I have recently started a new book that I can hardly put down! The book is Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity. Now, before you get your panties in a wad, the book is not against the Christian faith, instead in this book, Leithart explains that what we currently call “Christianity” is some strange amalgam of Modernism and Biblical Minimalism. In short, Leithart believes that “Christianity” (in this negative sense) is Biblical religion accepting the “role” modern secularists have assigned to it; namely, a role at the peripheries of the modern public life. With that introduction to the book, I would like to share what I found to be an extremely astute section of the book about the post-modern city that I read yesterday.
Leithart opens the section by explaining how historically cities have thrived on common symbols and/or festivals (city squares, feasts, etc.). He explains how the “street” was one of the final vestiges of commonality that the modern city had to unify it. In lamentation Leithart explains how even the street was taken away leaving no unifying structure for urban life:
In New York and elsewhere, highways cut through neighborhoods, breaking up decades-old patterns of social intercourse and economic exchange and playing a role in the decay of inner-city America. Housing became vertical, shrouding the street in the shadows of skyscrapers. parkways replaced streets, and the city became a restless whirl of traffic. (pg. 81)
He then goes on to show the negative impact of destroying such a unifying element as the street in the city. He explained how city planners then sought a new unifying factor in the city:
Urban planners were not slow in taking the hint [cities were falling apart] and began to see “spectacle” as a means for addressing the disruption of urban life and a way of fostering community spirit to unify the millions living in cities. (pg. 81-82)
Upon seeing the negative effects of paving interstates through the heart of cities and building up instead of out, city planners sought unifying cities through the use of spectacle. This was first attempted in Baltimore in the 60s (pg. 82). Leithart then cites Mike Featherstone to help show how this “community by spectacle” was not really community:
Mike Featherstone has explained the theory behind postmodern urban spectacle in similar terms. Postmodernism has “moved beyond individualism with a communal feeling being generated, to a new ‘aesthetic paradigm’ in which masses of people come together in temporary emotional communities.” Though this may simulate community, Featherstone notes that they are in reality little more than “post-modern tribes” that experience “intense moments of ecstasy, empathy, and affectual immediacy” rather than genuine, settled community life. (pg. 82 of Leithart & pg. 60 of Featherstone’s Cities of God, Radical Orthodoxy)
Upon reading this paragraph I was astounded by the truth that both Featherstone and Leithart were getting at, particularly near the end. In our postmodern world, we really don’t have city community. In fact, the community that we think we have is simply surrounded around intense emotional experiences. Being a residence of Athens, GA I immediately thought of the spectacle of sporting events and the role they play in creating the postmodern sense of community. Upon reading this it’s hard to deny such a truth as I see the spectacle of Georgia Football games “Bring the community ‘together'” each and every Fall. In fact, one of the examples that Leithart goes on to cite is the use of sports and concerts as spectacles. Leithart concludes the section well by explaining how the postmodern city is actually the creation of an “anti-city”:
Whatever may be said about this vision, the artificiality of the postmodern city perpetuates the modernist revolt against ritual. Spectacle is no substitute, manufactured spectacle especially. The postmodern city continues the modernist project—civic life without rituals or unifying festivals. The result is the anti-city, a mass of people with no communal center or identity. (pg. 83)
Leithart explains how the brief, emotionally driven, “community” that spectacle offers the postmodern city is no substitute for true community that in many ways relies on ritual. Leithart explains how modernism, in short, is a revolt against ritualism (pg. 79-80) and the postmodern communities are, as a whole, an case study of evidence for this anti-ritualism. Further, where ritual is rejected something must enter and attempt to hold the seems of society together. Spectacle has served as this substitute in postmodernism but, like any false substitute, cannot last forever!
Upon reading this, it seems that the unraveling of the postmodern “community” will coincide with the unraveling of the spectacle that is holding it together.
Food for thought!