City psychosis.

The twentieth century witnessed the rapid urbanization of the world’s population. The global proportion of urban population increased from a mere 13 per cent in 1900 to 29 per cent in 1950 and, according to the 2005 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects, reached 49 per cent in 2005. Since the world is projected to continue to urbanize, 60 per cent of the global population is expected to live in cities by 2030. The rising numbers of urban dwellers give the best indication of the scale of these unprecedented trends: the urban population increased from 220 million in 1900 to 732 million in 1950, and is estimated to have reached 3.2 billion in 2005, thus more than quadrupling since 1950. According to the latest United Nations population projections, 4.9 billion people are expected to be urban dwellers in 2030. – Source: World Urbanization Prospects: the 2005 Revision

I+predict+a..._135387287Inspired by a reading of Lewis Mumford’s ‘The city in history’ I’m currently beginning a slow process of thinking about the role of the City in the human ecology.  I turned to Mumford because of the scattered references to his work in Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ project, and that has already proved productive, not least because of the realization that the ‘paranoid/schizoid’ poles that run throughout that project seem to have some roots in Mumford that I had not registered before.  In Chapter Two, for example, Mumford develops his idea of the City as an ‘implosion’ event in human culture that arises from a dynamic between neolithic ‘villages’ and paleolithic ‘hunters’ which gradually produces the role of Kingship, the catalyst for the implosion event of the City.  With this implosion event, dominated by a central authority, a new  “collective personality structure” (p.60) develops.  The idea that this new collective personality structure is one that connects a paranoid to a schizoid position is clear, for example, in the following:

Not merely did the walled city give a permanent collective structure to the paranoid claims and delusions of kingship, augmenting suspicion, hostility, non-cooperation, but the division of labour and castes, pushed to the extreme, normalized schizophrenia; while the compulsive repetitious labour imposed on a large part of the urban population under slavery, reproduced the structure of a compulsion neurosis. (p59-60)

Mumford is enjoyable to read, so far at least, because of his richly interpretative and evocative approach.  He develops a very broad synthesis of ideas and histories in order to tell something like an ‘origin myth’ and this is both the strength and weakness of his book so far.  At times he seems to be simply telling a story, at other times attempting to synthesise existing knowledge, always hovering on the edge of actually showing anything to be the case, instead maintaining this suggestive dynamic, hence why it seems akin to an ‘origin myth’ that is being presented.  That said, this is only the initial impression from the first couple of chapters of the work and is something that I hope changes as I work through his large text.  It would be disappointing to find that ‘origin myth’ style continues for all 650 or so pages, which I doubt it does, but it’s still interesting to encounter it.

Reading Mumford prompted me to look at some of the data regarding urbanization and some very limited research brought up the recent ‘transition point’ shift taht made the news around about 2006.  The shift from rural to urban world population crossed the 50% urban population mark in 2006-2007 and is still climbing. Using data from the World Bank, as presented by Google, this shift can be seen in the following:

Although a more interesting graph is the one that represents this growth in terms of regions, as follows:

In the regionally differentiated graph it’s clear that all areas of the world are subject to the same basic direction of urbanisation, although unsurprisingly it is North America that has the highest ratio of urbanised population.

Now graphs are terrible things in many ways, delusion engines of the highest degree if taken uncritically, and so I’m not exactly sure quite what these graphs show and wouldn’t want to make any claims about what’s really going on behind these data sets. However, graphs derive their delusionary capacities from their ability to present ‘seemings’, that is, to show how something seems to be operating. Given this rather large caveat, one of the things that seems to be shown in these graphs is that there is a rather uniform and reasonably drastic increase in urbanisation between the years of 1960 and 2012. It also seems that the data within this particular window is a little odd. I haven’t been able to find an easy source for data that goes back, say, to 1860, let alone 1760 or even earlier but one of the things that seems rather obvious is that whatever the function that is operational within the 1960-2012 framework, it must be a different function from that which was operating, for example, between 1760 and 1960 and that seems to be the case for one very simple reason. If we were to take the left hand side of the graph and simply push the numbers down to zero on the basis on some sort of pattern available from the snapshot in the graphs (Rational Health Warning, see footnote *1), it would seem that such a ‘zero urban population point’ would occur around about 1850. That seems a little odd, not least because the City is a function of human life for far longer than the last 170 years. In fact it might reasonably be thought that the City has been one of the central, perhaps even the most central, feature of human life for anywhere between the last two to four thousand years (cf. Mumford). Of course, ‘urbanization’ and the ratio of the urban to rural population is a different phenomena from ‘the City’ so it might be wrong to conflate the two and in addition the ‘1850’ origin moment points towards something like the heart of the industrial capitalist revolution.

What this data suggests to me is two-fold.  Firstly, that it seems like the urbanization dynamic is strong and rapidly transforming the social relations of the world on a grand scale.  Secondly, more speculatively, that this is a new dynamic.  It’s this second point that interests me after beginning the Mumford and in particular after encountering his idea that the City itself is an implosion event, one that operates like a threshold moment the effects of which are a rapid development of productive forces.  If the new rise of the city, the rapid increase in urbanization, is a contemporary event then one thing that suggests itself is that a new ‘implosion event’ might be on the horizon or – more likely – might be the horizon within which we are living.  Whilst this is deeply connected to capitalist social relations, in may ways it’s also a separate and autonomous dynamic.  If the first implosion event of the City brought forth, as Mumford suggests, a quite radical development of the productive forces then it seems reasonable to think that a new implosion event might do something similar.  Given that the first implosion event also involved some shift in the collective personality, it would again seem reasonable to extrapolate another such shift.  The question that suggests itself, then, is what sort of city psychosis is developing?  If the Kingship role is no longer dominant and the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ spectrum that goes with it is perhaps being superseded, what is the city psychosis of the future?

(Citations from Lewis Mumford, The city in history, Pelican 1984.)



*1. I’m talking, very very informally, about interpolating the data in the graph, which would perhaps best be done with some statistical analytical tools (would you use Lagrangian equations to do this?). I’m not equipped to do this but just using data points taken at decade long intervals and noting the difference between one decade and another there is, very roughly, something like a 3% increase from decade to decade, although this does increase in more recent decades reaching 4.92% difference between 2000 and 2010. On the basis of a 3% increase decade by decade, and working back from 33.51% at 1960 gives us a 110 year span for the subtraction to hit zero. This is pretty crude and may well hide some obvious problems, so large pinches of salt please, this is just idle speculation on my part at this moment. For example, the difference in growth between decades from 1960 to 2010 increases each year, from 3.08% between 1960 and 1970 to 4.92% between 2000 and 2010. If I were to look at the pattern of this increase, rather than stop at 3%, then I might find that the increase decreases each decade as we move back in time. The increase would then ‘disappear’ at some point, possibly well before 1850, and a ‘stability’ arise in which urban populations remain steady, or relatively steady. This, intuitively, seems far more likely to be the actual case. It seems, intuitively, that there is some point at which urbanisation moves from relatively stable population to relatively dynamic growth, a point which I would imagine coincides somewhat with the rise or industrial capitalism, but I need to find more data sources (and develop my statistical analytical skills) before I could say anything about this. No doubt there is a lot of work already done on this within geography and so I’ll be looking around in that area for some more material.  The ‘World Urbanization prospects’ report linked above notes that in 1900 the world urban population was around 13 per cent in 1900, which would still, very roughly, fit the very rough ‘3% of total per decade’ increase model, since that model gives 15% at 1900.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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