Thursday, 9 December 2010

Deriving a local urban social theory from Nietzsche

Yesterday, I listened to a talk by Grant Yocom of Oakland University called ‘The 'Last Man' in Detroit: Timely Revisions and New Targets for the Arrows of Longing’. It attempted to derive a kind of ‘local urban social theory’ from Nietzsche and apply it to an analysis of social phenomena in Detroit, a city in decline. Among other things, Grant argued that:

[Nietzsche’s] criticisms are aimed at the embodiments of mass-culture and the various forms value that these embodiments instantiate... [L]ooking at Nietzsche in terms of the concretized case study of post-industrial Detroit reveals that the meta-arguments and normative criticisms offered in his work only make sense when viewed in terms of a particular crisis. Specifically, on the fringe of Detroit we find a number of community organizations that instantiate embedded substantive and needs based forms of normative criticism still themselves beyond good and evil and emerging from the crisis-context in which we find them. [S]uch communities and organizations [are] fine examples of embodied Nietzsche-styled criticisms in action.

The community organizations in question have developed organically in response to a lack of proper supermarkets within the city limits by using abandoned lots for impromptu farms and Grant commended them as exemplifying a kind of creative life force in response to the real troubles the citizens faced. They exemplified the local evolution of ‘new values and new manners of living’ and contrasted with government imposed top down values and policies. Further, stressing their value (as he did) contrasted with a kind of middle class crisis-porn which pessimistically assumed that all was over for the city.

It was an interesting and engaging talk. But I couldn’t help thinking that there was something suspect about the project (of deriving a bespoke social theory from Nietzsche to fit Detroit) for this reason. Outside the admirable purity of philosophy as therapy, philosophy seems to me to have two key moves. It can either say ‘this is how things are because this is how they must be’, drawing on paradigmatically philosophical modal arguments. Or it can say, ‘this is how things should be’ in the more or less honourable tradition of offering normative suggestions, justified to a greater or less extent.

But in Grant’s case, it seemed highly unlikely that any philosophical arguments of the first sort could culminate in the inevitability of community urban farms. That would be too far a stretch for philosophical argument. But if it were the latter move, his dislike of imposed general top down values undermined a role for the very philosophical machinery he imported from elsewhere and applied to the case at hand. A non-philosophical description of the mere fact of such urban farms together with an invitation to agree they were admirable seemed all that was unproblematic.

If I followed his reply to my worry (and I fear I did not: my fault) it was to suggest that there was a very general structural account in accord with the first move (roughly: groups tend to respond well to tough ‘physiological’ challenges) and then a more or less local normative move to suggest that urban farms were indeed a good thing in the context. So rather than plumping for one move or the other, he adopted a delicate embrace of both. I am not sure how this would help, really. But perhaps in a Nietzschean further move, he suggested that the rival interpretation of the fate of Detroit (by Jerry Herron) that he had spent some time criticising might be equally descriptively correct. (That would, I assume, also have consequences for the normative stance to be locally adopted.) That was a nuance too far for me, however.