Review: Richard Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder

Richard Sennett’s The Uses of Disorder is one of those books I had heard obliquely mentioned so many times I decided, finally, to read it. Published in 1970, it has aged curiously. Labeled “sociology” by the publisher, the books’ oddly diverse jacket endorsements suggests the stew of ideas contained — the front cover claims it a “defense of anarchism” while some on the rear claim it to be “radically relevant to the current urban crisis.”

So what is it? One part psychology, one part pop sociology, one part anarchism, above all the books makes a psychological argument about American cities. If his thesis has not stood the test of time, it certainly interesting as a counterpoint to the urban discourse of today. Fundamental to his argument is the assumption casually tucked into page 73 that there are no “mechanistic explanations” for the wrenching changes underway in American cities in 1970 — urban rebellions, freeway construction, massive suburbanization by the middle class, etc, etc.

This is, of course, a remarkable claim to a contemporary urban observer like myself. However, we must remember 1970 was years before any serious discussion of the true nature and impact of FHA home loans on the city, the true power of freeways, and before many important dissections of urban racial inequality and segregation. Sennett places blame for the state of American cities on the high modern practitioners of urban planning. While perhaps idealistic to a fault, I’m afraid the planners are perhaps just as idealistic as we will find Sennett.

However, instead of simply locating his criticisms to a misunderstanding of traditional urbanism as Jacobs does in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, he seeks a deeper explanation, the psychology of Western Man. (and it is Man, save two generic female examples) Animating the planners’ desire to rational urban space Sennett finds Americans who have an immature psyche, who desire to minimize the “contact points” between people to create pure, conflict free relationships. In the process this Man seeks to create intense nuclear families and simplify all other encounters. To Sennett this “voluntary slavery” is the choice of a generation of Americans who have been enabled to act on this previously dormant desire due to unprecedented affluence in the society. In Sennett’s mind, the desire to avoid conflict deprives the modern Man from experiences which would ultimately be good for him and help him become a more mature adult. The city as psychological broccoli, if you will.

Not only does he not have much evidence people were willing a purified life in the suburbs (and not, perhaps good schools and lower housing costs) the argument is didactic and obsolete. His public policy proscriptions are not much better — at one point he suggests citywide land use zoning should be abolished and replacing it with direct conflict (no joke!) in the neighborhoods. I am unsure whether he hopes for us to take seriously or if it is merely a point of discussion, but they are altogether wildly idealistic and impractical, especially when considered with Ms. Jacobs’ quite pragmatic suggestions.

Despite these shortcomings I do think some element of the book can be relevant today. It is precisely the individual, psychological reality of the modern city that has fueled so much of the discourse of American urbanism“ from Hoppers’ lonely figures, Chaplain’s micromanaged factory worker in Modern Times, to Wolfe’s alienated characters of the 1980s. Perhaps we can learn something from Sennett’s book today, in an era when when many young affluent whites like myself are seeking neighborhoods of intense urbanity for profoundly psychological reasons. Perhaps in grandiose discussions of gentrification, suburbanization, and segregation, it is good to remember that the thoughts, desires, and even unconscious play a role in how the city evolves and operates. Despite his many shortcomings Sennett reminds us urbanity is at some level a state of mind, itself a powerful force in shaping the city and a force deserving renewed attention by the contemporary urban observer.

> The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life

Author: Rob Goodspeed