Day 62: Paradise; or, Reflecting on the Urban

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Henry David Thoreau
An Excerpt from Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

I am writing this blog post by a lake in Massachusetts — Paradise Lake. I am hearing both the birdsong and the sound of the wind touching the surface of the water on the lake. The combination of both, with no manmade sound whatsoever, creates a powerful  melody of natural sound that makes me feel peaceful. I can’t recall how long ago was the last time I had felt so peaceful. Having lived in big cities in the past 20 years — Bangkok, Boston, London, and Shanghai — the most peaceful place I could ask for has been my room, because anywhere outside of it is full of cacophony and loud noise. Only once in a while, I would get a chance to travel outside of the city to spend a few days away from the chaotic urban life.

I am also working on proofreading my dissertation which I am going to present it to my advisors in less than three weeks. Although I have been working on the writing of my dissertation for the past ten months, this is the first time that I am writing it outside of the city. As I am writing this blog right here where the only sounds I could here aren’t those of human beings, I can’t help but think to myself: This is so great; why haven’t I done this sooner? I would like to think that I could have been much more productive had I not been so distracted by the cacophonic interruption brought about by urban life (even though I’d really like to think so). So many times that I had planned to write and be productive, but I slept as soon as I got home from after spending a day out in the urban. The urban has been making me sick: Its selfish and superficial people, its polluted environment, and its unnecessary rushing.

I am thinking to myself: It’s either the case that I don’t deserve to live in the urban or the urban doesn’t deserve to have me. It could also well be a matter of structural incompatibility. My favorite philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau never has any positive feeling about cities. He thinks they are places whose economic nature not only give people the impression that they have to be shamelessly selfish to prevent themselves from being taken advantage of (i.e., pseudo-self preservation) but also the negative reinforcement that the sense of morality only exists as they’d like to define them — as if there is nothing intrinsic about the “good” nature of human beings. Although many people (including my colleague, Mike No. 2) believes that Rousseau, like Schopenhauer, is a self-proclaimed pessimist, self-taught skeptic, and self-funded gloomy writer; therefore, could only permit himself to see only the dark side of things, I personally don’t think that Rousseau is that off in his way of thinking about the urban.

In this modest room (with a 4-post bed) I’d hope to finish writing what is soon to be the most important writing project of my life: my PhD dissertation. It only has what I need to write, stay awake, and be kind to myself.

As more people are now living in urban areas than ever before, the defining characteristic of the twenty-first century is unquestionably that of the urban, all thanks to the major shift in the world’s economy toward service-oriented economies, and the emergence of industries catering to the demands of contemporary consumerism. Still ringing true are the basic aspects of the urban suggested by classic urban sociological theories (i.e., the Chicago School of Sociology such as Louis Wirth and Robert Park): population, density, heterogeneity, and complexity. Also still true is the major divide in the perceptions of what might constitute the conditions that the urban brings. With the decline of religiosities and the advent of the new faith in sciences, urban populations are faced with how to deal with the fast, massive, and intense move toward an arguably better quality of life, while also dealing with an underlying deeply troubled sense of personhood. While technological advancement, innovation, and creativity are direct by-products of urbanization, some undesirable consequences such as high divorce rates, widening income inequality, pollution-related health problems, and, needless to say, suicide, are “tragedies of the commons” acutely felt by many urbanites.

My motivation for writing about, and reflecting here on the urban owes its origin to both my ethnographic findings from my field site in Shanghai, China, and my personal feeling about where I have spent almost three years to date conducting anthropological research and residing as a resident. It may be true that I have been spending most of my life in the urban, but the intensity of the feeling I had had living elsewhere is nowhere near that of Shanghai. During my first year, I could barely survive mentally. It’s the time when I had begun to read philosophy (mainly Eastern, especially Daoism and Zen Buddhism) to cope with the aggressiveness of urban life. Everywhere I went to, I was usually faced with the money-comes-first attitude. Everywhere I turned to, I was often faced with the unnecessarily difficult situation that only the senseless competition of the urban life could incubate. For instance, in a case of downright and sincere misunderstanding with which I faced, my counterpart, instead of speaking to me directly about it, had chosen to resort to a third party who then only had the information on one side when questioning me about the point of concern that he had regarding the misunderstanding I had with the counterpart. Why couldn’t this counterpart speak to me directly so that we could have gotten this misunderstanding solved right away?

In my third year in Shanghai, I have had it.

During the past two years, you have noticed, I have become much more philosophical than before. The reason for which is quite simple: The only way I could maintain my sanity is to find a way to maintain a peace of mind. Since I do not believe in orthodoxy religiosities (such as Christianity) I do not have a road map to the “Kingdom of God” by which I could navigate; hence, it’s more convincing for me to try to come up with my own way of dealing with the hardship — through reason.

Many people I know have become much more religious once they had arrived in Shanghai. It may be true that the city was too much for them in terms of competitiveness. In addition, I always believe in synthetic knowledge. Although I am a religious person myself — I am a practicing Buddhist — the only explanation that could ever please my serious sense of skepticism and fallibilism about anything at all must come from synthetic knowledge.I am talking specifically about a specific form of synthetic knowledge that the philosopher Immanuel Kant calls synthetic a priori: the platform of reason on which access to the true knowledge could be gained without us having to experience the phenomenon in which we would like to find out why and how it happens, and how to deal with it.

As strange as it may sound: How can we understand anything without experiencing it?

Kant has a clever answer. First, Kant argues that our experience can lie to us (as our senses are often dictated by non-reasons, i.e., “passion” according to David Hume) and that there’s a limit to what we can do as we are living in the domain of restricted time and space in which we live our lives. Hence, what we do, what we deem we should do, should come from that non-sensory platform of knowing that which is appropriate simply because it cannot be otherwise.

That platform is the reason and the reason alone. For a teacher, for example, it would only be an end in itself for her to show up to teach the students even if the students themselves do not yet see the value in her teaching owing to the fact that the consequences of my teaching may not be able to be measured. It’s synthetic knowledge that teachers should teach, teach well, and dedicate herself to teaching whether or not the students is appreciative of her teaching. I, of course, would hope that my students would think of the consequences of being good students, such as that they could achieve a good life, but the truth here is that they might not even get to see or feel such consequences in their lifetime since the consequences as such could not come easily as a success often depends on many factors. This was precisely the point where Kant argues that we cannot get access to the synthetic knowledge by way of measuring the consequences. We cannot think about the true knowledge from such angle the same way we cannot think about the way in which we treat other human beings only as a means to an end.

So, what’s the synthetic knowledge about the urban?

Many of us may remember what the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes has to say about his synthetic knowledge of the state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. 

I don’t have the same set of powerful adjectives that Hobbes has for the urban. In fact, I think because it’s the urban, it’s by definition much more complex, but let me try. How about these: Gesellschaft (impersonal ties), pseudo-self preservation, superficiality, and lack of interpersonal sensibility.

I am leaving Shanghai precisely because of those. Hey, I mean, this is not the first time that I have been rambling about how I would like to hit the road. This post might sound like me, again, re-rambling, but my love-hate (or, more precisely, hate-hate) relationship with the city and how such relationship has already reached its limit. Ironically, it’s only a week ago that I had written about how my love for Shanghai was precisely what initially brought me over to China. It’s true that I have, for quite a while now, begun to feel that the city is changing me into someone who I am not.A few months ago I had to deal with my own feeling of not wanting to get up in the morning because I knew that the person I would be seeing that day was someone who would like me to do things that I knew would be against my own personal sense of morality — but for her, it’s the right thing to do, as in, helping her to get rid of her enemy for the sake of our “urban” unity. And yes, I have made the preceding sentence unclear for a reason. I didn’t want to give it out too much to the point that you’d know how this person was. Although I think that she never was a nice person, I also believe that it was the urban that made her evil. It has been doing so by way of changing other people around me to  pressure me, both directly and indirectly, into accepting the fact that in order to survive here, I must become a member of a community where the sense of community is defined by material reciprocity, rather than respect, sympathy, and the true unity under the basic idea of right and equality. It’s unhealthy on all fronts. I think it’s the condition of the city that counterproductive attracts these kinds of people.

The urban has been doing this to many people. It has been doing so by way of changing other people around me to  pressure me, both directly and indirectly, into accepting the fact that in order to survive here, I must become a member of a community where the sense of community is defined by material reciprocity — rather than respect, sympathy, and the true unity under the basic idea of right and equality. It’s unhealthy on all fronts. I think it’s the condition of the city that counterproductive attracts these kinds of people.

China is a special case owing to its long history of agrarianism and popular religions; both of which are undergoing swift change. In pursuing my research on urban religiosities — and pursuing my quest to stay sane — I always seek to understand the changing mental structure of the non-urban residents in the city. As socialism declines, being re-evaluated by the urban population are taboos on “non-scientific” practices as well as on mental illnesses. The recent rise of religious practices and psychotherapy (also known, as my colleague Dr. Hsuan-Ying Huang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong has termed “psycho-boom”) signals the rise of individual needs for moral and psychological support: While the former harks back to traditional values, the latter attracts troubled urbanites with its scientific appeal.

Living in Shanghai, I always make it my goal to deal with the intensity of its urban condition by building a trans-disciplinary platform to critically engage in sociopolitical and geopolitical situations (which is, the least I can do to stay sane) through the lens of traditional spiritual beliefs, and the distinct cultural and social formations owing their origins to psychotherapy.

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One thought on “Day 62: Paradise; or, Reflecting on the Urban

  1. Pingback: Day 73: Tony Robbins’ “Six Basic Human Needs” | 100 days of writing

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