An Introduction to Urbanomy

However irritating neologisms can be, they are sometimes near-compulsory. When a compact, comparatively simple thought is forced to route itself, repeatedly, through crudely-stitched terminological tangles, the missing adequate word fosters the linguistic equivalent of a nagging hunger. Word invention becomes a simple prerequisite of smooth cognitive function.

Urban development of the individual city, or the typical process of urban maturation, is a quite basic but linguistically underserved concept of exactly this kind. The absence is aggravated by the presence of another word — one that sounds superficially suitable, but which actually designates an entirely separate idea.

When a city grows, it does not ‘urbanize’ (only a wider social system can do that). Urbanization applies to a society that becomes proportionately more urban, as rural people move into cities, but when an individual city develops – and in fact individuates – it undergoes urbanomy (on the model of ‘teleonomy’). Urbanomy – urban self-organization — is far more critical to this blog than urbanization is. Coining the term is a declaration of theoretical commitment to urban individuation as a structured – and thus cognitively-tractable – social, historical, and ultimately cosmic reality.

The foundations of urbanomic understanding were laid down by Jane Jacobs in her book The Economy of Cities. In this work she outlines a simple and powerful theory of urban self-organization, driven by a spontaneous economic process of import replacement. Cities develop by autonomization, or introversion, which occurs as they learn from trade, progressively transforming an ever-greater proportion of their commercial flows into endogenous circuits. This (urbanomic) tendency need not isolate cities from the world, but it necessarily converts stable dependency into dynamic interaction, driving continuous commercial modification. The logistical and informational advantages of local urban producers – minimizing transport costs and maximizing feedback intensity – tend to encourage the internalization of productive activity, teaching the city what it can do for itself, and consolidating its singular identity (as a real individual). The growth, complexification, and individuation of the city are integral to a single urbanomic process.

It is urbanomy that produces cities, with urbanization – typically – occurring as a secondary phenomenon. Functional cities are not demographic dumping grounds, but endogenously maturing entities which draw things (including people) into themselves.

Among the many side-consequences running off Jacobs’ thesis, one in particular is so historically-suggestive that it merits a short digression. Since cities are not nutritionally self-supporting, it has been natural to assume that they presuppose settled agriculture, which they relate to in a way that is – at least calorically – parasitic. Jacobs turns this assumption upside down, proposing instead that the commercialization of food production which accompanied the emergence of cities was itself a crucial motor of agriculturalization. By providing concentrated, comparatively large-scale markets, cities made the production of substantial food-surpluses economically rational for the first time, automatically supporting their own further development in interactive lock-step with the Neolithic revolution.

The basic urbanomic insight of greatest relevance here, however, is more abstract. The Jacobs thesis establishes a framework for systematically exploring the time-structure of the urban process, conceived not solely as a (prolonged) episode in time, or history, but also as the working of a chronogenic, or time-making social machine.

The concept which Jacobs tacitly introduces, as the guiding principle of the urbanomic trend, is autoproduction. As it grows, internally specializes, self-organizes, dissipates entropy, and individuates, the city tends to an impossible limit of complete productive autonomy. It appears as a convergent wave, shaped in the direction of increasing order or complexity, as if by an invisible hand, or according to an intelligent design. The pattern is exactly what would be expected if something not yet realized was orchestrating its self-creation. Even after 150 years of coherent evolutionary theory, such processes – in the absence of a dominating creative agent – appear extraordinary, and even uncanny, because they seem to run backwards, against the current of time.

Time as it is lived and explored is tensed. It is occupied from the middle, which is always now, and from which the past recedes (partially remembered, or recorded), as the future approaches (partially anticipated, or forecast). The time-line crossing ‘now’ or the present is asymmetric. It has an ‘arrow’.

The mainstream scientific currents which support the modern understanding of the world describe this arrow of time in two very different ways. Both are easily intuited and generally accepted, at least in their broadest outlines.

Firstly, we are told that the arrow of time corresponds to an increase of disorder. Things break, erode, age, die, and decay. Presented with two photographs, of an intact egg and the same egg smashed, there is no doubt about which came first. Eggs don’t unsmash, time doesn’t reverse.

Except that (secondly) we generally anticipate progress, or improvement. Knowledge accumulates, inventions are made, economies are expected, normally, to grow. Even those most resistant to modern messages – such as evolutionary ideas — work confidently to produce order in their lives, when tidying, sorting, assembling, organizing, or composing. Eggs might not unsmash, but there are eggs, and they’ve been made somehow (there weren’t any 500 million years ago).

So how do our time intuitions align with the arrow of time? Which way is forward, and which is back? Between increasing and decreasing order, which seems normal and which strange?

These questions are complicated by the fact that we mentally process the world in two very different ways, dividing it as neatly as possible between people and things, agency and inertia, the animate and the inanimate, teleology and mechanism. This very basic dual system of perceptual classification – almost certainly supported by deeply archaic neurological structures — corresponds to a twin cognitive apparatus of profound expectation. Categorical violations are viscerally unsettling.

When people – or even ‘lower’ animals — behave as things, they primitively evoke the dread of morbidity, mortality, and more radical varieties of cosmic wrongness, partially captured by the figure of the zombie. The intermediate zone, of the ‘living dead’, can be entered from either direction, triggering an archaic revulsion from monstrosity – the most fundamental of all things that should not be. Horror fiction dwells almost entirely in this twilight world of categorical slippage.

When order emerges spontaneously among things, it seems like magic (in the ancient, soul-seizing sense), and panicked spectators reflexively grasp for the hidden agents of ‘animistic’ or religious interpretation, compelled by categorical intuitions far older than the human species. Calm apprehension of such ‘teleonomies’ is grounded, perhaps invariably, in an attenuation or vagueness of distinct perception. Were a biologist to truly perceive the evolutionary process, its integral, primordial horror would be ineluctable. Urbanomy, likewise, belongs to the realm of real monstrosity. That is one reason why cities cannot readily be seen for what they are.

Spontaneous animation, horror, and time-reversal are inextricably knotted together at the root of their apprehension. The human nervous-system cannot register a deeper wrong than an inversion of time, as demonstrated by a thing that comes to life. Cities, eventually, will scare us. In doing so, they will draw us out beyond what has been – to date — the horizon of intelligible time.


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