Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The sacred and the profane

I read a book today that I probably should have read forty years ago -- Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, not the first book you'd think of in considering gentrification, but surprisingly relevant. It's mostly about the sacred, but he likes to insist that the non religious experience is -- well, he thinks it's informed by the religious, but I think that's a bit contentious; I'd settle for "analogous to" the religious.

Among his examples: no matter how secularized you are, the place where you grew up holds a special significance for you, distinct from other, more mundane, spaces. It's akin to a sacred space. Eliade goes on to describe the religious experience of the home village as a kind of holy space; those who attack the home village appear to the religious as demons.

In Manhattan, although the place where you grew up may be sacred -- or, at least, specially significant -- it's most likely either not there anymore, or if still there, transformed beyond recognition. Eliade doesn't attempt any analysis of the forces of the profane, but in the city you don't need to be a prophet to see them. They are developers, their political support, and all their minions from landlords on down, tagging along and swaggering around our mayor like the devil's entourage in The Master and Margarita, eager to ride the golden calf for a good buck.

So many outside devils are invested in the sacred and profane ground of the city, it's hard to imagine keeping them at bay. And the spirit of the city, even that ground itself, seems to reject roots. It's not enough to preserve the sacred places -- brash new renters rush to fill old, storied buildings here. It's not enough to preserve the community -- communities themselves transform occupationally, educationally, economically and culturally in this fluid ecology.

What needs preserving in a city is the sense of place. Later on in his book, Eliade describes initiation rites through which adults enter into a sacred relation with their environment and learn the true names of the deities. In the city, even these names are easily hidden. They are the names of the families who lived here, of the communities who built here, of the artists who created here, of the children that grew up here. Who remembers them? History in Manhattan wanders the streets like a phantom unseen, unheard, unnoticed, except by the occasional flaneur, the ghost-seer who posts on his blog the latest loss of yet another sacred place, unnoticed by the armies of the profane.

I am continually impressed with the sense of place among the residents and former residents of Chinatown. Of all Manhattan, Chinatown may retain the strongest sense of place. It is a world apart from the rest of New York, not because it is an ethnic enclave, but because it is a space that still belongs to the community that lives there. But it's a community divided between ownership and labor. I wonder how long it will last.


Unknown said...

Eliade and Chinatown. Not a connection I would immediately have made. I just finished Bengal Nights and Maitreyi Devi's response novel denying the events in Eliade's.

So, Eliade's flirtation with fascism around the time he was formulating his ideas of sacred space and tribal influence--what do you make of that?


rob said...

It's easy to forget, knowing how history turned out and biased by our current politics, that Mussolini was a Socialist and that Fascism developed as a kind of populist socialism spurred by manic movements like Futurism to political extremes.

That said, Eliade's treatment of religion bears some similarity to Heidegger's phenomenology. There are about five pages devoted to morality in Being and Time, and it's something of an aside. I don't think of Heidegger's phenomenology as a Nazi ideology, but I am disturbed by the sacrifice of morality to experiential self-examination at a political moment of moral exigency.

Dwelling on the experiential at the expense of the moral and rational is dangerous and points to an underlying conflict that accompanies all preservationism: which is more important, preserving the quality of living, including sense of place and community, or the rationalized, moral providing of quantitative living spaces to those who need them?

Put more immediately: is it more important to prevent gentrification (preserve the experiential quality of the community and neighborhood) or provide affordable housing (supply a quantitative need).

I feel this particularly keenly since my usual intellectual sympathies lie with the moral and quantitative. But looking around at the city, I see the importance of the experiential.

Activist groups throughout the city have to confront this conflict -- do you accept 80% market rate development or do you give up the 20% affordable housing? Under current modes of affordable development, no one wins.

Unknown said...

I don't think Heidegger's abhorrent personal politics vitiate the insights of his critical appreciation of built form and the perception of public space. His post-war essay, "Building, Dwelling, Thinking" remains possibly the earliest serious work on the problem of homelessness and urban development, and Hannah Arendt famously thought him salvageable philosophically.

But more to the point re Chinatown: what is the blend of development and preservation that protects the experiential genius loci of the neighborhood while encouraging and revitalizing the economy of the area, and especially the creative economy so under threat?

rob said...

I honestly think the answer should be sought among the scholars -- academic urban planners, sociologists and economists -- who have carefully studied Chinatown, its history and the history of other closely analogous environments, if there are any such environments. They might not be able to settle the question of what is best for Chinatown, but at least they'd have something to say about what's possible and what consequences would follow from any action or inaction.

So I'll punt the question back to you.

Unknown said...

I've actually been reading everything in print about Chinatown that I could get my hands on--I still have a pile of 15books on my desk: academic studies, Chinatown Then and Now photobooks, personal reminiscences, subaltern theory, political tracts, even mystery stories about Chinatown. I'm sad to say that except for a couple of really interesting political histories with a philosophical bent (e.g., Jan Lin's Reconstructing Chinatown: ethnic enclave, global change‎, which discusses the recent history and founding of AAFE in the larger context of the longer term political history), I haven't found very many that have given me any substantial insights into the character of the place. Amazingly, there is NO actual, well-documented, rigorously researched planning study of Chinatown--a few fussy planning reports, but nothing with any real depth.

Chinatown begs for what Geertz called "thick description"--but it's also an easy place to stay on the surface of, and even some of the more supposedly academic studies are inherently touristic in their approach.

I can't help but think that if Walter Benjamin had made it to NYC to accpet the offered appointment at the New School to join the Frankfurt School exiles instead of committing suicide, that the City would have become his new Paris and Chinatown would have inevitably had its own Passagenwerk written about it....that's the kind of scholarly attention Chinatown needs.

rob said...

Of the meager handful of books I've read about Chinatown, Peter Kwong's 1987 _The New Chinatown_ was best. He's here in the city at Hunter, but hasn't participated in the CWG.