Marshall Berman: Melts in the Streets, Not in the Fields

by zunguzungu

There’s so much to say about Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air, but I should confess that much of what I have to say is really less about Berman than an expression of beefs I have more generally with the way progressive politically engaged academics imagine their engagement with “modernity.” I have a certain interest in it, I’ll admit, although I’m pretty cynical about the possibilities of positive change coming out of the things we do when we’re not in the classroom. And so does Berman; he doesn’t have a blog, but his writing has the same mixture of objective rigor and subjective engagement that makes blogging an attractive medium for me (and is part of why, I think, blogging has become so closely identified with political writing). So when the “Modernism and Culture” working group sat down to discuss two chapters from his book, I found myself (to my surprise) talking as if I really, really disliked the book, as if I had major grievances with his approach that it was really important for me to air. Maybe I do.

I found myself arguing that the book, even though it clearly is not about the relationship between urban and rural, is all about the relationship between urban and rural. This feels like an exercise in bad faith to me when I hear other people doing it; the argument that the problem with Berman is that he isn’t writing about the things I want him to write about is not a real criticism, just a bitchy expression of vanity. But I think he is talking about that spacial imaginary (or, as Raymond Williams has it, that “feeling of structure”). When he composes a dichotomy between St. Petersburg and Moscow (the modernist planned sui generis administrative capitol and the reactionary bastion of tradition), he observes that he is not interested in the vast majority of Russia (the 90+ percent of it which were famously rural masses), I want to object that this is not a choice you can make without consequences to your product. The thing you exclude is still there-as I argued with respect to the Wire here-still structures what you are able to see, and pretending it’s not there might help you create the illusion of verasimilitude, but it doesn’t actually succeed in making it not be there (if it is).

Anyway, here’s what Berman says. In the preface to the 1988 Penguin edition, he helpfully boils down his definition of modernism to “any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it.” It is interesting, and telling, that modernism already presumes modernity, that “modernists” are already “modern people,” except they’re the particular subset of modern people who are making the attempt to become “at home” in modernity (and to exert control over it, which I take to be the point of the subject/object distinction). I get all weird about this because I want to know what we call the “modern people” who don’t make the attempt, who don’t try to be at home in the modern world; presumably, they are not modernists, living in the modern world, but not at home in it.

This is an issue because while Berman waxes Baudelairian over the flaneur, that mythical street-walking city dweller much beloved by theorists of the modern, he doesn’t address the issue of why we really need streets and cities, whether the real horizon of possibility is defined by the creation of dense urban metropolitan communities. There are those who find the atomization of modernity unnatractive, who can imagine a way of living that doesn’t involve strolling along the spectacular boulevards of great modern cities, and who find no home for themselves in the privileged parts of our modern cities, but only in its dirty boiler rooms, and not because those cities are broken (in the sense Jane Jacobs would put it) but exactly because they work, because a modern city like San Francisco presumes, implies, and requires the systemic exploitative labor conditions of California’s central valley (or somewhere like it), the environmental devastation of California’s watershed, and the stark segregation of living communities that makes the center-periphery model of city planning work. I suspect, in other words, that this is not a bug, but a feature.

As James Scott points out, in his marvellous Seeing Like A State, the high modernist dream city of Brasilia–that Costa and Niemeyer carefully and significantly planned to look like an airplane from the air–was almost immediately supplemented by an enormous unplanned cloud of settlements for the workers who had to be there to build it, but who hadn’t been planned as part of the final order. As the planned city grew, so too did the shadow city around it:

“The unplanned Brasilia – that is, the real, existing Brasilia – was quite different from the original vision. Instead of a classless administrative city, it was a city marked by stark spatial segregation according to social class. The poor lived on the periphery and commuted long distances to the center, where much of the elite lived and worked. Many of the rich also created their own settlements with individual houses and private clubs, thereby replicating the affluent lifestyles found elsewhere in Brazil. The unplanned Brasilias – that of the rich and that of the poor – were not merely a footnote or an accident; one could say that the cost of this kind of order and legibility at the center of the plan virtually required that it be sustained by an unplanned Brasilia at the margins. The two Brasilias were not just different; they were symbiotic.”

Brasilia’s sort of an extreme example, of course, but that description doesn’t sound unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever lived in Washington, DC, a similarly sui generis planned administrative city built in a swamp and now surrounded by the massive cloud of its sprawling underclass. But it also sounds not a little bit like the spatial/political relationship that distinguishes Market street from East Oakland. Both are in the same modernity (because Market street and East Oakland are part of a single, unified political and economic organism) but they are certainly not equally at home in it.

Which is why it bugs me that Berman’s modernists and his (implied) non-modernists seem to inhabit the same space of “modernity” only the former “chooses” to be at home in it: presuming a choice where there’s actually an economic rationality to make the choice for you is the sort of myth that keeps the whole capitalist carnival ride going merrily round and round. But while Berman can safely imagine a purely urban space of modernity, he can do so only by carefully forgetting that there is no urban modernity without its dark double, that economically, politically, even conceptually, urban modernity cannot exist without its inverse. And by happening to fail to mention it, he participates in exactly the conceptual process of making it disappear from view.