concern — until it stops working. Certainly, the concerns over the increased efficiency of personal transportation vehicles, or improvements in air transport have been addressed by all of these documents, and high-speed raid still comes out on top for moderate-to-high-density intercity travel between 100 and 600 miles. But will there be a perceived “lesser-technology option” (as the automobile was understood in its early days) that arrives in the next few years that will siphon riders away from high-speed rail just as it did a century ago?

It seems unlikely, given that many of the positives first associated with automobiles – freedom from set schedules and monopolistic train companies, not having to deal with third party service providers, the appeal of the “open road” – are now mitigated for many by the drawbacks, such as high fuel prices, congestion, or guilt over carbon emissions.

 Perhaps the most interesting benefit of HSR that all of the proposals identified was what one termed “Interconnected livable communities.” It was also (to me) the most surprising. It seems that we are again talking about collapsing the gap between space and time with railroads, but now, instead of the physical distance between two points, it is the “time-space” between high-density regions that matters. These cities might actually be quite close together but still it is difficult to travel between them because of, as the report puts it, the lack of an “efficient local access and egress system” [in English, that means fewer entry and exit points].

Consider this map from the 2009 High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan, written by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most of the rail corridors connect places that aren’t actually that far apart. And most are in places where there is already very high population density (also note: it is no fun to live in Wyoming if you like fast trains…or people).

All of this indicates to me that already-large cities connected with strategic links are going to be the drivers of prosperity in the future – a much more specific (and in my mind accurate) picture of “globalization” than this idea of everyone being connected to everyone else. It also indicates that direct, interpersonal contact is still critical for the future. Technological improvements in communications have a limit. The British government report, for example, does not anticipate that videoconferencing will reduce the need for intercity travel. It would initially reduce by 30%, they estimate, but the total amount of business conducted would increase as a result and (with follow-up meetings, etc) the net effect would be no reduction in actual travel.

My sense is that high-speed rail has the potential to be a long-term, sustainably popular alternative to cars – especially if they can seem to collapse space and time again. The one constant of popular transportation technology is that it increases time-efficiency, and this factor will always win out. Time is the one hurdle we haven’t managed to conquer yet, and humans will get behind anything that helps us maximize the little time we have.

What do you think of the future of HSR? Would you use it? Do you use it now? Do you think trains or cars have the edge on a romantic, “closer-to-nature” image? And what do you think about the idea of direct interpersonal connections as the basis for globalization?


On the Persistence of Nations

March 16, 2010

I write a lot about nations, and using the nation as a category of analysis and categorization. This may seem dated, and certainly, after two or three decades of every history Ph.D. student and her dog writing dissertations about nationalism, it is no longer edgy or groundbreaking to do so. However, it is a conscious choice.  I maintain that the nation is the most powerful and relevant way in which we talk about ourselves today. This is not the case historically – it makes much more sense to talk about localities (like Athens, or Yorkshire) or civilizations and empires (like the Holy Roman one, or the Mayans) up until about the nineteenth century. Then, the idea of nations really gained global currency. And nations are still the dominant political, spatial and rhetorical organization of our world.

The world system of nations is the product of European modernity and is by no means natural. Nations were created first by European conquering powers in order to divide and differentiate peoples and create their histories. This was, of course, largely for the benefit of the conquering powers, who would use these fictional narratives to portray the colonized nations as inferior, and “behind” them on the continuum of progress. When colonized peoples became independent, they recreated and retold their historical narratives in a positive light, but kept the “nation” as the lens through which they told them, which reinforced the idea of nations as a category of analysis. Perhaps this was because the idea of “nations” escaped much of the hierarchical nature of empires and presumed an equality, or at least, commensurability, at the international level. But that was half a century ago, and there are no more empires left (at least not empires that dare speak their names).

So why do we – and I – still speak of nations?

Here are a few reasons:

Nations still aggregate power at the right level.

For all the talk of thinking globally and acting locally, or living in a post-bureaucratic age, the majority of policy is still created at the national level. Or, at the very least, the funding for policy initiatives comes from national governments, and is collected through national taxes. Voters pay more attention to electing national leaders than provincial, municipal, or supranational ones. Charlemagne blogs in The Economist this week that “national governments enjoy more legitimacy than any bit of the EU machine, if only because voters know more or less who they are voting for at national ballots,” and that EU leaders must note this as they attempt to change policy or bypass democratically elected governments in favour of appointed ones.

National governments have an advantage over regional or municipal ones, moreover, because only they can see the whole picture of which region or initiative should take priority and act accordingly (think: Canada’s equalization payments, or how the FBI prioritizes cases). And they have the means and vision to ensure policies are sustained over the long term.

National government is one of the few distribution channels to which we all pay (at least some kind of) attention.

Throughout history, people got their information from a few key places: family and friend networks, local lords or landowners, churches, and later, newspapers, radios and televisions. And the information they got was largely the same because it all originated from the same top-down power structures. Today, this is not the case: the proliferation of media and interpersonal connections we can all access through technology means we are no longer giving audience or authority to the same places. National and even local newspapers are dying in favour of blogs, and at the same time people can access the local news in Mongolia more easily than ever before. People don’t read the same three or four key magazines or watch the same television shows, so their opinions are more divergent.

But governments, and especially national governments, remain one of the few things all citizens have in common. It is difficult, for example, to be a functioning member of society and an ardent anarchist. National government continues to be the level at which disparate views band together into a few coherent, politically supported parties. And people still watch the Throne Speech and the State of the Union, and still pay attention when national leaders speak.

Corporations – for all that they are multinational in scope – must respect national laws and boundaries.

The customer is always right, but don’t think the customer is the individual – it’s the nation. Consider the fuss Google kicked up in January of this year when it refused to keep censoring its search results in China (which I wrote about in this post), an example of the lengths national governments can go to in order to block access to information. That was only the most prominent example, however; Google also censors results that are considered “locally objectionable” in other areas, including Thailand . And now even more national governments are seeking to regulate access to technology along national lines: Australia wants Google to censor all YouTube videos that are listed as “Refuse Classification” by the Australian Ratings Board, Pakistan blocks access to “offensive” YouTube videos wholesale, and Iran has done away with Gmail in favour of its own national email service.

Corporations must also consider national laws and norms when selling and marketing their products. Screening this hilariously early-1990s Coke commercial would probably be illegal in most Middle Eastern countries, and moreover, the marketing strategy would be completely different anyway because Coca-Cola is one of those products that is understood entirely differently in different nations. In the US, Canada, and most of Europe, it is just an amazingly good-tasting drink to slake one’s thirst, in some cases even a replacement for water (note that this is not actually healthy and that I do not advocate this). In much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, though, it is a dessert beverage, a treat, and a symbol of conspicuous consumption.  A bottle of Coke can cost as much as a whole meal in many of these countries, and marketing it as a common quantity would ruin its prestige. Understanding national differences is key to any corporation’s success.

Which leads me to perhaps the most important point in favour of nations:

The nation remains more of a cultural touch point for individual identity than any other level.

One need look no further than the recent Olympics to see the outpouring of pride demonstrated at the national level. National sports teams garner more cultural support than any local team. We wear national flags, sing national anthems, and study national histories and politics. The idea of the nation contains cultural capital because it is based on a romanticized notion of unity among difference. It presumes an underlying ethnographic, religious, linguistic, or racial difference as the basis for internal unity, and relies upon the psychological power that comes from being different from nearby “others.” This is why minority groups seek to break off and form their own nations (i.e. Quebec, Catalonia, Scotland) instead of localities or other entities. There is cachet in nationhood.

Many of our heroes are national. We identify with what we consider to be the fundamental tenets underlying our national philosophy: Canada is socially progressive and liberal, and has a fairly extensive welfare state – and yet we are moderate, and enjoy the relatively conservative (small ‘c’) merits of order and good government. We value peace, and work toward it both inside and outside our borders. These are all national traits. Americans are exceptional, the product of a unique set of historical chances and opportunities capitalized upon by an enterprising and fiercely individualist population. Individual rights are prized above all. These are broad ideas that a whole nation can get behind — and yet are distinctive enough to set a nation apart.

Naturally, there is room for multiple identities – even conflicting ones – for each of us. And no doubt there will be a time in the near future when the world can more logically be divided into regions, or metropoles, or supranational unions. But for now I will leave you with the lyrics to one of the most stirring hymns ever written (that, admittedly, is my opinion), still played all over the world and especially in the Commonwealth:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Can you think of another category of identity that inspires this kind of loyalty? (And does it have a flag?)