Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What Makes Cities Lively?

Some cities are more lively than others. New York or Chicago seem much more full of life than Los Angeles or San Francisco. (Although San Fran is not too bad.) But what makes some cities more lively than others? Why is it so much fun to roam around in Manhattan even at late hours of the night while downtown LA starts turning into a deserted island at 7:30 PM?

What makes cities lively? When we think of cities that are fun we think of food carts, street performers, public spaces, public art and architecture. We think of late night things to do, events and jovial people out and about at odd hours of the day.

Cities, or at least their public facades are defined by the elites. There are broadly three groups of elites who run a city - State, Business and Academia. Each of these three have a very specific social contract with the citizens.

The State maintains a monopoly on physical and economic violence and provides social security for everyone. Business maintains monopoly on economic production and provides economic security. The Academia maintains monopoly on knowledge generation and in return provides sense making for the chaotic world around us.

Liveliness and revelry happen when these social contracts are suspended temporarily. Fun is the temporary suspension of normalcy. Normal is to eat at Chipotle and have a coffee at Starbucks. Food carts are the not-Normal. Thus, food carts are fun. By allowing food carts to function, Business temporarily suspends its social contract with us to allow us to perform our own economic activity. Much of this suspension can be illusory. The Halal Guys food carts in New York do millions of dollars worth of business each year and are by no means a small business. Yet, by being a food cart, they maintain the illusion of not being part of our social contract with Big Business. They feel familiar and intimate. An exciting, exotic thing for the stereotypical tourist.

Sometimes this illusion is largely rhetorical. If you visit the Rockefeller Center in NY, you will be told a heartening story of how the building embodies the spirit of New York and provided hope to it's denizens during the Great Depression. Even today, the building fosters connection to the public through the famous annual Christmas tree lighting and the seasonal ice-skating rink. Of course, you need to pay a hefty fees to go up to the top floor and be a part of all this 'public' history.

Similarly, the State might suspend it's social contract with us by not taxing us for certain things or going beyond providing mere necessities to providing luxuries. The US State Park system is a good example. But one thing that never ceases to amaze me is Central Park in New York. 843 acres of prime real estate in the middle of Manhattan just sitting there for us all to enjoy. What an amazing luxury!

Academia is the third pillar of this establishment. By opening up it's museums and science centers and observatories to us, it allows us inside the ivory tower and make sense of the world for ourselves. Standing inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is no stern professor telling you what to think about these great works of art. You can make sense of the world in your own way.

This suspension of normalcy is also the foundational principle of carnivals and festivals. Carnivals and festivals allow us to momentarily drop social propriety and indulge in the not-Normal. A good example is the Hindu festival of holi where people can be rowdy and raunchy and it's all good fun - bura na mano holi hai.

Lively cities are cities where the elites are okay with these temporary suspensions of normalcy. Cities where they are not, tend to be dreary, too touristy or too commercial. This inability to drop normalcy, to have some levity and sense of humor about their authority also indicates a certain amount of insecurity on the part of the elites. It's no wonder then that Hollywood fails miserably at cultivating liveliness. It is, after all, the home of the most insecure of all elites. Wall Street, with it's deathly strong grip on the world economy, does much better.


As a total aside, the three elites that I have talked about here are also the three Varnas formulated in Hindu social structures. These three elites are present in most cultures around the world. They are always in creative tension. Which one of them is more powerful at a given time defines what shape that society will take. These ideas will be explored in a later post.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Power and Responsibility

One of the most compelling (and cliched) lines from recent superhero movie history is the one from Spiderman - with great power comes great responsibility. In the movie, as well as in contemporary political thought, this is a prescriptive stance. If you have greater power, you have a greater responsibility to society. But why do so many superheroes in fiction accept this responsibility? And why do so many real life heroes do as well?

In Spiderman, Peter Parker has a personal reason for assuming the responsibility to fight crime. His Uncle Ben was killed because he let a thug escape. While this is understandable, it does not really explain why Spiderman continues to fight crime even after he has apprehended the thug and brought him to justice.

From a writer's perspective, this is because without responsibility a superpower does not lead to a decent story. If a character has only powers, but no responsibility, the story escapes into the land of wishful thinking. And adolescent fantasy, perhaps, but hardly a compelling yarn. Besides, a world where there is no responsibility and hence no consequences it not very believable.

In real life, only trust fund kids and hotel heiresses get to live this life. It is curious to note that despite its obvious allure, this isn't a life that anyone professes to emulate. Powerful people like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton keep taking on additional responsibilities instead of just retiring in peace. People like Mark Zuckerberg donate their wealth to charity so that their kids do not have to carry this burden of riches. Why is that?

The key to unlocking this mystery lies within another cliche of the superhero genre - the inevitable incident where the superhero loses his or her power. In a recent Supergirl episode, Human for a Day, Supergirl loses her powers after battle with the formidable Red Tornado. As her friends and allies take on the enemy of the week, she feels helpless. But, towards the end of the episode she decides to diffuse a tense hostage situation even without her powers. This incident proves to be the much needed character growth for Supergirl. You see, it's not her powers that make her Supergirl. It's her willingness to take responsibility. This responsibility defines her self.

In Spiderman 2 something similar happens to our beloved web-spinner. But there is an additional level of complexity in Spiderman. Spiderman loses his powers not due to a random deus-ex-machina introduced just so the character can grow a little, but because he's been failing to juggle his responsibilities in his normal and superhero life. This conflict is what makes Spiderman 2 so much more compelling that your average superhero movie. Peter Parker's initial solution is to chose between being Spiderman and being just Peter. But he quickly learns that that isn't going to solve all of his problems. Mary Jane leaves him for another man. As Peter goes on to admit to Aunt May that he is ultimately responsible for Uncle Ben's death he managed to alienate her as well. But then when he saves people from a fire even without his powers, he understands what it means to be a hero - someone who takes responsibility for his life. That he must take responsibilities of being both Spiderman and Peter Parker and that he would just have to live with any consequences this entails. Having thus resolved his inner conflict, he quickly re-acquires his powers and goes on to defeat Doc Oc.

The important lesson here is that it's the responsibilities that define the hero, not the powers.

This narrative provides solace to the rest of us who do not have any power. We can all be the heroes of our life stories because we assume responsibility.

There is another side to this superhero narrative. If you're an average adult, chances are that your life is full of responsibility. And again, if you're an average adult you have little or no power that you wield. It's interesting to note that this is the quadrant that a lot of heroes rise from. Neo, in the Matrix, is an average cubicle jockey. Spiderman is a smart, hard working student trying to get through college. The rest of us fantasize about becoming superheroes by acquiring power and this is the way that superhero movies fuel our escapism. We are all heroes in our own narratives, but yearn to become superheroes.

There is one quadrant left here that we haven't talked about - the one with no power and no responsibility. This is the quadrant of a happy childhood. But it can also be the quadrant of a gilded cage. Gilded cages, once again, have been the staple subject of art and literature. The lack of responsibility (and it's counterpart - freedom) within the gilded cage leads to a lack of self that most philosophers find abhorrent.

The Gilded Cage - Evelyn De Morgan, 1919.

One last curious fact about our 2x2 is that while, superheroes can rise from among the rest of us (and sometimes even retire there, like Agent K from the Men in Black) and trust fund kids can degenerate into captives of gilded cages, there is very little traffic between the left and the right half. Hotel heiresses don't suddenly become world changing philanthropists, not matter how much money they have. Politicians and CEOs are very likely to continue to work well past retirement age. (Although resting on one's laurels does seem to be a pretty popular choice.)

I don't have much insight into why this might be, except the fact that acquiring a self is really hard work.