Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

Brooklyn is Back in the Playoffs, Or, The Lure of Tribalism

Tribalism in sports is a funny thing. Like most Brooklyn residents, I was upset and dismayed by the rushed development deal for the Atlantic Yards project, the centerpiece for which was the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, transplanted from across the river, where they functioned as the New Jersey Nets. (Back in those days, way back in the 1990s, when Dražen Petrović played for the Nets, I cheered them on till Petrovic’s tragic loss in a car accident deflated me.)  The battle over that deal, which pitted local residents in Prospect Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, and Park Slope against the Marty MarkowitzBruce Ratner combine (and sundry other fat cats), exhausted and embittered most who engaged in it; the scars haven’t healed yet and for some, appear unlikely ever to.

The Barclays Center is up and running. I haven’t been inside it yet, but I hope to. Season ticket offers have come and gone, despite my excitedly mentioning the possibility of going to see Nets games to many an out-of-town visitor. I remain hopeful that I will be able to go next year, next season. (I doubt I will go to live musical performances there though; somehow, I can’t see myself patronizing arena shows any more.) And now that the playoffs are here, I am confronted with the incontrovertible fact that yet again, the well-directed marketing of a sports franchise has worked to induce quasi-tribal feelings in the susceptible sports fan. In this case, me.

For shortly after the Nets commenced operations at the Barclays Center, I found myself concerned with the team’s fortunes. I took pleasure in the Nets’ early season winning streak; I read many a print article dissecting and analyzing the return of a franchise to this storied borough; I bemoaned stories of their internal dissent and divisions and hoped better sense would prevail; I admired their uniforms, shirts, hoodies, caps and sundry paraphernalia,  and sent out subtle hints to family and friends–all artfully ignored thus far–that the perfect gift for me was at hand; heck, I even started trash talking the New York Knicks. (I won’t be trash talking them while they play the Celtics though.)  I am not the most serious of Brooklyn Nets fans, but I at least engage in some of the rituals of fanhood and seem set to continue engaging them. I am even planning to take my daughter to their games once she is old enough to appreciate a live sports event.

My first sense that this tribalistic response had been triggered in me came when I was reading a newspaper early this season and checked the standings for the first time. There, right below ‘New York’ in the conference table, was an entry for ‘Brooklyn’. ‘We’ had a franchise again, a sports team that bore the name of my home. I never lose an opportunity to describe fandom for professional franchises as a bit like cheering for Ford v. Chrysler, but somehow, mysteriously, on that day, seeing Brooklyn’s name in print overrode that skepticism, even if it was in a sport that always ranked behind football and baseball in terms of my New York-based loyalties. (The incompetent Knicks had something to do with this emotion, I”m sure.)

I don’t think expressing allegiance to a ‘local’ sports team means I’ve finally made this borough my home, almost eleven years after I began working and living here, for I’ve felt at home even before the Nets showed up.  I do think though, that I might have been looking for more ways to make visible my allegiances to Brooklyn and the Nets have provided one more way to do that this year. (For those who would suggest resisting the Atlantic Yards project might have been a better way: I tried too. Once that ended, and the Center became a fait accompli, I’ll admit it: I looked forward to a sports team returning to the borough. )