Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization Hardcover – 17 Nov 1994
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An enthralling subject. . . . A compassionate and inquiring [book].--Richard Jenkyns
Fascinating . . . the drama of urban life springs alive for the reader.
Flesh and Stone is a fascinating excursion with an erudite guide. Sennett writes with intelligence and grace. . . . --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Richard Sennett now works at the LSE where he runs their Cities Programme. His previous publications include his best-seller THE CORROSION OF CHARACTER. His next book, RESPECT: THE FORMATION OF CHARACTER IN A WORLD OF INEQUALITY, will be published by Allen Lane in January 2003. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Richard Sennett takes us from ancient Athens and its fixation with voice, logos, and democracy. Why sitting in the theatre is weakness and brings man to a passive posture. With pit-stops in Imperial Rome, Venice, Revelutionary Paris, and other cities, Sennett layers his logic and builds from the ground up a forceful argument to the reader. The last stop is modern New York City, a multi-cultural center full of dissonace and passivity. This chapter is especially powerful, because it strikes a chord in our psyche.
Each chapter is a pit-stop in history displaying the condition of the flesh in response to the stone of the city. Sennett's thesis is that the continual acceleration of life due to, in part by forces of capitolism, have made man a passive player in life. He discusses this against the backdrop of christianity and its change and flux due to forces of the state and commerce. A very interseting thesis that forces you to challenge your beliefs in the world, and maybe your own religion. It may irk some that this book has such a Christian-oriented slant, but Sennett comes right out and states why he is doing in in the beginning.
This book deals also with the philosophy of Phenomenology. Other readings by Howard Kunstler, Derrida and Heidigger are also recomended, but not necessary. Overall, a very suberb book.
Particularly fascinatiing is the third section where Sennett makes the case that "A new master image of the body took form" through the discoveries William Harvey made about the circulation of the blood, that "Harvey launched a scientific revolution in the understanding of the body: its structure, its healthy state, and its relation to the soul" (page 255).
Sennett notes that Harvey's discovery began a medical revolution, a "medical revolution [which] seemed to have substituted health for morality as a standard of human happiness among those social engineers by motion and circulation" (ibid).
Adam Smith took Harvey's insight into the connection between freely circulating blood and health and used it to claim, according to Sennett, that the "free market of labor and goods operat[es] much like freely circulating blood within the body [and brought] similar life giving consequences" (page 256)
Sennett goes on to say that a consequence of human mobility in the service of economic circulation promoting human beings increasingly desensitized to their environment, resulting in cities "which have succumbed to the dominant value of circulation" (page 256). (On this last point, I'm reminded of Robert Moses' destruction of the social fabric of neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens in order to move traffic around the New York metropolis.)
The idea of freely circulating blood as promoter of good health was reflected then and now in urban designs where new "arteries" and "veins" were constructed for the free circulation of people and goods and waste, e.g., new boulevards, underground sewer systems, etc. Similarly, around the same time human skin was discovered to be instrumental in the circulation of air in the body. This resulted in more frequent bathing to open pores clotted with dirt, the loosening of clothing, and in terms of cities, the introduction of "lungs" in the form of parks and the paving and cleaning of city streets.
The historical tour does have some profitable moments: The Greeks thought men were men by virtue of having more body heat and thus it was a manly thing to wear as little as possible and hang out in the front part of the house where it was drafty, while the womenfolk with smaller fires in their bellies huddled to warmed themselves in the back.
Harvey's discovery of blood circulation becomes a city planning concept in the 19th century and revolutionizes urban space as our forebears we know it. Etc.
The really interesting thing here is the physiological model that always looms in the metaphor of city as body. The author, like many modern persons, gives you the impression that while the ancients had a great sense of space and community, they were off on their understanding of human physiology. If only he were more familiar with the theoretical foundation of Chinese medicine! Perhaps then he would not think that the Greeks were so entirely wrong in their conjectures, even if they did not formulate them so clearly.
The entire thesis of the book builds up to the assertion that we moderns are lost and have no idea what makes for a great city, by which he means a gathering of spaces that reflect and "celebrates" (god, I hate that word used in that way!) a solid sense of community and belonging. But this conclusion is not surprising since the author's entire oeuvre for the past 30 years has been centered around the very same idea of modern alienation and its causes.
So, read it for the tour, but don't base your own conclusions on Sennett's. The real value of the book lies in its introduction of topics that you'd do well to go research on your own elsewhere. Especially good for undergrads under a good teacher.
Also his suggestive notes are helpful for my study.