A subtle scent of Alstonia still lingers on the road I take to work – a leftover from the winter when these avenue trees had filled the air with their sweet, intoxicating scent. It lingers only in one particular place, near a secluded street that leads away from the main road where vehicular exhaust slaps against your face. As I meander through this road every day, I see more and more of lone parakeets darting through the air, squeaking as they fly to get somewhere in hurry, rather than flocks of them. I also notice more crows than sparrows. And I feel the exhaust and the aftertaste of being blasted by the soot of vehicles more strongly, piercing my lungs and leaving me breathless. My senses are heightened only when I experience these things as an outsider. If I were to sense it as a part of this landscape, I’d be seeing, smelling, and feeling the flavours of the city every night and every day, and so I would never have smelt the flowers, nor seen the birds nor tasted the fetid toxins I inhale, so vividly.
We are (most if not all) oblivious to this, not only because we are too used to this but because we are too familiar with this. We accept it as it is – as a by-product of how we function: on laws, beliefs, and the economy. Many argue that a city is like a living organism – a breathing, eating, excreting, and a growing creature; sometimes it even splits into two and grows separately, but never independently. Cities of today, if they are allegorized as organisms, have gone beyond a step – they are now more dependent on external resources than ever before. Emile Durkheim considered human society as a ‘reality sui generis’ (Lefebvre and White, 2010).
Sui generis is a Latin phrase meaning of its own kind or belonging to its own genus.
A society is not a mere product of individuals coming together, but is of its own kind. Explained in his own words: “the liquidity of water, its sustaining and other properties, are not in the two gases of which it is composed, but in the complex substance which they form by coming together” (Durkheim, 1982. The rules of sociological method).
Lefebvre and White, quoting Durkheim, explain this further:
“[…] the association of individuals engender a synthesis sui generis, which constitutes every society, [and] gives rise to new phenomena, different from those which occur in consciousnesses in isolation…”
Our cities are essentially expanded societies – formed of individuals who came together for different purposes and gave rise to a modern, more homogenous culture. And these expanding societies gave rise to not only division of physical labour – to break stones and dig canals, and build houses and fight wars – but also a building of psychological fundamentals that govern us. According to Durkheim, we differ from functions that run in natural co-operations in something more substantial:
“In the organism each cell has its definite role which it cannot change. In society tasks have never been allocated so immutably. … If the role of each cell is fixed almost immutably, it is because it has been imposed upon it at birth. It is imprisoned within a hereditary system of habits that put their stamp upon its life and from which it cannot rid itself. … Its structure predetermines its life. … The same does not hold good for society. (Emphasis added by authors).”
Excerpted from Lefebvre and White, 2010, pp. 461
This malleability of our society makes us more dynamic, more resilient, but only in the context of social stability – a little external change (such as in the environment) and we are, or a part of our society is, affected by it, but our social dynamism lets us adapt quicker and bring us back to normal. This social stability, though, has also given rise to self-absorption. Although we are flourishing as a city, we are doing so not as an organism. We are becoming increasingly mechanical rather than biological in our approach.
James Redfield, in his fine work of fiction The Celestin Prophecy, has put forth a valid thought:
“And that’s what we did. Four centuries ago! We shook off our feeling of being lost by taking matters into our own hands, by focusing on conquering the Earth and using its resources to better our situation, and only now, as we approach the end of the millennium can we see what happened. Our focus gradually became a preoccupation. We totally lost ourselves in creating a secular security, an economic security, to replace the spiritual one we had lost. The question of why we were alive, of what was actually going on here spiritually, was slowly pushed aside and repressed altogether.”
Dobson to the narrator, The Celestine Prophecy, pp. 26
The spirituality Redfield talks about is not so much about meditation and mysticism, but deals with religion and the belief that we were at the centre of the universe. That has changed today without changing the fundamentals that govern our belief. Durkheim explains this as (pp. 121), “the religious dogmas of Christianity have not changed for centuries, but the role they play in our modern societies is no longer the same as in the Middle Ages”.
The securities can be viewed as social facts that Durkheim considers sui generis – “one that are capable of exercising some coercive power upon individuals” (Elwell, 2013). And these facts are leading us somewhere that does not secure our future per se, but perhaps leads away from security.
Cities are essentially developed to make us feel secure. But we are for the most part merely adapting to one problem as another develops: most done on technological advancements. What makes our cities of today stand apart is not mainly modern technology: we are more-or-less the same as we were since we learnt we are not at the centre of the universe. What sets us apart is that we are more asocial-social – not because of wire and wireless gadgets – but because of an underlying change in our innate behaviour, a stronger drive that keeps us chasing a social fact, an endless struggle to get somewhere that does not physically or naturally exist but exists in our individual minds – we are preoccupied with getting somewhere at an individual level which should not have reflected on our societal premise, but is being reflected quite boldly, and this is driving us far from a biological organism-ist view of a city and towards a mechanical view.
The conflict between individualist and a societal view is explained by Durkheim (excerpted from Elwell, 2013):
“There are in each of us…two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other, on the contrary, represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual”.
When we start projecting our individual desires over the societal, things begin to change. We do not drive in our big fat cars alone solely because we can afford to, but because society subconsciously accepts it. But society does not accept us to be violent towards one another, and yet sometimes we are. These dynamics lead to a conflict of thought, a conflict between individual and societal values, pulling us deeper with the preoccupation within – to improve, advance, and become secure.
In all these generations that mankind has witnessed, it is only natural to me to assume that we are never going to be entirely secure. After all, it is often the social conflicts that gave rise to social facts – both change with a slight change in either.
Our city is sui generis today because we are no more naturally compatible to any phenomenon that governs the natural world. We are not psychologically similar to any other living organism or sociologically stable within our own society, and this makes us distinct. Distinctly mechanical.
My views on a sui generis city are not entirely pessimistic, but they are conditional based on our ignorant existence-in-isolation model. Machines work mindlessly as long as there is an input of energy. Our cities have become mindless like machines. As long as there is a promise of material security, we are stable. We think we are stable in isolation, but not as a city.
We are now at the turn of the century, much like how we were when we realised we are just a blue dot in space, but just as we chased what we thought we should in that moment, we must in this moment as well. Only this time we should choose more wisely.
Lefebvre, Alexandre; White, Melanie. 2010. Bergson on Durkheim: Society sui generis. Journal of Classical Sociology. 10 (4). 457 – 477. Retrieved from http://jcs.sagepub.com/content/10/4/457.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr
Durkheim, Emile. 1982. The rules of sociological method. Retrieved from http://comparsociology.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Emile-Durkheim-Rules-of-Sociological-Method-1982.pdf
Redfield, James. 1993. The Celestine Prophecy
Elwell, Frank W. 2003. Emile Durkheim on Anomie. Retrieved from http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Essays/Durkheim1.htm