Urban AwakeningsEd. note: This post is an excerpt from Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleesons’ new book: Urban Awakenings: Disturbance and Enchantment in the Industrial City. This following text is Chapter 2: Unsettling the Story of Disenchantment. 

Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. ‘Begins’ – this is important.1—Albert Camus

Urban life in industrial civilisation has the tendency to disenchant everyday experience. Too often, in the daily grind, one is left feeling disconnected from people, place, and purpose. We have all felt this disconnection and perhaps feel it even now—we humans of late capitalism.

As if somehow aware we are fiddling while Rome (or the Arctic) burns, we might ask ourselves incredulously: What are we doing? And why? There are no clear answers to these semi-conscious disturbances. It is too easy to move through the ruts of city life with little poetry or purpose.

You can see this malaise in the slowly dying eyes of people commuting to soul-numbing jobs, those seemingly lifeless actors regurgitating the pre-written script of advanced industrial society; cogs in a vast machine, easily replaced. If one is brave enough to maintain eye contact, perhaps we see our own urban disenchantment reflected in the eyes of those tired, alienated commuters, a class into which it is so easy to fall simply by virtue of being subjects of the capitalist order. Where are we going?

And why? Unfreedom persists and prevails, gazing at mobile phones, yet something in the human spirit refuses to accept that this is all there is—a vital obstinacy that helps keep despair at bay and the flicker of hope alive. The hour may be dark but on the horizon a shadow stirs. Still, the uncertain promise of some glorious new dawn is not needed to justify a rejection of a world immiserated by capital’s overreach. We all know that there is more to life than this.

Unhinged from our dreams of what we hoped the world would be like, urban life today threatens us all quietly with a vague dread, a foreboding realisation that somehow the mistakes of times past have acquired inertia that is locking us into an uncomfortable existence not of our choosing.

We are struggling to constitute the urban future, for it seems we are constituted by the urban past. As the Anthropocene lifts its veil and we allow ourselves to digest the full extent of the social and ecological catastrophes unfolding, it becomes clear the human inhabitation of Earth is ‘developing’ into a story of dubious honour. Progress has begun to turn back on itself, as the promises of capital, growth, and technology fail us, despite the material benefits offered to some.

We see this with our eyes and feel it in our hearts. Most troubling of all, perhaps, we are easily left uncertain of life’s meaning and direction, inducing that strange existential ache of ennui in the depths of our nature. It is a disturbing spiritual condition—an urban condition— too complex to be fully captured with words. Indeed, perhaps we would not want it fully captured with words, even if human language had the capacity. To borrow a phrase from the philosopher LudwigWittgenstein: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.2

And why should it be a surprise that urban life is so often disenchanting?

Trees and birds are disappearing from our lives as concrete and tarseal continue their inexorable creep, exiling non-human life. We urbanites are sometimes permitted what Australians call a ‘nature strip’— a small area of grass near the roadside, enclosed by concrete and beneath powerlines, upon which we can place our plastic trash trolleys each week.

Our primordial essence suffocates as we lose connection with the seasons and cycles of nature, living indoors under artificial lights or in the shadow of billboards. Weeds in the pavement are doused in RoundUp in the hope of maintaining the grim tidiness of civilised life. Where is our rage for nature?

In many western cities, clone-like suburbs continue their spread into farmlands and forests. They are matched by the clone-like residential towers spreading inexorably outwards and upwards from congested inner cities. The Global South seems set to follow, voluntarily or not. In Australia, as elsewhere, urban densification has been promoted by planners and delivered by developers in quest for the ‘green compact city’. It is an ideal that has been concretised, literally, by a freewheeling development industry that has produced a vast and poorly built landscape that can only be called ‘vertical sprawl’. We fear this ideal to be but capitalism’s latest deception, a new licence for pillage of green amenity and life space. Perhaps the compact city project is the system’s final material act of violence? It is too early to tell.

When and where did things go wrong? In the midst of over-crowded cities, there is more isolation than ever, despite living on top of each other as never before. In the UK, there is now a Minister for Loneliness. If only this were some fictionalised, dystopian satire, but no, it is all too real. The pandemic has enforced through law what had earlier merely been a social fact of separation. Impatiently the cars and trucks hurry past as if they had a place to be, leaving only the smell and noise of oil’s combustion in their wake. City life goes on with such fierce determination, slowed but not stopped by the coronavirus. We are easily caught up in the current, with barely enough time to breathe in the fumes or microbes. The newspapers tell of how last night there was another murder, still we casually flick through to the next article and read about sport, finance, or celebrity gossip, uncomfortably numb, anything to avoid the sinkhole of further reporting about COVID-19. If only we could see our twisted faces. If only we took time to cradle the human heart.

Still, as Albert Camus declared, one day the ‘why’ arises—and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. ‘Begins’, he says ‘– this is important.’ Weariness, Camus suggested, ‘comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening’.3 So which will it be? A gradual return into the chain? Or a definitive urban awakening? Surely it is up to us.

This book begins at that moment of weariness tinged with amazement.

It begins when one realises that our urban vitality—our verve for city life—has begun to fade, weighed down by diverse burdens, and yet, at the same time, in a moment of madness, we capture a glimpse in almost childlike wonder of the city’s prospect and lost spectacle; of what Hannah Arendt called our ‘natality’—a sense that the world as it is, is not how the world has to be. New worlds—new cities—are seen partially formed between the sentences of the old story, waiting to be born. Will we live them into existence? Or will we stick our heads in the sand as the tide moves in? To resign oneself to disenchantment is to accept the latter—an orientation we set out to discredit.

An Urban Politics of Enchantment?

The premise of this book is that urban disenchantment poses an ethical and political problem. Transformative action is not set in motion merely by an intellectual appreciation of crisis, immiseration, and exploitation. One can know of these horrors and yet not act… out of disenchantment.

For disenchantment’s primary consequence is passive resignation to the status quo, which is capitalism’s greatest achievement and its greatest tragedy. To act, to resist, to rebel, to revolt—these necessary orientations and interventions, we argue, depend on a state or mood of enchantment, the absence of which is haunting urban politics today.

At once, of course, the notion of ‘enchantment’ needs further explanation, especially in its application to the industrial city, which is arguably modernity’s defining achievement. Max Weber argued that modernity was increasingly disenchanted and stamped with ‘the imprint of meaninglessness’.4 Even today the prevailing view is that the industrial city—with its cars, concrete, over-crowdedness, pollution, and noise—cannot be experienced as enchanted. Indeed, in our post-Enlightenment age, any appeal to this notion requires not just definition but justification, since it normally belongs to past ages of superstition. In this book, we seek to challenge those prevailing views, drawing on and extending the seminal work of philosopher Jane Bennett in her text, The Enchantment of Modern Life.5 Inspired by Bennett’s work, we will endeavour to rehabilitate the notion of enchantment and apply it to the urban context.

We seek enchantment because we seek disturbance—in ways of which this book will tell. While we are the first to admit that there are plenty of aspects of contemporary life that fit the disenchantment story, we wish to test Bennett’s thesis that ‘there is enough evidence of everyday enchantment to warrant the telling of an alter-tale’.6

Let us be clear, this is no invocation to return to the oppressive superstition, stultifying tradition, and material grubbing of pre-modernity.

Our values are thoroughly modern—even if we enquire, with Bruno Latour, as to whether humanity has ever been truly modern. We subscribe, that is, to the centrality of reason for human (and indeed non-human) prospect. We were reminded, however, by the late Ulrich Beck that doubt —the necessary restraining twin of reason—is also a primordial Enlightenment value. Things went very wrong in industrial modernity when doubt was cast aside in favour of the rule of excessive reason. The horrors of authoritarian and corporatist rule (Left and Right) come to mind.

This is where the notion of enchantment comes in. Our use of the word denotes not magic but the very things we might associate with healthy doubt in an industrial order; a sensitivity to ambivalence, the unresolved, the overflowing and uncontained, the surprising and unplanned for. We are open to seeing and feeling things that the cold logic of instrumental rationality might marginalise or obscure. We seek to find the rust in the machine, which may take lovely colours and remind us of the mortality of all things, of the limits to growth imposed by death and decay. Mightn’t we be enchanted with good reason when green shoots are seen pushing through the soil as the machine of capitalism itself is composted (and composts itself )?

None of these glimpses and provocations should frighten us, as much as they might jolt or disturb us, because they work to restrain rationality and prevent the overreach reflected in assertions like limitless economic growth, unbounded abundance, and geoengineering. To look at the city anew, through the questioning lens of enchantment, is to do what therapists implore us to do through meditation: to fall awake.

Urban enchantment is a kind of mindfulness that is committed to awakening from the technocratic dreams and arrogations of growth fetishism and industrialism. Indeed, perhaps urbanites in the overdeveloped world may need to fall, descend, and ‘degrow’ from such heights in order to wake up—a complex meditation to which we will return.7

At base, we employ the term enchantment to signify an affective state—a mood of enchantment. We defend the idea that this mood is a necessary precondition to ethical practice and political engagement, in that it can create the emotional capacity for wonder, compassion, engagement, and generosity. As Bennett explains, to be enchanted ‘is to be struck and shaken by the extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and the everyday… [it is] the uncanny feeling of being disrupted or torn out of one’s default sensory-psychic-intellectual disposition’.8 It is this surprising emotional disturbance that Bennett believes has ethical potential. To be enchanted—if only for a moment—is to see life as worth living and to see the world as a place that has the latent capacity to be transformed in more humane and ecologically sane ways. More importantly, it provides the propulsion to act and engage, functioning as an antidote to apathy, resignation, and perhaps even despair. An openness to enchantment might even be a form of what Jem Bendell calls ‘deep adaptation’9—a strategy for digesting the inner dimension of the Anthropocene with courage and compassion.

It should be clear then that assessing the ethical and political potential of enchantment implies no theoretical degeneration into New Age mumbo-jumbo or any cruel aestheticism. One can never be enchanted by homelessness. But one can be enchanted by a social and political vision, and plan of action, which show why homelessness is an unnecessary feature of our cities and societies. One can never be enchanted by how the combustion of fossil fuels is drying our winters and intensifying our summers, but one can be enchanted by children going on school strikes to protest the spineless inaction of our so-called leaders. To be enchanted by ‘the wonder of minor experiences’10 helps transform the affective register of politics, by altering ‘the emotions, aesthetic judgements, and dispositional moods that shape political wills, programs, affiliations, ideological commitments, and policy preference’.11 It could be said, then, that we are exploring the political relevance of the urban mood(s).

Enchantment, in this sense, can expand the contours of what seems possible and it can provoke a revaluation of what is valued. Bennett maintains that everyday moments of enchantment can build an ethics of generosity, care, and engagement, stimulating the vital energy needed to resist injustice and participate in practices of solidarity, compassion, experimentation, and renewal. To be disenchanted is to feel one lives in a world in which meaning and purpose are absent, and in which a better world is unimaginable and so not worth fighting for. Thus disenchantment is a political and ethical problem, even as enchantment remains elusive and its experience temporary. But temporary though they are, moments of enchantment can outlive their experience, changing us forever even when the moment has passed.

We will argue that it is still possible to experience enchantment in the industrial city, despite its ugliness and violence, and in fact that this affective state is crucial to motivating the ethical and political sensibilities and behaviours needed to transform urban landscapes and trajectories.

In doing so, we seek to challenge the ‘narrative of disenchantment’ which serves only to immobilise and demotivate collective action. The closing chapter of this book draws together insights from our perambulations and presents a sketch of what we loosely call ‘an urban politics of enchantment’. This is based on a recognition that an effective urban politics must be an affective politics, one that changes (or challenges) not only how we think about the world, but also the way we feel, perceive, judge, create, and, in the end, exist in the world. As John Berger famously argued, there are different ‘ways of seeing’,12 and our various urban excursions provide the building blocks for our closing statement. We seek to show that the lens of disenchantment is only one lens through which to see the modern industrial city, and a dangerous one at that, with regressive social, political, and economic implications. There are alternatives, even as we accept that the disenchanted worldview holds certain unavoidable and necessary truths. This is not a utopian or romantic book, although it retains a touch of what Terry Eagleton calls ‘hope without optimism’.13

Thus enchantment can mean finding sensuous life in the lifeless, machinic, ultra-rationalist workings of the industrial city. It can mean seeing value beyond exchange value; worth in the worthless; and riches in ruins. In short, to find enchantment is to find a reason to live beyond capitalist reason; to look at things without the lifeless commodified gaze which values only the instrumental. If this can be done—if we can find value outside the profit-maximising rule of urban exchange value—then this sets up a wider ethics of interpretation and action outside the narrow codes, principles, and laws of the capitalistic urban process. It sets up an ethics of resistance to the rule of commodity rationality and thereby provides, or threatens to provide, a foundation for a new, post-capitalist urban politics of renewal. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Walking the City as the City Writes Us

Let’s make clear the urban field in which we will conduct our ‘action research’, recorded in the following pages. Escaping the office and leaving the computer behind, our method is to walk our home city of Melbourne and be open to what it teaches; to absorb and be absorbed by the alchemy of built, social, and natural environments that constitute this metropolis and shape its cultures. As we pass through and between diverse sites of the city, we will endeavour to observe, experience, examine, and participate in our urban landscapes, cultures, and histories, attempting to distil our learnings on an eclectic range of topics that nevertheless reflect a cohesive mission: to find life and disturbance in the cracks of capitalism; to find enchantment in the industrial city. Just as Martin Heidegger once noted cryptically that humans do not speak language but rather ‘language speaks man’,14 so too do we hope that the city writes us, rather than have us write the city.

That is our hope; our hypothesis. In this book, we will be reporting and reflecting on excursions that take place within Melbourne, a widely spread industrial city of about five million souls, and countless nonhumans, situated at the southern base of the Australian continent.

Encompassing nearly 10,000 sq kms, and wrapping to the north, east, and increasingly the west of the beautiful, if tempestuous, Port Phillip Bay, the city at the time of our journeys is one of the fastest growing in the (over)developed world. It is a ‘new world’ city, like those in North America and New Zealand that were established in the wake of European invasions of ancient settled lands, prior to and during the intellectual, technical, and economic revolutions that produced industrial capitalism.

Founded in 1835, Melbourne was one of the more recent additions to the ‘new world’ city order. It grew quickly, however, and by the latter decades of the nineteenth century was one of the largest cities in the British Empire. During his visit to the city in 1885, the influential English journalist George Augustus Henry Sala coined the phrase ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, which justifiably described a thriving, beautiful metropolis. But of course, as with all things in capitalism, the rule of finitude was reimposed brutally by a profound economic crash just after Sala’s tribute was made. Like all industrial cities, Melbourne has experienced regular cycles of boom and bust. Presently, its rapid demographic and economic growth is overshadowed by the spectres of climate change, social polarisation, worsening homelessness, pollution, resource depletion—and, most recently, pandemic. It’s harder and harder to describe this injured but still beautiful city as ‘Marvellous’.

Marvellously (with irony) Melbourne has no government—a degree of control over its life and shaping is exercised by the State of Victoria, of which it is the capital, and the thirty-one municipalities that constitute the metropolitan area. It is a city that has grown convulsively in recent times, adding more than 500,000 souls to its population in the last five years. The Golden Idol of Growth is worshipped in political discourse, though civil society remains somewhat less convinced. The various mainstream and social media are replete with social anxiety about the pace of growth and its many outfalls.

Contemporary corporate spin would have it otherwise. The long history of city boosting has been supplemented in recent times by the rhetoric of ‘liveability’. The oxymoronic sounding ‘Economist Intelligence Unit’ has produced annual liveable city leagues and rankings that bestow favour on the fortunate and the canny (best when you have both). Currently, Vienna wears the crown but it was Melbourne’s prized possession between 2011–2017. Now we snake just behind Vienna, a close second. Given what we said above, the liveable city rankings (of the Economist Intelligence Unit and several other makers) must be treated with great caution. The cruelly ambiguous liveable city trope is something to think about for those wishing to take issue with the disenchantments of contemporary industrial capitalism. As we will do.

So much for modern Melbourne, our field of adventure and exploration is also an ancient settlement, the lands of the Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung, and Wathaurong peoples who had thrived within its bounds and on its bounty for millennia. It is a matter of record and extreme injustice that these people were very harshly, often barbarically, treated by settler invasions, which included a huge human influx during the nearby gold rushes of the 1850s and continued in regular cycles to today. Despite a series of massacres, dispossessions, and debauchments, the Indigenous peoples survived. They strive today, with their supporters, for the recognition and repossession of the country and culture that are their rightful inheritances. To succeed, these strivings may invite forms of enlightened enchantment in the city, acts of pride and reinstatement that refuse the narrative of a modern human settlement that somehow magically appeared in 1835.

Given its deep historical timescape, the pre-history of Melbourne must be considered the real history of the land upon which our searching occurs. These prehistories and their surviving contemporary legacies are riches stored in the city’s varied landscapes: its inner-city towerscapes, ringed by graceful if increasingly congested Victorian suburbs that give way to the suburban tracts that roared into life during the twentieth century and which continue to push outwards today.

For decades, it has been a commonplace to describe most European and new world cities including Melbourne as ‘post-industrial’, denoting the mass exodus of manufacturing, largely to the Global South, that began with vigour from the 1970s. For Melbourne this continues to the present day, with its recent loss of a considerable automotive manufacturing sector to the vicissitudes of the global neoliberal economy.

Post-industrial cities are held to be dominated by their service sectors, with many dreams about their new potentialities spun in the fine threads of the ‘knowledge city’, the ‘smart city’, and the ‘green city’.

So-called post-industrial cities are made to wear all these layering garments betokening new hopes and new awakenings in the afterwashes of (often painful) deindustrialisation. Yet, we assert that underneath still lies an industrial order that is too hastily discarded or glossed over by the dreamy-eyed celebrants of post-industrialism. One must not forget that ‘service’ and ‘information’ economies inevitably rely on material and energy foundations, and evidence suggests that for all the hype, these supposedly dematerialised or decarbonised urban oases of ‘green growth’ have by and large turned out to be mirages.15 The post-industrial urbanites and the system within which they produce and consume are as impactful as ever.16

Put simply, the post-industrial city is a dependent product of the globalised industrial order—and thus not post-industrial at all. Take away the fossil-fuelled imports, cars, trucks, technologies, and cultures, and we’ll see then what a post-industrial city looks like. One way or another, for better or for worse, that future is on its way, due to the depletion of our finite inheritance of fossil fuels or the disruptive transition to renewable energy technologies for climate mitigation (or both).17 But for now, let us not pretend otherwise: we inhabit an industrial city still trying to rebirth itself. Readers may reflect for themselves on whether their own cities have been marketed falsely as post-industrial.

Furthermore, we think expansively, and we believe correctly, about the term industrial, which at its root means much more than manufacture.

Its historical form simply denotes human industry, the steady and habitual effort that is required each day to reproduce life. In this sense, Melbourne and all such cities are cities of industry, recognising also the natural processes that could equally be described as industrious. And words expand and morph over time. A more recent use of industry connotes scale, meaning that any large process, not just manufacturing, can be considered industrial.

Contemporary Melbourne like many cities betrays in numerous ways this contemporary meaning of the term, from its rampant population growth, to mounting congestion, its new monster infrastructure, and the vertical sprawl of its high-density developments, smoothing out to the myriad ordinary ways in which daily life is reproduced in the theatres and circuits of commerce, education, government, transport, and even the recreation enjoyed in its fields and stadia. The final affirmation of the term, suspended over the metropolis, is the dominant ideology of limitless growth. An iron compact of business and political elites that continues to prescribe and prosecute this value in the face of mounting evidence of its failures and deepening social mistrust.

The putative commitment to compact city planning, shared with most western cities, is no barrier to growth that now occurs as much vertically and through the intensification of everyday life. In this sense, the postindustrial city is a myth; the first spell from which we must awake in seeking enchantment in the industrial city.

In these pages, we will find it in Melbourne, a city of industry; of generally peaceful industrious people but increasingly troubled and injured by the excessive reason of accumulative capitalism. There is nothing post-industrial about a metropolis, like many others, increasingly subjected to the rule of the algorithm. The so-called platform economy—dominated and defined by the digital matchmakers, Uber, Airbnb, Google, social media, and the like—is the augury of a new industrial age that demands our doubtful, critical engagement. Sarah Barns speaks of the rise in cities of ‘platform urbanism’18—a new and imminent machinic transformation of urban functioning and life which beckons the disruptive work of the seekers of enchantment. Can we find rust already in the iron workings of their algorithms?

Our contribution in this book is to explore disruptions, cracks, and alleyways in the narrative and testimony of industrial urban Melbourne.

We will report and reflect on our critical wanderings through and upon various urban and suburban landscapes, as we open our eyes to the possibility of enchantment in the spectacular diversity of spaces in the industrial city, from the grand, beautiful, prominent, and imposing, to the hidden gems and disturbances that lie beyond the gaze of tourists and glossy magazines. Nevertheless, we offer no pretensions about this being a comprehensive critical analysis or complete review of Melbourne’s urban landscapes. It is but a passing and partial intervention. All the same, we hope that our Melbourne journeys and provocations will find wider resonances in a global urban age increasingly in the thrall of machinic and cybernetic thinking. We hope to rediscover a different, more marvellously enchanted Melbourne—a new Atlantis beneath our feet—by letting our senses wander with our thoughts. For what exists in the city is not what one looks at, possesses, or owns, but what one sees and feels.

Notes

1. Albert Camus, 2000 [1942]. The Myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin, p 19.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1961. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p 151.

3. Camus, Myth, p 19.

4. Max Weber, 1981. ‘Science as a Vocation’ in Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p 140.

5. Jane Bennett, 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

6. Ibid., p 4.

7. See also, Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, 2019. Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary. Singapore: Palgrave.

8. Bennett, Enchantment, pp 4–5.

9. Jem Bendell, 2018. ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ (IFLAS Occasional Paper 2).

10. Bennett, Enchantment, p 3.

11. Jane Bennett, 2002. Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild .Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, p xxii.

12. John Berger, 1990. Ways of Seeing . London: Penguin.

13. Terry Eagleton, 2017. Hope Without Optimism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

14. As referenced in Richard Rorty, 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p 113.

15. See generally, Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, 2019. ‘Is Green Growth Possible?’ New Political Economy. https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964.

16. Blair Fix, 2019. ‘Dematerialization Through Services: Evaluating the Evidence’. Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality 6(6). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41247-019-0054-y.

17. Samuel Alexander and Joshua Floyd, 2019. Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future: Life Beyond this Brief Anomaly. Melbourne: Simplicity Institute; Joshua Floyd et al., 2020. ‘Energy Descent as a Post- Carbon Transition Scenario: How “Knowledge Humility” Reshapes Energy Futures for Post-Normal Times’. Futures (in press).

18. Sarah Barns, 2020. Platform Urbanism: Negotiating Platform Ecosystems in Connected Cities. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Teaser photo credit: Collins Street lined with buildings from the “Marvellous Melbourne” era. By Unknown author – Collins: The Story of Australia's Premier Street, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95485141