The City as Nature’s Other:
A Still Unresolved American Dilemma

2001 Annual Meeting of SAAP
Final Plenary Session
UNLV (Las Vegas); March 13 1:15-2:45 p.m.
Josephine Carubia, Pennsylvania State University
Vincent Colapietro (Organizer), Pennsylvania State University
Joseph Grange, University of Southern Maine
John J. McDermott, Texas A&M University

Virtually all of us have visited cities and some of us either have lived or now dwell in an urban center.  The influence of cities upon our consciousness, conduct, and character of course extends to inhabitants of suburban and rural areas.  The city dwells within us even when we do not dwell in the city: contemporary consciousness is to some degree inevitably urbanized consciousness (cf. McDermott, The Culture of Experience [NY: NYU Press, 1976], p. 199).  At any rate, the importance of cities cannot be gainsaid.

Given its theme, this annual meeting of SAAP not only invites philosophical reflection upon our urban experience but also encourages that such reflection be undertaken from the distinctive angle of one or more American traditions, thinkers, or texts.  John J. McDermott is exceptional in having written so insightfully and eloquently about the centrality of cities to our experience as Americans; and he has done so from a perspective inspired and informed by the writings of James, Dewey, Royce and other American authors (philosophical and otherwise).  Hence, it seems fitting to seize this occasion as an opportunity to celebrate his exploration of urban space, time, and sensibility.  Such a celebration ought to be a ritual of recollection, a deliberate attempt to recall in detail what he has written about cities, but it also ought to be an exemplification of query, a nuanced probing into the ramifying significance of urban dwelling (cf. Justus Buchler on query; McDermott).  In particular, it seems especially fitting to recall John McDermott’s reflections on urban existence, experience, and consciousness and, in light of these reflections, to probe the irreducibly complex meaning of such existence, etc.

What John McDermott noted almost three decades ago is for the most part still true: "we have failed to diagnose the limitations and strengths of our present urban context on its own terms, rather than as a function of the absence of nature" (The Culture of Experience, p. 180; emphasis added).  One important exception is Joseph Grange, whose recent book on The City: An Urban Cosmology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1999) followed his exploration of Nature: An Environmental Cosmology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997).  Professor Grange explicitly identifies his work on The City as being in "the tradition of American naturalism" (p. 207; cf. p. xiii).  Moreover, he acknowledges his debt to the author of The Culture of Experience, Streams of Experience, and numerous other writings: "No one has done more to make the American city a theme for philosophical reflection that John McDermott.  My work has been inspired and greatly aided by his pioneering work" (p. 240, n. 7).  Hence, a panel in which John McDermott and Joseph Grange address questions concerning the city seems appropriate for this particular meeting of SAAP.  

If we remain in our self-understanding (to use Perry Miller’s phrase) "Nature’s nation," we thereby remain nostalgia’s hostage.  On the one hand, our self-understanding continues to define the city as nature’s other; on the other hand, the American city is not so much a defined place as a cultural presence disrespectful of boundaries and enclosures (as previously claimed, the city dwells within us even when we do not dwell with the city).  Insofar as our lived experience is an urbanized process in which the styles, sensibility, and rhythms of the city are strands woven into the crazy quilt of our contemporary lives, but insofar as we persist in thinking about the city as nature’s other, we are at a loss for how to articulate our own experience.  Our muteness in this context entails mutilation (McDermott’s Culture, pp. 195-6), for articulation here opens the possibility of enhancement and emancipation (what John Dewey noted, in the concluding chapter of Experience and Nature, about philosophy might be said more generally of articulation: "Its primary concern is to clarify, liberate and extend the goods which inhere in the naturally generated functions of experience" [LW 1: 305]).  The city is not so much nature’s other as it is America’s matrix (at least, contemporary America’s womb).  Yet our nostalgia for nature tends to deprive us of the conceptual and rhetorical resources requisite for the articulation of our experience; however, the challenges, exigencies, and indeed frustrations of this experience make it at once necessary but difficult to take this experience on its own terms.  The desire for a place apart, for somewhere else, becomes imperative, given our cultural inheritance and contemporary brutalities, especially given the tenacious image of nature as purifying and even salvific, along with the equally tenacious sense of  the city as corrupt and corrupting.   Hence, the subtitle of John McDermott’s essay "Nature Nostalgia and The City" is "An American Dilemma"; and the subtitle of this panel ("A Still Unresolved American Dilemma") obviously echoes that of this essay. 

To be sure, the flight from "civilization" in its original sense has been and still is constitutive of our experience of our culture.  But, for most of those undertaking this transition, the flight from the city is ironically not a return to a pristine wilderness but a reconfiguration of urban space, such that the contemporary galactic city (an expanding periphery with ever shifting centers of human transaction) is usurping the cultural place of the more traditional nuclear city, a relatively determinate place with discernible boundaries and a stable center (Peirce Lewis). 

The objective of this panel is thus to take up anew the task of thinking through our urban contexts, in their historical and cultural specificity, on their own terms (to conceive cities not solely or even primarily as nature’s other).  Central to this task is the articulation of "city experience in aesthetic terms" (McDermott, The Culture of Experience, p. 195), for only the fashioning of a distinctively urban aesthetic can convey the significance of our urban experiences.  While Emerson was disposed to bemoan the limitations imposed by urban settings ("Cities give not the human senses room enough"), we are inclined to celebrate the sensory, imaginative, and intellectual provocations and inducements so much a part of urban experience.

In "The Dilemmas of Urban Photography" Josephine Carubia accepts John McDermott’s invitation to articulate urban experience by means of aesthetic consciousness.  In light also of Joseph Grange’s reflections on contrast and intensity, she will explore the ways urban photography can help to transcend the false dichotomy of natural versus artificial environments to formulate a fuller aesthetic of urban experience.  In "Bebop as Historical Actuality, Urban Aesthetic, & Critical Utterance" Vincent Colapietro will take up John McDermott’s emphasis on the radically altered aesthetics of urban experience, highlighting the importance of the bebop movement as historical actuality and as metaphorical resource. This will allow him to present the hypothesis that the cityscape is a timescape in which the currents of history intersect and redirect each other’s course and, closely related to this, the hypothesis that  the city is a site wherein the forces of abstraction and those of emplotment operate to sustain, but also to frustrate each other.   This might be identified as the unreconcilable tension between abstracted space and historical place(s).  Joseph Grange will offer a "cosmological" viewpoint, developing themes articulated in his book on The City.  Each one will do so in reference to John J. McDermott’s reflections on the city, who will then respond to the three presentations.