Blum, Alan. The Imaginative Structure of the City.
This philosophical treatise on the city by Alan Blum arises from the Major Collaborative Research Program (MCRI) on the "The Culture of Cities" and appears as part of a McGill-Queen Press series devoted to that project. The MCRI project focused on the interdisciplinary, comparative study of four cities: Berlin, Dublin, Montreal and Toronto. Although Blum headed this initiative, only traces of these case studies appear in his essay, which reads more as a manifesto for the project than a report on its findings or their theoretical implications.
What Alan Blum does offer is an extended reflection on the ideational encounters fomented by a more generic version of the city. While these encounters concern functional questions over site use and everyday life, they are ultimately inspired by broader existential dilemmas. For Blum, the city serves as a locus for--and focuses attention on--general predicaments of collectivization. These predicaments are animated by efforts to work through 'ethical collisions' between persistence and social change, fragmentation and participation, nihilism and community or uniqueness and convergence. These exigencies may not be unique to but are intensified by metropolises so that "the city becomes the mirror through which a population confronts its modernity" (pg.76).
But for Blum, the city is not simply a cipher for other processes. It is not just a sign or an incidental venue for the workings of developments such as globalization, which could as well happen elsewhere. To the extent that city dwellers orient their actions to their ideas of what the city is and should be, they constitute it as a vital social formation. In so doing they transform their collectivity into something more than a social category, imbuing it with the potential for community. The impetus for this social transformation is not social consensus but the very indeterminacies and ambiguities that excite efforts at collective problem-solving. Blum explores these processes of collectivization through a focus on a number of different questions revolving around such fields as cosmopolitanism, night life, materialism and so on.
Blum approaches these questions by applying a range of general philosophical writing by scholars ranging from Heidegger to Baudrillard. What he does not do, for the most part, is to ground his own philosophical inquiries in empirical examples. As I noted above there is little effort made to draw on the material produced by the 'Culture of Cities' project itself and by the same minimal token, there are only minor references to the larger body of venerable interdisciplinary urban research and its attendant case studies. As a result, even while forcefully arguing for the vitality and vibrancy of cities, Blum delivers a curiously lifeless and disconnected portrait. We hear a good deal about the existential dilemmas of metropolitan life but little about the activities, people, structures, interactions and places through which these questions are encountered.
This theoretical remoteness combined with a style of writing which is unnecessarily but relentlessly obscure and convoluted will probably limit the wider impact of this volume.